I recently wrote about the need to reach beyond an earthbound economics, re-orienting our thinking around a more transcendent framework that requires active spiritual engagement and discernment. Even as Christians, far too often we set our focus too strongly on temporal features like material needs, happiness, and quality of life—all of which come into play accordingly—without first concerning ourselves with what God is actually calling us to do as individuals.
Despite the inevitable flurry of trite sugary clichés and predictable consumerism, Valentine’s Day is as good an opportunity as any to reflect on the nature of human love and consider how we might further it in its truest, purest form across society.
For those of us interested in the study of economics, or, if you prefer, the study of human action, what drives such action—love or otherwise—is the starting point for everything.
For the Christian economist, such questions get a bit more complicated. Although love is clearly at the center, our understanding of human love must be interconnected with and interdependent on the love of God, which persistently yanks our typical economist sensibilities about “prosperity,” “happiness,” and “quality of life,” not to mention our convenient buckets of “self-interest” and “sacrifice,” into transcendent territory.
The marketplace is flooded with worldly spin-offs, as plenty of cockeyed V-Day ditties and run-of-the-mill romantic comedies are quick to demonstrate. At a time when libertine, me-centered approaches appear to be the routine winners in everything from consumerism to self-help to sex, we should be especially careful that our economic thinking doesn’t also get pulled in by the undertow.
In her book Love and Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village, Jennifer Roback Morse cautions us against these tendencies and points us in the right direction, challenging us to reconsider our basic view of human needs and potential.
Morse begins with a critique of homo economicus (economic man), a portrait of man as Supreme Calculator, capable of number-crunching his way to happiness and fulfillment on the basis of cut-and-dry cost/benefit analysis. Such a view ignores the social and spiritual side of man while submitting to a cold, limiting, earthbound order. As Rev. Robert Sirico notes in the last chapter of his recent book, “Any man who was only economic man would be a lost soul. And any civilization that produced only homines economici to fill its markets, courts, legislative bodies, and other institutions would soon enough be a lost civilization.” Read more on Love Is What Holds Society Together…
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough is author of popular biographies such as Truman and John Adams, and at 79 years old, he’s still going strong. When asked by Harvard Business Review whether he is ready to retire, McCullough offered some interesting perspective on how he views his work through the American founders’ understanding of the “pursuit of happiness” (HT):
I can’t wait to get out of bed every morning. To me, it’s the only way to live. When the founders wrote about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they didn’t mean longer vacations and more comfortable hammocks. They meant the pursuit of learning. The love of learning. The pursuit of improvement and excellence. I keep telling students, Find work you love. Don’t concern yourself overly about how much money is involved or whether you’re ever going to be famous. I’m giving a talk at Dartmouth this week. It’s called the Hard Work of Writing. And it is hard work. But in hard work is happiness.
As I’ve examined before, defining happiness can be an elusive task, yet McCullough seems intent on pushing for much more than rainbows and lollipops. Indeed, his understanding of ultimate human fulfillment meshes quite easily with Lester DeKoster’s focus on work as a process for finding “meaning.” Arthur Brooks’ emphasis on “earned success” also comes to mind. Read more on Historian David McCullough on Work and the Pursuit of Happiness…
On Tuesday, the Acton Institute co-sponsored, along with Regent University’s College of Arts & Sciences and School of Divinity, To Fail or To Flourish: Does My Life and Work Really Matter? The purpose of the event was to initiate a conversation on campus on the topic of human flourishing involving students, faculty, staff and administration.
The day started with a session by Dr. Corné Bekker entitled, “Does the Bible Say Anything About Flourishing?” Dr. Bekker leads the Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership Ecclesial Leadership major, teaches in the doctoral programs of the School of Business and Leadership, and is actively involved in research on the use of Biblical hermeneutics and spirituality to explore leadership.
Dr. Bekker examined the question, “What does it mean to be fully alive?” He cited St. Iranaeus’ quote (“the glory of God is man fully alive”) and explained how it is often misquoted and/or misused, oftentimes in the context of flourishing. David Kelsey, in “On Human Flourishing,” says, “Christian theology has a large stake in making it clear that its affirmations about God and God’s ways of relating to human beings underwrite human beings’ flourishing.” Flourishing is not simply being happy or feeling fully alive. Human flourishing must start with Christ Himself. Kevin Cronin in his book Kenosis: Emptying Self and the Path of Christian Service describes three relationships important to flourishing: God and self, others and self, self and self. Dr. Bekker described these three relationships in the remainder of his lecture.
Read more on ‘To Fail or To Flourish: Does My Life and Work Really Matter?’…
Brian Fikkert, a Professor of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College and the Executive Director of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, takes a look at Arthur Brooks’ The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise in this week’s edition of CPJ’s Capital Commentary.
The Preacher says that God “has set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). This is within the broader context of his discussion of the paradox of exploring the wonder of God’s creation and the vanity of human striving in a fallen world.
Last week, in a reflection about American freedom and Christianity, I contended that the shift from emphasis on the pursuit of “property” to the pursuit of “happiness” illustrated the spiritual insight of the American founders. And today, Joe passed along a piece related to the economic climate in America at the end of the eighteenth century, which suggests that as “America had a thriving middle class,” the United States might have been designed especially to institutionalize, protect, and promote the materially-acquisitive ethos of the time.
That, at least, is the suggestion made by Brad Gregory in his book, The Unintended Reformation. In a chapter on “Manufacturing the Goods Life,” Gregory contends that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the broader vision of social life articulated by the founders was uniquely oriented toward merely material prosperity:
The substantive emptiness of the nation’s founding documents was possible not only because Americans were strongly shaped by Christian moral assumptions, but also because so many of them had simultaneously departed in practice from the traditional Christian condemnation of avarice.
A corollary of this is that America is uniquely anti-Christian:
If Christianity is among other things a discipline of selflessness in charitable service to others, then the United States’ legally protected ethos of self-regarding acquisitiveness, culturally reinforced at every turn, would seem to be its antithesis.
You might guess what this means for our evaluation of Europe, however, which ends up looking rather more Christ-like by comparison:
But, ironically, more than is true of federal or state institutions in the church-going United States, secularized Europeans’ welfare states since World War II have more in common with the social concerns and the moral commitments of the Christianity that made the Continent and Britain, because they at least seek to meet the most basic needs of every citizen.
It’s true, admits Gregory, that American freedom includes the ability to be spiritually responsible. But even the value of this is doubtful:
So too, it is obvious that he advent of modern capitalism and market-governed societies has facilitated the potential for human flourishing and the possibility of living meaningful human lives for hundreds of millions of people, which considered as such is also a very good thing. But those who are devoted to their families, demonstrate care for others, make charitable donations, and practice self-restraint do so within a world dominated by wall-to-Walmart capitalism and consumerism, with all that this implies.
What all this has to do with the Reformation is something that has to be explored within the larger argument of the book. I’m currently drafting a review of it, but it has already been reviewed and engaged in a number of significant places, like Books & Culture, the Wall Street Journal, and First Things. At this point I can recommend Gregory’s book if you want to see what the Reformation and global climate change have to do with one another (hint: the main link is the American “ethos of self-regarding acquisitiveness” outlined above).
In light of Joe Carter’s post on the meaning of the pursuit of happiness earlier today, I thought it would be interesting to bring up the important distinctions between pleasure and happiness. Over in the New Republic, economic historian, Deirdre N. McCloskey writes about the philosophical and economic differences: