Promoting the Common Good: Bringing economics and theology together again

by
02 November 2006

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Shepheard-Walwyn £9.95 (0-85683-231-6); Church Times Bookshop £8.95

Reviewed with

Global Civilisation: Challenges to society and Christianity
Leonardo Boff
Equinox Publishing £45 (1-84553-004-7); £13.99 pbk (1-84553-005-5); Church Times Bookshop £40.50 and £12.60 respectively


THESE two books both address themes of globalisation, economics, and theology, but they differ in their approaches.

Promoting the Common Good is a personal dialogue, almost homely in its style, as each author recounts his journey of faith in the arena of globalisation and the common good. Its overriding message is that capitalist economics does not enable true human freedom to flourish.

The authors call for an economics that "weds spirituality and morality". Human beings need "sociability"; the formation of community, "where education and virtue are elements of the common good"; and a healthy love for the common good in the creation of a fully developed humanity.

Paradoxically, the authors see in John Maynard Keynes, the father of modern economics, someone who believed that "the purpose of the economy is to control the material basis of a civilised society, enabling its citizens to explore the higher dimensions of human existence, to discover their own full potential." Though acknowledging that modern economic theory has made such benefits available only to the few, the authors argue that there is a need for an economic theory based on an understanding of what a human being really is, and what makes people happy.

The book strives to bring together economics and theology from an interfaith perspective, and gives helpful insights into both Christian and Islamic understandings of economics, of what it means to be human, and the need for shared values and some over-arching concept of truth.

The chapter on putting ideals into practice may not be quite as practical as many readers would like, but it nevertheless offers some grasp of economic principles rooted in Jewish, Islamic, and Christian theology, and the search for common ground.

Leonardo Boff, in Global Civilisation, brings his now familiar perspective from the Global South. He observes that "globalisation is occurring on three fronts: technological change, market forces, and the rise of a new global conscience."

His work converges with that of Braybrooke and Mofid in his assessment of what he perceives as the "perversity of the current capitalist model of development". He argues that such a model supports a primacy of quantity over quality; the privileged position of capital over the means of production; and "a predominance of the material over the humanistic, the ethical, and the spiritual".

Boff argues for economic activity that enables each individual to achieve self-fulfilment; and sees the need to support productive forces and factors so as to prevent poverty and famine. He calls for the fomenting of social cultural values that will effect changes in the living conditions of all societies, for the benefit of the poorest.

For him, the "eco factor"  -looking after the environment with nature-compliant technology that produces economic, moral, and spiritual transformation "without destabilising the eco-system" - is essential.

Boldly reasserting the need for an "end to the political and spiritual stagnation that came about with the breakdown in expectation and hope associated with socialist ideals and with the culture of acceptance of the status quo linked to global capitalism", Boff calls for the recreation of "utopic horizon". This, for him, is choosing in favour of the poor in response to the gospel, and recognising that this cause is right. "A weak man plus another weak man do not add up to two weak men, but to a strong man, because the union makes us strong," he meditates.

The book concludes with the offering of an "Earth Charter", based on respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, social and economic justice, democracy, non-violence, and peace.

Neither book is an easy read, but both are worth persevering with - though I wish the typographical design of the Boff book had been more welcoming.

The Rt Revd Peter B. Price is Bishop of Bath & Wells.

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