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Article in Newsweek magazine on the Ethical Economy

Monday 1st February 2010

An adaptation of the Archbishop's address at Trinity Institute's 40th National Theological Conference on "Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace".

By Rowan Williams

It is quite striking that in the gospel parables Jesus more than once uses the world of economics as a framework for his stories – the parable of the talents, the dishonest steward, even, we might say, the little vignette of the lost coin. Like farming, like family relationships, like the tensions of public political life, economic relations have something to say to us about how we see our humanity in the context of God's action. Money is a metaphor like other things; our money transactions bring out features of our human condition that, rightly understood, tell us something of how we might see our relation to God.

I have come to New York this week to participate in a conference at Trinity Church Wall Street about the issues, if you will, of that neighbourhood: "Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace." In my view, the contribution of theology to economic decision-making is not only about raising questions concerning the common good, questions to do with how this or that policy grants or withholds liberty for the most disadvantaged. These are obviously necessary matters, but we need also to look with the greatest of care at what is being assumed and what is being actively promoted by our economic practices about human motivation, about character and integrity.

We have become used in our culture to an attitude in which economic motivations, relationships, conventions and so on are the fundamental thing and the rest is window-dressing. The language of customer and provider has wormed its way into practically all areas of our social life, even education and health care. The implication is that the most basic between one human being and another or one group and another is that of the carefully calibrated exchange of material resources.

But we must hang on to the idea that there really are different ways of talking about human activity and that not everything reduces to one sovereign model or standard of value. Treat economic exchange as the only 'real' thing people do and you face the same problems that face the evolutionary biologist for whom the only question is how organisms compete and survive or the fundamentalist Freudian for whom the only issue is how we resolve the tensions of infantile sexuality.

Traditional religious ethics – in fact, traditional ethics of any kind – doesn't require you to ignore the hidden forces that may be at work in any particular setting. It simply claims that being aware of them is part of something more integrated – a habit of picturing yourself as a single self-continuous agent who can make something distinctive out of all this material. Being a human self is learning how to ask critical questions of your own habits and compulsions so as to adjust how you act in the light of a model of human behaviour, both individual and collective, that represents some fundamental truth about what humanity is for.

Put like this, it is possible to see the various balancing acts we engage in, the calculations of self-interest and security, the resolution of buried tensions, as aspects of finding our way to a life that manifests something – instead of just solving this or that problem of survival or profit. It is really to claim that our job as human beings is to imagine ourselves, using all the raw material that science or psychoanalysis or economics can generate for us – in the hope that the images we shape or discover will have resonance and harmony with the rhythms of how things most deeply are, with what Christians, and others, call the will and purpose of Almighty God.

Williams is the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.

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