This week I’m attending Mises University, one of the largest and most rigorous summer courses in the Austrian School of economics (or “reality economics,” as my friend Michael McKay likes to call it).
Among the various lectures, there was one in particular that struck me as particularly relevant to the work of the Acton Institute. Peter Klein, professor of economics at the University of Missouri, delivered a presentation on entrepreneurship, a large part of the focus of his academic work.
Dr. Klein approaches the subject of entrepreneurship from the more realistic Austrian perspective. Rather than viewing people as examples of the homo economicus, as almost robotic, quantitatively-driven machines, Dr. Klein views human beings as unique and free actors. When we act, we do so under conditions of time and uncertainty. Though every human action presupposes cause and effect, there is no guarantee that our instincts are correct or that our efforts will pay off. In this way, every one of us, whenever we choose some action, is a kind of entrepreneur. In the face of uncertainty, we have an intended – but not guaranteed – result of action.
Combine that with the Austrians’ very realist take on production: production is not some kind of abstract graphical function, but the concrete act of taking a natural resource (e.g. some wood, a stone, some metal ore), and using one’s labor – almost investing a part of oneself – to physically transform it.
In a very broad sense, we all participate in this two-sided entrepreneurial action: actively and consciously transforming the world around us, and doing so in the face of uncertainty and imperfect knowledge.
In a much more specific sense, this activity applies to the people we would usually call entrepreneurs (Ludwig von Mises called them, “entrepreneur-promoters”). These are the businessmen we all know: the small-business owner, the investment banker, the risk-taker. These are individuals whose entrepreneurial spirit in a special way exceeds those of everyone around them. They are the ones willing to take on greater risk, confront greater uncertainty, and make more difficult decisions.
In any case, I find that this realistic description of the role of entrepreneurship fits extremely well with the theology in The Call of the Entrepreneur. In the film, we learn that the entrepreneur is a “co-creator”: He participates in the act of transforming raw materials and natural resources into products for consumers; but the entrepreneur does so by investing time and energy into the production process. And creativity and imagination play an indispensable role in this process of co-creation.
I remember a kind of feeling of awe when this thought dawned on me during Dr. Klein’s lecture. Here we find yet another example of how the market process, when understood and employed correctly, is not simply a morally indifferent result of choice, but a morally positive thing. Society and its consumers are made better off, and both the laborer and the entrepreneur are reminded of their human dignity as they participate in God’s work of fashioning the world.
Bill Easterly has a brief reflection on the role of religion in global societies, a role that must be taken into account by development ‘experts.’ Speaking of his experience at an Anglican worship service in Ghana:
I think it’s something about how to understand people’s behavior, you need to understand how they see themselves. A good guess is that the people in the congregation this morning, in one of the poorest regions of Ghana, do NOT see themselves primarily as “poor” or “developing”, they see themselves as Christians. Another guess is that similar feelings about religious faith would apply to other Ghanaians in other religious services, like Muslims, Catholics, traditional religions, etc.)
Development efforts must take into account broader cultural, non-material concerns, and religion plays an enormous constitutive role in the formation of cultural worldviews. More important than how those in developed nations see those in the developing world is how those in the developing world see themselves. And as Easterly notes, most often they see themselves primarily as “Christian” or “Muslim” rather than “rich” or “poor.”
This week’s commentary by Rev. Gregory Jensen. Sign up for Acton News & Commentary here.
Finding the Balance: Privacy and the Civil Society
Privacy in our culture has come to serve not a deepening of community life but an ever deeper sense of social isolation. Even otherwise laudable behavior is increasingly justified not by the goodness of what is done but by the modern sense of privacy. Even among those who ought to know better, the Gospel is presented in terms that are almost wholly personal without any sense of its public character and demands. Our sense of isolation from each other has become so profound that even to suggest that there is a human nature and that true happiness is only possible when we live in conformity to our nature, is seen a provocation and an assault on the radical autonomy of the individual.
