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I recently engaged in dialogue with D. Stephen Long, Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University, about my recent book, Divine Currency. Long offered his review of the book in Marginalia: LA Review of Books, entitled, “Can Christians Be Capitalists?” Given the challenges and critiques he raises, I provided a response, “The Anxiety of Influence.” Check out the exchange!
I recently participated in a book event for Adam Kotsko’s Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital. Read my entry and the many great reviews, in addition to Kotsko’s response, here.
I’m often struck by how little I see written about Gen Xers (1965-1980) in the workplace or Gen X leadership. There is, of course, a ton on our younger siblings, the Millennials (1981-1996), and still plenty coming out on our aging Boomer (1946-1964) parents. There’s even a lot of coverage on the tense relationship between those two!
We Xers seem to have been left out of things, which, of course, totally fits our life experience.
But why fail to consider the important challenges faced and contributions made by GenXers in the workplace?
I’m sure there are a few books out there that I’m missing on this topic, but here’s a quick and dirty list of five things that Gen Xers bring to leadership, the workplace, and organizations in general:
This summer I received word that I had been selected to participate in a Luce Foundation-funded project called Public Theologies of Technology and Presence, administered through the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley.
My project, “Decentered Sovereignties and Spectral Transactions: Cryptocurrency, Public Theology, and the Ethics of Presence” will examine the hidden ethical vision of cryptocurrency and evaluate its potential impact on community. Click the link to learn more!
Last year I was interviewed by a Dartmouth student and this profile was recently published. Click the image for a link to a readable online version!
As an extension of his fight against racist laws at home, Martin Luther King Jr. became increasingly critical of US policies abroad. Indeed, many speculate that King’s progressively strident critique of US militarism and intervention, particularly in Vietnam, and his challenge to American market priorities were factors that accelerated plans for his assassination—the 50th anniversary of which we recently marked as a nation. Among his many detractors were white clergy who, already incensed at King’s challenge to segregation and Jim Crow, were dumbfounded that he would move to oppose US warmongering and to call out the evils of capitalism. As King’s confrontation revealed, their theology was not only implicated in their racist vision of society, but also in a worldview that prioritized economic supremacy by any means necessary.
On April 4th, 1967, exactly one year to the day before he was murdered, King gathered with other religious leaders to protest the war in Vietnam at the Riverside Church in New York, where he delivered his famous sermon, “Beyond Vietnam.” As he began, King addressed his critics, those who asked, “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?”; “Peace and civil rights don’t mix.” To such complaints, King responded: “the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”
Is money transcendent or immanent?
Some might suggest that money is the preeminent symbol of immanence. It enables exchange, the dyadic interface of two agents, passing values about on the same plane. It requires no “outside.” Money has supposedly become the be-all and end-all of our age, as the horizon of the good, and, as such, forges a closed, self-contained system. The modern era, the age of immanence, is also the age of money and capital, as economy has come to ground and delimit much of how we understand ourselves. Money and its preponderance appear correlated to the immanent.
Others may counter that money appears irrevocably tied to transcendence. After all, money only works by serving as an abstract “third” position to mediate two incommensurate articles of exchange. Money signifies value, itself an ethereal category not fully exhausted by materialist definitions. Money “stands above” the plane of objects of labor, commodities, and use-values. Some might press further to claim that money has usurped the place of God in societal imagination, trading on theological residues to become the index for ultimate concern and even sovereign decision. Implied here is a critique of false transcendence. The immanent has overstepped its place. Which brings us full circle.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this circularity reveals the shortcomings of the opening query. It cannot be asked meaningfully without specifying the types of immanence and transcendence in question, for clearly their registers are multiple, layered, and textured...
Read the the full, original post at The Immanent Frame.
The Panama Papers caught some of the most powerful people on the globe in the act of self-dealing. Now the public wants the guilty to come clean, step into the light, and confess their financial misdeeds.
While such confession might be an important public ritual, there are reasons to believe that confession won’t make the sins disappear and they’ll likely happen again.
Read the rest of the piece at Patheos.com
Should theological texts and other insider religious documents be part of a curriculum at a secular, liberal arts college? What use or relevance do these objects of study have? Why would students need to spend time reading them to prepare for success in today's world?
My recent post in the Huffington Post makes the point that theology offers many benefits to students as part of a robust and well-rounded liberal arts curriculum. We shouldn't write it off too swiftly.
