Christianity and Social Activism

In this post I’d like to briefly offer up a framework for Christian Activists. Many of us grew up in churches directly involved in matters of social justice, but others have grown up in ones that rarely, if ever, stress any sort of action to benefit the world or get involved with anything directed toward the world except for evangelism or the occasional volunteer in a soup kitchen. Yet, as we all are aware, our world could be much better than it currently is (a realization shared among those irrespective of religious faith). While we are likely to disagree individually on specific programs and the relative importance of particular causes, I think Christians can, and should, share a healthy outlook on what their faith means for the transformation of the world.

I’m going to be up front about two ways I think Christians have historically failed at the cause of social justice. Most prominently, it has often been the case – perhaps even usually the case – that Christianity has been used to justify all sorts of terrible practices and policies. From genocides, Crusades, and slavery, to imperialism, monarchical governmental rule, and the Inquisition, it is sadly much too easy to discover Christianity put to the use of oppressive ends. For instance, Christians have used the idea of a singular, all powerful divine rule to justify the sorts of human models that found expression in the Roman empire, and later in the imperial rulers of the early modern age. Christians have used an appeal to religious law to reduce people of other faiths to semi-humans, forbid religious freedom, and justify gender subordination for the larger part of Christian history. Christians have, in large numbers, attempted to sustain the status quo at all costs due to the belief that social structures were established by God’s providence, and should therefore not be changed. Though these terrible things happened in the name of Christ (and we should emphasize that trying to force everyone to adhere to “biblical” principles or laws falls into that list), it was often the case that there were those in each generation who cried out against such practices – who also, yet for the opposite effect, found in Christianity a liberating spirit of human equality and freedom.

Secondly, I think it’s an error for Christians to think they are to remove themselves from the world. For some reason, we have often thought it our duty to form an enclave, totally leaving the world to its own destruction. Whether expressed as forming an alternative community, or merely one which attempts to rid ourselves of all worldly influence, I think it is too easy to forget that the Church exists for the sake of the world. God’s grace is active in the present, empowering Christians to transform the world around them for the better. We should join the Spirit’s working in the world around us, participating in God’s redemptive activity – one not limited to convincing people about after-death destinations!

For the above reasons, which of course deserve further elaboration, I think it’s absolutely imperative to living the Christian life that churches become actively engaged in transforming their communities. Part of what it means to be a Christian is to expend effort to promote social justice and equitable relations of mutual benefit as we minister God’s mercy and love to everyone around us. Just as in our own Christian sanctification, wherein we should be repenting of sin and aiming for our lives to adhere to God’s will, God wants the world to be aligned with God’s intentions for its loving transformation.

changeIn ever growing conformity to God – who is completely perfect! – our individual selves and our communities have the potential to exhibit Christ-like characteristics. The current set-up of society can always be improved because it is never perfect. No matter how close we think it may be to the best we can do, God’s grace always provides the potential for its betterment. The perfection of God’s kingdom means in this area that we can always make the world a better place, regardless of the fruits of our effort up to the present. Striving toward conformity to God, we will never make our own lives and world as good as they could be with God’s help. In other words, because the target we aim for is conformity with the perfection of God, we are never able to say that we have reached the goal – the finite, sinful character of our world precludes such a proclamation that we have already arrived.

This positive feature of a Christian framework for social activism also prevents us from being proud or boastful. Our efforts are never final, and we can therefore never say that even the Church itself is what it should be let alone the world of which we are a part. Moreover, realizing the often sin-stained nature of even our best efforts to love others should cause us pause when lifting up our own efforts in praise. Instead of arrogantly assuming that we can do no wrong, we need to be especially self-reflective of our own efforts. Christians have no singular means prescribed for their ends, so we can be flexible enough when it becomes obvious our strategies are not quite working. In attempting to make the world a better place, it may be the case that we don’t achieve anything worthwhile, or worse yet, that we do more harm than good. These possibilities, however, should not lead us to refrain from trying, for God’s grace is always available to fall back upon – and more significantly, God is able to make up the difference when we fail.

As Christians, our finite capacities to change the world are never final because we have hope, confidence really, that God can make the most out of our sincere efforts, or when they completely fail, that God can at least pour out more grace to empower further attempts. If our efforts are never final, neither are our failures. As such, our activism is done under God – who both empowers us to make the world a better place, and who is ultimately responsible for any positive change that occurs.

I’ve already hinted that Christians should be rather flexible with the means they use, and that the variety of causes one could take up are quite broad, partly due to the massive difference between how the world is now and how it could be. However, I do think there is at least one underlying goal that should reach into the contours of all of our efforts, strategies, and goals. In Christ, God directs love toward all people, for the world’s collective benefit. God is redeeming the world to Godself, and this underlies all of the more specific activities of redemption. God’s concern for all, therefore, should be mirrored in our own quest to make the world a better place for all. We should be especially cognizant of causes to take up that would result in universal benevolence, rather than only helping a few at the expense of others. Likewise, it is our Christian duty to remove the barriers others have set up to hold people down – the negative corollary of the positive duty just mentioned. We should be attempting to set up societal relations of mutual benefit, just as God’s own mission to the world involves its total transformation and benefit.

