Posts tagged with: christian theology

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bansky No StoppingOver at the University Bookman today, I review John Lanchester’s novel Capital. I recommend the book.

I don’t explore it in the review, “Capital Vices and Commercial Virtues,” but for those who have been following the antics of Banksy, there is a similar performance artist character in the novel that has significance for the development of the narrative.

As I write in the review, the vice of envy, captured in the foreboding phrase, “We Want What You Have,” animates the book. Capital “provides a richly textured and challenging narrative of the challenges of affluence, the temptations of materialism and envy, and the need for true human community expressed in a variety of social institutions.”

I note the insights of my friend and colleague Victor Claar in the review, and for a more thorough academic engagement of the ethics and economics of envy, check out our co-authored paper recently accepted for publication in Faith & Economics, “Envy in the Market Economy: Sin, Fairness, and Spontaneous (Dis)Order,” as well as my piece slated to appear in Philosophia Reformata, “The Moral Challenges of Economic Equality and Diversity.”

Professor Oliver O'Donovan

In a recent event co-sponsored by Christian’s Library Press, professor Oliver O’Donovan engaged in a robust conversation with Matthew Lee Anderson and Ken Myers on the topic of the Gospel and public engagement. The audio is now available via Mars Hill Audio. Sign-up is required, but is both simple and free.

Anyone who has read O’Donovan is familiar with the weight and depth he brings to such matters. As was to be expected, this is a conversation filled with richness, nuance, and the types of rabbit trails that, to one’s great delight, end up not being rabbit trails after all.

The discussion is worth listening to in full, but O’Donovan’s kick-off discussion of “the secular” is of particular relevance to our discussions about economic, cultural, and political transformation. For O’Donovan, modernity has wielded a peculiar influence on the way Christians view “common life” in the “common world” — one that has led to a problematic approach to what we now think of as “the secular.”

It used to mean something quite different:

Historically, the word secular meant to do with the affairs of this world – i.e., it was the life of creation extended into history as distinct from the intervention into this world and the work in this world of redeeming it and saving it. So every Christian lived a secular life and a spiritual life, in that a Christian is engaged, has tasks, has a life to live within the common terms of a common world, and at the same time an awareness and response to the work of God in saving it. (more…)

Peter Greer has spent his life doing good, from serving refugees in the Congo to leading HOPE International, a Christian-based network of microfinance institutions operating in 16 countries around the world. Yet as Greer argues in his latest book, The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, “service and charity have a dark side.”

The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, Peter Greer

Pointing to a study by Fuller Seminary’s Dr. J. Robert Clinton, Greer notes that “only one out of three biblical leaders maintained a dynamic faith that enabled them to avoid abusing their power or doing something harmful to themselves and others.” From King David’s power trip with Bathsheba and Uriah to Jonah’s end-of-life anger and selfishness, the Bible is filled with examples of self-destruction amid service.

“When I looked to Scripture for guidance, what I found troubled me,” Greer writes. “Men and women who had heard from God—who even performed amazing miracles—were just as likely to blow it as everyone else.”

And alas, in all of our discussions about how to best serve our neighbors, how often do we focus on surface-level externalities to the neglect of the human heart? How often do we narrow down our “metrics for success” to exclude any discussion or contemplation about the motivations driving our actions or the potential for pitfalls along the way? (more…)

St. Ignatius of Antioch was martyred at the jaws of wild beasts in the Roman colosseum sometime around 110 AD.

In her historical study of wealth and poverty in the early Church, Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich, Helen Rhee offers the following interesting historical tidbit with regards to how early Christians were able to minister to their imprisoned brothers and sisters who awaited martyrdom:

Bribing the prison guards, which must have cost a certain amount, features frequently enough in the Christian texts. The impressive visiting privileges and hospitality Ignatius [d. 110] enjoyed at Philadelphia and Smyrna with the local Christians and the delegations from three other churches were likely gained by bribery as well…. It apparently did not raise any moral qualms among Christians; rather, it constituted a necessary part of supporting the prisoners since it enabled the churches to maintain contact with them (and thus to tend to their needs) and allowed the guards to be more favorably disposed to the Christians. Thus the Didascalia (19) … ordered the community members to spare no efforts to procure both nourishment for the condemned Christian prisoner and bribes for the guards so that everything possible might be done for his or her relief.

