Posts tagged with: sin

gluttonyDiana Adams is an attorney in Brooklyn. I imagine there are a lot of those. But Ms. Adams’ work focuses on attaining marriage rights for people like herself: those living in polyamorous living situations. To get a sense of this:

Along with her primary partner Ed, she is currently romantically involved with several other men and women.

An interview with Ms. Adams is currently featured in The Atlantic. She was asked, after stating that we humans have a “hard time with monogamy,” what the consequences of a traditional married lifestyle are.

I think it’s interesting to see the way that when people get into a monogamous couple dynamic, they often have to neuter their sexual desires.

“Neuter” is an interesting choice of words. It’s not the one I’d choose, although I tend to agree with Ms. Adams here: marriage requires holding our appetites in check. This, then, brought to mind a show featured on TLC, “My 600-lb Life.” The show focuses on morbidly obese people struggling to lose weight. Often these folks are bed-ridden, literally trapped in their own flesh. They’ve completely lost control of their appetites. (more…)

Professor Oliver O'Donovan

In a recent event co-sponsored by Christian’s Library Press, professor Oliver O’Donovan engaged in a robust conversation with Matthew Lee Anderson and Ken Myers on the topic of the Gospel and public engagement. The audio is now available via Mars Hill Audio. Sign-up is required, but is both simple and free.

Anyone who has read O’Donovan is familiar with the weight and depth he brings to such matters. As was to be expected, this is a conversation filled with richness, nuance, and the types of rabbit trails that, to one’s great delight, end up not being rabbit trails after all.

The discussion is worth listening to in full, but O’Donovan’s kick-off discussion of “the secular” is of particular relevance to our discussions about economic, cultural, and political transformation. For O’Donovan, modernity has wielded a peculiar influence on the way Christians view “common life” in the “common world” — one that has led to a problematic approach to what we now think of as “the secular.”

It used to mean something quite different:

Historically, the word secular meant to do with the affairs of this world – i.e., it was the life of creation extended into history as distinct from the intervention into this world and the work in this world of redeeming it and saving it. So every Christian lived a secular life and a spiritual life, in that a Christian is engaged, has tasks, has a life to live within the common terms of a common world, and at the same time an awareness and response to the work of God in saving it. (more…)

boss-tweed2Mike Coyner, who is the Bishop of the Indiana Conference of The United Methodist Church, penned a thoughtful essay reflecting on the dysfunction in our federal government. His main point: It’s our fault and our defective culture is the engineer of the political rot. Coyner declared:

All of the traits in Washington that we decry are actually an outgrowth of the messed-up values in our whole culture.

We complain about over-spending by Congress, but the average American household is spending 103% of their income.

We complain about the rising debt level, but the typical American is increasingly in debt (and that is even mirrored in our churches which are increasingly in debt).

We complain about the culture of entitlement, but the typical American has an “entitlement” attitude (just watch the way people drive over the speed limit, cut off others in lanes, and ignore simple traffic rules – all of that reflects an attitude which says “I am entitled to break the rules that I don’t like.”).

We complain about the rising cost of healthcare, but most Americans are over-weight, out of shape, and in poor health by virtue of lifestyle choices.

We complain that the politicians are not able to work together, but Americans seem to be more and more disagreeable and unruly (If you don’t believe that, just go to a Little League baseball game and watch the behavior of the parents. Or watch a local school board meeting and listen to the inability of people to listen politely to those with whom they disagree. Or you can even see that unruly behavior in some church meetings.)

In “Churches & Government Shut-Down” by Mark Tooley, he focuses on Jim Wallis’s insatiable appetite for more government and contrasts his views of the government shutdown with more measured responses by other church leaders. Joe Carter addressed Wallis yesterday too on the PowerBlog. Tooley points out a few errors in Coyner’s essay but praises his larger point as the kind of faithful and responsible witness needed in the Church.

“How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?” asked Alexis de Tocqueville. Instead of parroting partisan talking points and shifting even more power away from personal responsibility and virtue, leaders in the Church need to be asking the deeper questions why the government is broken in the first place.

