Posts tagged with: theology

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
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You often hear that Europe is much more secular than America. Just take a look at the Netherlands, for instance. How much more secular can you get?

But one place in which this stereotype rings false is in terms of academic institutions. You can pursue (as I currently am) a degree in theology at a European public university. Can you imagine that in the United States?

No, here we have departments of “religious studies” in public colleges and universities (if we cover religion there at all, and to be sure, “theology” and “religion” aren’t identical). My friend Hunter Baker might point to this difference not as secularism in a strict sense, but rather an institutional separation between state and church (for more on his definition of secularism, check out his book, The End of Secularism).

And thus from accounts of the institutional differences between the academic study of religion and theological study in America, you might easily get the impression of a kind of intellectual or academic secularism. After all, to study theology in America, you have to go to a private college or seminary (as I also am currently doing). This perspective from the Chronicle of Higher Education is representative, “The Ethics of Being a Theologian,” in which K.L. Noll writes, in part,

I do not presume to tell theologians how to be theologians, and I will not attempt to define the value of theology. I simply request that theologians fulfill basic ethical obligations, such as the affirmation that theology is not knowledge and must position itself apart from those academic disciplines that try to advance knowledge, such as history, anthropology, religious study, and (perhaps especially) the natural sciences.

Meanwhile, in secular Europe, as ENI’s Stephen Brown reports, “European theology faculties warn of shift to religious studies.” Read the rest of Brown’s story after the break.
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Judith Dean, currently an international economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission, has a worthwhile exploration of the relationship between Christian faith and economic research (HT). It’s up at the InterVarsity site for the Following Christ conference and is titled, “Being a Good Physician: Reflections on Christianity and Economic Research.”

There’s a lot of good, challenging, and insightful stuff here. As always, read it in full. But here’s a bit that’s especially incisive:

Especially for those working in government policy making bodies, there is a role for advocating change where policies are seen as creating results which are intolerable from the Christian standpoint, or where the economic system fails to address problems which a Christian cannot ignore. Large groups of such advocates already exist, quite often centered around specific issues. Though these groups may include economists, they are quite often made up of non-economists who care deeply about a particular problem (e.g. R. Sider, J. Wallis, and T. Campolo, who all have written about poverty issues). Some of these groups zealously advocate particular solutions to what they view as egregious injustices in the economy. Yet, lacking economic understanding, they fail to see that their proposals themselves are sometimes flawed.

Here the Christian economist’s expertise may be called upon to inform these “advocate groups” about the nature of the problem and the implications of different solutions. Many Christians want to be better informed in order to become better advocates. Yet they do no know where to go to get information. Sound economic reasoning which is made accessible to a non-professional audience is sorely needed. It is odd indeed that most contemporary Christian writing on economic issues for the general public is done by theologians or sociologists.

Note here the vigorous sense of Christian advocacy in the public square, and how it is to be informed by solid economic, social, and historical research. Note too that the advocacy described is generally not that which ought to be pursued by the institutional church, but by Christians organizing themselves organically in civil society.

As a theologian often writing on economic and public policy matters, I heartily endorse Dean’s call for more sustained, careful, and intentional engagement of Christian economists on these matters.

Read “Being a Good Physician: Reflections on Christianity and Economic Research” and leave a comment below.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 15, 2010
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Longtime Acton friend John H. Armstrong notes the recent discussion of Rowan Williams’ pronouncements on ethics and the economy here at the PowerBlog, commenting that “The archbishop of Canterbury is an extremely likable Christian gentleman, a first-class Christian scholar. He is also a leader who often fails to address some of the more difficult issues in our time with a straight, clear answer.”

Armstrong’s description of Williams coheres well with the overall picture of theologians engaging economics presented by Susan Lee, who says, “The habit of picking and choosing means that many theological discussions of economics take place under a cloud of incoherence, or at least to economists, ignorance.”

In this brief piece from APM’s Marketplace, “Bridging the theology-economy gap.” Susan Lee, “an economist and a theologian based in New York City,” passes along her experience at a public appearance that included Rowan Williams. She gets of some real substantive observations, including the following:

…ethics are the common ground for theology and economics…

Both theologians and economists are interested in improving the lives of all humans. Both groups agree on policy goals like low unemployment and sustainable growth. In fact, these goals are in harmony with a definition offered by the archbishop. He said: “An ethical economy is one where we care for our neighbor by creating conditions so the most vulnerable aren’t abandoned.” Well, this is a description of capitalism in the U.S….

Economists are interested in how to make the pie larger. Theologians are interested in how to divide the pie. And so many theologians treat capitalism like a Chinese menu. They pick the wealth-distribution parts and discard the wealth-creation parts….

Her commentary is brief, but worth reading or listening to in full. Jeff Walton at the IRD also provides some background for the Trinity Institute event, and includes fuller observations from Lee (HT).


From the Holy Land, sung in Arabic. Merry Christmas to all PowerBlog readers and our blogging crew!

St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 4:4-7

Brethren, when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then also an heir of God through Christ.

By Cassia the nun, from the Great Vespers for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ

When Augustus reigned alone upon earth, the many kingdoms of men came to end: and when Thou wast made man of the pure Virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed. The cities of the world passed under one single rule; and the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead. The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar; and we, the faithful, were enrolled in the Name of the Godhead, when Thou, our God, wast made man. Great is Thy mercy: glory to Thee.

Some of the aspects of the movement in ‘new economics’ highlighted by Sumita Kale sound quite promising. For instance, it is true that “many issues of economic policy (traditionally called ‘welfare economics’) are primarily ethical-economics in nature, and should be informed by moral philosophy rather than economics in isolation.” The growing conversation between economics and other disciplines, specifically moral philosophy and theology, is most welcome.

Indeed, some of the principles animating the work of the Cambridge Trust for New Thinking in Economics sound similar notes: “economic behaviour is influenced by aesthetic and ethical values as well as economic values.”

But when we drill down to the objectives of the Trust and look at some of the other principles, it becomes clearer that what is “new” about “new economics” is that economic research is pursued with an overtly and explicitly socio-political agenda: “It is vital that two social problems be solved. The first is the obvious degradation of the planet and its atmosphere by over-consumption and over-production through the exploitation of resources in pursuit of monetary gain. The second problem is the toxic pollution of the global money supply, also obvious, caused by financial practices over the past twenty years, led by the investment banks of Wall Street and the City of London.”

What we have here is economics as social engineering, providing norms for behavior rather than describing it. “New” economics (traditional economics with just a dash of moral philosophy thrown in) becomes a prescriptive rather than a descriptive discipline, and therefore simply one more voice among many clamoring for dominance in the legislative process.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, November 23, 2009
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Contrary to the belief of some, the two realities referred to in the title of this post are not identical.

But the discussion around a recent Boston Globe article reminds me of the saying from Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, “Capitalism without the threat of bankruptcy is like Christianity without the threat of hell. It doesn’t work very well.” It may well be that capitalism without the threat of hell doesn’t work very well either.

The Globe piece refers to a bit of research that links belief about punishment in the afterlife with economic development. This is important, since “knowing exactly how and when God influences mammon could lead to smarter forms of economic development in emerging nations, and could add to our understanding of how culture shapes wealth and poverty.”

It is promising that there is “a larger movement in economics, in which the field is looking beyond purely material explanations to a broader engagement with human culture, psychology, and even our angels and demons.”

With this issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, we introduce a new semi-regular feature section, the Status Quaestionis. Conceived as a complement to our Scholia, the Status Quaestionis features are intended to help us grasp in a more thorough and comprehensive way the state of the scholarly landscape with regard to the modern intersection between religion and economics.

Whereas the Scholia are longer, generally treatise-length works located in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, the Status Quaestionis will typically be shorter, essay-length pieces from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The first installment of the Status Quaestionis features an essay by Sergey Bulgakov (1871–1944), a renowned and influential Russian Orthodox theologian. His essay included in this issue, “The National Economy and the Religious Personality,” first published in 1909 and translated here by Krassen Stanchev, represents the first and in many ways most lasting Orthodox Christian response to the Weber thesis.

Peter Klein, blogging at Organizations and Markets, considers the Bulgakov translation and notes, “Bulgakov, widely regarded as the greatest 20th-century Orthodox theologian, has been attracting increasing interest in recent decades, in both East and West.”

Indeed, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, says this of Bulgakov’s contribution in economics:

In his early work he picked up the language of creativity and applied it to civic relations. He proposed understanding business, commerce and, in fact, much of daily life in the context of creativity. In his book The Philosophy of Economy (1912) he said there was no such thing as economic man, homo economicus, which was to say, no set of economic answers that could tell us how society ought to be run. The context was Russia’s first 20th-century attempt to modernise by borrowing economic ideas from the west, and already Bulgakov was arguing, against certain German economists, that pure economics wouldn’t work in Russia.