As a nation, we recognize the dangers of special interest politics—the influence of lobbyists and impact of corporations. We’re rightly cautious of the ways money is used to commandeer the political process and undermine democracy. But Trump is far from the untainted outsider that he purports to be. To the contrary, he is a one-stop-shop for all these dangers that we rightly fear. In his campaign, the seeds of tyranny lie waiting to take root.
What do I mean by associating Trump and tyranny? It's not a question of likeability or character, really. Rather, insights from the ancient Greeks, from whom we get ideas of democracy, provide warning. They highlight the dangers of extreme wealth used by private citizens to step around established political norms and processes. This leads to a lack of accountability by leadership and possible betrayal of the people.
Debt cancellation has become part of the public conversation over the past decades in response to our cycles of financial crises.
It’s in part because of its proximity to language of salvation and its association with divine activity that debt cancellation has garnered an altruistic aura. It smacks of profound mercy and justice. Progressive social movements, whether religiously inspired or not, champion debt cancellation in various forms, from the famed Jubilee 2000 campaign to groups associated with Occupy Wall Street. Thus, Jubilee is part of a set of purportedly radical options marshaled to challenge the excesses and abuses of our current global capitalist order.
If we assess the originary logic and historical context of Jubilee, however, it’s clear that we should pause before we champion debt cancellation policies today. For debt cancellation in its ANE context is unquestionably an act and prerogative of sovereign power. Jubilee is an exceptional act, occurring in moments of transition in sovereignty or in times of crisis. It is a declaration of sovereignty, a statement of total supremacy over the economy and society of a territory or empire. Only the sovereign can declare Jubilee. Such acts, while framed as benevolent and while certainly providing a temporary relief, ultimately reinforce sovereign authority and emphasize the system’s dependence upon sovereign will and decision. Debt cancellation is a form of sovereign crisis management.
Read the rest on COSMOLOGICS!
As markets tumble again in China, with ripple effects across the globe, concerns about the role of fear and anxiety in market behavior have reemerged. Is the sharp decline based on "real" changes in value or the result of speculation and a herd mentality? Are emotions and anxieties the actual source of the problem? Calls for calm are being issued. After the previous crash last August, Chinese authorities even cracked down on the spread of rumors about market activity! Analysts around the world hasten to explain the economic forces at work, with many calling for renewed trust in the market.
It's important to understand what's behind this language of calls for market confidence, because it bears on how we respond to crises like this one.
Read the rest on Huffington Post!
I recently participated in a review symposium for John Milbank's latest book, Beyond Secular Order.
Here's an excerpt:
Once, there was no Christendom. And Christendom was not latent in the Greek and later Hellenistic philosophical schools that preceded it, awaiting catalysis and ferment by the dew of heaven, the word made flesh. Rather, there emerged a ragtag group of social, cultural, and economic nobodies who invoked strange tales of messianic fulfillment. They gathered in houses to celebrate and enact these stories, outside the watchful eye of Rome and its regulation of superstitio. Very soon, wealthy patrons were involved, hosting these assemblies in their homes and providing food for their celebratory “love feasts.” As the community grew, the story goes, so did persecution and clashes with the regime. Defenses and appeals were made. Eventually, some high-profile governmental officials joined the movement. Finally, an emperor.
What began as a marginal and particularist sect (its arguably universalist claims notwithstanding) would have its vision (or, better, one of its many internally competing visions) projected across an empire. The voices and views of a small community, initially pursued by power, came to be extended from the seat of power itself, an inversion that has long-ranging consequences. Christendom had to be instituted and imagined. And disciplined. And enforced. This institution is not meaningfully grasped in the language of inevitability or with the hindsight of what would come to be called, agonistically, orthodoxy.
John Milbank knows these roots and must celebrate them in the name of incarnational materialism and truth as historically developed. For the origins of the church according to apostolic and patristic witness depend upon “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1). Ecclesial historical actualization required “seeing our teacher, and hearing his voice with our own ears” (Irenaeus Haer. 5.1.1). In short, the ragtag team-turned-fathers-of-the-church emphasized the necessity of a material encounter with an initially nondescript human in a backwater province of the Roman Empire. This encounter was specific and its universalization denotes a transition.
Read the rest of the review, John Milbank's response, and my rejoinder at the Syndicate Theology site!
Money bubbles up. But not in the way liberal and progressive policy planners might have hoped. This is one of the indirect lessons of Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Though the theory is not new, for the first time we’ve been presented with apparently hard evidence of the tendency for wealth to be concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, even in a “well-functioning” economy.
