Christian Theology and the Human Ontology of Market Capitalism

Article excerpt

This article is focused on the fairly widespread judgment among intellectuals in the humanities--and notably in Christian moral theology and ethics--that market capitalism is animated by a human ontology that brings forth the twin deadly evils of human reification within a vicious order of commodification. Christian theologians commonly adopt this analysis and thereby render themselves incapable of engaging cultures of capitalism in constructive theoretical terms. Instead, they devote themselves in writings and classroom lectures to the intellectual and practical demolition of capitalism.

The author contends that this neo-Marxist analysis of capitalism fails to account for the key role of human capital and enterprise in economic theory and practice and that it is at any rate un-Christian. Properly understood, the Christian ontology of the imago Dei provides very strong points of correlation between the human visions of Christianity and capitalism, and it strongly encourages a theology of mutual engagement with the economic culture.


In the half century following World War II, modern-market capitalism has been the newest wonder of the world. The older, mainly industrial, prewar capitalism confined mainly to Britain and the United States was on the ropes. In depression and apparent decline, observers were set to perform last rites, and they looked ahead to a future in which fascism and state socialism would contend for supremacy over the political and economic fate of the world. (1) In this historical light, the evolution of capitalism and its resounding successes seem all the more remarkable. The older capitalism has evolved into high-tech market forms that now animate societies that are unlike any that ever existed in human history. They are societies whose entire populations have been lifted almost completely from the depths of material poverty to unimagined heights of prosperity. A global capitalist super-economy has begun to extend its infrastructural reach around the world. (2)

This new high-tech, market capitalism is what Baumol, Litan, and Schramm have favorably labeled "good capitalism" (in contrast to its bad failing forms), and, quite naturally, the leaders of nations now work intensely to figure out how to ignite its fires and thus to banish poverty from their countries too. (3) It seems that the future of billions of human beings depends on the success or failure of these efforts, and it is perhaps the greatest achievement of capitalism that we routinely speak now as if eliminating poverty worldwide is possible. It seems that the poor may not always be with us after all.

However, not everyone is celebrating capitalism as a key to the worldwide liberation of human beings. In fact, a great many of our most famous influential thinkers in the humanities--mainly professional philosophers, ethicists, political theorists, and theologians--have positively devoted themselves, in writings and in classroom teachings, to the destruction and displacement of capitalism. It is very commonplace among such theorists--including many Christian theologians (the main target of interest in this article)--to think that there is no such thing as good capitalism. In this view, capitalism in any manifestation is inherently bad, and viciously so. It is in this view so bad that the rhetorical form has become an almost prophetic calling to intellectual arms against capitalism and to take part in its practical demolition. To demolish capitalism has become for them an impassioned moral crusade supported by great learning, sophistication, and eloquence. (4)

In this article, I wish to focus on what I believe is at the core of this impassioned attack--that the thinkers in view are certain that the essential human ontology of capitalism is antihuman. As Daniel Bell Jr., states, it is representative fashion, "The struggle against savage capitalism has to be waged at the level of ontology, for capitalism advances not merely by economic victory but by ontological capture. …