More on the 1000 Random Acts of Culture project.
A new Detroit News column by Acton Institute President and co-founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico:
Tea party must define ideas
By Father Robert Sirico
If the recent analysis by the New York Times on the success of the tea party movement is correct, the influence of this movement favoring limited government and low levels of taxation may have a decided impact in the upcoming elections, particularly in holding the Republican leadership’s feet to the fire on a variety of related issues.
The influence and more especially the authenticity of the tea party movement also is being debated in religious circles where some writers have expressed a skepticism as to how the evident religious sentiments expressed by many (but not all) tea party activists can be compatible with the undeniable Christian obligation to tend to the needs of “the least of these my brethren.”
Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, said in critique of the tea party approach, “Much as we might like otherwise, the Catholic argument is that government and citizen are equally expected to be our brother’s keeper.”
One of the leaders of the evangelical left, Jim Wallis, renders what I think is a wholly inaccurate image of tea party folks when he says, “When government regulation is the enemy, the market is set free to pursue its own self-interest without regard for public safety, the common good, and the protection of the environment — which Christians regard as God’s creation. Libertarians seem to believe in the myth of the sinless market and that the self-interest of business owners or corporations will serve the interests of society; and if they don’t, it’s not government’s role to correct it.”
From my conversations with numerous supporters of the tea party movement from around the country, these comments fail to grasp the essential point of what this movement is about, and why religious people are attracted to it.
I have no doubt there are people on the fringes of the tea party movement who hate government. Most of these, however, I would suggest hate government the way most of us “hate” the dentist — that is, we are not in favor of abolishing dentistry; we just want to make sure it hurts as little as possible and does not do permanent damage.
It is not that tea party folk believe in “the myth of the sinless market.”
It is that they, and most believers, indeed most Americans, believe that politicians and bureaucrats are not immaculately conceived and require limits to their interventions.
And so we come to what may be the real deficiency of this popular movement — it has yet to define a set of clear principles that permit it to consistently outline its view of society and the proper role of the state.
Such a set of principles exists within both the Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant traditions and are known respectively as subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty. Each term in different yet complementary ways states that needs are best met at the most local level of their existence and that higher orders of social organization (that is, mediating institutions and the public sector) may only temporarily intervene into lower spheres of social organization in moments of great crisis. This intervention by higher authorities should happen to assist, not replace, local relationships.
In his monumental encyclical “The Hundredth Year” Pope John Paul II outlined the principle of subsidiarity and demonstrated an understanding of the reaction that can occur in the social sphere when the limits of the state are not clearly maintained. Although written almost a decade ago, his cautions and observations could have been penned today:
By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care.
Inspired by Art Prize, I wrote a blog about culture, technology, and the universal desire for community. This appeared on Ethika Politika‘s blog today and an excerpt can be found below:
Last week as I was wandering through Grand Rapids’ Art Prize (the world’s largest art competition), I came across the very simple interactive piece that is pictured below. Confess is a large board where people can anonymously write their confessions. Everything from the dark, to deeply personal, to lighthearted, to witty is posted on this public wall for anyone to peruse.
As I watched people write their messages for strangers to read, my first reaction was: “This is dumb and not even art. Why would anyone write something so personal in public for anyone to see?!” However, as I stood observing many people come and go, furtively writing their secrets and lingering over those of others, I was struck by the universal desire for interpersonal connection and communication.
People are communal beings. We desire to know and be known by others, to be understood and to understand… Read More
If you couldn’t make it to Derby Station in East Grand Rapids last night, there are a couple of things you should know. First of all, you missed a great event and some good conversation. Secondly, you need not worry: we recorded it, and you can listen to David Michael Phelps’ presentation on Art, Patrimony, and Cultural Investment via the audio player below.
The bad news is that I was planning to post a little video clip for your enjoyment, but for some reason beyond my ability to understand after too much time spent struggling with computers and such, it’s not working. Which is a bummer, considering that it was a video of Dave inciting the audience to sing a bluegrass tune. The best I can do for you at this point is a quick little screengrab with the promise that I’m going to troubleshoot this thing into submission at the earliest possible opportunity.
Regardless, the audio is below; enjoy, and make plans to join us at Derby Station next time!
The conversations over the last few weeks here on work have raised a couple of questions.
In the context of criticisms on the perspectives on work articulated by Lester DeKoster and defended by me, commenter John E. asks, “…what is it that you hope readers will change in their lives, and why?”
I want to change people’s view of their work. I want them to see how it has value not simply as a means to some other end, but in itself. I want to change how they view their relationship to their work.
To echo DeKoster and Berghoef again, many of us simply view work as “a drudge, a bore, a fearful trial.” It may well be that. There is work that is better and work that is worse (to anticipate one of Schumacher’s points below). But we should also know that “the harder it is for you to face each working day, the more your will to persevere schools the soul.”
