Posts tagged with: philosophy

Over the last several years I find myself more and more being drawn into conversation about religion—specifically, Orthodox Christianity—and economics. Originally, my interest in the economic side of the conversation was minimal. Embarrassing though it is to say now, I only took one economics class in college and while I got a “B” I was an indifferent student of the subject.

Thanks to personal friendships I’ve discovered the work of economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Fredrich A. Hayek—two dominant voices in the Austrian School of Economics. Even here though my interests were, initially at least, not so much in policy as methodology; unlike the quantitative and empirical approach I studied in college, the Austrian school conceives of economics more along the lines of the qualitative approach at the center of human science movement. This qualitative approach to economics has resulted in some interesting, and to my mind extraordinarily helpful and insightful, research into religion by scholars such as Laurence Iannaccone and Rodney Stark.

Among other things, the economic study of religion helps us understand why pluralism is good for religion in general but to the disadvantage of some religions in particular. Ironically, the free market in religion harms those liberal religious communities who value cultural pluralism and economic liberalism (in the contemporary American sense) but are suspicious, and even overtly hostile, to economic capitalism. On the other hand, those religious traditions that resist cultural pluralism and contemporary liberalism—but who often, though not universally—favor a free market approach to economics are the main benefactors of the free for all that characterizes the American religious landscape (see for example, Iannaccone, 1994).

Through this, circuitous route, I have lately come to an interest in economic public policy. Unfortunately such an interest is usually greeted with something less than enthusiasm—at least when (as in my case) you are an Orthodox priest. At the risk of making a gross generalization, clergy are typically as ignorant of economics and business as economists and business people are of moral theology and the ascetical tradition of the Church. Since I’m trading in stereotypes already, I would say that discussions between theologians and economists break down quickly since—intentionally or not—theologians assume economists are wicked even as economists assume that theologians are ignorant. Representatives of the two disciplines rarely understand each other because they rarely have even a basic grasp of the other academic discipline and the kinds of questions and concerns that its scholars seek to address.

This is why three small books published by the American Enterprise Institute are so welcome. The books (P. Wehner & A. C. Brooks, Wealth & Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism; A. J. Pollock, Boom & Bust: Financial Cycles and Human Prosperity; S. F. Hayward, Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World) are part of AEI’s Common Sense Concepts series. They’re all short—each took just an afternoon to read—introductions to basic ideas in economics. What is especially important is that they do this in a way that takes seriously Christian moral concerns. Meant primarily for college students and written from a broadly Evangelical Christian perspective, singularly and together they offer a good ethical and practical defense of democratic capitalism.

That said though a defense of the American model of democracy and of the free market, these works do not allow either politics or economics to drive the conversation. Rather both are examined soberly in light of “merely Christianity.” I think the authors would all acknowledge, as Wehner and Brooks do explicitly in their book, that “capitalism, like American democracy itself, is hardly perfect or sufficient by itself” (p. 8). Both require “strong, vital, non-economic and non-political institutions—including the family, churches and other places of worship, civic associations, and schools—to complement,” sustain and (when needed) reform them.

But this symphonia is impossible without “an educated citizenry.” Such an education must be more than technical—essential though a sound technical foundation is. To fulfill the vision sketched out in these three books assumes that we possess personally what Peter Kreeft (1992) might call the “soft” virtues “such as sympathy, altruism, compassion” as well as the “hard” virtues of “self-discipline, perseverance, and honesty.” Like technological skill, personal virtue alone is insufficient. We need not only healthy, robust and vibrant families and churches, but also a political culture that supports and abides “by laws, contracts, and election results (regardless of their outcome). Without these virtues, capitalism [and democracy] can be eaten from within by venality and used for pernicious ends.”

Why are personal virtue and the rule of law essential? Because:

…capitalism, like democracy, is part of an intricate social web. Capitalism both depends on it and contributes mightily to it. Morality and capitalism, like morality and democracy, are intimately connected and mutually complimentary. They reinforce one another; they need one another; and they are terribly diminished without one another. They are links in a golden chain (p. 9).

As both an Orthodox Christian and a social scientist, seeing democratic capitalism in this way helps me understand how the ascetical and liturgical tradition of the Church can make a contribution to American civil society.

