Why Mystery Matters: Martha, Mary and the gap between economics and theology

In “Just Economics,” (Am. 5/6/13) Professor Stacie Beck offers a clear and well-reasoned interpretation of social justice, though it is one that seems to stand at some distance from conventional church teaching and, even more, from Pope Francis’ most recent comments on global economics. Despite the logic and the compassionate grounds of her argument, I cannot wholly accept her conclusions.

My disagreement is not with the logic of her thesis, but with what I consider the incomplete context within which she develops it. That context is the science of economics—a context inseparable, but qualitatively different, from that of theology. For both economics and theology, social justice is a critical issue. How they approach this issue, however, and with what differences, what limitations and what authority, is most pertinent to the topic at hand. Current theologians like John F. Haught, in the forefront of the modern and revolutionary dialogue between religion and science, take pains to identify the difference between the respective objects of scientific and theological study and note the significant ramifications following therefrom.


Economics, a social science, is by its nature committed to quantifiable information. Even when it addresses non-quantifiable phenomena in its deliberations (intuition, faith, aesthetics and so on), economic methodology employs quantifiable evidence; its propositions grow out of empirical information, and its justifications are based upon numbers, frequencies, measurements and the like.

Theology, on the other hand, while attentive to all that human learning and science continue to provide, is committed to the entire phenomena of human reality, including issues whose answers lie beyond the province of human investigation. These issues we call “mystery,” a concept that identifies the primary territory of religion. Mystery refers to those questions and intuitions that have enduring force in our lives even as we realize that their answers lie beyond our means. Mystery poses questions like: Why is there anything and not nothing? Why do the good often suffer and the evil prosper? Why do we have transcendent longings? What explains quantum leaps in the advance of the universe from inanimate matter to human thought and achievement? And especially, why must the progress of our universe, including the rise of human civilization, entail violence and evil, depravity and loss—despite our longing for goodness, peace and beauty?

Paradox and Parable

Regarding mystery, the Book of Job is instructive. Addressing Job’s overwhelming afflictions, his conventional counselors offer some concrete advice, but advice that effectively reduces the challenge of inexplicable evil to the quasi-quantitative resolutions of legalisms and virtuous deeds. To put it another way, they aspire to dismiss one expression of the mystery of evil with the human “magic” of merit: Do this, this and this, Job, and God will have to restore you to prosperity. Job, of course, in his ornery integrity, refuses to bribe God with virtue and, eschewing human explanations, enters the whirlwind of divine mystery. Here he comes to realize a relationship with God is infinitely more reassuring than any human proposition. His subsequent recovery, the story compels us to see, is due not to his virtuous deeds, but to his humble acceptance of God’s unconditional love. He leaves the whirlwind with no more answers than he had before, but with the ontological conviction, “My savior lives” (19:25).

The story of Job demonstrates the inadequacy of unaided human reasoning in approaching the familiar challenge of injustice in human affairs: Job has indeed done all that law and tradition require; the extremity of his plight compels something beyond the logical equivalencies of compensatory justice. Extrapolating from Job’s story, we can understand how the “logic” of the marketplace is, of itself, inadequate to address the totality of human motivation and behavior. And we must conclude that any valid prescription for the organization of human society or the welfare of its citizens must take into account the totality of its human subject—mystery and all.

This totality of vision may explain why great literature is so often enduringly complex, irreducible to conclusive analysis and yet resonant with some shared human sensibility that spans ages and continents. It is this mysterious reality that may explain why so much of Jesus’ teaching relies upon the “illogic” of paradox and parable, why it is so often countercultural, offensive to common sense. That the 11th-hour workers, for example, should receive compensation for a whole day’s work might confound our human sense of proportion and reward—until the parable moves us to see that it is not merit but simple human need to which the master responds (Mt 20:1-16). Paul Klee, a Swiss artist, observes that “art does not reproduce what we see, it makes us see.” This statement helps us to understand why Jesus relied upon the indirection and suggestive power of parable to express realities beyond the resolutions of human thought and devising.

Again, in terms of ordinary judgment, how can we say that “Mary has chosen the better part” (Lk 10:42), when Martha is the one who makes certain the platters are filled, the cups refreshed, the lamps trimmed and the butcher paid? The “Martha” in all of us is generally well-meaning, generous and practical. Without her, the home would be in disorder. (Interestingly, economy, from the Greek oikos, connotes something like “home management.”) Without the Martha in us, the daily bread might be neither well-baked nor paid for. And yet Jesus cautions us that we live “not by bread alone” (Mt 4:4).

We ponder what to make of these tensions, if not to realize that something inclusive of but beyond the empirical urgings of economics must inform our pursuit of justice, must balance the practical concerns of the Martha within us with Mary’s reverence for the mystery of the divine—that divinity abiding in all-day and 11th-hour workers alike, the mystery that may explain Jesus’ unconditional love for the poor. And we ponder also the principles these reflections might compel for the organization of a fully human society. In my thinking, it comes down to the difference between the concepts of organization and organism.

