In making planning a profession, are planners emulating the right professionals?
Economists think of themselves as
scientists, but ... they are more like theologians. The closest
predecessors for the current members of the economics profession are
not scientists such as Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton; rather, we
economists are more truly the heirs of Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther
Another basic role of economists is to serve as the priesthood of a modern secular religion of economic progress that serves many of the same functions in contemporary society as earlier Christian and other religions did in their time.
-Robert Nelson, Ph.D.
Science, Art and Ethics." "The Good, the True and
the Beautiful." "I, we and it." "Exterior/interior, singular/plural."
These are all ways of collapsing perspectives to indivisible elements.
In an integral approach, each is necessary to achieve a thorough
This is especially true with matters involving money and the financial planning profession. Are we more like artists, scientists or lawyers? Or ministers, pastors and priests? Or are we shirttail relatives to economists?
Economists are surely close kin. They, too, work with money and the money forces from each of these perspectives. They face similar issues, not the least of which engages the nature of their essential identity-their seeming devotion to economic formulae and ideological pretensions to scientific methodology. Also like us, they seem to have misjudged the value of their technical skills when contrasted with their cultural functions and their roles in perpetuating humanity's most profound secular belief system.
Then, in one of my wild forays into the serendipitous world of Amazon surfing, I tripped across a compelling and stimulating book title, Economics as Religion by Robert H. Nelson. Fascinated, I read the reviews and hurried through the chapter headings. Impressive. I bought it on the spot.
It made the case. Money constitutes a secular faith and belief system, sharing common elements with religion. Economists are secular theologians. They work within value systems and provide spiritual/intellectual contexts necessary for a functional worldview.
In many respects, the 20th century brought us to an overemphasis on science, the True, the objective and the exterior. The tensions came as the social sciences aspired to the statures of the natural sciences such as physics, chemistry, geology and biology. In so doing, they frequently forgot their roots and tried to force round pegs into square holes.
This, in turn, had many forgetting the importance of emotions, spirit, culture, art and values. Not only did we fail to honor the Interior's sometimes messy imprecision and the worlds of belief and emotion, we even mocked them or contorted ourselves within the aegis of science to ignore the obvious. Economists did this-a lot.
Dr. Nelson posits that economists have wholly failed to achieve the predictable, replicable, provable realm of the True, as scientists. He examined common conventions and showed the absurdity of such propositions as homo economicus and laughable attempts to replicate theoretical assumptions. He also underscored the profession's difficulties with treating human-made financial institutions as machinery (physics) and the moral dilemmas of so-called economic Darwinism. In contrast, he looked at economists' work within the common culture. Their theories enable the cultural "we" the space necessary for money and functional economies. Economics is not so much "True" as "Good" and "Beautiful."
He examined 19th century economic pioneers and both the Cambridge and Chicago schools of economics for the impacts of their thinking on the culture at large. From 20th century economic theorists, he has particular regard for Paul Samuelson and his classic college text Economics as a major influence upon several generations of American students. From the Chicago school, he paid particular attention to such luminaries Frank Knight, George Stigler, Ronald Coase, Milton Friedman and Gary Becker and their work with economic approaches to social issues. Though respecting their broad knowledge, he is most impressed with their roles in performing theological functions. Looking through history, he notes that religious thinkers have been part of humanity's communities throughout human history and absolutely necessary to cultural and individual function during that time.
Economies require fertile cultures. They need ethics and value systems for contracts, the rule of law, the establishment of values and reinforcement of mutual expectations. Economists serve the enabling functions for the cultural conditions necessary for money to survive and thrive. Who cares if economists fall woefully short as scientists? Their genuine value has been cultural, not factual.
What is this to us? If we go from there to accept the proposition that economists and economics are comparable to theologians and theology, if economists are the theologians of a secular belief system consisting of money and the money forces, it then necessarily follows that financial planners function similarly to ministers, priests, pastors and the nearly infinite varieties of in-the-village shamans and holy men. We all work to relate ordinary human beings with the demands of mysterious, unseen, powerful forces. Can I get an "Amen?"
As with ministers, pastors and priests, financial planners provide special value with our interior expertise and our insights into money and the human soul. Our objective skill sets, though valuable and important, are not so special. In contrast, it is hard to find and access our wisdom, our experience and our capacities for craft and perspective around money. This is what will elevate our work into the selects circles of authentic, learned profession.
Of course, does it logically follow that financial planners ought to be studying pastoral functions and integrating these with our other skills?
For as long as I can remember, the controversy has raged. Can we be a profession? If so, what sort? Sales only? Or are we about the process of stepping up alongside the traditional, authentic, learned advisory professions traditionally demarked as law, medicine and theology? The answers determine our loyalties, our direction, our functions and our senses of essence. After all, our models determine our attitudes.
