This week’s commentary by Rev. Gregory Jensen. Sign up for Acton News & Commentary here.

Finding the Balance: Privacy and the Civil Society

Privacy in our culture has come to serve not a deepening of community life but an ever deeper sense of social isolation.  Even otherwise laudable behavior is increasingly justified not by the goodness of what is done but by the modern sense of privacy.  Even among those who ought to know better, the Gospel is presented in terms that are almost wholly personal without any sense of its public character and demands.   Our sense of isolation from each other has become so profound that even to suggest that there is a human nature and that true happiness is only possible when we live in conformity to our nature, is seen a provocation and an assault on the radical autonomy of the individual.  

Paradoxically, when privacy is in the service of isolation it is also the source of what Peggy Noonan (The Eyes Have It) describes as our increasingly "exhibitionist culture."  She writes that more and more we "know things about each other (or think we do) that we should not know, have no right to know, and have a right, actually, not to know.”  While technology has a role to play here, Noonan sees the cause as rooted in the loss of what I would call the right sense of personal privacy.  Lose this, Noonan says, and "we lose some of our humanity; we lose things that are particular to us, that make us separate and distinctive as souls, as, actually, children of God."  And with this loss comes as well the loss of a truly civil society.  "We also lose trust, not only in each other but in our institutions, which we come to fear. “ 

Not that the modern sense of privacy is all bad.  Without privacy, without a door I can close (and the trust that you will respect that closed door) I cannot from time to time withdraw into solitude.  Rightly understood, privacy is the functional expression of solitude.

Solitude as a discipline of the spiritual life is both the antithesis and the cure for culture’s wild and destructive vacillations between isolation and exhibition.   Privacy serves, or rather should serve, those moments in my life when — like Jesus — I withdraw from the ebb and flow of daily life "to a quiet place" to pray (see Luke 9:10).  It is in these moments of recollection that I am able to restore myself and to re-evaluate and, if need be, correct how I go about meeting the myriad personal and professional demands of life.  And so just as privacy serves solitude, solitude in turn serves my wholesome involvement in the broader society.   

What critics, and even defenders, of the free market and democracy often forget is that both institutions are rooted in the solitude that privacy defends.   Neither social isolation — which sees my neighbor as a threat to my dignity — nor exhibitionism — which in the final analysis is merely another form of lust –is a sound anthropological foundation for a free market economy, democracy, or a civil society. So where ought we then to look?  

Rodney Stark (The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success) is correct when he argues that Western culture owes much of its success to Christianity in general and monastic life in particular.  Monasticism is a life of disciplined solitude in the service of community; it is also part of the shared cultural and spiritual patrimony of the Christian West and East.   As such it represents not only our best cultural self, it also can serve as a meeting place for Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians as we work to respond to an increasingly secular and fragmented culture at home and the threats of Islamism worldwide. 

Though we need not ourselves be monks or nuns (though I think we do well to promote and encourage monastic life within our respective Christian communities), this should not stop us from seeing in monastic life a rich source of anthropological wisdom with which to respond to our culture’s deformed, and deforming, view of the relationship between the person and society.   Most importantly, among these is an inconvenient truth that even Christians are likely to overlook.   

Important as they are, economic activity, scientific research and even public policy shaped by the Gospel are insufficient.  True human freedom — personal and political — is a divine gift and so always outside our control.  Though he was not a monk, the Romanian Orthodox theologian, Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993), gives voice to a central monastic insight for our time.  In his monograph, “Prayer and Holiness,” he writes that, "The man who does not pray remains a slave, enclosed in the complex mechanisms of the natural world and of the movements of his own passions by which he is dominated even more than by the world outside."  Individualism and exhibitionism, to say nothing of the brutishness and violence that are common in all areas of contemporary culture, are the symptoms of our servitude.   

In response to this self-imposed slavery and for the sake of a truly humane and civil society, we must cultivate in ourselves a right sense of privacy and so of solitude and community life. Monasticism is a tangible sign that such a life of solitude and of civic engagement is possible. It reminds us as well that we must place our great material and cultural wealth and technological prowess at the service of something greater than our own comfort or economic success.  

His Eminence George Cardinal Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, who delivered the keynote address at Acton’s 2004 annual dinner (full text here), has recently produced two notable commentaries: the first on global warming, the second on the Christian foundations of modern Western Civilization.

George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, Australia

First, the Cardinal responds to critics of his view that the frenzy over the magnitude of man-made climate change is overblown:

Vanishing Challenge

By + Cardinal George Pell
Archbishop of Sydney
18 July 2010

Humanly induced climate change was once “the greatest moral challenge of our age”.  No longer.  The hullaballoo is much less.

A politician referred my February article on global warming to the Bureau of Meteorology for comment. In a roundabout way they conceded the truth of most of my factual statements, but ducked the issue of Roman warming and claimed that “all available hemispheric to global scale analyses” suggest recent decades have been warmer than in the Middle Ages.  This is misleading.

Professor Ian Plimer, in Heaven and Earth: Global Warming the Missing Science (Connorcourt, 2009) cites the scientific evidence from pollen studies, drill cores and lake sediments to show that temperatures were 2 to 6°C warmer around the world in the period from 250BC to 450AD (the Roman Warming). Records from the time report citrus trees and grapes being grown in England as far north as Hadrian’s Wall, and olive groves on the Rhine. It was wetter and warmer, but sea levels were also lower. Areas which are now either forests (because it is cooler) or deserts (because it is drier – for example, the Roman provinces of North Africa) were growing crops.

