Object of worship

harvey-cox

The Market as God, Harvey Cox, Harvard

It’s not much of a revelation to suggest that capitalism has religious overtones, or that the market has godlike qualities. Adam Smith’s famous depiction of ‘the invisible hand’ of the market sounds exactly like a description of a deity. But in this relevant book, the metaphor of the Market as God (Cox chooses to capitalise ‘Market’ to emphasise its contemporary importance), with all its assumptions and implications, is spelled out in detail by religious historian Harvey Cox, and not without some passionate denunciation.

Cox describes the various ways the market (in its globalised sense) mimics religion, with its evangelists celebrating its omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence. The market has a ‘Spirit’, in the sense of Max Weber’s description; it has its accompanying myths and doctrines. But of course it is not a deity and is only as ‘natural’ as the weeds that take over a neglected garden. The market is merely the result of decisions made by individuals, governments and corporations, the latter being characterised by Cox as under-disciplined and over-indulged teenagers. Along with Pope Francis, Cox argues that the market must again become our slave, not master. (Adam Smith, Cox points out, was not the evangelist for free markets he is often pictured as, and tended to view the market as a tool to bring out mankind’s better instincts, not as a god to bow down to.)

There is no clearer indication of the perils of letting the market run wild than the global financial crisis of several years ago, and the philosophy of ‘too big to fail’, which resulted in the poor being punished for the recklessness of the rich. And it is becoming clear that unfettered growth and endless consumption, supposedly drivers of a healthy market, cannot coexist with a healthy environment.

So what do Christians do about all this? French theologian Jacques Ellul wrote that one of the first tasks of Christians is to point out the follies of the world. We can choose to participate less in the consumerism of our society, we can argue against the philosophy that a rising tide lifts all boats (rather, it tends to swamp and sink the smallest, while the biggest stay afloat). Cox says that mainstream society doesn’t listen anymore to Christians criticising the market, such is the market’s pervasive power. But to try is our calling, and of course we have a model in Jesus, who was not hesitant in pointing out that money tends to become an object of worship.

(Reviewed for Crosslight magazine.)

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