At the conclusion of the first of his two chapters exploring the theological virtue of faith in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis provides a brief illustration that helps set the stage quite well for a discussion of the relationship between theology and economics, a relationship that currently stands in need of serious repair. Lewis wants to show that a key element of faith is the understanding of the divine origins of all things. “Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by God,” he writes. A consequence of this reality is that, as Lewis puts it, “If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense His own already.”
To bring this simple but profound theological truth home, Lewis uses one of his mundane yet memorable images:
So that when we talk of a man doing anything for God or giving anything to God, I will tell you what it is really like. It is like a small child going to its father and saying, “Daddy, give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present.” Of course the father does, and he is pleased with the child’s present. It is all very nice and proper, but only an idiot would think that the father is sixpence to the good on the transaction.
Now a number of economic and related theological concepts come immediately to mind from this short illustration. First, there is the reference to money, in this case sixpence, a British coin minted from 1551 until the late 1960s, at which point it was roughly equivalent to a nickel in US currency. Next there are the gift-elements of the exchange, from the father to the child and then reciprocally from the child to the father. We also have the purchase of the gift, a transactional exchange of the child with some vendor or another. And finally we have Lewis’ striking judgment about the value of these series of exchanges, both in economic terms and otherwise.
It is notable, perhaps, that in attempting to communicate a basic theological truth such as the divine origin and ownership over all of creation Lewis should choose an illustration that primarily relies on economic realities. But of course Lewis has a most excellent precedent for this in the parables of Jesus, many of which draw to a lesser or greater extent on economic imagery familiar to an audience in first-century Judea, particularly the parable of the talents which can be seen as analogous to some extent with Lewis’ sixpence image.
Significant, too, is that in Jesus’ parables as in Lewis’ more modern one, the economic elements are prominent but are not, after all, the ultimate point of the illustrations. Here Lewis is no more attempting to provide a lesson in basic economics than Jesus is attempting to instruct his hearers on the finer points of labor markets with the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1–16). Instead, as John Bolt observes in his recent book Economic Shalom, in such parables “the economy is a simile for the kingdom of God!” These parables are not primarily about economics, even though, as Bolt continues, such “teachings of course are applicable to the Christian life of discipleship, including our economic life; our stewardship of God’s gifts of grace is not limited to but also includes our possessions.”
And yet the facility with which mundane economic matters are woven into such stories, stories that have rather higher spiritual aims, itself teaches us something about the relationship between the things of God and the things of this world. There is no radical dichotomy or separation such that economic realities like production, investment, debt, or commerce are somehow too profane to serve as vehicles of revealed truth. It is, in fact, a traditional contention among Christian theologians that there is nothing so base or mean in the creation that it is incapable in one way or another of proclaiming the glory of its Creator. Thus, the sixteenth-century Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli asserted of his own work, “I count it sufficient to have said that there can be nothing found in the world so abject and contemptible, which giveth not a testimony of God.” For those with ears to hear, even a dishonest manager who brazenly diverts company funds for private purposes has something to teach us about the kingdom of God!
Sixpence economics, like the economic teachings of Jesus’ parables, shows us the stewardship responsibility that God has given to human beings, created in his image and likeness, and gifted with talents, energies, dispositions, insights, and passions. God gives to us so that we might, in turn, give back to him and in the process become more like him. This is the “great exchange” of sixpence economics.