Posts tagged with: Ethika Politika

Today at Ethika Politika, I caution against the sort of scapegoating that justifies ideologies at the expense of human effort:

Do you support capitalism? Socialism? Distributism? Something else? Wonderful. What does that look like among the mess of market forms that actually constitute the economy you participate in every day? Rather than criticizing those policies that fall short of your saintly ideal or align too closely with your Hitler, what ones constitute a first step in the right direction for you? And why? And what are the actual consequences, intended or otherwise, that may come about?

While there is a place for simply outlining one’s ideal, if we wish to actually do some good ourselves, we need to get our hands dirty in the mire of material reality. Gnostic scorn for the concrete and this-worldly boasts a broad road with a wide gate, but it is the narrow road of reality that leads to life; not only for ourselves, but for the common good; not just for this world, but for the kingdom of God.

In his recent book Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action), Jordan Ballor begins with a similar call: (more…)

Today at Ethika Politika, I take issue with Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” a term inspired by the last paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue.

The basic idea is that, due to the Enlightenment, we have lost the social conditions — in particular a shared moral and religious narrative — that make virtuous living an intelligible and shared social standard. Thus, MacIntyre claimed, “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” He concludes, “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

Dreher has done much to popularize this “Benedict Option,” which he defines as “an intentional and thoughtful retreat into narrativity, by which I mean a reclaiming of the church’s story, inculcating commitment to it within the lives of its members, in defiance of the narrative collapse around us.”

There is at least one major problem with this, however. I respond,

Yet as Owen Chadwick noted, it was not until the early ninth century, and that due to strong papal support, that the Rule of St. Benedict became the standard rule in the Frankish Empire. Until that time, the dominant rules were often Celtic, especially the Rule of St. Columbanus, as well as a strong influence from St. John Cassian, St. Basil the Great, and the fathers of the Egyptian desert.

And the Celts, importantly, were not retreating from the world but rather from Ireland in feats of what they termed “green martyrdom,” missionary exile as ascetic discipline. If Thomas Cahill is even half-right, the Irish played just as much a part in saving civilization as the Benedictines, if not far more so. Far from a retreat, their approach was quite confrontational (as was St. Benedict’s, as Goerke points out).

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Thankfully, we need not wait for a “new and very different” Irish people as the Irish are still with us. Indeed, the equal respect accorded to Roman Catholics in the United States today is the result (in large part, at least) of a hard-won, confrontational battle of Irish immigrants to carve out an equal place in American society for their children and their cultural and religious heritage (see, e.g. Dagger John). Perhaps traditional Christians looking to preserve a moral culture today have more to learn from them.

It might have been better had I written “see, especially, Dagger John,” since his story is one of remarkable social action and spiritual reform, defending the cause of religious liberty and equal rights for Irish Roman Catholic immigrants in the 19th century and emphasizing the vital role of personal responsibility. (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
Friday, December 13, 2013
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Today at Ethika Politika, I look at the busyness of the Advent season through the lens of Orthodox Christian asceticism in my essay, “Busyness and Askesis: An Advent Reflection.”

The Advent season in the United States is typically ransacked by shopping, parties, visits with family, and the like. Perhaps worst of all, it can seem impossible to avoid the bombardment of holiday and Christmas-themed advertisement. People work overtime in order to earn a little extra to buy gifts for friends and family (and themselves). The ethos of the season can seem to be emite et labora, buy and work. Nevertheless, I would hesitate to affirm the understandably natural, knee-jerk condemnation of busyness as such.

Drawing upon the story of “difficult Father Nathaniel” from the recent Russian bestseller, Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon, I describe how, though busyness can be a spiritual distraction, “sometimes busyness itself can be askesis.”

I write,

Busyness can be the adversary of Advent, but it need not be. Instead, the Advent season can be a time for us to examine and practice how our busyness itself can be transfigured by the life of the Church, how our worldly work also may be liturgical labor, how when transfigured by the kingdom of God our busyness can also serve the common good.

