Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) is a vast and impressive analysis of the evolution of wealth distribution in the modern West. New York Times columnist and Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton Paul Krugman suggests that while the text is certainly not the first book on economics to become a best seller, Piketty’s book is “serious, discourse-changing scholarship in a way most best sellers aren’t.”[1] As Krugman has it, “what’s really new about ‘Capital’ is the way it demolishes that most cherished of conservative myths, the insistence that we’re living in a meritocracy in which great wealth is earned and deserved.”[2]

But for those of who work in universities and call ourselves academics, the significance the book extends even further. Piketty argues that education systems play a pivotal role in producing and maintaining income inequalities.[3] He suggests that academics (even those concerned with social justice) are actually participants in the structures that prevent wealth from moving to the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. And these inequalities are not just a matter of cash circulation, but play a role in the privileges of knowledge and scholarship within academia.

 

Whether we embrace Piketty’s conclusions or think some of his arguments are controversial, the success of the book should demonstrate the importance of economics for understanding the world of the twenty-first century.

 

In other words, the book hits academics right where they live. And so it’s not surprising that since its publication, the book has attracted attention from many different fields of study. Indeed, the work of Piketty and many of his readers suggests that analyses of wealth and capital have implications for how we understand not simply economics but almost everything else: politics, religion, medicine, science, and education. Whether we embrace Piketty’s conclusions or think some of his arguments are controversial, the success of the book should demonstrate the importance of economics for understanding the world of the twenty-first century. 

Here at Cosmologics, we’re taking the next two weeks to consider the implications of Capital in the Twenty-First Century from the perspective of an exciting group of authors working in different subfields across the study of religion. In five essays, these religious studies scholars tease out the implications of Piketty’s claims for our understanding of the role of religion in society. In the opening piece, Devin Singh places Piketty’s text in a historical framework that illustrates the deep and longstanding ways in which money is and has been invested by constellations of religious and political power. Singh argues that Piketty’s iteration of this connection is distinctly persuasive to contemporary readers in its use of an empirical language. In the second piece, Julia Reed places Piketty’s work in a broader interdisciplinary framework. Through an analysis of the work of Pierre Bourdieu, she illuminates mechanisms of preserving and reinforcing social and cultural capital in the modern university.

The following two pieces offer insightful reflections on the significance of Piketty’s work for thinking about religion in the American context. Kip Richardson frames his analysis with questions about the role of religion in Piketty’s thesis. He considers gospels of wealth and prosperity to argue for the importance of connections between economic behavior and religious belief. Chris Ashley illustrates the cultural, theological, and ethical significance of thinking about economic inequality and marriage in contemporary America. He writes a compelling analysis of the inseparable economic issues at play in considerations of race and sexuality in marriage equality. The final piece by Karen Bray offers an astute exposition of certain “hints of secular theology” in Piketty’s work. Bray uses the notion of “queer utopianism” to push our understanding of the book’s significance further.

At Cosmologics our interest is in the relationship between science and religion. When many of us think about the role that these two categories play in modern life, we don’t often consider something as practical and powerful as money. Because “science” and “religion” are so often discussed in abstract, philosophical terms, it’s difficult to see what they have to do with economic realities and wealth distribution. But in these five essays we hope to show how intimately intertwined knowledge, power, and wealth are in our world. So when we ask, where’s the cash in science and religion? the simple answer might be: everywhere.


Mara Block is a PhD candidate in the Study of Religion at Harvard University and is a researcher on religion, medicine, and sexuality for the Science, Religion, and Culture Program at Harvard Divinity School. She is writing a dissertation about pastoral counseling, psychiatry, and sexuality in mid-20th century America.

 

[1] Paul Krugman, “The Piketty Panic,” The New York Times 24 April, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/25/opinion/krugman-the-piketty-panic.html?_r=0

[2] Ibid.

[3] See especially chapter nine, “Inequality of Labor Income,” pp. 304-335.

Thomas Piketty speaks at an economics seminar in Sweden, from Flickr via Socialdemokraterna

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