Category: Christian Social Thought

I’m catching up on reading after the holiday last week, and the July 4 edition of the Transom has some gems, including this bit from Alexis de Tocqueville on the mindset of tenants:

There are some nations in Europe whose inhabitants think of themselves in a sense as colonists, indifferent to the fate of the place they live in. The greatest changes occur in their country without their cooperation. They are not even aware of precisely what has taken place. They suspect it; they have heard of the event by chance. More than that, they are unconcerned with the fortunes of their village, the safety of their streets, the fate of their church and its vestry. They think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government.”

They enjoy these goods as tenants, without a sense of ownership, and never give a thought to how they might be improved. They are so divorced from their own interests that even when their own security and that of their children is finally compromised, they do not seek to avert the danger themselves but cross their arms and wait for the nation as a whole to come to their aid. Yet as utterly as they sacrifice their own free will, they are no fonder of obedience than anyone else. They submit, it is true, to the whims of a clerk, but no sooner is force removed than they are glad to defy the law as a defeated enemy. Thus one finds them ever wavering between servitude and license.

This description of servile and licentious tenancy can be directly contrasted with a vision of responsible and faithful stewardship, in which the steward acts in the interests of his or her lord. As Paul writes, “it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2 ESV). On the Christian view, it is in our best interest to align our interests with God’s, submitting our stewardship to his will and his law.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was not able to complete his encyclical on faith during his pontificate, and Pope Francis chose to complete the work, Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”.) Acton’s Director of Research, Samuel Gregg writes about benedict and francisthe connection between these two men, made possible by their faith, at National Review:

[I]f there’s anything demonstrated by Pope Francis’s first encyclical letter Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), it’s a profound continuity between the two men: i.e., their love for and belief in the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic faith. Right at this encyclical’s beginning, Francis states the text’s first draft was prepared by his predecessor and “as his brother in Christ I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own” (LF 7).

The point being made here isn’t just that Joseph Ratzinger is probably the greatest theologian to sit on Peter’s Chair and may one day be declared a Doctor of the Church. A more subliminal message is that Catholicism’s content doesn’t change when one pope succeeds another. As many people don’t (and sometimes don’t want to) understand, Catholicism isn’t just another political movement that distorts or abandons its core beliefs under the guidance of consultants to gain votes from fickle voters.

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Blog author: dpahman
Wednesday, July 3, 2013
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Today at Ethika Politika, I offer an Independence Day reflection on the relation between political liberty, the associations of civil society, and the ascetic spirit necessary to maintain them:

Yet if these associations and their societal benefit are in decline, how can we prevent that “soft despotism” Tocqueville so vividly and presciently described? He writes,

I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.

While Tocqueville goes on to describe the “immense and tutelary power [i.e. the state] that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate,” it is worth noting that the atomization of society he describes is firstly a deterioration of culture by a common passion for “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The society he imagines, though it may know nothing of extreme want, also knows nothing of fasting and, by consequence, of true freedom in the sense described by Acton. It reflects the heart of a people that actually wants a government to “remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living.” And as Burke has said, external restraints of the state must multiply when inner restraints of the soul diminish. To the extent that we are on our way to Tocqueville’s dystopian democracy and civil society in the United States is in decline … we can assume, at least, an accompanying decline in the way of life that values self-restraint and virtue over “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The basic conviction is one I have expressed here before. Asceticism, understood as the self-limitation of oneself for the sake of self-discipline and virtue, is essential to self-government and therefore to a free society. In this article in particular, however, I focus especially on the possibility of a link between ascetic living and the rich associational life that Alexis de Tocqueville noted was so important a check upon the power of the state and the passions of a democratic people.

Read the full article, “Self-Limitation, Liberty, and Civil Society,” here.

Perhaps for the first time in American history, orthodox and traditional Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others may need to form a new alliance in order to defend their religious liberties in an America that’s increasingly less tolerant of principled diversity.

Religious and cultural progressives, secularists, and militant atheists pose a significant threat to religious freedom all in the name of “fairness.” What is not “unfair” is that religious communities are not free to not embrace cultural morality. In the coming years, fairness will be forced upon traditional religious groups by progressives (secular and religious) to destroy religious liberty. Religious communities that hold to classical teachings will not necessarily have their freedom directly undermined by a single President, specific laws in Congress, or maybe not even judicial activism, but primarily by the unchecked power of government regulatory agencies who operate essentially as our fourth branch of government.
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HermanBavinckBigThe Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck has some wise words for reform of cultural institutions, notably marriage and family, in his exploration of The Christian Family:

All good, enduring reformation begins with ourselves and takes its starting point in one’s own heart and life. If family life is indeed being threatened from all sides today, then there is nothing better for each person to be doing than immediately to begin reforming within one’s own circle and begin to rebuff with the facts themselves the sharp criticisms that are being registered nowadays against marriage and family. Such a reformation immediately has this in its favor, that it would lose no time and would not need to wait for anything. Anyone seeking deliverance from the state must travel the lengthy route of forming a political party, having meetings, referendums, parliamentary debates, and civil legislation, and it is still unknown whether with all that activity he will achieve any success. But reforming from within can be undertaken by each person at every moment, and be advanced without impediment.

