The Market as God
Harvard University Press £19.95
Church Times Bookshop £17.95
THE aged among us who were undergoing our theological formation in 1965 when Harvey Cox’s provocative bestseller, The Secular City, was published, just two years after John Robinson’s Honest to God, will be amazed and gratified that Cox continues his perceptive and highly readable theological production.
The Market as God is one of the burgeoning series of reflections on where the economy has taken us, and yet bearing all the marks of Cox’s particular style and theological method. If you read it in Lent, alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book, Dethroning Mammon, you get the sense that, while Justin Welby’s is a programme for personal discipleship within an economic system that is by and large to be accepted, Cox offers a historical and theological sweep within a view of the Bible which Cox has not sought to revise much since the heady days of “biblical theology”, which that was still the vogue in his (and my) youth. Comparing and contrasting the two approaches would be a stimulating Lenten theological undertaking.
Cox dedicates his book to Pope Francis, a prophetic hero for the author, one whom he interprets as mounting a strong critique of where the economy has taken us. And that is to the place where “The Market” has to be capitalised throughout the book because it has become God to those occupied within it.
As the reflections on The Market proceed, we encounter justifications for that view, as we are shown that, just like the true religion, the religion of The Market has its saints, rituals, and ethic, all honoured by its devotees. The point is constantly emphasised by comparisons of the Churches’ theological trajectory and The Market’s. Cox follows his trains of thought with enthusiasm, at one point offering an account of St Augustine’s life and reflection and at another reinterpreting Adam Smith as The Market’s founder, patron, and prophet.
Convinced that the biblical traditions have much to contribute to a critique of The Market as divinity, Cox returns to it again and again, interpreting it in ways that are intended to redirect the reader’s attention both to the scriptures and to the evaluation of The Market. The creation of Adam and parable of the prodigal son, among others, receive rapid and suggestive interpretation.
Never boring or conventional, the author is a talented teacher of his audience rather than the architect of a sustained argument. For this reviewer, there are some oversights that might have made the book a more profound critique, and the price of a more measured, less racy, presentation would perhaps have been worth paying.
There is not much here about what has happened to money itself, and, while Pope Francis gets a warm and affirmative press, he himself might prefer it if his debt to his predecessor’s most serious economic critique, Caritas in Veritate, had not been completely disregarded. If we are to discover a more wholesome economy than the one we have, we shall need, along with Cox’s brilliant communication skills, some tough thinking about what it would take for an economy to serve the common good rather than become an object of worship.
The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.