While the specifics of such a goal can be altered and diverse, it is likely an important reminder to keep in mind throughout all of our efforts. As Christians, the love we receive from God is most certainly not to be hoarded, but shared with all of those around us – love that has material consequences in addition to its spiritual effects. United with God in Christ, our love can never run out, but should abundantly overflow, just like God’s own grace, to all of those around us. For these reasons, we can hope that the world can be a better place for everyone, transformed by our own efforts undertaken along with God’s help and ever-present grace.

Theologian Spotlight: Julian of Norwich

This post was written by Emilee Snyder, a Masters student at Princeton Theological Seminary specializing in Church History. It’s part of the “Theologian Spotlight Series.” Other posts in the series can be found here.


Ever since being introduced to the life and work of Julian of Norwich, she has quickly become one of my favorite, and most impactful, theologians. For me, the key to capturing the heart of Julian’s theology and legacy is to recognize her quiet modification of the character of the Godhead, reintroducing into medieval thought Trinitarian compassion and closeness, traits previously reserved strictly for Christ – this is precisely what I hope to convey in this brief post, for her innovations were momentous not simply in her time, but continue to be so in our time, as well. All communities, not simply late medieval Norwich, are enriched by the sound reminder of the divine pathos, particularly a context entrenched in suffering as Julian’s own community was.

julianJulian of Norwich (c. 1342 – c. 1416) was a female anchoress in fourteenth-century England, spending the later years of her life secluded in a cell adjoining a Norwich church so as to devote the entirety of her days to the contemplation of the Divine. Over the course of her religious experience, she received various “revelations” from God, recording these first in 1373; twenty years later, in 1395, she supplemented this shorter text with greater theological insights and subtle, yet sharp, theological innovations. These works, collected in Revelations of Divine Love, make up the gravity of her religious influence.

Before we tackle the great innovations of Julian, let’s begin with the theology she inherited (and ultimately revised). Any reader of Julian’s Revelations (or of mainstream medieval spiritual works in general – more on this to come!) will likely be struck by her emotional, vivid depictions of the suffering Christ, a dominant theme in most medieval forms of piety. This affectionate piety, or cruciform contemplation as I like to call it, passionately recalls the suffering of Christ so as to realize the magnitude of love displayed therein. For example, Julian graphically describes the “great drops” of Christ’s “thick, dark red” blood falling “from under the crown of thorns … as though they had come out of the veins.” His pierced and broken flesh, she continues, was “slashed all over” and “in weals from the scourging,” “[sagging] with its own weight from hanging for such a long time” as the grip of thorns and nails widened his fresh wounds.

Jarring as Julian’s imagery may be for modern readers, we must recognize this contemplative style as wholly normative in her time. For Julian, as with affectionate piety as a whole, these graphic images are evoked as expressions of Christ’s unfailing love for humanity, a love so vast that he was compelled to endure the pains of the cross. This suffering love is the heart of Julian’s cruciform piety, the realization of which is precisely the end of this spiritual pursuit. These two components are thus tightly tethered to one another: Christ’s “love for our souls is so strong that he chose the pain willingly and eagerly, and suffered it meekly and was well-pleased to do so,” she argues. Though agonizing and excruciating, Christ’s love for humanity, both individually and universally, was so infinite that enduring the passion was, in fact, nearly irresistible: “I truly saw that he was willing to die as often as he was able to die, and love would never let him rest until he had done it.”

In terms of Julian’s compliance with orthodox spirituality – so far, so good. From Anselm of Canterbury, to the Franciscan spiritual tradition, the humanness of Christ, his willful suffering and extravagant love therein was center stage in medieval devotion. At this point, it seems Julian is simply a product of her spiritual age. But let’s take another step back into medieval spirituality as a whole, briefly. For all of the unparalleled fixation on the suffering love of Christ, medieval piety was equally insistent on the righteous vengeance of God. The two, in fact, went hand in hand. For, the suffering Christ endured was ultimately to satisfy God’s wrath toward human sin, avenge the ultimate injury and offense committed by humanity. The selfless, cruciform love of Christ, in this scheme, necessarily implied a wrathful God with justice to settle.

Not so, for Julian.

With impressive boldness, Julian reconstructs the character of God so as to reintroduce the Trinity’s compassion, closeness, and kindness to a context accustomed to God’s wrath, justice, and vengeance. Commenting on the Trinity’s involvement in Christ’s suffering work, she dictates from her revelation that “Jesus wishes us to consider the delight which the Holy Trinity feels in our salvation.” She radically continues, “The whole Trinity took part in the Passion of Christ … dispending an abundance of virtues and fullness of grace to us through him.” Preserving God’s immutability, she clarifies that “only the son of the Virgin suffered,” yet her theological innovations are nonetheless sharp: that the whole of the Trinity was involved in the passion of Christ, that the Cross is ultimately revelatory of the Trinity, went far beyond traditional medieval thought. For, to suggest that the cross is ultimately revelatory of the Trinity is, for Julian, to posit that the Trinity itself is “nothing but love, compassion, and pity,” components of a divine characterization that differed drastically from prevailing understandings of God in her day, ones which centered on wrath, anger, and judgment. Herein is Julian’s masterful deviation.