Back in the days of Reagan-era “trickle down” theories of economic redistribution via tax cuts for the wealthy, some on the left touted a “bubble up” approach in response. Instead of spending on the rich and hoping money makes its way to the rest of society through job creation and better wages, tax benefits and social welfare programs spent on the more vulnerable might help all through greater productivity and increased consumption. A healthier, happier, better-educated, and socially-supported worker and a more motivated consumer would translate into greater returns for employers. A portion of the money spent at the bottom, so to speak, would make its way to the top. Everyone would win, the story went.
Unfortunately, Piketty’s work suggests that, wherever it is spent, not just a portion but the majority of money rises to the top. Money has an inclination to slip out of the hands of the many and return to the few. While it certainly doesn’t trickle down, money’s bubble-up tendency means that its presence among and benefit to those who have less of it are fleeting. Money appears to want to come back to its origins among those who already hold it in greater supply. The old adage that “it takes money to make money” rings true here on a broader social scale: those small sectors that have it in abundance will continue to make more.
In today's world, wealth’s increase is largely generated through monetary instruments. The rate of return on capital, Piketty claims, always exceeds the rate of growth through production and income (his now famous formula r > g). Interest rates (public and private debt) and other monetary mechanisms are the driving force behind skyrocketing capital returns. He calls this capital growth rate “arbitrary.” And this is right, since interest rates are socially and politically determined. They are not subject to some natural or physical law.
Paying attention to the origins, nature, and function of money as a medium reveals at least two factors that help explain the dynamic illustrated by Piketty:
The first is that money is created through lending and indicates a credit-debt relationship.
The second is that money is politically instituted and is set into play and regulated by centralized authorities.
If money is generated through debt creation (this is how banks make money), it makes sense that a portion of it will return to its places of origin in the form of interest.
Regardless of the amount or location of money in circulation, it accumulates to the lender. If governments establish fiscal policy in cooperation with financial institutions and the wealthy elite who direct them, it makes sense that monetary circuits work in their favor. Laws work ultimately to facilitate money’s return to the pools of wealth that put money into motion in the first place.
As dramatic and “utopian” as Piketty’s proposal for a progressive global tax on the most wealthy appears, it may be at best a short-term and stopgap intervention. Other proposals, such as Joseph Stiglitz's, may be too optimistic about the capacity for capitalism to correct inequalities. Redirecting money away from centers of wealth will work for a time until it finds its way back, through the endless innovation of monetary instruments and the laws that are always a few steps behind. Money wants to bubble up, and the self-correction and “equilibrium” toward which markets tend is that of money’s concentration at the top.
Devin Singh is Assistant Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College, where he teaches courses on religion and economics, modern religious thought, and philosophy of religion. His current book project examines the relation between money and Christian doctrine and considers how theology shapes economy in the West.
Max Weber famously claimed, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that many capitalist values and practices in early modernity were shaped by a new Protestant ethos and culture. Two central ideas he examined were those of election, seen especially in Calvinism, and calling (Beruf), as explored by Luther, among many others.
In Calvinism, teaching about predestination of an elect group for salvation, coupled with the inscrutability of the sovereign God's will and plan, fueled a kind of spiritual anxiety. No one could be sure of one's elect status. Signs and markers in the world had to be sought, to give hints at God's possible blessing and hence confirming, ideally, one's status among the chosen. A central such sign, Weber surmises, was business success.
What Lutheranism contributed was a secularization of the idea of calling or vocation. Originally a notion of discipleship, following Christ in a specialized religious calling (most notably monks), the idea was extended, per Luther, to all one's worldly activity. Suddenly mundane or earthly tasks were to be infused with the same spiritual vigor and significance as religious endeavors. God's calling was a call to the world. One could follow Christ in one's daily work.
We can imagine how the two impulses could combine in a potent synthesis. On one hand, one sets one's mind to toil hard and gain success in work, in order to "prove" God's election. On the other, one can take comfort that toiling and working in this way is fulfilling one's divine purpose on earth.
Debates rage about whether Weber was on to something or chasing phantoms. Debate also continues about whether we can see this extending to our contemporary moment. This raises questions about secularization and what it means to see these initially religious impulses carried forward in a new guise.
What might it mean that the Protestant ethic is alive and well today, but in a non-religious (or differently religious) way?
One possibility is our culture of busyness and the prestige and status that come from the idea of toiling hard and being successful in business. One need only flip open any issue of Forbes to quickly realize that our society celebrates business success. We're also familiar with the sense of significance we get in proclaiming how busy we are, how hard we're working all the time. Might there be some residue of the Protestant ethic here, such that the new elect status is found in those who are toiling hard and finding success at work, just without concern for the afterlife?
