Category: History

The modern world has introduced a wide array of fruits and freedoms, yet it also brings with it new tensions and temptations. Whether in family, business, education, or government, the expansion of opportunity and choice require heightened levels of individual wisdom, discernment and intentionality.

In a recent talk for the C.S. Lewis Institute, Os Guinness laments the influence of these effects on the Western church. “It isn’t ideas which have caused the main damage to the church,” Guinness says. “Modernity itself, not ideas… has done more damage to the church than all the persecutors put together, and yet many Christians don’t even know what I’m talking about.”

As Guinness argues, the Western church has far too passively shifted alongside or according to the trends and tendencies of modernity as seen across the culture, whether in family, business, education, or government. Across cultural spheres, we’ve shifted from a stance of authority to one of preference, from a mindset of integration to one of fragmentation, and from a supernatural orientation to a secular worldview. (more…)

IMG_1902In his many addresses to the nation, President Calvin Coolidge made a point of routinely redirecting the country’s attention to the “things of the spirit.”

In his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, he encouraged the country to reorient its vision of abundance, progressing not only in material prosperity, but also “in moral and spiritual things.” In his reflections on the Declaration of Independence, he reminded us that ours is a liberty not meant for “pagan materialism,” which would surely turn our prosperity into “a barren sceptre in our grasp.” Years earlier, as President of the Massachusetts Senate, he urged legislators to remember that “statutes must appeal to more than material welfare.” “Man has a spiritual nature,” he continued. “Touch it, and it must respond as the magnet responds to the pole.”

All in all, the message was consistent: “The things of the spirit come first.” For Coolidge, America had entered an “age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things,” and thus, was in sore need of such reminders. When it came to an occasion such as Christmas — a season compounded with those same temptations of materialism — the theme would continue.

“Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind,” Coolidge wrote in a 1927 Christmas greeting. “To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things there will be born in us a Savior and over us all will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.” That short refrain is likely the most widely read of Coolidge’s reflections on Christmas, but after the presidency, he offered a more extended view. (more…)

EdmundBurkeAdvocates of economic freedom have a peculiar habit of only promoting the merits of the free markets as they relate to innovation, poverty alleviation, and economic transformation. In response, critics are quick to lament a range of “disruptive” side effects, whether on local communities or human well-being.

Alas, in over-elevating the fruits of material welfare, we forget that such freedom is just as important as a restraint against the social dangers of an intrusive state as it is an accelerant to economic progress. If our concern is not just for economic prosperity, but for the wider flourishing of individuals and communities – social, spiritual, and otherwise – economic freedom has a role to play there, too.

As I’ve noted before, Edmund Burke builds the best bridge on this topic, offering a robust vision of liberty that connects these dots accordingly. In a new essay on Burke’s “economics of flourishing,” Yuval Levin highlights those very views, noting that, although his economic solutions were similar to those of his friend and contemporary, Adam Smith, Burke’s conclusions were more closely tied to a deeper commitment to human flourishing.

This begins with Burke’s view of liberty, which rejected any notion of radical individualism or choice as a good unto itself. As Levin explains, Burke “was moved to articulate his vision of human liberty precisely in opposition to a highly individualist, choice-centered understanding of what freedom entails and enables.” Or, as Burke himself puts it, true liberty “is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will” but “social freedom” – “another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.” (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
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These Russian Orthodox cosmonauts get it. Click photo for source.

… Or does religion need Mars? So argues social commentator James Poulos at Foreign Affairs:

What’s clear is that Earth no longer invites us to contemplate, much less renew, our deepest spiritual needs. It has filled up so much with people, discoveries, information, and sheer stuff that it’s maddening to find what F. Scott Fitzgerald called a fresh green breast of a new world — the experience of truly open horizons and an open but specific future. That’s a problem that does suggest a terrible calamity, if not exactly an imminent apocalypse. But by making a fresh pilgrimage to a literally new world — say, red-breasted Mars — we could mark our pilgrims’ progress from the shadows of ignorance and apartness from God.