We often take the liberty necessary for such reformation for granted. Will the world continue to be open for such reformation? Will there still be circles of Christian influence that will allow us to live out the realities of the gospel everyday?

AFR_250x125_aThe audio of four lectures from Acton University last week focusing on topics related to the Orthodox Christian Tradition — two by Fr. Michael Butler, one by Fr. Gregory Jensen, and one by Fr. Hans Jacobse — is now available to stream free of charge on Ancient Faith Radio (here).

The lectures are as follows (click to listen):

If you were unable to attend these lectures or simply want to listen again, be sure to visit Ancient Faith Radio and take the time to listen (here).

If you would like to purchase the audio of the four lectures above, you can do so at our audio store (here).

In addition, we would like to thank Ancient Faith Radio again for sharing their audio with us of the Acton-St. Vladimir’s conference on Orthodoxy and Poverty last month (here).

oil-field-workerIf the PowerBlog has a favorite atheist libertarian economist, it’s probably George Mason professor Don Boudreaux. Although he isn’t a believer, he sometimes stumbles upon what I would consider to be Christian insights. Consider, for instance, his take on the term “natural resources”:

In nearly all contexts, words and phrases inevitably convey not only information (such as, as Deirdre would say, “telephone numbers”), but also ideas – notions – interpretations – perspectives – biases – prejudices – spins -approval or disapproval – informal theories – attitudes and judgments – unconscious conclusions. And much of all this that is conveyed by our words and phrases goes unnoticed. This fact is neither good nor bad; it’s simply part of the human condition.

Take the term “natural resources” … This phrase suggests that some things of value to human beings occur naturally – without any human effort or creativity. But that suggestion is wrong. Nothing is naturally a resource; nature alone invests nothing with resourcefulness; ultimately, resources – all resources – are created by human beings. Nature creates raw materials, but never creates resources. Raw materials and human artifacts are made into resources only if, and only when, and only insofar as, human creativity figures out a way (or ways) to employ those materials and artifacts in ways that satisfy genuine human desires.

The point, here, is that the term “natural resources” can be misleading about the role of nature in creating human bounty. Nature exists, to be sure; but human bounty is created by human creativity; nature in matters economic is not the prime mover. Nature’s role in determining who is and who isn’t materially wealthy is much smaller than we are sometimes led to believe when focusing on “natural resources.”

Here’s why I think this is a biblical insight.
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Last Friday at Acton University, Fr. Gregory Jensen gave an engaging lecture on the dual subject of asceticism and consumerism. The “East Meets West” part might not be what many would expect. Rather than contrast a consumerist West with an ascetic East, Fr. Gregory insists that both consumerism and asceticism transcend cultures and traditions. Inasmuch as all people take part in consumption, an ascetic answer to the challenge of consumerism is (or ought to be) where East meets West. The audio of Fr. Gregory’s lecture will be available on Ancient Faith Radio in the near future, but as a teaser I would like to explore some of the themes briefly here. (more…)

Today at Acton University, Fr. Michael Butler gave an engaging lecture on the subject of Orthodoxy and natural law. Despite the contemporary ambivalence among many Orthodox (if not hostility) toward natural law, Fr. Michael argues that it is present in the Eastern Tradition from the ancient to the medieval and modern periods, focusing especially on the thought of the seventh century Byzantine Saint Maximus the Confessor.

A few months ago, I observed,

While it may be that there are important differences between a Thomist understanding of natural law and an Orthodox understanding of natural law, the historic difference is most assuredly not that Thomists accept it while the Orthodox do not.

Fr. Michael’s research further strengthens this statement and helpfully highlighted some of the similarities and differences between natural law in St. Maximus and that in Aquinas. The audio of his lecture will be available on Ancient Faith Radio in the coming weeks, but in the meantime I will briefly share some of Fr. Michael’s insights here. It’s a little heady, but worth consideration. (more…)

The double-headed eagle is a historical symbol of symphonia.

Today at Acton University, Fr. Michael Butler examined the history of Church-State relations in the Orthodox Tradition with special reference to the modern, Russian context in his lecture “Orthodoxy, Church, and State.” The audio of his lecture will be available via Ancient Faith Radio sometime in the coming weeks. As a teaser, I would like to briefly examine two concepts of Orthodox political theory to which Fr. Butler devoted specific attention: symphonia and sobornost.

Due to the influence of Max Weber, symphonia is often mischaracterized as caesaropapism (a term he coined), the state in which a nation’s sovereign is supreme in all ecclesiastical matters as well as those of state. It would be, then, a complete absorption of the Church by the state. Actual historical instances of this would include (to varying degrees) the Church of England where the monarch is the head and Imperial Russia from Tsar Peter the Great’s Westernizing reforms to the Bolshevik revolution. In the latter case, as Fr. Michael noted, one can see a distortion of symphonia for the elevation of state power, but not its essence or, by far, the complete historical picture. (more…)