Acton Institute Powerblog

A Stark Contrast

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Kishore has helpfully pointed out the discussions going on elsewhere about Rodney Stark’s piece and the related NYT David Brook’s op-ed. He derides some of the commenters for their lack of economic understanding, but I’d like to applaud one commenter’s post. He questions, as I do, the fundamental validity of Stark’s thesis (which essentially ignores such an important strand of Christianity as Eastern Orthodoxy). Among other astute observations, Christopher Sarsfield asks: “Was it the principles of Christianity that put the ‘goddess of reason’ on the altar of Notre Dame? Or rather was it the rejection of Christianity and the embracing of the Enlightenment?”

The historical phenomena of the Enlightenment is one fundamental place of failure in Stark’s piece (I have not read his book, perhaps he deals with it there. For now, I’ll have to restrict the conversation to the thesis as it appears in the Chronicle of Higher Ed article). In broad strokes, let’s say that I agree with Stark that Christianity is perhaps the single greatest influence on the flowering of Western civilization. As Scottish presbyterian theologian John Baillie has said, “The great shadow on the conscience of the modern West is the shadow of the Cross.”

Where we differ is in our estimation of the role of reason in Christian theology, and thus in our view of the contribution that the Christian view of reason made to the broader world. Stark’s claim that the Christian appreciation for reason was the basis for capitalism, and implicitly therefore technological and scientific advance, simply does not account for the complex historical antecedents and contexts of these systems.

With respect to theology, modernity (usually traced to Descartes) and the Enlightenment up through and beyond Immanuel Kant, is aptly (although simplistically) characterized by the triumph of reason over revelation, a truly Copernican revolution. As Sarsfield states, “Christianity is a religion of revelation. Our primary guide is not logic and reason, but faith in God’s revelation, which reached its fullness with the incarnation of Christ.”

The engagement of Enlightenment critical philosophy placed the relationship between faith and reason in an altogether different one than had dominated precritical times. The less-than-amicable reception of modernity by pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism attests to this. (As a side note, a debate over the reception of Immanuel Kant by Christian theology is now freely available in the Journal of Markets & Morality archive, beginning here with a piece by Derek S. Jeffreys, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, and continuing with a response by Robert P. Kraynak, professor at Colgate University.)

Instances abound of a rationalistic Christianity, such as Cambridge Platonism (more broadly latitudinarianism) and the religion of reason itself. Indeed, the deistic religions, not Christianity, are those which best meet Stark’s definition of having a “fundamental commitment” to “reason and progress.” The placement of all these developments under the broad rubric of “Christianity” is simply untenable.

Don A. Howard laments that “explicit engagement with the philosophy of science plays almost no role in the training of physicists or in physics research.” The foundations of modern science in rational religion are all too often ignored these days, not only by those in the natural sciences, but also those in the social sciences.

If Stark is right, that Christianity’s most important contribution to the Western world has been a commitment to reason, if this is how “the West was won,” then that is cause for mourning and repentance, not celebration. It means that the church’s vocation has been usurped, our commission has been left unfulfilled.

The historic and theological relationship between faith and reason is a critically important one for study. But it deserves far more careful attention than what it appears to be given by Stark’s thesis. In general, the church has bordered on being far too accomodating of the modern world, and this is evident in its proclamation and apologetics. John Baillie wrote in the first half of the last century:

During the last several generations we who preach the gospel have been far too ready to assume that the modern man had developed an immunity against its appeal. We have approached him apologetically. We have made stammering excuses for our intrusion. For the old direct challenge we have substituted the language of debate. Where our forefathers would have confronted him with God’s commandments, we have parleyed with him over God’s existence and over the authenticity of His claims.

The fundamental commitment to revelation over reason is one that is shared by the great Christian tradition, represented by Augustine, Aquinas, and all the other great Christian theologians that Stark names. It is not a commitment that is shared by proponents of a rationalistic Christianity or reasonable religion, and this difference cannot be overlooked in any account of the rise of Western civilization.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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