Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Spiritual Economics? Theodore Malloch Tries His Hand at Prophecy

By Richard Greydanus (c. 2003-4)

The world is changing. That much is obvious since the downfall of international communism. So says Dr. Theodore Malloch, the first lecturer in a series dedicated to the late Dr. Bernard Zylstra. A global order fashioned around political ideologies is a thing of the past: liberal democracies have triumphed. Even so, Francis Fukuyama was wrong—history hasn’t ended. The world is developing a multi-polar complex, a condition tied directly to communities defining themselves in terms of some combination of ethnic and religious identity. But there is no need to listen to Samuel P. Huntington’s dismal vision of civilizations riven by religious conflict; in democratic capitalism we have the means of peaceful co-existence with our Hindu, Muslim, or other yet unnamed religious neighbors. The ever-expanding global economy possesses the ability to reduce tensions between groups and generally increase humanity’s quality of life through business partnerships. Just don’t get left behind.

Was that a mouthful? It was in every way intended to be. Redeemer was privileged to have extremely articulate Malloch come and speak on the topic of economics, globalization, and spirituality on November 3rd in honour of Zylstra (1934-1986). A student of Herman Dooyeweerd, Zylstra was interested in the relations between religion, culture, and politics. In recent years economic concerns have grown so large and asserted themselves so strongly in the political realm that it only seems appropriate that Malloch extend Zylstra’s field of study to include them.

Malloch impressive list of accomplishments include holding an ambassadorial position at the UN for two years, presiding over the World Economic Development Congress, serving in the US State Department and on the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in addition to authoring five books.

Having held positions on university boards, in government, at banks, in not-for-profit organizations, he believes his experience has put him in a unique position to cultivate partnerships between society-shaping organizations. He has also started his own company, the Roosevelt Group, which studies the rapidly changing global economy for the purpose of giving companies an edge in the global business market.

So Malloch came to Redeemer College to offer a portion of his life’s up for enlightened discussion. He first addressed several hundred students during chapel On the Nature of Belief. Addressing core beliefs set deep in every human heart and the truthfulness of Christian beliefs, he pointed to the importance to living the whole of life before God.

At 4:00 Dr. Jacob Ellens introduced his lecture Spiritual Capital: So What? and for a moment reflected on the valuable time they had shared in Dr. Zylstra’s class.

To begin his lecture, Malloch admitted that very little work had been done to develop a theory of spiritual capital. Max Weber’s study into The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was ground-breaking in this field and lent credence to the theory that a person’s or a community’s religious commitment has a profound effect on their economic behavior. Yet until very recently the idea of spiritual capital has been shunned by the sociologists everywhere.

Social capital is common currency in the academic community today. Its basic tenet is that human networks and communities make social action possible. It also helps to explain individual achievement—you need the right connections to get anywhere in life. For here, it is not a huge step to say that for business social capital an extremely precious commodity.

Add to social capital what Malloch called human capital. Under this umbrella of this term can be found human skills, experience, and knowledge. In addition to these some sociologists will add personality, appearance, etc. The raw potential of human capital utilized by the connectivity provided by social capital is a powerful force for economic development.

But is this enough to explain the wide variety of social phenomena available for study? Weber didn’t think so and he pointed to the Protestant work-ethic to explain economic success in countries where the Reformed tradition had taken root. Nor has religion faded from view as so many critics operating out of an Enlightenment frame-of-mind believed. In fact, if the conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq are any indication, religion has reasserted itself on the world stage.

So studies are being made into spiritual capital. What is it? In its most rudimentary form it is the connection between religion and the norms and mores facilitate the coordination and cooperation necessary for social interaction. Malloch maintained economic development rationalized as both a means to an end and an end in itself is not a sustainable human enterprise. Successfully developing societies are most often animated by a strong religious ethic. So it is with economic development; people are inspired by faith to manage and develop their resources creatively: call this good stewardship.

Here is a working definition of spiritual capital: The effects of spiritual and religious practices, beliefs, networks and institutions that have a measurable impact on individuals, communities and societies. (taken from And of social capital, Malloch, referring to research done on spiritual capital, said that as much as 50% is spiritual capital.

