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The problem of the atheist economist

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Entrepreneurs, to be truly successful, must know more than basic economics. They must also have a higher purpose, one not reducible to mere productivity. […]

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There is much in the classical liberal economist that I find attractive. By classical liberal, I do not mean the sort of political liberalism that defaults to certain presumptions of big government. Rather, I mean one who adheres to a more libertarian adoption of free market principles. Yet the classical liberal economist without faith has always been a sadness to me. I, too, believe in markets, competition, the price mechanism, and the interaction of supply and demand. I, too, believe in the power of supply-side adjustments. I, too, am concerned about the impacts of subsidies and excessive taxation, government debt and manipulation of demand. I, too, remain skeptical that more government is the answer to economic challenges. The problem is that, for the atheist, there is no guiding principle, no external authority, no perennial values to bring to the market, to market outcomes and its consequences.

In short, our atheist economist is all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Advent is a season of hope, rooted in the person of Jesus Christ, a hope that comes at Christmas in the Incarnation and comes again at the end of time in the Parousia. This is a hope for all people, not a mathematical formula or econometric equation, but a sure and certain hope of a Savior. As Hebrews 6:19 relates: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”

Market economists with faith know both where they have come from and where they are headed to.

Christian economists know that the market economy is not a random collection of economic laws, but rather a divine initiative. We know from the opening chapters of Genesis that God intended human beings to work and to combine resources to create wealth and value (Gen 2:10­­–15). We know from the book of Exodus that God has endowed his creation with skill, ingenuity, and human capital—the ability to teach and pass on skills (Ex 35:30–35). The classical liberal atheist economist understands the factors of production, appreciates the importance of the creation of wealth, yet knows not who to thank.

Our hope in the divine economy rests in the appreciation of the divine initiative in creation.

There are several lessons we can bring to the table.

The first of these is the recognition that work has intrinsic meaning in being part of God’s intended purpose for humanity. What is even more extraordinary is the realization that this means that “capitalist” work would be required even in the perfection of creation and not just as a consequence of the Fall. This gives a powerful impetus and purpose to work that the atheist economist cannot offer.

The second lesson is that the divine imperative of wealth creation, a foundational element of the market economy, an essential element of the divine economy, creates responsibilities as well as privileges. This enables the Christian economist to respond properly to the challenges of inequality, the needs of the less fortunate, and the honor of God. Human responses of love, compassion, and sympathy implanted in the heart by God are not available in that way to our atheist economist, whom one might describe as a “deck chair” economist. Here is the market, sit back and admire its workings and it will sort out its own consequences. The Christian economist can admire the market but not just sit back.

The symbolism and underlying reality of Advent are powerful reminders to us of the external authority and divine origin of the market. Advent reminds us of our responsibilities, our discipleship, and faces us with the consequences of our actions.

The lighted candles are often seen as representing prophecy, faith, joy, and sacrifice in anticipation of the coming of Jesus, the light of the world, the fifth candle lit on Christmas morning. Christ comes as Savior. Christ will come as judge. All our actions in the divine economy will be laid bare. We will be held to account. This is the beginning of economic ethics: that we act in the sight of God (coram deo).

The Advent wreath formed in a circle of evergreens reminds us of eternity and everlasting life, the Lord’s unending love. Even in the midst of winter there is hope, and that hope is in Jesus. That is the power of Christ in the divine economy: He is the ultimate hope, he is the Savior.

There is also a penitential theme to Advent, which is why the liturgical color used, purple, is the same as in Lent. The red berries remind us of the sacrifice of Christ. Our cry is “Lord forgive, Lord come.”

The life of the Christian entrepreneur is sacrificial. It is a life of patience, preparation, and anticipation. The business owner, too, experiences both despair and joy. These are spiritual experiences, and Advent encourages and enables us to reflect deeply on this trinity of faith—prayer, penitence, and sacrifice. The Christian economist brings Advent into the divine economy, and in doing so invests our economic participation with Christian spirituality, endowing the market with external purpose and personal responsibility.

One of my observations of developments in modern economics is the increasing dominance of mathematical modeling. Our atheist economist will produce equations and models, built upon assumptions that may or may not be true, and with consequences laid bare for all to see, whether it is in reallocations of capital, disequilibrium in the labor market, or the impact of monopoly, taxation, or subsidy. But how are we to make ultimate sense of it all?

Our Christian faith tells us that economics is not just about the math. The Christian economist will bring to the market the lessons to be learned and the responsibilities to embrace. We are concerned with making sense of the economics. To do that requires some form of reference point, an external authority that brings values as well as value. From where does compassion derive? The classical liberal economist without faith makes certain assumptions. These might involve the self-correcting mechanism of the market but our interlocutor lacks the tools to bring extrinsic values into the market. This is where the Christian makes a difference.

To give one example, for the Christian, there is no debate that the Lord plants compassion into our hearts. Indeed, he does so for the very reason of showing Christian love and care to those in need and less fortunate than ourselves. The Lord does not promise economic equality (a common position of the Christian left), but instead evokes the divine imperative to serve others, through churches and voluntary associations, a formidable reminder of the limits of government. It was Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847) who wrote that beneficence (doing good to others) cannot be written in the statute book and that only the principles of Christianity can impart true security, prosperity, and happiness. A powerful reminder to the atheist economist of the love of God in action. A reminder, too, for the classical liberal economist who lacks faith but might share our concerns about excessive government intervention that values in society do matter. Where do they come from? For the Christian, the answer is clear.

Perhaps the best summary of the call, place, and role of the entrepreneur and business leader in the divine economy comes from the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s 2012 reflection, The Vocation of the Business Leader. I often introduce this quote to more evangelical or Protestant audiences. They usually think Luther wrote it!

The vocation of the businessperson is a genuine human and Christian calling. … The importance of the businessperson’s vocation in the life of the Church and in the world economy can hardly be overstated. Business leaders are called to conceive of and develop goods and services for customers and communities through a form of market economy. For such economies to achieve their goal, that is, the promotion of the common good, they should be structured on ideas based on truth, fidelity to commitments, freedom and creativity.

Advent reminds us of values, responsibilities, discipleship, and ethics because Advent reminds us of the powerful love of the Savior of the world and the awesome responsibilities we have in the light of judgment. The classical liberal atheist economist has the tools but not the purpose. For the Christian economist, Advent brings to bear the purpose as well as the tools.

My hope and prayer this Advent is that we people of Christian faith—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox alike—will embrace our participation in the divine economy, increase our devotion to the Savior, and show his love and compassion to others.

Richard Turnbull

Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull is the director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a trustee of the Christian Institute. He holds a degree in Economics and Accounting and spent over eight years as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst and Young and served as the youngest ever member of the Press Council. Richard also holds a first class honours degree in Theology and PhD in Theology from the University of Durham. He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1994. Richard served in the pastoral ministry for over 10 years. He was also for 7 years the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has authored several books, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.