The Anxiety of Influence

Devin Singh responds to D. Stephen Long

In my introduction to Divine Currency, I note in passing a set of concerns that often emerge in discussions of theology and money:

[S]ince constructive theological analyses of money and economy often exhibit a reactive concern to emphasize difference, my exploration of similarities may unearth submerged connections that kindle such anxieties. Might the modern need to drive a wedge so quickly between theology and the monetary economic realm stem in part from their close connection and the apparent scandal this would bring? It is precisely this reactionary response to ostensive scandal that we should resist, so that we might consider both the reasons why this close association is taken as problematic and also reflect on the obsessive need to cover it up.

While I would not characterize as obsessive the response by my friend and senior colleague in the field, Stephen Long, it does manifest some of the anxieties that arise in this encounter among theology, money, and economics. These anxieties and the reasons for them are themselves worthy of exploration. To his credit, Long does not want to cover up these connections between theology and monetary economy. On the other hand, he fears theology will be irrelevant if they prove to be true.

Devin Singh. Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West. Stanford, California. Stanford University Press. pp. 280. $20.14

I take heart that Long appears deeply affected by the core of my argument that exposes the profound and substantive early connections between the development of foundational Christian doctrine and the economic ideas and practices of the time. Whether or not he is fully convinced of those associations and the economic imprint left on theology, the focus of his review is on the implications of the links I posit. His resistance and critique are thus not about my central argument but about its fallout. And this apparent fallout includes nothing less than the threat of nihilism, the abandonment of theology, and the victory of the secular.

Genealogy seems to be a loaded term for some, and for Long it raises the specter of that old bugbear and scarecrow Friedrich Nietzsche, apparently forever stalking the modern Christian attempt at truth and virtue. If I invoke genealogy, I must be a Nietzschean or neo-Nietzschean, which often functions as code for all things antichrist. Nihilism and bacchanalia lurk close behind.

While I cannot claim to be a card-carrying Nietzschean (whatever that may look like), I am sympathetic to the impulse and aesthetic vision he set forth that called into question the idealization of origins, the search for the Quelle or fount from which history arose. He also challenged the notion that something like a unified historical narrative could be constructed to tell the past as it “actually happened” (wie es eigentlich gewesen—as Leopold von Ranke put it). But while genealogy disrupts a certain mode of history making, I don’t see genealogy and history as opposed, which is why I find Long’s repeated statement that I am doing “genealogy not history” to be curious. I believe one can do both at the same time, even if they are given different emphases.

I see genealogy as a kind of chastened intellectual history. It’s not the naïve “history of ideas” form of historical narrative that ignores economic realities, social context, authoritative institutions, or the play of ideology and culture. While genealogy disrupts and troubles simple linear narratives, notions of inevitable evolution or emergence, pure origins, or objective and plain-sense descriptions of the past, it can still contribute to the kinds of stories that provide helpful background on contemporary situations. Genealogy sheds light on prefigurings and forms of discontinuous transmission that may be helpful in explaining present regimes of meaning and power. Genealogy presented itself to me as a useful collection of methodological postures precisely because of the space it opens up for using theology as a tool of analysis, which is why Long’s fears of theology’s abandonment in the wake of my project are striking.

In any case, I do my best to maintain that this book is not actually a genealogy but a contribution to a genealogy. The distinction is subtle but important. A genealogy of the type I invoke, tracing the influence of late antique theology and practice up to modernity, would be a multivolume work. If anything, this book is an archaeology, an attempt to expose and explore a single layer, one stratum in a deep set of accretions and permutations that we could call genealogy. Thus Long is correct to point out, and understandably dissatisfied, that I provide no argument for the links between the late antique period that I explore and the rise of modern capitalism. Certainly our tendency is to want to know explicitly how this relates to us, here and now. I can only gesture to such links. My book is also not about contemporary neoliberalism, despite being a focal point of Long’s review. I use the term once and only when describing William Connolly’s interventions on the subject. That my book may enlighten discussions of neoliberalism is a connection I support and hope to be true, but it is not one that I take space to defend.

While Long seems to recognize that my book is not an argument for the theology of modern capitalism (and indeed quotes me to this effect), he still critiques my argument about early capitalism as unconvincing. But since there is no argument about this, isn’t this aspect bound to be unconvincing? Regardless, I can still be held accountable for my intuitive gestures. To this point, Long curiously claims that few of the early economic theorists of capitalism were openly favorable to religion or engaged fourth-century theology explicitly, and this means, therefore, that even my suggestion that such theology shaped the foundations of capitalism is faulty. This surprising position appears to hold that the only way the historical movement of ideas happens is through explicit, self-conscious, discursive engagement. Any transfer of ideas must be mediated by the will of freely choosing, rational individuals who retrieve and deploy concepts judiciously, accurately, and favorably, and intentionally put them into play in the present.

