Christian Education in a Capitalist Society:

Money and God



in David Ford and Dennis L. Stamps (eds) Essentials of Christian Community: Essays in Honour of Daniel W. Hardy Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark 1996, pp. 241-252  ISBN: 0 567 08502 3

Inviting theology to engage with the forms of society, Daniel Hardy says that this should be done not simply in symbolic terms but through analysis of particular social structures. It is not enough to offer merely transcendent symbols which suggest meanings; one must give a more practical shape to our life with God by relating these to our social structures: ‘. . . there is an inevitable interaction between concepts of social structure and those of God. Perhaps because theology has tended to emphasise the absoluteness of God, Hardy continues, whereas social theorists have generally emphasised the relativity of social structures, it has not been easy to establish such connections. Moreover, theology should seek to engage with the most universal aspects of social form, since if examples of limited applicability are taken, there will be a tendency to descend into 'sectionalised identity and ultimately to self-isolation'.

This approach has important implications for the religious education of adults, which will be developed in relation to money. Not only is money one of the most universal of social structures, but it occupies a central place in that form of society which, originating in Europe and in North America, has established its influence if not its domination in all parts of the human world: capitalism. In a word, you can have money without capitalism, but you cannot have capitalism without money. There are close cognitive and affective links between concepts of money and concepts of God, which together constitute a climate of spiritual formation so powerful and so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible. A much neglected but nonetheless central task of adult education within the Christian traditions lies in unravelling these connections and exposing them to the challenge of Christian discipleship. Some of what will be said here is also relevant to Jewish adults, and the theme is highly significant for the self-understanding of all the great traditions of faith, many of which have developed their own distinctive response to money.


Various materials, both natural and artificial, have been used to facilitate exchange or as a medium of payment. These materials have included animal hides, cowrie shells, whisky and precious metals. Although some of these materials (whisky and animal hides) retain their use-value even when used primarily for exchange purposes, others (cowrie shells, silver and gold) have little use-value apart from ornamentation or ceremony, and may become mainly devoted to exchange values. In all such cases, these materials retain their concrete character. The whisky is measured and remains whisky; the gold is weighed to make sure that the right amount is being exchanged for the goods offered; even the cowrie shells are examined for their number and quality.

The move from the concrete to the abstract took place with the creation of coins in the Greek cities of the eastern Aegean in the seventh century BCE. The essential features of the coin are stamped upon it: a numerical equivalent and an issuing authority. The latter may have been a temple, a city or a state. The first feature meant that the coin represents quantitative value expressed in abstract terms; the quality and the concrete attributes of the coin are irrelevant. It took centuries to realise fully that the reality of the coin lay in this abstract relationship rather than in its physical properties. Gradually it became apparent that the number-value and the source of authority did not have to be printed upon a precious metal or upon any metal what- ever, but could equally be printed upon paper or written in it ledger or preserved electronically. Although in principle the coin was from its beginning abstract, the process of realising this can be called ‘the spiritualisation of money’.4

Money became unique amongst the commodities. Indeed, it became the commodity which represented the mutual relationships or the social values attributed to all other commodities.5 Having no intrinsic properties of any use, money became the most generally useful of all objects. Having no value (you can't eat or drink a coin, wear it for warmth or make love to it) money became supremely valuable as the representative of all other values. Because money is the means to all ends, it quickly becomes an end in itself.6 Those who first found money convenient because it facilitated ‘selling in order to buy’ soon discovered that money was even more convenient because it made possible ‘buying in order to sell’.7 As the most purely general and most fluid expression of human will and desire, money quickly established its autonomy, an autonomy which was the very incarnation or the very spiritualisation (depending upon whether you emphasise the concrete nature of the symbol or its universal meaning) of the autonomy of the human will and reason.

It was in the presence of coins that people first encountered things made in space and time, which transcended both space and time.8 Although the wine might go sour and the iron become rusty, the coin had much the same value here as there, tomorrow as today. Its essence seemed to lie beneath its qualities. Although it could certainly be hoarded in a treasure-trove, it did not reach its full flexibility as money until it was circulated, in and out of the commodities which represented it. Money gave an immense impetus to the scope of the merchant classes, and merchant capital began its long career.

