Every once and awhile a book comes along that simply pulls at your heartstrings.  Given our current economic situation, Christopher Frank’s He Became Poor: The Poverty of Christ and Aquinas’s Economic Teachings is such a book.

Franks’ argument is that by better attending to Aquinas’s economic teachings and the ontological poverty of the poor Christ, we are better apt to develop practices that can stand against the dominant market forces that create in us a sense of a proprietary self, or community, constituted by pure exchange value rather than by the antecedent order of God’s creation.

Far from this being a mere “Catholic” treatise on how great Aquinas is, Franks pushes us to see that the premodern world, such that Aquinas lived, did not suffer the clear cut distinction between Theology and economic practices.  And this is what makes for great theology; that is, keeping together the classical sense of oikonomia with Trinitarian reflection such that Aquinas’s thought possesses and of which Franks fleshes out for us today.

First, Franks tells us – apropos of our current financial meltdown – that things are getting worse, or at least more difficult for the people of God:

“From a Christian perspective, what this analysis of our predicament suggests is that we are caught in social and economic patterns that keep reproducing sin.  Not that sin is new with capitalism; nor is the social reproduction of sin new.  But the triumph of exchange value organizes patterns of human activity that are particularly relentless and intractable in their reproduction of sin” (28)

And, far from this being a bland appeal to how bad consumerism is, Franks appeals to something more radical:

” There is no need to belabor the tyranny of material goods that is continually gaining strength within our market economies.  I dare say that people who want to become good generally recognize the need to reject a crass consumerism.  But we often do not recognize how we are also diminished simply by adopting some of the more elemental assumptions and practices of modern economic arrangements, such as the notion that money makes money or that everything has its price or that the value-preferences that determine price are sovereign and self-justifying” (33).

What was so moving about Franks’ book is that offers a way out without downplaying the “infinite undulations of the snake.”  He takes capitalism, the marketization of all forms of live, pure exchange value exactly for what is its; utterly ubiquitous with no end in sight; or rather, no end in sight on its own terms.  Genealogically speaking, as use value was sundered from exchange value, “being lost was the habit of deferent wonder at human membership in a trustworthy whole that surpasses us, and as a result, Thomas’s economic teachings gradually came to seem inapplicable” (28).  But, as Franks’ concludes about Thomas’s economic teachings as a counter to our late modern world, “prompt us to consider what virtues are required by our dependence – a dependence not only on one another, but also on a natural order that exceeds us, provides us our sustenance, and intends our flourishing” (191).

Franks doesn’t leave us with a comfortable Aquinas, but with an Aquinas who could speak of that other world, an “analogical world.”  In so doing, he gives us the radical Aquinas that we desperately need.  The kind, I suppose, that only a former PhD student of Hauerwas could deliver tinged with a healthy bit of metaphysics.

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