That her audience was inflicted with countless trials makes this reconstruction particularly telling. By the time Julian wrote the Short Text in 1373, England had suffered through three episodes of the Black Death, a fatal epidemic that, some scholars argue, sliced the population in half by the end of the fourteenth century – intersecting these visitations of the plague in England was a harvest failure in 1369, that triggered economic decline and national disorder. All such trials simply exacerbated sentiments of divine wrath and eternal punishment; Julian’s emphasis on divine empathy, closeness, and compassion finds its antecedent here.

Julian even takes this a step further, extending the gracious companionship of God to the context of sin. Not only were the trials of Norwich not to be seen as punishment for sin, but sin itself was reconstructed by Julian as an accident incurred amid honorable duty, an event God looks at with pity and kindness, rather than fault and blame. The implications of this nuanced view of sin are unmistakable. Here, we have a female anchoress altering the reigning account of human failure to accentuate the unfailing companionship of the Godhead.

Julian is also frequently remembered for her “Christ as Mother” idea, calling Jesus “our true mother,” who feeds us “not with milk, but with himself, opening his side for us and claiming all our love.” Julian’s theological goals here are unchanged: by way of this maternal imagery for Christ, she further reiterates God’s nearness and compassion. That this maternal understanding of Christ is representative of the Trinity as a whole further reiterates Julian’s emphasis on an intimate God who is a companion and comfort in suffering and trials.

Julian’s resolve to affirm God’s compassion and closeness to a culture accustomed to the opposite, particularly amid suffering and confusion, is compelling to me. Sure, you and I may not be inflicted by the Black Plague, but to reduce Julian’s spiritual theology to her own context alone is, I believe, to miss her point entirely. It is rather a theology applicable to all Christians, societies, and ages, for there are instances for all of us when the vast love and close comfort of God seems all but true.

As Julian affirms, in fact, our errors often lay in our failure to see God right beside us, rather than our own flight from God. With a promise such as this, it’s easy to see why Julian is so insistent that all shall be well. There’s no better way to end this piece than with these very encouraging words from Julian herself:

There is a deed which the Holy Trinity shall do on the last day, and when that deed shall be done and how it shall be done is unknown to all creatures under Christ, and shall be until it has been done. And he wants us to know this because he wants us to feel more ease in our souls and more at peace in love, rejoicing in him and no longer considering all the tumults which might keep us from the truth. This is the great deed ordained by our Lord God from eternity, treasured up and hidden in his blessed breast, only known to himself, and by this deed he shall make all things well; for just as the Holy Trinity made all things from nothing, so the Holy Trinity shall make all well that is not well.

My (5) Favorite Living Theologians

In no particular order; although if you’ve been to my blog before, you probably already know my bias!

  1. Sarah Coakley

sarah coakleySarah Coakley is currently Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. A theologian in the Anglican tradition, she is well known for her creativity, and attention to distinctly contemporary issues in the Church – frequently utilizing the categories of Christian desire and contemplation. She is currently in the process of writing a multi-volume systematic theology, the first of which was published in 2013 titled God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay on the Trinity. I enjoy her refreshing, yet unique, takes on theological issues, and she always seems to draw out the significant implications from her prayer-grounded vision of the Christian Life.

2. Ian McFarland

ian mcfarlandIan McFarland is currently Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge (chair established in 1535!). While his theological potential is surely yet to be fully realized, as he is only now beginning to enter the heart of his career, McFarland has already written some very interesting books on creation and on sin (In Adam’s Fall). I first came across Professor McFarland when writing a undergraduate paper on creation; his newest book revitalizing the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, titled, From Nothing: A Theology of Creation, is a quite rigorous treatment of creation in McFarland’s unique style of theological precision and use of historical theology. He studied under Kathryn Tanner at the University of Chicago, receiving his PhD in 1995.

3. Joerg Rieger

joerg riegerJoerg Rieger is currently a constructive theology professor at Vanderbilt. Generally located in the liberation tradition of theology, Rieger has prolifically tackled issues such as economics, globalization, and empire. Connected with his academic writing, he has been a community activist advocating for labor and broader social justice for many years and speaks often in such contexts. I first became acquainted with Rieger’s economic theology work in No Rising Tide, but have since then moved beyond to his short text, Globalization and Theology, and his book Christ and Empire. Just this month, he released a new book on labor, inequality, and theology, Unified We Are a Force.

