Category: News and Events

David Paul Deavel has a fine review of Rev. Robert Sirico’s Defending the Free Market over at National Review Online.

Deavel notes:

What makes Sirico’s defense of a free economy all the stronger is his consistent acknowledgment that a functioning free market neither immanentizes the eschaton, making heaven on earth, nor makes a society virtuous or whole. Freedom of economic (and other) action is not the goal of society — acting virtuously in freedom is. And the intellectual and spiritual resources for virtuous action do not inhere in markets themselves. In his chapter on why state-sponsored health care is not really a compassionate answer, he writes against “the seduction that the power of economic freedom can in itself generate a system of health care marked by honesty and love.” Economic freedom must be accompanied by other kinds of freedom, particularly religious, and by people thinking about their duties toward the sick, the dying, and the poor. Homo economicus may be a useful abstraction for certain economics problems, but the human capital of love, loyalty, and sacrifice is the kind of capital required for a successful capitalism.

Read the entire review at National Review Online.

As might be expected, the question of “scientific consensus” and its presumptive role in shaping our public and ecclesial policy was raised in the context of a decision by the Christian Reformed Church to make a formal public statement regarding climate change.

Jason E. Summers notes in an insightful piece addressing the complexities of scientific authority in our modern world that “scientific claims have substantial bearing on many public issues. But unless the nature of these claims and the basis for their authority are better understood, they cannot be meaningfully incorporated within the political process.”

One of the ways of better understanding the public role of science is to understand precisely what consensus does and does not mean. As Summers writes in the context of delineating “scientific consensus,”

science develops confidence in its findings on the basis of evidence accumulated under the methodological norms of the field, but it does not conclude in a final sense. Thus, a product of scientific inquiry may be highly robust—having well explained all available data and made accurate predictions—but it is not a final and absolute truth claim because it is predicated on evidence that continues to accumulate with time.

A related point is that consensus, no matter what kind, whether popular or expert, is an imperfect indicator of truth and not determinative of it. That is, truth is not created by consensus but rather by correspondence with reality.

Abraham Kuyper makes this point in his reflections on common grace in science and art. He observes,

Modern science is dominated by distrust when it comes to our own deepest sense of life, and that distrust is nothing but unbelief. What people lose thereby they attempt to recover by locating their fulcrum in the consciousness of the prevailing majority. Whatever is generally regarded as true in scientific circles people will dare to accept for themselves.

What people generally agree upon in this manner is called the truth, the truth that people profess to honor. Pressed a bit further, they sense that such a general agreement constitutes no proof at all, so they suppose that only what I can make so clear to all persons of sound mind and sufficient education such that they finally understand and agree with it belongs to what is scientifically established.

The role of scientific consensus is absolutely central to determining what ought (or ought not) be done by various institutions (governmental or otherwise) with respect to climate change. As Andy Crouch’s original piece illustrates, the scientific “near-consensus” on climate change is the latest in a long line of scientific determinations (such as evolution) to which the public is bound to accommodate itself.

But if we confuse consensus with absolute truth, and conflate scientific conclusions with ethical imperatives, we are unduly influenced by the “priestly voice” of science and invite the tyranny of scientific consensus.

The Holy Ascension Choros

Over at the Holy Protection Hummus and Pizza Parlor (perhaps my favorite name for a website/anything ever), S. Patrick O’Rourke recently announced the Orthodox Arts Journal which “publishes articles and news for the promotion of traditional Orthodox liturgical arts.”

From the journal’s homepage:

The Journal covers visual arts, music, liturgical ceremony and texts, and relevant art history and theory. The Journal presents these topics together to highlight the unified witness of the arts to the beauty of the Kingdom of God and to promulgate an understanding of how the arts work together in the worship of the Church. In the spirit of the revival of traditional Orthodox liturgical arts sparked by Kontoglou and Ouspensky, the Journal will publicize excellence in contemporary liturgical arts, emphasizing fidelity to the Church’s tradition of beauty and craft.

