Contexts of the Global Financial and Economic Crisis

in the Perspective of Empirical Theology


by Dr. Arnd Hollweg

Berlin, Germany


No unity without otherness.

Today, we are all affected by the global financial and economic crisis.  But who are “we”?  We are all the people on this earth, not only we Europeans, Americans, Asians, Africans, Californians, Germans, Danes, Congolese or whatever.  When we look back at the history of humankind we sometimes discover irreconcilable conflicts between peoples and cultures because all compete for the resources of the earth.  We did not create these resources but we live on them by using our tools to work for our food and bodily needs.  Not everyone has everything. Not everyone has the same, for instance oil, water, woods, deserts etc. Therefore there needs to be a global exchange of the resources of his earth.  Depending on where we live on this globe known as “Earth” our access to its various resources is more or less easy.

In the past our mobility on earth was very limited.  The frontiers between states, empires and spheres of human domination were insurmountable unless conquered by war or violence.  This can still be so today.  But an irreversible process has begun, by which not only an exchange of goods but also of populations between the countries of the earth is growing increasingly fast.  It no longer matters to which nation, culture, race or religion a person belongs.  All are human beings and live on earth.  The world and its societies are not empty.  We live in a world of people, and within its different societies social life develops in the relations between equals and in the interpersonal relations of people who are always different from each other and yet the same.  There can be no unity of humankind without otherness.

What does this mean for the financial and economic crisis that has affected us all today?  All of us, i.e. all the people on the globe, are affected by it, but in different ways.  Nobody can opt out of the social structures of humankind on earth, either as an individual or as a religious or cultural group, neither through military pacts nor economic alliances between states that try to distance themselves from their social circumstances. Today there are hardly any regions left in isolation from each other.  The structures and conditions of human life on earth have changed.  The manifestations of the global society can be found, for instance, in the technological structures that influence human life, in the realms of information technology and the media, in the international traffic of people and goods and much else, not least also in terrorism.  Conflicts in one part of the world are linked to conflicts in other parts, as is apparent in Iraq, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.  The structures of work, finance and economy as well as political and military structures are no longer watertight between the peoples of the earth. Thus the financial and economic crisis today has acquired global dimensions.  It can no longer be localised or confined.

The search is on for alternative financial systems and economic models that would work better.  But there lies the problem.  The way in which modern scientific society functions has separated it from the reality of human life.  What is the relevance of those endless tables of dizzying economic and financial statistics if they no longer represent the concrete goods necessary for life or the cost of human labour?  Human life does not run in functional systems of economic or social processes but in anthropological and socio-historic life structures.  We have already for too long ignored the basic difference between dealing with science and dealing with our fellow human beings, with ourselves and with all human life on earth.  What is the good of asking today how our financial and economic systems could function better?  They cannot be isolated from the various other modern scientific systems that define our lives, our thinking and our actions.

The consequences of thinking in terms of systems in science and society.

A critical analysis of the problems of the present crisis requires global, inter-disciplinary and scientific explanations for which the necessary premises are lacking.  Ultimately every job in our work-oriented society is based on a closed thought system that is contained in the operational processes of our society.  There is no super-system that could be the basis for a thorough understanding of these problems and an interrelation between the isolated systems.  Human society would not be able to have access to them.  This is evident in the fact that the real world exists outside our thought systems, even if we tend to project them onto the world. This makes for a hectic society, depersonalised by its rational and technological compulsions, turning around in circles and inwardly empty, finding its concrete form in modern nihilism.

The human being who has created thought and action systems in order to deal with the world now stands between them.  The socio-historic reality of life in the world however cannot be identified with his world of the function of things.  We turn ourselves into victims of the instruments that we have created in order to deal with the world but these instruments cannot be used for our life as human beings in the world. Our social life lies in human relations not in instrumental technology.  This has to be our starting point.  If, in order to fight the financial and economic crisis today we want to improve or repair the functional systems that operate in it we are already on the wrong track.  We ignore the epistemological problems in the scientific understanding of the world in which we not only think and act but live as human beings.  We are unaware of the empirical premises of our own actions.

Thus our actions are full of contradictions.  We have to create new bureaucracies in order to control the economy and, at the same time, reduce bureaucracy for the sake of greater efficiency.  We want to have more transparency in financial operations without realising that it is impossible to understand them fully if we ignore their empirical aspects.  We let ourselves be guided by mathematical constructions rather than by the economic actions of people in their anthropological context.  We subsidise banks and industrial companies although, above all, they act in ways that are dissociated from the social-historic life of human beings in the world.  The political left is demanding a Europe of employees whilst abolishing companies without the critical consideration that the banking and industrial managers themselves become employees who do not feel responsible for their economic actions in the way owners do.  We live by exporting to other countries and yet strive for national protectionism.  On the one hand we cling to scientific thinking in closed systems whilst, on the other hand, wanting to avoid he destruction of social relations.  Through mental systems we were able to invent and construct tools and machines but we must not project these systems onto the socio-historic reality of our life lest we block our mental access not only to these systems but also to ourselves. We are no longer aware of what is happening around us.  Therefore we cannot leave the challenge of solving the crisis to experts who, at present, are meeting for consultation every week in the different capitals of the world.

The economic crisis as part of a global crisis of social orientation.

The financial and economic crisis is different and larger than we imagine or realise.  It is part of a global social crisis in which countries today are beginning to protect their places on our shrunken earth.  It is not only a challenge to our European and American history but, through modern science, we are ourselves caught up in the global crisis.  We have misused science as an instrument of our domination and power for the technological manipulation of our human environment.  In our heads we have constructed a mental parallel universe different from, and without contact with, the real one.  In journalistic professional jargon bankers and managers used to be called “masters of the universe” who acted and ruled outside the world of people, as science does over the cosmic universe where there are no humans.  In the light of scientific epistemology the market was believed to be self-regulating.  It was only necessary to master the technical tricks in order to steer it according to one’s own ideas from the outside.  That is exactly what bankers and managers did when they channelled streams of money into their own pockets without responsible consideration for the socio-historic world, in order to extend their domination, power and wealth through unlimited egotistic endeavour. Nor did they even notice that they had already a long time ago lost their grasp and control of the universe.  Many factors within it were beyond the reach of scientific knowledge and human understanding. Therefore it is not enough today to pour money in the form of subsidies into the black hole into which previous sums have already disappeared.

Economic and financial processes cannot be seen in isolation, cut off from the inter-disciplinary questions of science, culture, tradition, anthropology, geo-politics and social questions.  The crisis cannot be understood as simply a disruption of the operational processes of society, as we find them in the data of science and the internet. In fact they are caught up in the social contexts which scientific and analytical thinking often ignores. Thus we are today barely aware of the context in which our social life has been unfolding for a long time. This cannot be worked out from mental or visual data.  Scientific knowledge is as inapplicable to the social reality of human life as were the philosophical and metaphysical ideas of the ancient world.

The mental and social worlds of human beings can neither be understood as dichotomously analogous to each other nor as symbiotically identified with each other.  They are different realities in relation to each other, in the global setting of human life today.  It is the same person who thinks and lives in relation with his fellow human beings. He does not live without a mental and spiritual world that also affects his external social reality. Thus the financial and economic crisis is linked to a world-wide spiral of fear.  It causes too many people, groups and nations to lose the social ground beneath their feet.  It affects completely different internal and external situations.  When banks today refuse to lend money to each other or to their customers, this shows how much the whole credit system depends on trust and credibility among people.  It is not simply a question of people’s and countries’ “mood” but also of the whole structure of social reality.

Christian faith in theology, philosophy and science.

The individual in society is vulnerable, helpless and always under threat, both in mind and in body, during his life on earth.  The individual is not an abstract “I”, as Descartes used to imagine, not a grotesque product of his imagination or an intellectually constructed entity but an empirical and anthropological “I”.  Nor is the individual a thing like money that, as the tool of global commerce, may be the ‘thing of things’ but still has its value determined by human beings.  It therefore is not a neutral entity.  Its context is the events in the social reality within which it functions as a means of exchange in mutual giving and taking of things and goods between people and nations.  Human beings, however, cannot be exchanged or used as tools in the social world.  They cannot turn themselves into objects in a world of objects.  They are not functional things like the tools or machines created to be instruments for reproducing things, just as money is the tool for the equitable arrangement of our social relations.

The human being is at the centre of these relations as the thinking, understanding, evaluating and acting person.  Our living spirit inhabits a living body.  The living, personal “I” in us does not only think intellectually but also understands through its living spirit and feels in its living body.  We cannot sacrifice it to a world of function without losing our humanness in a world from which it cannot be derived.  The human individual is neither part of it nor can he dispose of it or dominate it.  In his thinking, understanding and acting in the world he has not only lost his relation with himself in his social life but also the ground of his being, out of which he lives in the world.

For us human beings in the context of global events in an industrialised, technological and mechanised world this raises the question of God.  The external conditions of life in the world are subject to rapid change which affects every empirical aspect of human life.  No rigid principles, laws, intellectual systems, timeless criteria or traditions can help.  They must be replaced by faith in the living eternal God who, throughout human history, has exercised dominion over our lives through his Spirit.  Through Jesus Christ the pneumatic life-force of the divine world is transmitted to us.  Thus, God’s presence in the working of his Spirit becomes in us a dynamic power that can break out of even the most rigid social and ecclesiastical traditions.  They have largely turned into an empty shell in which we were socialised and internalised.  Modern epistemological nihilism, however, could threaten to conquer our hearts whilst our direct relation with God, mediated by the Spirit of Christ, is lost.  This inner secularisation is challenging the very core of our Christian faith.  The identification of theological thinking with the ancient Greek philosophic tradition must not be repeated in the form of identification with modern scientific thinking.  The direct relation to God is given us by his Spirit in Christ, not through the instrumental intelligence that we use in dealing with the matters of the world.

Here theology really stands between two fronts, doubly manifested by the split between faith and science in the metaphysics of arts and the physics of science.  Here we need a critical theology. In the dogmatic metaphysics based on ancient epistemology, to which our thinking and understanding in faith has been subject, the thinking individual stands apart from what he thinks.  He does not exist in his thinking but has objectified it.  In mathematical and physical science human thought and sight are separated.  Thought becomes a function of sight and as such is objectified and ontologised.  Faith however cannot be turned into a recognisable object of our instrumental intelligence.  If this were possible it would lead to a pagan idea of the divine reality incompatible with faith in a personal Christ because it cuts us off from the direct relation with the living God.

God’s pneumatic power in Christ, however, frees us from the domination of the ideal and intellectual thought constructions of the human mind.  We can deal critically with the socio-historic circumstances of our life and question them as to their truth and reality.  When a person thinks that he can derive the reality in which he lives from these thought constructions he loses his holistic and personal relation to it.  The identification between theory and empirical reality because of objectification and ontologisation of the thought processes cuts him off from life in the world in which his faith, thought, understanding and actions happen in the unity of body and spirit of his person.  We therefore have to raise the critical question today, of what are the empirical premises for theological and scientific thinking.  Understanding in faith is an anthropological enterprise, understanding in philosophy, dogmatic and metaphysical theology and in natural science an intellectual and instrumental one, focussed on recognisable objects.  The one occurs in the living human spirit, in the socio-historic setting of his life on earth whilst the other happens in the operational processes of this intelligence in relation to the objects in the world.

The role of the operational processes in the social structures of life.

The economic, scientific and cultural processes of society play a role in the structures of social life, where humans have a responsibility for what happens in society.  Therefore the operational processes in the financial and economic sector cannot be understood and dealt with in isolation from each other.  The different mental systems at work in them must be understood and justified in their interaction and empirical connection.  They are not reality as such, not objective reality but instruments of human actions in their socio-historic sphere of life.  The problems of the economic crisis today do not arise only from the use of funds for the different sectors of society.  The human being’s relation with his work and profession is a socio-anthropological matter.  For a long time already money has been the symbol for the domination of the financial and economic processes necessary for human survival.  Those who master and manipulate them can exercise domination and power over their fellow human beings.  Therefore, in human thought and action, a distinction has to be made between mental theories and socio-historic empirical matters that are both different from each other and yet remain related.  Responsibility for this is inter-personal and aimed at human relations in society, not at the functioning of different isolated systems in it.

In today’s historic situation it is the understanding of, and accountability for, these concrete inter-dependencies that is under discussion.  This requires a holistic approach since it is impossible to gain access to the empirical world either through religious and cultural traditions or through theoretical intellectual ideas.  We have to start from the concrete place of our experienced reality in order to understand the present challenges of the global social reality but not move away from it.  We do not live in an empty space that we can randomly fill with our thoughts and theories nor are we subject to timeless traditions that we only have to continue in our present situation.  We cannot leave the socio-historic anthropological world where we live, in one particular place and at one particular time, in our unity of body and spirit – the “here and now”. Empirically and anthropologically speaking we may in our spirit be able to leave our body in order to participate in the events surrounding us, but our thinking remains connected to our mortal body.[1]

In the light of Christian faith this means that, faced with humankind’s global crisis, we have to start in our concrete location where it hits us in everyday life.  Here the crisis challenges us to re-think, on a local basis, the empirical conditions of our humanness in life and work in the world.  Initially we can only try to work out premises for our answers.  We cannot yet show a way into the future but, as before but under different conditions, we are on the way to an unknown future.  One of the new conditions is that, today, no person, no nation, no society and no church can live in voluntary isolation any longer.  The Bible calls the unity of humankind in its otherness the “oikoumene”.  That means the “whole inhabited earth” in which the one eternal God acts through his Spirit in Christ as its creator.  In Christ he asks us whether we are prepared to let our life be guided by his spirit of truth, love, mercy, reconciliation and forgiveness.  This is not just a question of our human understanding in mind and spirit but of the criteria we need to use them in our life.

The core of the Christ-event is the establishment of relations of people with God, with their fellow human beings and with themselves in their socio-historic life in the world.  In it God’s Spirit in Christ works in us in its dynamism in order to free us from the violence of the powers that are at work in our human world, and lead us out of our self-imprisonment so that we can lead our life in responsibility to God, to our fellow human beings and to ourselves.  We need not fear his omnipotence or his omnipresence because they enable us to live in the world in the freedom of the children of God.  We are liberated from our fear of the powers of the world in order to fear God, so that we recognise that only the eternal God through the power of his Spirit in Christ can show us the right way.  This is equally true for our way in the global financial and economic crisis.  We can find God everywhere and at any time in his presence in all that happens between people.  That is where we should seek him so that, in reference to him, we can strive critically to find solutions to the financial and economic problems in social life from which they cannot be separated.  They are inherent in the basic anthropological and theological happenings of social life and in its external changes.  The concrete location of a human being’s life is determined by his responsibility for his global horizon.  A reversal of these conditions would turn anthropological reality into a virtual world. The concrete human being in all the achievements and needs of his life must therefore be at the centre of the solution of the economic crisis, regardless of where in the world he lives.  He must not become an object of it. Anthropology and thinking in the world of things must be distinguished.

Calvinism and capitalism – background to the economic crisis?

In order to help us solve our global crisis we may be able to learn from the cultural, religious, mental, social and scientific traditions of the past throughout the world.  In the analysis of our situation, however, mono-causal explanations would be misleading.  The existence of a connection between the crisis in faith and the social crisis that affects the economy at the present time has to be clearly recognised.  In his social responsibility, the human’s relation with God cannot be cut out.  This insight must be kept alive in the churches and must not fall victim to the domination and enactment of its traditions.  Only when God Himself remains Lord of his Church can it, in relation to Him, recognise its duty and responsibility in the challenges of the constantly changing present times.  In Martin Luther’s reformation this led to the division of the church.  The faithful were looking for an answer to the inner secularisation of the medieval church which was seeking its own power and thus was denying God’s dominion over human social life.  The Church of the reformation therefore emigrated from the ecclesiastically institutional and dogmatic-philosophical power structures of the Catholic Church.  It was concerned with God’s rule through the working of his Spirit in Christ which does not allow the church to exercise dominion in the world.  However, later on, through their state-church structures, the Protestant Churches also claimed secular power.

The internal secularisation from God as well as the external secularisation from the church in modern society represents new challenges to our Christian faith.  The process of secularisation is happening within the economic crisis as well and has to do with the development of capitalism.  In the second generation of the reformation, the reformer John Calvin wanted to correct the Protestant faith on the basis of the biblical message.  Whilst Luther’s theological thinking had focussed on God’s actions in human beings through his Gospel, Calvin demanded that the Christian person should reply to God’s gracious acts through his life, conduct and acts.  According to the Gospel promises, such acts in obedience of faith will bear fruit in human life.  This will not mean external success in human endeavours but God’s blessing in the hearing and doing of his word.  The main emphasis was no longer on the congregation’s Sunday worship service but on worship in everyday life, where the Christian had to prove his faith in his work.  In this he must not seek his own power, wealth and importance in society but solely God’s honour and glory.  The fruits he gains are inner riches and meaning and fulfilment of life.  In the view of John Calvin’s theology which became influential especially in Anglo-American Protestantism, the question of economic success became irrelevant compared to the question of how best to serve God in our daily life and work in the world.  The Calvinist Puritans led ascetic, sober and socially responsible lives.  From their attitude to life and work there grew, really automatically, the external wealth of the American society.  Where, through secularisation, the church structures separated increasingly from their direct relation with God, external success, wealth and power became increasingly central.

Thus the eminent economist Max Weber (1864-1920) was able to state that, from the point of view of society, the Calvinist work ethic had been the most important constitutive factor in the development of capitalism.  He devised his theories of action against that background.  But he was no longer interested in the Christian’s obedience of faith in his actions as answer to God’s gracious acts but in rational social acts in general.  For a Christian there exists a permanent tension between his faith and the inner secularisation through which God’s rule threatens to turn into secular domination.  In this the Church shares the common life of humankind in the world but it must not simply adjust to its structures.  In and through the structures of secular life it must cling to its relation with God, also when dealing with secular matters like money.  It is important therefore that, in our economic thinking, we do not only refer to social systems and industrial and technological operations but to our lives and our work as people on earth under God’s promise.



[1][1] Cf. On this point A. Hollweg: “Gruppe-Gesellschaft-Diakonie“ Stuttgart 1976, pp 21-45

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