After he finished delivering his first lecture, Dr.Malloch fielded questions. Those in attendance were concerned about the use of the term capital in a study of religion. Would this reduce religion to a commodity? No reduction was intended, though religion viewed by those in business through the lens of spiritual capital had the potential to further economic interests. The empirical evidence, Malloch stressed, for spiritual capital is too strong to ignore.

Which brings us to the evening lecture; Malloch set aside his lab-coat for the animal skins worn by the prophet John and spoke on The Global Century: The Corporatization of Civilization. In a manner which disturbed some of those in attendance (not to deny that it was well-received by others) he described a vision of the triumph of democratic capitalism in a post-Cold War world.

The world of yesterday is no more. Such an observation might seem trite to some, but questions of how it has changed needs to be answered. 1) The new order is based on the sharing of information in an integrated digital economy. The computer chip has redefined the basic command structures in society. The hierarchical chain of command has been replaced by a multiplicity of networks. 2) Large corporations are a new source of political power by virtue of their incredible commercial power and English is the lingua franca of this new world order. Political power based on industry and military strength is a thing of the past. 3) Environmental issues will forge new relationships between national governments and businesses. Eco-business is part of economic development of the future. 4) Democratic capitalism has triumphed; those with entrepreneurial vision poise themselves to do extremely well. The United States stands in a unique historical location as the main engine of democratic capitalism. 5) The impact of the struggle between preserving cultural identity against the forces of global cultural homogeneity will be lessened by a common approach to business. In such a world, doing business ethical will extremely important as an integrated global economy depends predictability and trust.

Malloch was careful to emphasize that these social and economic trends were not “inevitable” in a deterministic sense. But, he insisted, the empirical data provided so much evidence that they might as well be. He offered no critique of the spiritual foundations, the idols, of democratic capitalism. Briefly he did state that it was the responsibility of Christians to discern the spiritual direction of these trends and to raise questions about normative behavior. He, however, did not take up his own challenge.

The future looks bright: environmental issues will be addressed; the market will subdue all forms of national and religious conflict; all the while cultural identities will be preserved; and the integrated global economy will bring with it an era of increased toleration. Maybe the future looks too bright. We might ask, “What next? The eschaton ushered in by a messiah born on Wall Street, wrapped in stocks and bonds, and lying on the trade floor?”

Before he began his second lecture, Malloch spoke on the huge intellectual debt he owed to his former professor, Bernard Zylstra. Describing his first encounter with Zylstra, he said, “Christians could be academically respectable and faithful. I was hooked.” Malloch was educated at Gordon College in Massachusetts and brought up in the Reformed tradition. Yet, especially after his second lecture, some were left wondering whether he had truly honoured the spirit in which Zylstra pursued his scholarship. Perhaps Reformational thinkers have a perhaps too-aggressive desire to expose the “gods”, those unbiblical assumptions, shaping systems of thought, indeed even shaping social institutions. Yet Malloch’s approach of analyzing empirical data and drawing conclusions seemed entirely other. Was he justified placing as much faith as he did in his science to predict the course of next century? How many examples does history offer us of people wrongly convinced of this or that inevitable outcome based on empirical evidence? Of course, it is in course of history that Malloch views will be judged, and not in the Crown.

Malloch placed much emphasis on the role played by empirical research in the drawing of his conclusions. Step back to his first lecture. Does the idea of spiritual capital, which has “strong empirical support,” satisfy? Abraham Kuyper maintains that Christ lays claim to all of human life. If spiritual capital is treated as a subset of social capital, is this vision preserved? Among great 20th century world historians there were some like Arnold Toynbee and Christopher Dawson who believed religion penetrates to a society’s heart, shaping both social institutions and the interpersonal relationships that are their foundation. (Malloch mentioned Toynbee in his chapel address.) Dooyeweerd says much the same. It is unfortunate that Malloch made no attempt to reconcile limited nature of spiritual capital with the profoundly religious outlook of human life.

The conviction with which Malloch presented his lectures, no doubt was a tribute to Bernard Zylstra. Yet one (and by “one” the reporter is referring to himself) wonders whether that venerable man was honoured by their character.