Human beings have now lived with money for more than two and a half millennia. Philosophers from Aristotle to Kant and beyond have explored the meaning of money, but its influence upon habits of thought and social relations goes beyond the overt philosophical interest which money has attracted.9 The impact of money in moulding human life including perception and cognition can only be compared to that of language. Language and money are the two great institutions, created by human beings, which, having attained a significant degree of autonomy, now recreate us in their own likeness. Each institution offers a subtle interplay between the internal life of the individual and the wider life of society, between the subjective and the objective.10 Each thus occupies what Donald Winnicott would have called ‘intermediate space' 11 and is thus a fruitful ground both for human development into increased adaptability and maturity, and also for the play of fantasy, regression and self-deception.

Money tends to inflate the sense of personal freedom. Because we are the speakers, we do not notice very much the language which speaks through us. Because we are the buyers and sellers, we do not notice very much the structure of money which envelops us. Nothing appears to be so much my own as what I say and spend. The truth is, however, that just as there is no private language so there is no private money. It is as social selves bound together in solidarity that language and money create us. The institutions which made social intercourse in both ideas and materials so human have become the source of division and domination. In this capacity, however, language and money conceal themselves. They actively resist clarification and disclosure.


Matthew and Luke report that Jesus said it is impossible to serve God and Mammon (Matt. 6.24; Lk. 16.13). ‘In reality, money in its psychological form, as the absolute means and thus as the unifying point of innumerable sequences of purposes, possesses a significant relationship to the notion of God - a relationship that only psychology, which has the privilege of being unable to commit blasphemy, may disclose'.12 In money, all commodities meet for purposes of comparison. All their various qualities disappear and they are reduced to a single standard. Money is thus the meeting point of innumerable particularities, the concrete in which all other concretes are related, the point at which the one and the many coincide, the little which encompasses the big, since each coin is related to the entire coinage and thus to the entire world of things.

Referring to Nicholas de Cusa, Simmel remarks that God is indeed the coincidence of opposites, the one who is like money in that as the ground, representative and equivalent of all things, God is the most general and at the same time the most specific of things, both in time and yet timeless, in space yet not confined anywhere. There is no doubt, Simmel suggests, that the feelings which money arouses ‘possess a psychological similarity to those aroused by the idea of God in the believer. . . Money provides an elevated position above the particular and a confidence in its omnipotence .. .’.13 Being thus engrossed in the nature of money gives one a view from above upon the nature of life, rather similar to the point of view which the believer can adopt. Just as one struggles restlessly until one obtains the supreme satisfaction of the ultimate resting place in God, so also the struggle and the agonised quest for money reaches its sense of ‘blissful peace’ and achievement when the money is won. In both cases, consciousness attains the blissful awareness of standing at the ‘focal point of existence’.

The frequent animosity of the religious and clerical mentality towards money matters may perhaps be traced to its instinct for the similarity in psychological form between the highest economic and the highest cosmic unity and to its awareness of the danger of competition between monetary and religious interests - a danger that has been shown to exist not only where the substance of life is economic but also where it is religious.14

So striking are these parallels that something beyond mere parallelism is at stake. The links between the concept of money and that of God are found not only at the subjective level, in the sense of ultimate concern as a psychological phenomenon, but objectively as well in the structure of the concept. ‘Money is the symbol in the empirical world of the inconceivable unity of being, out of which the world, in all its breadth, diversity, energy and reality flows’.15 The concept of money is thus akin to that of being itself. Free from all particularities, it can sometimes be rightly described as liquid money, taking the shape of all things, flowing into the form of all interests, uniting all subjectivities, relating all things and yet being free from the particular characteristics of anything. It is the closest analogue we have to the power of being itself, since money offers no resistance to any intention but supports the positive value of every entity. Money is ‘a measure of things without being measured itself, a purpose that can be realised fully only by an endless development’.16 Money represents the perfect flux and balance of absolute universal lawfulness. God, by the same token, is the unmoved mover,17 the one whose universal availability corresponds to his omnipresence. The same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him (Rom. 10.12).

