By Nicole Seiferth
The 2010 Trinity Institute began with a challenge.
Following an opening presentation by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, economic journalist Susan Lee, who served as a guest panelist, said that, “In theory it’s possible for theologians and economists to agree. In practice, they seem to live on two different planets.”
Lee characterized economists as being focused on the generation of wealth and theologians on the distribution of wealth.
Williams responded, “Inevitably at some point, you have to talk about what level of wealth generation is compatible with the finite setting in which we live.” The global economic crisis, he said, brought to light “unreal forms of wealth generation which simply produce naughts on the end of a balance sheet that correspond to nothing.”
“Theology,” he said, “while it can’t solve specific economic problems, will be at the very least nagging at the vocabulary, nudging at the assumptions.”
The 2010 Trinity Institute conference, Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace, was attended by more than 340 people at Trinity Church and more than 75 partner sites around the world, watching via webcast on trinitywallstreet.org.
Kathryn Tanner, professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, presented her take on the capitalist marketplace: “Religion by urging us to consider the highest, most comprehensive standards of wellbeing calls the market to the highest account, possibly beyond its inherent capabilities.”
Responding to a question from the Rev. Stephen Schneider at partner site Grace Memorial, in Portland, OR, Tanner expanded on her view of the market. “The only thing that really justifies the market is that it potentially could lead to some form of widespread social benefit. If it doesn’t, the Church needs to come in and seriously question the way things are working.”
Christopher McAlilly, a seminarian and Trinity Institute participant, touched on Tanner’s point at a reception that evening. “The Church is always meant to say to banks, to those making policy: what is this for? What is it really about?”
Economist Partha Dasgupta took on another element of economics that is also of great concern to many in the Church: the environment, or as he put it, “natural wealth.”
“The economics of Nature leads us to the deepest question in the social sciences, which remains unanswered: how do grace and decency establish themselves among wide and disparate groups of people?”
There were, clearly, a great many questions posed by the presenters and the conference participants. But there were answers and strongly felt opinions to be found, as well.
“How is it in my interest to invest in the future, if I’m not going to be around to reap my share of the benefits?” Kathryn Tanner asked rhetorically during a panel discussion.
Christianity, she said, “asks one to consider that ultimate destiny in community with others. This community is understood in the widest possible terms – it includes the whole community of saints, it includes indeed the whole world, the entirety of humanity, along with the planet God blesses by creating and looking after from its beginning until its end.”
The Rev. Steve Foster plans to take what he’s heard and learned at the conference back to his parish in the Diocese of Long Island.
“How do we engage not only one another, but also the people in the street as we go about being change in the world?” he said. One of the things the church needs to explore, he thinks, “is how do individual persons make their own investments? Where does the Church help guide in a meaningful way?”
The conference ended with a call to action from the Archbishop of Canterbury.
“We who belong to communities of faith have resources that we are bound to share. We are able to hold up models, ideals; not as distant abstractions, but as matters rooted in our very identity in faith, in the mutuality of those who have come together in relationship around Jesus Christ. And the charge and the challenge: share that mutuality. Challenge yourself as I try to challenge myself: with the question whose interest am I ignoring or obscuring? Ask that most basic of questions: why should I be trusted and how do I set my life on a course that makes it trustworthy?”
Nicole Seiferth is assistant editor for website and parish publications.