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The Science-Religion Dialogue within Economics

The Science-Religion Dialogue within Economics

No. 1, Sep.-Oct. 2016 » UNCOVERstory

Since more than a century and a half ago a separation of economics from theology has been accepted by most economists and not quite as many theologians. As a consequence, the importance of religion for economics is seldom recognized by contemporary economics. This state of things is simply an indication of a broad consensus within the field of economics that methods, norms, and even concerns construed to be related to religious belief have no place in the scientific study of economics.

However, economists who have rejected the separation have argued for different forms of religious economics on the assumption that economic theory is not theologically neutral and has to be evaluated theologically. More recently, an upsurge of interest by some economists in extending the economic approach to religion has stimulated the emergence of a new field of investigation called economics of religion. In our opinion, both religious economics and economics of religion have provided valuable contributions in helping to illuminate religion as well as to enrich economic theory.

Replicating these inquiries, a number of theologians went into more depth with their investigations on the relationship between theology and economics as they aimed at achieving a conceptual synthesis of the two disciplines. A first important step in their endeavour was the attempt to combine theology and economics into a normative social theory. The outcome, liberation theology, could hardly be considered a success having in view its major epistemological vulnerability (namely, the isolated, “on its own” monodisciplinary approach) and its most important theoretical constraint (that is, the lack of sound economic principles as it utilizes Marxist economics).

The second important step occurred more than two decades ago: a group of Christian Catholic theologians engaged in dialogue with some free-market economists concerning the morality of market activity. As a result, this interdisciplinary exchange inspired the conception of a new academic subdiscipline that sought to synthesize central aspects of theology and economics, thereby giving rise to a new body of scholarship termed economic personalism. The general idea is to promote a humane economic order that benefits from market activity but does not reduce the human person to just another element in economic phenomena.

The initiators of this interdisciplinary exercise relied on the fact that, regarding the economists, such a dialogue would offer them– through their opening towards a vision given by the Christian Catholic social ethics – a more complete image on the human being. In turn, “economic science would have something to offer moral theologians who were concerned with human interaction in the socioeconomic sphere” [i]. In accordance with its supporters (see, especially, the analyses developed in the works of Gronbacher, Zuniga [ii], Schmiesing [iii] or Woehrling [iv]), economic personalism seeks “to provide a holistic account of personal existence and thus supplement genuine economic science with a science of morality for the marketplace” [v]. Taking this course of action – it is sustained – “economic personalism does not attempt to reformulate economics in the image of moral theology. Nor do we desire to reduce moral theology to market analysis. We strive to maintain the rightful autonomy of these disciplines while endeavouring to develop a science that can fully utilize the insights of both”. In other words, they aspire to offer “a nuanced synthesis of free-market economic science and the science of moral theology grounded in a personalist anthropology” [vi] [emphasis added].

Economic personalism – The “academic” version

The achievement of such a synthesis is possible – according to the above-mentioned economic personalists – because of the fact that the economic theory and the moral theology have a common field of investigation, namely the human action: economy is the study of the human action under the market conditions, while the moral theology is the study of the rightness or wrongness of human action in general. In this way, the two disciplines cross each other in the area of the study of the human person and that of the systematic analysis of the human action.

The most important epistemological asset that the “academic” version of economic personalism brings in is the Catholic-inspired theological vision of the person applied to economic realities. What do we actually mean by this? As it is nowadays widely recognized “much policy disagreement among managers, scientists, policy makers, and citizens derives from substantial, though usually implicit, differences in the way we think about human nature – about the strengths, frailties, intelligence, ignorance, honesty, selfishness, generosity, and altruism of individuals” [emphasis added] [vii]. It comes out that, according to the dominant conventional wisdom, the human being is understood and approached as individual. This holds true for every single social science. In this context, the true novelty economic personalism proposes is the understanding and approaching of the human being as a person. In other words, this new interdisciplinary field of investigation holds an outstanding epistemological potential: the theologically-inspired transfiguration of individual-based economic analysis into a person-based economic analysis. Provided this would be the case, then the outcome would be the achievement of the long-standing desire for true synthesis of theology and economics. Accordingly, we shall further briefly investigate how the current state of economic personalism answers (or not) this unique potential.

If we were to reassess the fundamental conceptual assertions of the academic-type economic personalism – as it is nowadays professed [viii] –, we could say the following:
  • Economic personalism does not call into question the epistemological foundations of economic science (that is, its empirical and mathematical character);
  • Instead, it tries to ensure a more comprehensive image within the economic investigation field, bringing to the attention of economists that their subjects, the economic agents, are, after all, human persons;
  • In other words, economic personalism wants the economic discipline to enlarge its sphere of investigation so that, alongside the current concern with mathematical models and statistical analyses, it deals also with anthropology and morals.

