Home > Uncategorized > Peter J. Leithart » Blog Archive » Economic Absorption of the Sacred

Peter J. Leithart » Blog Archive » Economic Absorption of the Sacred

In a chapter of Robert Wuthnow’s Rethinking Materialism: Perspectives on the Spiritual Dimension of Economic Behavior, Emory’s John Boli explores the “economic absorption of the sacred.”…

Three misconceptions make it difficult for us to grasp the real nature of “materialism” in the modern world.  First, we fail to recognize that there is a moral/sacred order operative in the economic realm, a moral/sacred order that is difficult to align with traditional religious and moral orders.  Second, our materialism is not materialist; it is “a way of constructing and expressing meaning symbolically.”  We mioss the “spirituality of economic behavior” that is not reducible to simple acquisition and consumption and ostentatious display.  Finally, we don’t recognize that “the monetarization of social life is not essentially an economic process.”  We attach monetary values to objects because of a larger “institutionalized quest for rationality, which requires a standard metric comparable across all social settings.”  This in turn leads to a mistake about the nature of capitalism, which we see as a “system of production and exchange” rather than “a model of value creation through the rationalization of activity by rational actors.”…

Moralizing about materialism won’t have much effect, Boli thinks.  Economic activity is not amoral, but following the guidance of a sacred order.  Its morality clashes with traditional Christian morality in some ways, but not in other ways. Moral critiques also fall on deaf ears because of the very differentiation that has given the economic realm a sacredness it lacked before.  Religion is an island, not a continent, and the notion that religion saves our souls but leaves us to “obtain the vast array of goodnesses, meanings, and purposes” in the economic realm.  Further, religious critiques of materialism often draw on some of the same sacred material that makes up the economic realm: “individual responsibility, the search for authenticity, self-actualization.”

A more plausible response is to attempt to break the links between economic and sacred order: “this means diminishing the reality of the economy, recasting it as being only what the economists have always mistakenly claimed it to be: structures for the allocation of scarce resources to meet the needs of a population.”  Take away the symbols – the advertising, the trademarks, the logos, credit cards, and the “sacred tends to wilt.”

via Peter J. Leithart » Blog Archive » Economic Absorption of the Sacred.

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