In recent years, we’ve seen a renewed focus on the deeper value, meaning, and significance of our daily work, particularly across the realm of evangelicalism. Yet as easy as it may be for some to alter old attitudes and begin appreciating the gift of creative service, it can be extremely difficult for others — and often for good reason.
Indeed, until the last few centuries, the bulk of humanity was confined to activities that, while often fruitful, meaningful, and God-glorifying in their basic aim and end, did not leverage individual “giftings” in ways we would deem “fulfilling” or “dignifying” today.
Our economic situation has surely improved in the years since, with vocational opportunities and overall prosperity continuing to expand and improve in profound and unexpected ways. But many still find themselves in positions or careers that are difficult to endure, from the anxieties of a Wall Street executive to those of an underpaid farm hand.
Each of us is going to encounter our own unique challenges, driven by and toward our own particular calling. Although we ought to try our best to improve the alignment of such service in a fallen world, the persistent need for hard and rough work is bound to remain as long as it remains a fallen world. (more…)
The Obama administration’s HHS mandate has led to significant backlash among religious groups, each claiming that certain provisions violate their religious beliefs and freedom of conscience.
Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling was a victory for such groups, but other disputes are well underway, with many more to come. Even among many of our fellow Christians, we see a concerted effort to chase religious belief out of the public square, confining such matters to Sunday mornings, where they can be kept behind closed doors.
In navigating these tensions, Abraham Kuyper’s Our Program (Ons Program) offers a wealth of perspective, particularly when it comes to how Christians ought to think about their role in the broader society. Recently translated under the title Guidance for Christian Engagement in Government, the book contains an entire chapter in opposition to a “secular state,” including a marvelous bit on freedom of conscience that’s worth excerpting at length.
“There should be freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom of worship,” Kuyper writes, “but above all, the root of all these freedoms: freedom of conscience.”
The conscience marks a boundary that the state may never cross.
The limits to state power reside in the will of God. Government has as much power as God has assigned to it. No more; no less. It sins if it leaves unused a portion of the power assigned to it, but also if it arrogates to itself any power that is not assigned to it.
There is only one power without limits: the power of God, whence it is called almighty power. Anyone who accords the state the right to exercise power as if it had no limits is guilty of “deifying” the state and favoring “state omnipotence.” That is not indulging in “oratorical phraseology” but simply indicating a purely logical concept. [emphasis added, here and in any bolded text hereafter]
Kuyper certainly believes that government has a role to play, noting that “government alone has public power,” granted by God, “whereas all other organizations in and of themselves are of a private nature.” (more…)
In his new book, Knowledge and Power, the imitable George Gilder aims at reframing our economic paradigm, focusing heavily on the tension between the power of the State and the knowledge of entrepreneurs — or, as William Easterly has put it, the planners and the searchers.
“Wealth is essentially knowledge,” Gilder writes, and “the war between the centrifuge of knowledge and the centripetal pull of power remains the prime conflict in all economies.”
Quoting Albert Hirschman, Gilder notes that, “Creativity always comes as a surprise to us,” continuing (in his own words), “if it didn’t, we wouldn’t need it and planning would work….Entrepreneurial creativity is almost defined by its surprisal — by its unexpected character.”
Making room for such surprise requires a dose of Hayekian humility, but as for the shapes, contours, and origins of the surprise itself, Christianity has plenty to say. (more…)
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.”
Two weeks ago I attended a lecture at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) by Jonathan Haidt, author, among many other books and articles, of the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt is a social psychologist whose research focuses on the emotive and anthropological bases of morality. His talk at GVSU for their Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies and Business Ethics Center, focused mostly on the question of the roots of our political divides in the United States and how to move our public discourse in a more civil direction. (more…)
There’s some evidence that the distress associated with poverty, such as worry about where your next meal is coming from, can create a negative feedback loop, leaving the poor with fewer non-material resources to leverage against poverty.
In 2011, a study by Dean Spears of Princeton University associated poverty with reduced self-control. His empirical study attempted “to isolate the direction of causality from poverty to behavior,” resulting one possible explanation “that poverty, by making economic decision-making more difﬁcult, depletes cognitive control.” A working paper from NBER from earlier this year examined “Poverty and Self-Control,” and Bernheim, Ray, and Yeltekin found that “poverty damages the ability to exercise self-control.”
A working explanation runs along these lines: there is a finite amount of mental energy that each person has, and the more of it that is spent on things like worry and concern for acquiring basic needs each day, the less there is available for things like planning, making sound financial decisions within a limited timeframe, and other choices related to economic success over the long-term.
