There are two people who can answer that question: Professor of Theology and Economic Thought Paul van Geest (a theologian and a Catholic) and Professor of Relational Economics, Values and Leadership Lans Bovenberg (an economist and a Pentecostalist). Van Geest and Bovenberg have known each other for years and know each other inside out.

They have no difficulty finishing each other’s sentences, take the mickey out of each other, love reminiscing about shared experiences and take their inspiration from each other’s words. We got them to discuss the usefulness and necessity of theology for economists – among other things, by presenting them with well-known assertions about economics. “People need a story that is about more than just earning as much money as possible.”

How do you know people need an economic story that is about more?

Van Geest: “When I teach seminars on St Augustine (a major theologian, philosopher and church father active in the 4th century AD – ed.), I can tell that today’s students understand that crass materialism isn’t going to get them anywhere. Nowadays, how many people want to work at a particular company because of the wages it pays? This generation is less into that. Unlike my generation, which was much more motivated by money and status.”

Bovenberg: “These days the things we need are different from the things people used to need. My parents lived at a time when life was difficult. They experienced the Great Depression and World War II. Many resources were very scarce. People basically wanted to be less hungry, so it made sense that there was a focus on earning a decent salary. But my generation, thanks to our successful economy and global cooperation, created a very high level of prosperity. The biggest problem the West is currently facing isn’t hunger, but rather obesity. As a result, there is now a dearth of other things, such as peace and quiet, and happiness. Values play a major part in meeting the demand for those things.”

Paul van Geest (l) en Lans Bovenberg. Image credit: Levien Willemse

So, ten years ago, this institute did not have a raison d’être?

Van Geest, without hesitation: “Ten years ago, we didn’t have a leg to stand on. It was pretty obvious to me, in my capacity as a theologian: I was never invited by companies to give presentations. At the time, everything was about turnover and shareholders. Things have changed since then. I’m on supervisory boards now. Me, a theologian! If you’d told me that ten years ago, I would have said: ‘You have a few screws loose. I’ll be appointed bishop of Rome before that ever happens.’”

What are you hoping to achieve by establishing this institute?

Van Geest: “The idea behind interdisciplinary collaboration between theologians and economists is that we can help each other by asking each other questions inspired by our own discipline. This will help us get a different perspective on one of our objects of research – human beings – which will give us a more realistic perspective.”

Bovenberg: “In Tilburg, where I also hold a chair, I mainly seek to innovate the way economics is taught. I try to incorporate a more inclusive view of human beings in our teaching, focusing on values, collaboration and love. This approach has proven to be interesting for the business community, as well. You see, in many respects, companies and leaders now play a different type of role. It’s increasingly about inspiring their employees and making sure their work is meaningful. Companies are increasingly focusing on happiness and meaning in life. We wish to make a contribution to that. Which is why it’s great that this institute is located in what Paul calls ‘the Rome of economics’: Rotterdam.”

What role does theology play in happiness and finding a meaning in life?

Van Geest: “Traditionally, we had homo economicus: a calculating person who is always consistent and always focuses on doing things that will benefit him, in accordance with rational, well-argued preferences. However, economists have realised that that’s not how human beings actually work.

“To give you an example, people have feelings and wish to feel loved and safe. That, too, affects the way they act, in terms of economics. When that happens, psychologists, sociologists and yes, theologians will raise their hands and say: We’ll be happy to broaden your view of human beings. We won’t overrule them with moralistic talk, but we’ll broaden their horizons by asking each other questions.”

To put this to the test, we put some well-known assertions about economics to Van Geest and Bovenberg and asked them how theology added to that particular belief.

Max Weber said: “Wishing to earn a lot of money does not equal crass materialism.”

Van Geest: “I agree. St Augustine said: ‘Money is neutral, but it shouldn’t be an objective in its own right.’ In other words, it’s all about how people deal with it. If it becomes an end in itself, you will alienate others and become unhappy and aggrieved. So, for greedy people, money is bad. However, for people who seek to use it for charitable purposes, money is actually a good thing.”

