The world financial system takes the place of God by creating something — money — out of nothing, says Chicago theologian William Cavanaugh.


The world financial system takes the place of God by creating something — money — out of nothing, says Chicago theologian William Cavanaugh.

May 23, 2011

The modern financial economy is an attempt to replace the physical limits of creation with a fantasy world in which there are no limits to growth, no risk in investment and no need to trust those to whom one loans money.

That's the view of Chicago theologian William Cavanaugh who told the annual Social Justice Institute May 13 that the financial economy represents a form of theology and spirituality contrary to Christianity.

"From a spiritual point of view what we see in this is an aspiration to freedom, understood negatively as freedom from obligation to others," Cavanaugh told about 80 people attending the event at St. Joseph's Composite High School.

Cavanaugh, a theologian at DePaul University, traced the intricate array of financial arrangements that led to the 2009 financial collapse. He is the author of several books, including Being Consumed and Migrations of the Holy.

In the 1970s, the physical economy ran up against its limits, he said. To create the illusion of growth, even though nothing new of material value was being created, the economy became increasingly based on financial transactions.

Loans were made, others insured those loans and still others placed a form of wager on whether those loans would be repaid. "It would seem that financial traders turned the world into one large casino. But it's really much worse than that."


In gambling, he noted, the casino has a reserve in which to pay off large winnings. But not so in the U.S. financial system. There, when one person goes bankrupt, the whole system starts to collapse.

In the end, "The government steps in to bail out a system that it had deliberately refused to regulate."

The problem with this economy is not that it is too materialistic, but rather "the way it takes flight from the material world."

Cavanaugh described the theology of this economy as one where financial traders take the place of God by creating something out of nothing. "The aspiration of such an economy is to leave behind physical constraints and limits that are created by being a mortal creature in time."

It is also one where human relationships such as trust and risk "are seen as outmoded remnants of traditional societies," he said.


Money can be made much more quickly if the necessity of trust is abolished. One can even nurture and financially profit from the financial failures of others, he said.

The role of government becomes one of absorbing all the risk, bailing out wreckless investors with borrowed money and pushing off risk to some later date. "What we really want from elected politicians is to enable us to continue avoiding reality."

In a Christian theology of creation, Cavanaugh continued, material reality is understood as both good and finite. Creation relies on God for its being. "But precisely because it's created, it's limited. It's not God."

Human beings have no reason to try to escape our finitude because the relationship between God and creation is "a love story."

In the Old Testament, the creature views creation with humility. Abundant life is seen, not in terms of profit making, but as accepting the Shepherd's love and living in relationship with others.