God in the Elements and God in the Market

April 20, 2007 | 31 comments
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I recently had a theological epiphany while reading a case about conditions precedent in crop insurance contracts. We experience God in different ways in different aspects of our lives. Think, for example, how different one’s experience of God is in the formal and ritualized setting of the Temple as opposed to the informal and unritualized setting of say family scripture study. Crop insurance got me thinking about how we experience God in our economic lives.

In a world of subsistence farming or herding, it is easy for me to see how God’s presence would seem very immediate. Prosperity, and in some cases survival, turned on the vagaries of rain and weather. In my parents’ house there is a painting of a farmer kneeling in his field to pray. I imagine that he is pleading for God to protect him from frosts — early and late — and send enough water for his crops, but not too much, please. Because his economic well-being was largely at the mercy of the elements, I imagine that in his economic life he experiences God as a direct force in economic outcomes.

Crop insurance, of course, is about removing the God of the elements from individual economic outcomes, or at least distancing Him from them. Use a human convention — an insurance contract — to pool and distribute the risk of loss, so that a year of bad rain is not as devastating as it once was. Crop insurance, however, is simply one manifestation of a much larger move in the phenomenology of economic experience. It is really a move into a world constituted primarily by conventions rather than nature, or — to put things in theological terms — acts of men rather than acts of God.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the experience of God is banished from our economic lives, but we experience him differently. The market is not a natural thing but a made thing, and its outcomes are the aggregate of millions of human choices rather than divine ones. I suspect that the effect is to moralize our religious economic experience. The farmer experiences God in pursuit of his livelihood by praying about the weather. The businessman experiences God in the pursuit of his livelihood by asking if his treatment of other human beings in the human-created world of the market is right in God’s sight. One experiences the God in the whirlwind, the God at the end of the Book of Job. The other experiences the God of Sinai or the Sermon on the Mount who gives ethical precepts.

31 Responses to God in the Elements and God in the Market

  1. Clair on April 20, 2007 at 10:39 am

    Our diversified, modulated economy also makes it harder for us to understand the quick boom-bust cycles in the Book of Mormon. Subsistence farmers are much closer to the lilies of the field – literally depending on God for something to feed their families next month. And all of their neighbors are in exactly the same situation and on the same cycle. They all feast or starve together.

    The closest we have come to a general economic breakdown in my lifetime was when the truckers finally rebelled during the wage/price control energy crisis of the late 70′s/early 80′s. We had truckers shooting at other truckers from bridges. Without transportation, our storehouses would empty overnight. We would become subsistence foragers. The Book of Mormon would come to life for us in new ways.

  2. Bill MacKinnon on April 20, 2007 at 11:47 am

    Nate’s and Clair’s comments on the economic order of things before and after the advent of crop (or business interruption) insurance remind me that the impact of God on crops and the need for instruction in business ethics were matters of concern in Brigham Young’s office as well as in farmers’ fields and today’s commercial offices. Glimpses into how the subjects raised by Nate were discussed in that office frequently are provided by the clerks who kept BY’s Office Journal, a copy of which found its way into Leonard Arrington’s research files at Utah State’s Merrill-Cazier Library. Take for example President Young’s concern over the launch in early 1857 of the “Y[oung]. X[press]. Carrying Company,” a high-risk, capital-intensive network of stage-mail stations stretching from the Missouri River to Salt Lake Valley intended to pick up the abandoned Independence-SLC U.S. mail contract while providing way-stations for LDS emigrants crossing the plains. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in station construction, wagons, mules, and provisions were at risk, and when the advent of the Utah War later brought on the collapse of the Y.X. Carrying Co. it was a blow against which BY and other leaders railed for years. But as the company was launched in February 1857 all that was in the future. On February 7 the first party of eastbound mail “conductors,” including William Adams (Wild Bill) Hickman, gathered in BY’s office and First Counselor Heber C. Kimball delivered the following admonition on business conduct/ethics: “Never touch any thing that is not yours unless you have orders from head quarters: lots of men have ruined themselves, not knowing these things. You are Missionaries, in this [venture] as you would be if going abroad.” Brigham Young then added, “We are going to start a carrying Coy: our capital, is in [y]our arms; mules &c. We do’nt want to go into debt & after we have made means, it will be divided according to the works and labor of all. Meantime we cannot help you you must help yourselves: & do not go out to expose yourselves but cover yourselves well…Work for nothing & find yourselves.” Five days later, the office discussion was about the weather, the devastating crop failures in Utah of the prior year and the output of the ballistic lead mine that had changed the 1855 Indian mission at Las Vegas into a mining mission that was to have an impact on the Nauvoo Legion’s ability to provide itself with ammunition from a local source: “Lorenzo Roundy arrived this morning from Los Vegas with a load of pig lead. had a difficulty in getting thro. the snow. and Warren Snow had arrived with 72 Waggons of Wheat & oats. & there is double the amt. left at Sanpete: the hand of the Lord is manifest in this shirt straw and great heads.” The boom-bust economic cycle was at work in Utah Territory of the mid-1850s as well as in The Book of Mormon.

