Renowned theologian Harvey Cox examines contemporary belief and modern America gods: Market, DOW, Nasdaq, and more in The Market As God.
The Market as GodPublisher: Harvard University Press
Length: 320 pages
Author: Harvey Cox
Publication date: 2016-09
So instantly evocative is the title of Harvey Cox’s most recent book, The Market As God, that one does not, at least at first glance, even pause for a moment to notice the absence of the sort of subtitle that almost always accompanies works issued by academic presses. Fortunately, Cox’s book doesn't need one: the central insight is so compelling that one wonders why its simple formulation hasn’t been struck upon before now.
That insight is, in short, that everywhere in contemporary American culture we see evidence that “the Market” is not simply a convenient term for referencing an aggregate of economic phenomena. Rather, to speak of the Market is to refer to an invisible but omnipotent force that might be compared to the life-generating power of the sun to which our ancestors offered up prayers of fearful reverence. (Indeed, just as this reviewer began reading the book in September a commentator on The PBS NewsHour said of the slow trade on various stock exchanges that “the market was mostly uninspired today” -- a personification that echoes the prophets’ recurring lament in the Bible that an angry God has turned his face away from the Israelites.)
Moreover, the Market is not an indifferent deity, at least in the minds of its worshippers; it's the ultimate arbiter of value: of objects, of experiences, and of living things, including people. It dispenses boons to some, visits punishment upon others, and its favor is the ultimate validation of an individual’s existence.
Cox’s revelation of the pervasive deification of the Market is so fecund that any number of books might be generated by it, and almost certainly will be in the future. The book that Cox has written is generally sturdy and ranges ambitiously across a number of disciplines including economics, philosophy, sociology, literature. However, its recurrent disciplinary approach is theological by way of comparing contemporary capitalism, generally of the corporate kind, and various forms of historical and contemporary Christianity. This is hardly surprising. Cox taught at Harvard Divinity School for over 40 years and has written a number of books on the relationship between religious institutions and secular society.
Perhaps the greatest strength here is the successful demonstration of how the discourse of the Market has appropriated narratives and concepts from Christianity, including versions of sin and redemption and divine omniscience and benevolence. For example, did you lose your home in the subprime mortgage meltdown? Well, that was simply the Market punishing you for your pride (never mind the web of banks, real estate agencies, title companies, and so on that profited enormously by persuading buyers to take out far larger mortgages than they could afford).
Moreover, these narratives and concepts, though secular in form, shape the contemporary American consciousness in ways that few of us entirely recognize: “The Market likewise is not only around us but inside us, informing our senses and feelings.” This point ties in neatly with another of Cox’s compelling arguments: that the debate between, say, the “new atheists” and religious apologists of various stripes completely overlooks the fact that we are all subject to the same god and its ideology:
One wonders why these self-styled dogma slayers [e.g. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins] are so cautious ... when it comes to the most powerful religion of our era, the one with its curia in the basilicas of Wall Street.
Indeed, while just about any contemporary political candidate will at least pay lip service to traditional religious beliefs, imagine the response if he or she articulated a truly heretical sentiment such as, “Perhaps the economy has grown enough and does not need to get larger.”
The major weakness of The Market as God lies in Cox’s shorthand readings of the past, which sometimes border on the glib. Granted, a book of this scope must assimilate and distill vast amounts of information -- beginning with human pre-history -- but passages like the following abound: “There was a time when people spoke of the ‘inherent worth’ -- if not of things, then at least of persons” and “Calculating the worth of a human life may sound degraded, but it goes on all the time.” These sweeping generalizations, sometimes supported by a single example, sometimes not supported at all, greatly compromise the persuasiveness of the volume, disparaging as they do the present order of things via invocation of an, if not idyllic, at least superior past.
It should be noted, too, that Cox is hardly a neutral observer in the mode of the dispassionate scholar. His sympathy for liberation theology and admiration of Pope Francis, for example, very obviously reflects a religious disposition much more suited to a social justice rally led by clergy members than a gathering of members of the profoundly conservative Opus Dei organization. Many readers -- both religious and not -- will no doubt be sympathetic to the explicit bias, but bias it is.
Still, The Market as God, in genuinely prophetic fashion, reveals truths about the nature of contemporary religious belief (Cox might say idolatry) that few of us are likely to want to hear. For this reason, it deserves a wide and thoughtful reading.