Going beyond the analysis offered by Simmel, Sohn-Rethel and Thompson, a biblical theology for adult education must distinguish between God as a universal and God as having a preference for the poor. Similarly, one may emphasise the formal universality of money and its undifferentiated power to impose a pattern upon all values, and (on the other hand) what we might call the preferential power of money. It is noteworthy that Simmel pays very little attention to this latter aspect.18 Simmel does refer to the tendency of money to cluster together, thus giving an advantage to the person who already possesses a great deal of it.

Through the process of centralisation that is inherent in money, the preliminary stage of accumulation in the hands of scattered individuals has been surmounted. The centralisation of monetary transactions on the stock exchanges counteracted the superior power that individuals could wield by monetary means.19

Simmel's analysis at this point, however, is purely formal. Instead of the wealthy individuals being scattered, their monetary resources are concentrated and unified in the stock exchange, which does indeed centralise and thus balance out the transactions of those who participate in it. It never seems to occur to Simmel that if money has a tendency to concentrate in the hands of a few people, who may furthermore institutionalise their monetary interests in a solid phalanx, there must be others, perhaps many others, perhaps most others, who discover that money is sucked away by this very same centripetal force.

It is significant that Simmel distinguished between the character of religion, spirituality and the law on the one hand and that of money on the other, remarking that while money offers its services equally to every purpose within its sphere of influence, religion, spirituality, law and metaphysics tend to become partisan, ultimately allying themselves with one interest or another. Thus money ‘does not exist in an antagonistic relationship to other things as do the other forces as soon as they transform their general meaning into a particular one’.20 Simmel thinks that money preserves its completely indifferent and impartial quality even when it is negotiating between people, which is why most disputes can be solved through money. Simmel does not sufficiently emphasise the power of money to influence the law and that religion can be the expression of the power of the wealthy.

If money adapts itself to every human intention, it is available for the intentions of those who would exploit and oppress others. To say that it is equally available to the poor and oppressed would mean but little since most money is concentrated in the hands of the oppressors. The truth is that Simmel's book is about the philosophy of money, not about the politics of poverty. It is typical of his approach that when he writes about the links between spirituality and money, he emphasises the power of money to create ‘an abstract existence’, ‘an island of subjectivity, a secret, closed-off sphere of privacy’.21 Simmel sees spirituality mainly in aesthetic terms, rather than as an ethical or political quality. Just as we may ask whether money is not only universal but also has a preference for the rich, so we may ask whether God, who is universal, also expresses a preference for the poor. When the universality is emphasised, God may be interpreted as the superstructure of financial consciousness.

This is the emphasis which we find in Marxist authors such as Thompson and Sohn-Rethel. The remarkable book by the latter takes not so much money itself but the moment of commodity exchange as being the base from which the superstructure of financial consciousness arises. While Kant was correct in arguing that the presuppositions of the knowing mind lie beyond the mind itself, he was mistaken in locating these structures in the transcendental a priori. The so-called a priori elements arise from differences in the outlook of the mental and the manual labourer. They may be discovered in an analysis of the exchange relationship in which the nature of money reaches its most abstract form. The social origin of its philosophical a priori is not recognised by the European bourgeois mind. That illustrates the fetish-like quality of these conceptions and the false consciousness which they generate.22 It is because of this abstract quality that there is an affinity between exchange relations and spirituality, while the separation of thought from intention in the exchange transaction23 tends to internalise the spirituality. Thus we reach the notion of internal spirituality as a falsifying projection of exchange relationships. Likewise, God is abstract, spiritual, unified, transcendent, mysterious and so on.