  3. Mark IV on April 20, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    Thanks, Nate.

    This is sound thinking, and a useful argument. I’ve been surprised at how many people I know who believe that commerce is simply a dirty undertaking, and unworthy of us. They think the idea of God being present in the market is nonsensical, like saying that God is in the whorehouse.

  4. DMI Dave on April 20, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    Nate, it would be unfair to take issue with such a short sketch, but I’m never happy with these “God is in the weather” posts. I know you’ll accuse me of oversimplifying if I suggest that you are suggesting that crop insurance is bad for faith or that acquaintance with meteorology is bad for faith. I don’t subscribe to the idea that faith is rooted in ignorance, so I don’t see advances in human knowledge and society — whether in understanding how the weather works or in understanding how insurance markets work — as displacing faith or God. I’m guessing you share that opinion, it just doesn’t come through well in your post.

  5. Nate Oman on April 20, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    DMI: I am not going to accuse you of oversimplifying. Rather, I am going to accuse you of completely missing the point. My whole point is that the rise of crop insurance does not displace religious faith. It simply changes the way in which it is experienced. Furthermore, I do not say anywhere in the post — nor imply — that the religious experience of the farmer is better, higher, more authentic, etc. than the religious experience of the man in the market.

    Maybe the farmer who prays for rain is theologically mistaken: God is not in the clouds; it is just air and moisture doing its thing according to causal laws. (I am not sure exactly how to make sense of the God/causal law distinction, but I’ll put that aside for now.) So what? My point is about the phenomenology of religious experience rather than its ultimate theological validity. I am doing anatomy here not apologetics or apcolyptics.

  6. Nate Oman on April 20, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    BTW, I really love the weather. I remember learning about meterology as a kid taking sailing and seamanship classes, and I have working knowledge of barometers, weather fronts, etc. etc. Still, when I see some huge storm coming across the bay, I can’t help but see God’s power. I may not be scientifically or theologically justified in doing so, but I am affraid that this is a case where awe overcomes argument.

  7. Adam Greenwood on April 20, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    Nate,

    it seems to me that crop insurance doesn’t just make farming about ethics. Crop insurance, conceptually, is a Zion sort of thing, where everyone is shouldering everyone else’s burdens and so the burdens are made light. So instead of a shift from petition to ethics, we’re really dealing with a shift from Abraham to the children of Israel, from Joseph to the Saints, from experiencing God directly to experiencing God and his kindness through the mediation and mercy of our fellows. The challenge is to continue to see God’s hand and give thanks.

  8. Dave on April 20, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    Nate, if it’s just phenomenology, it seems like you can take the view that all experience of God is valid, or that some is valid and some isn’t. If someone experiences God by seeing an image of the Blessed Virgin in the clouds or in a pastry, is that valid? And if one is going to distinguish between experiences of God that are valid or not valid, the reasonable basis for doing so would seem to be one’s view on whether God participates directly in the phenomenon or not. One can plead ignorance, of course, but just calling it phenomenology doesn’t avoid the “God/causal law distinction.”

    When you said, “Crop insurance, of course, is about removing the God of the elements from individual economic outcomes,” that sounded like more than phenomenology, so I don’t think I completely missed the point. I think the point is there in the post, although it may not be what you wanted to emphasize. Another post, perhaps.

  9. Ugly Mahana on April 20, 2007 at 2:00 pm

    Adam: Well said.

  10. Clark on April 20, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    Adam, that’s an interesting point. Are these societal advances part of building the City of Zion? What does that say about Enoch or life in Bountiful after Jesus came?

    Nate, don’t you think that Brigham did think an agrarian culture was superior to most others?

  11. Nate Oman on April 20, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    Adam:One needn’t see crop insurance in terms of Zion. I take that one can have risk pooling without Zion, and although FCIC is federally subsidized, by and large the risk is bourne by a pool of beneficiaries rather than the community as a whole. Hence, I see the shift involved in insurance as being a shift from economic production primarily embedded in nature to economic production primarily embedded in the conventional world of contracts.

