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…)
Jordan Ballor wrote a provocative post about fusionism today, titled “Libertarians in Black,” modifying Jonah Goldberg’s suggestion that there should always be a libertarian in the room during political discussions with a little help from Johnny Cash:
I think we might be able to bring Jonah Goldberg and Johnny Cash together on this point, to say that there always ought to be a “libertarian in black” in the room, asking the right questions about what government policies do for the people, particularly the poor.
Yet I wonder, might there be room for another man (or woman) in black as well? Might we also benefit from having a monk in the room? (No offense intended to any Trappists, who traditionally wear white, but honestly, what are they going to say?) (more…)
What do markets have to do with monasticism? Quite a lot to the Benedictine monks of St. Andrew’s Abbey in Southern California, according to a recent press release. Their prior Fr. Joseph Brennan describes MonksInk, the monks’ business selling ink and toner cartridges:
Every monastery has something unique about them. For example, a monastery in Louisiana makes soap. Some make jellies and jams. The Camaldolese make amazing fruitcake. But we never developed anything like that. Until now, we only produced ceramics, and even these were designed by a brother monk in Belgium. We really needed to do something different. MonksInk was a good fit.
The article goes on to detail their offerings:
Product selection meets or exceeds what one could find at any big box office supply store — including ink and toner options for every make and model of printer, fax and copy machine, from HP and Epson to Xerox, and every brand in between. Buyers also have their choice of original manufacturer products, alternative cost-saving brands, or re-manufactured items. And, the monks are quick to point out, anyone can always add a prayer request or two as well! (more…)
Today at Ethika Politika, Fr. Gregory Jensen, a contributor to the PowerBlog as well as other Acton publications, explores the potential of the Orthodox Christian ascetic tradition as a response to the paradox of American individualism:
We come to know each other in our uniqueness “only within the framework of direct personal relationships and communion…. Love is the supreme road to knowledge of the person, because it is an acceptance of the other person as a whole.” Unlike the more theoretical approaches we alluded to above, to say nothing of our own neurotic strivings, love doesn’t “project on the other person” our own “preferences, demands or desires.” Rather love accepts the other as he or she is, “in the fullness of [his or her] uniqueness.” This is also why our highly individualistic culture struggles with a whole range of problems related to sexuality. It is “in the self-transcendence and offering of self that is sexual love” where husband and wife learn to live in mutual acceptance of each other’s uniqueness (Yannaras, p. 23).
For the theological anthropology of the Orthodox Church, “‘person’ and ‘individual’ are opposite in meaning. The individual is the denial or neglect of the distinctiveness of the person” (p. 22). Christian asceticism has as its goal the liberation of the truly personal from the merely individualistic. In the full and proper sense, moreover, the liberty that ascetical struggle offers is not simply an absence of constraints (a “freedom from” if you will) but a “[p]erfection and sanctification” that makes possible the person’s “restoration to the fullness of [his or her] existential possibilities” and so to be what he or she “is called to be — the image and glory of God” (p. 109).
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “A Passion for Government Leads to Neglect of Our Neighbor,” I examine how the disconnect between desires and deeds with reference to helping the needy among us perpetuates unbalanced budgets and spending on debt to the detriment of future generations. I highlight how St. John the Baptist came to “turn the hearts of fathers to their children” (Luke 1:17) by exhorting people to look to their neighbors and the small but practical ways they can serve them in love:
During his ministry, John’s message to everyday people, according to Luke, was remarkably simple: “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” To the tax collector, he warns not to take more than is due, and to the soldier his counsel is “be content with your wages” (cf. Luke 3:10-14). This was “the way of the Lord”?
I conclude by recommending the same for us today. The problem is not that people do not care, it is that we have forgotten with whom responsibility for the work of caring for the needy among us lies first of all. (more…)
With the most recent fiscal cliff approaching this Thursday (February 28), it is worth asking, “How did we get into this mess?” My answer: a little leaven works its way through a whole lump of dough….
Touchstone Magazine (March/April 2013) recently published my article, “The Yeast We Can Do,” in their “Views” section (subscription required). In it, I explore the metaphor of yeast in the Scriptures—how little things eventually work their way through our whole lives and can lead to big consequences. In some cases, I point out, this is a bad thing. For example, I write,
According to Evagrios the Solitary, one of the early Christian hermits of the Egyptian desert, our spiritual struggle can be summarized quite simply: it is because we have first failed to resist little temptations that we eventually fall to greater ones. Following John the Evangelist’s warnings against succumbing to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16), Evagrios identifies three “frontline demons” in particular: gluttony, avarice, and seeking the esteem of others.
Little by little, when we give in to small temptations, they eventually work their way through our whole lives, leaving us vulnerable to bigger, related areas of temptation.
Now, how does this relate to our over $16.5 trillion national debt and annual deficits over $1 trillion for the last four years that brought us to a looming sequestration deadline, with little time to come up with some solution to drastically cut spending to get our finances under control, adversely affecting the lives of millions? Well, as I said, a little leaven works its way through the whole lump of dough. (more…)
So … what happened? With regular coverage of the US “Fiscal Cliff” running up to the new year, PowerBlog readers may be wondering where the discussion has gone. While I am by no means the most qualified to comment on the matter, I thought a basic summary and critique would be in order:
- With six minutes to read this 157 page bill, the US House of Representatives passed it. (Note: either I’m an exceptionally slow reader or none of them could possibly have read it.)
- According to Matt Mitchell at Neighborhood Effects, the bill itself, comically titled “The American Taxpayer Relief Act,” has three strikes against it:
- “It ignored the evidence that tax increases are more economically harmful than spending cuts.” The bill puts the Cliff’s spending cuts off for two more months. (I see a sequel in the works: Fiscal Cliff 2: The Reckoning, perhaps?)
