Gnosticism is one the most resilient heresies in the Christian Church. It is alive and well today and it has a direct impact on how we deal with the economics. There have been many variations of Gnosticism but they all share at least two elements: First, there is a belief in a secret knowledge that is accessible to some select group. Second, there is a distinct division (dualism) between material and spiritual worlds, and the material world is viewed as evil or at best irrelevant.
Business and trade are of the material world. There has always been ambivalence in the Church toward these pursuits. We can trace this ambivalence back to the days of the Roman Empire. Economic trade was viewed as a disreputable activity by the educated Roman elite. They believed that the only virtuous “business” for a Roman Citizen was self-sufficient agricultural production through operation of large villas. When the empire fell and invaders destroyed the last vestiges of Pax Romana, much of society was thrown into chaos. The only place scholarship took place was in monasteries or places where wealthy Lords would protect scholars. Literacy became the luxury of a very select few.
Scripture was effectively removed from the community and placed in the hands of few educated elite ecclesiastical officials. It was also during this time that an overly spiritualized view of the world creped into the Church. Over the early centuries of the Church, the Lord’s Supper, which had been a common meal shared between believers around a table, became increasing imbued with mysterious content. Only a person who was schooled in the great “mysteries” of the faith could preside over this ritual and other sacraments. There was a growing chasm between the clergy (the specially called) and the laity (the common or vulgar people.) The clergy were spiritual and the laity did secular work. The political elites of later centuries still carried with them a general disdain for economic trade. The ecclesiastical elites shared this perspective along with them as they were usually from the same families and social circles.
In earlier posts, I wrote about the rise of capitalism in monasteries at the end of the first millennium. Because of the ascetic values, control over vast tracts of land, and strong work ethic in monasteries, improvements in agriculture and technology made them quite prosperous. This naturally created ambivalence for monks who had taken vows of poverty yet found themselves the wealthiest group in society. The Church increasingly became involved in international lending to the rising nation states during the Middle Ages. There is no question the financial and political power gained by the Church had corrosive influence on its ethics and leadership. This entanglement of the church in financial and political matters would lead some to conclude that business itself was evil and a corrupting influence. Nevertheless, the Church still looked unfavorably upon (officially at least) lenders and merchants.
The Reformation introduced the idea of the priesthood of all believers and the idea of individual calling. However, this new perspective tended to keep intact the status ranking of various of types of work while encouraging people to accept the calling (i.e., life situation) of where God had placed them. Merchants and financiers were still considered lesser, if not disreputable, occupations. Some of that began to change in England which was given the moniker (intended to be derogatory) of “a nation of shopkeepers” sometime around the Napoleonic era by Continental Europeans. The idea of business as unseemly has largely persisted down to this day.
The problem at the end of the nineteenth century was that enlightenment modernist had disestablished the Church as the final authority in culture. Ecclesiastical authority was increasingly ignored and its condescension toward “worldly pursuits” was derided. The modernist had produced several decades of unparalleled economic growth and rising prosperity through entrepreneurs and financiers who were no longer “restrained” by ecclesiastical attitudes. All that was needed was for humanity to decide where they wanted to go and humanity could go there. Humanity now had the physical and intellectual technology to apply material resources toward whatever ends they chose.
The culture was increasingly coming under the influence of secularized modernist worldviews, drunk with pride over more than two centuries of astonishing achievements. Some were inclined to welcome this progress into the Church with open arms and others saw it as threat to the Christian faith. It was in this context that Pope Leo XIII wrote his brilliant encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. He recognized both the abuses perpetrated in the name of laissez-faire capitalism and foresaw the ominous rise of socialism and totalitarianism. Both of these were direct extensions of materialistic thinking. One was utterly individualistic and the other communitarian. Both failed to honor the authority of the Creator beyond our material existence and both failed to honor the balance of individual image bearers of God living in community. The Pope’s effort was in part to establish a Christian anthropology that would inform how we think about economic behavior. It emphasized such things as human beings created as God’s image bearers, human beings being co-creators with God in the natural order, the importance of community obligations, and the importance of subsidiarity. It was actually quite prophetic.
However, the Roman Catholic influence was not strong in the US at that time. Protestant Christianity was the driving force of the day and unfortunately, rather than discerning a sound Christian anthropology, the Church in America became dominated by competing Gnostic-like dualisms that gave unhealthy interpretaions to work in the material world.