We see this theme in popular culture. It comes up, I suggest, in the hit song "Tuesday" by ILoveMakonnen (feat. Drake). Listen to them:
Wait, isn't this song about partying, cutting loose, and indulging?
Only upon first blush. It actually celebrates something else primarily.
As Drizzy Claims:
Ain't got no motherf#@$*n' time
To party on the weekend...
One night off and this is it
Always workin' OT,
Overtime and out of town
Drake is working too hard to relax and party. He's far too serious and enjoying far too much success. After all:
Squad goin' up
Nobody flippin' packs now
I just did 3 in a row
Them shows is back-to-back to back now
No longer needing to deal, his success means back to back shows and constant working. Working overtime.
ILoveMakonnen offers a similar sentiment, from a different angle:
Workin' Monday night
On the corner flippin' hard
Made at least 3 thousand
On the boulevard
I've been workin' graveyard
Shifts every other weekend
Ain't got f#@$*n' time
To party on the weekend
Here we see that it really isn’t about a pure or prestigious type of work. That’s not the issue. While Drake celebrates moving on from this lifestyle of drug dealing, the counterpoint here is that this lifestyle is still alright, as long as you’re working hard, taking care of your business. Whatever the product, whatever the service, if you’re busting your butt and working so hard you barely have time to chill, and--and this is key--being successful--then you’re worthy of respect
The video's images celebrate ideas of serious toil at work:
The accountant working hard at this desk:
Or the late night work in the boardroom:
My claim is that, ultimately, this song is about the glorification of work, of working hard, of having business success. This success shows one’s worthiness; it is a mark of status and value. Working hard, always working, and finding success at this work through financial gain, marks one’s elect status. Now we see that election is no longer about future salvation, but rather about status, prestige, and worthiness in the present. Calling has been carried forward to infuse any and all work with an almost spiritual significance.
If leisure is celebrated, it is the leisure that comes as a pause in one's commitment to work. These boys have no other time to relax and party than on an insignificant Tuesday night. But, and this is added bonus, their business success and prestige are so great that even on a piddly Tuesday they have the club poppin' off.
"Tuesday" is about a lot of things, but it isn't primarily a song about partying. It's about the afterthought of rest and relaxation that come after an indivisible focus on working hard to find success in one's business. The money made is confirmation of one's chosen status. This may be one way that the Protestant ethic is carried forward in our day.
Let’s face it: spending money feels good. It goes against our better judgment. After all, shouldn’t we hang on to as much cash as possible? Don’t we want to avoid running up those bills? Sure. But there’s something about money leaving our hands—whether as hard currency, credit card swipes, or electronic funds transfers—that is deeply satisfying. There is something about money that makes us want—even need—to get rid of it.
Theorists have discussed the joy of spending in different ways. We’ve heard talk of “retail therapy” and know about the pleasures of shopping. Buying things feels good because it may provide a sense of security or scratch some deep evolutionary itch to acquire food and shelter. Consumption might also feed our quest for status and recognition, marking us as more successful than our neighbors. Buying things for others or giving money as a gift or donation might even make us feel superior or powerful.
While these perspectives are important, I want to approach this from the point of view of money itself. At a more fundamental level than the things we buy, the reasons we buy them, or whom we buy them for, money drives us to spend and gives relief when we get rid of it.
Two factors--the nature of money and the system in which money functions--make it necessary that we pass it on.
We know that money itself is valueless. The bills and coins we carry are not things of worth. Yet, it is still common to talk of money as a symbol or token of value.
But this is not quite right.
Money is actually a sign that something’s lacking. Put differently, it signals a debt. It shows that the holder is owed something. He or she has given something away and is waiting to even things out.
Say you’ve performed a service for someone or sold a product. You’ve provided something of value—your labor or the good that you’ve produced. Instead of getting a value in return, you’re given money—intrinsically valueless tokens. You’re currently “in the red,” even though you’ve gotten paid! The more products you sell or the more labor time you expend just gains you more of these empty tokens, putting you further into a deficit. (Today is Labor Day, after all, so we should reflect on money as the supposed fruit of our toil.)
It’s not until you use this money for something, paying for a product or service, that you access its value. And you aren’t really accessing its value, since it has none. You’re making up for the condition of lack you were in. You’re evening things out. Having someone take your money in exchange for his or her good or service relieves you of this token. It also rescues you from the possibility that you’ll be stuck with a valueless token.
Carrying around money proclaims that you’re owed something. But it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get it. There is relief in spending money because someone else has bought into the same belief that you bought into when you accepted money in the first place. There is relief because you’ve evened out the imbalance you entered into.
