Posts tagged with: augustine

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"It's possible. I kill a lot of people."

“It’s possible. I kill a lot of people.”

H.L. Mencken once said, “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.”

Over at Political Theology Today, I take a look at what a confrontation between a pirate and Alexander the Great has to teach us about politics and proximate justice, taking some cues from Augustine and Cicero, and in conversation with John Mueller and Peter Leeson.

For a bit more fanciful look at a conflict between a pirate and a prince, you can also read my reflections on “The Princess Bride” over at the University Bookman.

Accessible IconIn this week’s Acton Commentary, “Disability, Service, and Stewardship,” I write, “Our service of others may or may not be recognized by the marketplace as something valuable or worth paying for. But each one of us has something to offer someone else. All of us have ministries of one kind or another. Our very existence itself must be seen as a blessing from God.”

During a sermon a couple weeks ago at my church, the preacher made an important point about common attitudes toward old people (to listen, click the “Launch Media Player” here and listen to Rev. David Kolls’s message, “Following God Through Transitions” from July 28, 2013). In the same way that we often view those with visible disabilities as passive objects of pity, we often think of those who have reached a certain age as having nothing to offer. This is simply wrong-headed.

We all are important to God. “God don’t make no junk,” as the saying on the T-shirt reads. This isn’t to deny the reality of brokenness and sin. But in the face of these evils, God still affirms and preserves his creation. Life itself is a blessing from God, and mere existence is proof enough that God values people and has purposes for us. Every one.

One of the more famous quotes from the eminently quotable Lord Acton is his dictum, “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Actually, this appears in his writings in a slightly different form, as is seen below.

It is clear from the quote itself that Acton is contrasting two different views of liberty. But from the larger context we can rightly describe these two views as corresponding to Acton’s conception of the Catholic view of liberty in contrast to the modern view. Thus he writes,

There is a wide divergence, an irreconcilable disagreement, between the political notions of the modern world and that which is essentially the system of the Catholic Church. It manifests itself particularly in their contradictory views of liberty, and of the functions of the civil power. The Catholic notion, defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought, denies that general interests can supersede individual rights. It condemns, therefore, the theory of the ancient as well as of the modern state. It is founded on the divine origin and nature of authority. According to the prevailing doctrine, which derives power from the people, and deposits it ultimately in their hands, the state is omnipotent over the individual, whose only remnant of freedom is then the participation in the exercise of supreme power; while the general will is binding on him. Christian liberty is lost where this system prevails: whether in the form of the utmost diffusion of power, as in America, or of the utmost concentration of power, as in France; whether, that is to say, it is exercised by the majority, or by the delegate of the majority, — it is always a delusive freedom, founded on a servitude more or less disguised. (emphasis added)

The source of this quote is an essay on “The Roman Question” from The Rambler (January 1860), in which Acton considers the temporal power of the Roman pontiff in the context of modern revolutions.

One confirmation of the validity of Acton’s contrast, at least as regards the status of his definition of Catholic liberty, what we might identify as a basically Augustinian definition of liberty, is the appearance of this definition in an almost verbatim form in Pope John Paul II’s homily at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1995: “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

SmotherAugustine observes that humans are constituted in large part by their sociality. As he puts it in the City of God, “For there is nothing so social by nature as this race, no matter how discordant it has become through its fault.”

I have written that a corollary of the natural law is a vision of society as one based on mutual aid. This includes economic exchange as well as the economy of gifts and the corresponding gratitude, as I have highlighted this week.

But this orientation towards others can take a negative turn. As I noted yesterday, Augustine describes a corrupted kind of “spiteful benevolence.”

C.S. Lewis explores this as well in his description of the person who must always be giving to the point of fostering dependency, foisting oneself upon others, and even creating the need for intervention if necessary. This “unselfish” giving of oneself to others can turn into the most depraved kind of selfishness.

As Wormwood relates a description of such a person in The Screwtape Letters, “She’s the sort of woman who lives for others–you can always tell the others by their hunted expression.”

