The discipline and morality of many Christians has helped to create an affluence that can then undermine those underpinnings. How can we think about that?
As we think about the Christian response to our modern wealthy world, we need to start with an understanding of how unusual is the time in which we live. For most of history, most of the population lived in poverty. There were times when some members of a particular society would amass large amounts of wealth, as evidenced by their homes, monuments, and living conditions we can now observe.
For most of the population, however, there were no sustained increases in material well-being until the economic takeoff in England and the Netherlands starting about 1800. During the next two centuries, other Western countries experienced growth in per-capita income, and that growth has now spread to almost all parts of the world, even though there are still dramatic differences across nations in material well-being.
Per-capita wealth in developed economies is about 30 times greater than it was in 1800, as Deirdre Nansen McCloskey reports. In the United States, per-capita income doubles every 40 to 50 years. This is in contrast to the world before 1800, when there were almost no changes in income per person for several thousand years.
How Faith Grew Wealth
Christianity has been a contributor to this economic takeoff in several important ways. First, the biblical teaching that the universe is ordered and understandable contributed to the technological revolution starting in the 17th century.
Christianity has been a contributor to this economic takeoff.
Second, trust is an important part of functioning markets across time and space, and Christianity made it easier to trust and trade with people outside one’s immediate family or clan.
Third, the biblical concept of universal human dignity made possible the rule of law, an concept vital to cooperation among strangers.
Good Consequences of Wealth
The increase in per-capita income in the last 200 years has important implications. That increase represents much more cooperation among individuals and groups than previously. We are social creatures, and the opportunity to engage in activities that help our neighbors is an important calling.
We can rejoice in both the overall cooperation that has occurred and our individual contribution through participating in meaningful work. The opportunity to work also means the opportunity to participate in God’s transforming activities in our lives. We should consider the workplace as where we give others advantages and where we can be transformed to look more like Jesus.
We should consider the workplace as where we give others advantages and where we can be transformed to look more like Jesus.
As we look at the substantial increases in material well-being over the last 200 years, we should also remember God’s concern for the poor and what economic growth has meant to the marginalized and oppressed. In 1820, about 90 percent of the world population was living in what the World Bank calls extreme poverty, or less than $1.90 a day. By the beginning of 2020, that number had fallen to 8.5 percent. Recently it has increased somewhat, perhaps to 9.5 percent, because of the worldwide effects of COVID-19, but we should be extremely grateful for 200 years of sustained increases in the material well-being of the impoverished of the world.
When Jesus commends his followers in Matthew 25 for seeing those in need and feeding or clothing them, we should remember that it isn’t solely charitable action that benefits the poor. The ordinary economic activity of producing and selling goods and services is an important way of fulfilling Christ’s commands.
Harmful Consequences of Wealth
All these arguments give us, as Christians, substantial reasons to be willing and grateful participants in this new economic world. As with most gifts from God, however, we can distort this in several ways.
Deuteronomy 8 gives us a clear warning about the temptation of pride and ungodliness that can accompany material well-being. We can forget that all good gifts come from God, and instead focus on ourselves and our accomplishments. More wealth can leave us less satisfied and put us on a hedonistic treadmill.
More wealth can leave us less satisfied and put us on a hedonistic treadmill.
A stable monetary system is an important component of specialization and trade, but money can also seduce us. We can apply monetary measures to relationships and values, in which such measures pervert important parts of our humanity.
Increased incomes also mean increased opportunities for economic mobility, which can be an appropriate response to different opportunities. Such mobility, however, can devastate communities and be a way of avoiding certain moral obligations.
The institutions of the modern economy are based on religious pluralism. Individual rights form the basis for entrepreneurial endeavors and economic exchange. The moral and theological basis for those rights has become more contested in our secular society, and it may become more difficult to maintain the fundamental institutions that enable markets to function. Defining our identity as entirely self-created, and our obligations as created only by our wills, leads to a nation of self-indulgent individuals with little concern for the moral truths necessary to sustain a nation of free and responsible individuals.
Intentional Economic Participation
In sum, we must be thoughtful about our participation in the modern economy. We should acknowledge the important contributions of Christian thinking and action in creating the institutions and attitudes that lead to wealth creation.
We should also look at much of the world of production and exchange as opportunities to serve others. We should be grateful for the poverty-reducing effects of this modern world.
We must, however, also recognize the downsides of living in our modern pluralistic world, and we should be part of intentional communities of faith that enable us to recognize and act on God’s design for a flourishing life.