Which World? Lecture Six

This post offers a shorter summary of Professor Kathryn Tanner’s final lecture, after which I have invited three contributors to help us conclude the series: Professor David Fergusson will offer his ‘vote of thanks;’ Dr. Lydia Schumacher will contribute her statement from the New College Giffords seminar; and a postgraduate student, Rev. Russell Almon, will engage with the content of this final lecture. As always, I would welcome your own comments, either on this particular lecture or on the series as a whole. The lecture video is available at this link.

Gifford #6 Still 2 copy

Kathryn Tanner begins her final lecture by reiterating her intent for this series, namely, to dissociate Protestant Christianity from the new work ethic of finance-disciplined capitalism. To this end, she challenges the moralising and individuating effects of the new spirit of capitalism. Tanner cites examples such as performance pay, in which individuals are singled out through competition, and state welfare provision, in which people are appraised on the basis of future benefits they might provide society (rather than as part of a class, say). In these ways, finance capitalism places one in a competitive relationship with others, a dynamic that extends to more and more people with increasingly direct forms of rivalry. Even so, one remains dependent, for the ability to profit depends in ‘an unusually intense way on others,’ that is, whether they buy or decline to buy (so long as their choice is not ahead of your own!).

Tanner turns to Christianity by stating that, in contrast to the assumption that hard work is the basis for success, ‘there is little reason to think that Christianity has any interest in developing a work ethic at all.’ In earlier forms of the faith, work to secure material well-being was ordered, in teleological fashion, towards religious ends such as the worship of God. This ranking was not so much disputed by the Reformation as extended: labour and worship could be so ordered in any vocation, rather than in accord with the previous social stratification. Here Tanner reviews Max Weber’s project, in which religious beliefs derived from this transition led to a peculiar combination of hard work and disinterest (‘worldly asceticism,’ in his terms).

From the first lecture, however, Tanner has made clear her intention to ‘reverse’ Weber’s project, providing a Protestant ‘anti-work ethic’ to counter the new spirit of finance capitalism. To this end, she claims that Christ is key to the reconfiguration of our social world. Christ alone has lived a life of God-devotion, that ‘all-or-nothing affair’ that cannot be approached by degrees or incremental growth. ‘Gone, therefore, is the desire for a comparative advantage over others,’ Tanner argues, for what matters is one’s value in Christ. Attempts to create or liberate oneself through work, or indeed to find one’s fulfilment on the other side of alienation through labour, fall short, for such attempts presuppose, and so merely reinforce, the value of work. That idolatry is called into question by the redemption offered in Christ.

This ‘revaluation’ of one’s work ethic has the capacity to form an alternative world, a new social configuration that is not reliant on the new spirit of capitalism. Tanner observes that the religious project of Christian community does not stand out from the enterprise of finance-disciplined capitalism merely by nature of being a cooperative venture. Rather, Christianity is to be differentiated from the dependencies of capitalism, in which others are seen as competitors and fellow profit-seekers, by its external point of orientation in God. Members are not directly coordinating their efforts, nor are they seeking the same set of material goods. Rather, each person tries to conform his or her life to God’s will and so, derivatively, becomes mutually supportive of others. Though Christianity offers a genuine community, insofar as it is sustained in grace and Christ’s animating presence, it is always ‘mediation by way of a third.’ As a result, Tanner claims that this new social world operates not at a remove from the current spirit of finance-disciplined capitalism, but ‘cuts across’ the old world, ‘to disruptive effect.’

Having summarised Professor Tanner’s lecture, I now refer you to the contributions that will be posted below over the next few days. In light of the occasions on which they were first delivered, note that the first two posts are addressed to Professor Tanner directly.

First, Professor David Fergusson, Principal of New College and member of the Gifford Lectures Committee, will post his ‘vote of thanks.’ This was delivered after the final lecture on behalf of the University of Edinburgh and serves to conclude the series.

Second, to locate this lecture series within Kathryn Tanner’s broader project and show how other traditions might engage with it, Dr. Lydia Schumacher will post her statement from the New College Seminar held earlier this week. Dr. Schumacher is a Chancellor’s Fellow in Historical & Systematic Theology at the School of Divinity.

