Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – A Critical Review

“Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism,” 2016 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, by Kathryn Tanner.

A Critical Review by Vincent Williams

In these much anticipated Gifford Lectures, Kathryn Tanner continues her already impactful work on economic markets, begun in 2005 with her publication of Economy of Grace.[1] This time around, however, Tanner is equipped with further research into the neoliberal condition as well as post-mortem insight gained from the financial crisis of 2008. Cleverly alluding in her title to Max Weber’s seminal work from the first decade of the 20th century, Tanner aims to reverse Weber’s analysis such that Christianity is a counter, rather than a companion, to the current configuration of capitalism. She states that her aim is “to show how Christian beliefs might undermine, rather than support, the new spirit of capitalism,” playing off Weber’s work, “what Christianity gives, it can also take away” (1).[2] The argument is arranged around the three-fold notion of time as past, present, and future; how capitalism and Christianity form vastly different subjects under this structure. In her analysis of subject formation, Tanner routinely engages Michel Foucault as a dialog partner, especially his lectures titled The Birth of Biopolitics given at the Collège de France in 1978–9, citing both her affinity for his work and its limitations.[3]

The lectures are half economic analysis and half constructive theology, the former at times quite technical, especially for the uninitiated. Where the argument is occasionally limited by economic complexity, considering a theological audience, it makes up for in a clear correlation between problem and proposed solution. Tanner never merely demonstrates her economic erudition apart from offering a Christian counter claim to said economic situation. She begins by developing the claim that capitalism is presently “finance-dominated,” meaning that the financial sector of the economy is increasingly important for potential profit and therefore dictates how other sectors, including individual actors, are to function. She insightfully points out that the current obsession with maximal profit is quite odd, and that the implications of this and other features of finance-dominated capitalism forms subjects who desire for themselves what capitalism requires. As many have experienced thus far in attempts to change how the economy is organized, capitalism for that reason seems like the only game in town – this is its “imagination constructing” nature according to Tanner. In order to undermine capitalism as it stands today, one “needs to meet it with a counter spirit of similar power” (1). And just here, Tanner’s creative theological proposals begin to have their merit.

In the second lecture, “Chained to the Past,” Tanner stresses how past decisions take on a particularly inexorable quality (e.g. accepting job responsibilities, accruing debt). This forms subjects to be largely self-managing in order to meet the demands of the past – demands set by finance which are fixed, yet leave the means in the individual’s hands. “Every present is past preoccupied and nothing more is to be expected in the future than what the past has already laid down” (2). In describing how debt chains borrowers (both individual debtors and governments), she counters its negative effects by offering up the Christian idea of repudiating one’s past. One is, in her proposal, to become a new person whereby the past never completely constrains the present or future as it does in capitalism today. Because God has entered the picture, possibilities are always open for radical transformation. The meaning of conversion is just this according to Tanner: a radical break with the past (along with its economic implications) rather than a mere continuation bound by its limits.

Tanner’s third lecture, “Total Commitment,” is largely devoted to an analysis of contemporary workplace culture. Companies use fear, require self-evacuation, and give attention to one’s whole person (i.e. Tanner argues, “As much as the doing, to be demonstrated in job performance, one’s being, the character of one’s person and dispensations is a primary matter for employer concern” (3)) in order to produce the subjects that will acquiesce to its demands. Individuals are to see themselves as literal capital, or run their lives like businesses to manage and make use of – in short, to maximize their value as human assets. This is the same maximizing principle that forms finance as a whole, returning to that earlier theme. To do what capitalism requires, workers must be totally committed to the present task, nearly impossible goals await completion and no slack exists in the workflow to make up for the smallest of mistakes. While at times limited to very specific cases inapplicable to other types of workers, Tanner’s analysis of corporate work culture is nonetheless illuminating.

Commitment to God, as Tanner argues, is critical of the total commitment to work that capitalism requires; nothing can overrule one’s commitment to God. She says, “Commitment to God and the conversion it brings about interferes with the total commitment to anything else, thereby limiting the degree by which one could ever be completely personally invested in a company’s aims” (3). This solution is still a kind of absolute attention to the present however, because the Christian is to live completely for God and continuously work on their piety. Tanner even utilizes the same semi-Puritan language of the Christian life as a “project,” which is quite analogous to her description of capitalism’s demands thus far. The difference is significant though, for in the Christian life, grace is always available and one need not live in continual anxiety in the present for God can always make up for our failures and is, more centrally, the agent of one’s transformation to begin with. While a more explicit conversation about the notion of divine and human agency Tanner utilizes in these lectures would be quite useful (namely its compatible or non-competitive character), listeners are to be cognizant of how this series falls into place within her overall theological vision wherein she has addressed this issue in its requisite depth. To summarize the point on commitment, Tanner argues that Christian focus on the present is for the sake of conformity to God, not to the dictates of the market.