4. Kathryn Tanner

kathryn tannerKathryn Tanner is currently the Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. Arguably one of the most influential theologians of this generation, Tanner’s powerful theological vision is nothing short of profound. I first read her short systematic text, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, and was immediately hooked, then was subsequently inspired to embark upon my own journey of theological education. First, she developed her concept of the non-competitive relation between God in Creation (God and Creation in Christian Theology), then directed her attention to how traditional Christian theology has radical implications for social justice (Politics of God) and argued for a heightened understanding of culture (Theories of Culture). Turning toward systematics more explicitly, she has outlined her theology in the above-mentioned systematic text, and then fleshed out her Christological emphasis in Christ the Key. In-between those two works, she outlined a Christian approach to economics, a task which she has recently engaged in further as part of the 2016 Gifford Lectures. Tanner has dabbled quite widely in her theological writings, turning at times to sociology, philosophy, economics, critical theory, and feminist theory to name a few.

5. Katherine Sonderegger

kate sonderregerI’m a relative newcomer to Katherine Sonderegger, Chair of Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, and though I often disagree with her approach, I have included her on this list because she is a fascinating thinker, unique in her use of extensive biblical commentary in her theology. Active both as a priest and an academic theologian, Sonderegger hasn’t published too much throughout her career, but when she does, she seems to make it count. Professor Sonderegger has just this past year published her first of a planned three volume systematic theology, on the doctrine of God. She does quite a bit of reworking contemporary theological themes; most notably, she reverses both the trend toward beginning with Trinitarian theology, favoring the unity and oneness of God, as well as the Christological turn in much recent theology, again favoring grounding Christian claims in the doctrine of God more strictly than the revelation of Christ. For these, admittedly grand, theological moves, she is certainly worth attending to and reading closely.


Feel free to list your favorites in the comments!

Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 6 “Which World?”

Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.


In the final lecture of the series, Kathryn Tanner aimed to tie up some of the loose threads from previous lectures and focus on what she thinks is the “individualizing, moralizing” aspect of capitalism and to dissociate Christianity from its practice. Capitalism today, she argues, focuses on individual responsibility and work on the self, such that praise and blame is directed toward individuals. But relation to self in those ways also presupposes relations to others, and is reinforced in the “social world” that capitalism creates. Her overall goal is to show that “the ways in which Christians bring together relations to oneself and relations with others have the potential to form an entirely different, other world – a world, by way of which, this one might be called fundamentally into question.”

The social mechanisms that form the subject in capitalism are done for the purpose of cost-cutting and profit maximization. For instance, workers receive performance based pay and have their tasks consistently evaluated. Governments too, Tanner insightfully points out, also leave people to fend for themselves. Welfare individualizes persons in moralizing ways when it is not given out as a right, but something only specific types of persons can claim through a contract with the state. Welfare is not given to a class of people, Tanner insists, but to certain individuals who agree to terms in return for benefits (e.g. search for work, or accept any job offer no matter what).

Returning to corporations, they make people compete with others. One is, potentially, in competition with all of the workers across the globe. Corporations give out rewards based upon relative benchmarks – surpassing co-workers’ performances gives you a pay raise. The standard of excellence is judged against the work done by one’s co-workers. Management might use bell-curves to assign reward, for instance, whereby over time the average shifts higher and higher because everyone is competing to be above it. Workers performing under the average are then laid off.

Individuals, in reality however, are dependent upon others to a great degree. Profit in finance depends upon the actions of others (i.e. others fueling demand), and profit comes from slightly beating the herd. In this way, traders may often act against their best judgment because others are acting in a particular way. What is best might not be the same as what is profitable due to following the actions of others in finance. In work life, workers often are encouraged to take credit for themselves what is actually a group effort. This is what allows people to receive raises and promotions, for instance, when they take credit for the team’s most important contributions.

In all of these ways, reward is not dependent on time and effort invested. There might be an incidental connection, Tanner concedes, but those who work the hardest are not necessarily the most well rewarded. Day laborers, for example, work quite hard but receive relatively nothing compared to others. In finance, profit is often the result of timing or the chance that comes along with luck even though traders take credit for their predictions. Rewards are just not distributed to one to the same degree as their effort differentiates them from other workers.

Directing her attention to Christianity for the rest of the lecture, Tanner thinks that Christianity doesn’t have much of a direct interest in a work ethic in capitalism. For most of Christian history, the church pushed people toward religious vocations and viewed all others as quite suspect. Other pursuits just distracted people from God, so that spiritual work was the end of all types of work. In the Reformation, pursuits were still ranked, but religious pursuits could now be done in any vocation (contra just religious vocations). The monastic life was less valued because devotion to God could be pursued while at any job. Still though, work is not valued in and of itself. Economic activity is not valued in its own right – this is what Weber argued too, that Reformed Christians could only advance capitalism to the extent they didn’t have purely economic interests. One still did work in the economic realm of life for the sake of other things (e.g. knowing whether one is elect, to use Weber’s example).

Others started to think that one’s job was assigned to them by God’s providence which meant value was given to specifically economic activity. One is to work hard at their job because it is God’s will they are assigned to it in the first place, for example. But this, Tanner cautions, has the potential to give religious justification to all sorts of work, regardless of how demeaning or unjust it happens to be.

