Rowan Williams on God and Wall Street

It is quite striking that, in the Gospel parables, Jesus more than once uses economics as a framework for his stories: the parable of the talents, the dishonest steward—even, we might say, the vignette of the lost coin. Like our coexistence with the earth, like familial bonds, like the tensions of public political life, economic relationships help us see our humanity in the context of God's actions. Money is a metaphor; our monetary dealings shed light on aspects of our human condition that, rightly understood, tell us something about how we might relate to God.

Recently I went to New York City to participate in a conference at Trinity Wall Street. It was called "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 that deal with how this or that policy grants or withholds liberty for the most disadvantaged. Obviously, these are important issues. But we need to look with great care as well at what our economic practices are assuming and promoting about human motivation and integrity.

In our culture, we have become used to an attitude in which economic motivations, relationships, and conventions are fundamental: the language of seller and customer has wormed its way into practically all areas of our social life, even education and health care. The implication is that the most basic interaction between one human being and another is the carefully calibrated exchange of material resources.

But we must hang on to the idea that not everything reduces to one standard of value. Treat economic exchanges as the only "real" thing that people do, and you face the same problems confronted by the evolutionary biologist (for whom the only question is how organisms compete and survive) or the Freudian fundamentalist (for whom the only issue is how we resolve the tensions of infantile sexuality). Traditional religious ethics—traditional ethics of any kind, in fact—do not require you to ignore the hidden forces that may be at work in any particular setting. Being human is learning how to ask critical questions of your own habits and compulsions, and it's learning how to adjust them against a model of human behavior—an idealized truth about the purpose of our humanity.

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 a means to finding our way to a life that manifests something, a life that doesn't just solve problems of survival and profit. Our job as human beings is to imagine ourselves—using all the raw materials that science, psychoanalysis, and economics provide us—in the hope that the images we discover and shape will have resonance and harmony with the rhythms of what Christians, and others, call the will and purpose of Almighty God.