How Christianity changed political economy - Michael Novak
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Social Commission


Michael Novak

What did Jesus Christ add to Athens and Rome that altered the human conception of political economy? The question is a little odd to the ear. It is not a question usually asked. Yet it turns out to suggest, for all its novelty, a fresh way of looking at political history. Permit me to propose for your consideration the following thesis: At least seven contributions made by Christian thinkers, meditating on the words and deeds of Jesus Christ, altered the vision of the good society proposed by the classical writers of Greece and Rome, and made certain modern expectations possible. Be warned, also, that I want to approach this subject in a way satisfying to honest secular thinkers. You shouldn’t have to be a believer in Jesus Christ in order to grasp the plausibility of my argument.

1. The first contribution of Jesus was to bring Judaism to the Gentiles; and in at least three key respects, Judaism changed Mediterranean ideas about political economy. First, from Jerusalem, that crossroads between three continents open to the East and West, North and South, Jesus brought recognition of the One God, the Creator. Second, the term "Creator" implies a free person; it suggests that creation was a free act, an act that did not flow from necessity. It was an act of intelligence; the Creator knew what He was doing, and He willed it; that is, "He saw that it is good" From this notion on the One God/Creator, some practical corollaries for human action follow.

  • Made in the image of God, we should be attentive and intelligent. Inquire relentlessly.
  • As God loved us, so it is fitting for us to respond with love. Since in creating us He knew what He was doing and He willed it, we have every reason to trust His understanding and His will. Since He made us in His image, well ought we to say with Jefferson: «The God who gave us life gave us liberty». Trust liberty.
  • At a certain moment, time was created by God, and given a direction toward "building up the Kingdom of God...on heart as in heaven." Understand that history has a beginning, and an end - and that our vocation is progress, in both personal and social pilgrimage.

Third, then, following from this last point, as many scholars have noted the idea of "progress" like the idea of "creation," is not a Greek idea - not is it Roman. The Greek preferred notions of the necessary procession of the world from a First Principle. They viewed history as a circle of endless return. The idea of History as a category distinct from nature is a Hebrew rather than a Greek idea.

What are the implications for political economy of the fact that history begins in the free act of the Creator, who made humans in His image, and who gave them with their first breath both existence and an impulse toward liberty and communion?

2. The revelation that God is Three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When Jesus spoke of God, He spoke of the communion of three persons in one. Unlike the Greeks (Parmedides, Plato, Aristotele), who thought of God or the Nous as One living in solitary isolation, the Christian world was taught by Jesus to think of God as a communion of three. In other words, the mystery of community is one with the mystery of being. Thus, the West wondered at the fact that we are part of a long procession of the human community in time; and that we are, by the grace of God, one with one another and with God. To exist is already something to marvel at; universal communion is even more so.

The communal side of this point taught the West that persons reach their full development only in community with others. No matter how highly developed in himself or herself, a totally isolated person, cut-off from others, is regarded as something of a monster. Catholics, Jews, and socialists have emphasized this half of the truth. The personalistic side of this point taught the West that a community that refuses to recognise the personhood of individuals often uses them as means to " the common good," rather than treating persons as ends in themselves. Such communities are coercive and tyrannical. Protestants, Catholic personalists, and liberals have emphasized this half of the truth.

3. The equality-uniqueness (not the equality-sameness) of the children of God. In Plato’s Republic, citizens were divided in this way: A few were of gold, a slightly larger body of silver, and the vast majority of lead. The last had the souls of slaves, and it was fitting that they be treated as ends in themselves. For Judaism and Christianity, on the contrary, the God who made every single child gave worth and dignity to each of them, however weak and vulnerable. «What you do unto the least of these, you do unto me». God identified Himself with the most humble and most vulnerable.

Our Creator knows each of us by name, and understands our own individuality with a far greater clarity than we ourselves do; after all, He made us. Each of us reflects a small fragment of God’s identity. If one of us is lost, the image of God intended to be reflected by that one is lost, and His image in the entire race is distorted.

Judaism and Christianity grant a fundamental equality in the sight of God to all humans, whatever their talents or station. This equality arises because God penetrates below any artificial rank, honor, or station that may on the surface differentiate one from another. He sees past those things. He sees into us. He sees us as we are in our uniqueness, and it is that uniqueness that He values. We may call this equality-as-uniqueness. Before God, we have equal weight in our uniqueness, not because we are the same, but because each of us is different. This conception is quite different from the modern "progressive" or socialist conception of equality-sameness. The Christian notion is not a levelling notion. Neither does it delight in uniformity.

