Is Capitalism Compatible with Christianity?

Christina McRorie on Kathryn Tanner

Kathryn Tanner. Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism. Yale University Press, 2019. Pp 256. $35.00. Hardback.

Capitalism and Christianity were not always at such odds. In his 1904 classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that capitalism’s initial “spirit” may not itself have been Christian, but it was roughly compatible with Christian practices and drew much of its dynamism from this compatibility. Or at least it did for a moment. Weber noticed that by his time this spirit had already moved away from its religious roots and taken on a life of its own; as he put it somewhat darkly, “the Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so.” The work ethic that had originally been Protestant was no longer religious.

As its title indicates, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism can be read as an update to Weber’s original argument. In it, Kathryn Tanner argues that his observation rings even truer today: in the past century things have gone from bad to worse, and the onetime kinship or compatibility between Christianity and capitalism is now utterly lost. Instead of being merely estranged, however, the “spirits” of these two are now locked in stark and total opposition.

Although her concern for justice is clear, Tanner’s primary focus is upon how capitalism spiritually and morally forms us—how it trains us to act, think, desire, value, perceive, and even fear. Tanner’s argument is that this formation is grossly deficient when seen in the light of the Christian gospel. Moreover, we need this light to even notice our predicament in the first place, given that capitalism cloaks itself in a mantle of apparent normalcy, and prevents us from thinking outside its constraints. As she (quoting Fredric Jameson) reminds us, it is now easier “to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

Tanner’s approach steps back from particular details in order to see the larger picture (The New Spirit is nothing if not a “big picture” book). As critical theorists have pointed out, this may be especially useful when the very facts and particulars themselves are generated within an ideological system, and cannot be trusted as perfectly transparent windows into full truth. However, at the same time that setting aside details may yield a new perspective, it also opens the door to idiosyncrasy. In the case of critical theoretical reflections on capitalism, it becomes important to ask: which—and whose—capitalism are we talking about, exactly?

To be fair, this is always a bit difficult to answer, given that the term “capitalism” originated in polemics and remains an “essentially contested concept.” What is more, the range of phenomena, practices, values, and institutional arrangements to which the term refers is not only vast, but constantly changing. To sum these all up as having a single “spirit” would be a tall order

The New Spirit begins by clarifying that the spirit it addresses is today’s “financialized” capitalism. Eventually, the reader gathers this roughly means the workplace ethos of the pre-2008 American financial sector, and sometimes the experience of those facing crisis-level precarity and poverty. Given that the average hedge fund manager’s habitus and moral formation are not necessarily representative of the average worker’s in health care or education (two sectors that each employ more individuals in the US than does finance), this is neither the only nor most obvious way to introduce the reader to the essence of life in capitalism today. Of course, one could argue that the financial sector is culturally resonant in a way that warrants treating its culture as a stand-in for our larger moment. Tanner does not make this argument, however, or signal for her readers the limits of the “capitalism” in her sights. For the most part, The New Spirit refers to its capitalism as the capitalism of today.

This selective focus is not necessarily a flaw of The New Spirit; to an extent, all who write about culture must use something like philosopher Bernard Williams’ invitational, rather than descriptive, use of “we.” As Williams put in in Shame and Necessity, “It is not a matter of “I” telling “you” what I and others think, but of my asking you to consider what extent you and I think some things and perhaps need to think others.”

Read in this way—as a reflection the reader is invited to consider— the provocative portrayal of capitalism in The New Spirit has the potential to be quite useful. It can be read as a set of questions, the urgency of which is clear: Those of us who are not in finance, how do we nonetheless recognize the pressures that Tanner identifies at work in our own lives? How have we internalized the values and norms she critiques? And then, how might the faith we profess be useful for reorienting our priorities, attention, and sensibilities?

However, it is not always clear whether The New Spirit  is that sort of book . The introduction does note that it will deal in Weberian ideal types “designed for heuristic purposes” that “should not be confused with reality.” Almost immediately, however, the text that follows seems to take itself as more flatly descriptive than that, not only of capitalism but also of Christianity. But, read as faithful description, its message that Christianity and capitalism are irrevocably locked in opposition may work against the book’s professed aim to help its readers imagine a “revolutionary alteration” to our status quo.

Let me explain, starting with a further word on the book’s treatment of capitalism and then of Christianity. The New Spirit repeatedly appears to assume that capitalism itself has a single and internally consistent spirit, despite the fact that no such thing is possible. (Interestingly, the text itself indirectly reckons with this, as some chapters show capitalism’s spirit “chaining” us to the past, while in others it maroons us in an endless present and severs us from past and future alike.) Moreover, this spirit is entirely malevolent: either it has only corrupting effects upon us, or it has no positive or morally neutral effects worth mentioning. If taken as an actual moral description of capitalism, this is dramatically incomplete, to say the very least. One not need be delighted with capitalism today to recognize its ambiguity and complexity as a moral context, and to acknowledge the very real practical, moral, and spiritual goods it enables alongside its many injustices and deformations. Where The New Spirit discourages its readers from contemplating this complexity, even if accidentally, it does them a disservice.

What is more, Tanner’s survey of capitalism as a moral terrain is not only singularly forbidding, but apparently written in stone. Although the book’s introduction acknowledges that there are “potentially multiple spirits of capitalism,” the specific spirit addressed in its pages looms large and unalterable (and perhaps inevitable, even), and is simply referred to as “capitalism.”  Real alternatives are not discussed. The resulting map is not a morally empowering one. If capitalism is so pernicious, internally consistent, and stable, what can be done about—or even within —it? In terms of the map, we might say, better to go around. How, of course, is never quite explained.