In “Nothing but the Present,” Tanner again turns her eye toward how subjects are formed in the present. Akin to their total commitment, workers are to be completely engaged in the present in order to meet company demands and to take the brunt of the fallout when investors’ “short-termism,” as she calls it, unavoidably results in workers’ detriment. Because of the oversized profits to be made in finance in addition to real-time trading of financial instruments, corporations are focused on short-term profit. There is relatively little consideration for workers’, or the company’s for that matter, long-term benefit (e.g. high wages and benefits) because those long-term considerations would cut into the much desired short-term profits to be made in finance. Similar to Tanner’s response in the third lecture, she thinks that Christianity is incredibly focused on the present because one is to always be oriented toward God. The character of this orientation allows the Christian to make it relevant to the whole of their life, in all of its aspects. For instance, Tanner cites the urgent quality of conversion. Unlike in capitalism, one’s decision to convert in the present is not based upon fear of loss, but is rather grounded upon the grandiose offer of salvation and its own attractiveness. While it is not too hard to sort out, Tanner does seem to jump around between speaking of conversion as that initial salvific event, as traditional Christianity would have it, and the ongoing decision to everyday live one’s life for God. This lack of consistency is not an overt problem, but one that requires care from the listener.

Moving on to the relation to the future, Tanner notes that, in capitalism, the future is regarded only for its character to either make or break financially. Capitalism disciplined by finance desires to control and collapse the future so that it is nothing more than an outcome of the present, but market volatility seems to make that entirely impossible (even if stock brokers take all the credit for their success in hindsight). Finance introduce all sorts of tricks to counter this volatility through stock options, futures contracts, or derivatives to cite a few from Tanner’s lecture. In this discussion, it was perhaps most difficult to discern just what Tanner thinks the problem is. Of course it’s a problem for finance – they are the ones who are trying to make the money here – but it remained slightly unclear why Christians should oppose this way of others’ relating to the future; rather than a solution to a real problem, this section seemed more like a description of how Christians think of the future differently. The principle that Tanner counters with, however, is that Christians do not try to master the future or relegate it to mere strict conformity with the present. In Christianity there is a massive transformation between the present and the future, the difference between the two is much larger than that even in the most volatile market conditions. But this difference is actually the attractiveness of the Christian future because one counts upon God’s ultimate benevolence. Christian hope is not limited, Tanner argues, by the present, or even the amount of progress to-date. Grace allows for real transformation regardless of the past.

In these last notes, it is hard to discern where Tanner is speaking of this eschatological dimension of Christianity as only a temporally future possibility, or, as she later argues, its ability to exist in the here and now, the eternal life already begun in Christ that cuts across the world today. Moreover, there remains a certain uneasiness about how Christianity does, it seems, try to control the future; this very feature is what assures us that it will be good. Perhaps though this is a positive feature, rather than negative, because it has the potential to quell the anxiety produce by capitalism’s reflections upon the future.

In her final lecture, “Which World?” Tanner cites in more explicit terms what this Christian alternative entails. Beginning with an analysis of the competitive social world that capitalism creates, and the individual moral responsibility it emphasizes, Tanner moves on to the non-competitive nature of the Christian community, a regularly appearing feature of her earlier work. Unlike the relative worth assigned to individuals under capitalism, one’s worth in Christianity is never tied to personal accomplishment. She concludes, “gone thereby is any point in trying to gain some sort of competitive advantage over others by besting them in the pursuits of religious ends. One’s individual worth as graced by Christ is not fundamentally dependent on how one stands in relation to others” (6). The Christian life is not primarily about individual achievement, or more precisely one’s overly moralizing responsibility for personal progress, because all success is ultimately attributed to God.

What, finally, is Tanner’s vision for capitalism’s transformation? It appears most prominently to be a type of internal disruption whereby the Christian way of life infiltrates and subverts this finance dominance. While Tanner never goes into any practical solutions at length, she seems relatively confident in the availability of alternatives, whether laws, structures, or perhaps attitudes. She even noted that she believes grace is currently at work to empower “revolutionary change,” admittedly strong words deployed when the picture painted in her economic analysis seemed so bleak. While much of her lectures still require economists’ own critical reflections upon their contents, the creative use of Christian theology to counter today’s capitalism makes these lectures worth listening to and carefully reflecting upon their ideas; if Tanner’s economic insight is any indication, there is much work still to be done.

One can really only hope, as Tanner notes in the beginning of her series, that Weber (and her own analysis) was right in one regard: the capacity for Christian beliefs to radically change the economy. In the coming months, as these lectures are prepared for expansion in print, one can only share this hope that the lectures’ further elucidation will provide Christians and theologians interested in economics with a much-needed resource and dialog partner for countering the detrimental effects of capitalism.


[1] This earlier work lays much of the groundwork for the possibility of a relation between economics and theology. Tanner traces out the structure of modern economic thinking and compares it with the Christian story of creation and redemption where the notion of divine gift giving is central. This benevolent, beneficial gift – perhaps most importantly: unconditional gift – is the measuring stick used to critique the organization of capitalism (its dependence upon scarcity, for instance). See Economy of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).

[2] The parenthetical citations in this review refer the reader to the specific lecture in the series the quote came from (e.g. 3 would be her lecture titled “Total Commitment”).

[3] See Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).


For my summaries and analysis of each individual lecture, see here.

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6 thoughts on “Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – A Critical Review

  1. Pingback: Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 1 “Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism: An Introduction” | The School of Religion

  2. Pingback: Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 2 “Chained to the Past” | The School of Religion

  3. Pingback: Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 3 “Total Commitment” | The School of Religion

  4. Pingback: Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 4 “Nothing but the Present” | The School of Religion

  5. Pingback: Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 5 “Another World” | The School of Religion

  6. Pingback: Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 6 “Which World?” | The School of Religion

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