For those who are curious, the text from the Didascalia, a third century Christian community manual, reads as follows:

You shall not turn away your eyes from a Christian who for the name of God and for His faith and love is condemned to the games, or to the beasts, or to the mines; but of your labour and of the sweat of your face do you send to him for nourishment, and for a payment to the soldiers that guard him, that he may have relief and that care may be taken of him, so that your blessed brother be not utterly afflicted. [italics mine]

While Rhee notes that bribery “apparently did not raise any moral qualms among Christians” in the early Church, no doubt readers today may not so easily approve of the above direction to make provision for bribing guards. How might we better understand this anomaly? What measure of prudence guided this practice? (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Photo Credit: youngdoo via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: youngdoo via Compfight cc

In this week’s commentary, “Made to Trade,” I explore the natural dispositions that human beings have to produce, exchange, consume, and distribute material goods.

If you’ve ever noticed that a sandwich made by someone else tastes better than one you make yourself, you’ll know what I’m getting at: “Recognizing the satisfaction that comes from such a gift of service from another person illustrates an other-directed disposition that is a deep and constitutive part of human nature.”

There is a gracious foundation for giving and receiving, whether in the form of gifts and distributions or in exchange. As Benedict XVI writes in Caritas in Veritate, “Gratuitousness is present in our lives in many different forms, which often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life. The human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension.”

Sometimes I think the ideas of gift and exchange can be too radically distinguished. Benedict describes a gift as something that “by its nature goes beyond merit, its rule is that of superabundance.” The relationship between love and justice, or between charity and merit, is complex and difficult to hold in proper balance. Emphasis of one at the expense of the other leads to errors of antinomianism or legalism.

What is clear, however, is the gracious foundation of all of our economics activities derive from God’s providential ordering. We give, receive, “truck, barter, and exchange,” as a manifestation of the constitutive sociality of our human nature, created in God’s image, male and female.

Alexei Khomiakov, the Russian Slavophile thinker often credited with first articulating the Orthodox principle of sobornost.

Today at Ethika Politika I offer an assessment of the phenomenon of globalization from the perspective of Orthodox Christian anthropology. In particular, I focus on the concept of sobornost in the thought of the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, writing,

Solovyov’s account of the moral progress of humanity through globalization is rooted in the Russian idea of sobornost’, which Christopher Marsh and Daniel P. Payne define as “the idea that human beings retain their freedom while participating in human society, and that human society is a participatory process through which human beings actualize themselves as unique hypostases [i.e. persons].” Accordingly, Solovyov writes that true society does not abolish the individual, but “subordination to society uplifts the individual” and “the independence of the individual lends strength to the social order” — an Orthodox parallel to subsidiarity.

I had raised the question of the similarity between sobornost and subsidiarity a few weeks ago during Fr. Michael Butler’s Acton University talk on “Orthodoxy, Church, and State.” I summarized his insight on the concept at the time, writing,

With the reforms of Tsar Peter the Great, however, the Church was literally made a department of the state [in Russia]. The inspiration for this, notably, was not symphonia but the European Protestant national Church model. While in this context the Russian Church still continued to carry out its functions in society, it had lost a great degree of autonomy. In the midst of this context, the Slavophile thinkers Alexei Khomiakov and Ivan Kireevsky reacted to this statist trend in Russian society by developing the theory of sobornost, inspired in part by the Russian word for “Catholic” in the Nicene Creed and inspired by the Orthodox Church’s conciliar basis of authority.