Paradoxically, when privacy is in the service of isolation it is also the source of what Peggy Noonan (The Eyes Have It) describes as our increasingly "exhibitionist culture." She writes that more and more we "know things about each other (or think we do) that we should not know, have no right to know, and have a right, actually, not to know.” While technology has a role to play here, Noonan sees the cause as rooted in the loss of what I would call the right sense of personal privacy. Lose this, Noonan says, and "we lose some of our humanity; we lose things that are particular to us, that make us separate and distinctive as souls, as, actually, children of God." And with this loss comes as well the loss of a truly civil society. "We also lose trust, not only in each other but in our institutions, which we come to fear. “
Not that the modern sense of privacy is all bad. Without privacy, without a door I can close (and the trust that you will respect that closed door) I cannot from time to time withdraw into solitude. Rightly understood, privacy is the functional expression of solitude.
Solitude as a discipline of the spiritual life is both the antithesis and the cure for culture’s wild and destructive vacillations between isolation and exhibition. Privacy serves, or rather should serve, those moments in my life when — like Jesus — I withdraw from the ebb and flow of daily life "to a quiet place" to pray (see Luke 9:10). It is in these moments of recollection that I am able to restore myself and to re-evaluate and, if need be, correct how I go about meeting the myriad personal and professional demands of life. And so just as privacy serves solitude, solitude in turn serves my wholesome involvement in the broader society.
What critics, and even defenders, of the free market and democracy often forget is that both institutions are rooted in the solitude that privacy defends. Neither social isolation — which sees my neighbor as a threat to my dignity — nor exhibitionism — which in the final analysis is merely another form of lust –is a sound anthropological foundation for a free market economy, democracy, or a civil society. So where ought we then to look?
Rodney Stark (The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success) is correct when he argues that Western culture owes much of its success to Christianity in general and monastic life in particular. Monasticism is a life of disciplined solitude in the service of community; it is also part of the shared cultural and spiritual patrimony of the Christian West and East. As such it represents not only our best cultural self, it also can serve as a meeting place for Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians as we work to respond to an increasingly secular and fragmented culture at home and the threats of Islamism worldwide.
Though we need not ourselves be monks or nuns (though I think we do well to promote and encourage monastic life within our respective Christian communities), this should not stop us from seeing in monastic life a rich source of anthropological wisdom with which to respond to our culture’s deformed, and deforming, view of the relationship between the person and society. Most importantly, among these is an inconvenient truth that even Christians are likely to overlook.
Important as they are, economic activity, scientific research and even public policy shaped by the Gospel are insufficient. True human freedom — personal and political — is a divine gift and so always outside our control. Though he was not a monk, the Romanian Orthodox theologian, Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993), gives voice to a central monastic insight for our time. In his monograph, “Prayer and Holiness,” he writes that, "The man who does not pray remains a slave, enclosed in the complex mechanisms of the natural world and of the movements of his own passions by which he is dominated even more than by the world outside." Individualism and exhibitionism, to say nothing of the brutishness and violence that are common in all areas of contemporary culture, are the symptoms of our servitude.
In response to this self-imposed slavery and for the sake of a truly humane and civil society, we must cultivate in ourselves a right sense of privacy and so of solitude and community life. Monasticism is a tangible sign that such a life of solitude and of civic engagement is possible. It reminds us as well that we must place our great material and cultural wealth and technological prowess at the service of something greater than our own comfort or economic success.
His Eminence George Cardinal Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, who delivered the keynote address at Acton’s 2004 annual dinner (full text here), has recently produced two notable commentaries: the first on global warming, the second on the Christian foundations of modern Western Civilization.
By + Cardinal George Pell
Archbishop of Sydney
18 July 2010
Humanly induced climate change was once “the greatest moral challenge of our age”. No longer. The hullaballoo is much less.
A politician referred my February article on global warming to the Bureau of Meteorology for comment. In a roundabout way they conceded the truth of most of my factual statements, but ducked the issue of Roman warming and claimed that “all available hemispheric to global scale analyses” suggest recent decades have been warmer than in the Middle Ages. This is misleading.