I want to add a bit of mystery back to the concept of work as well as a bit of spirituality. Again, DeKoster and Berghoef:
The results of one’s work can never be fully known. What will become of the produce raised, of the machine built, of the person fed? No one can foretell what will be the final consequence of today’s effort. Nor does the pay check really measure the value, nor the effort, of the work for which it is given. Wages are set by the market, and the results of work are hidden in the mists of tomorrow. What endures is what happens to the worker who bravely makes it through the day.
Grace Marie Boggs notes the importance of the essay, in which Schumacher writes,
The modern economist has been brought up to consider ‘labour’ or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a ‘disutility’; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice.
By contrast, the view of work in Buddhist economics is that it gives man “a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.”
On this point, at least, there is some correspondence between the Christian and the Buddhist view of work as school for the soul. Joshua Snyder relates how Schumacher said of the essay, “I might have called it ‘Christian Economics’ but then no one would have read it.” The views of DeKoster and Berghoef on the one hand and Schumacher on the other are not identical. But what they share is, in Schumacher’s language, a criticism of “a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.”
In a related vein, David Michael Phelps wonders whether the perspective he articulates between work and art “is something that Reformed theology could/would/does support).”
The answers are affirmative, I believe: Yes, yes, and yes. Beyond the perspective on the schooling of the soul as written by DeKoster and Berghoef, the seventeenth-century theologian and pastor Richard Baxter has valuable things to say about the relationship between work and temporal goods and spiritual and eternal goods. But these are just a small sampling of the rich Reformed resources that can and ought to be brought to bear on these topics.
Phelps will be discussing “Art, Patronage, and Cultural Investment,” at tonight’s Acton on Tap, and he moderated our RFA podcasts on “The Stewardship of Art” (you can listen to part 1 and part 2 respectively).
You can also preorder Lester DeKoster’s little book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective today at the Acton BookShoppe.
There have been some engaging challenges to the view presented of work and its relationship to culture and civilization over the past few weeks (here, here, and here). I hope to post a more substantive response to some of the comments in the next few days. But in the meantime, let me pass along a helpful item that outlines the view of Pope John Paul II on the relationship between “culture” and “cultivation.”
Here’s a taste of the post, “Leisure and Art: A Start,” from David Michael Phelps:
It is also worth noting how closely JPII’s descriptions of the artist parallels his description of workers/entrepreneurs/etc. in other writings. [NOTE: here and here in particular] They follow from the same understanding that man transforms the world (and in doing so, himself) as he gets his hands dirty with the stuff of the world, enacts his creative will upon it, whether it be for a utilitarian end (work) or some gratuitous end (art).
Gratuitous work does not require leisure. In point of fact, as I think every artist worth his salt would agree, making art is rather laborious. Leisure doesn’t enter the picture until one lights a pipe, pours a beer, and sits back to admire the work.
As an aside, David Michael Phelps is the moderator of the latest installment of the RFA podcast, “The Stewardship of Art.” He’ll also be hosting the next Acton on Tap event the night before ArtPrize opens here in Grand Rapids, “Art, Patronage, and Cultural Investment.” You can check out details at the event’s Facebook page.
September in Grand Rapids means the return of ArtPrize, which bills itself as a “radically open” art competition, juried by the general public, and awarding the largest cash prize for an art competition in the world – $250,000 for first place.
As the competition takes place in the hometown of the Acton Institute – in fact, many artists exhibited their work in our building last year, and will do so again this year – it’s hard for us to miss it. And frankly, the questions that have been raised about the impact of such a non-professional, wide-open art contest with such a large prize at stake on the art world (for example, does ArtPrize foster real art, or are artists simply pandering to the public to have a shot at the prize) are too intriguing to pass up.
This edition of Radio Free Acton tackles the question of how Christians should steward the arts. The participants, Professors Nathan Jacobs and Calvin Seerveld, previously debated this topic in the Controversy section of our Journal of Markets & Morality (Volume 12, Number 2 – you can read the first part of their debate at this link), and we thought it would be interesting to bring them together for a live exchange as well. Special thanks are due to David Michael Phelps, who agreed to sit in as the moderator of the program.
The first thing I’d like to point out about Lester DeKoster’s claims regarding work is that he has in mind, at least partially, the classical Greek philosophical distinction between the active and contemplative life, particularly its disdain of manual labor. You can get a hint of this from the video short, “How did Plato and Aristotle Justify Slavery?” Some people are simply born to work with their hands and be governed by those who are wiser and able to think, take responsibility for society, and so on.
It’s with this distinction in mind that DeKoster and Berghoef write,
The forms of work are countless, but the typical one is work with the hands. The Bible has reference to the sower, to the making of tents and of things out of clay, to tilling the fields and tending the vine. Hand work makes visible the plan in the mind, just as the deed makes visible the love in the heart. While the classic Greek mind tended to scorn work with the hands, the Bible suggests that something about it structures the soul.
