Religion’s self-observation as noncontingent

The religious system describes itself as noncontingent. Thus, a sincerely religious person will find it very difficult to agree with the arguments of social systems theory, which says that religion is just one contingent social system among others. Systems observe themselves in ways that may conflict with how other systems observe them from the outside. For instance, as Michael King and Chris Thornhill write in Niklas Luhmann’s Theory of Politics and Law,

Science . . . may see and project itself as generating truth, but this may well conflict with the ways in which other systems (such as religion) observe scientific processes. (10)

The science of economics (not to be confused with the economy as a function system) belongs to the science system, and it distinguishes between economic truth and nontruth; however, religion observes the economy as peripheral to religion. A genuine economic theory from the perspective of religion must be consistent with religious doctrine. But systems theory (which belongs to the science system) observes religion as just as contingent as any other system. From this perspective, the economy (the function system) doesn’t have to relate to religion at all.

From a systems-theoretical perspective, religion and the economy cannot directly communicate with one another; they are separate function systems with different codes. They can structurally couple and perturb one another, but they can’t communicate. They are, of course, both social systems and both consist of communication, but they employ different communication media. The economy communicates with money. Religion communicates with belief or faith. But every since the economy emerged as a function system, there have been efforts to de-differentiate this system. Thus the economy, like any function system, must continually differentiate itself from its environment and resist de-differentiation. Autopoiesis is nothing other than continual differentiation.

An event may register in the religious system and in the economy but be coded differently. For example, in the economy, a stock market crash will register as information about the economy (this is self-reference). But the “same” stock market event may register in the religious system as a sign of that man as turned away from God.

I was interested in occasions where authors applied religious principles to economic theory because these efforts may be interpreted as attempts to de-differentiate the the economy as a system.  I did a search on World Cat using the keywords economics AND religion.

For years 1700-1799, 47 books are listed, though only some relate to the application to religion to economics. Here is one representative text:

Hoadly, B. (1710). The fears and sentiments of all true Britains: With respect to national credit, interest and religion. London: Printed and sold by A. Baldwin.

For the years 1800-1899, there are 210 books. Again only some are relevant. Here are a few:

Wilberforce, W. (1823). An appeal to the religion, justice, and humanity of the inhabitants of the British Empire: In behalf of the negro slaves in the West Indies. London: Printed for J. Hatchard.

Edmonds, T. R. (1828). Practical moral and political economy, or, The government, religion, and institutions, most conducive to individual happiness and to national power. London: E. Wil.

Bailey, J. N. (1841). Sophistry unmasked!  A refutation of the arguments contained in a pamphlet, written and published by John Brindley, entitled “A reply to the infidelity and atheism of socialism,” and purporting to be a judicious summary, of the evidences of natural theology and revealed religion. Leeds: J. Hob.

Gladden, W. (1893). Tools and the man: Property and industry under the Christian law (Lyman Beecher lectures, 1887). Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.

For the years 1900-2000, there are, of course, many more books, but the titles can be limited to 175 if you just take the books categorized under Christianity.  The numbers are not really important, however. A couple of representative titles are

Samuelsson, K. (1964). Religion and economic action. New York: Harper & Row.

Preston, R. H. (1993). Religion and the ambiguities of capitalism.  Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press.

There are professional organizations such at the Association of Christian Economists (ACE), which publishes a journal called Faith & Economics. According to the website,

The Association of Christian Economists (ACE) has two purposes:

To encourage Christian scholars to explore and communicate the relationship between their faith and the discipline of economics, and

To promote interaction and communication among Christian economists.

Christian economics, of whatever variety, is rooted in faith rather than science–the Christian part comes first. It seeks an economy that is consistent with Christian beliefs. Thus it subordinates science to religion. One website on Christian economics states,

The Christian worldview embraces a form of democratic capitalism that allows for the peaceful and free exchange of goods and services without fraud, theft, or breach of contract as the biblical view. First, the Bible grants us the right to private property and calls us to be good stewards of our resources. Second, a free enterprise system affords the greatest opportunity to steward our resources responsibly by creating wealth and opportunity. Third, the competition in a free market system works according to the principle of comparative advantage, which affirms our inherent worth as individuals.

But, when observed from outside the religious system,  Christian economics makes about as much sense as Christian biology. Science observes everything in terms of truth/nontruth, but the religious system observes everything in terms of belief/nonbelief.

Rather than thinking of society in terms of autonomous communication systems without a center or apex, Christian economics places religion at the center or apex of society. Religion is the most important system for Christian economists. In terms of its self-observation, religion is noncontingent and stands outside or the flux of society. It it the one fixed point that everything else revolves around.

This sense of noncontingency accounts for the way Christians have created Christian art (e.g., Christian popular music), Christian mass media (e.g., Christian TV and radio stations and Christian print media and websites), Christian schools, etc.


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