In the halcyon days of yesteryear, many of us tended to romanticize financial planning and its possibilities. As we were starting to turn the corner on our professionalism with such advances as our very own Code of Ethics, even as we had our first innings with notions "fiduciary" and, especially, as the CFP marks were starting to gain traction as the preeminent indicator of financial planning professionalism, our highest aspirations engaged notions of becoming an "authentic" profession. What would it take to achieve such stature? What would that mean? Who and what would serve as our role models?
Many of us saw financial planning in terms of the classic "authentic" professions. In so doing, we respected "law," "medicine" and "theology" as the three archetypal professions. We talked of emulating the "Big Three" and studying how they did their business. However, like the good post-modernists most of us were, we mostly, but politely, ignored theology and its tough existential challenges.
In real life, we talked much about doctors and lawyers. We thought we understood them. For sure, we knew them. We had worked with them as clients. Lawyers gave frequent presentations at industry events. Our clients spoke of them frequently. Theologians!? This was the 20th century after all. Thomas Aquinas was just so 13th century. Theologians were yesterday's news.
Though we spoke glibly of "the Church of the Holy CFP," in truth, we did not think much about theologians. We were after the hard stuff, like economics and its relationship with taxes, law, financial products like insurance, and the stock market. We looked to formulas that could be psychometrically tested and then replicated from client to client. Was it on the job description? If so, cool. If not, of what use was it?
This is, of course, notwithstanding money's qualities and the elements it shares with religious faith systems. Specifically, both economics and religion engage belief and faith. Money itself is quite literally a matter of agreement and belief. We need to remember.
Our methods for dealing with money key so many other issues. Moreover, money is the second most addressed topic in the Bible, and, especially, notwithstanding that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) arguably present some of the best micro-economic wisdom of the past 2,000 years. In any event, we most certainly did not often reference "theology" in our conversations. Too soft. Too squishy. Too, you know, "touchy feely."
It makes sense I suppose. Doctors and lawyers both fit into our modern fascinations with science and the true. We wanted that.
Sadly, this situation has maintained. In nearly 24 years of conventions, retreats, gatherings, groups, lunches and workshops within the financial planning world, I have encountered only three presentations from individuals who would qualify as members of the theology profession. So, unfortunately, we have not learned much from this poorest cousin of the three archetypal professions. Too bad. Aside from our doctor-lawyer envy, I suspect we would have/could have learned something from the theologian/pastor crowd.
Gladly, I have had the personal privilege of attending a good many events where individuals shared theological perspectives with wisdom, grace and perception. In truth, some of these have been among the best financial planning lectures I have ever attended. They helped me grasp the existential angst and spiritual malaise that seems to afflict so many around their relationships with money. Indeed, my Iliff Theological Seminary class in "Pastoral Care and Counseling" was excellent training for my money conversations with clients.
Whether believer or nonbeliever, fan of the clergy or no, I suggest you cannot seriously dispute the notion that the major religious thinkers of all stripes have had much to do with generating the ideas that run the world and constitute humanity's social fabric. It would simply fly in the face of human history.
Unlike scientists dealing merely with the "True," theologians also work with the realms of goodness, beauty and life's meanings. They remind us that we work to eat-and that both eating and work are sacred. They tell us again that integrity counts-and that we must all engage in acts of trust. They reflect that we are responsible for our own care-and the care of others. And so on.
Those who have served as intermediaries between these thinkers and the workaday citizen have had much to do with generating and maintaining culture and society. Those whose life functions and works link humans to the divine have been vital, albeit imperfect. Every day humans have needed these folks to help us understand our world-science, ethics art and all.
And so it is with economists and financial planners circa the beginning of this third millennium and the century preceding. Between us, we are necessary for providing the public with a special understanding of the world. From economics and money perspectives, we explain what is going on and then help folks cope with the attendant forces and ripples.
Financial planners must understand economists as we establish perspectives. Let us grasp that these are clearly not scientists. Their best stuff is not their technical expertise. Their abilities to count, measure and predict are valuable, but it is not what makes them so vital.
And with financial planners as well. We are enabling people to function effectively within a world that has never been more complex. We unravel deep mysteries for people and help bring order to their chaos. We grasp life's evils and help prepare to meet them head-on when illness and vagaries begin to do their worst. We help folks relate to a 21st century survival requirement where understandings do not come naturally. We provide comfort where there is fear and perspective when they are in order. We help them speak of the unspeakable and grasp the ineffable as life engages money and money engages life.
We can appreciate doctors for healing and lawyers for order and understanding. Yet, when we think of the authentic professions, we do well to remember the third. Theologians, too, are vital and offer much that is worthy of respect and emulation.
Richard B. Wagner, JD, CFP, is the
principal of WorthLiving LLC, based in Denver. He is the 2003 recipient
of the FPA's P. Kemp Fain Jr. Award, which recognizes a member who has
made outstanding contributions to the profession.