Especially for St Maximos the Confessor and St Gregory Palamas, the ascetical struggle does not extinguish desire (i.e., self-interest) as much as does purify it. As St Augustine argues, prayer, fasting and almsgiving teach me to order rightly the different elements of my life in light of the Gospel; asceticism points me beyond myself to Christ, helps me to love Christ, and in Christ to love my neighbor. Just as asceticism purifies my desires, the Church’s liturgical tradition provides me with a sense of the larger, eschatological context within which I live my life. Apart from such an eschatological experience, I will invariably and necessarily succumb to the temptation to take and make ultimate “the cares of this life” rather than to lay them aside as we hear in the Cherubic Hymn.

If Wehner and Brooks are correct, capitalism and democracy are “part of an intricate social web.” Understanding this social network requires not only personal virtue and just laws, but the eschatological vision that we receive in the sacraments and which we constantly accept and embody in the ascetical life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Work Cited:

Iannaccone, L. R. (1994). “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.” American Journal of Sociology, 99(5), pp. 1180-1211.

Kreeft, P (1992). Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

It has long been customary to distinguish characteristically Protestant and Roman Catholic approaches to ethics by understanding Protestants to embrace a dynamic divine-command approach and Roman Catholics to pursue stable natural-law methods.

James Gustafson, for instance, writes that the strength of Roman Catholic moral thought is “an ordered pattern of moral thinking, based upon rather clear philosophical and theological principles with positive moral substance.” On the Protestant side, we find “a theology and an ethics that has a looseness and an openness which is responsive to modernity as the context in which the Christian community has to find fresh and relevant ways to counsel and to act.”

In an incisive piece at Christianity Today earlier this week, Matthew Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy highlights why evangelicals tend to be skeptical of natural-law arguments, “Why Natural Law Arguments Make Evangelicals Uncomfortable.” But Anderson does this in a way that avoids identifying Protestant ethical thought as univocally opposed to natural-law thinking.

Anderson writes,

As heirs of the Reformation, most evangelical ethicists have argued that the brokenness of human reason makes it insufficient to successfully persuade people in public on the basis of universally accepted moral norms.

Anderson goes on to note Carl Henry’s opposition to natural law, but also observes that Protestant reticence about the approach does not always result in wholesale rejection of the doctrine of natural law.

Anderson refers to Stephen Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics as leading the charge in an array of recent attempts to more fully and responsibly understand the role of natural-law thinking in Protestant traditions. Anderson also notes David VanDrunen’s latest work, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought.

VanDrunen in fact points indirectly to the central role that the Acton Institute has played in fomenting this kind of corrective work. He writes, “2006 alone saw the publication of three books by Reformed authors designed to retrieve their tradition’s natural law and/or two kingdoms doctrines.” On the former front, he points to Grabill’s work and his own monograph, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, each of which are connected directly to the Acton Institute. VanDrunen rightly observes that the fact that “such books would appear within a few months of each other is rather remarkable.” VanDrunen also makes use of primary source works that have appeared in the institute’s Journal of Markets & Morality, including pieces by Johannes Althusius and Jerome Zanchi.

The upshot is that Protestantism has had its own variety of characteristic approaches to natural law, and these are not reducible to the stereotypical divine command occasionalism or neo-Thomistic rationalism. A quote from Al Moehler represents these middle paths perfectly: “As an evangelical, we have every reason to use natural law arguments; we just don’t believe that in the end they’re going to be enough.”

Anderson’s piece has sparked some broader conversation, particularly at the First Things site. This includes posts from Joe Knippenberg and Greg Forster. Forster concludes, “Natural law is not the whole picture – but a recovery of our four-century natural law tradition (call it something else if the phrase “natural law” bothers you) has to be part of it.”

Also noteworthy is a recent conference on natural law and evangelical political thought. Although I wasn’t able to attend, given the variety of speakers I would hope that the real diversity of natural-law approaches from various traditions was well-represented.

As I noted in the context of the Witherspoon Center’s recent project, the characteristically and uniquely Protestant views of natural law have not always been properly appreciated. Thus far in the most recent rounds of conversation, the particularly Protestant emphasis on the voluntarism of the anthropological problem, that even though we know what is good we willingly choose not to do it, when sinners “suppress the truth by their wickedness,” warrants greater emphasis.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
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Following up on my post from earlier this week, “Gritty Entrepreneurship,” fellow PowerBlogger Ken Larson pointed me to a previous issue of InCharacter, the now defunct online publication focused on “everyday virtues.”

The Spring 2009 issue is devoted to “Grit,” defined by Joseph Epstein as “the overcoming of serious obstacles through determined effort.” Sam Schulman says, “Grit is the business of the task of civilization — delaying gratification, defending something bigger than your own family, building a community rather than a household or a campfire.”

