If you’re one of those people that think of economics as the "dismal science," or that economics has nothing to do with a person's day to day Christian life, you’re about to have those views challenged.
Listen to the first of this two part fascinating conversation on the intersection of Christian faith and economics, as Scott interviews theologian, Dr. Brent Waters.
More About Our Guest
Dr. Brent Waters is the Jerre and Mary Jo Stead Professor of Christian Ethics at Garrett Evangelical Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and Director of the Stead Center for Ethics and Values, also at Garrett. He is the author of several books on the connection between Christian faith and bioethics/technology, as well as his most recent book, Just Capitalism: A Christian Ethic of Economic Globalization.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School Theology here at Biola University. We're here today for part two of a very stimulating conversation with my good friend, Dr. Brent Waters. Brent is a [inaudible] professor of Christian Ethics at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and the director of the Center for Ethics and Values at that same institution. We're here talking about his recently released book, Just Capitalism. It's a different foray, Brent, for you from bioethics into more of the intersection of theology and economics, but I think a very profitable foray. We left off last time by the big idea of the book is that market exchange is a necessary but not sufficient condition for full human flourishing. We got to the necessary part, barely got the sufficient part, so I want to focus a little bit more on that. To summarize, say a little bit about just the general value of market exchange, and how you communicate that to your students.
Brent Waters: Well the basic value of market exchange is that it helps us to simply more than survive, and to flourish, because as Adam Smith recognized, we all have to be specialized. If we try to do everything on our own, our lives are going to be fairly miserable. Another way to say it, if you really want to live well, get other people to do your work. How I do this with my students is I say first of all, "Well market exchange, if it does nothing else, destroys the fiction of autonomy." They kind of look at my quizzically.
Scott Rae: I expect some of our listeners might have that same puzzled look on their face.
Brent Waters: Well, they might. The listeners too, you can play in this exercise. How many of you woke up this morning in the building that you built? Usually I don't see any hands go up in my classroom.
Scott Rae: No log cabins among your students?
Brent Waters: No, not yet. How many of you made your clothes that you're wearing now? Occasionally a hand will go up. I say, "Did you actually grow the cotton, and harvest it, and make it ready?" "Well, no." Okay. How many of you ate the food that you either grew or butchered this morning? Occasionally a hand will go up. I'll say, "Did you make the seeds?" "No."
Scott Rae: No.
Brent Waters: Okay. How many of you built the automobile that you drove to campus today? You can go down the list. After it's all done you realize, there's actually very little you do for your own well being. You're completely dependent upon others, but you need some kind of means, and that's the exchange. Rather than bartering goods and services now, we use money as the form or exchange. That's all I try to really say. Without that, probably we couldn't survive for very long. You do need that.
Scott Rae: Yeah. It makes sense, for the most of the history of civilization, that we lived in subsistence level poverty. It was everybody trying to do everything for themselves.
Brent Waters: Right.
Scott Rae: I mean you provided all your own goods off the land. I find it ironic that the groups that romanticize that period of time are also the ones carrying the most sophisticated technological apparatuses. It makes me wonder, do you really want to go back to the day where we had face to face exchange for everything that we need?
Brent Waters: Right. No, I mean look our time has been really expended by being able to simply do a couple of clicks.
Scott Rae: Yeah. I mean maybe I'm two and a half cheers for Amazon, maybe not everything, but I'm delighted that I can buy your books for a fraction of the cost on my Kindle. Now don't yell at me, because I know you don't get the same amount of royalties.
Brent Waters: It's okay.
Scott Rae: Don't yell at me that I'm cheating you out of your royalties.
Brent Waters: Actually what's ironic is you can actually buy a casket on Amazon. What was a little off putting one time, was only used once.
Scott Rae: Seriously?
Brent Waters: Yeah.
Scott Rae: Well, I think some people will find a way to sell just about anything.
Brent Waters: Yeah.
Scott Rae: We said that market exchange is a really good thing. That our lives would be unrecognizable today, if we didn't have that, but it's not enough. It's not enough to have all of the goods and services materially that we need. Although we recognize the body matters. That's why the flourishing of the body and the community matters. Theologically, how do you know that the body matters? We have a long pietistic tradition that says it doesn't.