Today there is a severe lack of unity and leadership in America that can speak clearly to our culture and address the root problems. In truth, we are infested by sin and sin by its nature is divisive and separates us from our true purpose. And if you know anything about theology, you know that unredeemed sin, in the end, always gives us what we deserve.

I had the privilege of giving the opening lecture last night for the “Limited Government and the Rule of Law” conference taking place here in Grand Rapids this weekend. The talk was on “Christian Origins of Limited Government,” and was followed by an excellent Q&A session.

One of the questions had to do with economic consequences or effects of the Fall into sin, particularly with respect to the curse. There are of course myriad implications for economics from the curse, starting first with the recognition of the toilsome nature of labor in the fallen world:

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

Presumably this means that human work isn’t as productive as it would be otherwise. One practical effect of this is scarcity. Fallen work doesn’t produce as many goods and services as non-fallen work; and it would seem there are in fact both qualitative and quantitative consequences for the fruits of human labor. The noetic effects of sin would have some implications here, as well, as it may be that Adam’s insights into the nature of the world were adversely effected. Where he had previously known the nature of things by immediate perception, this insight may well have been clouded. Certainly, as Abraham Kuyper notes, we no longer possess that direct insight that Adam had before the Fall.

So if we understand economics to be, at least from one perspective, reflection on the dynamic between limited resources and unlimited needs, wants, or desires (as Victor Claar described it in his talk on envy earlier this week), then we have clear implications for economics on the scarcity side stemming from the curse.

But I would also argue that the curse has impacted the other half of the dynamic as well. Our desires have become disordered, inordinate, and confused. We want the things we shouldn’t, and we want the things we should want more than we should want them. The acquisitive, grasping, desiring side of human nature is unmoored from and detached from its natural human limits and orientation. We see evidence of this disorder in the aspect of the curse that is applied to the wife: “Your desire will be for your husband, / and he will rule over you.”

So if the curse was the introduction of scarcity into human life, it also was the introduction of desires no longer appropriately limited by obedience to God’s will. Economics in this fallen world deals directly with these (and other) consequences of the curse.

Dismal science, indeed!

Blog author: ken.larson
posted by on Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The other day on this PowerBlog I posted “Learning To Tell The Truth” and ended the article with an observation:

It may be instructive to note that the young female reporter who took part in the videos is named Hannah. For Jews the Biblical namesake is one of the prophetesses whose prayer is remembered at Rosh Hashanah [coming soon] and the mother of Samuel. You may recall that Samuel had problems with his succession choices. They weren’t sufficiently obedient to God’s instruction in handling the errant, sinful tribes. Of course, that wasn’t Hannah’s fault. She did what God asked and was rewarded.”

I wondered in my final comment what the effect of Washington’s problems with disobedience to God might be. We’re likely to find out over the next several weeks and perhaps months because of this modern Hannah and her friends. I hope there are other Hannahs in our midst and in our counsel.

A reader made the following comment:

Interesting thoughts. I liked the Hannah reference…I hadn’t thought about that.”

I was happy that he got it and let me know.

Tuesday afternoon I listened to the 20 year old reporter Hannah Giles being interviewed on a radio program. The host shared my admiration for her spunk. Her explanation in reply to his compliments was something on the order of “a lot of people tell us we have courage but we never thought that we couldn’t do it.”

In an article early in the string of indicting ACORN videos and document postings at www.biggovernment.com, Hannah Giles wrote the following:

“Most people come up with ridiculous ideas, things that graze against societal norms. However, not all are capable of action because not all are comfortable with action. Many lack the desire for truth and justice, most don’t even know to want it.  But on occasion, the previous join forces. The right people with the appropriate calling unite against a common enemy, then the sky is the limit and hell is the target. There will be no compromises, only adaptation and infiltration.”

To some who think about having an effect on life’s ills, that statement may seem a little strong. I prefer to focus positively on her phrase “then the sky is the limit and hell is the targetl” To which others might say, “Oh, to be young again!”

Anyone who believes in truth and invests themselves in the search for it should be inspired by this young woman and her friends. And remember that it’s not to be young again, but to put your trust in Him and see where He leads you.

Only if there are new human beings will there be a new world, a renewed and better world.

