Category: Virtue

MyWayYourWayI recently had an exchange with a Duke Divinity School student regarding many of things I’ve written at the Acton Institute over the past 12 years. The student said this about me:

When it comes to speaking comfort to power and castigating the most vulnerable in our society, there is perhaps no public theological voice more eager than that of Anthony Bradley’s. His body of work is a textbook in blaming the victim and reducing problems to pathology.

Not only had the student actually not read most of the things that I have written but the comment exposes something that Jonathan Haidt explains well that I’ve talked about before: ideological “tribalism.”
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Bellow BiographyI’m slowly working my way through James Atlas’ biography of Saul Bellow, and I came to the section where Saul Bellow returns to his birthplace in Lachine, Quebec, for the dedication of the municipal library in his name. At the dedication he gave a speech, which includes this section:

I am here as a kind of testimony to the fact that it’s possible for a child from Lachine to do some things which have been called—not by me but by others—extraordinary. It also fits very well with my own resistance to that deterministic philosophy that tells you that the place that you come from makes you absolutely; it does not. The human soul has its own way to declare its own freedom and to develop itself in its own way, and it is not true to say: “Show me where you came from and I’ll tell you what you are.” That’s not the way things really are; we are people capable of freedom, and some of us are even willing to take chances for the sake of freedom: I see the thing that way. It is not necessary to be fully determined by one’s surroundings. Your mind and your spirit have their own liberty, and each individual should be loyal to that.

Stirring stuff, that.

But lest anyone misunderstand and think that Bellow was advocating merely a libertine individualism, we might consult the conclusion of his novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, which as Myron Magnet writes, includes the connection between the freedom and the moral nature of the human soul. Thus, writes Magnet:

From page one of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Bellow himself insists that, beyond the explanations we construct through Enlightenment reason, the soul has “its own natural knowledge.” We all have “a sense of the mystic potency of humankind” and “an inclination to believe in archetypes of goodness. A desire for virtue was no accident.” We all know that we must try “to live with a civil heart. With disinterested charity.” We must live a life “conditioned by other human beings.” We must try to meet the terms of the contract life sets us, as Sammler says in the astonishing affirmation with which Bellow ends his book. “The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. . . . As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”

Reading through the German economist Walter Eucken’s work The Foundation of Economics (1951), I came across one of the most helpful charts for economic analysis I have yet to find. In it, Eucken gives every possible form of market in a single table:

Eucken Chart

The Foundation of Economics, p. 158

Eucken adds four qualifications that are important to keep in mind:

  1. “These forms of market are actual forms which have been or are to be found in actual economic life (often blended with one another, and existing alongside the forms of a centrally directed economy). They are not given a priori. They are discovered with their distinguishing characteristics by studying the planning data of those taking part in the market….”
  2. “Under each particular form of market a man can act according to different principles, for example, that of maximum net receipts or that of optimum output….”
  3. “Each of these forms of market can appear in four types: both open, both closed, or closed on either side only.”
  4. “Fixing of prices by the state occupies a special position, since it can follow any form of market and has different effects accordingly…. For example, the significance of coal prices being fixed by the state varies according to whether perfectly competitive, oligopolistic, or monopolistic supply, or some other form of market, exists, or whether both sides of the market are open, or whether the supply side is closed by an investment veto. Governmental price-fixing is to be treated as a variant of the different market forms and not as a special market form of its own.”

So, what does this amount to? (more…)

kid-digging-holeLast Saturday was hot and humid in our corner of the world, and thus, my wife and I quickly decreed a pool day on the front lawn. The kids were ecstatic, particularly our four-year-old boy, who watched and waited anxiously as I got things prepared.

All was eventually set — pool inflated, water filled, toys deployed — but before he could play, I told him he needed to help our neighbor pick up the fallen apples strewn across his lawn.

With energy and anticipation, he ran to grab his “favorite bucket,” and the work quickly commenced. Less than three minutes later, however, his patience wore off.

“This is boring, Daddy,” he complained. “Can I be done now?”

More than anything else, the response was comical. Within mere minutes, this simple, ten-minute task had become a heavy burden he simply could not bear.

But it also signaled something profound about our basic attitudes about work, and how early they begin to form. Our kids are only beginning to edge upon the golden ages of chorehood, but as these situations continue to arise, I’ve become increasingly aware of a peculiar set of challenges faced by parents raising children in a prosperous age.