This kind of need to be needed is of course a corruption of love. By contrast, the true expression of love is exemplified in no more glorious a fashion than the truly other-directed self-giving of a mother.

This is something to remember and celebrate this Mother’s Day.

"Help me help you."

“Help me help you.”

Yesterday in conjunction with this week’s Acton Commentary I looked at Tim Riggins’ gift of freedom to his brother and the corresponding sense of responsibility that resulted. When Tim takes the rap for Billy, Billy has a responsibility to make something of his life. As Tim puts it, that’s the “deal.”

When Tim feels that Billy hasn’t lived up to his end, it causes conflict. Tim’s gift has created an obligation for the recipient. This reality is on clearest display in this exchange between the two brothers:

Billy: “How long are you going to hold it over my head, man?”

Tim: “The rest of my life if I feel it needs to be.”

This hints at the shadow-side of much of our gift-giving as human beings, as this good thing can be turned into a way of manipulating, controlling, or holding “it over” someone.

Consider these words about Augustine and their implications for the kinds of gift-giving that we ought to pursue:

A person who sorrows for someone who is miserable earns approval for the charity he shows, but if he is genuinely merciful he would far rather there were nothing to sorrow about. If such a thing as spiteful benevolence existed (which is impossible, of course, but supposing it did), a genuinely and sincerely merciful person would wish others to be miserable so that he could show them mercy!

The “spiteful benevolence” that drives much gift giving is actually intended to keep the recipient in a state of dependence, in a relationship that gives power to the giver which can be lorded over others. This, I think, is actually one of the key dynamics of much of the modern international aid movement. Aid can become a tool of a kind of neo-colonial policy.

It is this debased and corrupted form of gift-giving that has led so many to the extreme position which argues that true gifts require no response and inspire no responsibility. But as I argue this week, this abuse of the reality of gift is no argument against its proper use: “The connection between gift and gratitude invigorates a life of stewardship and responsibility.”

Blog author: jballor
Friday, August 17, 2012

Article: “Catholicism, Human Rights and the Public Sphere”
Christopher McCrudden, International Journal of Public Theology

This article suggests that the scope and meaning of human rights, and its relationship to religion, is anything but settled, and that this gives an opportunity to those who support a role for religion in public life to intervene. Such intervention should address four main issues. First, it should ensure that judges engage in attempting to understand religious issues from a cognitively internal viewpoint. Secondly, it should articulat a justification for freedom of religion that fully captures the core of the significance of religious belief, and the importance of the religious principles in the public sphere. Thirdly, it should ensure engagement and dialogue between the churches and others on the meaning of human dignity, given its centrality to religious and secular perspectives on rights. Lastly, the churches should consider more carefully what it means to give ‘public reasons’ in the political and cultural context, and how it can engage in the process of ‘public reasoning’ regarding human rights.

Article: “New Challenges for Catholic-Inspired NGOs in Light of Caritas in Veritate
Jane Adolphe, Catholic Social Science Review

The non-governmental organization (NGO) is perceived not only as a disseminator of information, monitor of human rights, or provider of services, but also as a shaper of national, regional, and international policy. Many members of the lay faithful, working with others from various Christian denominations, have established NGOs to monitor and to promote the rights of the unborn, the natural family, and many other topics of common interest. These NGOs lobby at the national, regional, and international levels. This paper discusses the role of the Catholic-inspired NGO on the international level with reference to the thought of Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate.

Call for Papers: “Governance and Sustainable Development: Building Commerce and Communities”

International Conference on “Governance and Sustainable Development: Building Commerce and Communities,” Coimbatore, India 10th-13th December, 2012. With increasing calls for greater accountability and efficient management of sustainable development, there are also greater demands for more effective governance in this area. The overarching aim of the conference is to provide a forum for stimulating debate and exchange of ideas by exploring the latest developments in the governance of sustainable development from a variety of perspectives including environmental sustainability, social enterprise, corporate governance, legal pluralism, and social investment. The conference will appeal to academics, professionals from both business and non-profit entities, and policy makers.