It is always a good thing to see artists and churchmen who are not guilty of ignoring Étienne Gilson‘s pronouncement: “Piety is no substitute for technique.” Indeed, it is refreshing to also see those for whom technique is no substitute for piety and who actively seek to wed their faith in God with the talents He has given them.

For more, be sure to check out the website of the Orthodox Arts Journal here.

I just read the introduction to Amity Shlaes’s forthcoming biography, Coolidge: Debt, Perseverance and the American Ideal. She has been very gracious in taking an interest in the work I have been doing on Coolidge and my recent Acton commentary on the 30th president.

Shlaes was interviewed in the Fall 2007 issue of Religion & Liberty about her book The Forgotten Man. I quickly realized in my own research there is no biography that captures Coolidge’s deep relevancy for today given the mammoth federal debt and the centralization of federal power. Coolidge took limiting federal power and its reach seriously.

Without naming names or titles, many of the Coolidge biographies in print are simply sub par. That will change with the release of her biography and this is a book that needs to be out now. There is no release date set in stone to my knowledge or I would offer it up to readers of the PowerBlog.

In the introduction, it is clear just how well Shlaes understands Coolidge’s leadership on economic issues and his emphasis on thrift. I love that she played off her title The Forgotten Man by calling Coolidge “The Forgotten President.” I’ve certainly noticed in my own talks when I go out and discuss Coolidge that so little is known about him.

In her introduction, Shlaes brilliantly draws out comparisons of Coolidge with George Washington, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, John F. kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan. Some of her insightful comparisons I would never have highlighted on my own. Shlaes is a gifted writer and I foresee this book being very influential with the ability to transform contemporary thinking about our national government.

One of the things that draws me to Coolidge is his appreciation for the past. He was a very modern president who oversaw great technological advances and an America that was modernizing at a rapid pace but he always reminded the people of who they were and the great heritage that gave birth to the American ideal. “If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it,” declared Coolidge.

One of my favorite books is The Word of Life by Thomas C. Oden. In the introduction to that book Oden quotes Henry Vaughan’s “Retreat:”

O How I long to travel back,
and tread against that ancient track! . . .
Some men a forward motion love,
But I by backward steps would move.

If Coolidge had heard those words, which is quite possible, I feel he would have loved them.

On the drive over to Acton University this morning I heard an argument on the radio about how the economy would have been fixed if only the dollar amount of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 would have been doubled. What a sad statement to pin your hope to in order to fix the American economy. That argument is unlikely to be uttered at Acton University. Fixing economic problems and lifting up the human condition is not measured by dollars here. Present at Acton University is the strong sense that solving complex problems and failures in society are attainable outside of centralization or a materialistic worldview.

It is easy to walk outside the community and walls of AU and give up on society. But this week has been a powerful reminder that there are hundreds of people here who are certainly brilliant, but more importantly, empowered by our Lord. The conference convicts you that you can do more to transform a hungry and needy world.

It has been a blessing to converse and share fellowship with people like Michael Novak. Novak was speaking out aggressively about the free and virtuous society when free markets were even less popular in the intellectual and academic arena. In a lecture on Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Ed Ericson cited Novak’s brilliant essay in response to Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address in 1978. Novak, in responding to that address, notes that “the most serious seekers after truth come to unexpected and remarkable convergences.” I can’t think of a better summary for the community and fellowship here at Acton University. While there are certainly theological differences, we are all united and invigorated by the truth. And as Solzhenitsyn himself declared, “One word of truth outweighs the world.”

The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) held its annual synod this week, and among the items it dealt with were overtures and recommendations related to the issues of climate change and creation care. The synod adopted statements along the following lines:

  • There is a near-consensus in the scientific community that climate change is occurring and very likely is caused by human activity.
  • Human-induced climate change is an ethical, social justice, and religious issue.
  • The CRC is compelled to take private and public action to address climate change, especially since those who are already most impacted by it live in poor countries.

