Parallels Between Economics and Theology Provide Stunning Connections

By Melissa Schaaf

RJ Hernandez

Theology and economics seem to notably stem from two completely different sets of principles and foundations.

Iliff School of Theology adjunct professor R.J. Hernández-Diaz argues differently. He contends that in Western societies, theological matters have always been related to economic matters and have been linked to economic forces around the globe.

“We’re often told that these two subjects are as far apart as you can get,” he said. “Economics is about the ‘here and now;’ it’s fixed and scientific. Theology is a subjective experience; it’s unverifiable and thoroughly spiritual. There are, in fact, stunning connections between the two (subject areas), which have by and large gone unnoticed by economists and theologians.”

In order to shed light on the parallels of economics and theology, Hernández-Diaz gave a lecture during a University of Denver’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) lecture series. OLLI is an adult learning membership program designed for persons age 50 and older.

He presented three distinct parallels between economics and theology, including faith, supremacy and an eschatological, or final answer or outcome.

Regarding the first parallel, he illustrates how Christian faith and economics have clear similarities in the trust and confidence that believers and consumers put into these two areas. He described economic ‘truths,’ or concepts widely believed that prove valid based on several studies, and then compared that with theological underpinnings. These parallels are as follows: the market is all knowing; the market is all good; the economy is all powerful.

“Despite the rise and fall of markets, faith remains undiminished even on the fall of the economy,” he commented. “The same holds true with religious faith: in good times and in bad, followers remain faithful.”

The second parallel is that of supremacy. Hernández-Diaz said that the economy acts as a motivator for happiness through consumption. Similar to the idea of Heaven, economic satisfaction is always situated just out of reach; it’s in a position that is always deferred and is constantly a destination to work toward.

“Both economics and theology demand an unwavering commitment, with the faith that in the end it’s going to benefit us all,” he added. “To critique it is to be a socialist or a utopian idealist.”

The final parallel is of an eschatological answer, or the idea of a final answer. He noted that seeking a final answer can deter individuals from focusing on the present day and being proactive, as they instead wait for an ultimate solution.

“There’s nothing wrong with a little eschatological hope,” he said. “At least not on the face of it. The problem arises when it short-circuits the amelioration of suffering and lack of concern for the here and now. There’s very little attention paid to the systematic causes of human misery and because of an eschatological answer, there’s no reason to search for resolutions because the final answer is already set up as a solution: either God will take care of it, or the market will in its own timing.”

Hernández-Diaz emphasizes that the parallels point to a larger perspective that face both economics and theology, as opposed to the standard approach that is based on implicit faith – the faith that the economy will bring about prosperity for all, and the faith that theology will bring happiness in the form of salvation.

“Largely both theology and economics have failed to look at things in a systemic way,” he added. “There’s an opportunity to re-envision and reformulate, not by looking up but by looking down.”

In this he means consideration of the majority, not just of the wealthy and prosperous, also known as a ‘bottom up’ perspective.

“A bottom up perspective helps us to envision alternate solutions from a theological and economic standpoint,” he remarked.

He continues to study the economy with the intent of researching potential structural resolutions that could bring about a higher level of market and economic equality.

“I don’t simply want to be a critic of the economy without also being a critic of theology,” he said. “There’s an interrelationship between theology and economics – they don’t exist as independent, discreet entities. There needs to be a practice of creative and imaginative construction of theology and economics.”

Hernández-Diaz regularly teaches courses on the intersection of theology and socially constructed categories of difference, as well as the history of Christianity. His current research focuses on the role of economic reasoning in the Christian moral imagination. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious and Theological Studies from the Joint Doctoral Program of the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology, an M.A. in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.