When the Pope said these words at Vespers on Sunday, perhaps he had Bernie Madoff in mind.

Today, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison for defrauding his investors of nearly $65 billion over the course of 20 years. His corruption and crimes ruined the livelihoods of thousands of businesspeople, charity workers, and families that trusted his sterling reputation to protect everything that they had worked to earn.

Unfortunately, Madoff is not the only man to have betrayed his financial responsibilities to others. The last few years saw financial scandals at Enron and WorldCom shake the public’s trust in corporations. Just two weeks ago, Texas billionaire R. Allen Stanford was arrested by the FBI on charges that he used a bank in Antigua to mask his $8 billion fraud, stealing from his investors.

When Pope Leo XIII published his encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, he wrote that “A small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than slavery itself.” The global economy has come a long way since then, with the rise of laws designed to fight white-collar crime, the expansion of opportunities for Third World entrepreneurship with the removal of tariffs, and the creation of enough wealth to eliminate most of the horrific working conditions of the Victorian Era. (more…)

It is a commonplace in discussions of environmental economics to consider so-called “negative externalities,” a technical term for the bad or damaging consequences of an activity that affects those outside the realm of economic decision-making.

For instance, I can make the choice to plant a tree in my yard on my own (presuming there are no regulatory hurdles to jump). A negative externality for my neighbor might be that my tree dumps a lot of leaves into his or her yard and they need to be cleaned up. Typically this level of external consequence is not given a concrete cost…we simply rake up whatever leaves happen to land in our yard, whether they are from trees we do or do not own (I got to thinking about this lately because I had to rake up a bunch of leaves this weekend. Thankfully I caught a relatively warm day after the rain had mostly dried up and the snow had not yet fallen). But if a branch or limb falls from my tree onto my neighbor’s property and causes damage, there may be a level of liability there that would allow for some sort of claim for economic compensation.

It is also a common part of this discussion for environmental economists to observe that we almost never place any concrete costs on positive externalities. I have no ability to charge my neighbor for the pleasure he or she receives from looking at my beautiful tree. I might be able to restrict this positive externality by building a fence and obstructing the view of my tree, but the beauty of the tree is a natural benefit that cannot be commodified in any usual sense.

Oftentimes these two observations, regarding the costs associated with negative externalities and the inability to commodify many positive externalities, are made with a somewhat grudging attitude. After all, thinks the economist, it seems unfair that a person be liable only for the bad things that happen because of their economic decisions but don’t stand to benefit because of the good things that happen. So from the economist’s perspective, there’s a bit of inconsistency there.

Common sense intuition runs the other way, however. We ought to pay for the harm that our actions cause, but it’s also appropriate that I can’t charge my neighbor for all the good my actions may do for him or her. In brief here’s a theological reason why the typical view is correct and is right to dominate both people’s thinking on these topics in general as well as the shape of public policy: Good is more fundamental and basic than evil.

This is a view typically associated with Augustine of Hippo, and in summary it simply means that evil is a departure from the good. The world order as created was “good,” for God made it and declared it such. Thus, the good of positive externalities is in some sense more basic than the evil of negative externalities. The harm caused by negative externalties is an evil resulting from the fact that things in a fallen world are simply not the way they are supposed to be.

Our conception that positive externalities are more basic than negative harms is an indirect witness to the priority of the good creation over the corruption of sin and evil. We can abuse the blessings of God’s goodness when we take these gifts for granted, too. But our sense that some norm of justice has been violated when there are negative externalities (and that the gracious order of natural blessings is more basic) is a moral intuition that the world was created good and in some radical way has departed from that original state.

There’s a pretty entertaining piece on Salon.com by Christopher Noxon, “Is my kid a jerk, or is he just 2?”

There’s mild language, but the gist of the piece revolves around this observation:

As much as it goes against the current mode of progressive, project-management-style parenting, I take it for granted that some kids are trouble right out of the gate. They’re the preschool gangsters and playground terrorists, flicking boogers and insults at those they’ve identified as too weak to fight back. Just as some kids are born sweet-tempered and naturally gentle, others arrive as thuggish as HMO claims adjusters.