A broader report on creation care was also passed by the synod. I should echo this broadest sentiment of the synod, and note that there is no debate about whether or not the Scriptures mandate Christians to be good stewards of all of God’s gifts, including those of the natural order, environment, and resources. The first specific instance of the cultural mandate from Gen. 1:28, “to fill the earth and subdue it” and to exercise dominion, is given to Adam, when God “took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

But my concern here has to do more with the prudential wisdom of synod adopting specific statements like this as official policy of the denomination regarding climate change. In my lecture this week at Acton University, I dealt with outlining the role of the church as both institution and organism in God’s economy, his management of the entire world and all that is in it. I focused on the defining characteristic of the institutional church’s responsibility to be that of “proclamation” of the gospel, consisting of the closely interrelated activities of preaching, administration of the sacraments, and exercise of church discipline. This distinction is also present in my critique of the ecumenical movement’s particularly economic (rather than environmental) activism in Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.

So I was disappointed to read yesterday that my denomination had decided to speak so specifically to a social issue like climate change that really is so contentious and divisive. It seems to me that the discussion has not really advanced all that much in the last 5 years or more, and that the true situation is perhaps even less clear now than it was even a decade ago.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

What really stuck out to me in reading some of the reports about the decision was the sentiment expressed by Rev. Steven Zwart, a delegate from Classis Lake Superior. Here’s what he said:

“I’m a skeptic on much of this. But how will doing this hurt? What if we find out in 30 years that numbers (on climate change) don’t pan out? We will have lost nothing, and we’ll have a cleaner place to live. But if they are right, we could lose everything.”

I think among those at synod who were (or are) inclined toward skepticism “on much of this,” Zwart’s sentiment was likely broadly shared. What, indeed, do we have to lose?

This sentiment is, in fact, almost precisely the argument in favor of action on global climate change made by Andy Crouch in a 2005 commentary for Christianity Today, “Environmental Wager: Why Evangelicals Shouldn’t be Cool Towards Global Warming.” Andy concluded:

Believe in God though he does not exist, Pascal argued, and you lose nothing in the end. Fail to believe when he does in fact exist, and you lose everything. Likewise, we have little to lose, and much technological progress, energy security, and economic efficiency to gain, if we act on climate change now—even if the worst predictions fail to come to pass. But if we choose inaction and are mistaken, we will leave our descendants a blighted world.

At the time I responded in a piece, “Pascal’s Blunder,” as I would now to the question, “How will doing this hurt?” One critical component of the answer has to do with the basic economic concept of opportunity cost…what other good might we do with the resources directed towards advocacy on climate change? That’s your answer. That’s what we have to lose: all the other good that we might or ought to be doing.

At the time Andy was generous enough to engage in a more extended conversation on these issues, and I’ll pass along the links for those who want to do more reading about the question, “But how will doing this hurt?” As I’ve said, I don’t think the analysis or discussion has advanced much in the last seven years, at least not in the CRC.

On the Patheos Evangelical channel, Joseph E. Gorra talks to 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 frames the interview with this question: “Countless detractors over the years have argued that capitalism is intrinsically immoral. Is it true?”

Patheos: As you know, “capitalism” and “free markets” often invoke all sorts of various (even contradictory) images and ideas for different people. I want to start by having you articulate what it is that you are defending in this book in order to help readers break through some of the “noise” that’s out there on this topic.

Sirico: The word “capitalism” itself has Marxist connotations and is, to my mind, too narrow for the free economy I am talking about. Every sort of state or crony capitalist venture gets to use the name capitalism, and I am as suspicious of corporate welfare as I am for other kinds of welfare—and for many of the same reasons.

Patheos: What would be a better way to nuance “capitalism”?

Sirico: I really find helpful Blessed John Paul II’s delineation between what might be called “capitalisms” in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus where he says that the kind of “capitalism” which should replace the collapsed Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe and recommended to the developing world ought to be one “which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property, and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector…” but then he is quick to add, “even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy,” “market economy,” or simply “free economy” (see Centesimus Annus, no. 42). Such an expression of human liberty, grounded in ethical and religious tradition—especially natural law reasoning—and circumscribed by law, is to my mind, the best we can get on earth. This approach is neither libertine nor anarchistic.

Read “Is Capitalism Immoral? An Interview with Father Robert Sirico” on the Patheos Evangelical channel.