Brent Waters: Well we have this doctrine called the incarnation. It's kind of-
Scott Rae: Why do I think I'm going to get a profound grasp of the obvious here?
Brent Waters: It's kind of an important doctrine. In fact, I think without the incarnation you don't have Christianity, you have gnosticism. What the incarnation says is that the Word became flesh and was pleased to dwell among us. God becomes a human creature. That's an extraordinary claim. I think in that is the affirmation that embodiment is good, that it is good to be embodied. There's the affirmation even that finitude and mortality are good. With that affirmation, it's not good to despise what God loves. If God was pleased to become this human creature, die for our sins, then it's probably good that we don't despise our bodies either. If you're going to tend to the body, you have to tend to material well being. It's part of the package deal. You can't simply neglect the body, I think, and expect that you're a faithful Christian. Bodies matter. Even our language, I mean the Church is the body of Christ on Earth. When we take the Eucharist, it's the body broken for us. Body language is thoroughly a part of Christianity. Every time we've been tempted by a heresy to deny the goodness of the body, we've had the good sense to reject it.
Scott Rae: The body will still matter in eternity?
Brent Waters: I think so. I mean I do believe in the bodily resurrection. If God doesn't despise bodies, I think it has some role to play in eternity. Now, don't ask me the details. I'm not a systematic theologian. I have no idea what a spiritual body is that Paul refers to, but I take it on faith that I'm not going to survive merely as a specter or a ghost.
Scott Rae: Well, I mean clearly after the resurrection Jesus had a body, although it was of a different sort.
Brent Waters: Yes, but recognizable.
Scott Rae: Yes, for what it was.
Brent Waters: Yeah.
Scott Rae: I mean my seminary mentor used to say, "There is just as much hope in the scripture for your body as there is for your soul."
Brent Waters: Yes.
Scott Rae: Both, the incarnation, and when the internal state comes, the body matters.
Brent Waters: It does, yeah.
Scott Rae: I love the way you put that. That's so helpful, that we ought not despise what God found pleasing. This is why economics matters.
Brent Waters: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Scott Rae: I found it so interesting that sometimes we have students who, when we try to introduce this conversation, will say, "How does this matter to my soul? How does economics matter to my spiritual life, just to the day to day stuff of what I'm involved in?" How would you respond to a student I think who's genuinely trying to figure this out, but they've just been raised in that pietistic tradition where it's only the things that serve the soul matter?
Brent Waters: Well, you don't even have to be raised in the pietistic tradition. I think there's always been, through at least the last 40, 50 years of seminary training, a disparagement of materialism. Now materialism is a bad thing, but material well being is not. To go back to my own seminary training, what were the two most valuable lessons I've learned as a minister early on? Well, I was a campus minister. Small operation. The volunteer who was in charge of the finances started referring to the ledger, and I said, "The what?" He literally took me through-
Scott Rae: You were not an accounting major.
Brent Waters: No. He literally took me through, and saying, "This is how you make an entry. This is an output, this is an input. This is why it's important that these two numbers match." Okay. It was extraordinarily helpful because I was responsible for the financial ministry of that campus ministry. Secondly, the most valuable lesson I learned was catering. Choose your caterers well when you have an event, because that's part of hospitality. It's not just a secondary kind of thing, but I'd never learned any of this in seminary. Now, a little more seriously, what we're learning is that people are getting into a world of hurt. What I mean by that is, our seminaries received a grant from the Lilly Foundation to improve the financial literacy of ministers, because a lot of them are way overextended in their debt. They're not doing very good job in their own personal finances. That tends to overflow into then the financial management of the churches. What I want to impress upon students is saying, "Look in my day we called this donkey work, but it's not donkey work. It's actually very critical to your ministry. If you care about your people, you will care about the finances that they have entrusted to you through their tithes and offerings, to spend it well, and to budget it well, and to make sure that to the best of you ability it's used for the purposes to which it was given. It's really central to your ministry, not peripheral. It's not donkey work."
Scott Rae: We value the daily work of our people, people who we serve in our churches. We rightly value that as part of their vocation, as another arena of service to which God's calling them to be faithful. We affirm just plain old ordinary work, which is what most of us are engaged in most of the time.
Brent Waters: Right.
