Divine Currency

The Theological Power of Money in the West

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Devin Singh
Cultural Memory in the Present
  • Palo Alto, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , April
     2018.
     296 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781503605664.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Devin Singh’s Divine Currency, we find an account of the relationship between Christian theological commitments and economic life that builds on existing genealogies of this relation, while extending the work of Peter Brown, Giorgio Agamben, William Connolly, and others on this front. Singh pushes back against formulations of this relationship that would reduce Christian theology to an economic formula, as well as those articulations that view Christian theology and economics as parallel ventures. For Singh, almost from the beginning, Christian theological teachings and modes of resource exchange are inseparable. 

The forms of this relationship between economics and theological discourse that Singh tracks move from the explicit to the “resonances” between the two (a term borrowed from Connolly). Two baseline commitments govern Singh’s explorations: First, there is no “outside” of theology to economy, but rather, the relation between God and creation has always been accompanied and shaped by the exchange metaphors of economics. To try to posit them as alternate discourses is to ignore the history of theological development. Second, this interweaving of discourses means that any critique of economics must be concomitant with theological critique, both in the sense that economics must be theologically understood, and that theology itself is complicit in the forms of exchange it wishes to critique.  

Over six main chapters, Singh excavates this relationship as exhibited in the 4th century, exploring the period between the rise of Emperor Constantine and the time of the Cappadocian theologians in the late 4th century. While gestures are made toward the Reformation and the modern era, the focus on this pivotal century of development within Christian theology allows him to more deeply explore his thesis. In these chapters, Singh explores a range of ways in which these discourses have intersected, from the overtly structural to implicit and hidden resonances. 

Chapter 1 delves into the heart of Christian theology—the doctrine of the incarnation—to explore the ways in which divine authority is analogously seen as mediated via materiality, whether in Jesus of Nazareth, Roman governance, taxation, or the trinitarian logic of the Son “administering” the work of the Father in creation. Singh applies the theological genealogy of Giorgio Agamben, in which the Son extends the power of the Father, and thus provides the basis for modern governmentality, to money. For it is not with naked power that the Roman world affected Christianity, but power extended through taxation, building programs, benefits to the poor, and so on. The more early Christianity engaged the praxis of Rome, the more economic metaphors began to emerge within theological discourse. 

Chapter 2 picks up by showing how Christian practices of almsgiving, pastoral care, preaching, and spiritual growth all make use of these economic notions in their descriptions of the spiritual life. It demonstrates that Christians are engaging in an exchange with God, giving death for life, wealth for God’s salvation. Chapter 3, focusing primarily on the way that the early historian Eusebius treats Constantine within the divine advancement of God’s purposes, links together the spiritual practices of chapter 2 with the person of the Emperor. 

In this way, the advancement of the Roman economy, God’s work in the world, and the church become a synthetic whole, but not in a way that makes Christian theology a servant to Roman purposes. Rather, economic discourse provides a way to speak of how “the heavenly Logos and administrator, associated with precious material resources, the image of God and the redemption of the material world, will become the stuff of economy itself as its chief currency” (103). Chapter 4 shows how Christ becomes “circulated” within the world as both the one who administers God’s work and the one who is the “payment” for Christians to be joined with God. The money bearing the emperor’s likeness, used in sermons to describe the imago dei in human life, carries the resonances and assumptions of Roman economics with it into Christian discussions of discipleship.   

Chapter 5 introduces the ways that theological discourse extends and alters this economic reading of theology during the 4th century. Economics, geared toward expansion and benefit, finds its way into the atonement theories of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, providing a metaphor for God’s rescue of creation, but this economic system, once appropriated, is turned by these preachers against predatory forms of lending and economic injustices. Likewise, chapter 6 shows how economic metaphors for expansion into new markets are turned theologically to explain the expansion of the gospel into new areas, bringing the work of God to the whole of creation. 

Each chapter functions not as a strict historiographical exploration, but as a thematic rendering of Singh’s thesis about the interwoven nature of economic concepts and theological discourse. Singh intentionally does not prescribe a moral outcome to his study, noting that the proliferation of economic language in theology produces an ambivalence about the use of money, allowing liberation-based communities to belong to the same family as the prosperity gospel. Singh’s illuminating study shows the power of economic discourse to shape theology, while also demonstrating that one of the reasons theology is able to alter economic practice is precisely that it does not stand outside economic thinking. 

Historians of the period and trained economists will have other critiques and questions, but the question I have is one of causality. From concrete practices of churches, such as almsgiving and the paying of taxes, to more “resonant” examples, such as the use of imperial coinage as a sermon reference, not all of the instances Singh details to support his thesis are as convincing as others. Resonances may be present when an imperial coin is used in a sermon, such that the congregant unconsciously imports assumptions about the emperor as a moral exemplar, or about the coin as a governing sign of our common economic life, but it may also be that sometimes a coin is just a coin. In the end, there is no denying that theological discourse must account for its internal links to economic discourse, for better or worse, and Singh’s exploration makes this reckoning nearly impossible to avoid. Clearly written and modestly argued, Singh’s work should be taken up by those who would seek to keep economics and theology at arm’s length, and by those who would see theology as an artifice which simply hides the “real” power of money.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Myles Werntz is the T. B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics and Pratical Theology at Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, TX.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Devin Singh is Assistant Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College.

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