Category: Bible and Theology

EcclesiastesThe Preacher says that God “has set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). This is within the broader context of his discussion of the paradox of exploring the wonder of God’s creation and the vanity of human striving in a fallen world.

But the more immediate context is a discussion of work. In verse 9 he asks, “What do workers gain from their toil?” A bit earlier he discusses the meaningless of work, but concludes that “a person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil.”

The entire book of Ecclesiastes is an excellent primer on relating human happiness to material and spiritual goods. These sections on work and satisfaction are some of the most significant along these lines. For as the Preacher continues, such “satisfaction” in work “is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”

So work is both significant for our satisfaction but no substitute for eternal things. This resonates quite well with the picture of work we get in Lester DeKoster’s book on the subject. It also brings to mind some of Arthur Brooks’ work on the social science of happiness and “earned success.” One caveat, or at least necessary frame of reference for the discussion of earned success, it seems to me, is this idea that our enjoyment of things on this earth is to be properly oriented to and subjoined under the higher things of God.

If, as Augustine put it, “our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord,” then whatever happiness we derive from work, earned success, and everything else “under the sun” must be appreciated as the gifts of God that they are and properly valued as such. Such a perspective helps keep us from confusing heaven and earth, so to speak, and turning work, happiness, or anything else in the created order into an idol.

In a follow up interview to “Is Capitalism Immoral?,” Joseph E. Gorra on the Patheos Evangelical channel talks with Rev. Robert A. Sirico, Acton Institute president and co-founder, about the publication of his new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. Gorra begins the interview by observing that “within Western societies today there appears to be a kind of fact/value dichotomy that operates as an assumption in much of our discourse, where questions of ‘economics’ (and the sciences in general) are in the category of knowledge and facts and therefore tend to trump questions of theology.”

Patheos: The dichotomous fact/value assumption also stunts our comprehension of what is true.

Sirico: It’s also true that some economists become hegemonic in thinking that the whole of truth is seen through their particular lens of expertise, rather than appreciating the immense complexity of humanity and situating their part of the truth within the broader truth of who the human person is. But that’s not just a problem for some economists—scientism infects almost every discipline that has a strong empirical element.

It would be humorous, if it were not tragic, when one becomes so blinded by the subjectivism of such relativism that they accuse others of what they themselves are infected with. What I am trying to do is broaden our comprehension of the truth that permeates everything—in the case of my book, how the economic can be seen to emerge from a reflection of human nature and empower us to do the good intentionally.

Read “Does Capitalism Promote Greed?: An Interview with Father Robert Sirico, Part 2” on the Patheos Evangelical channel.

We have just wrapped up Acton University, our annual conference that focuses on integrating Christian theology and sound economic thinking. In light of that, it was interesting to read this post at Patheos.com, “America’s Premier Heresy,” where Scot McKnight takes a look at the Prosperity Gospel, especially as presented by Pastor Joel Osteen.

If you’re not familiar with the Prosperity Gospel, it preaches that God wants all of us to be wealthy and healthy in this life, and that riches and health are ours, simply for the asking, in faith and obedience to Him. The problems of poverty, ill-health, unemployment, underemployment and general malaise are that we don’t implore God to shower us with blessings. Once we recognize that God has only positive things in store for us, and we ask for them, it’s all ours.

It was interesting – to say the least  – to have been reading this blog post while surrounded by some of the most intelligent people on the planet who had gathered at Acton University to discuss things like alleviating poverty in the developing world, business as mission and vocation, and the role of envy and fairness in economic thought. McKnight poses these interesting questions:

If you could offer a better theology to proponents of prosperity theology, what would it look like? How does an economic theory work into your critique or your offer?

Last week’s activities at Acton University offered a plethora of answers to these two questions, but I’m going to focus on just a few. First, the Rev. Robert Sirico’s new book Defending the Free Market recognizes the need for economic answers to questions of poverty. The recognition isn’t one of glamorous outpourings of wealth from a sugar daddy in the sky. It is, as Fr. Sirico puts it, “humdrum business”. That’s right: It’s just hard, creative work of human beings that lifts people out of poverty and helps them forge opportunities for themselves, their employees, families and communities. It’s not the same as asking God to simply make these things appear in one’s life; it’s being willing to partner with God, if you will, to bring about change.

Second, those who attended Acton University had the privilege of hearing Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute speak. (You can download a recording of his speech here.) Much of Mr. Brooks’ speech is typified in this quote from his book The Road to Freedom:

Under free enterprise, people can pursue their own ends, and they can reap the rewards and consequences, positive and negative, of their own actions.

Again, notice that the emphasis is placed on the work we must do, as free human beings, in order to create good things in our lives.

Finally, Amy Sherman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Faith in Communities at Sagamore Institute talked to us about our stewardship responsibilities in our work lives.

The big Gospel reminds us of God’s big story. He created a paradise and invited us to steward it, legitimating all kinds of work. We blew it, but God did not retract the cultural mandate from us even after the Fall. But the Fall meant that our work would be much more difficult and sometimes feel futile. Jesus’ redemption means that the restoration project is underway. Jesus’ great salvation work pushes back every aspect of the curse: redeeming the broken relationship between humans and God, humans and themselves, humans with one another, and humans with the creation itself. All of that is Jesus’ work, not just “saving souls.”

