Theologian says principles of economic exchange are part of basic Christian storyBy Jennifer Carnig
God and money do not often mix, except maybe when divine intervention is requested by those in line to buy lottery tickets. But for Kathryn Tanner, combining the Almighty and economics is just another day at the office.
A Professor of Theology in the Divinity School, Tanner works specifically on addressing contemporary challenges to Christian beliefs and practices, so she has to be as comfortable talking about politics and the environment—or capitalism and economics—as she is about creation and salvation.
“The great thing about being a theologian is that you can talk about anything, so you never get bored,” Tanner says from her office on the fourth floor of Swift Hall, a room made tiny by the sheer number of books and papers piled everywhere. “What I’m concerned about is how people are living and how faith works in people’s lives. That means I can write about absolutely anything.”
And she does. From the book she just wrapped up on theology and economics to the recently-published volume Spirit in the Cities: Searching for Soul in the Urban Landscape, Tanner is comfortable taking on any and all “real life issues.”
“Being a theologian is more than just an intellectual exercise,” Tanner explains. “The ideas in theology matter to people—they offer a real vision for human life. By helping people make sense of things, theologians can help make a difference in people’s lives.”
In her latest research, Tanner argues that the Christian story is one of economy, that God is the creator of good and is distributing that good to the world. “There are principles of economic exchange that are part of the basic Christian story,” she says, adding that in this way, some of the basic principles of capitalism can be directly compared and contrasted with the way God works in the world.
It is a theme that has come up in her work in one form or another throughout her career. No matter what she writes about, from social justice to culture, she always takes the consistent position that God is a gift-giver, the giver of all that is good, who, through created forms, is constantly cultivating an increasingly intimate relationship with the world.
From the moment of creation to the Covenant and then salvation through Jesus, the gifts God offers to the world have steadily increased. As they have, so has God’s relationship with humanity grown and become more intimate, Tanner says.
“The world is perfected by being brought into closer relations with the God who perfects it,” Tanner writes in Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology. “In union with God, in being brought near to God, all the trials and sorrows of life. . . are purified, remedied and reworked through the gifts of God’s grace. In short, God, who is already abundant fullness, freely wishes to replicate to every degree possible this fullness of life, light and love outward in what is not God.”
Tanner refers to her work as “theology on the ground,” meaning that she not only is at ease dealing with an audience outside of academia, but that it is a necessity to engage such an audience in discussions about the world. That is one reason she serves on the theology committee that advises the House of Bishops in the Episcopal Church.
“My audience is not just an academic audience,” says Tanner, the author of four books, including Theories of Culture: An New Agenda for Theology and The Politics of God: Christian Theologies and Social Justice. Tanner’s work is comprehensible, yet challenging. “My goal is to train Christians to think hard about what it is they’re really saying,” says Tanner, who came to the Divinity School 10 years ago from an associate professorship at Yale University where she also earned her B.A., M.A. and Ph.D.
“I believe you can have the most rigorous intellectual standards and still say something interesting from a religious point of view.”
To actually reach people, though, Tanner partners theology with urban studies, postmodern geography, cultural studies and the social sciences. Tanner’s merging of theology with the human and social sciences is what makes her “preeminent among contemporary theologians,” says Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School.
“Kathy’s work repays continued rereading in a time when the will of God is more and more widely invoked by each of the world’s monotheistic religions,” Rosengarten says. Because she writes about “the real problems of the world,” Rosengarten stresses that Tanner’s audience is not limited to people of faith.
“All people who want to think responsibly about our world and how we can make it better” will benefit from Tanner’s work, he says.