Now, let’s return to my central objection--Stark has to distort Christianity to make it ift his account--either misrepresenting or marginalizing crucial elements, or else focusing on features that, while historically true features of Christianity, were depeartures from the orthodox and Biblical tradition. I will try to substantiate this charge in detail.
Right at the beginning, in seeking to equate Christianity with “reason,” he says, “Theology consists of formal reasoning about God.” (5) That is certainly one definition of theology, but it sounds like something from Turretin. Although formal reasoning about God is certainly part of the theological task, few theologians would want to describe theology’s essence in such an arid way. Curiously enough, when Stark goes on to give examples of how Christian theology uses reason, he cites Aquinas’s defense of the perpetual virginity of Mary--an “irrational” doctrine if there ever was one. The irony seems lost on Stark, but in my mind, this example illustrates well the role of reason in the Christian tradition--disciplined reasoning about tenets of faith that often radically subvert what reason itself would tell us.
Shortly after this, Stark admits that, to be sure, many influential churchmen opposed an over-reliance on reason in favor of a greater role for mystery and mysticism. But these views, he asserts, remained outside of the mainstream of true Christianity that was to be found in the universities. On what basis, we may well ask, can Stark, an unbeliever, presume to make such sweeping judgments about what constitutes the mainstream and the periphery of the faith?
Stark then proceeds to sketch the differences between Christianity on the one hand and Islam and Judaism on the other. Of course, I heartily agree with him that Christianity fosters cultural progress in a way the other two do not, but any Biblical Christian should reject the reason he provides: “Scholars often refer to Judaism and Isalm as ‘orthoprax’ religions, concerned with correct (ortho) practice (praxis) and therefore placing their ‘fundamental emphasis on law and regulation of community life.’ In contrast, scholars describe Christianity as an ‘orthodox’ religion because it stresses correct (ortho) opinion (doxa), placing ‘greater emphasis on belief and its intellectual structuring of creeds, catechisms, and theologies.” (In the margin here, I scribbled “Nay, you beast!”) While it is certainly true that Christianity has always had a tendency to indulge in doctrinal debate to an unhealthy degree, and has developed a rather sophisticated system of doctrines, it is a particularly modern, Protestant, post-Enlightenment notion to think of Christianity as being in essence a set of intellectual propositions. In the New Testament, and throughout most of the Church’s history, Christianity has been all about right practice and community life. Inasmuch as it has failed to focus on this, it has failed to live up to its proper calling, and so the Enlightenment obsession with reason that in some ways grew out of scholasticism, though a child of Christianity, is a bastard and no true son--a distinction that Stark does not recognize.
In distinguishing Christianity from Islam and Judaism, Stark also tries to claim that Christianity does not read its texts about Jesus as “divine transmissions” that “have encouraged literalism.” (9) Christianity has a freer, more flexible relationship to its founding texts that enable it to accomodate progress. For example, he says (having apparently not taken the effort to understand the New Testament teaching on slavery) “While Christian theologians could plausibly correct Saint Paul’s understanding of God’s will concerning slavery, such corrections were (and are) essentially precluded in other faiths--except as heresies.” Again, while it may be true that Christianity has at times (especially in modernity) treated the Bible this way, this is not true Christianity and Christians should be immediately suspicious of Stark’s project.
These problems continue to crop up throughout Stark’s crucial opening chapter.
For example, on page 11, he calls Aquinas’s Summa Theologica “a monument to the theology of reason” which “consists of logical ‘proofs’ of Christian doctrine and set the standard for all subsequent Christian theologians.” Of course, while logic and reason played a major part in the work, it is hardly accurate to describe it as a collection of “logical proofs of Christian doctrine.” Plus, it certainly did not set the standard for all subsequent Christian theologians--ever heard of Protestantism?
A little later, he says, “Aquinas and his many gifted peers could not have excelled at rational theology had they conceived of Jehovah as an inexplicable essence.” But, of course, they did conceive of him that way!
On page 14, he cites the “great, if neglected, medieval theologian-scientist Nicole d’Oresme” saying that “God’s creation ‘is much like that of a man making a clock and continue its own motion by itself.” Well, no wonder this theologian was neglected if he said stuff like that--that’s a classic statement of the heresy of deism. Stark’s confusion of deism and Christianity continues for quite a number of pages. For instant, on page 16, he enlists Descartes’s view that “God is perfect and therefore ‘acts in a manner as constant and immutable as possible,’ except for the rare exceptions of miracles.” Later, on pages 20-21, he contrasts Islam’s “extremely active God who intrudes on the world as he deems it appropriate” with Christianity: “Islam did not fully embrace the notion that the universe ran along on fundamental principles laid down by God at the creation but assumed that the world was sustained by his will on a continuing basis.” Of course, there’s a big problem with this--orthodox Christian theology has always taught the latter!
Next, he goes on to gush about how individualism is the product of Christianity: claiming that “It is the individual citizen who was the focus of Christian political thought.” (23) Now, I’ve studied Christian political thought quite a good deal, and I don’t ever remember this particular emphasis; in my experience, the opposite is generally true--Christian political thought is particularly concerned with social bodies and the common good. On the next page, he says, “From the beginning, Christianity has taught that sin is a personal matter, that it does not inhere primarily in the group, but each individual must be conscerned with her or his personal salvation.” From the beginning? The beginning of what? The Enlightenment?
