Take God Out of the Balance Sheet, and Then Put Him Back

by Rt Revd Peter Selby

Posted: 8 Jul 2012

This article first appeared in the Church Times on 29th June - www.churchtimes.co.uk

"You describe my book as a 'secular warning against idolatry', and I accept that. And that may suggest that the differences between secular and religious views may be more fluid than we sometimes think."

The public debate on What Money Can't Buy by Michael Sandel (Allen Lane, 2012), arranged by St Paul's Institute, with JustShare, the LSE, and Penguin Books, was memorable for several reasons: an audience of nearly 2000, including a large number of students and many who said they had not been in St Paul's Cathedral before; an attentive atmosphere; some well-aimed questions; and above all Professor Sandel's brilliance as a teacher, and his insistence that philosophy be public - that philosophy helps us to think about the great issues of the day.

But, as far as I was concerned, the key moment was Professor Sandel 's affirmative and at the same time questioning response to my suggestion that his book was a "secular warning against idolatry". By "idolatry", I meant the way in which money had moved from being an instrument of exchange into a dominant force in nearly every aspect of life, demanding submission and arousing emotions of both irresistible attraction and fear.

Having accepted the description, Professor Sandel went on to suggest that if it was right, we should re-examine some of our assumptions about how secular and religious viewpoints differ.

 This seemed like an invitation - deeply relevant to our thinking about money, but about many other things, too. "The secular": this age - with its disciplines of science, the humanities, social sciences, and economics, among others - seeks to understand the world (as the Latin tag quoted by Dietrich Bonhoeffer has it) "etsi Deus non daretur" - as though God were not a given.

Understanding the world in that way, Bonhoeffer asserted, was something that faith in God required of us. Understanding the world as though God were not a given can teach you a great deal about the world - we all know that. But Professor Sandel's response suggests that understanding the world in that way, through the eyes of disciplines that do not start with God as a given, may also teach you more than you expect about God and faith in God.

More than that, his response also suggests that disciplines that do start with God as a given - for instance, Christian theology - might be able to teach things about the secular world that it cannot teach itself. Such are the fertile possibilities that emerge when we recognise that "the differences between secular and religious views may be more fluid than we sometimes think".

The hour-and-a-half spent with Professor Sandel may therefore be an invitation to contemplate our world, and especially its current financial turbulence, in a way that exploits the possibilities of a genuine two-way traffic of thought. It is not just a matter of finding out "what the Christian gospel has to say" to the world of finance and the uncontrolled marketisation of our lives, but what we learn about God and God's purpose for the world by examining those aspects of our life through the secular disciplines of our time.

Professor Sandel's comment should then be taken up not just with the relief that comes with sensing opportunities for re-establishing Christianity as having relevance to the public issues of our time, but with the excitement of exploring faith itself, and rediscovering it for ourselves within the public square, with its triumphs and disasters, its knowledge and uncertainties.

It is not a coincidence that such an invitation to a more mutual journey of discovery, occurred within a discussion about the place of money in our world; for money is no bad place to start on that exploration. The crisis around money - debt, the euro, the world's banking systems - is at the top of politicians' and financiers' agenda. They deploy every ounce of skill they can muster, and draw in every expert they can find.

In the process, they rediscover forgotten wisdom, and ancient virtues such as prudence and restraint, as well as ingenuity and vision. They even discover if not solutions then at least ways forward. To put it at its most hopeful, they refresh the memory of those of us who call ourselves people of faith that it is the universe, and not just believers, that was made by a loving Creator, who longed for its good and surrounded it with guidance and commandments which were for its lasting advantage.

So ethics is increasingly a concern not just of the religious, but of many people seeking a more durable framework for our economic life. The Churches have not (and this should be a matter of regret) engaged with the demanding disciplines of economics and social science in a way that would have made a long-standing Christian ethical tradition more accessible to those at the sharp end of decision-making: no wonder that so many of the finance-sector professionals surveyed by St Paul's Institute said they did not think the City needed to attend to the guidance of the Church.

Yet the invitation to us is not that we should place our trust in the secular on its own terms. Looking at money and what has happened to it as an example of potential and actual idolatry brings to the table other insights than those that unaided secular disciplines can provide.

By speaking of idolatry, we lay bare the fact that money has become a rival to true faith, a serious competitor against God for people's loyalty. So we bring to bear the whole theological tradition of prophecy against idols - of martyrs who died rather than misdirect their worship, and above all an account of the serious consequences of allowing that which is made by human beings to command their total subservience.

A secular warning against idolatry takes us a long way, but it also displays what we need, beyond secular thought, to counter the pervasive tendency of human beings to idolise what they have made, and to fall victim to good instruments that run out of control.

That is why the Doctrine Commission devoted a chapter of its report Being Human (CHP, 2003) to money as a profound influence on human life. It is why the St Paul's Institute is determined to continue its engagement with the City; and it is why Christian people should see the fluid boundary between sacred and secular views as an exciting invitation to an arena where God is to be found.

About this author

Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards and former Bishop of Worcester. He is currently part of the Interim Directing team for St Paul's Institute


This piece has been written by an independent contributor and does not necessarily express the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.