Continuing our line-up of New College postgraduate contributors, Rev. Russell Almon will next respond to Tanner’s articulation of the Christian subject in community. Then, as ever, we look forward to hearing from you!

5 thoughts on “Which World? Lecture Six

  1. It’s my own pleasant duty on behalf of the University to thank Professor Tanner for her 2016 Gifford Lectures. Over the past fortnight, she has provided us with a rich, condensed and sometimes bracing set of reflections. These have challenged us to consider the ways in which our economic system has produced a striking shift in our patterns of behaviour, self-understanding and relations. She has argued her thesis forcefully by exposing ways in which economic forces collectively shape and distort us, perhaps more than we would care to admit. If the diagnosis of our contemporary condition has been gloomy, there has also been the steady presentation of a more hopeful vision that is grounded in the beliefs, symbols and practices of faith. Her theology is steadfastly one of grace which is strikingly Lutheran in some respects; it liberates us from the burden of saving ourselves and the world, but also releases energies for making some constructive difference in the time allotted to us. The maintenance of faith-based convictions and the attempt to bring them to bear upon these seemingly intractable economic realities has been the decisive contribution of her six lectures. Where Max Weber once saw a continuity of capitalism and religion, Kathryn Tanner has relentlessly insisted upon discontinuity. In doing so, she urges us to recognise the availability of an alternative vision and so to find ways of reversing the cause-effect relationship of economics to human consciousness. She has exhorted us to maintain loyalties that can shape us to better effect than poorly regulated financial markets.

    Not too many theologians have been emboldened to enter so far into the discourse of contemporary economic theory – this is difficult territory and can easily result in charges of superficiality or misunderstanding. But Professor Tanner has mastered her subject over many years and, though she wears her learning lightly, these lectures have been informed by intense research of the subject. Her manuscript is already at an advanced stage and these Gifford lectures will soon appear as a monograph with Yale University Press. We’ll look forward to their appearance and to the wider discussion that these will surely provoke both here and in the USA.

    This series of lectures has also been distinguished by its online reach. There has been significant activity on blogs, Twitter and other social media and, for the first time perhaps, in the history of the Gifford Lectures we have achieved an instant global effect. So my thanks not only to our lecturer but to all those who have contributed to the online activity and also to you the ‘real’ audience who have attended so diligently and posed such a pertinent range of questions.

    Professor Tanner and her partner Professor Tonstad have been most welcome guests this past fortnight and they have made much of their time here, experience the cultural diversity of our city. They have walked the streets and hills of Edinburgh to appreciate its different vistas. They set out to visit Lord Gifford’s tomb in the Calton cemetery only to find the graveyard closed. (Neither David Hume nor Adam Gifford is currently receiving visitors.) Yesterday, they attended at the Kirking of the Scottish Parliament in St Giles which provided something of a culture shock for North Americans. And last Saturday afternoon, they paid a visit to Tynecastle where they witnessed a particularly dire performance from the home team. Now that the lectures are over, they are setting out to walk the West Highland Way, and we wish them a dry and sunny week free from blisters and midgies.

    It’s been our pleasure to host them and we hope that they will be able to return here before long. There’s an opportunity now to meet with them at our final drinks reception in the atrium, but before we leave I invite you again to show your appreciation to Professor Tanner for her 2016 Gifford Lectures.

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  2. I didn’t discover Professor Tanner’s work until after I completed my PhD. My only excuse for this gross oversight in the Western theological canon is that I did an undergraduate in philosophy and a PhD that focussed on the theology of the middle ages. When I did finally start reading Professor Tanner’s work, I think at the recommendation of a mentor and Aquinas scholar named David Burrell, I hope it will not seem too much of an exaggeration to say that it was like the experience of coming home. This was the first modern theologian I’d read after Anselm or Aquinas that really resonated with me—that answered questions I did not even know I had. So, Professor Tanner, I hope it will not offend you when I admit that the main reason I have grown to appreciate your work so much is not that you are one of the only women with a leading place in the field of systematic theology—though that is certainly an inspiration. Rather, my appreciation is based chiefly and simply on the merits of your theology. As far as I can tell, you have articulated a theological vision that would be familiar to some of the greatest Western theologians in history, possibly for the first time since the Middle Ages. But you have done so in a way that goes far beyond what any medieval account could offer in terms of formulating this vision so as to render it relevant to the challenges and questions of our own time.