Many Parts, One Body

When society is conceived as an organization, its component elements are useful, as they enable the system to function. Should they become obsolete or ineffective, they can be disposed of and replaced as the system may require. Though its primary agents are persons, its functioning is, ironically, impersonal. When conceived as an organism, however, every individual of a community is understood as some part of a living whole, so that the health of every part is a measurement of the health of the whole. In this conception, a cancer in the toe is a threat to the entire organism, and therefore its earnest concern.

The Christian concept of the mystical body elevates this metaphor to the level of mystery. Our sense of the divine immanence, most manifest in the human person, compels our reverence and concern for the mystical body’s most diseased, unfortunate, contrary or despised members, so manifest in Christ’s predilection for the lost sheep, the outcast, the public sinner, the alien.

If this metaphor holds, it may help to explain the ongoing mystery of violence in the human community: how it is that we can so long for beauty, order and peace, even as we build ever more dangerous implements of destruction, even as divisions and acts of terrorism increase.

In Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads, the philosopher Gil Bailie explores the mystery of violence in society. He finds its catalyst not only in the more obvious injustices of territorial encroachment, deprivation, enslavement or brutalization, but in a comparative instinct that perceives blatant disparities in the apportionment of the goods of creation as offensive to a people’s sense of being human. This is a comparative intuition active both within and among nations. That this intuition is a reality is, in itself, some part of the mystery of the human. How we may deal with it wisely requires some acceptance of mystery in the pursuit of the just society. Aligned with this intuition and likewise offensive to one’s sense of personal dignity is the common affirmation that poverty is a failure of moral exertion, a betrayal of free will. This affirmation fails to understand that free will is contextual, dependent not only on a worthy economic goal, but upon the perception that this goal is realistically attainable. An economy that has witnessed an appalling and steady increase in income disparity is not likely to enhance that perception.

A fully human approach to economic justice, then, would join the science of economics with a reverence for the mystery of the human person. Such an approach would honor human need before productivity, would encourage enthusiasm and responsibility through a culture enhancing the relation of worker to product and would guarantee compensation designed to diminish our scandalous income disparities. Such an aspiration may seem, like most visions of God’s kingdom on earth, as beyond possibility. But we live in an age of unconscionable inequities in wealth, nationally and globally. This reality, together with nearly unimaginable advances in communications and an unsettling access to instruments of enormous menace, render anarchy and violence serious possibilities. If the struggle for economic dominance simply means an ongoing contest between world powers, we shall have achieved little toward defusing this menace.

Perhaps, alas, our only redemption will follow the old evolutionary template—and the sad wisdom—of progress born of violence. Perhaps, however, science informed by faith, will lift us above the momentum of egoism and greed, will conspire to effect a worldwide metanoia, a moral quantum leap, driven by the conviction that we are, indeed, one with one another and with all of creation.

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Luis Gutierrez
5 years 2 months ago
I think this is an outstanding article, and it is in line with the concept of "integral human development" and the following "working hypothesis" on cultural evolution toward a new civilization of solidarity and sustainability: "The patriarchal culture of control and domination is the root of all social and ecological violence. It corrupted the original unity of man and woman (cf. Genesis 3:16) and is now disrupting the harmony between humanity and the human habitat. Just as we are now aware that slavery and racism are moral evils, we must become aware that gender discrimination is a moral evil that must be eradicated if solidarity and sustainability are to be attained. The need to reform patriarchal structures applies to both secular and religious institutions. Overcoming patriarchy is a "sign of the times" to the extent that it fosters authentic gender solidarity and nonviolence for the good of humanity and the glory of God. Given the enormous influence of religious traditions, it is especially critical for religious institutions to extirpate any semblance of male hegemony in matters of doctrine and religious practices." Source: http://pelicanweb.org
Marie Rehbein
5 years 2 months ago
This is a very eloquent article, and I agree with the author.
Tammy Gottschling
5 years 2 months ago
Thank you for this essay. It is simply beautiful and brought tears to my eyes.
Ernest Martinson
5 years 2 months ago
A free economy informed by faith could lift us beyond egoism and greed. A free economy that recognizes the earth belongs to all and so recovers the rent of Eden and distributes this revenue equally to each. A free economy that recognizes the laborer is worthy of her wages and so does not tax her income and savings. Unfortunately, we have a political economy utilizing government monopoly on force to steal from the worker, the investor, and the inhabitants of foreign lands their natural resources. This theft is then spent on subsidies to special interests already possessing affluence and influence. Christians seem to approve this. Is it not written that to those who have, even more will be given; but to those who do not have, even that will be taken? The mystery that is a free economy requires an act of faith. But there is no mystery in a political economy. The government knows best and will regulate and plunder accordingly. The certainty of government has replaced the mystery of God in the eyes of many as a source of salvation.


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