Category: Christian Social Thought

Blog author: jcarter
Tuesday, September 1, 2015
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sky-psalm192The mission of the Acton Institute is to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles. We seek to articulate a vision of society that is both free and virtuous, the end of which is human flourishing.

That phrase—“human flourishing”—has become such a buzzword, though, that it’s in danger of losing any real meaning. As Scott Swain says, “Due to its widespread usage across our culture, its susceptibility to multiple meanings, and its role in theological revision, some Christians have begun to disparage the language of human flourishing. I think this is the wrong tactic to take.”

The church has a stake in human flourishing, says Swain. Rather than discard the term, we should rescue and restore the concept:

The challenge for the church is therefore to define and promote human flourishing (which we might otherwise describe as human well-being, human happiness) in accordance with biblical teaching, to present and commend its alternative approach to human flourishing in the face of competing cultural visions, and to embody human flourishing in the presence of God amid a culture of death and destruction. Christian theology has a role to play in assisting the church to meet this challenge.

Christian theology has a lot to say about human flourishing. Following the instruction of Holy Scripture, Christian theology instructs us about human flourishing by instructing us about human nature and about human nature’s relationship to law and gospel.

Swain argues that “we may appreciate the true character of human flourishing by looking at Psalm 19.”
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katrina-superdomeThis week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall on the Gulf Coast. As always happens when remembering such ignominious events, we look back in hindsight to attempt to learn what could have been done differently. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we conservatives will admit that we share some of the blame for the disaster—just not in the way many of us realize.

The colossal failures in leadership in the wake of Hurricane Katrina proved once again that, as historian Richard Weaver famously claimed, “ideas have consequences.” In the aftermath of a natural disaster, abstract theories about public policy and governance were tested in the laboratory of reality. Bad ideas, naturally, can have catastrophic consequences. But as we saw, even good ideas, when poorly implemented, can be calamitous.

A primary example is the principle of subsidiarity, an idea found in both Catholic and Reformed social thought, and which is often embraced by conservatives. Almost twenty years ago in an issue of Religion and Liberty, David A. Bosnich explained,

This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom.

While limited government, personal freedom, and other such goods are worthy reasons to support such an ideal, there is an even more primary justification: it saves lives. The evacuation of New Orleans provided a useful example of how this works out in a real-world context.
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missionary1Over the past 500 years, some countries have proven to be more receptive to democracy than others. What accounts for the disparity? What causes some countries to be more likely to embrace democratic forms of governance?

As empirical evidence shows, one strong predictor is the presence of Protestant missionaries.

“Protestant missionaries played an integral role in spreading democracy throughout the world,” says Greg Scandlen. “We could preserve our own if we learn from their ways.”
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Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996)

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996)

At The Catholic World Report, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg examines the use of the expression “a consistent ethic of life” — a phrase which has been used by Roman Catholic bishops as far back as a 1971 speech delivered by then-Archbishop Humberto Medeiros of Boston. More recently, Chicago Archbishop Blaise Cupich used the phrase in a Chicago Tribune article about the scandal of Planned Parenthood selling body-parts from aborted children. Elaborating, Cupich said “we should be no less appalled by the indifference toward the thousands of people who die daily for lack of decent medical care; who are denied rights by a broken immigration system and by racism; who suffer in hunger, joblessness and want; who pay the price of violence in gun-saturated neighborhoods; or who are executed by the state in the name of justice.”

The phrase “a consistent ethic of life” — also known as the “seamless garment” approach to ethics — won widespread currency during the episcopate of another Chicago archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Gregg observes that in approximately 15 addresses delivered between 1983 and 1986, Bernardin “called for the development of such an ethic and outlined how it might inform the way in which Catholics—lay and clerical—approached public policy issues.” Gregg goes on to outline the theological framework for this approach and how it has been applied, or misapplied, in recent decades: (more…)

Last week, I was pleased to attend the ERLC’s 2015 National Conference on Gospel and Politics, of which the Acton Institute was a proud co-sponsor. The speaker line-up was strikingly rich and diverse, ranging from pastors to writers to politicos to professors, but among them all, Russell Moore’s morning address was the clear stand-out.

Moore began by asking, “How do we as Christians engage in issues that sometimes are political without becoming co-opted by politics and losing the gospel and the mission at the same time?”

Starting from the story of Paul and Silas’ imprisonment in Philippi (Acts 16:25-40), and continuing with a rich perspective on Christian exile and a needed critique of American civil religion, Moore reminds us of how the Gospel has the power to cultivate a community that is equipped to “naturally and organically” bear witness to the outside world — through love, conscience, word, and action.

You can watch and listen here:

I encourage you to watch the whole thing, but for those without the time or in need of a teaser, I’ve highlighted some key excerpts below.

(Also, for those paying attention, Moore’s perspective serves as a fine complement to Acton’s latest film series, For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles, particularly the episodes on Exile and the Economy of Order. He also has a new book on cultural engagement that is quite good.) (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
Thursday, August 13, 2015
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S. L. Frank

Today at The Imaginative Conservative, I offer a brief look into the social though of the Russian philosopher S. L. Frank:

In his 1930 book, The Spiritual Foundations of Society, Frank offers a refreshing vision of a conservatism that cannot survive apart from creativity.