The story of difficult Father Nathaniel, however, is worth visiting in further detail here as well. Hand in hand with complaints about the busyness of the season come complaints about the business of the season. (more…)

Creation Heart ManToday at Ethika Politika, Alfred Kentigern Siewers reviews Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism, Acton’s recent Orthodox Christian social thought monograph by Fr. Michael Butler and Prof. Andrew Morriss. Siewers offers a nuanced and critical review, being well-read in the literature himself, and ultimately welcomes the monograph as a missing voice in the broader conversation of Orthodox Christianity and creation care.

Siewers writes,

[I]n its introductory opening chapter, the authors clearly set forth their objection to what they see as a “deep left bias” in the increasingly growing library of literature on Orthodox Christian approaches to nature. Specifically, they bemoan the following: what they see as a lack of policy prescriptions drawn directly from Orthodox tradition; “the subordination of the Tradition to preexisting political or environmental agenda”; a tendency of such writings to be overly critical of Western society; and impractical policy recommendations. In this it criticizes some of the environmental statements of Patriarch Bartholomew, as well as of the post-communist Russian Orthodox Synod, but runs the risk of falling into its own critique.

Its emphases and discussion tend toward a particular kind of American conservative perspective, with an emphasis on free markets, rather than a more paleo-conservative concern about modernity along neo-agrarian lines, or the American Enterprise Institute’s Roger Scruton’s Green Philosophy with its “Red Tory” approach. More esoteric but creative approaches—such as geo-libertarianism and anarcho-monarchism—also aren’t considered, although the monograph does in a needed way open discussion further on alternatives to statist approaches and details how the latter work against the kind of spiritual transfiguration required in Orthodox cosmic theology.

Indeed, in the end the work is Orthodox and not libertarian, excellent in its rich outline of both patristic writings and a variety of contemporary scholars as well as the writings and lives of holy saints and elders (across a spectrum of approaches and views). For example, the authors do also positively address ideas of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Russian Synod, in a tradition that relies not on papal leadership but on conciliarity.

Read more . . .

WIPFSTOCK_TemplateToday at Ethika Politika, John Medendorp, former editor of Calvin Seminary’s Stromata, reviews Jordan Ballor’s Get Your Hands Dirty for my channel Via Vitae. He writes,

Although Ballor’s book is very accessible, the reading is by no means “light.” I would call it “engaging heavy reading.” While the concepts are clear and the analogies riveting, Ballor has a way of putting so much into a sentence that it can take some time to work through his ideas. I found myself time and time again putting the book down for a few minutes to digest a thought, or re-reading a paragraph to make sure I followed the contours of his thought. There is a lot here, and it is thought provoking. Whether one agrees with all of Ballor’s ideas or not, he offers clarifying insights into many aspects of Christian social thought and action. Even where I disagreed with Ballor, I found his writing helpful for articulating my own positions.

A few basic assumptions underlie Ballor’s work, assumptions that would not surprise anyone familiar with Christian tradition. Central to Ballor’s thesis is the fact that human beings are created in the imago dei, the image of God. Like God, we are naturally oriented to love. Like God, we are naturally creative and industrious. Like God, we are naturally inclined to give of ourselves for the sake of others. Of course, because of the fall of humanity into sin, these naturally inclinations and orientations have been corrupted and twisted by evil. Nevertheless, there remains a natural order of things, inherent in creation and revealed in Scripture, towards which we as responsible human persons ought to strive: love for our neighbor, care for creation, industry, community, procreation, responsible use of resources (in all senses), and mutual recognition and respect of one another’s humanity.

One particularly poignant theme that Ballor strikes home again and again in the book is the nature of human beings as social persons in community, and the corresponding responsibility that we have to that community, which always was, but increasingly (and obviously) is global.

Read more . . . .

St. Basil the Great

Today at Ethika Politika, I examine a few rules of prudent stewardship that follow from the teachings of the Cappadocian fathers on poverty, almsgiving, and fasting. One of the great challenges in this area today is how best to live out in our present context the statement of St. Basil the Great that “the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.”