If you’re interested in the topic, and how reality flies in the face of “progressive, project-management-style parenting,” read the whole thing. And you can do so in dialogue with St. Augustine, who made this memorable observation about infancy:

For this I have been told about myself and I believe it–though I cannot remember it–for I see the same things in other infants. Then, little by little, I realized where I was and wished to tell my wishes to those who might satisfy them, but I could not! For my wants were inside me, and they were outside, and they could not by any power of theirs come into my soul. And so I would fling my arms and legs about and cry, making the few and feeble gestures that I could, though indeed the signs were not much like what I inwardly desired and when I was not satisfied–either from not being understood or because what I got was not good for me–I grew indignant that my elders were not subject to me and that those on whom I actually had no claim did not wait on me as slaves–and I avenged myself on them by crying. That infants are like this, I have myself been able to learn by watching them; and they, though they knew me not, have shown me better what I was like than my own nurses who knew me.

Nor was it good, even in that time, to strive to get by crying what, if it had been given me, would have been hurtful; or to be bitterly indignant at those who, because they were older–not slaves, either, but free–and wiser than I, would not indulge my capricious desires. Was it a good thing for me to try, by struggling as hard as I could, to harm them for not obeying me, even when it would have done me harm to have been obeyed? Thus, the infant’s innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind. I have myself observed a baby to be jealous, though it could not speak; it was livid as it watched another infant at the breast.

So there you have it. The substance of the doctrine of original sin affirmed indirectly by Salon.com, “For in thy sight there is none free from sin, not even the infant who has lived but a day upon this earth.” Indeed, even the kids whom Noxon believes “are born sweet-tempered and naturally gentle” might be described differently in a moment of true honesty by their parents who know them best.

Congress is debating a number of measures designed to “rescue” homeowners facing foreclosure as the housing and credit crisis grinds more and more financial and real estate assets to dust. Much of the reporting on the credit crisis, in the tradition of objective journalism, strains to explain the problem objectively, as if what was happening in the markets was somehow an act of nature, something unguided by human action. Thus, people “fell” into the problem as if pulled by a gravitational force:

Congress has been struggling for months to respond to a mortgage crisis that has left more than 1.2 million homes in foreclosure, with an additional 3 million forecast to join them over the next two years. Most involve subprime loans that established terms the borrowers could not afford. As homeowners defaulted and fell into foreclosure, home prices fell more than 10 percent. Many borrowers who are having trouble making payments find that they cannot sell or refinance their homes because they owe their banks more than their homes are worth.

But markets and industries and trade are guided by human beings, who have fairly well known tendencies. In “The Human Foundation of Financial Risk,” Alex J. Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute looks at that depressingly predictable mass hysteria that has propelled one financial bubble after another from the South Sea Bubble of 1720 and beyond. The “great twenty-first century housing and mortage bubble,” he argues, is just the most recent example.

Pollack notes how the mortgage securities market, looking out on a housing expansion that seemed unending, became “enamored” of statistical models of risk crafted by some of the best and brightest on Wall Street. How well did these arcane formulas come to grips with the human factor?, Pollack asks.

Did they pick up the effects of short memories–of the inclination to convince ourselves that we are experiencing “innovation” and “creativity” when all that is happening is a lowering of credit standards by new names–or of what are rightly considered unearned risk premiums being counted as profits and paid out as bonuses? Did the models adequately take into account the cumulative human forces of optimism, gullibility, short-term focus, genuine belief in momentum, extrapolation of so-far-profitable speculations, group psychology, and increasing fraud? Did the models keep up with the fact that as they were running, the behavior was changing? Obviously, they did not.

He reminds us that the reason financial bubbles are so seductive is that, for awhile at least, everyone associated does pretty well. Homeowners were getting more and more house with easier borrowing terms, lenders were generating profits from ever more creative strategies, and Wall Street was packaging and reselling this stuff to investors all over the world. All the while, Congress and the White House were crowing about ever higher levels of home ownership and participation in the American Dream.

