Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Judaism, Christianity, Capitalism and Morality
Hating Christianity is to hate the modern world
The current Western world was formed in large part by Judaist-Christian values, including its political-economy and market based systems. In the modern secular world many people view the Church and religion with utmost disdain. They will point out that the Church stultified thought, corrupted intellects, kept people poor and illiterate, waged war on ‘disbelievers’, rejected science, and preyed upon ignorance restricting market development. Certainly top-down hierarchies with limited freedoms destroy liberty and a market economy. These claims have much validity. However upon inspection criticisms citing religion as being inimical to Capitalism are plainly, and clearly wrong. The principles of Christianity and its close relation Judaism, were in fact prerequisites for the emergence of a market based Western nation state. The moral underpinnings of Capitalism make this plain, as does the organization of rules, contracts, beliefs, ethics and legality. None of these important delimiters on the market would exist without the spiritual input of Judaist-Christian thought. Whatever one might think of the modern Church, one should not belittle the contribution that these two main lines of spiritual and intellectual inquiry have bequeathed to Western civilization.
Our modern understanding of ‘Capitalism’ replete with the bastardization of its meaning by the educational and media elite, is usually assumed to have taken shape during the later stages of the Enlightenment achieving full form during the Industrial Revolution. Max Weber located the origin of capitalism in modern Protestant cities, but today’s historians find Capitalism much earlier than this in for example rural areas, where monasteries began to rationalize economic life. It is rather clear that the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, along with the Protestant Church in the 16 and 17th centuries played important roles in developing the modern expressions of Capitalism.
Some experts such as Michael Novak and historian Randall Collins, state that it was the Church that put in place what Weber called the preconditions of capitalism: the rule of law and a bureaucracy for resolving disputes rationally; a specialized and mobile labor force; the institutional permanence that allows for trans-generational investment and sustained intellectual and physical efforts, together with the accumulation of long-term capital; and a zest for discovery, enterprise, wealth creation, and new undertakings. Their points are important and valid. The above set of conditions were necessary to allow monied economies to flourish and allow inquiry, free-will, pursuit of profit and due process based dispute resolution, not to mention the wealth to provide security and civilisational comforts. However the process of modern Capitalism with its Jewish – Christian heritage is far older than most think.
I would submit that modern Capitalism began long before Mr. Collins’ assessment. Capitalism has been in evidence for 15.000 years, and took root in almost every society on earth. The modern form of capitalism, in its Western guise, can be traced to the Near East, and in particular to Jewish market based economies. Palestine and modern Israel were ancient lands of trade, commerce, intercourse and ideological exchange. Market based forces took root here early in human civilizational development. The direct lineage between this Jewish civilization and our modern expression of state-managed Capitalism runs of course through Western Christendom. Not only are Judaism and Christianity linked philosophically, they are also joined in their co-equal birthing of Western Capitalism.
The moral philosophy underpinning Capitalism cannot be divorced from its Judeo-Christian heritage. Christianity began as a movement within Judaism at a time when the Jews had long been under foreign rule and had found in their religion the cornerstone of the social and cultural community. Because Christianity was so deeply rooted in Judaism, Christians revered sacred writings in the same manner as their Jewish counterparts. In a rather rare move, Christians adopted the entire Scriptural canon of Judaism and added to it their own New Testament of uniquely Christian writings. In doing the early Christians built upon the monotheism of Judaism as part of the essence of their truth and way of salvation through Christ. Early Christians inherited from the Jews an intimate monotheistic picture of a God, and fused it with the Greek concept of a God who was greater than any human words and ideas, but who at the same time had to be described in human words and ideas. It was a monotheistic roadmap of living, in a pre-modern, poor, violent society and an important invention on the path to Western modernity. The morality of Western civilization was beginning to form.
Unfortunately the early union of Judaism and Christianity was split during the last struggle with Rome. Pauline Christianity greatly aided in the Romanizing of the Church and greatly aided in the civilizing of Rome. Needful of a dominant empire wide philosophy to control the population, successive Roman emperors allowed Christianity more freedom. Within 3 centuries, its moral appeal, and declarations that all men are equal in the eyes of God, had sufficiently persuaded the Roman elite that the religious philosophy of Christianity could be useful to instill societal peace. The emperor Constantine completed what Paul had begun, splitting Christian monotheism from its Judaist brotherhood creating a world hostile to the faith in which Jesus had lived and died. The Council of Nicea in 325 determined that Church and Synagogue should have nothing in common. Anything that offered a Jewish aspect of worship, would be eliminated from Catholic Christendom. In essence Christianity became the gospel to bind together the Roman empire whilst at the same time the erroneous idea that Judaism was Christianity’s enemy took hold. The principles that bound the 2 religions together fell into disrepute.