Instead, Tanner thinks that it makes the most sense to think of salvation including the here and now, implying that the material world should be transformed in keeping with God’s efforts for universal benevolence. Grace, as she has noted in previous lectures, empowers one to make material changes. Religious commitments are still primary, but they can include all of the economic because the religious project is to transform all of life as a whole.

She thinks that an ethic of religious justice can be an anti-work ethic because success is God’s not ours. We can’t take credit for our religious success and therefore it is not merely a matter of individual responsibility, unlike in capitalism. Effort may be needed, but it is ultimately in God’s hands. Success, likewise, does not increase or decrease the worth of individuals. Moreover, our achievements in this life are relatively nothing compared to Christ’s perfection. Success is measured instead by conformity to God, but all are capable of the same success by virtue of sharing in Christ. In this way, the Christian life is non-competitive.

Tanner argues, “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,” contra how capitalism wants social relations to work. Assigning relative worth is never appropriate in Christianity because we are valued independent of relative standing to others. In religious terms, distinguishing oneself from others does not make one a better person. The competitive context of capitalism is not part of the kingdom of God.

Individual moralizing responsibility is neglected here because we are all creatures together, finite just as others are. Differences do not have this import in the Christian community because we share the same origin and the same fate. It is wrong to individualize, then, merit and reward, Tanner argues. This does not neglect individuality, however, because in Christianity God perceives us in our particularity, but our value in God’s eyes is not dependent upon relative achievements. She insists, “God does not love you more when you succeed than when you fail.”

We aren’t saved so that we can remain responsible for some objective. God doesn’t need anything from us. God wants us to live for God but that isn’t why we are saved. We are saved, in strict Tannerian fashion, just because God wants to share God’s own life with us. Our productive aim might be to live for God, but this belief need not mean we are to be fundamentally productive for any other means.

In fact, throughout much of Christianity, toil is associated with sin and the fall. This undermines any anthropology of production. Work, in Christianity, does not have to be a means to self-fulfillment, expression, or realization. There is instead a certain temperance with regard to work. We should be able to do things in freedom other than work, Tanner insists.

However, Tanner doesn’t think that usually given options for defying capitalism will succeed – like refusing to work and being intentionally unproductive or calling for a general work and debt strike. She doesn’t think either has the potential to ultimately undermine the negative aspects of capitalism.

Instead, Tanner thinks that Christianity forms an alternative world that can disrupt capitalism from within. In Christianity we depend upon one another in community but this dependence is mediated through Christ and the Church which propagates Christ’s own life today (a nod to Schleiermacher). We continue to struggle in sin, which is why we need Christ’s own influence and not merely the equally sinful influence of other human beings. Our influence often hinders the spread of life to others, and it is easy to sinfully substitute your own efforts for the influence of Christ. A mutually supporting community is ideal, but progress in the Christian life is possible even in sin-filled churches because we are primarily empowered to live for God by God, not others.

The church is non-competitive. Social relations are mediated through God, and members do not compete for goods. Salvation, for Tanner, should be enjoyed in community – “a community of enjoyment” – where grace is shared and collectively enjoyed by all. One enjoys God in whole, not in part. The Christian community is not based upon anything other than God and is thereby not hindered by human differences. We are drawn by sharing in the experience of God.

Tanner closes the series by summarizing what she attempted to do. She thinks Christianity is an imaginative counter to the world of capitalism. “The new world operates not at a remove from this one, but by cutting across it, traversing it to disruptive effects.” This is not just a deferred utopia or an alternative, but separate community (as other theologians have argued). “This other world has been present in the past and it is still here… already at work in the present with a voice whose force is yet to be extinguished.”


Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 5 “Another World”

Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.


Wrapping up her considerations of Capitalism’s temporal dimensions, Kathryn Tanner uses this fifth lecture to discuss the way one relates to the future in both Capitalism and Christianity. The future is a concern for capitalism for its ability to either make or break. But finance wants to collapse the future into the present such that the future is merely the outcome of the present. Traders and brokers have confidence that all of their complex financial instruments can allow them to anticipate the future. The future in this understanding is that which is given by the present. Future possibilities are constrained by the present whereby the future is just an extension of the present.

But market volatility seems to hinder these efforts. The value of stocks, for example, rises and falls constantly. The greater difference between the present and the future is what actually allows for the possibility of profit. Swings on markets are often extreme – they can wipe out a lifetime of gains in one moment or make one rich overnight – these large swings are rare, but extremely impactful (e.g. financial crisis of 2008). One’s actions in the present, in finance, are for the sake of the future. The present value of stock, for example, is a reflection of anticipated future value. Without anticipated future value, the demand for financial instruments is quite low.