  12. Nate Oman on April 20, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    “Nate, don’t you think that Brigham did think an agrarian culture was superior to most others?”

    Perhaps. Remember, however, that one must treat the Brigham Young seen in the works of Hugh Nibley as being a slightly different character from the Brigham Young of the actual world. This Young was also a vigorous booster of manufacturing enterprises and the railroad.

  13. Russell Arben Fox on April 20, 2007 at 3:33 pm

    “Crop insurance, conceptually, is a Zion sort of thing, where everyone is shouldering everyone else’s burdens and so the burdens are made light. So instead of a shift from petition to ethics, we’re really dealing with a shift from Abraham to the children of Israel, from Joseph to the Saints, from experiencing God directly to experiencing God and his kindness through the mediation and mercy of our fellows.”

    I agree with you, Adam, with the note that I don’t think the shift from “experiencing God directly to experiencing God…through the mediation…of our fellows” is really all that big a shift. Certainly the way we might categorize the phenomenology of the experience hasn’t changed; it’s still an experience with another (or the Other), as opposed to an experience conducted through oneself (involving one’s expectations, one’s standards, one’s capabilities, one’s relationships, etc.–in other words, ethics). Abraham and Joseph were both tied up with covenanted communities as well as covenanted to the land; it’s the former that shows the real continuity between a subsistence farmer and one who farms, or does any sort of productive and mutually supported labor, in Zion.

  14. Adam Greenwood on April 20, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    I take that one can have risk pooling without Zion, and although FCIC is federally subsidized, by and large the risk is bourne by a pool of beneficiaries rather than the community as a whole.

    You mistake me, Nate. I’m not arguing that crop insurance and Zion are the same thing. I’m arguing that crop insurance is conceptually Zion-like in that it involves the sharing of burdens and benefits by a group of people.

  15. Nate Oman on April 20, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    I suppose that I am on clear on whether you see the sharing of burdens as being a necessary of sufficient condition for Zion. I just want to point out that a combination of contracts and largely impersonal markets makes possible an enormous amount of risk sharing, and I think that humanity is much better off because of it, even though I don’t think that it constitutes some sort of Zion-like community. Indeed, I doubt that a risk pool constitutes any kind of community at all.

  16. Adam Greenwood on April 20, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    I don’t understand what you’re saying, Nate. I’ve agreed that insurance is not the alpha and omega of an actual Zion. I also agree that sharing risk with a group of people does not transform us into a complete, organic community. I don’t see that either have much to do with my point.

  17. John Mansfield on April 20, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    Back in October, the Washington Post ran a longer article on ways that crop insurers transfer their liabilities to the federal government and profit well by doing so. In the middle of the piece, one of our fellow saints came off well:

    Crop insurance administrator Ross Davidson Jr. sought to reduce company fees by $75 million last year. But in a highly unusual congressional hearing, Davidson was publicly upbraided by Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) for not being more “producer friendly” and for losing the trust of the insurers. They called for his resignation.

    Later, Davidson was transferred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture main office to work on energy issues. He has since left the agency to work in South America for the Mormon Church. Attempts to reach him through the church were unsuccessful.

    Anyone who can rile a few pork barrel senators from both parties rates high in my book.

  18. Nate Oman on April 20, 2007 at 4:24 pm

    Adam: I thought that you were claiming that a movement from individual faming to crop insurance was a movement from individualism to community. My bad.

  19. Adam Greenwood on April 20, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    I think we’re talking past each other, Nate. I still don’t understand the point you’re making. Sorry about the distraction. I thought your post was great.

  20. Travis Anderson on April 20, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    “My whole point is that the rise of crop insurance does not displace religious faith. It simply changes the way in which it is experienced.”

    I think Nate’s point is a good one. I would be even more explicit, and say that insurance also MANIFESTS the way our faith is experienced (which I think Nate implies, if I’m not mistaken). And that manifestation does not seem to me an entirely happy one. Nate writes: “Crop insurance, of course, is about removing the God of the elements from individual economic outcomes, or at least distancing Him from them. . . . It is really a move into a world constituted primarily by conventions rather than nature, or — to put things in theological terms — acts of men rather than acts of God.” Nate’s right.

