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Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality

A second expression of relationality is covenant. It is a bond between distinct parties where each gives for the flourishing of the other. Unlike contract, which protects interests, covenant protects relationship.

Current versions of capitalist economies have about as much usefulness to humans as fish having universal access to bicycles. They do not support the flourishing of human beings. As neurobiologist Darcia Narvaez writes, “To approach eudaimonia or human flourishing, one must have a concept of human nature, a realization of what constitutes a normal baseline” (438). Aristotle said much the same: “The nature of a thing is its end” (Politics, Book 1). To understand the nature of a thing is to understand its end, its specific form of thriving. To structure economies for human flourishing, we need an idea of what the “baseline” is. In the Christian and Judaic traditions, the baseline is relational, and it seems that some in the biological sciences concur.

Theologically, relationality begins with the idea that Being, existence, results from the source of all that is. There could be nothing, but there is something. The source of all “something” is what some people call God. As I’ve set out elsewhereeach worldly thing is radically different from God—differences in materiality/immateriality and finitude/infinitude. Yet on the other hand, each partakes of the structuring cause to exist at all. Difference amid partaking/relation is the way anything comes to be. The structure of existence is difference-amid-relation. In Aquinas’s words, “in all things God works intimately” (Ia, q. 105, art. 5). 

As difference-amid-relation is the structure of every existing thing, not only are persons distinct from God yet in intimate relation with him, they are also distinct from each other yet in necessary relation. Each human is distinct, with unique talents and value. Yet Martin Buber wrote,“the individual is a fact of existence insofar as he steps into a living relation with other individuals” (240). Relationality is not a binary between distinction and relation. It is reciprocal constitution: each becomes the singular person she is through layers and networks of relations, those near and those that extend out in our paths of global connectedness. 

Trinity is a wonderful teacher of this idea. Each Trinitarian person, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,  is distinct, each with “its own particular distinguishing notes” Gregory of Nyssa wrote (Vol. 2, 207-209). Yet the identity of each is given by the other Trinitarian Persons. Edith Stein, the German Jewish philosopher who became a Carmelite sisternotes that for the persons of the Trinity, “I am” is identical with “I am one with you” and with “we are” (324). 

As human existence relies on the partaking of this triune God, all humans partake of this distinct-persons-in-community. The imago dei is triune.  It is inherently communal. Each human, in the “image” of this giving God, becomes who she distinctly is through giving and being given to. 

A second expression of relationality is covenant. It is a bond between distinct parties where each gives for the flourishing of the other. Unlike contract, which protects interests, covenant protects relationship. Covenant begins dyadically between God and Adam yet does not remain dyadic. Persons give to God also by giving to others, hekdesh in Hebrew. These relations-of-giving are mutually constitutive: covenantal commitment to others constitutes covenant with God, and covenant with God sustains us in covenantal commitments to others. This entwined covenant is the foundation of the Ten Commandments, the first three of which pertain to individual and God, the rest, seamlessly, to relations among persons. Covenant—reciprocal commitment—thus extends from dyad to larger associations, where gift from God to persongenerates gift from person to personthrough the giving loop, thus sustaining it.

Who is in the loop? All nations and nationalities as a metaphor for all humanity. In covenanting with Adam and Noah, God covenants with all persons. God’s covenant with the patriarchs is “for the blessing of all the nations” (Genesis 12:3, 26:4, 28:14). Covenant is among the precepts undergirding the biblical and rabbinic obligations not only to the domestic poor but to the stranger and even enemy (108-109). 

Evolutionary biology and psychology similarly identify H. sapiens as a “cooperative” species, as primatologist Frans de Waal wrote (586). While evolutionary pressures yielded episodic aggression and opportunistic raiding where advantageous, cooperativity and egalitarianism (including communal property and childcare) along with robust fairness and sharing norms were the hunter gatherer modus vivendi for 250,000 or so years.

Even earlier in H. sapien evolution, relationality was the basis for human cognitive and emotional development, which begin in the playful exchange of facial expression between human infants and their kin and non-kin caretakers. This exchange yields, psychologist Vittorio Gallese explains, a “unified common intersubjective space” (105, 111) with others that even infants know are differentfrom themselves. 