- “It opted to raise revenue through rate increases rather than loophole closings.” Why is this bad? “Put simply, a rate increase has deleterious demand and supply-side effects, whereas a loophole closing only has deleterious demand-side effects.”
- “It actually expanded corporate tax loopholes!” He continues by adding some valuable substantiation to this claim: “On the last point, don’t miss Vero’s pieces here and here, Tim Carney’s pieces here and here, Matt Stoller’s piece here, and Brad Plumer’s piece here.” The point: the primary (and likely the only) taxpayers who will see any relief from “The American Taxpayer Relief Act” are crony capitalists.
- Small businesses, on the other hand, will be hit the hardest by the bill. As Eileen Norcross writes at The Spectacle Blog,
With tax rates raised on those earning over $400,000 some may imagine that only a rarified tier of high earners will be forced to fork over more income to the federal government. However, tax increases in this category also includes [sic] small businesses. These hikes will affect decisions over hiring, expansion, and wages. The outcome — slower economic growth for all.
In summary, the bill—which the House had only six minutes to read—does almost nothing to address our debt and deficits, and what it does do is mostly negative and/or sub-optimal (unless you’re a crony capitalist, that is). Not only does this bill negatively affect most Americans today, it puts off, yet again, any hard decisions of reigning in our unsustainable spending addiction. We now have two more months before we careen over that cliff, but with how much time Congress had to negotiate an alternative deal before settling for a poorly designed, 157 page bill they only had six minutes to read, I’m not holding my breath. (more…)
Matt Mitchell at Neighborhood Effects offers an interesting perspective regarding the fiscal cliff. As we hurriedly approach the edge, Mitchell’s insights ought not to be ignored, whatever the outcome of today’s last minute meeting at the White House. Evoking the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, he writes,
At the risk of mixing metaphors, we should think of the fiscal cliff as the Ghost of the Fiscal Future. It is a bleak lesson in what awaits us if we don’t get serious about changing course.
Mitchell goes on to hint at the serious issue of intergenerational justice that our government’s current fiscal behavior will affect if it continues unchanged:
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office [CBO] now projects that, absent policy change, when my two-year-old daughter reaches my age (32), revenue will be just a bit above its historical average at 19 percent of GDP while spending will be nearly twice its historical average at 39 percent of GDP. This is what economists mean when they say we have a spending problem and not a revenue problem: spending increases, not revenue decreases, account for the entirety of the projected growth in deficits and debt over the coming years. (more…)
This past Friday, I had the opportunity to present a paper at the Sophia Institute annual conference at Union Theological Seminary. This year’s topic was “Marriage, Family, and Love in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition.” My paper was titled, “What Makes a Society?” and focused, in the context of marriage and the family, on developing an Orthodox Christian answer to that question. The Roman Catholic and neo-Calvinist answers, subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty, respectively (though not mutually exclusive), receive frequent attention on the PowerBlog, but, to my knowledge, no Orthodox answer has been clearly articulated, and so it can be difficult to know where to begin. To that end, it is my conviction—and a subject of my research—that a historically sensitive, Orthodox answer to this question can found be in the idea of asceticism, rightly understood.
While I will not reproduce my paper here, I wanted to briefly summarize two of its main points that might have broader interest. First of all, what is asceticism? Second, how can asceticism be viewed as an organizational principle of society? Lastly, I want to briefly explore—beyond the scope of my paper—the relevance of this principle for a free society. (more…)
Today marks the feast day of St. Benedict of Nursia, one of the fathers of Western monasticism. One of his most famous dictums was ora et labora: “pray and work.” His Rule served as the standard community rule for monasteries in the West for hundreds of years.
Consistent with his dictum, the Rule of St. Benedict contains some wonderful passages about the value of work in addition to other pious practices. For example, Benedict writes,
Idleness is inimical to the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be occupied, at
fixed seasons, with manual work and again at fixed seasons with spiritual reading….
Knowing the spiritual dangers of idleness (such as boredom, depression, and gossip), Benedict prescribed regular daily work for the monks of any monastery that followed his rule. However, he did not absolutize the value of work, recommending time for rest and “spiritual reading.”
Furthermore, he offered consolation for those who labor in poverty:
And let them not be distressed if poverty or the needs of the place should require that they busy themselves about gathering in the crops with their own hands; for then are they truly monks, when they live by the work of their own hands, as did our fathers and the apostles.
Yet, he tempered even this by adding: “Let everything be done in moderation however on account of the faint-hearted.”
Indeed, we can see in St. Benedict’s Rule an excellent expression of the basic Christian view of the merits of work as well as its limitation for the sake of the worker:
To weak and delicate brethren let there be assigned such suitable occupation and duties that they be neither overcome of idleness nor so oppressed by exhaustion through work that they be driven to flight [from the monastery].
Due to the current economic condition of our country, many have had to settle for less than ideal work in order to make ends meet. St. Benedict provides a wonderful reminder about the honor inherent in all honest work, especially when enlivened with prayer.
I for one have worked at plenty of restaurants and factories and cleaned my fair share of toilets. Looking back, the best jobs (until I got my job here, of course) were not necessarily those at which I was the most comfortable but those in which I embraced St. Benedict’s dictum and united my labor with prayer. On this, his feast day, I hope others too, through him, can find satisfaction even in less-than-ideal jobs, embracing the vocation of prayer even if their desired vocation of work remains out of grasp.
All quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict are taken from The Rule of St. Benedict, translated into English. A Pax Book, preface by W.K. Lowther Clarke (London: S.P.C.K., 1931), which can be found online here.