In particular, I highlight these three guidelines to help guide prudent practices:

[W]e must be wary of simplistic, one-sided policy proposals when life itself is, in reality, far more varied and complex.

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It is not enough to have the right principles or the best intentions; we must also take the time to wade through the mess of conflicting studies and statistics, as well as the lessons of history, to discern what truly “works” — what makes compassion both effective and dignifying rather than mere moralizing sentiment, ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

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The standard for determining what is “overabundance,” especially given a context where we enjoy great wealth but also face a high cost of living, is the conscience … and our sensitivity to it often depends upon our degree of spiritual formation.

The whole article can be found here.

Also, for a fuller treatment of the principles upon which these guidelines rely, be sure to read Fr. Philip LeMasters’ article “The Cappadocian Fathers on Almsgiving and Fasting” here.

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…)

Blog author: dpahman
Wednesday, July 3, 2013
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Today at Ethika Politika, I offer an Independence Day reflection on the relation between political liberty, the associations of civil society, and the ascetic spirit necessary to maintain them:

Yet if these associations and their societal benefit are in decline, how can we prevent that “soft despotism” Tocqueville so vividly and presciently described? He writes,

I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.

While Tocqueville goes on to describe the “immense and tutelary power [i.e. the state] that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate,” it is worth noting that the atomization of society he describes is firstly a deterioration of culture by a common passion for “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The society he imagines, though it may know nothing of extreme want, also knows nothing of fasting and, by consequence, of true freedom in the sense described by Acton. It reflects the heart of a people that actually wants a government to “remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living.” And as Burke has said, external restraints of the state must multiply when inner restraints of the soul diminish. To the extent that we are on our way to Tocqueville’s dystopian democracy and civil society in the United States is in decline … we can assume, at least, an accompanying decline in the way of life that values self-restraint and virtue over “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The basic conviction is one I have expressed here before. Asceticism, understood as the self-limitation of oneself for the sake of self-discipline and virtue, is essential to self-government and therefore to a free society. In this article in particular, however, I focus especially on the possibility of a link between ascetic living and the rich associational life that Alexis de Tocqueville noted was so important a check upon the power of the state and the passions of a democratic people.

Read the full article, “Self-Limitation, Liberty, and Civil Society,” here.

Today at Ethika Politika, I critique David Bentley Hart’s recent (non-)response to the critics of his attack on natural law in public discourse last month, appearing in the most recent issue of First Things. My article, “Hart’s (Non-)Response to His Critics: Trying to Have It Both Ways?” is a response to Hart’s recent article, “Si Fueris Romae.”

While Hart’s most recent article may seem unrelated, it starts to sound remarkably similar to his article on natural law from last month about half way through. It is this convergence between the two that I examine and critique.

Ultimately, Hart seems to be trying to “have it both ways” when it comes to natural law. I find this to be particularly evident from his conclusion, in which he criticizes US policy toward China, writing,

Decade upon decade, we hear of the arrest, imprisonment, torture, and murder of China’s religious minorities (house-church Christians, Tibetan Buddhist monks, and so on), of the cruel measures taken to enforce the nation’s one-child policy, and of countless other chronic atrocities, but our response consists in little more than a sporadic susurrus of disapproval, just loud enough to flatter ourselves that we have principles but not so loud as to allow those principles to interfere with fiscal or trade policy. We try to shame the ruling party with pious panegyrics on “human rights,” as though the concept had any appreciable weight outside the cultural context that makes it intelligible, but we buy and borrow from the party, and profit from its policies, without hesitation or embarrassment. I think the government of the PRC might be pardoned for concluding that our actions, and not our words, indicate where our true values lie.

While at Ethika Politika I critique his reliance upon the concept of natural rights even while claiming that only our “cultural context … makes it intelligible,” there is another point to consider here. Putting aside the inconsistency of his principles, would his recommendation — more restricted “fiscal or trade policy” — really have the effect that he hopes? (more…)

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…)