Williams’ interview, which touches on Bulgakov, Dostoevsky, and the broader history of Russia, is wide-ranging and illuminating, especially given current developments in relations between Russia and former Soviet republics.

In the introduction to his translation, “Sergey Bulgakov and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Krassen Stanchev, who serves as board chairman of the Institute for Market Economics, observes that the “language of creativity” and “personalism” identified by Williams in Bulgakov,

was first outlined by Bulgakov in the essay translated here. The economy is a human destiny; the man is ‘master’ (in Russian this word means both ‘an owner’ and ‘a housekeeper’) of the worldly establishments; not a ruler or dictator but the one who humanizes the world. This concept, to my understanding, is compatible with the most enlightened economic thinking of the twentieth century.

For more on recent developments in the relationship between Orthodox theology and economic thinking, see John Couretas‘ review, “An Orthodox View of Contemporary Economics, Politics, and Culture.”

Also in this issue:

  • Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo considers “The Importance and Contemporary Relevance of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth.”

  • Marek Tracz-Tryniecki explores “Natural Law in Tocqueville’s Thought.”
  • Christopher Todd Meredith examines “The Ethical Basis for Taxation in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas.”
  • José Atilano Pena López and José Manuel Sánchez investigate “Smithian Perspective on the Markets of Beliefs: Public Policies and Religion.”
  • Surendra Arjoon discusses ethics in the corporate culture with “Slippery When Wet: The Real Risk in Business.”
  • Gregory Mellema expounds on “Professional Ethics and Complicity in Wrongdoing.”
  • And a number of excellent reviews of recent books, put together under the direction of our book review editor Kevin Schmiesing.

The editorial and article abstracts of current issues, including my “The State of the Question in Religion and Economics,” are freely available to nonsubscribers (you can sign up for a subscription here, including the very affordable electronic-only access option). And as per our “moving wall” policy of two issues, the most recent publicly-available archived issue is volume 10, number 1 (Spring 2007).

If you are a student or a faculty member at an institution of higher learning, please take the time to recommend that your library subscribe to our journal. If you are in interested layperson or independent scholar, please consider subscribing yourself.

The relationship of the Christian church and the broader culture has been a perennial question whose genesis antedates the life of the early Church.

In his Apology, the church father Tertullian defended Christians as citizens of the Roman empire in the truest and best sense. If all the Christians of the empire were to leave, he wrote, “you would be horror-struck at the solitude in which you would find yourselves, at such an all-prevailing silence, and that stupor as of a dead world. You would have to seek subjects to govern. You would have more enemies than citizens remaining. For now it is the immense number of Christians which makes your enemies so few,—almost all the inhabitants of your various cities being followers of Christ.”

In the post-industrial Information age, Christians remain at the forefront of social and cultural formation. In the context of the developments at the dawn of the third millennium, the engagement of church and culture has taken on a new form, focused most especially on new forms of technology and communication. The internet in particular, and related “new” media, have raised important issues for the ways in which Christians communicate with each other and with non-Christians.

The basic question has been raised in different ways arising from various concerns. The 2008 Evangelical Outpost/Wheatstone Symposium puts the question thusly: “If the medium affects the message, how will the Christian message be affected by the new media?” (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Friday, April 11, 2008
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Late last month I argued that recipients of the federal government’s stimulus package “should use this rebate money as they see fit, since they are the ones most familiar with their own situations and their own needs. Consider giving part of the money to charity or saving, paying off debt or investing.” Now other voices are giving similar advice, recommending saving rather than spending.

Rick Haglund, a Michigan business columnist for the Grand Rapids Press, notes that “Some saving measures can go a little too far, though. I recently heard a personal financial consultant say people can save by no longer buying that cup of coffee and newspaper on the way to work.”

“Give up the coffee, but please, please keep buying the paper. The newspaper business is in a terrible financial state,” he writes. Haglund thinks that newspapers are more important to the country than coffee…a debatable proposition. Coffee, not oil, might well be the lifeblood of American enterprise.

But the economic status of newspaper publishing is in a strange place. I’ve been getting the weekend paper for a year or so, and when I renewed I received a call from the paper just to tell me that I’d be getting the rest of the week for free (a good thing too, or I would have missed Haglund’s column).

It reminded me of getting a postcard in the mail from the government telling me to expect a rebate…no notice necessary, just send the free stuff and the money. I don’t think it cost the Grand Rapids Press millions of dollars to make the phone calls, though (it cost the feds $42 million to mail out those inane little rebate notices).

In any case, it makes more sense for many newspapers to give their issues away to get a boost in circulation numbers than it does to count on the income from subscriptions. I also recently saw one of the narrowest daily newspapers I had ever seen last weekend, part of the trend to cut printing costs. (I can’t complain too much, though, since the Port Huron Times Herald has published more than one of my commentaries. Keep up the good work!)

Of course, some folks, like Betty J. Mazur, are going to do just what the government wants them to do with the money. “I’m going to buy new clothing with my check,” she said. (The piece linked above is in part about how it is necessary to file federal taxes for 2007 in order to get the 2008 rebate. Marketplace discusses that, and also debunks some myths about the rebate, here.)

Oh, and don’t forget to blame conservative theology for the credit crisis. After all, it seems as if adherents to so-called “conservative” theology don’t save as much as they ought.

How any decent sociologist could have this reaction is beyond me: “Keister was surprised that when demographic factors — such as education, age and race — were held as constant, religion still proved to be an influential factor in wealth accumulation” (emphasis added).

Amazing, just amazing. Can you dare admit that religious beliefs really do influence behavior?

Keister says a typical “conservative Protestant” might be a member of the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, Nazarene and Pentecostal churches. I guess they’ve forgotten what John Wesley said.

When John concluded his gospel, he supposed that if all of Jesus’ doings were written down, “that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

The last two millennia have seen quite a bit of change, to be sure. Christians have done their best to make John’s comment come true, filling the world with writings on the life of Jesus, the biblical revelation, and the implications of the gospel for every aspect of all walks of life.

But at the dawn of the third millennium, we are seeing an increasing shift to digital media (sometimes, but not always to the detriment of analog media like books), it’s conceivable that a single hard drive might have room for all the books that have ever been written (and not just the religious, theological, and biblical ones).

And as there has always been demand for the Bible (said to be the best-selling book of all time), so too there is demand for new and innovative ways to apply the power of computers to religious and theological texts. Currently these demands are being met by the de facto cooperation between non-profit and for-profit enterprises.

Take, for instance, the developing relationship between the non-profit Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) and the for-profit Logos Bible Software.

In addition to advertising on CCEL’s website and in their electronic newsletter, Ken Verhulst, a spokesman for CCEL, says that there’s an agreement for Logos software to be sold by CCEL. The non-profit then receives a share of the sale price. “These funds are used to keep CCEL going,” he says.

Phil Gons, who works in Logos’ press relations department, says that his company has “a good relationship with CCEL” and that they are in talks “about ways we can work together.”

Gons also points to BibleTech, a newly-inaugurated conference held in January hosted by Logos that had a large turnout of open source and non-profit folks. The conference website lists participants like OpenText.org, “a web-based initiative to provide an annotated corpus of Greek texts and tools for their analysis,” and the CrossWire Bible Society, “an organization with the purpose to sponsor and provide a place for engineers and others to come and collaborate on free, open-source projects aimed at furthering the Kingdom of our God.”

That isn’t to say that non-profits don’t feel some market pressures, too. Verhulst says that there is a strong push to move CCEL towards self-sufficiency. The donor who keeps CCEL going “is encouraging us to strive towards ‘independence’ — not profit status, just the ability to sustain ourselves.”

All this is a new twist on an old story in theological and biblical publishing. There have always been critics of major publishers like Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, and Tyndale, which are for-profit enterprises. Crossway, by contrast, is a non-profit venture that focuses on publishing around the English Standard Version.

The reality of the situation in the digital world is that open source and for-profit ventures are just as much partners as they are competitors. Given its practical focus, for example, CCEL generally limits itself to “public domain” works, while companies like Logos can use tools like their pre-publishing and community pricing systems to gauge market demand and bring major projects like Luther’s Works and Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics to digital publishing.

As in other sectors, enterprise is the driver of innovation, without which other non-profit ventures might not be possible. Even “public domain” works were once published for sale. It isn’t the case, either in traditional or digital publishing, that the choice is simply between for-profit or non-profit efforts. Instead, we live with the all-or-nothing complementary reality of both for-profit and non-profit publishing. And we are better off for it.