Emory Report

February 7, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 20

Jon Gunnemann deals with religious currency

By Cathy Byrd

Language is at the core of Jon Gunnemann's theological thinking about economics. In any context, including the church, he says, "It 'pays,' if you will pardon me, to use economic metaphors in order to communicate clearly. The reason is that economics is not just one dimension of existence, but refers to the entire household of the world."

Gunnemann, a professor of social ethics in the School of Theology, notes that we cannot help but think economically. "We say that some work we did in the past is now 'paying dividends,'" he said. "In a crisis we 'take stock.' Where my students used to search for the presuppositions of an argument, they now find that an argument is 'funded' by an underlying or even unacknowledged idea. We understand that our scholarly work is supported by the 'capital' of research we accumulated in the past."

Gunnemann pursued these ideas during his fall 1998 sabbatical, which he spent at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at the Harvard Divinity School. While there he presented a public lecture called "Capital Ideas: Theology Engages the Economic," proposing the idea of "capital" as a way to investigate metaphorical relationships between economics and religion.

He described how the meaning of the word "capital" has migrated from its more narrowly economic definition. "By 'capital migration,' I don't mean the virtually instantaneous movement of capital from one part of the world to another--one of the features of the so-called 'global economy,'" he said. "I mean instead the metaphorical migration of capital to include things like nature on the one side and human resources on the other."

According to Gunnemann, economic metaphors have been at the center of religious symbolism from the beginning. The Bible and Christian theology speak of redemption, debt and bond; the grace of forgiveness is often equated with the cancellation of debt. But these and other economic metaphors in turn draw on social, political, moral and even religious meanings, as in the case of property, credit and trust.

This double movement of meaning is what offers the possibility of a mutual critical engagement between theology and economics. "We think of human beings as occupying the natural, social and spiritual-cultural worlds," he explained. "But the economy embraces all three--just as God is connected to all three--and economists talk about all three just as theologians talk about them."

Some sociologists like to talk about the "social capital" present in religious communities and congregations, whose structure and practices help stabilize communities and families. Social capital is generated by a range of practices, from hymn singing to prayer and meditation, renewing individuals drained by the demands of work and modern social life.

But this view is one-sided, according to Gunnemann. It sees the social capital in religious practices simply as something to be tapped or exploited by social and economic systems. Gunnemann wants both churches and economists to become critically conscious of certain relationships. He said it is important to recognize that social capital is no more inexhaustible than the resources of our fragile ecosystem.

The economy depends on the formation of certain kinds of persons, on social trust, on faith and on specific understandings of human ends and purposes, Gunnemann said. Indeed, the institution of money depends profoundly on belief and trust. To some extent, economists cannot help but think morally and theologically. Economics is, among other things, a sociopsychological science with religious dimensions.

There is important potential in that fact, Gunnemann believes. "Once we see that the language of capital has migrated to other dimensions of life, we can turn around and talk about the limitations of the use of traditional economic capital," he said.

Gunnemann would like to see these revelations applied to the benefit of the world's human communities and natural resources. "The church has to become more conscious of way the economy shapes its practices so that it can shape economic practices," he said. "The critical purpose of this thinking is to re-situate economic activity in relationship to other social institutions, to place it in its broader natural and social-including religious-ecologies."

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