    I’ve often thought about medical intervention in these terms, and I think it raises an interesting question: has our faith been diminished or essentially altered by our constant preaching about the virtues and necessity of self-reliance? For however much we want to spin it otherwise, the effect of such preaching (and its implications) is a theological view of the world seemingly at odds with scriptural directives to rely on God rather than the arm of flesh; our view of the world is one in which we need to rely on God only where and when our own preparations, strength, foresight, social position, accumulated wealth, and plain good luck won’t sustain us. This is no longer a world in which we travel without purse or scrip, a world in which God dresses us as the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. In fact, we have become “believers” who mock other religions that refuse life-saving medical interventions, and we participate in their prosecution for neglect (or worse) when the result of their faith is a consequence that medical authorities testify, rightly or wrongly, could and should have been avoided by medical intervention.

    But at the same time, we praise from the pulpit the virtues of suffering, and even death, when medications, surgery or other interventions can’t prevent it. It would seem that what we implicitly believe is that God’s will is at work, and an exclusive faith in God is required, only when, to use Nate’s term, the “acts of men” fall short of the desired result. The caveat, of course, is the corresponding belief that God often acts through others, preferably (and apparently primarily) through professionals with acquired knowledge and skills; God himself only directly intervenes when he has to take up the slack. So, we administer a priesthood blessing and then, according to ecclesiatical counsel, rush to the hospital and turn it over to the doctors. Now, maybe this is indeed how things should be. But the faith at work here (or not at work) is manifestly not the faith of Matthew Cowley or most other early Church members (including many of my own relatives)–for whom that caveat was interpreted to mean that God often acts through the faith of others, not through their wisdom, skills, and strengths. It seems the God we have come to believe in is a God on margin, to put it in economic terms.

  21. Nate Oman on April 20, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Travis: I understand what you are saying, but I am not sure that a shift from God in history as miracle to God in history as moral precept is necessarily a form of declesion. I can feel nostalgic for the world in which ward fasts were directed at alleviating droughts for our crops. On the other hand, I cannot feel nostalgic for a world without insurance and the other conventions of the market that protect livlihoods and prosperity from the random effects of weather.

  22. Travis Anderson on April 20, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    Nate, your point is well taken. And I don’t think I disagree with you. But it seems to me there are two kinds of faith at issue here. There’s the kind of faith that is exercised only after we buy insurance, hedge our bets, rely on our own strength and the world’s conventions, and despite all that, the insurance fails to cover our losses or the doctors don’t come through, so we have no other recourse but to call upon God. Then there’s the kind of thorough-going dependence on God and faith in God that intimately includes him from the outset, even in the decision to buy insurance, because we recognize that an answered prayer to drought-stricken farmers downriver might entail more rain in my neck of the woods than my fields can handle without flooding. It seems to me that the latter is the kind of faith that Matthew Cowley exercised: rely on the arm of the Lord completely, not just as a stopgap, but recognizing that such reliance entails being a responsible steward, following promptings to rush to the hospital if and when they come, but truly believing that were it just and appropriate, God could and would do more than all the world’s resources combined. And I think we have slipped toward the former and away from the latter. But maybe I’m wrong.

  23. Richard O. on April 21, 2007 at 12:11 am

    In the 1870′s Brigham Young would go down to St, George in the late fall and come back to SLC in the early spring. Hence the journey down and back were often in wet, muddy conditions. One day as his party was traveling, they bogged down in the mud up to the axels. Someone said, “Brother Brigham, let’s pray.” Brigham said, “We prayed this morning, let’s get out and push.” Faith and works? Prayer and insurance? Blessings and hospitals?

  24. Adam Greenwood on April 21, 2007 at 9:17 am

    Travis Anderson,

    I think I see what you’re saying here. Its possible and, I think, correct, to see God acting through the doctor. But its not common. Thinking of God as the God of the gaps is more natural.

    Medicine and crop insurance and so on is part of God’s mercy in giving us some room to actually affect things.

  25. MPS on April 21, 2007 at 10:09 am

    I have enjoyed reading the posts. My comment may or may not seem relevant and it is a bit rambling… My comment is based on a quote from a letter Joseph Smith wrote in 1844. The quote is \”Truth, virtue, and honor, combined with energy and industry, pave the way to exaltation, glory and bliss.\” HC 6:425 This is a simple articulation of what I think is a basic truth. Faith, spiritual action, and virtue combined with works breed contenment and progress. I think this concept and philosophy for functioning in the world synchs well with President Hinckley\’s recurring themes of living simple virtues daily combined with temporal preparation (education, food storage, etc.) and hard work. Some may have difficulty seeing and reconciling the mutual dependance spiritual action and physical action have. I often wonder and struggle with how to properly synch the two. Nevertheless, my experience has taught me (I emphasize \”ME\” and realize this may not be the experience of others) simply, that I feel best about myself, my family, friends, neighborhood, community, the world, my God, and everything when I consistently attend to my daily study and prayer, combined with working hard to get things done. I always feel less content and happy if I drop off in either the faith, study, and prayer part or the hard work part. If I procrastinate or drop either element of the formula things don\’t seem to go as well. I only have a limited understanding of why the combination of \”faith\” or \”spiritual\” tasks and \”physical\” tasks engenders basic contentment and happiness but it works for me. This truth often seems almost too simple and I get bored with it sometimes. Nevertheless, it has demonstrated itself as a truth in my expierience.