In addition to all these considerations it should be emphasized that the person’s dignity and value are at the centre of the concept and form the basis for the entire analysis developed by the academic-type economic personalist philosophy. In accordance with this perspective, Gronbacher notes that “...the incarnation of Jesus has elevated human nature into a position of utter uniqueness by being raised into the unity of the divine person of the Son of God. Every human person is somebody unique and unrepeatable” [ix]. The personalists think that this assertion regarding the huge dignity attributed to the human being has a profound significance, as it shows the greatness God has given to him. Therefore, “the value of the person is not derived from an individual’s contributions, talents, or achievements but has to do with the ineffable ontological significance of their being. Human existence is endowed with dignity, the dignity of a conscious, free, and creative being” [x]. In this way, centred on the outstanding importance of human dignity, the academic-type of economic personalism has as its climax the idea that each person ought to be affirmed for his or her own sake. Following this line of reasoning, it is further maintained that: “Acknowledging and respecting a person’s dignity entails the following: (1) the obligation to respect another person’s sense of value, (2) positive affirmation for work performed, and (3) what von Hildebrand and Wojtyla have called ‘value response’, or the possibility for self-transcendence in love insofar as the subject conforms himself to the preciousness and worth of the person for his own sake” [xi].

Let us note that this centrality attributed to human dignity issues reflects the quasi-absolute attention paid to the moral and ethical dimension of the human person. What is surprisingly missing in the analytical discourse of this version of economic personalism is the lack of proper references to God, namely to transcendental (and spiritual) dimension of the human person. In fact, the academic-type of the economic personalism seems to operate in a “half-measure manner”. On the one hand, it is emphasized that the human being was created in the Image of the Person Jesus Christ, and in this way he is called to be a person itself : “Christ not only reveals God’s salvific will for all humanity but (He) is a revelation of man, of what man was intended to be at creation and is, by reason of incarnation of the Son of God and by reason of the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of the God-Man Jesus Christ (...) In this respect, Jesus is the revelation of what humanity now is – a unique refraction of the divine image” [xii]. On the other hand, however, there is no reference to human being’s response to this loving calling of Christ. To say that a human person’s dignity relies on “the possibility for self-transcendence in love insofar as the subject conforms himself to the preciousness and worth of the person for his own sake” is equal to implicitly saying that there is no response at all, as “the possibility for self-transcendence in love” refers exclusively to fellow-creatures, not to Christ. In other words, what is actually missing is the crucial dimension of interpersonal communion between man and God, the genuine transcendental and spiritual dimension of human person.

In sum, the essential principles that the “academic” version of the economic personalism affirms are the following:
  • The dignity and value of the person resides at the very centre of philosophical reflection and provides the foundation for all subsequent analysis;
  • Each person is an original, unique, and unrepeatable expression of human nature;
  • Both the dignity and uniqueness of human person are fully reflected in the maxim that each person ought to be affirmed for his or her own sake. This means that there is a recognition and response to the value of each and every person. The consequence is the requirement that persons never be treated as means to an end;
  • Consequently, the economic personalism analysis focuses upon adjudicating economic arrangements which promote or denigrate human dignity.

Economic personalism – The “ecclesiastical” version

As we already have mentioned, in its attempt to achieve a true synthesis of economics and theology, the academic-type economic personalism holds an outstanding epistemological potential: the theologically-inspired transfiguration of individual-based economic analysis into a person-based economic analysis. The conclusion we arrived at is that the theological vision of the person applied by such an economic personalism is not yet properly equipped to successfully fulfil this challenging task.

In any case, there is no doubt that this version of economic personalism is at present a relatively obscure system of thought, untested in many respects, and by no means comprehensive in scope or expertise. On the other hand, however, it is in its nascent stages of development, and so it remains open to enlargement, realignment and refinement. Under such circumstances, the ecclesiastical-type (that is, Christian-Orthodox) contribution to further development of economic personalism could consist in bringing forward the faith-teaching of the Holy Fathers of Eastern Church regarding the human person. In this final section of our article we shall try to formulate some considerations in this respect.

We think of utmost importance to mention from the very beginning that, according to Holy Fathers, “the person” is a mysterious supernatural Revelation, revealed to us in the Person of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, the Son of the God. The patristic Orthodox theology shows that The Holy Trinity, from Whom both the order of creation and the order of redemption proceeds, is an infinite communion of self-giving love. And so the Person of Jesus the Saviour is the Image of the Father. As being created in Holy Trinity’s Image, the human being is an icon of the Image of the Person Jesus Christ, and in this way he is called to be a person itself. In other words, each human being is called to achieve the perfection of his own personhood by entering into interpersonal communion with Christ. At the same time, Holy Fathers say that Christ is the Head of the Church, while we are members of the Christ’s Church. It comes out from here that each human being is also called to enter into interpersonal communion with his or her fellow-creatures.