In this way, the future must be calculable for present prices to reflect it. Reliably calculating the future, therefore, is the highest goal. But market volatility makes this difficult. So, often “ranges” of future value are given to describe the future’s range of possibilities. Traders, in fact, think they can predict future value all the time. But often this is actually the result of gauging stockholder opinion rather than actual market conditions in the future. If many people like the stock now, the price of that stock can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as demand perpetuates price. In other sectors of the economy, higher price means lower demand (e.g. high gas prices), but in finance the opposite is true. High prices increase demand and therefore increase the price further. This facet of financial markets can, however, Tanner argues, produce “bubbles” full of artificially pumped up prices that can result in quite catastrophic negative feedback loops.

Other more complex trading tactics like stock options or derivatives aim to get around these large differences in price present and future. One can take out a futures contract and buy (or decline to exercise their option) stocks in the future for a set price regardless of true market value. Derivatives similarly are meant to offset the risks and unpredictability of the future. But bets on these instruments just unload risk on insurers. These futures contracts and derivatives are meant to control the future so that it is dealt with in the present already. It is a pre-emptive warding off of the future, but this often fails because the future is unpredictable.

What might Christianity say to this? Tanner argues that Christians do not try to master the future in these ways because, for one, they know it will be great (e.g. new creation!). But Tanner doesn’t want to just focus on that aspect. The transformation between present and future is infinitely greater in Christianity because sin will be completely ripped away and all of our sinful attachments removed. In this life, we will always be repenting even if progress is made due to grace. In all of life’s ups and downs, we are dependent upon Christ’s grace. Enjoyment of God’s own life is impossible to be gained through human effort no matter how perfect one may be in holiness. No matter one’s present condition, Christians can bank on the future being radically different – indeed, Tanner argues that this is what makes it attractive: its difference from the present. The future is never to be collapsed into the present.

In Christianity, therefore, the future is much more important than in capitalism. We will live off the life of God. It is impossible to anticipate what this future life will be like because it is so radically different from the present. Tanner circumvents here a type of speculation regarding what resurrected life will be like. We can’t use current data to predict the future because it will be surprising from the point of view of the past and present. Though we don’t know specifics, we can be certain, Tanner argues, of resurrection itself because that is predicated on confidence in Christ.

Further, what Christians hope for isn’t based upon one’s current amount of progress. A grace-filled future does not depend upon how well one has done so far. A moral life is not a means to life with God, but the moral life is only possible because we are now alive in God. Life with God, enjoyed to a degree in the present, is also our final goal. One does not get to this goal through human success but through grace.

This is not escapism, Tanner cautions. The grace that exists now is the same that will exist in the future due to our current experience of life in Christ. This grace provides the possibility for change now because life in God begins now. Present hopes are fed by future eschatological hopes – ultimate hope drives present hope. The new world is only possible with God, not merely by the possibilities of the present. There is a gap between the two worlds but the other world need not be seen as absolutely separated from the current world; It can disrupt the present. One can hope on the ultimate success of their efforts because hope is really directed toward God whose success is guaranteed.


Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 4 “Nothing but the Present”

Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.


Kathryn Tanner continues her analysis of the temporal dimensions of finance dominated capitalism in this fourth lecture with attention to how the present is magnified in importance. The end goal of maximal profit generation requires perfect attention to the present task; one needs to be totally absorbed. This happens for many reasons, including the time scarcity created by impending deadlines for work to be completed, no possibility of deferment, no slack or forgiveness, all of which mean the first time is the only chance a worker has to succeed. The only way to finish many tasks is through 100% effort. This scarcity mindset extends the impact of finance dominated capitalism to many of life’s spheres. For instance, those without large cash reserves must pay extreme attention to the present so they can stretch their cash as far as possible. There is no room for slack in the money flow here, and errors or emergencies have disastrous consequences for many.

The present loses its temporal dimension because past and future are here collapsed “leaving nothing but the present.” One simply does not have any time to consider the future so the consequences of present action cannot be properly weighed (e.g. by considering long term effects). Tanner argues that here short term benefits far outweigh the importance of long term considerations. One often may in this way use up resources that are meant for the future. For example, she cites pay advances and payday loans which greatly hinder one’s longer term well-being. By having to pay higher interest rates than before when they had no money to begin with, “one is even less prepared to address future potentialities.” These practices mean scarcity only increases in the future – like a snowball effect.

More generally, events can often become merely a series of presents – no past memories or future anticipations – because one’s life is totally filled with small fires to put out. When the past or the future is rarely considered, it is only the immediate, not the distant past or future. In finance dominated capitalism, things too far into the future or past just don’t matter at all. Changing market conditions seem to make them irrelevant (“market dynamism”). Changing circumstances and market volatility make long-term predictions much more difficult so the result is that one should “take what one can get now because it’s unclear what the future might bring.”

In fact, Tanner argues that the short term is where all the profit is anyways in finance dominated capitalism. This is true with regard to stock investments or with management decisions that have an immediate impact on shareholder value in lieu of long-term planning. Short term profits can, hopefully, avoid risks associated with volatility – the longer one is in the market, the longer one is exposed to risk, for instance. This “short-termism,” as Tanner calls it, is a method for avoiding risk and capitalizing on rapid market changes where speed is the cardinal virtue (e.g. one has to beat others to profit from buying or selling stocks) – profit is a function of speed.