The 800+ attendees at Acton University can answer the questions posited by Mr. McKnight in his critique of the Prosperity Gospel. What economic theory and theological insights can we offer as an answer to the theology of Joel Osteen? It’s just plain, hum-drum business, free enterprise and the freedom for people to create – in cooperation with God – a better life and abundant economic opportunities.

(For more on the Prosperity Gospel, listen to Glenn Sunshine’s Acton Lecture Series presentation “Wealth, Work and the Church“.)

John Luther is pierced for Jenny's transgressions.

An essay of mine on the wonderful and difficult BBC series “Luther” is up over at the Comment magazine website, “Get Your Hands Dirty: The Vocational Theology of Luther.”

In this piece I reflect on DCI John Luther’s “overriding need to protect other people from injustice and harm, and even sometimes the consequences of their own sin and guilt,” and how that fits in with the Christian (and particularly Lutheran) doctrine of vocation.

Indeed, the character’s name itself is instructive in this regard. DCI John Luther (played by Idris Elba) is a kind of present-day embodiment of the ideas present in the popular book On Secular Authority, which contains works by the reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther on the restraining power of the civil magistrate.

As I write,

John Luther is a deeply troubled man. We get no real insight into his spiritual life, and he begins the second series of episodes on the verge of suicide. There is likewise little overt religiosity in Luther. But in the vicarious representative action of the natural lawman DCI John Luther on behalf of others, we see a broken and fragmentary expression of common grace, God’s preserving work in the world.

In this way, as a force for civil justice and the restraint of evil, DCI John Luther might just be on God’s side without knowing it.

Blog author: ehilton
Thursday, June 7, 2012
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“I do my religion on Sundays.”

That was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s answer to a press conference question on the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception, according to The Washington Examiner. Pelosi has consistently backed the Obama administration’s call to force employers to offer abortion, sterilization and birth control as part of employee health care, despite many organizations’ ethical, moral and religious objections (Acton’s PowerBlog offers more here on this topic.)

Pelosi’s answer is telling: Her faith should not affect (or infect) her work life, or even her daily life; it’s reserved for one day of the week only. Is that what Christians are called to? It hardly seems so. One of Acton’s initiatives, On Call In Culture, speaks directly to this: You can put in your hours, do the things you like to do on your own schedule, but what opportunities are you missing by not putting yourself in the hands of God? The fact is, Christians believe certain immutable truths and those truths don’t disappear when the clock strikes midnight on Sunday, when one walks out the church doors or when one sits down at the computer on Monday morning.

Recently, Cardinal Peter Turkson wrote to business leaders on just this topic, to people who ‘ … daily strive to witness to your faith in Christ and his charity at work in the world… ‘, reflecting, as the Cardinal says ‘ …on what it means to be authentically human in history, society and culture… ‘ The Cardinal – of the Church that Ms. Pelosi believes should be part of her life only 1/7 of the time – affirms that faith should infuse the social order daily in order to create a society where all people’s beliefs are safeguarded, and a government does not dictate behavior.

Ms. Pelosi can choose to believe whatever she wishes, but being a “Sunday only” Catholic isn’t truly an option for her. One either believes – day in and day out – and acts accordingly, or one does not. There is no “religion on Sunday” for Christians.

The Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery

The Egypt Independent has a fascinating account of the process underway now to digitize the first-millennium manuscripts housed at St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. Writer James Purtill interviewed the librarian, a native Texan named Father Justin, about the task of preserving thousands of priceless books and the new library under construction, which he hopes to write about on the monastery blog when it opens.

Every morning [Fr. Justin] attends the 4:30 am service — which has not changed its liturgy since AD 550 — and then climbs six flights of stairs to his office in the east wing of the three-story administrative building forming the back wall of St. Catherine’s Monastery. He powers up the G5 and passes the morning making digital photographs of scripture written on papyrus, written on animal hide and written with ink made from oak tree galls. “It’s amazing, the juxtaposition,” is how he puts it.

A page that may have taken a bent-backed monk weeks to illuminate is clamped under the bellows of the 48MP CCD camera. Snap. Next page. It takes three or four days to do a whole book. There are about 3,300 manuscripts. (more…)

Does God side with the poor and oppose the rich? Glenn Sunshine looks at what the Bible says about the issue:

So why are the poor described as blessed? The issue isn’t poverty per se, but rather the attitude of humility and reliance on God that it can produce in us, which is why Matthew’s version of the beatitude isn’t just “Blessed are the poor,” but “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Reliance on personal wealth or government help (Ps. 146, esp. vs. 3-4, 7-10) for security is foolish, because they do not last. Rather, we need to place our hope in God alone.

What about the rich? Although Scripture has some very harsh things to say about the wealthy, this does not mean that all of them are evil or under divine judgment. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Job were rich and yet were also approved by God. Just as poverty doesn’t guarantee virtue, wealth does not guarantee vice.

Scripture also tells us that God gives us the power to make wealth, and that he delights in the prosperity of his servants (Ps. 35:27)—which includes material prosperity (Deut. 28:11-13). So it is clear that wealth is not necessarily evil.

Why, then, the condemnations of the rich in Scripture?

Read more . . .