Certainly, this takes place sometimes. But I submit that we can still assert that such foundational theology shaped early capitalisms in a host of other ways: first, to Long’s claim, there is in fact an established scholarly conversation showing the rich theological context to Adam Smith and others and the theologies, both explicit and implicit, at work in their systems—including what could be taken as more ancient doctrines, however updated and redeployed (see, e.g., Robert Nelson, Lisa Hill, Paul Oslington, and David Grewal, to name a few). Second, it is possible that these thinkers were shaped by theology unawares, where implicit assumptions about reality enabled logical leaps within conceptual frameworks. Even if they did not explicitly invoke theology, these thinkers could still be deploying it. For instance, the new model of equilibrium that assumed (on faith) that systems tend toward stability and self-calibration emerged in environments and periods where divine providence—an intelligent hand managing and calibrating the cosmos—was taken for granted. Third, even if they wrote in outright hostile denial of Christian principles, constructing systems in self-conscious and apparently “godless” opposition to theology, isn’t this a critical kind of influence? If every dialectical opposite contains a trace of what it opposes, how can we say theology is not influential in such matters? This is why many strident atheists of today are some of the most religiously fundamentalist. Obviously, I’m not saying the transfer of concepts is linear, uninterrupted, or without transformations, but it’s clear upon reflection that ideas move and exert influence in so many more ways than merely through a few learned men choosing to profess belief in Christian principles, to write explicitly on them, and put them to use.

Should these links prove to be substantive, Long claims, “it will be difficult, if not impossible, to be a Christian theologian that affirms its central mysteries and rejects capitalism.” This inability for the Christian theologian to embrace the contradictions of a theology enmeshed in the economic evils it confronts also extends, for Long, to a full-scale rejection of theology by the secular university. Why is this so? While I know that Long agrees with me theoretically that “[t]here is no pure doctrine, no pure church, no theology that cannot be used for nefarious ends,” underscoring this reality in the economic realm raises for him the worry that theology may be cast aside. Yet, while this position may provoke alarm, I submit it as a truism. The task as I see it is not to double down on the illusory quest to purify theology or the church from economy, but to think more critically about what theology or the church should be given their messy complexity, unpredictability, and uses for good and ill.

The title of Long’s review (assigned by the editors) is: “Can Christians be Capitalists?” To which I answer: of course they can. The West is full of them. Sure, we need to specify what “being” capitalist means, and here I take it that to be capitalist means to champion and defend capitalist values or to participate uncritically in capitalism. For the rest of us would-be resistors, outside of the small minority who have fully unplugged and live in sustainable communities or on kibbutzim, not being capitalist can only mean still participating in capitalism while criticizing it and periodically making choices that attempt to resist its pull. Should Christians be capitalists? This is a different question, one whose answer I believe Long and I agree upon. What we appear at odds about is whether theology provides a clear-cut tool for liberation and whether, if theology is implicated in capitalist ascendancy, it can still be of any use.

Long worries, “There seems to be no challenge to the distorting effects of capitalism available… and we theologians cannot do much more than unmask it.” Not quite. The task is to think through what theological critique and challenge look like without the purity of distance, a firm foundation of difference, or an easy appeal to divine transcendence and otherness. It is not a call to resign oneself to inaction and to glory in despair. Yes, it may be worthwhile to lament the ways that critical responses have deepened alignments between theology and the economy, and in so doing have empowered and further legitimated the latter. But this presents a need to reconceptualize intervention and transform the ways theology is done. I certainly nowhere call for the abandonment of theology. If anything, the entirety of Divine Currency is an argument for the centrality of theology and the urgent need not just for theologians, but social and political theorists, philosophers, and historians, to attend to it.

Devin Singh is Assistant Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College, where he teaches courses on religious thought in the modern West, the philosophy of religion, and social ethics. He is the author of Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West (Stanford, 2018), and was guest editor for a special issue of Political Theology on “Love in a Time of Capital,” as well as guest co-editor for a special issue of Journal of Religious Ethics on debt. His current book project explores the religious sources of the power and prominence of debt in society.