Nonetheless, “going around” is effectively what Tanner’s Christianity counsels the Christian to do when it comes to capitalism. Herein lies the second large hazard of taking The New Spirit as the final word on the relationship of Christianity and capitalism today: its curiously otherworldly depiction of Christianity.

Part of the problem here may be the book’s commitment to positioning Christianity and capitalism as “counter-spirits.” Tanner explains that she has focused on a “specific variant” of Christian belief that so as to sketch the starkest contrast possible between her subjects. Toward this end, The New Spirit emphasizes the utter discontinuity between nature and grace, and the radical break that separates our lives before salvation from what comes after. In keeping with her other scholarship on the economy, Tanner’s point here is that the fundamentally unearned, gifted nature of grace exposes capitalism’s merit-obsessed work ethic as nothing other than sinful human striving. It is, in short, idolatry.

However, the theology of The New Spirit doesn’t simply attempt to dethrone an outsized conception of human effort and put merit back in its place; it aims to abolish it altogether. In its view, grace continually disrupts expectations of continuity and progress in the life of the converted believer. Indeed, the fact that conversion is “never over” makes it difficult to give any account of our identity or selves apart from the “radical disjunctions” that God authors in us; as Tanner puts it at one point, “If Christians have a character, it is from any normal point of view a character-destroying character,”.

In a laudable attempt to relativize the importance of human effort, then, The New Spirit ends up effectively dismissing our capacities to cooperate with grace. Since we cannot count on any continuity between our agency before and during grace’s operation upon us, it is as if a clear line exists between our graced and pre-graced conditions. And, in the argument of The New Spirit, this line has immediate relevance for economic life: capitalism’s practices and values embody the sinful, worldly, pre-conversion nature that Christians must leave behind, tout court.

What results is a rather ethereal and “anti-work” ethic indeed—and perhaps anti-money, anti-debt, anti-jobs, and anti-any form of social organization or distribution of power that is not God’s freely given grace. In fact, one could see the book as an extended riff on Luther’s famous claim that “a Christian is perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,” applied to modern markets.

Although certainly idiosyncratic, as a work of theology The New Spirit is not wrong, per se; there are certainly warrants in the tradition for speaking of Christianity as a world-denouncing faith of radical conversions and skepticism regarding the value of human effort. As Luther’s two-kingdom approach to ethics illustrates, however, these particular theological resources are more useful for critiquing idolatry than developing practical ethics.

Alas, a critique of idolatry critique can only take us so far. It can tell us to reject a particular ideology of work, but it does not yet teach us to think rightly about work itself. Because The New Spirit frequently confuses these subjects (or at least does little to guard against the reader’s doing so), one finishes it with the conclusion that neither work nor any other economic practice that rewards effort should have a place in the Christian’s new life—or, that if these do have a place, they will be so dramatically transfigured as to be unrecognizable, and not something about which we can yet write books.

But this simply cannot be true, and not solely because it would prevent Christian analysis of economic life altogether (and arguably encourage a passive stance to the status quo). The gospels indicate that Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes for a specific audience; they do not record him abolishing the human need for loaves and fishes altogether, the effort required to procure them, or the requirement of allocating them somehow given that they remain finite, at least for us. Even as God’s grace breaks into our quotidian reality and casts new light on our lives, it does not fundamentally undo our creaturely condition and its economic exigencies.

With this in mind, it may be more useful to begin our reflections on economic life using other emphases and grammars available within the Christian tradition. Consider, for example, Thomas Aquinas’ affirmation that grace does not destroy our nature, but rather perfects it. Beginning from this would lead us to focus on the compatibility between grace and nature, rather than their antagonism. How, we might ask, ought a creaturely life transformed by grace include work? How should grace lead us to perfect—rather than abolish—the institutions and “merit”-based practices humans currently use to provision the goods of creation?

Likewise, consider the many uses of “the world” as a theological trope in the Christian tradition. The New Spirit exclusively uses the term as it appears in Pauline and Johannine literature, as a realm of sin in opposition to God’s reign that Christians must endure until its eventual destruction. In the language of Gaudium et spes, however, the world is “created and sustained by its Maker’s love, fallen indeed… yet emancipated now by Christ,” and already being “fashioned anew according to God’s design.” Likewise, an Ignatian social imagination invites us to find God at work in all things, always and already transforming the world. With these in mind we might ask, how might contemporary capitalism be part of this fallen but good world that we must partner with God to fashion anew?

Such approaches need not prevent us from testing the spirits of the age and rejecting those that are idolatrous. Tanner is right; this is important work. However, after rejecting idolatries—and when we are still left in this world, not the next—the average Christian needs to know what to do next. We need to know how to concretely do good and avoid evil within our existing cultural and institutional structures, and how to go about changing those structures when necessary. And, when we deem certain structures to be irremediably corrupt, we need to make prudential judgments about how to pursue viable alternatives—not because we can ever fully bring God’s kingdom to earth, but because to fail to even try is an abdication of our responsibility to partner with God’s ongoing redemptive activity in human history, and to be disciples in both word and deed.

Christina McRorie is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University, and a visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia in 2020.