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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

What Does History Teach Us?

Written by: on February 1, 2018

“Polanyi created a way of thinking about economies and societies that has had substantial impact on economic history, anthropology, and the study of the ancient Mediterranean. The Great Transformation remains important as a highly original contribution to the understanding of the Western past; it has been and is important in methodological debates in the social sciences.”[1]  This quote by Anne Mayhew relates the value that studying history, culture and an evolving world-view can have on a modern society. In his work, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Karl Polanyi relates the strong impact that capitalism and a strong societal view toward economic growth can take on the role that Christian values used to have. Though this book would not probably be perceived as a religious book, there are a few comments made throughout its pages that definitely denote the impact that capitalism has had in stifling the influence of Scripture.

I struggled with this book because of the nature of capitalism and commerce in the setting of religious ideologies. Though I know there is a reality concerning the financial influences on the church, Polanyi seemed to embrace the material over the spiritual as though it was a good thing. “The economic function is but one of many vital functions of land. It invests man’s life with stability; it is the site of his habitation; it is a condition of his physical safety; it is the landscape and the seasons. We might as well imagine his being born without hands and feet as carrying on his life without land.”[2] He seemed to see economic stability as the only true way to show that society was progressing to where it needed to be. At one point he describes the thinking of Robert Owen and his progression away from Christianity by writing, “Robert Owen turned away from a Christianity which renounced the task of mastering the world of man, and preferred to extol the imaginary status and function of Hannah More’s wretched heroine, instead of facing the awful revelation that transcended the New Testament, of man’s condition in a complex society. Nobody can doubt the sincerity which inspired Hannah More’s conviction that the more readily the poor acquiesced in their condition of degradation, the more easily they would turn to the heavenly solaces on which alone she relied both for their salvation and for the smooth functioning of a market society in which she firmly believed. But these empty husks of Christianity on which the inner life of the most generous of the upper classes was vegetating contrasted but poorly with the creative faith of that religion of industry in the spirit of which the common people of England were endeavoring to redeem society. However, capitalism had still a future in store.”[3] This sounded to me as though he was criticizing the need for surrendering our struggles to God in prayer. “In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried out to my God; He heard my voice from His temple, and my cry entered His ears.”[4]

Now there is the reality that this is an older resources that worked to show the historical relationship on capitalism in that time, and Asad Zaman summarizes Polanyi by writing, “The central theme of Polanyi’s book is a historical description of the emergence of the market economy as a competitor to the traditional economy. The market economy won this battle, and ideologies supporting the market economy won the corresponding battle in the marketplace of ideas. Today, the victory of the market economy is so complete that it has become difficult for us to imagine societies where the market does not play a central role.”[5]  So the real question is, “What do we do with the history lesson presented here?” If I were running for political office, seeking to find a methodology for financial reform, then perhaps I would view this all differently; however, I am in a doctoral program that focuses on ministry and Christianity, so my outlook is focused differently.

Polanyi wrote, “The true meaning of the attack on individualization” lay in his insistence on the social origin of human motives: “Individualized man, and all that is truly valuable in Christianity, are so separated as to be utterly incapable of union through all eternity.” His discovery of society urged him on to transcend Christianity and seek for a position beyond it. He grasped the truth that because society is real, man must ultimately submit to it.”[6] However, Christ, in the Gospel of Mark, warned; “18 Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, 19 and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.[7] It seems that the world has always had a fixation on financial gain and the power of money; and sadly, today we see this idealism leeching its way onto the backs of churches that have become more money focused rather than biblically focused. “9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”[8] I believe one of the obstacles of Christianity find the ability to trust in God rather than money. Success in a society is not formed by the financial wealth or monetary dominance it has over other groups, but rather in its ability to allow God to lead them.

Though I understand the need to study history, my greatest fear for our society is that we will repeat the mistakes of the past…especially in regards to the church itself. I am reminded of the lesson in Matthew 4:8-10, which holds this same warning for all of us today: “8 Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’”  Though money and power seem to be the answer to all things worldly, they are the wrong answer to all things Godly. Money is not the marker for stability in these times; God is. “Wisdom and knowledge will be the stability of your times, and the strength of salvation; the fear of the Lord is His treasure.”[9]

 

Bibliography

Mayhew, Anne. (n.d.). The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Retrieved January 25, 2018, from EH.net: https://eh.net/book_reviews/the-great-transformation-the-political-and-economic-origins-of-our-time/

Polanyi, Karl. (2001). The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press Books.