In a society wherein hard and rough work, or any work for that matter, has become less and less necessary, particularly among youngsters, how might its relative absence alter the long-term character of a nation? What is the role of work and toil in the development and formation of our children, and what might we miss if we fail to embrace, promote, and contextualize it accordingly? In a culture such as ours, increasingly propelled by hedonism, materialism, and a blind allegiance to efficiency and convenience, what risks do we face by ignoring, avoiding, or subverting the “boring” and the “mundane” across all areas of life, and particularly as it relates to work? (more…)

The StudentThe church has found a renewed interest in matters of “faith-work integration,” but while we hear plenty about following the voice of God in business and entrepreneurship, we hear very little about the world of academia. What does it mean, as a Christian, to be called to the work of scholarship?

In Scholarship, a newly released collection of convocation addresses by Abraham Kuyper, we find a strong example of the type of reflection we ought to promote and embrace. For Kuyper, the call to academic life is a “sacred calling,” one that demands wise and creative stewardship of the mind and a Christianly posture and position that connects with each other area of the Christian life.

Although the Economy of Wisdom may differ from other spheres in its emphases and modes of operation, those of us called thereto are at a fundamental level propelled by the very same stewardship mandate: be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth through truth, knowledge, and wisdom.

As Kuyper explains, the scholar’s very mind is his “field of labor,” one that must be cultivated actively and attentively:

In your mind lies your glory as scholars. That is your field of labor. Not merely to live, but to know that you live and how you live, and how things around you live, and how all that hangs together and lives out of the one efficient cause that proceeds from God’s power and wisdom. Other people, when evening falls, have to have sown and plowed, counted and calculated; but you have to have thought, reflected, analyzed, until at last a harvest of your own thoughts may germinate and ripen on the field of your consciousness. (more…)

vietnamReligion & Liberty recently interviewed former German war correspondent Uwe Siemon-Netto. He’s also the author of Triumph of the Absurd, a book chronicling his time covering the war in Vietnam. One of Siemon-Netto’s recurring themes is the still propped up line in the West that North Vietnam’s aggression was a “people’s revolution” or an act of liberation. A people’s revolution doesn’t execute soldiers who have laid down their arms or force large segments of the population in South Vietnam into reeducation camps. After the fall of Saigon, hundreds of thousands of boat people died or drowned at sea trying to flee their communist tormentors.

One of those young boys at the time was Vinh Chung, whose family was rescued by a World Vision aid ship in 1979. His Vietnamese and American story is chronicled in the new book Where the Wind Leads. In Parade magazine, Chung talks about his return visit to Vietnam and the importance of Christian sacrifice, stewardship, and what it means to be an American:

When I was a student in ­medi­cal school in 2002, I returned to Vietnam for the first time, to visit my relatives who are still there. I was shocked by the poverty. Their houses were shacks, the walls plastered over with newspapers; bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling on electrical cords. My cousins slept on the floor. Visiting them was like walking into a parallel universe—the life that would have been mine had the wind blown our boat in a different ­direction.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said, “When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required” (12:48 NLT). I used to wonder who Jesus meant, because I sure didn’t think it was my family. The way I saw it, we had been given nothing, entrusted with nothing. I hoped that rich and powerful people would read Jesus’s words and take them to heart.

But when I went to Vietnam, I finally understood: He meant me. I was the one plucked from the South China Sea. I was the one granted asylum in a nation where education is available to everyone, and prosperity is attainable for anyone. I worked hard to get to where I am today, but the humbling truth is that my hard work was possible because of a blessing I did nothing to deserve. And that blessing is something I must pass on, in any way I can.

My story is true for all of us, whether you arrived in this country by boat or by birth: Much has been given to us—and much is required. That, I believe, is what it means to be an American.

Sacrifice is increasingly a virtue we are losing in our contemporary American society. We’ve got the entitlement part down but our solely lacking in the requirement of being citizens department. That fact is attested to by just glancing at our bloated federal debt, our culture of entitlement, and the rise of the grievance industry. In the epilogue of Triumph of the Absurd, Siemon-Netto makes a prescient observation, “When a self-indulgent throwaway culture grows tired of sacrifice it becomes capable of discarding everything like a half-eaten doughnut.”

The System Has a Soul: Essays on Christianity, Liberty, and Political LifeChristian’s Library Press has now released The System Has a Soul: Essays on Christianity, Liberty, and Political Life by Hunter Baker, a collection of reflections on the role and relevance of Christianity in our societal systems. You can order your copy here.

Challenging the notion that such systems are inevitably ordered by the “ultra-complex machinery of state power and corporate strategy,” Baker reminds us of the role of the church in culture and political life. Rather than simply deferring to and relying on the “internal logic” of various societal spheres, Christians are called to contribute something distinct and transcendent in its arc and aim — whether in business, politics, science, academia, or otherwise.