For most of its history, Christianity like Judaism flourished in hierarchical societies. While recognizing that all humans are equal in this: that each single person lives and moves under God’s Judgment, Christianity has also rejoiced in the differences among us. God did not make us equal in talent, ability, calling, office, fortune, or graces.

Equality-uniqueness is not the same as equality-sameness. The first recognizes our claim top a unique identity and dignity. The second desires to take away what is unique and to submerge it in uniformity. Thus, modern movements such us Socialism have disfigured the original Christian impulse of equality. Like Christianity, modern Socialist movements reject the Platonic stratification of citizens into gold, silver, and lead. But their materialistic impulse led them to pull people down, to place all on the same level. This was an ugly program.

4. Compassion. It is true that virtually all people have traditions of care for those in need. However, in most religious traditions, these movements of the heart are limited to one’s own family, kin, or nation. In some ancient cultures, young males in particular were taught to be hard and insensitive to pain, so that they could be sufficiently cruel to enemies. Terror was the instrument intended to drive outsiders away from the territory of the tribe. In principle (though not always in practice), Christianity opposed this limitation by encouraging the impulse to reach out, especially to the most vulnerable, the poor, the hungry, the wretched, those in prison, the hopeless, the sick, and others. It told humans to love their enemies. This is the "solidarity" whose necessity for modernity Rorty perceives.

In the name of compassion, Christianity tries to humble the mighty, and to prod the rich into concern for the poor. It does not turn the young male away from being a warrior, but it does teach him to model himself on Christ, in order to become a new type of male: The knight bound by a code of compassion, the gentleman. It teaches the warrior to be meek, humble, peaceable, kind, and generous. It introduces a new and faithful tension between the warrior and the gentleman, between magnanimity and humility, between kindness and fierce ambition. Nietzsche falsely complained that Christianity brought about the feminization of the male. It did bring about the making of gentlemen.

5. Universal community, incarnate (local) community. Christianity has taught human beings that an underlying imperative of history is to bring about a law-like, peaceable community, among all people of good will on the entire earth. This was the impulse behind the Holy Roman Empire, however naively conceived that Empire was. For political economy, Christianity proposed a new ideal: the entire human race is a universal family, created by the one same God, and urged to love that God.

Yet at the same time, Christianity (like Judaism before it) is also the religion of a particular kind of God: Not the Deist who looks down on all things from an olympian height but the God of one chosen people and, in Christianity’s case, a God who became incarnate. The Christian God was carried in the womb of a single woman, among a particular people, at a precise intersection of time and space, and nourished in a local community then practically unknown to the rest of the peoples on this planet. Christianity is a religion of the concrete and the universal. It pays attention the flesh, the particular, the concrete, and each single intersection of space and time; its God is the God of the "daple-dawn-drawn" poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the "prudence" of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the respect for the nationes of the University of Paris. Its God is the God of singulars, the God who Himself became a singular man. At the same time, the Christian God is the Creator of all.

With Edmund Burke, Christianity sees the need for proper attention to every "little platoon" of society, to the immediate neighborhood, to family. At the same time, Christianity directs the attention of these little communities toward ever larger communities. Christianity forbids them to be merely parochial or xenophobic, but it also it warns them against becoming premature universalists, one-worlders, gnostics pretending to be pure spirits detached from all the limits of concrete flesh. Christianity instructs us about the precarious balance between the concrete and the universal in our own nature. This is the mistery of catholicity. In this sense, Christianity goes beyond contemporary conceptions of "individualism" and "communitarianism".

6. "I am the Truth. The defense of intellect. Truth matters. The Creator of all things has total insight into all things. He knows what He has created. This gives the weak and modest minds of humen beings the vocation to use their minds relentlessly, in order to penetrate the hidden layers of intelligibility that God has written into His creation. Meditation on this theme over many centuries, Alfred North Whitehead suggested, prepared the ground for modern science. Everything in creation is in principle understandable: In fact, at every moment eveything is understood by Him, who is eternal and therefore simultaneously present to all things. (In God there is no history, no past-present-future. In His insight into reality, all things are as if simultaneous).

