Nothing has shaped the modern world more powerfully than capitalism, destroying as it has millennia-old patterns of economic, social, and political life. Over the centuries it has destroyed feudalism and monarchism with their emphasis on bloodlines and birth. It has created an independent class of businesspeople who owe little to the state and who are now the dominant force in every advanced society in the world. It has made made change and dynamism – rather than order and tradition – the governing philosophy of the modern age. Capitalism created a new world, utterly different from the one that had existed for millennia.
Fareed Zakaria (2003), The Future of Freedom, pp. 45-46
h/t: Cafe Hayek.
Like the Enlightenment, capitalism (or maybe better, the free market) has been a mixed blessing for the Church. Together with the loss of the social structures of “feudalism and monarchism” that Zakaria mentions, there has also been a more general loss of deference to hierarchy and tradition. The Church can no longer assume (much less presume) that even its own faithful will accept as true traditional Christian teach or see traditional Christian practice and moral prescription as wholesome and in the service of human flourishing. The independence of businesspeople to pursue profit as they see fit and of consumers to judge the relative value of different products and services has now become a cultural norm in all areas of life including religion.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Both I think. Yes, the Church has lost some the status and authority that it once in the culture and in people’s lives. But this loss of power also allows the Church corporately and Christians personally to more close imitate the poverty of Jesus Christ. This poverty was not primarily material but personal. In becoming man, the Son of God embraced a poverty of status, authority and power that–paradoxically–made His ministry all that more credible and effective. Or this at least is how St Paul understood the matter:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (2:5-11).
The cultural changes that Zakaria mentions are a challenge to the Church and to individual Christians no question about it. But if we look beyond the momentary discomfort they bring we can see that they also represent an opportunity for the Church to be purified and strengthened. Just as in our own spiritual life there are times of purification that teach us to depend more fully on God and less on the gifts He’s given us, so too for the Church. While the loss of cultural status is hard and is costly it brings with it the opportunity for Christians to strengthen our personal and corporate commitment to live as disciples of Christ.