But there’s more.
The bottom line that allows us to accept this token and convinces the next person to take it from us is the state. Think of the state as first in this line of tokens-for-goods-or-services system. In exchange for services performed for it, the state prints and issues money rather than providing payment with something of value. So the state essentially remains in debt, never actually paying for what it gains. Instead, it forces those who receive its tokens to turn to others in society to get something of value. Money is a symbol of the state’s debt.
So why accept the state’s tokens in the first place? After all, saying something is money is not enough. There need to be teeth to the system to make it work.
The state requires tax payments and declares that it will accept them in the form of its currency. This makes it necessary to have money in order to pay the state when it comes knocking. Money is more than a shared belief. It’s an enforced belief.
In spending money, you’re not only crawling out of the deficit you entered into when you accepted it for your goods or services. You’re relieving yourself of a symbol of the state’s debt that you’re shouldering and its claim upon you to recall that symbol through taxes.
So the next time you feel strangely good when you make a purchase, it might be because you have a shopping addiction. I’m not one to diagnose. Consumption feels good, after all. But it might also be that you’re getting rid of a burden and feel yourself slightly lighter.
The film "Unbreakable," by M. Night Shyamalan, is about many things, but one theme has remained with me after watching it years ago in the theater when it first came out (2000). As much as it is a thriller about superpowers and crime fighting, it's primarily a tale about finding one's sense of identity, purpose, and calling. It's a film about the exhilaration and energy that can course through us when we discover our meaning and direction in life. It also gives us clues about how to reach this.
As Roger Ebert noted, "If this movie were about nothing else, it would be a full portrait of a man in crisis at work and at home." David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is leading a listless existence, clocking in and out of work, struggling in his passionless marriage to wife Audrey (Robin Wright), moving through life in grayscale, muted in emotion, stunted in purpose. Part of the lesson that the film offers, we learn, is that he needs to be awakened to his reason for being here, and called into action to activate the gifts that lay dormant within.
Elijah Price, aka Mr. Glass, (Samuel L. Jackson) asks Dunn at the end during the big reveal, "Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world. To not know why you're here." Granted, as the film's villain, this predicament is dramatized and played up for Price. For most of us who are still struggling to find our full sense of calling, purpose, and direction, we need not see it in such dire terms. It certainly can be scary. But it need not terrify or paralyze us. Rather, the film is quite hopeful about moving forward.
The most beautiful and memorable moments in the film for me are the series of scenes half way through where Dunn discovers his power and purpose. Things begin to fall into place. Energy surges through him and he experiences impact and effectiveness. His marriage is rekindled. The gray of life peels away to reveal the rich color beneath. He is inhabiting his full self and his relationship with the world begins to flourish. He's found his reason for being.
While I agree with Quentin Tarantino that "Unbreakable" is "one of the masterpieces of our time," I disagree that the film is another superman story. Rather, it's an everyman tale. I know I've had those moments where everything clicked and came together, where I felt I was doing what I was meant to be doing in that phase of life, where energizing meaning and purpose pulled me out of bed in the morning, where barriers of fear, uncertainty, or despondency melted away. The lesson for us all is to seek to actualize those periods more often and more regularly in our lives.
How do we do this?
According to the film, we must observe, take stock, reflect, listen, act, explore, and grow. Dunn's character is advised to pay attention--to his inner voice, to the intuitive decisions he makes, to the places and people to which he feels drawn, to what feels energizing and fitting to his sense of being in the universe, to his inner compass for justice and desire to correct what is wrong in the world. Indeed, it is very much an intuitive and mindful process that Dunn follows, coupled with attentive mentoring and the space to practice and experiment.
The metaphor of "Unbreakable" that forever remains with me is the hope that we all have incredible direction to find, meaning to cultivate, gifts to actualize, wrongs to right, compassion to extend, purpose to achieve, and deep fulfillment to experience. May you find your authentic purpose and direction and so become unbreakable.
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Piketty’s achievement in his recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is to demonstrate in the language of positivist empiricism—today’s most persuasive idiom—a longstanding truth. It is a reality that most societies have sensed and declared in a variety of ways. It is a dynamic that is seen as antithetical to the American dream and one that classical liberal and neoliberal economic theories have vigorously sought to suppress. While the truth risks being disregarded as cliché, what Piketty shows is that money is power and that, by extension, monetary economies are not inherently level playing fields. One of the ways this has been expressed over the ages is through money’s association with religious discourse and with the realm of the gods.
Read more at Cosmologics...