Professor Ian Plimer, in Heaven and Earth: Global Warming the Missing Science (Connorcourt, 2009) cites the scientific evidence from pollen studies, drill cores and lake sediments to show that temperatures were 2 to 6°C warmer around the world in the period from 250BC to 450AD (the Roman Warming). Records from the time report citrus trees and grapes being grown in England as far north as Hadrian’s Wall, and olive groves on the Rhine. It was wetter and warmer, but sea levels were also lower. Areas which are now either forests (because it is cooler) or deserts (because it is drier – for example, the Roman provinces of North Africa) were growing crops.
Professor Plimer also cites scientific evidence from the Middle Ages. Tree rings, boreholes, sediment cores from oceans and flood plains, pollen studies, peat bogs, ice cores, fossils and carbon chemistry show that temperatures were warmer throughout the world during 900-1300AD than they are now, by 1-2.5°C in different places. The amount of land used for agriculture increased. In Greenland, cattle and sheep were run and crops like barley were grown. Grapevines were grown in Newfoundland, and vineyards in Germany were grown 220 metres higher than the maximum altitude today. Roots and stumps in the Polar Urals suggesting the tree line there was 30 metres higher in 1000AD. The North Atlantic was free of ice, allowing the Vikings to travel to North America.
Warmer temperatures and higher rainfall during the Medieval Warming enabled societies and economic life to flourish. In Europe it saw the growth of cities, the establishment of universities, and a boom in cathedral building. China’s population doubled in the course of a century and records from China and Japan also indicate that they experienced warmer temperatures. The Medieval Warming also brought higher levels of water in lakes and rivers.
There was no industry in Roman or Medieval times.
Why were the temperatures higher? What were the causes then and now?
Next are remarks delivered at a recent program of the Institute of Public Affairs, a prominent Australian think tank. Here, Cardinal Pell reminds us that the heritage of Western Civilization comes from its uniquely Christian character:
The Heritage of Western Civilization
Remarks at the launch of the Institute of Public Affairs’
Foundations of Western Civilisation Program
Stonington Mansion, Melbourne
By + Cardinal George Pell
Archbishop of Sydney
It is a privilege to speak at the launch of the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilisation Program tonight, and I propose to begin my few words on “The Heritage of Western Civilization” by speaking about China. This is not because I believe that China must achieve economic supremacy (twenty years ago we were ascribing that honour to Japan) but because China is a radically different culture, nourished for two thousand years by the teachings of Buddha and Confucius before the destructive barbarism of Mao and the Red Guards; a nation which is now searching for the secrets of Western vitality and for a code or codes to provide decency and social cohesion that is compatible with economic development.
Let me give two examples, admittedly only two straws in an vast cyclone. (more…)
In Somewhere More Holy, Tony Woodlief offers a serious account about tragedy, God, family, and grace. He also spins a great spiritual yarn which can move you from laughing to tears in mere moments. One of the strengths of this book is that it is not another bland self help book that promises “Your Best Life Now.” I’ve always wondered anyways about Christians who do not even realize their best life is in Glory. This is a very honest confessional book that really contrasts itself with the prosperity gospel and the kind of superficial Christianity that eschews a theology of suffering.
Soon after Woodlief and his wife’s conversion to Christianity, their three year old daughter Caroline is diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was soon dead. The author offers a lot of emotional devastating details of the heartbreak of losing their first child along with the tragic details of physically watching their little girl waste away. “God never promised everything will work out okay in your lifetime, and that each trouble you face will yield a blessing out of all proportion to the pain,” says Woodlief. The story goes on. Woodlief talks about how he drifted apart from his wife and family and was even unfaithful. His home was breaking apart and he was too angry with God and his circumstances to care. He plotted to leave his wife. But he came to a realization that he really had nowhere to go and everything he cared about was right at home.