Scott Rae: But we recognize that that's a big part of our lives, but it's not our identity, and it's not the full story of what's going to enable us to flourish as a human being. Let's spell out a little bit more the not sufficient part that you tease out in your book. What else is necessary, beyond material well being, for people to flourish? I think even framing the question like that is so different for many of us, and the tradition that we were raised in, because we never assumed that material well being had anything to do with our flourishing.
Brent Waters: Right. Well the interesting thing about this is that it's stuff that's pretty ordinary, and you just overlook it. I forget where C. S. Lewis wrote it, but he's saying, "What's really important in life? Well, it's probably sitting on the couch with your wife at night, having a darts game," and kind of things. It's these ordinary kind of things. Actually, you've probably made an opportunity to plug a new book I'm working on. It's called Common Callings and Ordinary Virtues: In Praise of the Mundane. In many respects it's a follow up to what I'm doing on this. It's saying that it's in the common, ordinary part of life that we learn what's most important. For two reasons, it's formative, we develop good habits, things like that. You discover things like, if you don't wash the dishes, no one else is. There's nothing interesting about washing the dishes, but it's terribly important to keeping an orderly household. People, I think, thrive in an orderly household rather than a disorderly one. You have all these ordinary relationships too. Spouses, friends, even strangers. The other part of the importance is they sometimes can be iconic. You catch a glimpse into what is most genuinely important. In the new book I'm working on I write, "I think we will be surprised what's commended on the day of judgment, and what's condemned." I said, "My hunch is, God's not terribly interested in who you voted for in 2016, but God may say, 'Why didn't you do the dishes for your tired wife that night, even though it was her turn?'" I mean these are the simple acts of kindness, and things like this I think are terribly important to what it means to be a human being who's in love and fellowship with other human beings.
Scott Rae: This has gotten way too convicting, so we better move on to something else.
Brent Waters: All right.
Scott Rae: We've talked about a whole host of voluntary associations that stand between the market and the state, as crucial to a healthy civil society, and as really critical to the flourishing not only in individuals, but for human beings in general. What does it take to nurture the faithfulness of those, and the fidelity of those, over a longer period of time?
Brent Waters: I think we need to do a better job at teaching things like loyalty, and fidelity, and what it means to be in fellowship with people, oftentimes people that aren't all that likable, but we're nonetheless commanded to love them, and to be with them. I've always been impressed by Saint Augustine's observation that it is the bonds of imperfection that binds us together. He knows the frailty of what it means to be human. How do we care for one another over time? Particularly in the circles that I run in, because I spend a lot of time with, for lack of a better term, secular humanists and people like that. I find myself increasingly wanting to make the case and say there's something just inherently good about spending your life with another person, inherently good about raising children, inherently good just of being at one another's disposal, if you will, and having people make claims upon you. I don't think being a free floating nomad's necessarily a good thing.
Scott Rae: Yeah. Clearly those connections matter. You found out a little more about this personally, not that long ago, when you had a serious illness.
Brent Waters: Yeah.
Scott Rae: Can you tell us a little bit about that, and what you learned about these communities, and this koinonia aspect of life?
Brent Waters: Yeah. I learned a lot. Basically what happened is I ended up being in the hospital for nearly a month. A lot of that was because I spent about 10 days in the ICU. My muscles atrophied and I lost about 40 pounds, so I had to spend almost three weeks in acute physical rehab, and then about five months outpatient rehab. Several things that I learned, and this has actually changed how I think about bioethics as well. Thank God for nurses. I mean I have a physician friend and I wrote to him saying how helpful his book was, now that I've been through it. I said, "You doctors are a little bit like Mount [Kisadet] You kind of float in from nowhere, spend a few minutes in the room, and then float out." I said, "Those nurses are there day in and day out, just taking care of me." I mean and at first how humiliating it was, but later how grateful I was for these people who literally had to take me to the restroom, literally just I was at their mercy, and they came through. Now some people might cynically say, "Well yeah, they're paid to." I think there was more than that. One nurse, we were talking-
Scott Rae: I was going to say, they're not paid enough to do that.
Brent Waters: No, they're not paid enough.
Scott Rae: If that's the case.
Brent Waters: Right. One nurse, we were talking, and she goes, "Well the body is both our great blessing and our great curse." She goes, "My job is to help those where it's become more curse than blessing." I thought there's something just inherently good about that. I think that that's where it began to dawn on me how much I depend on other people, and how much we need to be called to the caring of one another. That maybe our glory as creatures is our vulnerability, our finitude, and eventually our mortality. That is what binds us together.