Picking up on the false dichotomy between innovation and perseverance, the following is listed as one of the top 10 gritty moments: “December 1879: After more than 10,000 failed experiments, Thomas Edison gives a demonstration of his new incandescent bulb.”

Check out the issue for more on the virtue of “grit.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
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From Abraham Kuyper’s opening address to the First Social Congress in Amsterdam, November 9, 1891, The Problem of Poverty:

The first article of any social program that will bring salvation, therefore, must remain: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” This article is today being erased. Men refuse any longer to recognize God in statecraft. This is not because they do not find the poetry of religion charming, but because whoever says I believe in God thereby acknowledges God’s ordering of nature and an ordinance of God above human conscience–a higher will to which we as creatures must submit ourselves.

Kuyper said this at the close of the nineteenth century, and in the intervening decades the question of the place of the Christian faith in public life has become even more pressing.

This year’s Novak Award winner Hunter Baker has written an important volume on the place of religion in civil discourse, The End of Secularism. He also participated with Jonathan Malesic on a controversy appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality on the question, “Is Some Form of Secularism the Best Foundation for Christian Engagement in Public Life?” (PowerBlog readers can get complimentary access to the controversy in PDF form here.) Baker and Malesic were also kind enough to follow up on their exchange in the journal with a Radio Free Acton podcast, “Concealing Christian Identity.”

This year also marks the 120th anniversary of the First Social Congress, held in Amsterdam from November 9-12, 1891. In that same issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, we have the pleasure of publishing a translation of a paper composed by Herman Bavinck at that congress, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today.” This translation also includes an extensive introduction from John Bolt, who writes of the “overlooked” tradition of European social congresses as “organized movements for social reform, often including a variety of groups and interests, and acting in varying degrees of concert over an extended period of time.”

Continuing our recap of last year’s Acton Lecture Series in anticipation of Thursday’s opening lecture of the 2011 ALS (which you can register for right here), we’re pleased to present the video from February and March of 2010.

On February 18, 2010, Acton’s Director of Media Michael Miller Delivered a lecture entitled “Does Capitalism Destroy Culture?” His lecture discussed the positive and negative impact of capitalism in society today. Miller pointed out that it’s not just Christians that are worried about culture and that it is just not a right or left issue. Many are also worried about rampant consumerism and the perceived danger of technology. Miller also addressed the Southern Agrarians and their conservative critique of industrialization. Video is below:

A month later on March 18, we welcomed Rudy Carrasco to our podium to deliver a lecture entitled “Do the Poor Need Capitalism?” A 2009 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research says that the number of people in the world living on less than $1 per day fell from 403 million in 1970 to 152 million in 2006. An analysis from the American Enterprise Institute says the biggest factor was the rise of the middle class in China and India, at a time when the world’s population grew by 3 billion. Carrasco discussed whether capitalism is a greater asset than liability in the fight against poverty, and whether capitalism must be moderated by virtue and morality before a Christian can embrace it. Again, the video is below:

On Thursday, Acton kicks off the 2011 Acton Lecture Series with an address by Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico entitled “Christian Poverty in an Age of Prosperity.” (If you haven’t done so already, you can register to attend the lecture at this link.) To set the stage for the 2011 series, I’ll be posting video of last year’s lecture series on the Powerblog all week long.

In January of last year, we welcomed Dr. John Pinheiro to the podium to discuss “Virtue and Liberty in the American Founding.” In his lecture, Dr. Pinheiro – associate professor of history and director of Catholic Studies at Aquinas College here in Grand Rapids, Michigan – examined the American Founders’ understanding of liberty as rooted in a classical and Christian understanding of virtue. His talk touched on the reasons why George Washington argued that public happiness could be attained without private morality and why John Adams wrote that, “[I]t is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”

Radio Free Acton hits the web once again today, this time featuring an exchange between Hunter Baker, author of The End of Secularism, and Jonathan Malesic, author of Secret Faith in the Public Square: An Argument for the Concealment of Christian Identity. Their conversation continues an exchange begun in the Controversy section of the latest issue of Acton’s Journal of Markets & Morality. Should Christians be overt about their faith when operating in the public square, or should Christian identity remain concealed in order to protect the faith from being drained of any real meaning? Baker and Malesic provide some thought-provoking perspectives on this vital question. [Ed. note: As an exclusive for PowerBlog readers, you can read the Malesic/Baker controversy in the Journal of Markets & Morality here.]