Secondary markets function this way to avoid waiting long for profits. There is widespread near simultaneous buying and selling assets, and both buying investments short and long at the same time to offset risk. This quick timing is difficult to narrate or put into a historical timeline because it just appears like plenty of presents. Present profit-making in finance has nearly no temporal duration, it is instant.

Shifting her focus to the plight of workers in short-termism, Tanner argues that they are the ones paying for the short-termism, but not the ones who stand to benefit from it. Workers, for example, lose their jobs if corporate short-termism strategies fail, but many times CEO’s can easily cash out their stocks before their management tactics end up in the long term decline of their company. In fact, layoffs make profits and stock values rise! The long-term benefit of workers consists in their consistently being paid high wages and given benefits, but this is often in contradiction to shareholder interests where payroll cuts result in immediate short term gains on the markets.

Short-termism, in this way, becomes a good thing for the rich who have plenty of cash reserves to gamble with, but a horrible thing for the relative poor whereby it is a financial emergency. Tanner is intent here to emphasize this difference in benefit depending on whether you are rich (short-termism is therefore a profit opportunity) or poor (it is a constant threat to well-being). Moreover, the poor are less likely to take the risks that those who have cash reserves can because their failures are of varying degrees of importance. But often healthy risks allow one to advance in life, etc., but fear of loss largely gets in the way of the poor taking these sorts of healthy career risks that the rich can easily take. In this way, there can exist a counter-intuitive repelling of threats to the status quo (of barely scraping by month to month).

Directing attention now to a Christian response, Tanner argues that Christianity is also occupied with an urgent notion of the present. She says, “A Christian approach to the present has the capacity to infiltrate the way finance dominated capitalism encourages one to relate to it, and therefore disrupts it, since the reasons and effects of such a focus on the present moment are diametrically opposed.”

Each moment is urgent for devoting to God – one shouldn’t delay their conversion for example – because one is to always conform their life to God. But, this focus on the present is not at all due to conditions of scarcity, unlike capitalism. God’s abundant grace gives us all we need for our present focus. Conversion should be seized, not because time is scarce per se, but because the offer is so incredibly generous. “Grace is permanently on offer,” she says, and what makes one seize the offer of God’s grace is not its fleeting character but the attractiveness of the offer itself.

Conversion forgives past faults and sins and results in grace providing plenty of slack to make up for human failures. One, in this way, need not worry too much about the past because they know the future will be good. Grace is what enables us to turn toward God and that grace is available anew each and every day. Moreover, God is always present in the “now” of God’s eternity, if you will. We should view the present as God does (hence, teachings like the communion of saints). The whole of time is present to God because God is present now in grace. But this is not just a consideration of the present. There is still a Christian narrative to be told (see previous lecture). Tanner argues that the successive events of one’s life matter in their particularity, but one is always directing them toward the same end – orienting them to God. This orientation to God as the overarching goal of life is what unifies the past, present, and future circumstances of believers. The constancy here that matters is God’s, not our own. There is no need to zealously protect the present for the sake of personal security because it is God who makes us secure.


Further Reading – Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 3 “Total Commitment”

Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.


Kathryn Tanner’s third lecture examines the effect finance dominated capitalism has upon the total commitment required of employees, and suggests a counter-commitment: one’s relation to God that can “drive a wedge between” the current configuration of workplace culture. As detailed in previous lectures, Tanner has argued that capitalism requires incredibly intense effort from workers. Of course, this means there must be potential employees willing to engage in this sort of effort. In short, the maximum profit goal requires maximum commitment from workers, ideally realized when workers’ desires are identical to their corporate employer’s. Tanner finds this result troubling because the identity of desires between worker and employer removes the critical distance necessary to call into question the current relation. Indeed, “how can one criticize what has become the desire of one’s own heart?”

Often, corporations “use their production of worker insecurity to induce worker compliance through fear,” and achieve this through payroll cost-cutting, layoffs, and the use of independent contractors. All of those come on the side of the corporations; yet one must also fear due to the reduction of government benefits that may have once eased one’s anxiety over losing employment.

However, using fear isn’t quite the most effective method to produce total commitment in workers. Using fear means the construction of worker surveillance systems and a large management force capable of watching each worker. A more profitable strategy is manifest in what was described in the last lecture, that workers become self-managing, or self-auditing. But Tanner argues that many of the fear-inducing strategies have been abandoned due to large costs.

So, how is the tension between workers’ desires and the company’s desire to be circumvented? One possibility might be to eradicate alternative desires. For example, work might be so hard and demand so much focus that workers simply do not have effort to think about non-work things. Or, to use the call center example, workers are just given a script and respond in quite mechanical ways to external input – no decisions have to be made, and one automatically does exactly what the company prescribes on the answer cheat sheet. In similar situations, workers are “self-renunciating” for the sake of the company. “One doesn’t conform by struggling to bring one’s own will into line with a superior will or market demand, the latter is simply to replace one’s will.”