He seems to profoundly recognize that his wife extended immense grace in his situation and he is now happy he has a front door to enter. He praises his wife for not giving him over to destruction. He offers an exceptional thought from a Greek Orthodox Priest named Aimilianos of Simonopetra, who says “It is an adulteration of marriage for us to think that it is a road to happiness, as if it were a denial of the cross.” And while the priest and the Church understand the joy of marriage and its level of suffering, much of our society sadly views marriage as a means of self-fulfillment and an arrangement rather than a sacrament.
Woodlief has four boys now and he takes us on a spiritual journey through the rooms in his house explaining how the grace of God abounds. He weaves together devotional thoughts about the power of the incarnation within the stories of his family. He understands that through the incarnation we do not just receive a glimpse of God, but can better understand ourselves. It was Martin Luther who said the angels are envious of humanity, “They worship Christ, who has become our Brother, our flesh and blood.” Woodlief says of helping his young sons clean themselves in the bathroom:
Dad, does this look clean?. . . Cleanliness is next to godliness, I think to myself in these moments of degradation. And if God can see me in these moments, perhaps he will forgive all the times I supposed I was better than anyone else.
The author offers some beautiful thoughts on a theology of death too. Towards the closing he admits, from the experience of losing a child, “If you love anything, you must live with the reality that you may one day lose it.”
This is an impressive account because it does not pretend to have easy answers for life’s tragedies, heartbreak, and shame. It only offers up the ancient truths of grace, incarnation, resurrection, and divine love. It is a deep contrast with the spiritual glibness that many in today’s culture and churches encounter. It is confessional and authentic and I think by allowing himself to be vulnerable readers will easily relate to his story.
The book reminds me a little of Treasure in an Oatmeal Box which I read long ago when I was younger. Both books see the beauty in children and understand they offer a lot of spiritual insight. Both authors are excellent at telling a story and capturing the greater purpose and value of life. They also both deal with heartbreak, tragedy, and perseverance. I am sure fathers and mothers of children will receive a lot of insight and will have a lot to ponder with this account. But this book is really for anybody who has felt heartbroken, betrayed, or separated from God. The beauty of the cross of course is just how much triumph and victory can come out of the deepest depths of evil, and how the world is transformed because of it. American slave culture and the Appalachian people always possessed a strong theology of death and resurrection because of the immense trials and suffering that surrounded those communities. I always like to listen to Appalachian bluegrass and gospel music because it doesn’t pretend to soften the blows and pain of human suffering but deals with it head on. And it always struggles to deal with pain and tragedy with the redeemer in mind. Woodlief says of his daughter Caroline, and of that day when he will wake to sleep no more:
I believe in a God who loves even the likes of me, and so I believe I will wake once more after my body betrays me, to the sound of singing. I am sure the songs of angels must be beautiful, but it will be the warbling of a little girl that my ear searches out. It has been so long since I have heard her voice. It has been so long, but I needn’t wait forever. Spring is coming, a spring with unfolding colors, enduring warmth, life that doesn’t mourn its own passing.
My commentary this week touches on the spiritual and cultural significance of the largest U.S. oil spill in history. I was a resident of the Mississippi Gulf Coast for 11 and a half years. I worked in the Gulfport district office of U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss) before leaving for seminary. I was a Katrina evacuee and returned to see unbelievable decimation. It reminded me of the pictures of Hiroshima in textbooks after the dropping of the nuclear bomb. I always think it is fascinating when I hear people observe the Gulf Coast on the news after a tragedy and say how the people should just move. I wonder where they would go when the water is such an integral part of their subsistence and heritage? The people on the Gulf have much more culturally in common with individuals on the Gulf in neighboring states than they do with those living inland in their own state. Louisiana, especially, has one one of the most uniquely diverse cultures in this country. A key theme in my piece is that BP can compensate them economically, but there is an important cultural and spiritual aspect to their labor that is above financial compensation. The text of my piece is also printed below:
Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill
by Ray Nothstine
Many Americans are proud of where they come from; this is no less true of the people of the Gulf Coast. Human interest stories have gripped viewers and readers following the news about the BP oil spill, which often highlights the locals’ pride in their roots. Sal Sunseri, the owner of P&J Oysters in New Orleans says it well: “The history and culture of the seafood industry in Louisiana is part of the fabric of who we are. The world should not take this lightly.”
