The phrase “economy of salvation” puzzles many who wonder what faith and finance have to do with each other. One definition of economy is “the disposition or regulation of the parts or functions of any organic whole; an organized system or method”, and it is in this sense that the term “economy” is applicable to many things that do not involve financial exchange. But our instinctive association of “economy” with financial matters is not all bad; it turns out that the economy of salvation has considerable relevance to fiscal affairs.
What put me on to this was a fine article in First Things by Gary Anderson, professor of Old Testament at Notre Dame, entitled “Faith & Finance”. Anderson points out that the word creditor in English is based on the Latin credere , “to believe”, a linguistic relationship which holds true for other languages as well. Indeed, as economists, politicians and pundits have been saying ever since bad mortgages torpedoed the economy last year, the fiscal economy is based on belief or trust. A creditor lends money on the belief that the debtor will pay it back, investors lay out funds on the belief that growth will occur in their investment sectors, and all of us spend our money in the belief that the targeted goods and services will be responsibly delivered. Faith (or trust, if you prefer) lies at the heart of economic activity. When faith breaks down, the economy grinds to a miserable halt.
The Divine Economy
The same is true in the Divine economy: It works only when the participants can be trusted to fulfill their commitments. When we betray God’s trust in us, which is so richly manifested in the many benefits He has conferred upon us, the economy of salvation takes a hit. On the other side, of course, God is always faithful, though we often have trouble acting as if we believe it. But if we act in ways that are pleasing to God, we lay up treasure in heaven, as Our Lord taught (Mt 19:21; Mk 10:21; Lk 12:33, 18:22). In fact, Our Lord promises a magnificent return on investment: “Give, and it shall be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over” (Lk 6:38). If we could but trust this promise, which of us would not immediately launch a personal stimulus package for the economy of salvation?
Moreover, this spiritual economy has a direct material impact. In the Book of Tobit we learn that openhandedness with the poor is an acceptable sacrifice, working essentially like Temple sacrifice to win favor with God. As Anderson points out, from the time of Tobit the hands of the poor have been considered to be a type of altar; they transmit goods from earth to heaven. An investment in almsgiving builds up a treasure that neither rust nor moths consume. In Our Lord’s own teaching, a rich fool puts his faith in barns and storehouses, and loses everything in the bargain (Luke 12). The spiritual and temporal dimensions of this question are summed up nicely in Proverbs 19:17: “The one who is generous to the poor makes a loan to God.”
The key thing to remember here is that God is infinitely faithful and has an infinite capacity to ensure return on investment. Pascal’s wager might well have been written in economic terms. The economy of salvation also includes infinite investments by God in us. He creates and sustains everything out of sheer love, and it is not for nothing that the word Redeemer means “one who buys something back.” God’s faith in us may at times go unreciprocated, but no matter how one looks at it, investment in the Divine economy is the world’s only sure thing. To quote a particularly fine passage from Anderson’s article:
How can we be assured of a handsome return on our charitable behavior? By understanding that we are really making a loan to God and he is altogether dependable (believable, credible) to make good every coupon of the bond we hold against him. Religious faith, in other words, grants an ability to give a coherent account of the charitable principle on which the world was founded and continues to run. Put another way: Practicing random acts of kindness, for the believer, is not really random. It is the act of tapping into the deep ontological structure of the universe.
The Structure of the Universe
The close connection between human affairs, including economic affairs, and the operations of Providence should not surprise us. Reality is what it is, and every aspect of life must inevitably reflect its structure. Thus Anderson’s article touches briefly even on the implications of the economy of salvation for social policy. He notes that modern democratic societies often tend to ignore or devalue the virtue that derives from the Divine economy: “We have developed a larger interest in redistributing income legislatively than in providing a rationale for sacrificial giving on the part of the laity…. Service towards the poor becomes a means of rectifying social inequities rather than a theological claim as to how the world is ordered.” Strikingly, he also cites Catholic laity of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who were already concerned about the growth of government when they asked: “If the state assumes responsibility for feeding the poor in place of us, how will we be redeemed?”
I don’t raise this point to discourage people from engaging in politics to foster social justice; nor do I worry that the state can ever provide for all human wants, exhausting the need for virtue. But there is clearly a danger in thinking that if we have engaged in the right sort of politics, we have thereby satisfied the demands the very structure of the universe places upon us. I return (as I have in other essays) to Pope Benedict’s most telling practical point in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est , section 31, which is excerpted below:
[T]the command of love of neighbor is inscribed by the Creator in man’s very nature. It is also a result of the presence of Christianity in the world, since Christianity constantly revives and acts out this imperative, so often profoundly obscured in the course of time…. For this reason, it is very important that the Church’s charitable activity maintains all of its splendor and does not become just another form of social assistance. So what are the essential elements of Christian and ecclesial charity?
(a) We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern…. Consequently, in addition to their necessary professional training, …charity workers need a “formation of the heart”: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others.
(b) Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs. …The Christian’s program—the program of the Good Samaritan, the program of Jesus — is “a heart which sees”. This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly.
(c) Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God…. A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak. He knows that God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8) and that God’s presence is felt at the very time when the only thing we do is to love. He knows…that disdain for love is disdain for God and man alike; it is an attempt to do without God.
An Economy of Love
I have already noted that all economy is based on faith, and that an economy can work only if faith is preserved. It is sufficient for economic success that all economic actors perform their obligations, such that the faith which lies at the basis of all economy is justified in the results. Nonetheless, a mechanical implementation of faith is ultimately sterile and unsatisfying, a mere exchange of actions and reactions — a well-oiled machine, if you like, but still a machine. It takes something more for any ordered system to become fully human, for any mechanism of exchange to become fully satisfying. It takes love.
In his first point (a) about the distinctiveness of Christian activity above, Benedict went on to say that the result of the necessary Christian formation of the heart is that “love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love (cf. Gal 5:6).” When faith is active through love, when all of the responsibilities upon which others depend are fulfilled with love, economy nourishes the whole man. In fact, the divine economy — the economy of salvation — is an ordered system of love, a love “inscribed by the Creator in man’s very nature.”
All human activity should mirror this fundamental law of love. Just as simple economic exchange breaks down when faith disappears, the quality and depth of the exchange suffers when love is absent. It is love, in a thousand different and constantly varying expressions, which ensures that every exchange enriches the whole person. Moreover, love is the best guarantor that faith will be kept. It alone is a sufficient motive to fulfill all responsibility well, with no cutting of corners, no minimalism, no lack of diligence. In the end, where love erodes, faith is doomed to disappear. The loss of hope is never far behind. This is the nature of things. This is the deep reality behind all economies, both human and divine.