It can be difficult for social sciences, especially those like economics which often rely on models of rational actors, to account for the factors which lead to seemingly irrational behavior. But an anthropology informed by Christian theology, which recognizes the spiritual nature of the human person, including the anxiety that often attends to material insufficiency, goes a long way towards providing a coherent explanation and understanding of the complexities of poverty. The poor often experience a kind of despondency that can be crippling. Worry can create feedback loops which tend to reduce a person’s perspective of what is possible, a kind of poverty trap from which it can be difficult to escape.
Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson capture this dynamic well in their performance of “Worried Man,” from VH1 Storytellers (1998):
In the full recording of the Storytellers album, Johnny tells the genesis of this version of the song. He had encountered a beggar in Falmouth, Jamaica, who said, “Mr. Cash, I’m a worried man. I’m a very worried man.” Johnny thought, “Man, here’s a new approach. I’ve never had this one before.” Johnny asked what was worrying him, and the bum responded, “I got a wife and nine pikni [children] and no job. That makes me a worried man.”
As Robin Klay and Todd Steen explore in their article in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, the Christian virtue of hope is an important antidote to the devastating effects of worry, uncertainty, and depression. In “Christian Hope and God’s Providence in the Context of Economic Change and Development,” Klay writes about her experiences of the “‘stubborn hope’ of poor people, who, having very little, are nevertheless determined to use their labor, knowledge of markets and local resources, and small investments to open up a better future.”
The Obama administration and several courts have effectively said that religious freedom doesn’t apply to money-makers — at least, not when it comes to purchasing abortion-inducing drugs for your employees.
In a recent piece for USA Today, Mark Rienzi, author of a marvelous paper on the relationship between profit-making and religious liberty, argues that drawing the line on “for-profit” vs. “non-profit” is a mistake for anyone who believes “conscience” belongs in business.
Offering a brief summary of the more recent demonstrations of “conscience” among money-makers, Rienzi invites us to imagine a world where values and business are separated:
We regularly encounter businesses making decisions of conscience. Chipotle recently decided not to sponsor a Boy Scout event because the company disagreed with the Scouts’ policy on openly gay scoutmasters. It was “the right thing to do,” Chipotle said.
Starbucks has ethical standards for the coffee beans it buys. Vegan stores refuse to sell animal products because they believe doing so is immoral. Some businesses refuse to invest in sweatshops or pornography companies or polluters.
You can agree or disagree with the decisions of these businesses, but they are manifestly acts of conscience, both for the companies and the people who operate them. Our society is better because people and organizations remain free to have other values while earning a living. Does anyone really want a society filled with organizations that can only focus on profits and are barred from thinking of the greater good?
Yet the persecution we see is quite selective. (more…)
Over at Think Christian today, I lend some broader perspective concerning the link between money and happiness occasioned by a piece on The Atlantic on some research that challenged some of the accepted scholarly wisdom on the subject.
The Bible is our best resource for getting the connection between material and spiritual goods right. I conclude in the TC piece, “As Jesus put it, ‘life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.’” Or to put it another way, we live on bread but not bread alone.
And so money is a good, but not a terminal good. It isn’t an end in itself, but rather is a means to pursuing other good ends. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches us, for example, that we work “faithfully” so that we might “share with those in need.”
Another piece just out today argues that money, when used rightly, can be a means to make us happy. But significantly, the findings of Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton show that such uses of money often correspond to ways not motivated directly by our own pursuit of happiness. Thus, among the “five key principles” they find that helps “turn cash into contentment” is one that resonates directly with the wisdom of the catechism noted above: “Invest in Others.” This means recognizing that “spending money on other people makes us happier than spending it on ourselves.”
The High Calling recently posted a helpful video about creativity in the workplace, drawing insights from innovation consultant Barry Saunders.
Saunders notes that, despite our tendency to think of creativity only in terms of artistic expression, creativity is simply about “building ideas.” Pointing to Genesis, he observes that God gave us a clear directive to “go create things,” offering us a “foundational understanding of what we were meant to do and how we were meant to spend our days.”
But getting creative in the workplace can be tough, as Saunders duly notes. Each of us will face unique struggles in bringing our whole selves to the work we do. When it comes to creativity, it means tapping our imaginations, but more fundamentally, it involves aligning those imaginations to the Word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. Building ideas for our own purposes is one thing, but this next step of obedience and alignment will prove challenging even for the most forward-thinking and out-of-the-box entrepreneurs.
Through this understanding, creativity is ultimately about innovating our way toward better stewardship and sacrifice, submitting our imaginations to the divine and unleashing them toward the service of others. How can we innovate better ways of managing, molding, and growing what God has given us? “All is on loan,” as Lester DeKoster says, so how do we multiply the talents? (more…)
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.
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.” (more…)