Category: Christian Social Thought

calvinThough primarily a theologian, the famous Reformation figure John Calvin had much to say about the application of biblical principles to politics. His focus on the sovereignty of God in all aspects of Creation led Calvin to believe in God’s ordinance not only in the spiritual realm, but also in civil government. Citing Scriptural passages such as Proverbs 8:15-16 – “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth” – Calvin demonstrated that all governments are ordained by God. In Calvin’s mind, therefore, the rule of civil authority was paramount to the governance of society.

Law had been the subject of Calvin’s studies before he joined the Reformation movement. Although originally decided for the priesthood, Calvin had been sent to Orleans to study law by his father following a dispute with a local bishop in Paris. It was in Orleans that the importance of the legal order was first engrained into his mind. From there, he moved to Bourges to study under Andrea Alciato, an ingenious Italian humanist lawyer who taught Calvin new ways of studying and analyzing historical legal sources. Calvin would later use these skills in his analysis and interpretation of the Bible. All his training in France would prepare Calvin for a life of theology and statesmanship in Geneva. (more…)

adderallWhen a culture values individualism as a virtue, it sends a message to young people that what really matters in life is your performance. To make matters worse, this performance pressure is coupled with the idea that unless you are on top, you just don’t matter. In fact, if you sprinkle in a little anxiety about being materially successful in life on top of individualism you have the recipe for moral compromise. This is exactly what is happening on high school and college campuses across the West. Just as athletes are known for taking performance enhancing drugs in high school and college, students are falling prey to taking performance enhancing drugs to increase their test scores.

College professors are opening up to the idea of drug testing students for the use of “smart drugs” before exams just as we might test athletes for steroids before a major competition. The Telegraph newspaper recently reported the following:

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Lewis Hine Power house mechanic working on steam pumpOver at Think Christian, I reflect on an “authentically Christian” view of work, which takes into account its limitations, failings, and travails, as well as its promises, prospects, and providential foundations.

The TC piece is in response to a post by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, in which they juxtapose the pscyhologizing of work as subjectively authentic self-expression with their own preferred view of work as something done simply “for the sake of sustenance.”

Critchley and Webster are right to point to the dangers of unchecked subjectivism, but are wrong in devaluing work as merely instrumental. David F. Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary penned a monumental indictment of the inroads radical subjectivism has made in Christian, and particularly evangelical, circles in his 1994 book, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. As Wells puts it, the difference between the objective and subjective points of departure for our knowledge amount to two different ways of seeing the world; one is biblical, the other is worldly. “The one belongs to those who have narrowed their perception solely to what is natural; the other belongs to those whose understanding is framed by the supernatural. The one takes in no more than what the sense can glean; the other allows this accumulation of information to be informed by the reality of the transcendent,” writes Wells.

More recently, Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia analyzed the shift from objective measures of oppression to subjective psychologizing in the context of political ideology. “Supplementing the economic categories of Marx with the psychoanalytic categories of Freud, Marcuse and his followers effectively broadened the whole notion of oppression to include the psychological realm. Such a move is dramatic in the implications it has for the way one views politics. Simply put, oppression ceases to be something that can be assessed empirically in terms of external economic conditions and relations, and becomes something rather more difficult to see, i.e., a matter of the psychology of social relations,” writes Trueman. (more…)

Last night I attended an engaging lecture at Calvin College by Dr. William Abraham of the Southern Methodist University Perkins School of Theology. Abraham, whose religious background is Irish Methodist and who is now a minister in the United Methodist Church and the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins, gave a presentation titled, “The Treasures and Trials of Eastern Orthodoxy.” As someone who was once an outsider to the Orthodox Church and is now an insider (as much as a former outsider can be, I suppose), I can say that Dr. Abraham’s lecture highlighted many things that I see in the Orthodox Church myself as well as bringing others into focus, in particular five treasures the Orthodox bring and four trials that they face in our current, global context. (more…)

Photo Credit: youngdoo via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: youngdoo via Compfight cc

In this week’s commentary, “Made to Trade,” I explore the natural dispositions that human beings have to produce, exchange, consume, and distribute material goods.

If you’ve ever noticed that a sandwich made by someone else tastes better than one you make yourself, you’ll know what I’m getting at: “Recognizing the satisfaction that comes from such a gift of service from another person illustrates an other-directed disposition that is a deep and constitutive part of human nature.”