Sunseri brings to life an important point about the spiritual and cultural aspect of work that is especially rich on the Gulf Coast. Work in a free economy is an expression of our creativity, virtue, and response to a calling. Christian authors Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster note that “God so arranges work that it develops the soul.”
BP is airing a commercial in which it vows to compensate fishermen and others for the loss of income until the cleanup is completed. This is a good start. But it also serves as a reminder that earnings are secondary to fishermen whose very labor is the preservation of heritage. It is not uncommon to hear fishing crews speaking Cajun French off the coast and in the bayous and marshes of Louisiana. Cajun French, an endangered language, was at one time banned in Louisiana schools. The spill is another threat to communities and a way of life for generations of a proud and sometimes marginalized people.
Vietnamese shrimpers, too, proudly work these waters, many of them refugees from communist aggression. They flourish at shrimping, a trade that generations of families practiced in Vietnam. The Vietnamese were among the first communities to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina, often not waiting for government aid. The Washington Post, in a story on the Vietnamese community, echoed this fact and explained how the spill was especially tragic as a resilient community was forced to await assistance.
BP would be wise to continue to hire as many local crews as possible for cleaning up this disaster. Locals have an extra incentive to assist in a thorough effort since they are most tied to the water. BP needs to be concerned not only with repairing its brand; the company has a clear moral obligation to follow promises with action.
The oil industry in the Gulf Coast accounts for almost a third of all U.S. oil production. The oil company’s contribution to the nation’s energy supply is invaluable, but they have been fighting public relations battles for years. Seen largely as a benefit to the community before the spill, they are now being battered by doubts from many in the region who repeat a common line: “We have made a deal with the devil.”
But many residents and local leaders understand that the oil industry is essential to Louisiana’s economic well being. The governor and legislators have fought a bipartisan battle to preserve jobs while the federal government seeks a moratorium on offshore deep-water drilling.
Many in Mississippi and Louisiana are also understandably weary of an often unresponsive federal bureaucracy. United States Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss), who represents the seacoast, said of the federal response, “I’m having Katrina flashbacks,” and called the current administration’s efforts “incompetent.” In a particularly harsh quip Florida Senator George Lemieux (R-Fla) added: “It’s not just oil that’s washing ashore Mr. President, it’s failure.” Asked about the biggest frustration with the federal response, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-La) on day 73 of the spill lamented, “There’s just no sense of urgency.”
There is dismay that a nation that once landed men on the moon, liberated nations, and fed and rebuilt its enemies has few answers: the “yes we can” mantra has not materialized for the Gulf. Out of the darkened waters, there is an opening for an oil company to do the right thing and repair trust with an understandably outraged populace.
The men and women of the Gulf Coast who take to the water to practice their trade deserve the opportunity to flourish in the vast wonder of creation. The many Christians among them are keenly aware of the passage from John 21, when the resurrected Christ from afar tells the disciples to cast their net on the right side of the boat and they are rewarded in abundance. The passage is a reminder that Christ has an intimate knowledge of and concern for even the creatures under the sea. It is a source of hope that the cooperation of private enterprise, government, and local ingenuity can bring healing and the rejuvenation of a treasured way of life.
Judith Dean, currently an international economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission, has a worthwhile exploration of the relationship between Christian faith and economic research (HT). It’s up at the InterVarsity site for the Following Christ conference and is titled, “Being a Good Physician: Reflections on Christianity and Economic Research.”
There’s a lot of good, challenging, and insightful stuff here. As always, read it in full. But here’s a bit that’s especially incisive:
Especially for those working in government policy making bodies, there is a role for advocating change where policies are seen as creating results which are intolerable from the Christian standpoint, or where the economic system fails to address problems which a Christian cannot ignore. Large groups of such advocates already exist, quite often centered around specific issues. Though these groups may include economists, they are quite often made up of non-economists who care deeply about a particular problem (e.g. R. Sider, J. Wallis, and T. Campolo, who all have written about poverty issues). Some of these groups zealously advocate particular solutions to what they view as egregious injustices in the economy. Yet, lacking economic understanding, they fail to see that their proposals themselves are sometimes flawed.
