If the world wants an ethical economy, it must build ethical people.
That was the message from the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion at the end of a three-day conference at Trinity Church on Wall Street this past week.
Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, asserted that the question of how to build an ethical economy could not be separated from the question of what kind of people we want to be.
"Moving through the question of how we define 'economy' and 'ethical,' we find that we are actually discussing what we mean by building persons at the end of the day – which implies that a critique of economics is always also a cultural critique," the Church of England cleric said.
"What sort of persons are needed to make economies work well and constructively is a question that leads to what sort of persons we think ourselves to be and want to be. And that's an important warning against simply offloading blame onto the places where it seems to sit most easily," he added.
Addressing the function of schools in building humanity, the archbishop recommended further reflection on the kind of "humanist" education that could produce in children "that blend of financial and cultural and moral literacy that we'd all like to see".
More important than education in the formation of people, he contended, was defining the self, which according to the Christian tradition is "always and invariably invested in the good of the neighbor".
"Faith carries with it the vision of the social self, and the sense also of humanity overall as a community of communities. The language of Christian theology says that we are created in the image of a God who is eternal, relational, good. Christian theology speaks of the optimal form of global society as organic and mutual," Williams said.
"The challenge for any believer in the God of that kind is if we, in some small measure, can also reflect that selfless outpouring that we may be trustworthy and trust in turn neighbor and stranger," he added.
This past week's conference, hosted by the Trinity Institute, brought together prominent theologians to explore the concept of an ethical economy and the link between theology and finance.
Also addressing the conference was Professor Kathryn Tanner of the University of Chicago Divinity School. She said the goals of individuals in a free market system did not have to be selfish or greedy ones.
"Self-interested action becomes equivalent to selfishness only if the only thing one cares about is oneself," said Tanner. "But human beings typically pursue, often in part for moral reasons, goals that include the wellbeing of others – the wellbeing at least of the family and friends they love – and the market in that case becomes a way of achieving those ends."
Under the theme "Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace," Trinity Institute's 40th National Theological Conference was held Jan. 27-30.