What then were the transformative impacts of these two creeds on Western Capitalist development? Judaism emphasized work as a virtue, and even necessity, and private property as a precondition of individual liberty. Judaism did not share either the aristocratic disdain for work found in classical Greece or the occasional tendency to other-worldliness found in early Christianity. It saw this-worldly prosperity as a sign of God's blessing, and work as man's "partnership with God in the work of creation." In such a partnership private ownership and wealth accretion was deemed virtuous and this important revolutionary idea over time would limit and then destroy arbitrary power.
This limiting of reckless and immoderate force through private rights is the cornerstone of our modern world. Christianity and Judaism both shared the same commitments to integrity, freedom, and independence of the individual, as well as his or her responsibilities to society. Individual property rights were therefore as important to the Hebrew Bible as they later were to John Locke. One of the great biblical dramas is Elijah's challenge to King Ahab, who seizes Naboth's vineyard (1 Kings 21). Kings did not have the right to appropriate private property. The prophet Micah dreamed of a day in which "every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree and none will make him afraid" (Mic. 4:4). A world of limited government and respect for private property, in which individuals are self-supporting through their own labor, is a world of maximal freedom and human dignity. Judaism's strong provisions for tzedakah (a word meaning both charity and righteousness) are designed not only to alleviate poverty but also, and primarily, to restore independence. Hence, in Jewish law, the highest form of charity is to find someone a job so that he or she no longer needs to depend on charity.
A sustainable market economy depends on these and other innate values that are not soley created by the market, but formed by philosophical values and virtue. Trust, integrity, honesty to customers, loyalty to employees, industry, reliability, are all necessary in a well functioning market system. Other values, no less important in the long run, are strong families, a passion for education, and a sense of responsibility to the community. The market encourages competition, but this needs to be balanced by habits of cooperation. As many writers have pointed out—among them, Joseph Schumpeter, Daniel Bell, and George Soros—in itself, the market tends to erode those values necessary to its own survival. The market is part, but not the whole, of a free society. A free-market economy tends to be created where there is a strong respect for the individual, a positive value attached to work, and a willingness to value and reward creativity and innovation. It tends not to arise in social systems that are highly collectivist, aristocratic, or conservative. It was the West’s great fortune that its ancestors the Jews and early Christians were able to develop such a framework of thought.
Such ideals are supported even by the irreligious. For example the economic historian David Landes, author of the Wealth and Poverty of Nations, and who describes himself as an unbeliever, points out that the main factors in the great economic achievement of Western civilization are mainly religious and would encompass:
-the joy in discovery that arises from each individual being an imago Dei called to be a creator;
-the religious value attached to hard and good manual work;
-the theological separation of the Creator from the creature, such that nature is subordinated to man, not surrounded with taboos;
-the Jewish and Christian sense of linear, not cyclical, time and, therefore, of progress; and respect for the market.
These concepts are entirely necessary in developing a well functioning Capitalist economy. The Judeo-Christian creed and the creation of a framework of values, was vitally important in allowing monetary economies to prosper. A market based economy needs limitations and rules governing exchange, expectations, conduct and dispute resolution. Without a moral creed the economy cannot flourish. Without contracts, obligations and public responsibility a market economy will not survive. Economics without morality is akin to having a market without money. The two are intertwined.
It is clear that without its religious foundation the Western world would have a far poorer, and far different political-economy.
Some good sources to read:
Cross, F. L. and Livingstone, E. A., editors. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Harakas, Stanley S. The Orthodox Church: 455 Questions and Answers. Minneapolis, MN: Light & Life Publishing, 1987.
Hurlbut, Jesse L. The Story of the Christian Church. MI: Zondervan, 1970.
Latourette, Kenneth S. A History of Christianity. New York : Harper, 1953.
Meyendorff, John. Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes. New York: Fordham University Press, 1979.
Walker, Williston. A History of the Christian Church. Rev ed. New York, Scribner, 1970.
Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. New Edition. London: Penguin, 1997.