Additionally, we’re pleased to bring you an interview with Rev. John Armstrong recorded after his December 1st Acton On Tap event on Ecumenism and Ideology, in which we discuss what authentic ecumenism really is, as opposed to ideology.

To listen, use the audio player below:

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A popular citation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s justly-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is his reference to natural law and Thomas Aquinas:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

The Witherspoon Institute has announced today its project, “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism,” which “will serve as an online resource center for students, teachers, and educated citizens to learn about the intellectual traditions of natural law and natural rights, particularly within American political and constitutional history.”

The current list of essays by contributors is expansive and impressive, and includes an essay by Acton’s own director of research Sam Gregg, “Natural Law and the Law of Nations.” Be sure to check out this resource from the Witherspoon Institute. I’m eager to see how the site develops and grows. I’m also interested in seeing who will write the currently missing essay (or set of essays) on the Reformation and natural law (including modern Protestantism and natural law). Sigmund’s essay currently covers the period, but much more needs to be said.

Currently the “Early Modern Liberal Roots of Natural Law” primary source section includes Locke, Hobbes, and Montesquieu. This is of course an important stream of natural-law thinking in the early modern era, but hardly the only one and certainly not the only one with later influence.

Additionally, to be of more scholarly use, I think the primary source collection should point toward digitally-accessible forms. I talk about this in the context of theology and economics in an editorial in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Printed Source and Digital Resource in Economics and Theology” (PDF), and point especially towards the example of the Post-Reformation Digital Library (see, for instance, the pages on Locke and Hobbes).

Last night a band of hearty travelers braved the first snow of the season here in Grand Rapids (and the attendant slick and dangerous roads) to hear Dr. John H. Armstrong speak at the November/December Acton on Tap, “Ecumenism and the Threat of Ideology.” Dr. Armstrong is founder of ACT 3 and adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton College.

Armstrong spent some time discussing the thesis of his book, Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church. A recurring theme was the phrase coined by Timothy George, “ecumenism in the trenches,” which is sometimes how we describe what we do here at Acton. The basic point of Armstrong’s book is that Christians must be able to come together to work in concrete ways in order to be an effective and faithful witness to Jesus Christ in the culture and the world.

As Peter writes, we are to “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12 NIV). Undoubtedly this call to live “good lives” means showing love to other people, “especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10 NIV).

Armstrong also discussed the threat that ideology poses to unity in Christ. He defines ideology as “visionary theorizing, or to a systematic body of concepts, especially regarding human culture or life. I have in mind not only a body of systematic concepts but particularly the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program of some type.” This understanding of ideology coheres perfectly with the critique of liberationist ideology in the ecumenical movement in my book, Ecumenical Babel.

The night concluded with a salient quote from Russell Kirk about the dangers of ideology. Kirk writes,

We live in an era when the passions of ideology and the passions of religion become joined in certain zealots. Thus we hear intemperate talk, in many communions and denominations, of Christian revolution. Most of the men and women who use such language undoubtedly mean a bloodless, if abrupt, transformation of social institutions. Yet some of them nowadays, as in past times, would not scruple at a fair amount of bloodletting in their sacred cause. Whether bloodless or bloody, an upheaval justified by the immanentizing of Christian symbols of salvation defies the Beatitudes and devours its children. Soon the Christian ideologues (an insane conjunction) find themselves saddled and ridden by some “great bad man,” a Cromwell at best.

As Armstrong notes, Kirk’s comment about Cromwell displays his ardent Catholicism, but it also stands as a prophetic warning about the dangers of ideology and utopian thinking.

Later on in his essay, “Promises and Perils of Christian Politics,” published in the 1980s, Kirk points explicitly to the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches for places (among many others) where this “insane conjunction” is displayed.

Dr. Armstrong blogs here and you can follow him on Twitter here.

In today’s Acton Commentary I explore “The Legalism of Political Christianity.”

This quote from Ernest Lefever (not included in the piece but which does appear in my book) represents the basic position well:

It is dangerous for any Christian body to identify itself fully with any specific political cause or order, whether the prevailing one or a challenge to it. In identifying with a secular power or agency, the church runs the risk of losing its critical distance and of subverting its prophetic function, its capacity to judge all movements and systems by universal Christian standards.

For more reading of related interest, see the review survey at The Gospel Coalition of three recent books on politics from evangelical publishers.