Here the Christian economist’s expertise may be called upon to inform these “advocate groups” about the nature of the problem and the implications of different solutions. Many Christians want to be better informed in order to become better advocates. Yet they do no know where to go to get information. Sound economic reasoning which is made accessible to a non-professional audience is sorely needed. It is odd indeed that most contemporary Christian writing on economic issues for the general public is done by theologians or sociologists.
Note here the vigorous sense of Christian advocacy in the public square, and how it is to be informed by solid economic, social, and historical research. Note too that the advocacy described is generally not that which ought to be pursued by the institutional church, but by Christians organizing themselves organically in civil society.
As a theologian often writing on economic and public policy matters, I heartily endorse Dean’s call for more sustained, careful, and intentional engagement of Christian economists on these matters.
Read “Being a Good Physician: Reflections on Christianity and Economic Research” and leave a comment below.
Acton’s The Birth of Freedom comes to six PBS stations this Independence Day weekend, and AEI’s Enterprise blog has a good post about the Christian foundations of American freedom and The Birth of Freedom: “It’s a good place to start if you’re interested in recalling, learning, or helping others to learn about the deep roots of the freedom we celebrate every Fourth of July. Those roots define, in part, what it means to be an American citizen.”
PBS Airings This Weekend
Tampa Bay, WEDU–July 4th, 9:00 p.m.
Carbondale, Illinois, WSIU/WUSI–July 4th, 1:00 p.m.
San Diego, KPBS–July 5th, 12:00 am (also July 7th, 4:00 am and July 11th 3:00 a.m.)
Baton Rouge, Louisiana Public Broadcasting–July 4th, 8:00 a.m. on LPB2
Grand Rapids, Michigan, WGVU–July 5th, 12:30 a.m.
Syracuse, New York, WCNY–July 4, 3:00 p.m.
Here’s the PBS station finder if you want to thank your station for airing it or find out if your station plans to air it later.
In preparing for an Acton University lecture last week on Christianity and Government (you can listen to it here)
I was reflecting on some of the core differences between a Christian vision of government in comparison to modern, secular visions.
While there is no single Christian vision of government and good Christians can disagree on a host of topics, one of the things that sets apart the Christian vision is a robust vision of the good life and integrated human flourishing directed toward certain ends that are fitting to man as a rational and free creature with an everlasting destiny.
The Christian idea of the good life is one of the reasons why for Christians, politics and the state, while necessary and ordained by God, are just not that important in the way they are to many ancients and modern visions.
Many critics say this is because the Church is focused on otherworldly matters. But this is insufficient. While it is true that the main concern of Christianity is eternal salvation, the Church is very concerned with living in this world—but its vision of the good life is found first in relationship with God, and then in the Church, families, and other associations in the place or places in which a person finds himself. This contrasts with certain ancient visions, or those influenced by the thought of Rousseau, which tend to see a plurality of associations as a dividing force and see man becoming integrated in and through the larger “community” of the state, thus making the state and politics central to life.
For Christians the purpose of politics is to create peace and order under which men can live out their freedoms, their responsibilities, and pursue an integrated vision of the good life. Politics is necessary and important, but by no means sufficient, primary, or the end of life–even life here on earth.
This is the vision of medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and the Reformed theologian, Johannes Althusius, who wrote that “politics is the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them.” He called this “symbiotics” and said that “the end of the political symbiotic man is holy, just, comfortable, and happy symbiosis…”
This is why Christians today need to be concerned with the revival of community, private charity, mutual aid societies, strong families, and vibrant churches. But it is also why we must beware of finding community in the state, but I’ll leave that for another post.
For those interested you can find Althusius’ Politica at Liberty Fund, and Acton colleague, Jordan Ballor discusses Althusius’ contribution in his new book Ecumenical Babel just out from Christians Library Press and available at the Acton Book Shop.