Bovenberg: “Money is the most important social innovation of all time. After all, it is related to our faith in reciprocity, which is the notion civilisation is founded on. But sometimes, people do indeed regard money as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end, which can make it very harmful. That’s what makes it so dangerous.”

Let’s talk about Adam Smith, who posited that egoism actually benefits society.

Bovenberg: “It’s true that there’s nothing wrong with self-interest, but only if you use a broader definition of the word, rather than just the material sense of the word. Self-interest should be interpreted as wanting to get some meaning from your life. If you do that, you’ll want to benefit others, as well, because from an evolutionary point of view, that’s what we were made to do. For that reason, I believe there is no conflict between self-interest and altruism.”

Van Geest: “As the Stoics said back in antiquity: As an individual, you can live your life in such a way that you and you alone lead a very comfortable life, but if you live in a beautiful house while others live in poverty, there will be no social cohesion, and people will get more aggressive. That’s why everyone ultimately benefits from a distribution of riches, as it means that everyone who is part of our society – the house we have in common;, the world – will be better able to make the most of themselves. I’d go so far as to say: You, in your capacity as an individual, won’t be happy until those around you are happy, too.”

That sounds like Jan Tinbergen, who said “profits follow from a distribution”.

Bovenberg: “Cooperation results in prosperity and benefits, but these benefits will only happen if all parties involved get to profit. That’s the only way they will voluntarily collaborate. That was Tinbergen’s message, as well. By the way, this is one of the main challenges posed by the current economy, because in some ways it’s mostly ‘the winner takes it all’.”

Van Geest: “Tinbergen’s assertion can be easily underpinned with some knowledge of theology. Many theological stories have the following moral: human beings are not just homo economicus, but social beings, as well. For example, in monasteries, people sought to establish community property. They shared their belongings and ended up gaining freedom.”

You are combining economics with things such as theology, biology, sociology and psychology. Why did we teach and implement economics ‘in splendid isolation’ for so long?

Bovenberg: “It’s a matter of ongoing changes and zeitgeist, comparable to increasing inclusiveness in society. Just like we’ve changed our minds about economic concepts, we now have very different ideas on slavery or the position of women than our parents or ancestors did back in the day. However, that doesn’t mean that they were wrong or were worse people than we are. It was a different era, and as things change over the course of time, we feel differently about things, too.”

Things changing over the course of time sounds like progress. Are our economy and society heading in the right direction, morally speaking?

Bovenberg: “We’re mainly seeing humankind evolve in logical terms. We are evolving into a more complex society and economy. This also requires changes to our moral sensitivity, because our values develop in tandem with the economy and are related to economic and societal issues. Take the climate problem, for instance – it has caused us to be more appreciative of nature. That’s a logical response to the problem.

“What is dangerous about our current society is the fact that we are so incredibly self-righteous. When I open my newspaper, I’m bound to see someone who is said to be doing something wrong, every single day. I think that’s harmful. Many people are suffering burnouts, because deep down people have the feeling that they’re not good enough. And people – young people, too – are experiencing a great deal of psychological pressure, because we have lost that understanding. The core belief of Christianity is that we are imperfect, but still valuable. It’s an intensely Christian concept: ‘I may make the odd mistake, but even so, I’m OK’.”

You make a point of mentioning Christianity. Is there a correlation between the type of religion practised in a particular area and the level of economic prosperity it enjoys?

Bovenberg: “I wouldn’t say that the type of religion practised correlates to prosperity. However, studies have shown that a country’s level of prosperity is largely determined by its level of faith in reciprocity. If institutions aren’t inclusive and the country is being governed by thugs, the economy won’t flourish, either. Reciprocity is not an exclusively Christian concept.”

Van Geest: “Make no mistake, though. Values such as solidarity – that is, supporting those who are voiceless and weak – were recorded by Jews and practised in a radical manner by Christ. Liberty of conscience is a Christian invention. These values were then relieved of their transcendental dimension during the French Revolution, but they are (and have always been) ultimately very Christian.”


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