Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Questions Abound

Written by: on January 28, 2015

Baldo by Hector D. Cantu and Carlos Castellanos


As I read Polayni’s The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time and a number of reviews, I find myself asking more questions than finding answers. Perhaps that’s what happens when a new paradigm is introduced.   The “new” paradigm, ironically not so new with a copyright date of 1944, focuses on western society’s economic system that is interdependent with all arenas of social life: political, community, physical, environmental. This new way of thinking challenges the accepted understanding and embedded endorsement of free markets and self-regulation. Not only after the Great Depression but for the globalized world of 2015, Polayni offers a key description of society that reflects “the market is not an end in itself, but as a means to more fundamental means.”[1] For the wellbeing of individuals, social classes, communities and nations, the transformation of a society needs an elevated viewpoint beyond the culturally prescribed answer of capitalism in the case of western economics that influence developing countries.

While there is some truth that rings clear in Polayni’s thesis, he does appears to only offer a description, not a prescription. Now my questions begin. “How can we distinguish what brings true wellness to a society?” In western culture, the value placed on economic answers certainly supersedes other creative options to living in an environment with a desire for wholeness (for whatever definition that means; ie success, good relationships, vocational satisfaction, etc).   The most recent recession revealed how many relied on what their economic fortunes and goals could bring. In fact, when that economic downturn reality hit, the option for some was suicide (as occurred with my brother-in-law). We want answers that will bring us freedom, and while money can provide one way through if used appropriately, society needs more than financial solutions. What happens when that assumed solution no longer works?

I’ll admit to an emotional reaction to not only the content but also my unanswered questions. This “new” paradigm strikes to my core values, penetratingly so. I’ve been spoon-fed since a child that laissez-faire economics provide the greatest freedom for all social classes involved. Raised in a middle class family with parents who humbly yet earnestly sought after the American Dream by trying to create more financial capital, I lived off the same economic philosophy until my husband and I came to a point of bankruptcy about six years ago. In an ongoing and growing discernment, I see how much I rely on the security of financial freedom. While it is difficult for me to admit how much I trust in “In Money I Trust” versus “In God I Trust” imprinted on my money, I do find a new freedom in social and spiritual capital versus financial capital.  I see my own wellness as well as others grow stronger and more sustainable when there is a foundation that builds on social and spiritual capital, while being honest about the value of financial capital.

This book, out of all of them so far, creates a great longing in me to sit in person with my fellow cohort peers. I want a safe environment to verbalize and listen to these cultural challenges to my way of thinking and living. I need to see the eyes, the body language (especially after last week’s book), and know that we’re in this together. I realize we’ll post and respond, then type-chat on Monday, but I feel exposed and fragile after recognizing how much I rely on a system I can’t even recognize because it’s so much a part of my blood line. Can a community in which I live actually function differently when it comes to such an embedded system such as relying on free markets and self-regulation as the answer? My questions continue: What does this text say about God’s abundance versus scarcity? What are the social consequences of trusting a system, any system (economic or not), that permeates society because that’s the way it has always been done? How can people be on such opposite ends of the spectrum, and still follow the same God?  Can we?  Can we put aside our own agenda to talk about such a “hot topic?”  As Jesus illustrates with a comparison between camel and an eye of a needle with a rich man and heaven, I can’t help but wonder about the complexity of financial need and resources.  Money helps in so many ways.  Yet, we can’t just put more rules in force to control the selfishness; after a while, revolution will arise.  What do we do?

Please understand, I still believe that there is great hope with many of the Fair Trade options, micro-loans, and sharing of economic resources across the world. In fact, I continue to promote those opportunities over some of our former ways of supporting overseas work. But after reading Polayni’s text, I pause a bit more, asking the bigger 30,000 foot question, “How does this impact an entire social system, not just the economic system?” See, my questions still abound!

[1] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: the Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, 2nd ed. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001), xv.

About the Author

Mary Pandiani

Spiritual Director, educator/facilitator, follower of Jesus, a cultivator of sacred space for those who want to encounter God

18 responses to “Questions Abound”

  1. Jon Spellman says:

    Mary, I too am scratching my head… And I wish we could all be together to verbalize the things being challenged and inspired in our collective of hearts. Somehow, for this week anyway, the technology is feeling a bit thin. As an avowed “free” market capitalist, I’m feeling a bit exposed myself.