Zaman, Asad. (2013, August 18). WEA Pedagogy Blog. Retrieved January 25, 2018, from Weapedagogy.wordpress.com: https://weapedagogy.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/ summary-of-the-great-transformation-by-polanyi/

 

 

[1] Mayhew, A. (n.d.). The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Retrieved January 25, 2018, from EH.net: https://eh.net/book_reviews/the-great-transformation-the-political-and-economic-origins-of-our-time/

[2] Polanyi, K. (2001). The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press Books. P 187.

[3] Ibid, p 180.

[4] 2 Samuel 22:7.

[5] Zaman, A. (2013, August 18). WEA Pedagogy Blog. Retrieved January 25, 2018, from Weapedagogy.wordpress.com: https://weapedagogy.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/ summary-of-the-great-transformation-by-polanyi/.

[6] Polanyi, K. (2001). The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press Books. P 133.

[7] Mark 4:18-19.

[8] 1 Timothy 6:9-10.

[9] Isaiah 33:6.

About the Author

Shawn Hart

7 responses to “What Does History Teach Us?”

  1. mm M Webb says:

    Shawn,
    I like your introduction and thesis that “Capitalism is stifling the influence of Scripture.”
    I will go out on a limb here and answer your question, will society repeat the mistakes of the past.?
    “Yes.” Of course, we will. Why, because the world continues to struggle with how to resist Satan. That dirty little “sin thing” keeps getting in the way. We do have periods in history of relief, advance, progress towards the good that God intends for his creation, especially those who have already stepped up and said “yes” to Christ as their Savior, Redeemer, and Scapegoat for their sins.
    I am proud of you and commend your academic voice. I always enjoy reading what you have to say.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  2. Jay says:

    Hi Shawn,

    I am so glad you shared this verse, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”

    That to me is both a warning about greediness and sorrow. We must be careful. I am also reminded Jesus was a carpenter, so he must have done work on wood in exchange for money or other goods. The difference was that he had a pure heart…Agreed?

  3. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Shawn,
    Great insight into the churches love of position in society and the love of money that comes with it. I struggle to work through my own issues when it comes to money and how we spend it as a family. One thing I will always remember was when I heard Francis Chan speaking once, he was relaying the experience of working with people who lived in dumps in a third world country. He then came back to his church in California and they were discussing spending 250 million on a new sanctuary. He was struck by the waste of spending that much while people died of starvation, he convinced his elders to not spend the money on the building but to put it into feeding around the world. His words had a deep impact on me and still do. How do we preach the gospel without taking care of the needs of the people. Why are we worried about spending to keep up when a broken world needs us so very desperately.

    Jason

  4. Hi Shawn,

    That long quote that mentioned Robert Owen and Hannah More is a complicated one; it’s definitely hard to follow. I don’t think he was criticizing prayer, however. I had to read it multiple times to figure it out.

    The way I read it, I believe he was critical of faith which overspiritualized, and didn’t connect spirit to body. Failing to act for one’s neighbour while praying for them is what he is critical of. Those “husks of Christianity” represent those people who claim faith in Christ, accept the negative aspects of capitalism, and then just pray but don’t help them out of their distress.

  5. Chris Pritchett says:

    Hey Shawn, very thoughtful post. Thank you for summarizing Polanyi and the critiques you brought from your perspective as clergy. Your warning about the dangers of devoting such energy to the pursuit of wealth and luxury, is very needed in our time. Thanks for your prophetic word

  6. Greg says:

    Hey Shawn.

    How can we not talk about scripture without talking about money…I think this is a heart issue. I think it is hard to see any true change without a heart change. I agree with you that we can become a church focused on our own success and position. I do like Mark’s take on the quote. I think we as Christians are lazy and want things spoon fed to us; not willing to take part in our own recovery. Good job making me think.

  7. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Shawn, your statement, “Though I understand the need to study history, my greatest fear for our society is that we will repeat the mistakes of the past…especially in regards to the church itself” intrigues me. Do you believe that society/the church have not studied history and so do not know the mistakes of the past? Or have simply forgotten? Or something else altogether? I am interested to hear your thoughts on how you go about training people up to not repeat history. Do you teach modern history as well as biblical and apply biblical principals?

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