“The church is the soul of the system,” Baker writes, and springing from that root is a notion of freedom and the good that “transcends our worldly instrumentalities and principalities.”

As Baker explains:

Why not just leave out the church? Why not leave out that Christian particularity that you insist is so important to culture? Why can we not just have the freedom and democracy and ignore the rest? Fine, the faith may have helped us reach this point, but I do not know why we need it now. We have evolved socially and politically.

The simplest answer is to invoke Elton Trueblood’s magnificent metaphor of the cut-flower civilization. A flower grows and becomes beautiful because it is rooted in the ground where it can access the things it needs to live, such as nutrition and water. The roots are life. If you cut the flower at its stem and put it in a vase, it will remain beautiful for a time, but it will die and decay. What was beautiful will be lost. (more…)

moses and the burning bushI have recently offered several warnings against self-chosen sacrifice and self-willed religion, noting that, as Christians, ours is a service not of our own design or choosing, and when we orient our lives accordingly, it’s far more powerful because of it.

Over at Catholic Exchange, Benjamin Mann offers a nice complement to such warnings, digging a bit deeper into the question of discernment, which is central to all of this. (HT)

Writing specifically of our current attitudes about vocation, Mann observes an “unnecessary indecision and anxiety” in modern Western culture — one that is “shaped by the modern sensibility of intense self-consciousness, and by the consumer culture’s obsession with options and the ‘pursuit of happiness.’”

We are living in a world filled with choices and opportunities for “self-empowerment.” And yet with such tools comes a temptation to trust too highly in our personal plans and powers. If we give way to these temptations, our perception of calling is bound to suffer. “Consciously or not,” Mann writes, “we sometimes expect a vocation to solve all of our problems, answer all of our questions, and satisfy all of our desires. But these are not the purposes of a vocation.”

So what is the purpose of vocation? (more…)

Golden-Calf-Painting1Last week, I wrote about the danger of self-chosen sacrifice, channeling evangelist Oswald Chambers, who warns us to “never decide the place of your own martyrdom.”

“Always guard against self-chosen service for God,” he continues. “Self-sacrifice may be a disease that impairs your service.”

As an example of how the process ought to go, Chambers looks to the story of Abraham and Isaac. God demanded something quite peculiar — the sacrifice of Abraham’s son —  and Abraham simply obeyed. “God chose the test for Abraham,” Chambers writes, “and Abraham neither delayed nor protested, but steadily obeyed.”

In Cornelis Vonk’s primer on Exodus, part of CLP’s growing series, “Opening the Scriptures,” he highlights an example of the opposite.

Moses had gone up to Mount Sinai, where God was to send down his law in written form. Yet down below, even as the Israelites had quite visibly witnessed the supernatural power of God — whether through the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the fire by night, etc. — they gave way to their humanistic impulses. Anxious and impatient for Moses to return and eager for guidance and direction, they could wait no longer.

“Make us gods who shall go before us,” they said. (more…)

KuyperEtch (1)The Obama administration’s HHS mandate has led to significant backlash among religious groups, each claiming that certain provisions violate their religious beliefs and freedom of conscience.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling was a victory for such groups, but other disputes are well underway, with many more to come. Even among many of our fellow Christians, we see a concerted effort to chase religious belief out of the public square, confining such matters to Sunday mornings, where they can be kept behind closed doors.

In navigating these tensions, Abraham Kuyper’s Our Program (Ons Program) offers a wealth of perspective, particularly when it comes to how Christians ought to think about their role in the broader society. Recently translated under the title Guidance for Christian Engagement in Government, the book contains an entire chapter in opposition to a “secular state,” including a marvelous bit on freedom of conscience that’s worth excerpting at length.

“There should be freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom of worship,” Kuyper writes, “but above all, the root of all these freedoms: freedom of conscience.”

The conscience marks a boundary that the state may never cross.

The limits to state power reside in the will of God. Government has as much power as God has assigned to it. No more; no less. It sins if it leaves unused a portion of the power assigned to it, but also if it arrogates to itself any power that is not assigned to it.

There is only one power without limits: the power of God, whence it is called almighty power. Anyone who accords the state the right to exercise power as if it had no limits is guilty of “deifying” the state and favoring “state omnipotence.” That is not indulging in “oratorical phraseology” but simply indicating a purely logical concept. [emphasis added, here and in any bolded text hereafter]

Kuyper certainly believes that government has a role to play, noting that “government alone has public power,” granted by God, “whereas all other organizations in and of themselves are of a private nature.” (more…)