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.