Professor Robert H. Nelson delivered his last lecture at the University of Helsinki

Robert H. Nelson, a professor who studied the intersection of economics and theology, passed away from an acute illness in Helsinki on December 15.

”Our belief in the gospel of economic talk is faltering”, Professor Robert H. Nelson argued in his lecture at the University of Helsinki in December 2018.

To some, analysing the rhetoric of economy as religious rhetoric might appear far-fetched, but not to Nelson.

The connection between economics and theology can be best observed in Marxism: it promised to create a paradise on earth that would replace an old world destroyed by revolution. In the 20th century, the Marxist doctrine also spread like a religion. In his lecture, Nelson reminded the audience that the philosopher Paul Tillich named Karl Marx as the most prominent theologist since Martin Luther.

In the 19th century, American economists portrayed economic growth as a salvation of sorts. John Maynard Keynes described the economy boost born out of industrialization as the greatest transformation of mankind, which would liberate the grandchildren of his contemporaries from sanctimony and material scarcity.  

”Efficiency became a virtue that generated wealth and happiness, while inefficiency became a vice that needed to be avoided at all costs.” 

According to Nelson, economic religion has experienced a crisis of late. For example, it was expected that China’s economic prosperity would bring forth democracy and freedom for the Chinese people, but this has not happened yet.

Where to find meaning to our lives?

Environmental concern – or, in Nelson’s words, environmental religion – questions the gospel of economic growth. Meanwhile, Brexit as well as Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 United States presidential election might signal that economic religion is dying down.

“People’s belief in an earthly paradise created by economic growth seems to waver more than before."

However, the central problem of environmental religion is negativity: humans are viewed as a problem.

One solution might be a comeback of traditional religion.

“Science is great at explaining the world to us, but it is not as good at bringing meaning to our lives. Perhaps religion will return to fill this role.”

Professor Janne Saarikivi knew Nelson well. He describes Nelson as a rare bird in the scientific field.

“Nelson’s thoughts on economics and theology were worthy of a wider audience”, Saarikivi says.

Professor Nelson presented his last lecture at the Grammar of religion symposium at the University of Helsinki on December 12th, 2018.