John Adams, our second president, wrote that in giving us a notion of God as the Source of all truth, and the Judge of all, the Hebrews laid before the human race the possibility of civilization. Before the undeceivable Judgment of God, the Light of Truth cannot be deflected by riches, wealth, or wordly power. Armed with this conviction, Jews and Christians are empowered to use their intellects and to search without fear into the causes of things, their relationships, their powers, and their purposes. This understanding of Truth makes humans free. For Christianity does not teach that Truth is an illusion based upon the opinions of those in power, or merely a rationalization of powerful interests in this world. Christianity is not deconstructionist, and it is certainly not totalitarian. Its commitment to Truth beyond human purposes is, in fact, a rebuke to all totalitarian schemes and all nihilist cynicism.

Moreover, by locating Truth (with a capital T) in God, totally beyond our poor powers to comprehend, Christianity empowers human reason. It does so by inviting us to use our heads as best we can, to discern the evidences that bring us as close to Truth as human beings can attain. It endows human beings with a vocation to give play to the unquenchable eros of the desire to understand – that most profoundly restless drive to know that teaches human beings their own finitude and yet, as well, their participation in the infinite.

The notion of Truth is crucial to civilization. As Thomas Aquinas held, civilization is constituted by conversation. Civilized persons persuade one another through argument. Barbarians club one another into submission. Civilization requires citizens to recognize that they do not possess the Truth, but must be possessed by it, to the degree possible to them. Truth matters greatly. But Truth is greater than any one of us. Therefore, humans must learn such civilizing habits as being respectful and open to others, listening attentively, trying to see aspects of the Truth that they do not as yet see. Because the search for Truth is vital to each of us, humans must argue with each other, urge each other onward, point out deficiencies in one another’s arguments, and open the way for greater participation in the Truth by every one of us.

In this respect, the search for Truth makes us not only humble but also civil. It teaches us why we hold that every single person has an inviolable dignity: Each is made in the image of the Creator to perform such noble acts as understanding, deliberating, choosing, loving. These noble activities of human beings cannot be repressed without repressing in them the Image of God. Such repression is doubly sinful. It violates the other person, and it is an offense against God.

One of the ironies of our present age is that the great philosophical carriers of the Enlightenment no longer believe in reason. They have surrendered their confidence in the vocation of Reason to cynics such as to the post-modernists and deconstructionists. Such philosophers (Sophists, Socrates called them) hold that there is no Truth, that all things are relative, and that the great realities of life are power and interest. So we have come to an ironic pass. The children of the Enlightenment have abandoned Reason, while those they have considered unenlightened and living in darkness, the people of Jewish and Christian faith, remain today Reason’s best defenders. For believing Jews and Christians ground their confidence in understanding in the One who understands everything He made – and, besides, loves it. There can be no civilization of reason (or of love) without faith in the vocation of reason.

7. Judgment/Resurrection. Christianity teaches realistically not only the glories of human beings – their being made in the image of God – but also their sins, weaknesses, and evil tendencies. Judaism and Christianity are not utopian; they try to understand humans as they are, as God sees them both in their sins and in the graces that He grants them. This sharp awareness of human sinfulness was very important to the American founding.

Christianity teaches that at every moment the God who made us is judging how well we make use of our liberty. And the first word of Christianity in this respect is: "Fear not. Be not afraid." For Christianity teaches that Truth is ordered to mercy. Truth is not, thank God, ordered first of all to justice. For it Truth were ordered to strict justice, not one of us would stand against the gale.

God is just, yes, but the most accurate name for Him is not justice, but mercy. (The Latin root of this word conveys the idea more clearly: Misericordia comes from misery + cor – give one’s heart to les miserables, the wretched ones). This name of God, Misericordia, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is God’s most fitting name. Toward our misery, He opens His heart. «At the heart of Christianity lies the sinner», Charles Péguy wrote.

Judgment Day is the Truth on which the civilization is grounded. No matter the currents of opinion in our time, or any time; no matter what the powers and principalities may say or do; no matter the solicitations pressing upon us by our families, friends, and larger culture; no matter what the pressure may be – we will still be under the Judgment of One Who is undeceivable, knows what is in us, and knows the movements of our souls more clearly than we know them ourselves. In His Light, we are called to bring a certain honesty into our own lives, and into our respect for the Light that God has imparted to every human being. On this basis human beings may be said to have inalienable rights, and dignity, and infinite worth.