Wanted: Strong Women and Men
“East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” is the first line of the poem The Ballad of East and West (1889) by Rudyard Kipling. What is said here has been long the case for economics and for theology as well. However, climate change does not only ask for meetings between East and West, such as the recent Climate Summit in Egypt. Climate change urges economists and theologians to step out of their comfort zone. Addressing a global, multifaceted issue like climate change can never be done by one discipline alone to achieve results that count for real change. So how could this be done to go beyond?
In my book Climate Change, Radical Uncertainty and Hope. Theology and Economics in Conversation (forthcoming 2023) I have developed a framework for a conversation between economics and theology. This framework is based on the postfoundational approach of Wentzel Van Huyssteen, a leading scholar in the religion and science debate. Van Huyssteen passed away earlier this year. May his memory be a blessing to us all.
A postfoundational approach
For Van Huyssteen, a widely accepted inheritance of modernity is that science is often considered a superior kind of knowledge. Religion, including theology, then is seen as a privatized form of subjective, if not irrational experience. Van Huyssteen has developed what he calls a postfoundational approach, one that views theology and science as different but equal faces of human rationality. This approach has four key characteristics, which are (1) recognizing the embeddedness of rationality in human culture, (2) interpreting a shared reality as common ground in all forms of inquiry, (3) critically investigating one’s own embeddedness, and (4) considering problem solving the most central activity of all research traditions. The key to a postfoundational interdisciplinary interaction is expressed in the notion of transversal reasoning, a conversation between different disciplines on a shared problem.
Originally created for an interaction between theology and natural science, this postfoundational approach equally allows a conversation between economics and theology as long as the three guidelines for a postfoundational conversation are honored, namely (1) a focus on specific economists and theologians instead of the rather wide-ranging, non-specific ‘economics and theology’; (2) these economists and theologians engage in specific kinds of economics and theology with postfoundational characteristics, and (3) the interaction is on a clearly defined and shared problem.
Bridging the gap
“East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”. This line of the poem is often quoted. But those who quote it thus often miss the third and fourth lines, which contradict the opening line. The full refrain that opens and closes the poem reads:
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!
Let’s leave discussions about ‘God’s great Judgment Seat’ to theologians. Here on planet Earth, other topics like climate change and sustainable agriculture call for next level conversations between economists and theologians. In recent decades economics has been enriched by crossovers with psychology (behavioural economics) and sociology (identity economics). It is high time for a postfoundational bridge between economics and theology and for strong women and men to cross that bridge. Who dares?
Dr. Jan Jorrit Hasselaar, economist and theologian, is director of the Amsterdam Centre for Religion and Sustainable Development, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He is research fellow of the University of the Western Cape (South Africa).
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