Friday, October 24, 2008

Competing theologies of prosperity

Today's Wall Street Journal has an article on Prosperity Theology by the prominent scholar of religion Peter Berger (we'll encounter him later in our course). He writes that Prosperity Theology is:
. . . a version of Christianity asserting that material benefits will come to those who have faith, live a morally upright life and, not so incidentally, give money to the church. Broadly speaking, this is what Max Weber called the Protestant Ethic, but with much less emphasis on self-denial and more on hard work, planning for the future, family loyalty and educating one's children.
Berger also mentions a counter-theology:
[T]he prosperity gospel -- usually seen as being on the Christian right -- closely resembles the "liberation theology" of the Christian left, except that the latter's enrichment program is collective rather than individual. Liberation theology defined Christianity as essentially being a struggle of poor oppressed people against capitalism and imperialism.
Both theologies represent attempts to make religious thinking relevant for people who want economic security. Both stress that people must work to bring about the desired outcomes, though the former gives more credit to supernatural sources of this-worldly goods. Our theory suggests that each of these will survive as relevant religious teachings so long as the expected rewards of acting according to the teachings outweigh the costs. Liberation theology is challenged by the widespread belief that capitalism, despite its flaws, is better than the alternatives. Prosperity theology is challenged by the experiences of those who do not prosper as promised. But given that the teachings are both difficult to falsify, we should expect them both to be around for a while.

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