    I want to commend your articulation of questions that don’t have pat answers. I’m hearing under the surface of those questions some things that I am wrestling with as well. I don’t want to put words in your mouth so I will ask… Are you finding that this book is scratching an itch? It’s an itch that has been covered under layers of capitalist simplicity for my entire adult life. Just a kind of low-grade fever caused by the reality that everything I read in scripture leans more “socialist” (collectivism, communal, sacrificial) than capitalist yet I have allowed that truth to remain unreconciled, I can explain it away by a well-reasoned exegesis of the text that demonstrates how our current context couldn’t possibly work like that! Examples given in scripture only offer principles and could NEVER actually prescribe a way of living our present context, could they? I’m a capitalist!

    But what if Polanyi is right and man is not naturally bent towards working for gain? What if we, in our most organic condition are truly designed to be in community, dare I say it… communal? What if the current “free” market isn’t free at all and I have to back away from my vehemence that “the government should just take its grubby hands off of the market and let it do what it does!”? Oh my…


    • Mary Pandiani says:

      Yes, yes, and more yes to your articulation of what’s underneath my questions. That’s why I want to sit down with everyone – I’m a verbal processor who needs to hear, listen, and speak into the conversation. Thanks Jon for being honest in your own assessment.

    • Nick Martineau says:

      “But what if Polanyi is right and man is not naturally bent towards working for gain?” Polanyi can’t be right can he? God created us to work but made because of sin so seem hopelessly lazy.

      • Jon Spellman says:

        Nick, but where in scripture is the end goal of our work intended to be personal profit and gain for its own sake? It seems that more is written about giving, sacrificing, preferring others, etc. Our attention to our labors is about being able to take care of our basal needs and the needs of those in our charge precisely so that we aren’t a burden to the rest. I am seeing this as one of those idealistic things…. In reality we can never get to this on this side of eternity I’m sure but it is sure interesting to reflect upon.


      • Dawnel Volzke says:

        John, Nick and Mary…

        I’ll admit, I don’t think God made me to work quite so hard, but I’ve always done what was needed. I don’t know any other way of life except to work hard. It is often difficult for me to relax, because my mind is always still working. Thinking about my own tendency, I wonder if that is what our capitalistic society has done to all of us. Life was so much simpler 200 years ago. Although we work harder, it doesn’t get better.

        This lead me to think about the things that I consider work. When I am serving others, I don’t really consider it work. When I pursue my interests and hobbies, I don’t consider this work. These are the things that actually energize me. Work drains my energy. We are driven to work harder, but what would happen if instead we all pursued our passions and those things that energized us? In an ideal word, each person would be able to pursue their passions, gifts, and talents in a way that energizes, brings value to others, and allows them to fulfill their needs. I believe that God gave us unique gifts so that we can come together in community and everyone would benefit. We have just gotten off the intended path, and economic systems haven’t been able to fix the issue.

  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Wow! Great questions:). I feel like while still a question, your question, and thought, “’How can we distinguish what brings true wellness to a society?’ In western culture, the value placed on economic answers certainly supersedes other creative options to living in an environment with a desire for wholeness (for whatever definition that means; ie success, good relationships, vocational satisfaction, etc).” is a powerful statement. Polanyi’s thinking created the same new question in my mind. Most of us think we are “free” but I believe what Polanyi is saying and I would agree is that we are “free” to be trapped in an purely ultimate economic dependent social order. Again, so simply stated in your question.

    Secondly, I cannot tell you how much I resonate with your reaction conveyed by your statement, “This book, out of all of them so far, creates a great longing in me to sit in person with my fellow cohort peers.” I so do not want to just rush past this content with a quick post and dive into another book. Too many thoughts, questions, ideas, and emotions are racing and I would love to have a way to process them with others.

    So I am definitely feeling your pain of more questions and desire to flesh them out with others! Thanks for the great post!

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Phil and Mary. Yeah I am hating the fact that in just a day or two, I have to put this one down and just rush on over to Models of Contextual Theology. Even though theology is always my favorite topic in a broad sense, this book has gripped my thinking.

