An economist studies the oikos and beyond

Last week I graduated with a Master of Divinity from Starr King School for the Ministry, a delightful event which represented a long journey. I was in graduate school in California for 11 years, struggling to understand myself as not just a solid thinker, but a community leader. I marked the end of my first year in seminary, spring 2016, by receiving a PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics. Although momentous, it was obviously not the end of my formal training.  

I had arrived at the University of California, Davis, at the start of the financial crisis and wracked my brain over increasing poverty in the developing world while my undergrad friends were on the quad getting pepper-sprayed as they protested tuition hikes. My job, as I understood it at the time, was to study the implications of climate change for Kenyan farmers. In the process, I realized that crop failure, disease, undernutrition, poor education, local resource depletion, and changing temperatures were interrelated problems and no model would be sufficient to capture them all. But I hoped a small model, even with lots of assumptions, could be helpful for designing solutions.

As I finished up my dissertation, I became convinced that ultimate solution to interrelated problems requires an ethical framework and accountability on the part of global power brokers. And although economics has its roots in moral philosophy, it did not provide or even acknowledge such a framework. The kind of personal ethical engagement I wanted with my field seemed impossible.

I returned to the source of my inspiration to go into development work in the first place: my religion, Unitarian Universalism. Initially I justified my move from Davis to Berkeley, unfinished dissertation in hand, by saying that in order to do more development work, I would need a chaplain. No chaplain being present, I would have to take on the role myself. I relaxed into dormitory life among seminarians and immersed myself in spiritual practice, and was able, finally, to finish my writing and simulations and submit my research. The chaplains around me, and the one I was cultivating in my own heart, helped me discern that I was not called to international development research, but rather faith-rooted community organizing. I set my sights on becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister. Today I am about a year away from fellowship with the UU Association, and then ordination.

Many people think I’ve made a strange shift, but it makes more and more sense to me as I keep going down the path. Both economics and religion use what social psychologists Sidanius and Pratto call legitimizing myths: “values, attitudes, beliefs, causal attributions, and ideologies that provide moral and intellectual justification for social practices that either increase, maintain, or decrease levels of social inequality.” These myths are not “epistemologically true or false, but rather… they appear true because enough people behave as if they are true.” And the trick is that we get to choose our myths. In the words of William R. Murray, “These are the days that have been given to us; Let us make of them stories worth telling to those who come after us.”

This blog is a place to try out the stories I hope to tell to those who come after us. One of my remaining learning goals before my interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee is to understand the context of the early Christian church and how it influenced theology in both helpful and unhelpful ways. Greek society, like our own, was held together by a mix of liberating and oppressive practices. The basic unit of society, the oikos, was a patriarchal institution that provided for the family and slaves of a given household. The oikos is the linguistic root of our “economy” and “ecology” and has been embraced as a metaphor for a global loving human family by Christians for two thousand years. By claiming the title of oikonomist, I am committing to dig into this metaphor and see what it offers to Unitarian Universalists and other community-minded free-thinkers today. In an era of ecological collapse and economic crisis, I am not willing to accept the ways we’ve always done things. But I am also not willing to write off the past. In the words of Unitarian theologian Henry N. Wieman, “One age cannot be separated from another, nor can one people or culture. The hope of [humanity] lies in cumulative development through history; and human good can be increased only by progressive accumulation of good through a sequence of generations.”

I am a feminist, seeking to be considered an ally by people of color, trans people, and others of the global majority. I know that much of our collective human history has been made invisible, and that non-patriarchal life-giving leadership has been suppressed. We’ve accumulated a lot of bad along with the good. Central to my task is identifying the gaps in the stories of my ancestors, spiritual and blood, and creating space for the voices of others to heal the world we’ve created.

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William R. Murray

Frevert, Patricia, ed. Welcome: A Unitarian Universalist Primer. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2009, p. 31

Social psychologists:

Sidanius, Jim and Felicia Pratto. Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression. New York: Cambridge, 1999, p. 104

Henry N. Wieman

The Source of Human Good. Atlanta: Scholars Press, The American Academy of Religion, 1995, 1946, p. 11


In the circular collage above, a woman in white dances in turquoise water, while behind her, another woman’s braceleted hands cup dripping water in a luscious natural pond. To the left, three children gleefully capture water from a spigot. At the bottom, a black rescue dog emerges calm and regal from a pond. At the top, as if representing the sun, a crowd of men stand in lines to pray salat.

This collection of images represents my aspiration to harmony of discipline and playfulness, which I bring to this blog. The deep focus of both the rescue dog and the people praying remind me that I can cultivate discipline both alone and with my community. The dancing woman and smiling kids, similarly, demonstrate that joy is available both alone and with others. The image that grounds them all is the hands coming up out of dripping water, both joyful and solemn, representing both the abundance of life and our gratitude for it.