    The way in which I have absorbed your work has been partly through the lens of my own conceptual categories and those I have learned from Thomists with similar sympathies. So I hope you won’t mind if I reformulate some of your main insights, as I understand them, in my own words, before saying a bit about their links with your current project. As Thomists, our main theological starting point—one which I believe we hold in common with you—is the doctrine of divine simplicity—or divine transcendence. According to this doctrine, God is not a great big version of the kinds of beings we know, but is wholly other to all objects of our experience. While we can obtain a sort of ‘formal’ knowledge of the kind of being he is, namely, one that is beyond knowledge, we cannot know him substantially in the way we know empirical things. Thus, we know him by thinking about the things we can know in light of the fact that he is supreme over them and cannot therefore be reduced to any of them. As a result, we are restrained from thinking about—or dealing with—ordinary objects, circumstances, and relationships as though they were in a sense, God—that is, the be all, and end all of our existence, at least for a particular purpose or in a particular respect—to do for instance with our career ambitions, ideologies, possessions, relationships, perhaps even our preferred approach to politics or economics! As you’ve stated the point in other words, belief in the transcendent God helps us to be self-critical—to acknowledge where our idols are keeping us from seeing the way things really are or acting in accordance with the way things should be in an order made by a God whose very act of creation affirms the integrity of all things.

    For many of us Thomists, and I suspect for you, it follows from the above that the Christian task is to cultivate a habit and ideally become consistent at seeing all things in the light of belief in who God is—or at developing a God-devotion, in your terms. At the same time, ours is a task of transforming all areas of ordinary life and work in which we are involved—salvaging them from the distorting effects of sin—through the application of that very belief or the exercise of that very devotion. On this showing, consequently, the Christian life isn’t one we lead over and above or alongside our ordinary vocations, relationships, and so on. Rather, it is one we lead precisely in the context of them.

    This ‘non-competitive’ way of construing the relationship between spiritual and ordinary life is a key outworking of what you have described as the ‘non-competitive relationship between God and creatures’. Since God on our understanding does not fall under the same category as creatures but is instead the source of their ability to act of their own accord, the question so commonly debated in theological circles does not even arise as to whether my success in the Christian life or life in general is the result of my own efforts, or a product of the Holy Spirit working in me—as if I had little to do with it. Here, there is no zero-sum game, where an act on the part of God or his Spirit in me results in a proportional decrease in my own initiative or oversight of my own doings.

    Instead, we have a both/and: God—or his grace—is responsible for my success insofar as he is the source of my power, and faith in him is the reason for its proper exercise; likewise, I am to credit, insofar as, by grace through faith, I employ my power for its proper purpose, namely, to bring glory of God through all the ordinary dealings of my life. In this regard, you have argued, and Thomists of my stripe would concur, that we follow the example of Jesus Christ, who brought glory to God by expressing his Spirit—that is, his life, mind, abilities, or personality—in light of the knowledge that the Father is the supreme good, consequently revolutionizing the world in a way that had the power to change everything and everyone for eternity.

    While our own efforts to express our spirits—or to use our lives and ordinary abilities, given through the creative work of the Son, to the Father’s glory—cannot have the universal effects of Christ, they can realize what he has made possible in finite ways and specific contexts. In earlier works, such as the Politics of God, you have showed us for instance how adherence to belief in God’s transcendence can serve the ends of social justice and equality. Now it seems to me, you are demonstrating how it can reshape our economic behaviours.