When the distinction between the rich and the poor is emphasised, then the preferential nature of money and the preferential bias of God towards the poor will emerge. For all of its power in unmasking the identity of the concept of the universal and abstract God as the fetish-like projection of money in the exchange relationship, Marxist theory finds it difficult to account for those cases where the concept of God is that of one who has a preference for the poor. A striking example of this is found in the otherwise excellent book by Thompson previously referred to. ‘In the Hebrew prophets’, Thompson observes, ‘for the first time in history, the dispossessed peasantry found a voice - a voice preserved in writing and treasured from that day to this by generations of European peasants struggling against the same wrongs and inspired with the same hopes’.24 As in other ancient oriental monarchies, Thompson suggests, the idea of the king was imposed upon the people by the ruling class as a means of consolidating its power, and had the Hebrew kingdom remained united and strong no doubt the eighth-century prophets would have been suppressed. As for the vision of God in these prophets, ‘its moral nobility springs from its historical origin as a vision of the classless society that had passed away and was to come again’.25

This brief account is quite unsatisfactory. Why did not a similar voice of protest break through when monarchical institutions were temporarily weakened in other ancient oriental states? Thompson makes no reference to the Exodus tradition and does not appear to realise that the prophets of the eighth century already stood in a stream of social and political protest. In that sense Thompson is much inferior to his Marxist contemporary Ernst Bloch, whose Das Prinzip Hoffnung was published in German in 1979, between the first and second editions of Thompson’s own book. In his earlier discussion of totemism, Thompson had remarked: that ‘the ideological superstructure has developed to the point of reacting on the social organisation out of which it has grown’.26 If, however, in the God of the Bible we already find a creative superstructure capable of transforming the social relations of society, then there is a possibility that theology itself could become an educational force and even a revolutionary power.

This is hinted at but not overtly acknowledged towards the end of Thompson’s argument. Discussing conditions in the late Republican period, he notes the growing gulf between the rich and the poor, and that while the wealthy lived in appalling luxury, the philosophers had not a word to say on behalf of the poor. They themselves were almost without exception aristocrats living comfortable lives. They had little or no contact with the labouring people, who still had a healthy view of the world because of the praxis imposed upon them by their labour. At this point, and without explanation, Thompson quotes in full the Magnificat:27 ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away’ (Lk. 1.53). Thompson regards Christianity as the heir to both the false consciousness of Greek philosophy and the prophetic protest of the Hebrew tradition. These two aspects of the Christian tradition have jostled each other ever since, and this is the point at which the educational task of the church with its adults must commence.



Much Christian adult education concerning money is confined to the use of money by the individual Christian, often in terms of Christian stewardship or the practice of charitable giving. The biblical teaching on tithing or St Paul’s collection of Christian aid for the Jerusalem church may be used as models. This approach is inadequate because:

1. It is confined to one aspect of money - money as individual gift - and says nothing about the other functions of money such as its exchange function and its pricing function.

2. It does not deal with money as a social institution and thus fails to empower Christian adults for the lay apostolate within the secular world.

3. In its treatment of the Bible as a resource for educating about money, this approach seldom refers to the socio-economic conditions in the ancient Near East nor in the Graeco-Roman world during the early Christian period. Biblical interpretation is thus narrowed to the ethical issues seen in the light of a theology of individual responsibility. The significance of the teaching of Jesus regarding the Great Reversal of the relationship between the rich and the poor can only be fully understood in the light of the economic situation of Palestine during his lifetime.28

4. Although the teaching of Jesus regarding money and wealth is of central importance for Christian education on this subject, one cannot understand or apply the sayings of Jesus if two thousand years in the evolution of money are ignored. In the study of Christian medical ethics, it is taken for granted that advances in medical technology must be understood if the ethical situations arising from them are to be dealt with responsibly. It is no less true that the changes in money which have taken place in the last ten or twenty years must be tackled if there is to be any responsible education.29

The difficulties in undertaking such a programme of education are implicit in the body of this essay. Money, like language, is so much a part of our daily lives that it hardly attracts attention as a subject demanding analysis. One is immersed in it, and the educational process which requires a detachment from it will encounter resistance. People with sight do not know that they have sight; they are not aware of the extent to which their thought patterns, personalities and intercourse with the world are patterned by their eyesight. The same is true of our participation in money.

