Posted by: dacalu | 28 March 2012

Church, University, and Capitalism

I was following a conversation on Facebook today and noticed something very interesting.  It amazes me how common it is for critics of church and university to critique them in market terms.  Perhaps more interesting are the numbers of fans of church and university who do the exact same thing.  For the sake of clarity, I must begin by saying that I am, in many ways, a fan of all three – church, university, and capitalism (probably in descending order) – as I also recognize the dangers of all three – Christianity, capitalism, and academia (definitely in descending order).  Further, I will point out that I agree – market analysis can be useful.  Nonetheless.

It must be pointed out that the Bible predates The Wealth of Nations by nearly seventeen centuries.  Churches as social and economic institutions were present by at least the third century, while comparable entities devoted to “business” only arrived in the Renaissance.  It seems clear that churches operate on a model that somehow functions outside the market paradigm.  Some readers will be quick to suggest that this is only because churches operated as a state-supported monopoly.  Defense 1 – State-supported monopoly is in fact an effective business model.  It may be a telling indictment of the church, but to an economist it only suggests that churches need to regain state favor.  (No, I’m not supporting this.)  Defense 2 – Churches also predate nation states.  In many cases, the local religious establishment was more successful economically than any alternative.  This was particularly true during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the end of the Dark Ages.

Similarly, it must be noted that the universities, at least in some current sense, came about in the 12th and 13th centuries, roughly the same time that the Templars (a religious order) introduced distance banking and Italian traders introduced investment banking.  It would be centuries before free-markets were even dreamt of.  Clearly, there were serving a function in society not directly measured in capital.  They were social institutions.  Like the church, they have survived, but clearly neither because of nor in spite of market forces.

Let us then have honest discussions about what these institutions do provide, why they succeeded and endured throughout political, social, and economic revolutions that would make the modern world unrecognizable to an Elizabethan ship-owner, much less a medieval journeyman or a Roman artisan.  Shoe-horning their virtues into dollars and sense, supply and demand may not even be possible.  We can hope, perhaps, but it doesn’t pay to start with that assumption.

If I had to speculate – and I admit that I am doing so a bit wildly here – I would say that church provides worldview construction and support (see sociologist Peter Berger).  The very notion of competitive markets is inimical to the nature of that endeavor for the last thousand years.  Now, I’m quite happy with the idea that worldview monopolies are hard to come by these days, but I also recognize that that creates an urgent need for worldview management – something the Anglican theology (along with Rabbinic Judaism and Modern Tibetan Buddhism) can do admirably.  (All three traditions are founded in profound social, theological turmoil.)  I posit that it is neither our inability to help people nor our poor marketing that have hurt us, but our failure to actually provide the services of which we are capable.  We vacillate between telling people they have to believe things they clearly cannot and too eagerly deconstructing the foundations they need for daily life.  We need to revive our skills for careful listening and the formation of functional communities of belief.

I’m not convinced that universities are suffering in the same way that churches are.  Enrollment is up and the number of institutions does not seem to be contracting.  Universities have always prepared people to fill particular roles in society.  The roles have changed dramatically, but the need for preparation – intellectual, practical, emotional, professional, and social – has not.  The key, I suspect, has to do with the present insecurity around which roles will be valued in the future – and to what extent.  Compensation necessarily will need to be proportional to rewards for any kind of long-term stability.

Can we pull our heads out of the market mindset long enough to grasp the long term benefits of long lived institutions?   Even if we are to instantiate them in a capitalist society, let us find their social functionsbefore we attempt to commodify them.  In the end, I’m not really worried about Church or University outlasting capitalism.  They clearly represent better solutions to certain social problem than any other institutions in the last millennium.  I do worry that those of us in particular churches and universities will end up on wild goose chases for market share while we alienate our participants.

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