    There are many theologians who hand-wave towards the truth that all of life is an act of worship and that the Christian faith is to be lived out through ordinary life, but very few who tell us in detail how to do this in a specific context. Thank you for taking the Christian life and Christian theology out of the clouds and showing us how actually to live it and do it in the context of dealing with one matter that concerns us all on a daily basis: MONEY. We are looking forward with great anticipation to seeing your full manuscript in print; and on behalf of the Thomists, I’d like to express my hope that your next book will set everyone straight about how to read Aquinas.

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  3. I have attended most of these lectures and enjoyed the insight and approaches that Professor Tanner offered in addressing finance dominant capitalism. A few observations: First of all, I think she needs to elucidate the state’s role as we know the private sector is not the only locus where finance dominated capitalism is operating. From general observation, when finance becomes so mobile it has an effect of creating constraints for the nation state’s production of socio-economic policies, for example in taxation and also a constant fear of capital flight. This focus on the state is missing, it can be said.

    Second, I found that during these lectures, up until the last one, I hardly heard a word about women and gender. This is very surprising for me as I noticed Professor Tanner is perceived by some as a feminist theologian. I am not sure how to address the lack of gender perspective in the lecture series and therefore I stated the matter to her directly over the wine reception after the final lecture. To me it is a serious point. There is much evidence to show that unemployment is a direct effect of economic crisis. Unemployment will have more ramifications on women than on men, both in the domestic and public spheres. Women tend to be the ones who get fired first as many still see men as heads of the family, the bread-winners. Also, women tend to work in informal economies, an area with problems that are usually less valued; women have less access to capital; women migrate to fill the role of wage-earner in sectors that are prone to forced labour, trafficking, exploitation, and cheap labour, e.g. becoming migrant domestic workers; women work in export-oriented production. In the private domain, women still have to do the duty of care. Understanding the role of women in social reproduction and recognising women’s roles in every stage of social reproduction will enable us to use a gendered lens in explaining that finance dominant capitalism does have different degrees of effect on women than men, particularly as youth are required to be more competitive if they want to get the ‘dream job’.

    In short, I was hoping Professor Tanner would bring the gender dimension into her lectures, as gender discrimination intertwines with other issues, including economic issues. She said in the first lecture that she is aware of the dimension of migration within finance- dominant capitalism, yet she did not elaborate during the rest of the lectures. Furthermore, a gendered lens should and can also be applied in looking into institutions including the church. Given the lack of a gendered lens in her analysis, it is hard not think that Professor Tanner seems to have a view of the human being as a monolithic entity, with no reflection on gender or race categories that actually shape human identities within this increasingly globalised finance-dominant capitalist world.

    Third, I wonder about her call to ’empowerment’ in the ‘formation of the individual’ during this saga and her proposal of an ‘anti-work’ ethics as an antidote to the alarming, spreading tentacles of finance-dominant capitalism. This is not to mention that, in the New College seminar, Tanner also dismissed the contribution of Thomas Piketty, who wrote Capital in the Twenty First Century, which deals with income inequality and addresses the redistribution which is a serious point to ponder. Piketty addresses the structural issues, not merely the individual level that Professor Tanner treats in her Gifford lectures. Having said this, I do not necessarily mean that the individual is not important. I want to point out that in the practice of finance-dominant capitalism, the question is not only about the time, the durée, between past, present and future. There are questions of regions, questions of demographics and geography, each of which face different ramifications from this finance-dominant capitalism. I realise that Tanner was operating with Max Weber’s Protestant Ethics and trying to reverse it, but these dynamics would provide a richer and sharper analysis to her treatment of the new spirit of capitalism.

    Last but not least, I have learned from, and tend to share, Professor Tanner’s standpoint that humans have a ‘non-competitive relationship’ with God. In light of God’s transcendence, through Grace, we need to make our daily life a manifestation of our faith. We need to cultivate habits. This word ‘cultivate’ brings me, rather ironically, to Voltaire’s Candide, with its closing line, ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin,’ to cultivate our garden. In the context of Tanner’s lectures, I interpret this line to mean that the garden is the soul, the being with which we engage our work and that would not be enslaved, nor have its future collapsed. The phrase reflects optimism which is needed in facing finance-dominant capitalism through complete trust in God.