Workers are encouraged to want what the company wants so that workers cheerfully comply. If this is achieved, all the costs associated with ensuring compliance can be eliminated. In fact, “finding value oneself in the work one is asked to do is something that the old Protestant ethic supplied” – the simply obedient worker.

Desire for work is to shape one’s entire life, saving work from possible interruption by external demands. One is to direct all of their energies and talents for their self-betterment, to make use of oneself. This self-understanding of work on oneself is to permeate all of life, whereby once again the possibility of a critical attitude is lost. One is just always, in all of life, trying to maximize their value, viewing themselves as their company views them. Each person has assets to capitalize upon, one runs themselves like a business. Life is to be lived as if the subject were an entrepreneur.

The result of all of this is the identity of self-understanding and an employer’s perception of oneself. Both of them are working on me and profiting off of me. “My employer sees me as human capital to be put to maximal use at the least expense, and that is also how I see myself.”

In this scheme, employers are not only interested in one’s abilities to perform well at the job, but they become quite interested in a potential worker’s attitudes. “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.” One’s whole person must be directed to their work. It may be possible for one to fake one’s attitude, or to give the appearance of total commitment (something that happens quite often!), but ultimately, companies force this commitment and workers either have to buy into it or resist it inwardly and possibly be consigned to a life of dissatisfaction. Above all, Tanner stresses that companies do not just use one of the above strategies or the other, but they use most of them all the time so workers are less apt to be able to criticize or get themselves out of the situation.

So what can Christianity offer? Tanner thinks that Christianity “can help drive a wedge between my desires and the company’s, interrupting the mechanisms for gaining the sort of total commitment required for maximum corporate profitability. 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.” In short, Christians total commitment to God means they cannot be totally committed to anything else.

This is, admittedly, a mirroring of what capitalism requires. The Christian is to do everything for God, work on their piety intensely, and turn their religion into a sort of project with an end goal – conformity to God – and a difficult means to do so – conforming one’s will to God’s. Living the Christian life is its own total commitment. One is always to be looking to how their other pursuits can fall in line with their commitment to God.

The means to achieve this total commitment to God, however, are contradictory to the means capitalism uses. The Christian life is not self-evacuation. The Christian’s will remains, it is only reoriented. Moreover, we know God has our best interests at heart – God wants to save us. Moreover, dying to our old selves is not our literal death; it is a turning around or reversal, a turning toward God away from sin. Tanner states, “all that is to be put to death is the will’s sinful orientation.”

Akin to the previous lecture, Tanner stresses the ongoing nature of conversion. One is always to be critical of one’s self to some degree in order to repudiate sin that hinders their orientation to God. There is also a certain divestment in one’s mundane commitments for the sake of commitment to God, which takes priority. One’s orientation to God trumps all other commitments and projects. In fact, every other thing can potentially be turned toward orientation to God: both good and bad situations.

But one dissociates themselves to a degree to any particular social role or task – one’s commitment to God cannot be collapsed into a single social role, it goes across all one’s roles. One’s Christian commitment is not one among many, but can incorporate all other commitments into its overarching goals. All other identities one has prior to conversion should be reworked under the banner of their newfound Christian identity.

Other jobs become valuable, for Tanner, when they are related to God’s mission to the world. But the successful pursuit of mundane projects is not directly correlated to one’s successful God-orientation. When our other commitments or projects fail, God can make up the difference. Failures can thereby be turned God-ward. For example, the failure to alleviate poverty does not mean the absolute failure on the part of the Christian, for they know one-day God will make all things right.

Conversion can be started anew each day, regardless of the outcome of the previous day. The Christian life is a mixture of success and failure, but one can cast their failures upon God. One is saved as a sinner by grace and that same grace provides the ability for one’s further sanctification.

In Christianity, one knows their growth will not be absolutely seamless. One isn’t thereby, unlike in many workplace cultures, concerned with the smallest slip-up. There is no anxiety over intense self-monitoring or managing because one depends upon God. Sins aren’t tailed upon oneself, but forgiven by God – one is detached to sins previously committed. Not, as in the previous lecture’s discussion of debt, chained to them.

In light of one’s Christian commitments, one should ask themselves if their work is compatible with their Christian identity. The point, further, is not to be satisfied in the work itself (as in Capitalism when one’s work is one’s life and determines the success of one’s life), but to glorify God and praise God, which transcends a particular job or role. Moreover, the self is not the primary subject that accomplishes the goals of the Christian life – God brings us to God. God’s agency is continually highlighted by Tanner.

“Conformity to God interrupts attempts at conformity to markets.” Tanner summarizes: “What I’ve shown then, is the way Christianity can re-envision and thereby contest the sort of subject that financially dominated capitalism encourages for its own purposes of profit maximization.” Capitalism tries to conduct our conduct, but we can resist this demand for an alternative sort of self-formation.


Further Reading:

Michel Foucault’s account of subject formation in The Birth of Biopolitics

Daniel Bell – The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism