Tonight, quoth the president:”This is an extraordinary period for America’s economy.” Which you might think sounds good, until:
We’ve seen triple-digit swings in the stock market. Major financial institutions have teetered on the edge of collapse, and some have failed. As uncertainty has grown, many banks have restricted lending, credit markets have frozen, and families and businesses have found it harder to borrow money.
Financial assets related to home mortgages have lost value during the house decline, and the banks holding these assets have restricted credit. As a result, our entire economy is in danger.
Sarah Palin (noted economics expert) suggested that we might be headed for another Great Depression. Perhaps even Warren Buffett can’t save us. Chickens home to roost? The end of an era? Pick your expression. People are getting poorer.
Does this cry out for us to change the way we think about everything? To change the way we believe?
For a few weeks, Joel and I have been carrying on a long conversation about ethics and dialog (see the comments here). We were wandering around a kind of impasse. The other day, though, in another comment elsewhere, it seemed to me like Joel explained our difference of perspective. I had said something about how “extremism comes as a consequence of scarcity.” He replied:
Certainly some truth to that, but can we always expect to go ‘Up Up Up,’ and if there is a downside eventually (to life, romantic relationships, and financial markets) how do we cope with that eventuality?
I’m more interested in the coping mechanisms for bad times than what people do when they are doing well. As you said before, everyone is pretty nice in the MacDonalds as long as they have a burger.
But what if they don’t?
This, as I understood it, was like the subtext of the impasse between Liberation Theology and Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The liberationists (I was playing this role) wanted a religion that made no excuses for economic and political injustice. They were Marxists—religion is a superstructure that cannot be unraveled from the material conditions that produce it. Ratzinger (Joel’s role, if I may say so), on the other hand, wanted a Church and doctrine that could stand through thick and thin, pointing to mysteries that transcend human conditions.
Each position has its obvious problems. Ratzinger too easily forgets centuries of Church complicity with unjust rulers and the clergy’s passive refusal to take a prophetic stand. How can he pretend that doctrine isn’t touched by earthly concerns, whether we notice them or not? And the liberationists seem willing to devote every supernatural resource at the Church’s command to their earthly purposes. But if they do that, how can they possibly claim any supernatural authority? What makes a priest, then, any different from a guerilla? Each stance has its way of imploding if you look at it askew. Each almost needs the other.
This theological tangle, in its way, could be entering the political conversation very soon, if it hasn’t yet. Do we cling to hope above all, or do we devote ourselves to material solutions? Do we scramble to prevent a downturn at all costs, or do we brace ourselves for this inevitable and natural swing in the market?
Believe it or not, there’s also life beyond the presidential election, and, to use Joel’s word, there is and will be a lot of coping out there. What will it look like? Will we reach for transcendent comfort, or grab after the affluence that spoiled us in better times? Are the two any different?