As they framed it, the idea of sobornost placed the idea of sovereignty in the whole of a people. All human beings are interconnected, and each therefore deserves their own autonomy while, at the same time, [each] has a duty to serve all others…. Ultimately, sobornost at its best would be an Orthodox parallel to subsidiarity in which each level of society, all the way down to the individual, has a role to freely play for the common good and each has a duty to assist others for that end.

The question of similarities and differences between subsidiarity and sobornost has been on my mind for some time. There would seem to be clear parallels between the concepts that were coincidentally developed in their modern forms at nearly the same time, though among different traditions for somewhat different purposes. (more…)

A new generation of evangelicals is beginning to re-think and re-examine the ways they have typically (not) engaged culture, with theological concepts like Abraham Kuyper’s common grace leading many to stretch beyond their more dispensationalist dispositions.

Over at Comment, James K.A. Smith offers some helpful warnings for the movement, noting that amid our “newfound appreciation for justice and shalom,” we should remain wary of getting too carried away with our earthly-mindedness. “By unleashing a new interest and investment in ‘this-worldly’ justice,” Smith argues, “the Reformation also unleashed the possibility that we might forget heaven.”

In strange, often unintended ways, the pursuit of “justice,” shalom, and a “holistic” gospel can have its own secularizing effect. What begins as a Gospel-motivated concern for justice can turn into a naturalized fixation on justice in which God never appears. And when that happens, “justice” becomes something else altogether—an idol, a way to effectively naturalize the gospel, flattening it to a social amelioration project in which the particularity of Jesus as the revelation of God becomes strangely absent…

…As a former fundamentalist, it was heirs of Abraham Kuyper who taught me the biblical vision of a holistic Gospel. But I’ve come to realize that if we don’t attend to the whole Kuyper, so to speak—if we pick and choose just parts of the Kuyperian project—we can end up with an odd sort of monstrosity: what we might call, paradoxically, a “Kuyperian secularism” that naturalizes shalom. (more…)

HermanBavinckBigThe Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck has some wise words for reform of cultural institutions, notably marriage and family, in his exploration of The Christian Family:

All good, enduring reformation begins with ourselves and takes its starting point in one’s own heart and life. If family life is indeed being threatened from all sides today, then there is nothing better for each person to be doing than immediately to begin reforming within one’s own circle and begin to rebuff with the facts themselves the sharp criticisms that are being registered nowadays against marriage and family. Such a reformation immediately has this in its favor, that it would lose no time and would not need to wait for anything. Anyone seeking deliverance from the state must travel the lengthy route of forming a political party, having meetings, referendums, parliamentary debates, and civil legislation, and it is still unknown whether with all that activity he will achieve any success. But reforming from within can be undertaken by each person at every moment, and be advanced without impediment.

We often take the liberty necessary for such reformation for granted. Will the world continue to be open for such reformation? Will there still be circles of Christian influence that will allow us to live out the realities of the gospel everyday?

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…)

Today at Acton University, Fr. Michael Butler gave an engaging lecture on the subject of Orthodoxy and natural law. Despite the contemporary ambivalence among many Orthodox (if not hostility) toward natural law, Fr. Michael argues that it is present in the Eastern Tradition from the ancient to the medieval and modern periods, focusing especially on the thought of the seventh century Byzantine Saint Maximus the Confessor.

A few months ago, I observed,

While it may be that there are important differences between a Thomist understanding of natural law and an Orthodox understanding of natural law, the historic difference is most assuredly not that Thomists accept it while the Orthodox do not.

Fr. Michael’s research further strengthens this statement and helpfully highlighted some of the similarities and differences between natural law in St. Maximus and that in Aquinas. The audio of his lecture will be available on Ancient Faith Radio in the coming weeks, but in the meantime I will briefly share some of Fr. Michael’s insights here. It’s a little heady, but worth consideration. (more…)