The Friday morning plenary address at last week’s Assembly of World-Wide Partners was given by Ruth Padilla deBorst, a 15-year veteran of work with Christian Reformed World Missions. Padilla deBorst’s talk focused on relations between the global north and global south, “Together in Missions in the 21st Century.” In the following I’ll summarize her talk and intersperse the summary with some of my own reflections. One general comment, with Acton University beginning today: the valuable uniqueness of a conference like Acton U comes into sharp relief given the economic, political, and ideological attitudes on display at an event like the Assembly of World-Wide Partners. (more…)
Economic globalization has lifted millions out of dire poverty and is an unparalelled engine of wealth creation. But, like other economic systems, it needs the moral framework that the Church provides to guide it as a humane force for good. Brian Griffiths, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International, examines the role of faith in a rapidly globalizing world in this excerpt from his new Acton monograph.
Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, trans. William Wilson, ch. XIV:
Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument. If you use it skilfully, it is skilful; if you are deficient in skill, it is affected by your want of skill, being itself destitute of blame. Such an instrument is wealth. Are you able to make a right use of it? It is subservient to righteousness. Does one make a wrong use of it? It is, on the other hand, a minister of wrong. For its nature is to be subservient, not to rule. That then which of itself has neither good nor evil, being blameless, ought not to be blamed; but that which has the power of using it well and ill, by reason of its possessing voluntary choice. And this is the mind and judgment of man, which has freedom in itself and self-determination in the treatment of what is assigned to it. So let no man destroy wealth, rather than the passions of the soul, which are incompatible with the better use of wealth. So that, becoming virtuous and good, he may be able to make a good use of these riches. The renunciation, then, and selling of all possessions, is to be understood as spoken of the passions of the soul.
Wealth, like liberty, is not an ultimate end in itself. Wealth is the good product of a rightly ordered economic system. Liberty is the result of a properly functioning political structure. These are both penultimate realities.
But to what end are wealth and liberty (economics and politics) to be subsumed? I know no better answer than to say, “To glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.”
According to published reports, “One popular theory comes from a story in the Quran, the holy book of Islam, about Ibrahim and his son, Ismail. This theory picked up speed because many bloggers wondered if the shootings could be related to terrorism.”
The report continues, “In Islam, Ibrahim is known as the father of the prophets and, upset that people in his hometown still worshiped idols and not Allah, he smashed all but one statue in a local temple with an ax. Ibrahim’s son is Ismail, who also became a prophet. Ibrahim is Arabic for Abraham, who plays a significant role in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.”
From what I’ve seen, however, there is no other evidence so far linking Cho Seung-Hui to Islam.
One of his rants does include this portion, presumably to his classmates: “You had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust fund wasn’t enough. Your vodka and Cognac weren’t enough. All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything.”
These complaints echo Dinesh D’Souza’s take on the major motivations behind Osama bin Laden’s animosity toward the United States: “the immoral ingredients of American values and culture,” and “a decadent American culture that angers and repulses traditional societies.” But its not at all clear whether D’Souza is ultimately right, and therefore even more questionable whether such perceived similarities reflect any real link.
The words “Ismail Ax” were also written in red ink on the killer’s arm. The Times of London relates the identity of Ismail in Islam as the ‘son of sacrifice’. NBC News says that the killer’s manifesto includes the following statement: “Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.”
Of course, despite the killer’s intentions, that’s where the similarities to Jesus Christ end. Jesus is the one who resists the temptation to strike back at his oppressors and willingly endures suffering for the sake of others: “For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” More on this by PowerBlog contributor John H. Armstrong at his home blog, “A Tragic Day in Blacksburg: Making Sense of People’s Actions and the Words of Jesus.”
But, then again, maybe the explanation for “Ismail Ax” is just as simple as this: “Ismail Ax” is an anagram for “Alias Mix.”
