“We need transformation, relief, and opportunity…in that order,” says AEI’s Arthur Brooks in a new video on conservatism and poverty alleviation. “Transformation starts with culture. Transformation is faith, family, community, and work…That’s the beginning of getting people into the process of rising.”
I recently wrote about the need to reach beyond an earthbound economics, re-orienting our thinking around a more transcendent framework that requires active spiritual engagement and discernment. Even as Christians, far too often we set our focus too strongly on temporal features like material needs, happiness, and quality of life—all of which come into play accordingly—without first concerning ourselves with what God is actually calling us to do as individuals.
Transcendent ends will only come from transcendent beginnings, and those beginnings will only be ordered properly if we take the time to identify what objective truths exist for society and how exactly God is calling us to participate within that broader social framework.
As Charlie Self notes in his book, Flourishing Churches and Communities: A Pentecostal Primer on Faith, Work, and Economics for Spirit-Empowered Discipleship, “cultural, economic, and social institutions are built on transcendent moral foundations,” and rely on spiritually transformed individuals to function and flourish toward God’s ultimate ends. By structuring our institutions around this understanding, we create more opportunity for society to reach past the mere meddling of man.
As Self explains, properly rooted ourselves in transcendent truths opens the door to a broader, fuller approach to “service” itself:
Economic and personal liberties must be united with the rule of law to nurture loving and just expressions and allow all people to flourish. Objective truths, which guide behavior and relationships, do indeed exist. There must be explicit and implicit values that ensure cohesive and prosperous living. The Holy Spirit gives discernment and wisdom, enabling Christians to engage virtuously in commerce and culture without being enslaved by the perversions of liberty caused by rebellion and sin. (more…)
Over a billion people are still using kerosene as a primary fuel source, with over 1.5 million dying annually from issues related to indoor air pollution and kerosene fires. For many in the developing world, solar lamps are a new, inexpensive solution to the problem. A recent piece in The Economist hails solar lamps as the next “mobile phone” for the poor, noting that “its spread is sustainable because it is being driven by market forces, not charity.”
In an article for Christianity Today’s This is Our City project, HOPE International‘s Chris Horst interviews two business leaders from the industry who share how their purpose and direction in providing these products stems from a strong missional orientation toward work and a belief in the power of markets.
For Brian Rants, vice president of marketing for Nokero, a leading solar light company, involvement in the industry came after a fundamental transformation in his thinking:
“I am very surprised to find myself in business,” Rants says. “Business seemed to be a backup plan to being a missionary. Or being a pastor like I thought I would be. It seemed like businesspeople were just ‘extras’ in God’s story, rather than lead or even supporting actors.”
Over the past ten years, Rants worked for a number of nonprofits and churches. After going through graduate school, however, he began to discover the ways enterprise is improving the lives of the poor around the world. Rants excitedly joined Nokero, equipped with a restored vision of vocation. Through leveraging his knack for marketing, Rants fights poverty not just through his volunteerism and philanthropy, but inherently through his work in business. (more…)
I recently pondered what might come of the global economy if we were to to put God at the forefront of our motives and decision-making. The question came as a reaction to Tim Keller, whose recent book calls on Christians to challenge their views about work. By re-orienting our work to be a “servant” instead of a “lord,” Keller argues, we will actually find more fulfillment in the work that we do.
Keller’s main point in the video I discussed was to caution against our human preferences for idol carving. Although this is a valuable word of warning, it’s also worth noting that in a more basic sense, our work is already service.
The extent to which this is practically true will depend on a variety of factors — the type of work we’re doing, the type of economic system we’re engaged in, the levels of cronyism, artificiality, and misinformation in the economic environment that surrounds us — but by and large, our work is concentrated on actually fulfilling the particular needs of particular persons. As Lester DeKoster writes in Work: The Meaning of Your Life: “Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.”
Through this understanding, perhaps a clearer way of expressing things is that work is less about whether we’re serving and more about who we’re serving. At the core, this simply rehashes Keller’s original point, prodding us to ask ourselves whether we’re serving God or something else (i.e. anything else). But beyond this, in those rougher, hazier areas of human discernment, it also empowers us to ask some other productive questions.
For example, in examining the ways in which trade and exchange impact human relationships across broader society, DeKoster contrasts life in the African bush with life in Western civilization, noting that the primary difference lies in work: “The bush people have to do everything for themselves. Civilization is sharing in the work of others.”
As DeKoster goes on to explain:
Our working puts us in the service of others; the civilization that work creates puts others in the service of ourselves. Thus, work restores the broken family of humankind… Through work that serves others, we also serve God, and he in exchange weaves the work of others into a culture that makes our work easier and more rewarding…As seed multiplies into a harvest under the wings of the Holy Spirit, so work multiplies into a civilization under the intricate hand of the same Spirit. (more…)
The New York Times has a fascinating profile on Ikaria, a Greek island located about 30 miles off the western coast of Turkey. With roughly 8,000 inhabitants, the island is known for its slow and relaxed lifestyle, thriving communities, and healthy citizenry.
As Ikarian physician Dr. Ilias Leriadis says in the article: “Have you noticed that no one wears a watch here? …We simply don’t care about the clock here.”
“For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle,” reports Dan Buettner in a recent issue of the “New York Times Magazine,” “they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible.” Buettner’s exploration of the Aegean island of Ikaria, where people are 2.5 times as likely as Americans to live past the age of 90, showcases the inseparability of individual and communal flourishing.