Scott Rae: Which may be one of those reasons why we don't want some of these biotechnological enhancements that may make us live a whole lot longer.
Brent Waters: Right.
Scott Rae: It sounds like you learned lot not only about dependence, and the flip side of that autonomy, but learned a lot about gratitude-
Brent Waters: Oh yeah.
Scott Rae: ... as a result. You did some things in the aftermath of getting out of the hospital, that not a lot of people do.
Brent Waters: Yeah. It was really interesting. I didn't realize what I was doing was so unusual. Before I left the hospital, before I was discharged ... It's really very interesting. This young therapist took a liking to me. She was really young, but she had the exact same name as my daughter. We struck up a bond there, but I said, "I'm leaving tomorrow." She goes, "I know." She goes, "Can you take me down, help me get to the ICU? I want to thank the people that kept me alive." I found out later, it's only a 50% survival rate in an ICU. I went down there and thanked them. Then months later, when I was finally getting my last assessment from the pulmonary people, he said, "You don't know what an impact that had."
Scott Rae: No kidding.
Brent Waters: Yeah. He said, "Nobody comes back and says thank you, because number one they're just so happy to be out of there. They don't ever want to go back again."
Scott Rae: I understand that.
Brent Waters: That also accounted for, because I noticed this too and I mentioned it to the doctor, that the nursing and doctoral staff in the ICU, they have the professional detachment, the distance. I realized, well they had to because they see death every day. For someone to actually come back and say thank you, they just don't experience that very often. That's where I think, the mark of gratitude, just the simple expression of what you did for me, is terribly important and I think neglected.
Scott Rae: Yeah. I'm sorry it took serious illness to bring some of that home, but I think those are some of the every day virtues that I hope you're going to write about in this forthcoming book. I want to pick up one last thing. You spent the last chapter of your book, Just Capitalism, on the phenomena of climate change. Your take on this is not one that's often heard. I think, explain to our listeners how you understand the climate change debate, and what your solution is.
Brent Waters: Yeah. Well I think I'm just not in a position of saying I either deny it or affirm it. I think, obviously if we didn't have human beings, climate does change over time. Now, the question becomes, how do you respond to it? That's, I think, the question that's not asked very often. Sometimes adaptation may actually prove a better strategy for the poor, than trying to prevent it. What's been very helpful to me is to go to the Copenhagen Consensus. What the Copenhagen Consensus does is, about every 10 years they bring together a group of economists and say, "With X amount of dollars, what would be the best expenditures to help the poor?" What's amazing to me is almost never are there any green issues.
Scott Rae: Really?
Brent Waters: No. It's things like malaria nets, quick burning dung and wood in the stoves at home, get electrical grids, get transportation systems.
Scott Rae: Really basic stuff.
Brent Waters: Basic stuff, but unglamorous, and nobody wants to fund it. That's really what it amounts to.
Scott Rae: But crucial.
Brent Waters: Crucial. I think I'm becoming more and more convinced that to be green means you have to be affluent, you have to be wealthy. A green strategy's really not a very good strategy for eliminating poverty.
Scott Rae: What does that say about the developing world, and their obligation to combat climate change?
Brent Waters: Well I think it is, basically we have to get them up to a certain level of affluence where they can really afford to make a contribution to becoming green.
Scott Rae: Some of the developing world, their pushback on environmental issues, and the charge of hypocrisy to the West actually makes sense in your view.
Brent Waters: I think it does make sense. What I would rather see, is rather than building a short bridge ... Because I think eventually you have to get the green technology. Rather than building a short bridge to that goal, which I think would unduly impact the poor, is build a long bridge, and you can shorten it later. In the meantime, yeah fossil fuels is good news for the poor, I mean to people-
Scott Rae: How so?
Brent Waters: It will enable them to have a cheap source of energy which will then allow them to build infrastructure, allow them to build electrical grids, to begin to have a level of economic exchange which will actually build to affluence.
Scott Rae: In other words, cheap and plentiful energy is a necessary condition for lifting the developing world out of poverty?
Brent Waters: Oh, I think it is. Yeah.
Scott Rae: Efforts to cripple the development and the harvesting of fossil fuels in the near term, accomplishes what for the poor?
