Reflections from Seminary Students

Thoughts from the Cemetery

November 22nd, 2011 § 0 Comments

I wrote a column for University Presbyterian Church about seminary. It is basically a swan song to the SPS and its people. It was originally posted here: http://www.upctimes.org/thought-from-the-cemetery. Enjoy!

Erin (far left—yes, the guy with the glasses) with four friends who help keep his faith alive.

The summer before I started seminary, there were many well-meaning and lovely people who asked me, jokingly, if I was ready to start “cemetery.” I would always laugh politely and tell them, jokingly, “Well, yes, of course!” This half-funny reaction was the only response I had for such an unusual question.

I suppose I knew where they were coming from. I had heard that many people have taken the road to seminary only to lose their faith in academic Christianity. They come out on the other side of a theology degree with a head full of knowledge, but an empty heart for ministry and the church. Apparently, they enter the crypt somewhere in between “Church History 101” and “Karl Barth’s Dogmatics in Full.” » Read the rest of this entry «

Grace and Money

April 18th, 2011 § 0 Comments

Kathryn Tanner splits Economy of Grace into three sections. In the first, she questions whether Christianity provides specific influence on economic discussions. Answering in the affirmative, Tanner continues in the second section to outline a theological foundation for economics. Finally, she concludes with a section promoting potential applications of a theological economy in a practical manner.

At first glance, theological and economic discussions contain little similarity. On one side resides the language of justice, faith, and health; on the other resides the language of capital, profit, and competition. In the first chapter of her tome, Tanner explores the relationship between Christianity and economics. While most 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, of course, such an assertion raises the eyebrows of many theologians as the threat of prosperity theology presents itself. Tanner battles these assumptions by suggesting the link between grace and money lies in the conception of distribution.

Just as theology is concerned with the distribution of grace in our society, so too is economics concerned with the distribution of money. Yet the two starkly contrast, since the distribution of grace operates under noncompetitive 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).

Unconditional Giving

Having presented the connection between theology and economics, Tanner utilizes the space in chapter two to discuss alternative forms of the economic system based on a theological lens. While efforts have been made to promote a theological economy through the concepts of inalienable property rights and gift exchange, both systems fall short of truly uniting with the notion of noncompetitive grace.

A theologically based economy must act similarly to the way God acts in relation to humanity.

Tanner adds,

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

But does this theological view of economy contain practical application, or does it merely reflect a utopian state? In the third chapter, Tanner attempts to apply her framework on a practical level.

Tanner admits that her economy of grace carries utopian themes. Given the current state of the global economy, it is probably impossible for noncompetitive grace to achieve an economic stronghold.

Nevertheless, noncompetitive grace possesses applicable principles.

Photo by Annette Young

For example, capitalists typically seek the highest  profits by pursuing the most efficient production. The cheaper the cost of manufacturing with a maintained quality, the higher the profits. Yet such practices usually result in capitalists paying employees less and less. Taking this thought process to the extreme, if a company pays 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 noncompetitiveness solves this inherent flaw 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.

A Slight Critique

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 noncompetitive 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 altruist behavior helps all stakeholders. But in my mind such assertions betray the root purpose of noncompetitive 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 equal 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.

Book Review: Why Business Matters to God

March 2nd, 2011 § 0 Comments

Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed)

By Jeff Van Duzer (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010. 206 pp)

Jeff Van Duzer is the dean of Seattle Pacific University’s School of Business and Economics. Previously, he practiced law for more than 20 years with a large international law firm concentrating in commercial transactions and environmental law. Van Duzer received his J.D. from Yale Law School. He writes and speaks frequently in both church and professional settings.

Separate Spheres, Like the Sun and Moon

In most home, work, and church settings, a clear disconnect exists between Christianity and business. In general, the average Christian relegates his or her faith to the personal sphere. Beliefs and practices resulting from Christian tradition are channeled primarily within the family with the purpose of creating moral individuals and healthy relationships.

When an application of faith to business is pursued, one of two extreme postures is typically taken: Christians understand the business world to be in conflict with the life of faith, thereby pursuing their work lives independent of their spiritual lives. Or, they see little or no moral tension between economic and spiritual pursuits, resulting in “business as usual” with no resulting changes in actions or outlook.