      I wonder if I could add it to the research side of my reading for this semester? That would enable me to stretch it out a bit and spend more time just siting with some of its content…

      Some of you can help me out… Do we see some of the topics hitting the issue of organizations creating space where individuals thrive in their roles? Is there any integration along the lines of the concept of Constructive Deviance and creativity? I may be stretching a bit but I really want to be able to spend more time with this book but the pressures of the schedule just don’t really allow… sigh

      • Dave Young says:

        Jon, I not only want to spend more time with this book I also want to spend more time in the dialogue with my cohort. Mary, Phil and you are bringing up great points to explore but there are just so many hours in a day.

      • Mary Pandiani says:

        What’s constructive deviance? Should I know the word?
        As for our next texts on Contextual Theology, the beauty of that kind of theology is that we get to continue the conversation. But I agree, Jon, it seems like it would benefit all of us if we could take some time to assimilate what these concepts/ideas meaning for our individual focus, having conversation as we share what we’re doing/discovering/hoping to understand.

        • Jon Spellman says:

          Mary, Constructive Deviance is the notion that individuals within an organization will, if encouraged and affirmed, work outside of the prescribed organizational “norms” and innovate in the best interest of the organization’s mission. They still operate within the scope of “hyper norms” (norms accepted by the broader culture or society) but violate the stated or implied “rules” of an organization. I am positing that the degree to which an organization not only tolerates, but embraces constructive deviance will serve as an indicator of their ability to thrive and adapt to a changing global landscape.

      • Dawnel Volzke says:


        Absolutely…I see many companies that have been able to be more innovative because individuals are permitted to work outside the company “norms”. Actually, the trend is more “companies that don’t set norms”. At some degree, there is a culture inside of every organization. But, the culture either drives innovation or prohibits it. Innovation drives change, and without this a company cannot adapt.


    • Mary Pandiani says:

      I thought of you quite a bit, Phil, in this book as I know you’re exploring what it means to flourish. I couldn’t remember if you were looking at it individually or corporately/communally.
      As I was envisioning what it would be like to be together as a cohort, I thought of our dinner with everyone on the waterfront in Cape Town where we laughed, shared life, entered into hard conversations, and enjoyed a communal time of good food. Perhaps Jason’s hope is that we get these tastes of heaven, so that we can offer them to others. 🙂

  3. Dave Young says:

    Thanks for writing such thoughtful questions. The one the struck me deeply was: “How can we distinguish what brings true wellness to a society?”

    Polanyi got me rethinking about what I saw in Thailand. Initially I thought what I was observing was abject poverty. But after a time I began to recognize that most of the Thai didn’t perceive themselves as poor. It was simply their lifestyle, their economy which was so different then what I grew up with. All I could see is what they were missing, they however seemed very content with clothing, food, and a roof over their heads – even if it was a tin roof. Now I might be generalizing when it comest to contentment; however it’s clear that societal wellness can’t be perceived based on our American cultural paradigm.

  4. Nick Martineau says:

    Thanks Mary…Great thoughts and great questions. I didn’t spend nearly as much time on this book as I would have hoped but it seems like such a complex issue for such little time we are giving it. How do we even begin to tackle the economic system? There has to be comfort in knowing the Spirit is present whenever/wherever but that doesn’t seem like a satisfying answer.

    These past 3 months Liz and I have daily been praying for the Father to teach us a greater understanding of gratefulness and generosity. I’ve spent most of these months thinking about how that plays out in my small circle of life. This has been a good awakening for me that there’s entire social/economic systems to be praying and thinking through. My idea of gratefulness and generosity needs to be greatly expanded.

  5. Travis Biglow says:

    I think we were all left with questions Mary. I too went through a financial crisis but through it i was taught something great. I needed to live within my means and I did not know what that was. We are always trying to live better, dress better, have better opportunities but at what cost? If we cant afford it we should wait unitl we can. I feel so much more free now to enjoy life without car notes and other debt that i used feel like I could not live without. Its a matter of prayer and realizing that we can’t let the love of the world “embedd” our souls. We have to as a Christian community learn that we are in the world but not of the world. And to me we should live up to what the Lord blesses us with until he blesses us with more. That way we wont get caught up in this economic system!!! Gods Grace Mary!!!!!!!!

Leave a Reply