Every summer, I come down with a case of existential angst. As the immediate demands of the school year slow down and the space for some self-directed work opens up, it seems that broader questions inevitably open up as well — what is the point of all my work? I eventually get over it as I become absorbed in whatever project, but this time around I’ve been reflecting on the claim that religions faith gives people meaning and purpose and that they are somehow to be envied because of that. What strikes me as I look back on my own religious upbringing is that the meaning and purpose provided had no actual content. “God’s plan” or “God’s will” was a purely virtual reference point, which was applied very selectively to what happened to people. Aside from very broad moral guidelines — it was obviously never going to be God’s will that I murder someone, for example — it seemed that the reference to God’s will provided no actual guidance. All it added was the idea of a purpose, a kind of purposefulness without purpose.
It may seem unfair to pick on popular piety like this, but actual theologians aren’t much better. As Agamben points out, the post-Pauline church reversed Paul’s notion of the “economy of the mystery” — his improvisational attempt to fulfill his (more or less unambiguous) calling to play a role in the plan of salvation — into the “mystery of the economy,” indicating that what is most mysterious about God is precisely what affects us most directly, his interaction with the world. The question always became exactly how tautologous God’s will was going to be — whether there was room for human freedom (as a rule, this meant room to mess things up) or whether the actual state of things was God’s “revealed preference,” to use contemporary nomenclature.
A related problem is the relationship between God and goodness. Does God will good things — meaning things that are recognizable as good “independently” — or does the fact that God wills something make it good by definition, even if it does not appear good to us? Broadly speaking, the patristic writers tended toward the former solution, while medieval theology gradually shifted ever more radically toward the latter. It seems to me that we can find an analogy in recent economic history. During the postwar era, capitalism was supposed to provide benefits that were independently verifiable — higher quality of life, greater freedom, etc. — and in the contest against communism, it seemed relatively clear that it was actually delivering. Under neoliberalism, however, things become much more tautologous, so that the outcome of market forces must by definition be good. Interfering with the natural outcome of those forces is increasingly unthinkable (at least “officially” — in reality there is constant government intervention, the aim of which is to create conditions that ever more closely approximate a “pure” market). We hear all kinds of counter-intuitive arguments that giving poor people money will actually make everyone poorer, etc., but I don’t think anyone’s heart is in that anymore. At a gut level, we don’t dare interfere with market forces because it’s tantamount to defying God’s will.
Our economic piety thus corresponds closely to the everyday piety surrounding “God’s will,” which enthrones it as a purposefulness without purpose, a meaningfulness without content. The economy giveth, and the economy taketh away — blessed be the name of the economy!