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  4. I’ve still been thinking about this series a couple days after it has ended and, the way I see it, if a lecture keeps you thinking for days then it’s been a success. Tanner’s point is an important one; it’s good to challenge our economic systems from a Christian perspective, especially when so many (in Protestant America at least) would agree with Weber that capitalism and Christianity are compatible. Somewhere along the way, the system has gone too far and it’s important to recognize our problems for what they are.

    I’ve heard it suggested throughout the series that it would be beneficial to take a look at the history of finance capitalism and see if Tanner’s ideas apply to the factors that have brought us to this point. I agree. Today I came across a scholar (Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society) who describes the rise of information technology to suggest that our economic age is not so much finance capitalism, but informationalism. With others, I wonder what Tanner’s ideas might say about information technology and other factors that have made our economic systems what they are today.

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  5. Thanks so much to David Robinson for the opportunity to respond to Professor Tanner’s concluding lecture. I should stipulate that what I say below has not taken into account the previous lectures as I haven’t had the time to listen to them. My comments are spurred by Tanner’s concluding lecture alone (with the limitations that produces). In my response I want to organize my thought under three main headings: Capitalism as an economy of desire, Paul Ricoeur and the “world in front of the text,” and Stanley Hauerwas and the possibility of the church as itself an “economy.”

    Capitalism as an Economy of Desire

    I find myself immediately drawn to Tanner’s deconstruction of capitalism and contentions that Christianity has no particular impetus for a “work ethic” and that Christians are not called to be “productive” (especially as these become over-determined by capitalism itself). My thoughts go at this point to Foucault’s deconstructive method. Foucault develops his “hermeneutics of the self” by first situating the self within a history (or genealogy) and then excavates the self (via an archeology) in order to illumine how the self is shaped by “technologies of the self.” I think this dovetails with Tanner’s critique in that capitalism in almost all ways imaginable has taken on the status of a “technology of the self” in today’s world. I wonder if we see a recapitulation of Descartes and the modern “identity project” which developed in his wake in the ethos of day: not necessarily “I think, therefore I am” but “I work/produce/increase profit, therefore I am.”

    We often hear that the forces of globalism have ushered us into the postmodern moment (see for example Carl Raschke’s linking of postmodernism with “going global” in GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn). However, I wonder if the power of capitalism to co-opt even the postmodern critique and globalism for its own ends has been underestimated. For instance, in the foreword to Daniel Bell’s book titled The Economy of Desire, James K. A. Smith contends that under capitalism postmodernism is not less modern but more modern. Smith notes that Fredric Jameson regards postmodernism itself as “the cultural logic of late capitalism” and suggests that postmodern here ends up being hyper-modern (or what I would term most-modern). What capitalism represents then is the intensification of modernism in the varieties of its Copernican, Industrial, French, American, Digital, and even Sexual “revolutions” according to Smith.

    Thus capitalist economics is not simply a neutral mechanism of the exchange and distribution of goods, but in a very real sense overtakes the modern identity project itself and attains the power to shape the way we feel/desire as well as tell us how to interpret our feelings/desire, to both structure and individualise human relations, and even becomes enmeshed in how we conceive sexuality and gender. The fact that capitalism does all this while we aren’t looking only serves to make it all the more powerful (think of how the unnoticed ubiquity of advertising “gets in our hearts,” so to speak). We not only work in a capitalistic economy but capitalism “works” us as well in depths of our being! It thus makes sense that Bell subtitles chapter two of his book, “Capitalism as an Economy of Desire.” This (mal)formation of our desires and loves lies at the heart (pun intended) of the capitalistic anthropology that Bell calls “homo economicus.”

    The “world in front of the text”

    As I listened to Tanner, my interest was piqued by her suggestion of the formation of an alternative world. She gets there at around the 38:35 mark in the video, and it is promising that her proposal for her projected world involves an (albeit) implicit ecclesiology (her “community forged according to different assumptions”). However, I nevertheless wonder if she has truly escaped the gravity of capitalism. Before offering a provisional completion of this thought, allow me a brief description of what has been call Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutical/narrative “arc” (see for instance Dan Stiver, Theology After Ricoeur, ch 2 for a discussion and references) and how it relates to the projection of a “world.”