The interaction, including with strangers, grounds what anthropologist Sarah Hrdy calls “emotional modernity” (204-206, 282): the capacities to grasp and coordinate with the attention, intention, and emotions of others in order to sustain relationships, feel safe, and learn about the world. Psychologist Michael Tomasello adds that joint attention and intention allow for role reversal and recursive thinking (I know that you know that I know…), which together allow for complex, collaborativeendeavors. “The key novelties in human evolution were…” he writes, “adaptations for an especially cooperative, indeed hypercooperative, way of life” (297). De Waal too finds that, “We owe our sense of fairness to a long history of mutualistic cooperation” (71). Benefits of cooperativity included improved food gathering and protection from animal predators as well as more equitable food distribution yielding greater longevity for more people and thus greater chances at reproduction. 

Humans are more cooperative and less aggressive than our closest primate kin. Put 250 chimps on an airplane flight and you have a massacre not complaints about the movies. “Overall,” anthropologist Richard Wrangham notes, “physical aggression in humans happens at less than 1 percent of the frequency among either of our closest ape relatives… we really are a dramatically peaceful species” (19). 

Less cooperativity and more aggression occurred between hunter gatherer groups (than within them), though archeologists Lee Clare, et al. find “no conclusive evidence for intergroup fighting in the early Pre-Pottery Neolithic” (10,000–8,800 B.C.E.). They warn of the “‘bellicosification’ of prehistory” (101). 

Little of the fossil remains can be identified as evidence of systemic—rather than episodic—aggression. “Such signatures alone,” anthropologists Marc Kissel and Nam Kim note, “are insufficient to indicate violence” rather than accident, friendly fire during hunts, etc. (151). As for Steven Pinker’s famous claims of prehistoric aggression, Kissel and Kim warn that his selection of evidence “represents only a tiny portion of the human evolutionary record” (151). 

They conclude that periods of the Holocene show “virtually no signs of violent conflict” intergroup (155). That is, until around 8,000 B.C.E., when the record shows substantial increases in systemic practices of severe aggression, including endemic raiding and warfare, maiming, torture, capital punishment, imprisonment, impoverishment, and enslavement between and within groups.

What change in conditions prodded the shift? The most proximate change was the advent of agriculture. Agrarianism brought with it something new: nearby surpluses—one’s neighbor’s goods which could be grabbed by force. Sociologist Robert Bellah explains the emergence of hierarchy: “A tiny ruling group that used coercive powers to augment its authority was sustained by agricultural surpluses and labor systematically appropriated from a much larger number of agricultural producers” (Kindle Locations 3279-3281). Douglas Fry’s study of present-day foragers similarly finds that hierarchical societies engage in war while egalitarian foragers do not. In short, with monopolizable surpluses and hierarchy, the human capacitiesfor what had been episodic aggression became systemic occurrencesof aggression inter and intra-group.

If human development is grounded in hypercooperativity, and destructive aggression, in severe inequalities, this “baseline” must be accounted for in economic discussion—in the distribution of resources and opportunity.

Adam Smith, supposed guru of greed, understood the role of cooperativity in economics. In markets, he wrote, each should “endeavor, as much as he can, to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer” (21). 

Defaced Coins in a Utopian Market

Rendering to God what was God’s meant offering our lives as living sacrifices of worship to God, as one would offer coins as tax and tribute to one’s sovereign. The human was theologically monetized—or coined—in the name of dedication to God.

Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality

A second expression of relationality is covenant. It is a bond between distinct parties where each gives for the flourishing of the other. Unlike contract, which protects interests, covenant protects relationship.

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I have argued that economic theology should lead to political praxis and change. Economic theology has to open a space for emancipatory politics that resists the capitalist future.

A New Economic Playbook—The Economic Crisis Caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic is Far More than a Financial Game

Before the COVID pandemic, low-wage workers were already living in precarious circumstances because these jobs often lack benefits necessary to provide for health care and additional income necessary to build things like emergency savings and retirement funds.

Assembling New Possibilities from the Christ Collectives in Philippi

It is important to notice the ways in which economic language seeps into theology and to be attentive to the ways in which interpretations of scripture can either reinscribe exploitative harm or help imagine alternative possibilities for human flourishing.

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