In his book Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, as some comments have noted, DeKoster explicitly takes on Pieper’s thesis that leisure is the basis of culture. DeKoster writes,
The writer who speaks of Leisure, the Basis of Culture (Josef Pieper) is confused, even though he can quote some ancient Greek thinkers in his support. Work is the basis of culture. Leisure cultivated as a way of life produces no harvests but only dilettantes—drones that absorb culture without sacrificing for it, merely thieves of others’ sweat.
The disdain of manual labor, literal manufacturing, and the celebration of leisure, contemplation, rest, are in this way correlated.
We get a sense of why this is so in DeKoster’s distinction between work and play. He defines work as that which we do for others, but play as “that which is done to please or serve the self.” Thus he observes,
Play may absorb much effort, long planning, and lots of time. But so long as the end in view is the satisfaction of the self, such effort cannot be called work. This is true whatever the form of play, whatever its esteem in the community as compared with work. What the self heaps up in time for its own use does not carry over into eternity, and burdens the soul which is thus occupied.
Play may be indulged as recreation, that is as preparation for doing work better when the worker has been so refreshed.
This is, in many ways, a more helpful distinction than Pieper’s juxtaposition of work and leisure. For after all, work in DeKoster’s sense is really much more than what we do for a paycheck. It includes all of the things we do primarily for others. Service in its various forms is work, including that work done by mothers and fathers for their children inside the home.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s views on work and culture complement DeKoster’s in that his social ethical structure makes no basic distinction between work and culture [Bildung]. Each term is used essentially synonymously to cover the estate of our interrelations along with the church, family and marriage, and government [Obrigkeit].
We’ve pointed to play as one of the concepts that limits work. But some of the discussion has also pointed to a kind of sacred/secular distinction, that between worship and work. And here the traditional pairing of prayer and work comes to the fore.
In his Life Together, Bonhoeffer has a helpful way of putting how prayer and work are distinct and yet relate intimately. He says,
The unity of prayer and work, the unity of the day, is found because finding the You of God behind the It of the day’s work is what Paul means by his admonition to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17). The prayer of the Christian reaches, therefore, beyond the time allocated to it and extends into the midst of the work. It surrounds the whole day, and in so doing, it does not hinder the work; it promotes work, affirms work, gives work great significance and joyfulness. Thus every word, every deed, every piece of work of the Christian becomes a prayer, not in the unreal sense of being constantly distracted from the task that must be done, but in a real breakthrough from the hard It to the gracious You.
Prayer is not conflated with work in this account, but rather provides work with its limits, its boundaries, and orients it towards its ultimate end in God.
For more on Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of work as an order of divine grace in the context of global Lutheranism, see “Lutheran World Federation Misses the Mark on Work and Wealth.”
And for the rest of this week you can pre-order the new paperback edition of Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective at a special Labor Day discount. Just add the book to your cart to see the discounted price, or download it to your Kindle reader right now.
Leading up to next week’s Labor Day holiday we’ve been reflecting on the nature of work the last few days. Today I’d like to conclude this little series with a note on the relationship between work and civilization, with specific reference to work in the context of Western civilization.
Yesterday I passed along the perspective on work as a formative influence on the soul of the worker: “…the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity.”
But as DeKoster and Berghoef also note, “God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.” What they mean is that God has providentially arranged that the work of each individual in a society, when properly oriented toward the service of others, to create a civilization, in which the needs of others are met by the work of their neighbors, whether proximate or at a greater remove.
In his little book Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, DeKoster puts these pieces together. The two definitions fit well. Work is “the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” And civilization is “sharing in the work of others” and “good and services to hand when we need them.”
As he writes, “It is a circle we will finally see close: our working puts us in the service of others; and the civilization which work creates puts us in the service of ourselves. Thus work restores the broken family of mankind.”
You can pre-order Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective in hardcopy today from the Acton BookShoppe or download it to your Kindle reader and read it right away. There’s a special Labor Day discount for the pre-order (add the book to your cart to see the discounted price).
And for the broad account of the relationship between the Christian faith, including the theological perspective on work, and the development of Western civilization, see the Acton Media production The Birth of Freedom. You can view the trailer below:
You can also visit The Birth of Freedom website to get more information on the related small-group curriculum, as well as complementary video shorts, which address questions related to work and civilization, like “Why didn’t China have an industrial revolution before the West?” and “If medieval Europe was so great, why were so many medievals poor?”
One of this week’s contributions to Acton Commentary, in honor of the upcoming American Labor Day holiday is titled, “Work and the Two Great Love Commandments.”
In this piece I focus on how we can view work as a means to express our love for our neighbor and for God. I say a bit about what work does for us as individuals as well.
There’s a great deal that could be said on this very important topic. Work is a huge area of our lives. Lester DeKoster, whom I refer to in the commentary, goes so far as to call work the “basic form of stewardship.” (You can find out more about DeKoster’s view of work in his little book of the same name, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective.)
He writes, along with Gerard Berghoef,
While the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity…. This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.
Tomorrow I’ll have more to say about work and civilization.