In his discussion of individualism and personal liberty, he claims a thoroughly anti-predestinarian stance as the orthodox Christian one. He enlists Augustine in defense of the proposition that “while God knows what we will freely decide to do, he does not interfere,” but, notably, he is working off of Augustine’s De Libero Arbitrio, rather than his later anti-Pelagian writings, in which he retracted many of his earlier statements.
The point here is not that Christianity has not encouraged rational enquiry, scientific investigation, individual liberty, the progress of civilization, prosperity, etc. I would contend that it has. But in Stark’s hands, all of these points are made in a fashion that is only half-true. True Christianity does promote individual liberty, but not individualism; it promotes rationality, but not rationalism, prosperity, but not capitalism.
Stark accepts the Constantinian thesis--that there was a radical shift in Christian values as Christians were catapulted into positions of power and quickly set to work providing theological legitimations, rather than critiques, of power. The problem is that Stark thinks this is altogether a good thing, and this should make us immediately suspicious. The same pattern appears all throughout, as he identifies genuine shifts that occurred within Christianity, but, where true Christians would see corruption and apostasy, he sees great progress and innovation. For example, he is very enthusiastic about the way the great monastic estates and other church institutions accumulated vast wealth, sometimes growing into huge profitable institutions resembling modern corporations in some ways. In one bizarre section about the monasteries, he talks about how “The manual labor prescribed by the rule of Saint Benedict was reduced to entirely symbolic tasks about the kitchen. The monks lived like lords” and then goes on to gush, as if this were a good thing, “All of this was possible because the great monasteries began to utilize a hired labor force.” (61) (To cap off the oddity, he starts praising the Christian work ethic and contempt for luxury on the next page, right after praising the monasteries for finding ways to ensure they didn’t have to do work and could live in luxury. Of course, this particular contradiction is endemic to capitalist thinking.) But the problem is that these developments were decried on all sides, and critiqued by one reforming movement after another, from the Cistercians to the Franciscans to the Protestants. Christians repeatedly insisted that the monasteries that turned into engines of profit had abandoned monastic and Christian principles.
The same problem appears with usury, where he tries to argue that, despite the traditional usury prohibition, Christianity actually favored usury, because many of the worldly hierarchy engaged freely in usurious practices to help finance the buying and selling of church offices. These and other related practices of the exceedingly corrupt late medieval Church are embraced as part of the development of capitalism. Never mind the fact that they were condemned by all honest Christians and eventually incited the massive schism of the Reformation.
In my mind then, the book actually demonstrates, contrary to the thesis that Stark is seeking to advance, that genuine Christianity opposed capitalism as a corrupting force, rather than encouraged it. Stark recognizes this challenge in the form of the traditional theology of the just price and the prohibition on usury, and so he seeks to address these. But his response to this challenge is so pitiful that it leaves one more doubtful than ever about the strength of Stark’s thesis. A single paragraph addresses the issue of the just price, claiming that Christian theologians basically considered the just price to be the one determined by free market forces. On usury, he is even worse, apparently having made no serious effort to understand the scholastic teaching on the issue and dismissing it as “confusing” and “fuzzy,” though it is clear, in his mind, that the gist of the thirteenth and fourteenth-century developments is to nullify the usury ban in the face of the pressure of worldly economic realities. Stark ends this section by scolding Islamic banks for holding firm to their religious convictions and attempting to do business accordingly, unlike their Christian counterparts, who more willingly abandoned their Scriptures: “Religious opposition to interest, combined with the avarice of repressive regimes, prevented capitalism from arising in Islam, and still does. Victories of reason have yet to be won.” (68) In passages like this, Stark shows his true colors: he is not really in favor of the Christian religion, but is in favor of what he sees as the Christian willingness to abandon religious scruples in favor of reason.
The same movement appears in his treatment of property rights, which was shockingly naive, clearly ignorant of the complexities both of Biblical teaching on the subject and of early modern developments and disputes concerning how private property was to operate and be protected. Here too his narrative is one of an irrational early Christianity which was against property rights, superseded by a late medieval rational Christianity that set the stage for full-blown modern capitalism. The narrative has a vague truth to it, but as Christians, we should ask which stage in the development was Christian, and which was heretical.
Indeed, Stark occasionally seems to mess up and accidentally enlists examples that directly contradict his thesis, such as when he discusses a “Puritan”-style Italian ascetic movement (“the Humiliati”) that arose in opposition to the materialism of Italian capitalism, and details how Protestant Puritanism also strove vigorously against the affluence of Dutch capitalism.
The clearest evidence that Stark’s project is sharply at odds with orthodox Christianity comes in the last chapter, where he treats religions as economic competitors in a religious marketplace, and argues that Christianity succeeds better the more the Church is divided, because then it benefits from competition, and is able to offer a diversity of “religious products” to suit various needs. Churches are encouraged to take a more and more explicitly marketing-oriented approach to “promoting” their religious “products.” Of course, this is entirely antithetical to the orthodox confession of “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” and should be proof to Christian readers that Stark’s values and his understanding of Christianity are far from theirs.
Of course, none of this is to say that true Christianity is necessarily antagonistic to capitalism across the board; clearly it isn’t. But the relationship between Christianity and capitalism is obviously a deeply ambiguous and conflicted one, contrary to Stark’s thesis, and the concept of capitalism itself is deeply ambiguous and conflicted, though you wouldn’t know that from Stark’s presentation.