The pulpit, similarly, avoids mingling these two topics. Apart from rhetoric encouraging parishioners to live Monday through Friday in an identical manner to Sunday, pastors rarely mention the theological merit of work. For this reason and certainly many more, numerous Christians value business for its instrumental contributions to “morally elevated” occupations such as church, missionary, and nonprofit work.

Business as Service

Van Duzer questions these assumptions in Why Business Matters to God. While value certainly exists in the contributions business makes to the nonprofit sector, Van Duzer contends that business in and of itself contains intrinsic value.

Leaning theologically on the Reformed rubric of God’s activity in the world — creation, fall, redemption, and New Creation — as well as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic work in Christ and Culture, Van Duzer suggests a new framework in which to imagine business. He recommends supplanting the generally accepted business practice of maximizing shareholder value with a “business-as-service model,” which he contends is more closely aligned with God’s purposes for economic enterprise.

What is the “business-as-service model?” Van Duzer defines it simply when he writes, “The purpose of business is still to serve in two key aspects: (1) to serve the community by providing goods and services that will enable the community to flourish, and (2) to serve employees by providing them with opportunities to express at least a portion of their God-given identity through meaningful and creative work” (114).

In a certain sense, Van Duzer’s business-as-service model resides within the realm of ideas reacting against the dominant view of maximizing shareholder value such as stakeholder theory, social entrepreneurship, conscious capitalism, and creative capitalism; and on top of new ownership structures, like the B Corporation, that facilitate a legal framework from which to pursue multiple bottom lines. More importantly, though, Van Duzer’s position re-imagines business through a practical theological lens.

The Messy Middle

Whether business models itself in service or shareholder value, it operates in what Van Duzer calls the “messy middle,” a state on the theological timeline between the resurrected Jesus and the promises of glorified perfection yet to come. The Jewish and Christian scriptures promise a perfect, future city that exhibits all that God originally intended for humanity. Yet brokenness keeps us from fulfilling these promises in our current time and context. For Christians, a perfect application of the “business-as-service model,” therefore, is impossible until the full Shalom in Jesus’ return is made manifest.

Although work is currently tainted by the fall, it presents Christians in the business world with the opportunity to exercise both creative and redemptive work. God first illustrated the calling of humanity to engage in creative work through the naming of the animals by Adam. Similarly, business people in modern times engage in creative work when they develop new software, begin an entrepreneurial venture, or engage in other additive ventures.

Intermingled and as equally important, business also focuses on fixing and restoring that which is fractured, a necessary measure because of the full import of the fall. While the “messy middle” hinders the full realization of a perfected business-as-service model, redemptive and creative work offers Christian business people a navigable compass in our less-than-perfect world.

God’s Economy: The Household

Theologically speaking, Van Duzer’s business model emphasizes the community over the individual. Typically, when managing decisions, the modern business person applies a self-interested ethic often under the umbrella of consequentialism. Authors such as Milton Friedman continue to cite — perhaps incorrectly — Adam Smith’s invisible hand as the root of all actions in the free market.

Business as service, on the other hand, stresses the importance of other people. In this way, business serves the economy, or better translated: the household. Just as the triune God exists not as an individual but as three persons in relational community, so too business exists in relational community with the rest of the economy and with other important, mediating institutions of culture.

Theologian, M. Douglas Meeks writes in God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and the Political Economy,

“All the persons of the triune community have their own characteristics and their own tasks. Yet they are constituted as persons precisely by their relationships with other persons of the community. The same should be said for human economic community. There is in reality no such thing as a radically individual and isolated human being. We are what we are as a result of being constituted by our relationships with other members of the communities in which we live. All social goods are given to us communally.”

A theologically minded Christian in the marketplace must remember that his or her actions affect the local community and the global community. Where self-interested or narrowly focused decisions directed toward increasing shareholder wealth often neglect other stakeholders, the business-as-service framework offers an important and theologically grounded foundation to serve the broader community.

Why Business Matters to God

God created work and declared that it was good. Why Business Matters to God contends with the schismatic notion that business and Christian practices reside in divergent spheres.

Where the popular ideologies suggest that the positive nature of business subsists in its instrumental value — its capability in funding work that actually matters — Jeff Van Duzer asserts that business, when understood as service to the global community, maintains intrinsic value — significance by its created purpose to both create and restore a hurting world.

Whether your occupation involves managing a large company or you just recently entered the job world, this book is a must-read for those interested in the relationship between Scripture, work, and business.

Originally published at http://www.spu.edu/depts/sbe/cib/.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Theology at School of Theology.