Update: A columnist in a Kuwaiti newspaper writes that America leads the world “towards the abyss and towards a bitter fate – and the crimes that we hear of occasionally are just a drop in the sea of their false culture.” If Cho Seung-Hui wanted to indict American culture, then anti-American sentiment around the world is certainly lending its assistance to his purpose.
See also PowerBlog contributor Jennifer Roback Morse’s piece in NRO, “Waiting Until It’s Too Late: Mental illness and the Virginia Tech massacre.”
Update #2: Jerry Bowyer at NRO on the contents of the killer’s media package: “Envy, deep and powerful, comes through it all. Resentment against our society. Christianity, capitalism, and sports all take their hits. This was a man who hated the American regime — our very way of life.”
As many of you may know, Acton has been working on a documentary. The Call of the Entrepreneur will premier in Grand Rapids, Mich., on May 17 at Celebration Cinema North. Come one, come all, and see this wonderful documentary. The Call of the Entrepreneur tells the stories of three entrepreneurs: one a farmer in rural Evart, Michigan, another a mercantile banker in New York, and finally an entrepreneur in Hong Kong, China. The film examines the drive behind what these people do: Why are they driven to create wealth? Why do they produce? Who does it benefit?
This video clip is also available via YouTube and in a larger format here (Requires RealPlayer or Quicktime).
This piece from the Scientific American examines the difficulty that human beings have achieving happiness even in a world characterized by material prosperity.
“Once average annual income is above $20,000 a head, higher pay brings no greater happiness,” writes Michael Shermer, in the context of Richard Layrd’s observation that “we are no happier even though average incomes have more than doubled since 1950.”
Shermer examines various reasons that increases in objective well-being don’t necessarily correspond to increases in subjective well-being, or happiness. Perhaps it’s because of our genes. Or perhaps, as Emory University psychiatrist Gregory Berns argues, it’s because we seek happiness in pleasure rather than satisfaction: “Satisfaction is an emotion that captures the uniquely human need to impart meaning to one’s activities.”
But none of these or the other possibilities Shermer surveys offer a complete answer. He concludes, “To understand happiness, we need both history and science.” I think that’s true, but I would add we also need theology.
Consider the truth of Augustine’s observations about the nature of sin and the search for happiness in a fallen world. First, “absolutely all of us want to be happy” (Confessions 10.21.31). But given the reality of sinful human nature, we constantly seek happiness and fulfillment in inappropriate places, arrogating our own misguided quest for happiness to the place of controlling priority.
Augustine’s understanding of uti and frui, or benevolence and complacence as Jonathan Edwards calls them, is illuminating here. The former regards the right use of things as means to achieve happiness, while the latter is the resting and right appreciation of something.
Thus, says Augustine,
there are some things which are meant to be enjoyed, others which are meant to be used, yet others which do both the enjoying and the using. Things that are to be enjoyed make us happy; things which are to be used help us on our way to happiness, providing us, so to say, with crutches and props for reaching the things that will make us happy, and enabling us to keep them (On Christian Teaching, 1.3.3).
Ultimately it is only God in whom we are to seek our happiness, resting in him complacently. Speaking to God Augustine confesses,
A joy there is that is not granted to the godless, but to those only who worship you without looking for reward, because you yourself are their joy. This is the happy life and this alone: to rejoice in you, about you and because of you. This is the life of happiness, and it is not to be found anywhere else. Whoever thinks there can be some other is chasing a joy that is not the true one; yet such a person’s will has not turned away from all notion of joy (Confessions 10.22.32).
Happiness can only truly be enjoyed when there is a right ordering of our affections for transient objects as means to enjoying and resting in God alone. That’s the insight provided by theology, and it helps explain the happiness conundrum plaguing various disciplines of social science.
Anthony Esolen, from the March issue of Touchstone:
The most bountiful alms that the rich can give the poor, apart from the personal donation of their time and means, are lives of virtue to emulate. It is their duty. But when they use their means to buy off the effects of vice, or, worse, to celebrate it, that is an offense against those whom Jesus called ‘little ones,’ and no amount of almsgiving can lighten the millstone.