    Ricoeur’s arc is marked by three moments which can be alternatively described as “first naïveté, explanation/critical detour, post-critical second naïveté” and “prefiguration, configuration, refiguration.” The first two moments are connected to “the world behind the text” and “the world of the text” (the early Ricoeur didn’t distinguish these as well as he would later in his three volume Time and Narrative). The third moment concerns “the word in front of the text” or that possible world which may be projected out in front of us, what we might call the world of emplotment. We should note that these moments are more discreet in analysis than they are in reality. The post-critical moment becomes the occasion for more critical reflection and then further post-critical appropriation, refiguration, world projection, and emplotment. The result, as Ricoeur himself intimated (see ‘Metaphor and the Central Problem of Hermeneutics’ in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences), is the expansion of the typical hermeneutical circle into a hermeneutical spiral.

    Now picking up where I left off: by wondering if Tanner has escaped the gravity of capitalism, I am suggesting her proposal may remain in the loop of the hermeneutical circle without the generative effects of the hermeneutical spiral. This occurs to me because she seems to establish her implicit ecclesiological offering by stating it primarily over and against capitalism in such a way that it may still yet be determined by the grammar of capitalism (for instance, in terms of an “anti-work ethic”). I’m just making this suggestion as merely a possibility with the realisation Tanner may fill this out much more thickly in the published volume in a way that answers my concern. But if the implicit ecclesiology is still informed by the grammar of capitalism (even unawares), what will keep it from being subsumed by capitalism all over again?

    It is striking to me that her “community forged according to different assumptions” in this lecture, while nuanced, still seemed individualistic; and that while rightly making numerous references to the centrality of Christ, she does not mention the practice of the Eucharist (or the church as a Eucharistic communion), nor the manner in which our mutual communal relation “in Christ” is connected to the “bond of the Spirit.” Without these sorts of critical theological resources, will an “anti-work ethic” be able to root out the dependencies of capitalism and move to the sort of second-naïveté where our mutual ecclesial existence is truly refigured “in Christ” by the power of the Spirit? Will it be thick enough to do the kind of ecclesiological emplotment and communal desire formation that is required? Again, I offer these as only inchoate thoughts and provisional questions. I do see much promise in what Tanner has said, much of which others have already mentioned. I await her elaborations in the published volume.

    Stanley Hauerwas and the church as “economy”

    I do want to suggest however that Stanley Hauerwas may be of help here with our ecclesiological emplotment. Hauerwas is known for at least two things: 1) getting repeatedly called a sectarian who advocates withdrawal from the world and 2) insisting that the church does not have a social ethic, that the church IS a social ethic. Regarding the first dynamic, Hauerwas has responded to the repeated accusations of sectarianism (negatively conceived) by insisting that Christian worship which produces such a withdrawal is improper. Hauwerwas says instead that what he proposes is not a withdrawal from politics, but the enactment of the “politics” embedded within Christian worship and the Eucharist. For this reason, Hauerwas would not have politics or a political economy defined simply by the nation-state.

    Rather, parallel to Hauerwas on the church as social ethic, the church does not merely have a politic, the church IS its own peculiar politics with its own peculiar grammar. Thus Hauerwas advocates not withdrawal but that Christians should be fully present in society AS Christians. I wonder if we might extend this to the realm of the economy to say that the church does not just have an economy (even one that pursues an anti-work ethic) … but that the church IS a particular (and peculiar) economy (of desire) whose very existence demonstrates the inbreaking of God’s oikonomia. This is again an inchoate thought, especially since it must be lived in community! But the challenge of living Christianly within global capitalism is going to be too difficult without strong ecclesial communities. While just a beginning, I hope there is promise in this suggestion to facilitate the formation of Christ’s ecclesial community as a people with sufficiently shaped loves/desires to be “in” but not “of” capitalism.

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