Pollack points to the “widespread realization” in early 2007 that a large proportion of subprime mortages and subprime mortgage securities were going to default as the beginning of the end. It was the disillusion that crashed the party. “The end of belief ends the bubble and begins the bust,” Pollack writes. Let the panic begin.

We’re now in the early phase in what is likely to be a massive push in Washington to bring new regulation to the financial services industry and “rescue” more homeowners in an election year (but probably not the homeowners who have been paying their bills). Pollack again sees how this typically plays out:

In the wake of a bust, there is always a predictable series of political activities: first, the search for the guilty; second, the fall of previously esteemed heroes; and third, legislation and increased regulation to ensure that “this will never happen again.” But, with time, it always does happen again. Consider in this context the statement of the comptroller of the currency in 1914 that with the creation of the Federal Reserve, “financial and commercial crises, or panics . . . seem to be mathematically impossible.”

Pollack talks about the “cumulative human forces” behind the bust. From a Christian perspective, these “cumulative” factors would also include a healthy awareness of the reality of sin. There will always be the risk of cheating and greed and theft in financial affairs, personal and corporate. When that risk is inflated with the bubble, then its effects, as we have seen, may be impossible to contain. And no group caught up in the enthusiasm of the housing and mortgage bubble was immune from it — not the homeowner, not the lender, not the securities market.

The new risk we face is that the regulatory cure proposed by Washington will have it’s own illusions of “innovation” and “creativity” — with a naive belief in the power of government to make any more financial crises “impossible.” Federal bailouts for both bankers and borrowers are on the table. Over-reaction and over-regulation is likely to follow. There will be no discussions about the nature of sin in Congressional hearings, but there will be plenty of demons. Mostly, mortgage lenders. As Pollack observes, it’s all too predictable.

If you’re looking for the latest on how “Sensationalist Reporting Muddles Catholic Social Teaching”, check out these recent contributions:

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a perceptive op-ed, noting the negative consequences of relaxed strictures on items such as sex and eating meat on Fridays. The author uses economic thinking to justify more traditional mores:

Larry Iannaccone, an economist at George Mason University who has studied religions, notes that some of the most successful, like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Pentecostal Christians, which have very fervent congregations, have strict requirements. Religions relax the rules at their own peril.

“Religions are in the unusual situation in which it pays to make gratuitously costly demands,” Mr. Iannaccone said. “When they weaken their demands they make on members, they undermine their credibility.”

[Snip]

So it is perhaps unsurprising that the church has been pushing the other way. Pope Benedict XVI has brought back rites abandoned after Vatican II and reasserted the church’s hold on truth.

In this context, it could be tricky to update sins in a way that could de-emphasize individual trespasses and shift the focus to social crimes bearing a collective guilt. New sins might be a better fit for the modern world, but they risk alienating the membership.

On a lighter note, The Weekly Standard‘s P.J. O’Rourke has some fun at Bishop Girotti’s expense:

Not to argue theology with the Vatican, but environmental pollution is hardly among Satan’s strongest temptations. Pollution is not a passion we resist with an agony of will for the sake of our immortal souls. I’ve been to parties where all seven of the original deadlies were on offer in carload lots. Never once have I heard a reveler shout with evil glee, “Let’s dump PCBs in the Hudson River!”

If all environmental pollution were stopped forthwith–as any proper sin ought to be–wouldn’t this result in “causing poverty”? Eschewing New Deadly Sin #3 forces us to commit New Deadly Sin #4. And New Deadly Sin #5 as well, since “social injustice and inequality” cannot be eliminated without global economic progress. Furthermore, that progress depends in part on New Deadly Sin #6, the genetic manipulation entailed in the bioengineering of new
high-yield crop varieties to feed the hungry. Here we have Bishop Girotti, who is supposed to be leading us to God, leading us instead to a hopeless paradox and the unforgivable sin against the Holy Ghost, despair.

Speaking of which, modern economists despair of any way to quit causing poverty except by accumulating excessive wealth–the excess supplying the capital needed for global economic progress. Also the Right Reverend should get out more and take a walk around Vatican City. A Mother Teresa leper hospital it ain’t.

And don’t forget to examine your conscience against O’Rourke’s own new deadly sins as well …