On Ikaria, a constellation of factors yields long lives: a great diet, and few chances to deviate from it; lots of physical activity (little of which could be classed as “exercise”); even regular napping.
But the likely keys to Ikarian longevity are harder to map. Buettner suggests that social structures — the marriages, families and friendships that knit Ikarians into a densely woven fabric of village life — are what sustain these communities in healthy practices.
At a superficial level, it can be easy for us to overly romanticize such places, especially for those of us who are routinely exhausted by fast-paced Western culture (though I still prefer a widespread concern for clocks). Buettner, for example, often seems over-sold on the notion of Ikaria as Utopia–likely, no doubt, because of his research interests in longevity (understandable). (more…)
The Acton Institute’s 2007 Samaritan Award winner for outstanding private, voluntary charitable service has been awarded to the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Youth Ranches, Inc. Their mission statement reads, “To address, remedy, and prevent child abuse and neglect by creating safe, healthy, and permanent homes for children.” One of the outstanding aspects of the program is their belief in not abandoning those who participate in their program just because they reach a certain age. Participants are allowed to stay involved and seek guidance beyond their post-secondary education, and until they’re able to foster their own independence in their lives. It strongly promotes a belief that the leaders and supporters of the ranch believe in them beyond any conditions or variables.
Arkansas Sheriffs’ Youth Ranches and other Samaritan honorees were also featured in a special double issue of World Magazine titled “Profiles in Effective Compassion.” Intake counselor Suzi Williams noted, “Our program is so small compared to the sins of the world.” World Magazine also noted, “Only 5 percent of the Ranch’s operational support comes from government sources.” An excellent informative and promotional video is also available on the Ranch’s Web site. Check out the World Magazine issue (subscription required) for complete coverage of Arkansas Sheriffs’ Youth Ranches and the Samaritan honorees.
In much of the Christian world today, the great feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord is commemorated (Matt. 17:1-9). In the Eastern Church, as Fr. Seraphim Rose observed, it is customary to “offer fruits to be blessed at this feast; and this offering of thanksgiving to God contains a spiritual sign, too. Just as fruits ripen and are transformed under the action of the summer sun, so is man called to a spiritual transfiguration through the light of God’s word by means of the Sacraments. Some saints, (for example – Saint Seraphim of Sarov), under the action of this life-giving grace, have shone bodily before men even in life with this same uncreated Light of God’s glory; and that is another sign to us of the heights to which we, as Christians, are called and the state that awaits us – to be transformed in the image of Him Who was transfigured on Mount Tabor.”
Fr. Lev Gillet saw a three-fold meaning in the Transfiguration:
The Jesus that the disciples knew well and whose looks, in ordinary life, did not differ radically from those of other people, suddenly appears to them in a new and glorious form. In our inner life, a similar experience can happen in three ways.
Sometimes our inward image of Jesus becomes (to the eyes of the soul) so luminous, so resplendent, that we seem truly to see the glory of God in this face: somehow the divine beauty of Christ becomes for us an object of our experience.
Or, sometimes, we feel with great intensity that the inner light, that light which is given to all men born into the world as a guide to their thought and action, is identified with the person of Jesus Christ: the power of the moral law becomes fused with the person of the Son, and the attraction of sacrifice makes us glimpse the sacrificed Saviour, and hear his call.
Sometimes, too, we become aware of Jesus’s presence in some man or woman whom God has set in our path, especially when it is given to us to bring compassion to their sufferings: then, in the eyes of faith, the man or woman is transfigured into Jesus Christ. From this last example, one could evolve a precise spiritual method, a method of transfiguration which could apply to everyone, everywhere and always.
The question of cultural transformation looms over American Christianity. Should we engage culture? If so, how? In a battle for supremacy over American institutions? Or for the hearts and minds of the people?
Reading through a sermon from Augustine, I was struck by a passage that illustrates how transformation of the world begins (and sometimes ends) in the church:
…pray as much as you can. Evils abound, and God has willed that evils abound. If only evil people didn’t abound, then evils wouldn’t abound. The times are evil, the times are troubled, that’s what they say. Let us live good lives, and the times are good. We ourselves are the times. Whatever we are like, that’s what the times are like.
But what are we to do? We can’t convert the vast majority to a good life, can we? Let the few people who are listening live good lives; let the few who are living good lives bear with the many living bad ones. They are grains of wheat, they are the on the threshing floor; they can have the chaff with them on the threshing floor, they won’t have it with them in the barn. Let them put up with what they don’t want, in order to come to what they do.
Why should we be vexed, and find fault with God? Evils abound in the world to stop us loving the world. Great are the people, real saints are the faithful, who have made light of the beautiful world; we here can’t even make light of the ugly one. The world is evil, yes it’s evil, and yet it is loved as if it were good. And what precisely is this evil world? It isn’t the sky and earth and the waters and all that is in them, fishes, birds, trees. All these things are good. The evil world is the one made by evil people.
But because, as I have said, as long as we live we cannot be without evil people, let us man and groan to the Lord our God, and put up with evils in order to attain to things that are truly good. Don’t let’s find fault with the Father of the family; after all, he cares for us dearly. He is supporting us, not we him. He knows how to manage what he has made. Do what he has told you and hope for what he has promised [The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Sermons, part 3. Trans. Edmund Hill (New Rochelle, NY: New City Press, 1993), Sermon 80.8, pp. 355-56].
Words to remember and to live by, both for the 5th and the 21st centuries I think.