Theology Meets the Moment

Kathryn Tanner

Leading into this election season, our political culture could use a dose of religious values that provide some alternative to the small-minded ethic of purely personal responsibility and self-reliance so often touted in our current public discourse.

Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker captures well the crabbed and myopic intent of what he calls the Personal Responsibility Crusade:

“Critics of public and private insurance know what they are against, and they know what they are for: greater personal responsibility and individual self-reliance, propelled by aggressive government policies that erode the bonds of shared fate and undermine the forms of social insurance that once linked Americans across lines of class and economic vulnerability.”1

Where, one might ask, has social concern gone in this time of “government-off-my-back” and “it’s-my-money-and-I-want-to-keep-it” sentiment, and can religion help bring it back?

No one of course can deny that over the long haul of history religious values have often merely held up a mirror to the trends of the day, in that way shoring them up and rendering them sacrosanct, immune to serious criticism. The givens of political, economic, and social life might find their reflection, for example, in a divine realm, kings on earth extending the reign of a monarch in heaven, hierarchies on earth matched by the ranked angelic retainers surrounding a divine sovereign. If that were all religion ever did – provide a “sacred canopy,” as Peter Berger terms it, for the political and economic practices to which society already inclines – then engagement in the theological task, to my mind, would hardly be worth the effort.

Even where chaos threatens, there are nobler theological tasks than blanket legitimization of existing opinion, and more intellectually challenging ones than simply reiterating in some higher register the common sense of the day, so as to bolster otherwise tottering current pretensions to knowledge. Far better to look to theological claims for unexpected insight in particulars, for salutary reminders about what has been left out and occluded in taken-for-granted views of how we are to live now. Because it references what lies outside our ordinary frame of vision – God – theology has the potential to break open cramped worldviews, to take us out of the often narrow confines of our own time and move us toward a field of expanded possibilities in which the repressed resurfaces.

What are we forgetting at this moment of American discontent and how might theology bring it back to the forefront of our national consciousness (and conscience)? For one, theology, by extending the range of our self-concern, might remind us how overly narrow definitions of self-interest can be ultimately self-defeating. It is really not in our best interest to benefit alone, while our unfortunate neighbors fall without a safety net – not simply because we might be next but because their misfortune undermines our own well-being in the community we form with them. The “self” of our self-concern always extends beyond the limits of our own personal boundaries, at the very least to include loved ones: What harms them harms us. At its best theology does its best to encourage such an expansive self-definition: Identifying with Christ we must also identify ourselves with all those with whom he is bound, with his whole body, a body that at least in intent is universal in its range since Christ came in love for the whole world.

Second, theology speaks against the vain hope of insulating oneself through hard work or responsible behavior from the risks facing everyone in today’s America – the risk, for example, of financial ruin through job loss or debilitating illness. Theology reminds one instead of the way one remains ineradicably part of the pool of an ever-fragile humanity, both in need of and worthy of help. For all one’s differences from others as the unique individual one is, one remains a creature like them, a sinner like them, an object of God’s redemptive love and concern like them.

Finally, rather than take credit for one’s good fortune or make others assume responsibility for what has befallen them, theology counsels attention to the way one’s life is in the grip of larger forces outside one’s control, for all one’s obligatory efforts to steer one’s way toward the good – to the way we are all tainted by original sin, at the mercy of our limits as hapless finite creatures, and feeling the effects of a God whose good intentions for us will ultimately trump all our efforts to decide our own lives. In this most basic challenge to the ideology of just deserts, theology would concur in its advice for the contemporary moment with one of Yale’s most famous economists, Robert Shiller, who writes:

“Overcoming the false sense that each individual’s fate is fully deserved is vital, not only because it inures us to our own risks but also because it prevents us from appreciating the kinds of policies that society needs to adopt to deal with these risks and blinds us to the arbitrariness and absurdity of the misfortunes that others face. Only then can we really confront those risks and take timely action against them.”2

Kathryn Tanner is Professor of Systematic Theology at YDS.


1  Jacob S. Hacker, The Great Risk Shift, revised and expanded edition (Oxford, 2008), p. 166.

2  Robert J. Shiller, The New Financial Order (Princeton, 2003), p. 45.