GARLINGTON: Two Kinds of Economies

Louisiana finds herself in the middle of a debate about the best ways to spur economic development.  Regulatory reform, tax reform, budget reform, tort reform, and others are all part of the conversation.  This is a long overdue discussion, but there is another aspect of the economy that also needs our attention – the end goal of it all.  What is the purpose of a growing economy?  How should we use the surplus that it creates?  These and other questions must be answered if we want a rightly ordered economy here in Louisiana.

There are really only two options for these end goals.  The first is what we will call the Golden Calf type of economy; the other is the Christian type.

The Golden Calf Type

For those who remember their biblical history, while the Holy Prophet Moses was upon Mt Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments and the other laws from the Lord, the Israelites had set up a golden calf to worship in the place of the Lord (Exodus 32).  This is similar to what has happened in Louisiana and the rest of the States:  Economic development by and large has become, not a means to an end, but the end itself.  It has become the reason for being of mankind, and everything must be subservient to the growing economy, including Sundays and other holy days, family cohesion, etc.

The Pelican Institute formulates this secular vision this way in their Louisiana’s Comeback Agenda document:  ‘Louisiana’s collection of safety-net programs needs a paradigm shift so its low-income, work-capable citizens can move out of dependency on government and find hope and lasting self-sufficiency. This starts with connecting people with a job, which is the best path to prosperity. Work brings dignity, hope, and purpose through the life-long benefits of earning a living, gaining skills, and building social capital.’

The measure of success in this vision of the economy is generally whether or not each generation is better off materially than the one before.

The excellent Southern writer, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, gives a helpful illustration of these elements in her short novel The Great Meadow, which follows a Virginia family of the late 1700s as they migrate into Kentucky for the sake of better economic opportunity.  She writes,

Around them stretched the delirium of a fine land, level expanses delicately tilted to fine curves, here and there cane patches of rich fat growth, here and there noble trees.  . . .

‘What do we want here?  What did we come for?’  She was shaken with delight and wonder.

‘We want a fine high house, out in the rich cane.  We want a farm to tend . . . fields . . .’

. . . There was a low temporary cabin on this ground, a mean hut which no one occupied since the enemy made life outside the fort insecure.  Berk viewed this humble shed with contempt.  ‘I want a fine high house, the roof high up off my head,’ he said, turning back to the stockade.  ‘Room for a man to lift up his head in’ (Hesperus Press, London, 2012, pgs. 102, 108).

This, ultimately, is what man strives for in the Golden Calf economy:  more, bigger, etc.  Nearly all attention is focused on the material side of life, while spiritual things are mostly ignored.

The Christian Type

Economic development is not forbidden in the Christian vision, but it does happen sometimes in ways that are very different from those in the Golden Calf type, for the simple reason that progress in the spiritual life is paramount rather than material advancement alone.

We have seen how the Golden Calf economy sees a reduction in a person’s or generation’s material prosperity as an indicator of failure.  Often in the Christian vision this has been seen rather as a sign of great spiritual progress.  Across the wide expanse of Christendom, from the West to the East, scores and scores of men and women have abandoned all they possessed to become monks and nuns in monasteries or hermits in the wilderness for the sake of obtaining the Pearl of Great Price, union with God.

And in doing so, their holiness of life, the Grace of God that overflows from them, attracted hosts of people, seeking to benefit from their spiritual gifts of wisdom, healing, prophecy, and so on.  In time, entire villages and even cities grew up around these isolated places in the middle of nowhere.  In the far west, in Orthodox Wales, there is the example of St Deiniol of Bangor (reposed c. 584):


According to tradition, St. Deiniol received land for establishing Bangor Fawr (Great Bangor) Monastery from the local King of Gwynedd named Maelgwn, who became the monastery’s patron. Deiniol built his (originally small and humble) monastery in a low-lying area to prevent raids from pagan pirates. Around the cells which were like huts St. Deiniol arranged an enclosure made of upright poles with branches woven between them. The man of God gathered many disciples around him who went out to evangelize the surrounding region. Thus, with time, many converts to Christianity joined the monastery: some of them became monks, while others came to live together with their families within the monastery’s territory (such was a popular custom of Celtic monasteries).