Call for Editors: Operations Editor and Media Review Section Editor
Journal of Biblical Integration in Business

The Operations Editor would work with the JBIB editor to identify data bases and journal listings that the JBIB should be in, to assist with printing and other logistics, and to help guide the future of the JBIB in the fast-paced academic journal industry.

The Book and Media Editor would work with the editorial staff of the JBIB to manage media reviews for the journal. The Editor should understand the nature of media in the 21st century, be organized, be experienced in the classroom, and be of an inquiring mind.

Syllabus: “State, Society, and Economics”
Michael Moreland, Villanova University School of Law, University of St. Thomas School of Law, Rome Summer Program

The course I taught was a survey of some major themes in the Catholic social tradition, with readings from Augustine, Aquinas, Maritain, and the modern papal encyclicals and conciliar documents. Interested readers can see the syllabus here. Guest speakers Father Robert Dodaro, OSA and Father Stephen Brock brought their great expertise to bear on our discussions of Augustine and Aquinas, and I took the class on a side trip to the magnificent Augustinian mother church in Rome, the Basilica Sant’Agostino, which includes the tomb of St. Monica and a wonderful Caravaggio (Madonna di Loreto).

It is a commonplace in discussions of environmental economics to consider so-called “negative externalities,” a technical term for the bad or damaging consequences of an activity that affects those outside the realm of economic decision-making.

For instance, I can make the choice to plant a tree in my yard on my own (presuming there are no regulatory hurdles to jump). A negative externality for my neighbor might be that my tree dumps a lot of leaves into his or her yard and they need to be cleaned up. Typically this level of external consequence is not given a concrete cost…we simply rake up whatever leaves happen to land in our yard, whether they are from trees we do or do not own (I got to thinking about this lately because I had to rake up a bunch of leaves this weekend. Thankfully I caught a relatively warm day after the rain had mostly dried up and the snow had not yet fallen). But if a branch or limb falls from my tree onto my neighbor’s property and causes damage, there may be a level of liability there that would allow for some sort of claim for economic compensation.

It is also a common part of this discussion for environmental economists to observe that we almost never place any concrete costs on positive externalities. I have no ability to charge my neighbor for the pleasure he or she receives from looking at my beautiful tree. I might be able to restrict this positive externality by building a fence and obstructing the view of my tree, but the beauty of the tree is a natural benefit that cannot be commodified in any usual sense.

Oftentimes these two observations, regarding the costs associated with negative externalities and the inability to commodify many positive externalities, are made with a somewhat grudging attitude. After all, thinks the economist, it seems unfair that a person be liable only for the bad things that happen because of their economic decisions but don’t stand to benefit because of the good things that happen. So from the economist’s perspective, there’s a bit of inconsistency there.

Common sense intuition runs the other way, however. We ought to pay for the harm that our actions cause, but it’s also appropriate that I can’t charge my neighbor for all the good my actions may do for him or her. In brief here’s a theological reason why the typical view is correct and is right to dominate both people’s thinking on these topics in general as well as the shape of public policy: Good is more fundamental and basic than evil.

This is a view typically associated with Augustine of Hippo, and in summary it simply means that evil is a departure from the good. The world order as created was “good,” for God made it and declared it such. Thus, the good of positive externalities is in some sense more basic than the evil of negative externalities. The harm caused by negative externalties is an evil resulting from the fact that things in a fallen world are simply not the way they are supposed to be.

Our conception that positive externalities are more basic than negative harms is an indirect witness to the priority of the good creation over the corruption of sin and evil. We can abuse the blessings of God’s goodness when we take these gifts for granted, too. But our sense that some norm of justice has been violated when there are negative externalities (and that the gracious order of natural blessings is more basic) is a moral intuition that the world was created good and in some radical way has departed from that original state.