I’m sympathetic to Poulos’s general point that Mars — and those, like Elon Musk, who want to colonize it — needs religion. (Perhaps even Calvinism in particular!) However, I’m not so sure that Earth has lost its ability to evoke spiritual renewal. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
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Athenebrunnen-Stuttgart Athene+ZeusOver at the Gospel Coalition last week I reviewed Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. As I conclude, “The story he tells is true, but at some points only half-true. The half-truth is still valuable, though, if for no other reason than that it runs so counter to much contemporary self-understanding. Siedentop’s interpretation helpfully casts doubt on the dominant narrative of secularism’s emergence from the oppressive claims of God and religion.”

One way of understanding the half-truth of Siedentop’s narrative is that he is right to point out the Christian roots of liberty and liberalism in the modern West, but incorrect in his understanding of Christianity and Christian liberalism. There is more than one kind of liberalism, and some of them end up in not liberty but tyranny.

Confusions abound, and much of our understanding turns on proper definitions. Take, for instance, the word liberalism. For many, this conjures up images of secular, progressive politicians and ideologues. While this may be the dominant contemporary political identification, there is also a classical understanding of liberalism that is worthy of engagement. And in the religious realm, liberalism has yet different meanings, such that J. Gresham Machen’s classic work Christianity and Liberalism would identify in the following way: “the many varieties of modern liberal religion are rooted innaturalism–that is, in the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God (as distinguished from the ordinary course of nature) in connection with the origin of Christianity.”

In this way our understanding of the relationship between Christianity and liberty, whether in historical or normative terms, will depend upon our definitions. And as Machen would have it, proper definitions are a laudable, if controversial, place to start: “Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding.”

For more on the relationship between Christianity and liberty, see Sam Gregg’s review essay, “How Christianity Created the Free Society.”

Harvestor workingMany view Labor Day as a celebration of all forms of work. The origins of the holiday come from the labor union movement, which for some is not so laudable. This leads some free-market advocates to refer instead to “Capital Day.”

One might be tempted to respond as parents often do when kids ask why there is a separate Father’s or Mother’s Day but no “Kid’s Day.” The answer: Every day is Kid’s Day. Perhaps every day is Capital Day and it is worth singling out the particularly human element of a productive and free economy.

In his historic encyclical from thirty-five years ago, Pope John Paul II refused to allow the dynamic relationship between labor and capital to be a zero-sum, either/or binary. To do so, he thought, is to grant a basic (and flawed) argument of Marxism.

Thus John Paul II asserted the priority of the subjective value of labor, but connected that effort historically to bygone generations of laborers who came before and left behind a productive legacy. In this way, capital is really “the result of the historical heritage of human labour.”

He continues:

All the means of production, from the most primitive to the ultramodern ones-it is man that has gradually developed them: man’s experience and intellect. In this way there have appeared not only the simplest instruments for cultivating the earth but also, through adequate progress in science and technology, the more modern and complex ones: machines, factories, laboratories, and computers. Thus everything that is at the service of work, everything that in the present state of technology constitutes its ever more highly perfected “instrument”, is the result of work.

So do celebrate Labor Day, or Capital Day if you must, but don’t fall into the trap of pitting one against another as if either reality exists independently. And don’t forget the “man” in “manual labor.”

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
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Harold BermanIn his magisterial Law and Revolution, Berman includes these incisive observations in his conclusion:

Law is as much a part of the mode of production of a society as farmland or machinery; the farmland or machinery is nothing unless it operates, and law is an integral part of its operation. Crops are not sown and harvested without duties and rights of work and exchange. Machinery is not produced, moved from the producer to the user, and used, and the costs and benefits of its use are not valued, without some kind of legal ordering of these activities. Such legal ordering is itself a form of capital.

Berman offers this in part as a corrective to Marxist reductionism of everything to a materialist substructure. Thus, writes Berman, “Law is not only fact; it is also idea, or concept, and, in addition, it is a measure of value. It has, inevitably, an intellectual and a moral dimension.”