At the other end of Christendom, in the East, the wonderful 20th century saint, John Maximovitch, who blessed nearly every continent with his Grace-filled presence before falling asleep in the Lord in 1966, and the 30th anniversary of whose glorification as a saint was recently celebrated, brings to light an example from the deep past of Russia:

For the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, for the sake of becoming a part of it, for the sake of prayer, Russian ascetics left worldly vanity for the forests and uninhabited islands. They sought only the Kingdom of God, did not want to found or build anything, departed from people, but people followed after them for the sake of the Kingdom of God, lived on those islands and in those forests near the righteous ones, and thus were lavras and monastic communities formed.

This occurred there most intensely during the 14th and 15th centuries.

St John annunciates the foundational principle of the Christian economic type, a command of the Lord Jesus Christ from His Sermon on the Mount:  ‘But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Matt. 6:33).’

And as material things accumulate, in the Christian economy, they are not all horded in a bank, or lent out at usury, or invested in some other way, to make them multiply even more.  Much of it is offered as a sacrifice for the sake of obtaining spiritual goods.  The profound German Roman Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper explains:

The day of rest is not just a neutral interval inserted as a link in the chain of workaday life.  It entails a loss of utilitarian profit.  In voluntarily keeping the holiday, men renounce the yield of a day’s labor.  This renunciation has from time immemorial been regarded as an essential element of festivity.  A definite span of usable time is made, as the ancient Romans understood it, “the exclusive property of the gods.”  As the animal for sacrifice was taken from the herd, so a piece of available time was expressly withdrawn from utility.  The day of rest, then, meant not only that no work was done, but also that an offering was being made of the yield of labor.  It is not merely that the time is not gainfully used; the offering is in the nature of a sacrifice, and therefore the diametric opposite of utility.

. . . voluntary renunciation of the yield of a working day cuts through the principle of calculating utility, and the principle of poverty also.  Even in conditions of extreme material scarcity, the withholding from work, in the midst of a life normally governed by work, creates an area of free surplus.

This, then, unexpectedly brings us to a new aspect of a holiday.  A festival is essentially a phenomenon of wealth; not, to be sure, the wealth of money, but of existential richness (In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, Richard and Clara Winston, trans., St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Ind., 1999, pgs. 18, 19).

It may seem unlikely because of our secular, Enlightenment bias, but putting Christian principles like these into practice has led in the past to high levels of civilizational achievement.  The Orthodox Roman Empire centered in Constantinople/New Rome implemented the Christian vision of economy, politics, etc., and was one of the great world powers for 1,0o0 years because of God’s blessing.  Likewise, monasteries have given exceptional gifts to mankind in the arts (paintings, icons, architecture, singing, poetry, etc.) and in education, not to mention their greatest gift, their multitudes of saints.


St John makes the distinction between the Golden Calf vision and Christian vision with exceptional sharpness:  ‘It is senseless to look for meaning and goals in earthly life, which ends in death. We have to strive to assimilate the divine, grace-filled, eternal life, and then also build this temporal, earthly life . . . .’

An economy detached from Christianity will lead us in the end to death, both spiritual and physical.  The rewards of working in a growing economy are not enough in themselves to satisfy the deeper, spiritual longing of a man’s soul.  Louisiana’s economic development will need a Christian basis so that her economy will develop in a positive way, so that her people will not try to fill their spiritual void with evil things.  The State government was wise enough to insist on the posting of the Ten Commandments in Louisiana’s public schools and colleges.  Will they be wise enough to insist on applying the First Commandment – ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’ (Exodus 20:3) – to Louisiana’s economic development?



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