On Thursday, June 16th, it was a great pleasure to welcome William B. Allen – Emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy and Emeritus Dean of James Madison College at Michigan State University – as a plenary speaker at Acton University 2016, to deliver an address entitled “A Moral Surprise: The Common Foundation of Christianity and Modern Politics.” Allen used his address to argue that true political freedom requires freedom of conscience as its foundation – a freedom of conscience that cannot itself be the product of political freedom, but is rather a divinely ordained gift. You can view his presentation below; Allen has also graciously provided the text of his presentation as well, which you can download here. And after the jump, I’ve included the video of Allen’s 2014 Acton Lecture Series presentation, which he references during his speech.
A new Pew Research survey finds that the majority of American Catholics (73 percent) say they rely “a great deal” on their own conscience when facing difficult moral problems. Conscience was turned to more often than the three other sources — Catholic Church’s teachings (21 percent), the Bible (15 percent) or the pope (11 percent) — combined.
While it never really went away, conscience is making a comeback among Christians.
Over the past few years, the term conscience has been increasingly referenced in debates occurring both in our churches (e.g., appeals to conscience on moral issues) and the public square (e.g., defending the right of conscience). This is a welcome resurgence, since formation and promotion of Christian conscience is particular important to our primary mission at Acton of articulating a “vision of society that is both free and virtuous, the end of which is human flourishing.
We hear a lot about conscience, but what exactly does it mean? The general concept of conscience can be found in almost every human culture, but it has a unique and distinctive meaning for Christians. The Greek term for conscience (suneidesis) occurs more than two dozen times in the Bible, and serves an important concept, particularly in the Pauline epistles. If we examine the way Scripture talks about conscience we uncover five general themes:
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…)
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.”
Subscribe to the journal today to get access to the latest two issues, including Klay and Steen’s article as soon as it comes out.
And see the related piece by Todd Steen and me, “Hope and the Hunger Games,” over at First Things.
Each Independence Day, I make a point of re-reading President Calvin Coolidge’s speech given on the 150th anniversary Declaration of Independence. I’d encourage you to do the same.
Coolidge has a deep understanding of American history, and after contemplating what led the founders to write what they wrote, and what inclined Americans to follow their lead, he ultimately concludes that it was their spiritual inclinations, and the moral and spiritual orientation of the American people, that played the most important role:
Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. Before we can understand [the founders’] conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meeting-house. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.
Although Christians have exhibited an unfortunate tendency to oversimplify and overamplify the various impacts of particular religious beliefs on the American founding, Coolidge’s point is a bit more basic and overarching. (more…)
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…)