Double Movements: Polanyi, Kierkegaard, and Jeremiah

February 27, 2011 — 2 Comments

The keystone of Karl Polany’s The Great Transformation is what he calls the “double movement” (loc. 3,442). Polanyi explains that at the same time that laissez-faire was encouraging rapid market expansion in all directions, a countermovement to protect citizens from the effects of this self-regulating market (SRM) expansion was also taking place. This double movement was an attempt to resist the disembedded nature of the SRM utopia. On some level, even the staunchest market liberals intuited a need for limitations and restrictions that would protect people from the market’s potential ills (see Fred Block’s comments in the Introduction at loc. 459 and following). Polanyi holds that it was this tension, in the form of the double movement, that allowed SRM to move so quickly from theory to reality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This got me thinking about other “double movements.” Where else do we see almost paradoxical tensions providing the basis for the actualization of things that could otherwise never be? Interestingly enough, Søren Kierkegaard–under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio–writes of a double movement of faith in Fear and Trembling. According to de Silentio, the two movements required are of infinite resignation and of faith. The movement of infinite resignation is one that requires the “knight” to fully and freely give up all he holds as dear, everything he feels ownership of, or entitlement to. The movement of faith is the resolved (and perhaps absurd) belief that he will get all those things back, and more, by resigning them.

De Silentio points to Abraham in Genesis 22 as the prototypical example of a figure who made this double movement. Though promised by God that he would be the father of a great nation, and after having God clearly point out that Isaac will be the son through which the promise is fulfilled, Abraham is willing, nonetheless, to follow God’s command to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. We do not feel the weight of this story because we are incapable of reading it afresh. In our minds we cannot hear Abraham’s footsteps as he ascends the Mount or Isaac’s choked “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” without calmly assuring ourselves that we know how it ends, that unbeknownst to the players (but within our sight) is a ram trapped in a thicket.

If we were able to suspend our memories for a few moments, we would enter into a scene of terror (which, in my imagination, is replete with frenzied strings playing in the background), as Abraham binds his son to kindling and raises a knife to plunge it into his son’s chest. With the knife doubly clasped high over his head, the Lord calls out to Abraham and tells him not to harm the boy. The knife falls from his hands and clatters onto the altar.

Abraham had resigned his son, the one through which the covenant would be fulfilled, to God fully. Though it made no sense, he was ready (not just willing, but ready) to sacrifice him. At the same time, however, Abraham remained steadfast in his belief that God would still fulfill his promise through Isaac. Obedience and faithfulness are twins, even when they’re not identical. If Abraham had lacked faith, he might as well have sacrificed Isaac within sight of Mount Moriah, or at its foot to get it over with, rather than take a three day trek up the Mount. If Abraham had had great faith but lacked a willingness to resign everything–even his most precious son Isaac–to God, he would have spiritualized the command to sacrifice Isaac as a mental and emotional exercise to be willing to give his son up so that he could go and make a family of his own.

This is more akin to the attitude of the rich young ruler in Mark 10. A very spiritual man, he prided himself on keeping all the right commandments. His faith in God’s covenantal laws knew no limitations. Thinking that great faith was all that was required of him for eternal life, he was shocked when Jesus told him that the one thing he lacked was to resign all his wealth to God as well. Jesus asked him to sell all he had and give the money to the poor, and then to come and follow him. Jesus was calling the man to make a double movement.

Jesus outlines this double movement of faith in verses 29-31: “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields–along with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” It is through infinite resignation that our movement of faith is made possible, absurdly believing that God will grant us the very things we sacrifice.

It is the double movement of faith that makes even the idea of shalom (wholeness of relationship with God, one another, and creation) possible. In hearing the Lord detail the coming destruction by the Babylonians to the north, Jeremiah cries out, “We in Jerusalem have been totally deceived, thinking all this time that we have shalom, when just around the corner lurks complete calamity!” (see Jeremiah 4, esp. verses 9-10). Yet despite repeated graphic descriptions of how God is going to uproot, destroy, and tear down Judah, God promises restoration. The best example of the double movement in Jeremiah is in chapter 29:

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the shalom of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it has shalom, you too will have shalom” (verses 4-7).

Shalom is a double movement. It is the complete resignation of all our relationships–with God, with others, with creation–resignation that we cannot do anything to set them to rights. Yet instead of languishing in our despair and brokenness, we have faith that through that very resignation God will grace us with restoration of all those relationships, restoration that is shalom.

Anderson Campbell


  • Tim Buechsel

    Eddie – your post really sparked my interest. I was curious how Polanyi, Kierkegaard and the prophet Jeremiah all come together.What really struck me was the last phrase that you quote from Jeremiah 29 -“Pray to the LORD for it, because if it has shalom, you too will have shalom.” There is something about this double movement of seeking / praying for the shalom of others and inevitably it leads to our own shalom. I don’t understand this in a mechanistic way – I think there is just something about blessing other people and being selfless that by God’s decree ends up being the best for everyone. What a powerful economic vision this is – seeking the best for others and setting our own aspirations aside.

  • Anderson Campbell

    Tim – I agree. It is similar to Jesus’ command to seek first the Kingdom of God, and everything else will be added. Or many of his paradoxical “the last shall be first” statements. Just look at the Sermon on the Mount and we see a whole host of “double movements.”