[I was asked to respond to a paper from the upcoming Society for Pentecostal Studies/Wesleyan Theological Society conference and thought I’d post an edited version here. The paper, by Thomas Bridges, engages Rodney Stark’s book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.]
I’m sorry that I’m unable to be there in person to engage Thomas Bridges’ reading of Rodney Stark’s—shall we way—“creative” book. I suppose if I have a question for Bridges, it’s simply this: why waste your time on Stark’s ideological hack job of both Christianity and history?
That, however, does not make for much of a conversation. So let me unpack this a bit. I think Bridges is absolutely right to name Stark’s position for what it is: pure, unadulterated Pelagianism marshaled for the sake of the worship of Mammon, subservient to the ersatz pope of American civil religion—namely, the unquestioned “market” which seems to speak ex cathedra, and which—like Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor—is not even going to let Jesus spoil the capitalist party. (“Sell all you have and give to the poor” be damned! According to Stark, Jesus was really interested in increasing our GDP—it just took 1500 years for so-called “Christians” to figure this out.)
Thus we get several gems of “creative” history that make Hayden White look like a conservative. For instance, we’re told that capitalism thrived in the Middle Ages. Indeed, not only did it flourish in medieval Christendom more generally, its most celebrated form is located, according to Stark, in the monasteries. Who needed The Wealth of Nations? Apparently the Rule of St. Benedict would have been enough, containing capitalism in nuce—except for those bothersome little bits about vows of poverty, having property in common, and the denouncement of avarice. But other than that…
Only a “creative” historian like Stark could claim that “[u]nlike Plato’s Republic, which focuses on the polis, and unlike other religions and societies, which focus on group identities, for Christianity ‘the individual citizen […] was the focus” (cited by Bridges, pp. 4-5). Indeed, Stark takes the Gospel to be asserting that “I am the master of my fate” (ibid.).
What kind of American, Baptist history is this? Is there something in the water down there in Texas? This is a truly remarkable eisegesis of the historical record, reading the American valorization of individual autonomy and libertarian freedom back into the pre-modern church in ways that almost boggle the imagination. Even quite apart from the clearly organic, communitarian construction of not only monasteries but feudal life more generally in medieval Christendom, one finds in Scripture itself a picture of the community as a body whose good trumps that of the individual (Phil. 2:1-11), generating an economic organization that subsumes private property to a common purse (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-5:10). And the monastic rules (whether of Benedict, Augustine, or others) were intent on curbing self-interest and “private” concern through devotion to a community that was very much modeled as a polis much more akin to Plato and Aristotle’s communitarian vision than the modern Enlightenment atomism that Stark seems to cherish.
But here we have neither time nor space to contest Stark’s history point by point. And Bridges has already made a start of that, and also rightly raised constructive theological problems with the account. I can’t add to his suggestions. Instead, I want to ask: in light of how ludicrous Stark’s reading is, how does he get away with this? Who on earth could see this as a remotely viable reading of Christian history before the Reformation? And why are some so prone to eat it up (cue some fawning appraisal from The National Review)?
Here I would suggest that this sort of Whiggish history finds an audience ready and waiting—like the work of Max Stackhouse—because it is ultimately comforting and shores up the status quo for American Christians. In addition, I think the picture of baptized capitalism that we get from folks like Stark, Stackhouse, Novak, and others, operates on the basis of a lack of nuance.
In particular, I think they fail to make a crucial distinction: between “economics” and “capitalism.” Or, to put it conversely, these accounts—which pride themselves on being “realistic”—assume an identification between economics and capitalism. So, for them, to be against capitalism is a bit like being against food, clothing, and shelter. Economic transactions are an essential and constitutive feature of human society; therefore, anyone who opposes capitalism is living in some ridiculous ivory tower of abstraction, unable to face up to the cold, hard reality of economic exchange. Simply collapsing capitalism with economics “as such” also means that whenever these folks see commerce and exchange happening, they think they’re seeing capitalism at work (which is the only possible way to make any sense of Stark’s claim that medieval monasteries were hotbeds of capitalism).
But why should we simply identify economics with capitalism? I think this shows a significant lack of imagination and a real failure of theoretical nuance. I think Stark and his ilk are absolutely right that economic exchange and commerce are an essential (and good!) aspect of human society. However, capitalism is one particular configuration of the economic, and the market is one particular configuration of commerce. I would argue that these configurations are quite antithetical to the Gospel (which is itself a renewal of the good order of creation). But I’m not thereby rejecting economics or exchange as such. Rather, it is a matter of imagining economics and commerce otherwise, which is exactly the sort of thing we see in the early church (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-5:10) and in the monastic communities. Stark’s creative, ideological history lacks just this distinction. Bridges has rightly pointed out the antithesis, and invites us to imagine a very different economy.