“God, Money and Death” by William Cavanaugh

The 2008 financial crisis in the United States marked a unique opportunity for competing economic, social and political perspectives regarding the history, nature and purpose of Western democracies. Whereas before it would have been adequate to linger on with particular stories of Left vs. Right, State vs. Market and other familiar points of debate, the sheer scope of the events of 2008 seem to have begged for a more fundamental examination of what it ultimately means to take one view rather than another on political matters.

William Cavanaugh

Professor Cavanaugh teaches at Depaul University

In the presentation below, Professor William Cavanaugh at DePaul University offers one such response to what he perceives to be at least one of the fundamental realities governing the 2008 collapse. Against a “purely economic” perspective on the matter–indeed, against the idea of the existence of such a thing to begin with–Cavanaugh traces the impetus behind contemporary finance capitalism back to an ancient source: namely, the 2nd century Gnostics. It is Cavanaugh’s conviction that ancient Gnosticism parallels the social disciplines and values of Wall Street in that both separate “material” and “spiritual” reality to such an extent that one becomes dominant over the other in ways foreign to orthodox Christians. Like the Gnostics, who despise materiality and finitude as evil in themselves, contemporary finaciers dedicate their lives to avoiding the natural consequences of  material wealth–opting instead for the more virtual reality of credit markets, which attempt to capitalize on risk patterns.

If Cavanaugh’s analysis is correct, then there is good reason to think that the lessons of 2008 go far beyond just particular rules for investing in volatile markets. Indeed, any good philosopher or theologian is supposed to be able to “see the whole beyond the particulars.” Such diagnoses allow for much-needed paradigm shifts in the way we think about our social order as a whole. This is the advantage of Cavanaugh’s articulate presentation.

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