The resistance which such an educational programme will encounter is, however, more deep-rooted. It is the nature of money to be secretive. Not only is there a strong social taboo against talking about money and against disclosing one's personal income and one's family budget, but financial institutions are shrouded in mystery. 30 The force which resists demystification is undoubtedly fear, springing from the realisation that changes in lifestyle may be demanded.

This fear will be greatest amongst those who have most to lose, and these constitute a certain class or category of possessors and users of money. Individual interest will thus be collated into social class interest, and the well known techniques of resistance will come into play.31 In the case of Christian adults, many of these techniques will be of a theological nature.32 Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world, so why are we studying money? The unravelling of these theological expressions of personal and social class interest will be a major task in the educational programme.33

The following points could usefully be borne in mind.

1. The study of money should be multi-disciplinary. Philosophy, sociology, history, anthropology, economics, literature and theology; all have a part to play. Since the tendency of resistance is to compartmentalise one’s assumptions about money, the educational programme must insist upon connections.34

2. Adults are best educated when they are enabled to move freely in and out of theory. Theory and practice should alternate. First, one has a session on the theory of banking, including various categories of banks and the various functions of banks. Next, one makes contact with the public relations department of a bank and arranges for an educational visit. Or again, one organises group discussions around the question as to whether people experience money differently at different stages of their own lives and whether there are characteristic attitudes towards money on the part of children, adults in middle life and retired people. Next, one introduces the James Fowler theory of faith development, opening up the possibility that this might interpret the previously reported materials.

3. In order to overcome the misleading and superficial familiarity of money, an education concerning money should deal with problems. This subject lends itself to a workship approach in which teams of men and women undertake to collect and report on various issues such as the history and present policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the nature and causes of third world debt, and the present situation and prospects of the gold mining industry. The technique is to confront mystification head on. Vagueness is a defence mechanism. When a study group finds that it is becoming vague, it should be trained to respond by resisting the vagueness.

4. Poverty is the other face of money. The life of St Francis of Assisi should be considered as a protest against the birth of the commodity culture.35 Attitudes to poverty are created by attitudes to wealth. The examples of adult education offered by William B. Kennedy and his colleagues in Pedagogies for the Non Poor36 deserve close study. In the report recently published by Christian Aid37 attitudes to poverty are related to a number of modes of church allegiance, each of which has a characteristic theological stance. This report offers interesting educational material for the local church. To what extent does my local church conform to one of the theological types illustrated in the report? Are attitudes to poverty consistent with this mode of allegiance, as the Christian Aid report would lead us to expect?

5. The theological education of adult Christians concerning money should focus upon two things. First, the structural affinity between money and God should be explored. What are the God-like qualities of money? What are the money-like qualities of God? Consider the implications of the financial metaphors used in theology, e.g. Christ paying the price of our sins, or the use of money in the parables of Jesus. Secondly, the differential option for the poor should always be emphasised. This becomes a question of one's fundamental theological perspective. Education concerning money is part of the programme for the evangelisation of the bourgeois church.38 The character of such an educational programme would differ considerably when conducted amongst people who were on the poverty line themselves. The gospel is not good news for the rich. The rich young ruler went away sorrowful. What is the cost of discipleship for Christians from the wealthy world today? Education concerning money must always be illuminated by a passion for social justice.

6. In using the Bible, the broad context should always be kept in mind. Money is the most general of things, and the various attitudes in the Bible towards things should be studied as the context for understanding money. Collect fifty or one hundred sayings or references in the Bible about things. Study these more or less at random in relationship to the viewing of TV advertisements on video. Similarly, although the teaching of Jesus about money is very important, this should be seen as part of his more general approach to social status.


It is not the task of the church to manage the world’s money. It is the task of the church to proclaim good news to the poor. In this connection, it is necessary for the church to attack the mismanagement of money (and the church itself is not exempt) and to enable church affiliated men and women to distinguish between money as a means of exploiting the poor and money as a means of creating social justice. Such an education is an essential part of the engagement of the church in contemporary life, which must bring the church to a critical relationship towards capitalism. Christian education cannot solve all these problems but, at its best, it can make resistance more difficult, and can bring Christian adults nearer to the challenges of discipleship.