There is a gracious foundation for giving and receiving, whether in the form of gifts and distributions or in exchange. As Benedict XVI writes in Caritas in Veritate, “Gratuitousness is present in our lives in many different forms, which often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life. The human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension.”

Sometimes I think the ideas of gift and exchange can be too radically distinguished. Benedict describes a gift as something that “by its nature goes beyond merit, its rule is that of superabundance.” The relationship between love and justice, or between charity and merit, is complex and difficult to hold in proper balance. Emphasis of one at the expense of the other leads to errors of antinomianism or legalism.

What is clear, however, is the gracious foundation of all of our economics activities derive from God’s providential ordering. We give, receive, “truck, barter, and exchange,” as a manifestation of the constitutive sociality of our human nature, created in God’s image, male and female.

2940044212701_p0_v1_s260x420How should Protestant Christians think about faith, work, and economics? To help answer that question, the Acton Institute commissioned a series of primers about political economy and the church from four faith traditions: Baptist, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Reformed (forthcoming).

Chad Brand, the author of the Baptist primer, Flourishing Faith, was recently interviewed about the book and asked, “What is a Baptist political economy?”

What political economy describes is the interface between government and whatever economic system prevails in a given nation or culture. The political economy in the Soviet Union in the 1980s was a communist state with a socialist understanding of economics — a controlled-market economy. The United States was basically founded as a republic with a free market economy.

So when we introduce the idea of a Christian, and specifically Baptist, political economy, what we’re asking is, “How does the church rub itself up against a free market republic?” “How does a Baptist understanding of theology and ecclesiology interface with that.”

Because Baptists have long held the idea of religious freedom, political freedom, individual freedom and so on, the place where a Baptist political economy most manifests itself is in a kind of republican or libertarian form of economics. “Laissez faire” isn’t in the Baptist Faith and Message, but if you read and believe its statements on government and anthropology, I think you would come to the same conclusion that the government that governs least, governs best.

The notion of political economy has been around for quite some time — the first professor of political economy was a guy by the name of Thomas Malthus at the University of Oxford in about 1815 — but it hasn’t edged its way into evangelical circles until fairly recently.

Read more of the interview here and a review of Flourishing Faith here.

Alexei Khomiakov, the Russian Slavophile thinker often credited with first articulating the Orthodox principle of sobornost.

Today at Ethika Politika I offer an assessment of the phenomenon of globalization from the perspective of Orthodox Christian anthropology. In particular, I focus on the concept of sobornost in the thought of the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, writing,

Solovyov’s account of the moral progress of humanity through globalization is rooted in the Russian idea of sobornost’, which Christopher Marsh and Daniel P. Payne define as “the idea that human beings retain their freedom while participating in human society, and that human society is a participatory process through which human beings actualize themselves as unique hypostases [i.e. persons].” Accordingly, Solovyov writes that true society does not abolish the individual, but “subordination to society uplifts the individual” and “the independence of the individual lends strength to the social order” — an Orthodox parallel to subsidiarity.

I had raised the question of the similarity between sobornost and subsidiarity a few weeks ago during Fr. Michael Butler’s Acton University talk on “Orthodoxy, Church, and State.” I summarized his insight on the concept at the time, writing,

With the reforms of Tsar Peter the Great, however, the Church was literally made a department of the state [in Russia]. The inspiration for this, notably, was not symphonia but the European Protestant national Church model. While in this context the Russian Church still continued to carry out its functions in society, it had lost a great degree of autonomy. In the midst of this context, the Slavophile thinkers Alexei Khomiakov and Ivan Kireevsky reacted to this statist trend in Russian society by developing the theory of sobornost, inspired in part by the Russian word for “Catholic” in the Nicene Creed and inspired by the Orthodox Church’s conciliar basis of authority.

As they framed it, the idea of sobornost placed the idea of sovereignty in the whole of a people. All human beings are interconnected, and each therefore deserves their own autonomy while, at the same time, [each] has a duty to serve all others…. Ultimately, sobornost at its best would be an Orthodox parallel to subsidiarity in which each level of society, all the way down to the individual, has a role to freely play for the common good and each has a duty to assist others for that end.

The question of similarities and differences between subsidiarity and sobornost has been on my mind for some time. There would seem to be clear parallels between the concepts that were coincidentally developed in their modern forms at nearly the same time, though among different traditions for somewhat different purposes. (more…)

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.