ON SECOND THOUGHT, the reality of the situation is probably a bit more complex than the editorial above indicates. That is, there is a cyclical and reciprocal dynamic in the popularization of any trend, as it moves from sub-culture to the mainstream. Very often the rich are dependent on the poor for determining what is “cool”. The rich and famous are typically derivative and dependent in this sense. Just as often the newest trend is wearing a trucker hat or grunge as it is Dolce & Gabbana.
Take the case of rap music. An underground, urban, and grassroots phenomenon has become mainstream. And in any such transition, there are disputes as to who is loyal to the movement itself and who has simply latched on to cash in on the mainstream popularity. Thus, for instance, the dispute between Eazy-E and Dr. Dre in the mid-90’s about who is a real “G.”
This dynamic does underscore the truth of Esolen’s observation about the “disconcerting sameness” between rich and poor. Wealth and power certainly do not by themselves confer any special moral standing or integrity, and as our namesake quote from Lord Acton indicates, they can often be the occasion for greater and more comprehensive corruption.
It seems that wealthy kids often have trouble realizing and meeting their moral duties to be good stewards of their inheritance. “With my inheritance, I felt a sense of guilt and responsibility,” says Jos Thalheimer, 24, whose great-grandfather founded the American Oil Co. (Amoco) in 1910.
John Stossel’s recent “Cheap in America” program examined this phenomenon, contrasting the attitudes of Fabian Basabe, the “male Paris Hilton,” with Ben Goldhirsh, son of a publishing mogul.
Basabe, it seems, is unwilling and uninterested in doing good: “I’m going to live forever, by the way, so I’m going to have a lot of time to work and get involved.”
Goldhirsh, by contrast, “used the inheritance to start his own magazine, ‘Good,’ and donates subscription fees to charity. His father taught him that work, and charity — not money — is the route to happiness.”
In his latest TCS Daily essay, Arnold Kling writes, “As we get wealthier, we also become enhanced physically, cognitively, and morally, leading to a virtuous cycle of improvements to the standard of living.” Does affluence leads to moral progress?
I don’t think there’s any necessary connection, and there’s plenty of counter-evidence, not least of which are the moral atrocities of the 20th century. But what about more mundane examples? In today’s WSJ, Kay S. Horowitz writes about the exploits of female celebrities, who model and exemplify “the first rule of contemporary American girlhood: to show that you are liberated, take it off.”
Indeed, in examining the link between wealth and morality (if there is any link), one need perhaps look no further than Paris Hilton, the wealthy heiress who exercises minimal moral reasoning and personifies the phrase “idle rich.”
Horowitz observes, “Why men have become more discreet than women, assuming they have, is one of those cultural mysteries that is yet to be solved.”
The sixth-century monastic John Climacus, reflecting the moral insights of his time, wrote this: “The great concern of the good Lord for us is shown by the fact that shyness acts as a curb on the shamelessness of women. For if the woman chased the man, no flesh would be saved.”
In the words of Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of the current Speaker of the House, “if you give me the choice of Paris Hilton or Jesus, I’ll take Jesus.”
Our series on the year in review continues with the third fourth of 2006:
“Isn’t the Cold War Over?” David Michael Phelps
I’ve got an idea for a new sitcom. Titled, Hugo and Vladi, it details the zany adventures of two world leaders, one of whom (played by David Hyde Pierce) struggles to upkeep his image of a friendly, modern European diplomat while his goofball brother-in-law (played by George Lopez) keeps screwing it up for him by spouting off vitriolic Soviet rhetoric and threatening all of Western civilization with his agressive (but loveable) arms sales and seizures of private oil companies….
“Wealth, Envy, and Happiness,” Jordan J. Ballor
This natural tendency to compare our financial status to others is an expression of money envy, which also finds expression, at least in part, in the concern about income disparities….
“DDT Breakthrough at the WHO,” John Couretas
Africans are hailing a major shift in policy at the World Health Organization: A recommendation for the limited, indoor use of DDT to control malaria….