Making Christianity Relevant to Economic Scholarship

By Henderson, James W.; Pisciotta, John | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Making Christianity Relevant to Economic Scholarship


Henderson, James W., Pisciotta, John, Journal of Markets & Morality


This special issue of the Journal of Markets and Morality focuses on selected papers originally presented at the conference, "Christianity and Economics," held at Baylor University in November 2002. The conference attracted scholars from a wide range of disciplines, including history, theology, philosophy, law, political science, psychology, sociology, and economics, to examine whether Christian beliefs make a difference in academic scholarship. With the ascendance of neoclassical economics as the dominant paradigm, most Christian economists have labored outside of the mainstream. That is not to imply that their contributions have been insignificant, but that they have had only tangential impact on the profession as a whole. The conference was aimed at informing the academy of the role of the Christian economist in relating the importance and practical relevance of faith-informed scholarship. These papers provide a sample of the scholarship presented at the conference. Francis Woehrling discusses the need for an integrated view of how the Christian message has the potential to actually save economics and how the study of economics leads to a deeper understanding of the Christian faith. Woehrling attempts to outline the fundamental issues required to build a systematic theology of economics: that is, the foundational ideas that describe the association between the Christian faith and the science of economics. Two hypotheses are explored. The first is that the almost cult-like reliance on neoclassical assumptions needs further investigation. The second is that the Christian message can not only advance our understanding of economics and economic theory but also can, in turn, advance our understanding of Christian faith. Woehrling argues that economics is already deeply infused with a theological paradigm involving pleasure, pain, happiness, suffering, freedom, and constraints. By ignoring the communitarian nature of our humanity and focusing solely on our individualistic nature, we fail to understand the complexity of human behavior. In recognizing that sin and evil are a part of our world, Christianity offers a sense of reality to the process of economic modeling and makes it possible to construct a more effective economics. By exploring the notion that the Christian agent may have a different objective function than the non-Christian agent, we open a new way of understanding human behavior and the possibility that cooperative behavior may be the optimal strategy.

Paul Knepper examines the economic approach to explaining criminal behavior made popular by Gary Becker and compares it to the rabbinical approach found in the Jewish Torah. He argues that the two approaches to crime differ in their concept of a person. The economic approach is based on the notion that criminal conduct can be understood as the rational behavior of individuals maximizing their own welfare. The rabbinical approach understands crime as an expression of evil within the heart. It is no surprise that policy recommendations aimed at deterrence differ between the two systems. Public policy based on economic appeals to the rational man through legal sanctions--increased probability of capture, conviction, and incarceration. The rabbinical view advocates a system of restitution to compensate the victim of the crime for the losses inflicted by the perpetrator. To understand criminal behavior completely, we cannot ignore either approach.

James Halteman provides a defense of Adam Smith's work in the face of criticism of Enlightenment thinkers by Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre argues that Smith, along with many of his contemporaries, saw no role for moral reflection in economic decision-making, a shortcoming that would ultimately lead to the failure of economics in explaining human behavior. Taking the position that Smith's work in moral philosophy clearly shows the moral process required to control human passions, Halteman concludes that Smith's moral theory "can provide economics with a sufficient moral base to escape MacIntyre's prediction of doom. …

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