This central and critical importance that Orthodox theology attaches to human person’s interpersonal communion with God and with others shows us explicitly the importance it attaches, at the same time, to the distinction between “the individual” and “the person”. In this respect, let us recall that Saint Maximus the Confessor speaks about the distinction between man’s “natural will” and “gnomical will”. Natural will is the expression of human nature (character) created by God, which is oriented, by the act of Creation itself, towards the communion with God. This will is an attribute of human nature created in God’s Image so that natural will (energy) implies natural liberty, which is natural inclination towards God, the genuine liberty. At the same time, gnomical will is the expression of the man’s fallen hypostasis; it is the “free will”, that is hypostatical liberty, man’s possibility to choose without any prohibitions [xiii]. The Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky says: “However, following Saint Maximum the Confessor’s approach, this freedom to choose (that is, gnomical will – our addition) is already in itself a non-perfection, a limitation of the genuine liberty. A perfect (human) nature does not need to choose, as it knows innately ‘the good’: its liberty is founded on this knowledge. Our free will shows the non-perfection of the fallen human nature, the losing of our resemblance to God” [xiv].

In accordance with these considerations, the Romanian Orthodox theologian Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae shows that man has the capacity to consciously look at, and to freely tend to what is “beyond” the created world – in other words, beyond himself and even beyond his state, his condition of creature –, that is towards his Creator. Consequently, when man chooses, in accordance with his gnomical will, to separate himself from his natural will – the will that guides him towards the interpersonal communion with God –, in this case he remains in the condition of individual [xv]. To put it differently, in his condition of individual, man rejects his communion with God and chooses autonomy in relation to Him. As individual – further elaborates Fr.Stăniloae – man remains an existence which is closed, imprisoned both in itself and in this earthly world; he remains imprisoned within the created order level of existence, actualizing in this way the possibility to part from God and his fellow-creatures. As an individual, he remains a mere exemplar among many others of his species; his uniqueness derives exclusively from his individuality as an exemplar of his species [xvi]. He is dominated by mere material concerns, while the spiritual and otherwordly aspects of his life are downplayed in favour of the material and temporal. As individual, he consequently remains in a fallen condition of existence: being primarily concerned with fulfilment of his material needs, he conceives of social relations as tension-filled exercises in the claiming and limiting of rights, isolating himself in a self-centered attitude that views all the life as directed inwardly toward the self.

On the contrary, when man chooses to accord his gnomical will with his natural will, in this case he elevates himself to the condition of person. As person, man actualizes his potential capacity to consciously look at what is beyond himself and his condition of creature, which is towards his Creator. As person, man is always in interpersonal communion with God and with others. As person, man is primarily concerned with fulfilment of his spiritual needs, thus deepening his interior life and experiencing an inner transformation as expressions of self-giving love to God and to others.

Trying to capitalize on what has been said above, we would like to underline that, in our opinion, the culminating insight of Orthodox personalist thought appears to be the idea that human being is called to enter into interpersonal communion with Christ and with others. Depending on the answer offered, a clear-cut distinction between man’s fallen condition of individual and his elevated condition of person is made. This means that central to Orthodox thought are spiritual values. Accordingly, as part of our preliminary considerations, we would like to say that by bringing forward the teaching of the Eastern Holy Fathers, the moral dimension which dominantly defines the Catholic vision on human person (employed by the supporters of the academic version of economic personalism) could be surpassed and even transfigured by the spiritual dimension which fully inform the Orthodox vision (and substantiate the “ecclesiastical” version of economic personalism).


[i] Gregory M.A. Gronbacher (1998), The Need for Economic Personalism, in The Journal of Markets & Morality 1, No.1 (Spring ), p.1.
[ii] Gloria L. Zuniga (2001), What Is Economic Personalism? A Phenomenological Analysis, in The Journal of Markets & Morality 4, No.2 (Fall), pp.151-175.
[iii] Kevin E. Schmiesing (2001), The Context of Economic Personalism, in The Journal of Markets & Morality 4, No.2 (Fall), pp.176-193.
[iv] Francis Woehrling (2001), “Christian” Economics, in The Journal of Markets & Morality 4, No.2 (Fall), pp.199-216.
[v] Gronbacher, op.cit, p.2.
[vi] Gronbacher, op.cit., p.3.
[vii] Michael C. Jensen, William H. Meckling (1994), The Nature of Man, in Journal of Applied Corporate Finance, No.2, p.4.
[viii] See Zuniga, op.cit, pp.151,165; Schmiesing, op.cit, pp.176-177, 180-182; Gronbacher, op.cit., pp.1-3,10, 29.
[ix] Gronbacher, op.cit., p.6.
[x] Gronbacher, ibidem., p.6.
[xi] Gronbacher, op.cit., p.8.
[xii] Gronbacher, op.cit., p.7.
[xiii] See also Lucian Șușanu (2001), Orthodox personalism and liberal individualism (Personalism ortodox și individualism liberal, Dilema, No.456, p.12.
[xiv] Vladimir Lossky (1995), Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Teologia mistică a bisericii de răsărit), Bucharest, Anastasia Publishing House, p.111.
[xv] Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae (1991), Studies of Dogmatic Orthodox Theology (Studii de teologie dogmatică ortodoxă), Craiova, Oltenia’s Metropolitan Church Printing House, p.30.
[xvi] Stăniloae, op.cit.,pp. 98, 119.


The Romanian-American Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture (RAFPEC)
Amfiteatru Economic

OEconomica No. 1, 2016