Brent Waters: I think it just keeps them poor.
Scott Rae: Would it be fair to say that in your view, efforts to combat climate change that take really drastic, radical steps, are consigning the poor to perpetual poverty? Is that an overstatement?
Brent Waters: No, I don't think it is an overstatement. In fact, I've said it on some occasions, that with friends like that who needs enemies?
Scott Rae: Yeah.
Brent Waters: I mean, because I think it was Bangladesh where basically has made the calculated decisions, because they would be drastically influenced by the rising of the seas, they just said basically, "It would be better for us to move our villages inland than to try to prevent it." That's the amazing thing to me, is we never really asked the people who will be most directly impacted, what would you prefer? You're routinely not asked by development agencies.
Scott Rae: Where does your theology inform this?
Brent Waters: One of the things that prompted the writing of the book Just Capitalism, is to take seriously the question, a preferential option for the poor. I wanted to know, practically, what does that mean? I think it means, if you really want to help the poor, you give them the skills to compete in the markets. That's really exhibiting a preferential option for the poor.
Scott Rae: Why don't we hear more discussion about the priority of the poor when it comes to combating climate change?
Brent Waters: It's not part of the narrative.
Scott Rae: Why not? I don't understand, I mean it's so much a part of the narrative in lots of other things, why not here?
Brent Waters: Yeah. Like I said, I think green issues are primarily the issue of the affluent, and not ones of alleviating poverty. The poverty question never gets into the question of what it means to be green. Also, I mean sometimes it just doesn't take ... Remember one time in class, a very ardent green student was taking me to task. Finally I said, "Okay. Is the problem basically overpopulation?" "Yes." "Okay." I said, "Well-"
Scott Rae: I can see where this is going.
Brent Waters: I said, "Well how many people do we have now? I don't keep up on these things." She said, "Oh, I think around seven or eight billion." I said, "Well how many can the Earth really sustain?" She goes, "Maybe a billion or two." I said, "Wow." I said, "That's a lot of people that got to go." I said, "I'm assuming you've got to do this quickly." "Yeah." I said, "Okay. Tell me, which five billion people are you going to kill? What's the criteria that you're going to use?" What I'm saying is sometimes what the green agenda doesn't realize is the amount of tyranny that would have to go along with the prevention. That maybe adjustment is, after all, a better strategy for both poor, and to preserve freedom, than to go to the preventive route. In other words, it's a false [crosstalk]
Scott Rae: Yeah, yeah.
Brent Waters: Yeah.
Scott Rae: Maybe the emphasis on the developing world, that ... Wow. That they actually are demanding some sort of money transfer to enable them to lift their people out of poverty, while being green at the same time, might not be so unreasonable.
Brent Waters: Right.
Scott Rae: The green revolution is forcing them to make that choice between being green or being prosperous. That's a choice that the developed world, and the West, simply did not have to make.
Brent Waters: Well, and I've had friends from underdeveloped countries tell me, "Essentially what you're saying is just at about the time where we can afford the goodies, you're saying don't buy them, it's bad for you."
Scott Rae: That's right. That's right.
Brent Waters: Yeah.
Scott Rae: Wow. That's a lot to think about. I think what the prophets suggest about this preferential option for the poor, that how our decisions impact the least among us is to be given priority. That says a lot about how we manage climate change. I think what you've suggested here is a longer launch ramp instead of a shorter one, to get to renewable energy, makes a lot of sense so that we don't cripple and harm the poor, at the same time, as being environmentally concerned.
Brent Waters: Right.
Scott Rae: This has been incredibly stimulating stuff. Brent, thank you so much for agreeing to do part two on this. I want to recommend the book Just Capitalism, and tell us again the title of the book you're working on?
Brent Waters: Well just remember the [crosstalk]
Scott Rae: The working title?
Brent Waters: Yeah, the marking people haven't got ahold of it yet. Right now it's called Common Callings and Ordinary Virtues: In Praise of the Mundane.
Scott Rae: Great stuff. Thanks so much for joining us. It's been a treat to have you with us.
Brent Waters: Thank you for having me.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Brent Waters, and to find more episodes, go to Biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's Biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you've enjoyed today's conversation with Dr. Waters, give us a rating on your podcast app, and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.