    I think Joseph Smith\’s statement contains a baseline truth. Basic virtues combined with hard work are what seem to make happy, steady individuals, families, communities, and societies in any era and under any system. The laws, circumstances, and societal systems under which we live do influence how we relate to and understand our God. However, it is difficult to imagine an economic or societal situation that could be encountered in this world, where the application of basic gospel virtues combined with energy and industry doesn\’t produce contentment in the individual as well as those individuals, groups, and institutions touched by that individual. I guess my point is that the combination of spiritual work and physical work brings contentment and progress and that neither by itself is sufficient. At least not in my experience. Now if I could apply the concept and life philosophy consistently…easier said than done.

  26. MPS on April 21, 2007 at 10:39 am

    One interaction of God with man is described in this quote from Talmage. Talmage makes this commentary in the context of discussing the miracle of Lazarus being restored to life. “The procedure [raising Lazarus] throughout was characterized by deep soleminity and by the entire absence of every element of unnecessary display. Jesus, who when miles away and without any ordinary means of receiving the information knew that Lazarus was dead, doubtless could have found the tomb; yet He inquired: “Where have ye laid him?” He who could still the waves of the sea by a word could have miraculouly effected the removal of the stone that sealed the mounth of the sepulchre; yet He said: “Take ye away the stone.” He who could reunite spirit and body could have loosened without hands the cerements by which the reanimated Lazarus was bound; yet He said: “Loose him, and let him go.” All that human agency could do was left to man. In no instance do we find that Christ used unnecessarily the superhuman powers of His Godship; the divine energy was never wasted; even the material creation resulting from its exercise was conserved, as witness His instrucitons regarding the gathering up of the fragments of bread and fish after the multitudes had been miraculously fed.” –Jesus the Christ p.495

    Maybe this sequence of events gives us an insight into how God exercises or refrains from exercising his power in conjunction with human power.

  27. smb on April 21, 2007 at 11:02 pm

    Nate, Farrell has written extensively about the use of life insurance as part of a radical revision of American death culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, precisely by attempting attenuate the aftershocks of these Providential events.

    And incidentally, the person complaining about elemental deities and metereological pseudo-euhemerism, even after animism was extinguished, the weather was seen as an expression of Providence. That Providential thought pattern was clearly important to early Mormon leaders and didn’t really leave until the Civil War from American culture. So arguing strongly against associations of weather with God may leave you in a surprising intellectual tradition.

    I still love to think about Gene England’s story about blessing his car and a similar story told about blessing a car to be free from rain told by an old bishop who has become another prominent academic and continues committed LDS. These seem to me to be beautiful expressions of precisely this sentiment.

    And incidentally, anyone ever stopped to think about the etymology of meteorology? The word itself speaks to the mystical associations we have always had in our mind about celestial bodies and the winds and rain.

  28. Seth R. on April 22, 2007 at 9:26 pm

    As a solo lawyer with no safety net, I can relate. I think sometimes, I’m living off faith.

    I do know that whenever my wife and I pay our tithing, we seem to get a couple more paying clients.

    Is it fair to say the tenured law professor experiences God differently than the hungry solo lawyer? =)

  29. Nate Oman on April 22, 2007 at 9:31 pm

    “Is it fair to say the tenured law professor experiences God differently than the hungry solo lawyer? =)”

    Ask me in six years when (God and the advance and promotion committee willing) I get tenure. Until then, I enjoy the neurosis of the untenured.

  30. Seth R. on April 22, 2007 at 9:49 pm

    Fair enough Nate,

    Honestly, I had no idea whether you were tenured or not.

    In light of this discussion, should I wish you luck in getting there or not?

  31. Robert C. on April 23, 2007 at 7:07 pm

    Fascinating post and discussion. I’m particularly interested in this bit about the arm of flesh: how does our lived experience of faith change in a world that is much more technologically tamed? Or, equivalently, how has our understanding of the phrase “arm of flesh” changed over time, and what are the implications (dangers, and possibly benefits) of this change?

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