Friday, June 29, 2012

Economics and technology: the perspective of a Christian

When I was doing economics at university and the world of Christianity was opening up for me as it does for many at that time of life, I wanted to grapple seriously with what difference it would make to be Christian in the field of economics.

I heard about SCEG, joined and stayed a member until it closed in the mid 1990s .. the Sydney Christian Economists Group (SCEG) was a fellowship of evangelical Christians concerned with understanding economic matters in the light of biblical theology and ethics.

At the time I felt slight discomfort at the term Christian but didn't really fully think that much about it.
Last week my discomfort was reignited by Matthew Clarke at the Digital Society conference who suggested we should take Karl Barth seriously on this topic and I will, but for me something else became clear last weekend.
Christian ......

What, then, is meant by such phrases as “Christian” view of the universe, “Christian” morality, “Christian” art? Where are “Christian” personalities, “Christian” families, “Christian” groups, “Christian” newspapers, “Christian” societies, endeavors, and institutions? Who gives us permission to use this adjective so profusely? Especially when we must know that to confer this adjective, in its peculiarly serious import, is withdrawn altogether from any authority we have. This, if you like, unimportant misuse of language: does it not become evil to anybody who reflects at all? Is it not just a presumption that can allude to a most general thing as though existing . . . Ought not a serious consideration of the office of the Holy Spirit to the pardoned sinner to have this small result, at least, namely: to make it more difficult in the future for such an adjective as this to drip from our lips and our pen?
—Karl Barth, The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life: The Theological Basis of Ethics, trans. R. Birch Hoyle (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993), 37-38.

Economics and the Christian

There has been lots written, by SCEG members, a similar group in the UK which I think is still going, Donald Hay, Paul Oslington and various scholars from a Calvinist background. Regent College in 2010 hosted a conference in response to the Pope's Caritas in Veritate which though generally of a high standard curiously completely ignored the subject of technology. You can by MP3 of it here. ($35 for 10 hrs).

However, I never found this material truly convincing. At its best it would grapple principally with OT texts and try and discern their implications for today. But these texts were written for a pre-industrial agrarian society where the land was actually a very particular gift from God.

At its worst it was often work stemming from American which tried to justify American style capitalism by retrofitting it into OT texts.

None of this was satisfying, so more than ten years ago I gave up on that project entirely and moved onto think about technology.

Technology and the Christian

Then last weekend a bunch of ideas came together. The worldview of the economist is that what matters is the rules of the game... the incentive structures and the institutions etc. Thus, if we can discern the Biblical principles for economies we can wind them up and let them go.
But if we study technology the problem is much harder. Technology changes. The ethics of motor vehicle use, for example, actually changes across time as we learn more our responsibilities change. A theology of technology can be sketched, possibly, but the inking in must be done rapidly and we must be prepared to move on quickly to adjust to changing circumstances. Th eternal must stay eternal but the day to day stuff can - will change. As I suggest over herehere and here  in my other blog perhaps our view of economics is also a little outdated as well and the rules of economics maybe more mailable than is generally discussed.

Technology is created under our mandate for creativity and subject to a broad range of big ethical principles but it would be plain silly to look for the Christian rules of technology creation... perhaps it is time to do the same for economics.

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