by Kathryn Tanner (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005. 172 pp)
Kathryn Tanner is a professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She previously taught at the University of Chicago. Tanner focuses her research on constructive Christian theology relating to social, cultural, and feminist theory. On top of her numerous books and published articles, Tanner serves on the editorial boards of Modern Theology, International Journal of Systematic Theology, and Scottish Journal of Theology. She is a member of the Theology Committee that advises the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops and is currently researching financial markets through the Luce Fellowship.
Book review by Donovan Richards
Kathryn Tanner splits Economy of Grace into three sections. In the first, she questions whether or not Christianity provides specific purchase on economic discussions. Answering in the affirmative, Tanner continues in the second section to outline a theological foundation for economics. Finally, she concludes her book with a section promoting practical applications of a theological economy.
Grace and Money
At first glance, theological and economic discussions contain little similarity. On one side resides the language of justice, faith, and health; on the other side, capital, profit, and competition.
In the first chapter of her tome, Kathryn Tanner explores the relationship between Christianity and economics. While most people typically view theology in the realm of the individual and economy in the realm of community, Tanner suggests that the link between the two in the simplest form is grace and money.
Without further explanation, such an assertion could raise the eyebrows of many theologians — especially as the threat of “prosperity theology” presents itself. Nevertheless, Tanner battles these assumptions by suggesting the link between grace and money exists in the conception of distribution.
Just as theology is concerned with the distribution of grace through society, so too is economics with the distribution of money. Yet the two starkly contrast since the distribution of grace operates under non-competitive assumptions. Tanner writes,
“By setting Christian ideas of the production and circulation of goods into a comparative economy, by making that comparative framing an economic one, my intent is just to suggest that a Christian economy has everything to do with the material dimensions of life — with the economic more narrowly construed. It is clear that, set within a comparative economy, grace has everything to do with money” (29).
Having presented the connection between theology and economics, Tanner utilizes the space in the second chapter to discuss two alternative forms of an economic system based on a theological lens.
But, while efforts have been made to promote a theological economy through the ideas of inalienable property rights and gift exchange, Tanner indicates both systems fall short of truly aligning with the notion of non-competitive grace.
Tanner goes on to say that a theologically based economy must act similarly to the way God acts in relation to humanity, adding
“The whole point of God’s dealings with us as creator, covenant partner, and redeemer in Christ is to bring the good of God’s very life into our own. Our lives participate in that divine mission and thereby realize the shape of God’s own economy by giving that follows the same principle: self-sharing for the good of others” (85).
Scripture presents God as an unconditional giver. Everything we have is a result of God’s generosity and humanity is incapable of repaying such a gift to God. Therefore, our best approximation is to unconditionally give to others as God gives to us.
Constructing an Economy of Grace
So, does Tanner’s theological view of economy contain practical application, or does it merely denote a utopian state? In the third chapter, the author attempts to apply her framework on a practical level.
In truth, Tanner admits that her economy of grace carries utopian themes. Given the current state of the global economy, it is probably impossible for non-competitive grace to achieve an economic stronghold. Nevertheless, non-competitive grace possesses applicable principles.
For example, capitalists seek the highest amount of profits typically by pursuing the most efficient production. The cheaper the cost of manufacturing with a maintained quality means the higher the profits. Yet such practices usually denote paying employees less and less. Taking this thought process to the extreme, if a company paid employees so little that they are unable to purchase the products, profits will plummet as consumption dies.
An economy of grace, however, suggests that a principle of non-competitiveness solves this inherent difficulty in capitalism. Tanner notes,
“One should, whenever possible, promote growth strategies in which the economy grows and poverty is reduced at the same time” (96).
While capitalists can earn significant profits in the short term through diminishing wages, such practices are detrimental in the long term. An economy of grace, on the other hand, suggests that gradually raising wages and lifting the poor out of poverty benefits all of society.
Mired in Utopia
While Tanner presents an intriguing vision for a theologically based economy, I find her conclusions to be inconsistent. Although she readily admits that a pure economy of grace is utopian considering the current state of global affairs, her application of theological tenets to the current form of capitalism changes underlying assumptions minutely.
More specifically, if an economy of grace is based on non-competitive giving, a gift given in order to expect a return on investment violates the economy of grace. Tanner’s third chapter provides many examples where supposedly altruistic behavior helps all stakeholders. But in my mind, such assertions betray the root purpose of non-competitive giving: the notion of self-sacrifice for the good of another.
In this way, Tanner’s attempt to reconcile a theologically based economy with the current capitalist system equates to an argument of good ethics equals good business. What if good ethics equals bad business? Surely at some point, a manager must face a decision between ethical behavior and bottom-line profits. Does Tanner’s economy of grace answer this manager’s dilemma? I am doubtful that it can escape its utopian nature.
Additionally, Tanner’s prose is dense and unorganized. With cumbersome paragraphs and little formatting to break the monotony of the prose, Economy of Grace is a difficult read.
Nevertheless, the content of the book offers critical insight into a theological appraisal of the marketplace. If you have interest in a Christian view of economics, I recommend this book.
Donovan Richards earned an M.A. in Business and Applied Theology from SPU and works as a consulting analyst for See Seven. You can read more reviews on Donovan's blog.