The book is a remarkable tour de force of intelligent, nuanced, and in some ways even prescient Christian social thought. One can find references—some explicit, some in Frank’s own words—to personalism, natural law, solidarity, subsidiarity, sphere sovereignty, organicism, and ordered liberty, among others. These are all tied together through the uniquely Russian Orthodox concept of sobornost’ and its counterpart obshchestvennost’, the inner, supratemporal spiritual unity of society and its outer, temporal and mechanical form, respectively. Through these two lenses, he examines the perennial questions of social life: individualism and collectivism, morality and law, hierarchy and equality, the state and civil society, inter alia.

In one sense, we might say that Frank advocates a sort of “Third Way” between these pairs, but that wouldn’t really be accurate. Instead, he insists on the fundamental duality of life, not a terium quid but a both/and, tempered by actual historical experience. (more…)

Mock-01 (2)_Front OnlyCreation and the Heart of Man, the first volume of Acton’s Orthodox Christian Social Thought monograph series, is now available for pre-order on Logos Bible Software. Those who pre-order can get the book at a discounted price.

In addition, the Logos edition is able to offer some unique features:

In the Logos edition, this volume is enhanced by amazing functionality. Important terms link to dictionaries, encyclopedias, and a wealth of other resources in your digital library. Perform powerful searches to find exactly what you’re looking for. Take the discussion with you using tablet and mobile apps. With Logos Bible Software, the most efficient and comprehensive research tools are in one place, so you get the most out of your study.

Sign up for Creation and the Heart of Man on Logos here.

"In the Beginning" artist Mako Fujimura

“In the Beginning”
artist Mako Fujimura

The hubby and I were watching TV when a commercial for Fiji Water came on. The voiceover expounded all the wonderful features of this water, and then said something about it being “untouched by man.”

I turned to my husband and said, “Did I hear that right? ‘Untouched by man?'” He nodded.

Indeed, that’s the selling point for this water:

On a remote Pacific island 1600 miles from the nearest continent, equatorial trade winds purify the clouds that begin FIJI’s Water journey through one of the world’s last virgin ecosystems. As the tropical rains fall on a pristine rain forest, it filters through layers of volcanic rock, slowly gathering the natural minerals and electrolytes that give FIJI Water its soft, smooth taste. The water collects in a natural artesian aquifer,  deep below the earth’s surface, shielded from external elements by confining layers of rock. Natural pressure forces the water towards the earth’s surface, where it’s bottled at the source, untouched by man until you unscrew the cap. [emphasis mine]

First, let’s all agree that this is heavy-handed prose for water. Second, the folks at Fiji seem to think they are doing something not only extraordinary, but revolutionary. Sorry to tell you, folks: you’re doing something people have been doing since, well, as long as people have been around: getting water out of a well.

Now back to the “untouched by man” thing. Why is this a selling point? Why is something touched by a human being bad? (more…)

loan treeThere are three possible futures for American Evangelicalism. These diverse destinies depend upon the moral, social and theological convictions of the communities and leaders of the different streams. They also represent patterns found in three centuries of American Evangelical history. These futures will also determine whether or not particular communities flourish economically and socially.

American Evangelicalism has never been a uniform subculture. The term “Evangelical” denotes adherents of historic Christian faith within a Protestant ethos.

Remembering the Past

Synthesizing the insights of historians George Marsden and Mark Noll, the Awakenings that gave shape to the Evangelical ethos between 1730 and 1840 focused on five key attributes: (1) Biblical authority and inspiration, (2) affirmation of historic creedal theology, (3) the necessity of personal conversion, (4) commitment to local and global evangelization/missions, and (5) integration of personal piety and public charity and engagement in making the world a better place.

Integrating personal faith with deliberate generosity of material and spiritual resources for the common good was normal discipleship for Evangelicals. John Wesley, founder of the Methodists, eschewed any separation of piety and public charity, insisting that members develop relationships with the recipients of their largesse. He also commended entrepreneurship and hard work, enjoining friends to “earn, save, and give” in proper proportion.

The three reactions mentioned above have their origins in the 18th century. One group resisted change and rejected the affective experiences of renewed believers and their insistence that their ministers display sufficient enthusiasm and fidelity to Scripture. These were the “Old Lights.” They eventually split into two camps, with some retaining historic creedal faith and others embracing Deism and/or Unitarianism as the Enlightenment calls for eschewing old superstitions gave way to modern scientific understanding.

By 1800, reactions to change are established: (1) retrenchment and rejection of new experiences and ideas, (2) revision of the faith itself, including questioning cardinal doctrines, and (3) renewal leading to reform and revival of biblical faith. (more…)

Not the Only “Option”

This is the question I ask in response to Rod Dreher et al. at Ethika Politika today. By liberalism, of course, I mean the (classical) liberal tradition as a whole, not just progressive forms of it common on the social and political left.

I write,

So in one sense Benedict Option enthusiasts are not all wrong. Liberalism is the problem the same way “culture” is the problem, or “society,” or “religion,” or “secularism,” or any other general noun that mutually admits of several concrete forms with varying degrees of moral worth. And it’s everywhere.

… Even our anti-liberals are liberals. Long ago, most gave up on their respective utopias and decided that reform from within liberal societies was a more prudent path than violent revolution or quietist withdrawal. So [Jeff] Guhin is right when he says, “We are all liberals now.”

Why, again, is that a bad thing?

Read my full essay, “The Liberal Option’s Answer to the Benedict Option,” at Ethika Politika here.