Professor Plimer also cites scientific evidence from the Middle Ages.  Tree rings, boreholes, sediment cores from oceans and flood plains, pollen studies, peat bogs, ice cores, fossils and carbon chemistry show that temperatures were warmer throughout the world during 900-1300AD than they are now, by 1-2.5°C in different places. The amount of land used for agriculture increased. In Greenland, cattle and sheep were run and crops like barley were grown. Grapevines were grown in Newfoundland, and vineyards in Germany were grown 220 metres higher than the maximum altitude today. Roots and stumps in the Polar Urals suggesting the tree line there was 30 metres higher in 1000AD. The North Atlantic was free of ice, allowing the Vikings to travel to North America.

Warmer temperatures and higher rainfall during the Medieval Warming enabled societies and economic life to flourish. In Europe it saw the growth of cities, the establishment of universities, and a boom in cathedral building. China’s population doubled in the course of a century and records from China and Japan also indicate that they experienced warmer temperatures. The Medieval Warming also brought higher levels of water in lakes and rivers.

There was no industry in Roman or Medieval times.

Why were the temperatures higher?  What were the causes then and now?

Next are remarks delivered at a recent program of the Institute of Public Affairs, a prominent Australian think tank. Here, Cardinal Pell reminds us that the heritage of Western Civilization comes from its uniquely Christian character:

The Heritage of Western Civilization

Remarks at the launch of the Institute of Public Affairs’
Foundations of Western Civilisation Program
Stonington Mansion, Melbourne

By + Cardinal George Pell
Archbishop of Sydney

It is a privilege to speak at the launch of the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilisation Program tonight, and I propose to begin my few words on “The Heritage of Western Civilization” by speaking about China. This is not because I believe that China must achieve economic supremacy (twenty years ago we were ascribing that honour to Japan) but because China is a radically different culture, nourished for two thousand years by the teachings of Buddha and Confucius before the destructive barbarism of Mao and the Red Guards; a nation which is now searching for the secrets of Western vitality and for a code or codes to provide decency and social cohesion that is compatible with economic development.

Let me give two examples, admittedly only two straws in an vast cyclone. (more…)

In the background of this month’s 11th General Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, it’s important to recall the recent history of global Lutheranism.

The basic context is that Lutheranism has been self-understood as historically associated with social quietism, particularly as expressed in the church’s impotency in the face of the Nazi menace. One approach in answer to this has been to become correspondingly active in social causes.

This is, at least in part, we see such an emphasis on social justice issues at Lutheran ecumenical gatherings over the last few decades. This current gathering, for instance, is committed to focusing on hunger issues.

As the introductory ENI story relates, this move from social quietism to social activism is constitutive of the Lutheran ecumenical movement’s self-understanding.

German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble said in Stuttgart yesterday, “It has been observed that the Lutheran heritage in Germany has tended to encourage individuals to be obedient subjects rather than active citizens.”

“Germans had to learn through a painful history that good government is the responsibility of all citizens. Protestant Germans in their majority took a long time to understand that this was also what their Christian faith demanded of them,” Schäuble told a 1200-strong ecumenical congregation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

The ENI piece specifically cites Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his involvement in the Abwehr conspiracy, whose climax was reached in the Stauffenberg assassination attempt of July 20, 1944. Bonhoeffer certainly does have a great deal to teach us about social engagement, as his deep reflections on the nature of social life, from his first theological dissertation (Sanctorum Communio), to his reflections on communal life together at the theological seminary in Finkenwalde, to his Ethics.

What we see in Bonhoeffer, and what I try to communicate in my use of his work in the concluding sections of Ecumenical Babel, is a balanced approach that does not allow for secularization between church life and work life, for instance. But neither does it allow for the opposite error, the substitution of social activism for the Gospel proclamation itself.

This is the risk that Lutheran social engagement has faced over the last few decades, and the trap into which the LWF has often fallen. I pray that the invocation of the prayer for our “daily bread” at this gathering in Stuttgart will take up a balanced approach to work and wealth. But as I show in Ecumenical Babel, there is little precedent in recent history to suggest such balance.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The birth of a new genre: econo-psychobilly bouzouki music. Opa, you all! For more great Merle Hazard tunes, check out his website. They don’t call him “The Man in Beige” for nothing. PBS NewsHour has more on the Nashville crooner. (HT: Calculated Risk)

Today marks the opening of the 11th General Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, held this time in Stuttgart. Today is also the 66th anniversary of the failed Stauffenberg assassination attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler.

There will be much more on the LWF assembly and it social witness in the coming days. The assembly’s theme is, “Give us today our daily bread,” and the meeting promises to focus on hunger issues. I’ll be paying special attention to the engagement of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was involved in the Stauffenberg plot, with the ecumenical movement in the 1930s and what we can learn about it today.

Follow along here on the PowerBlog. But for a basic primer on recent LWF pronouncements, in the context of the broader ecumenical witness, be sure to check out my new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. Read an ENI piece on the opening of the assembly after the break.
(more…)

The extent and persistence of the global economic and financial crisis has caused many people to start asking if there is any alternative to the current monetary system of fiat money overseen by central banks which enjoy varying — and apparently diminishing — degrees of independence from politicians who seem unable to resist meddling with monetary policy in pursuit of short-term goals (such as their reelection).

Most arguments about the respective merits of fiat money, private money, or the gold standard are couched almost entirely in terms of economic efficiency. Over at Public Discourse, however, Acton’s Research Director Samuel Gregg has penned an article outlining the principled case for a return to the classical gold standard. Gregg draws upon economic history and ethical analysis to argue that there is a strong more-than-economic case for the classical gold standard that rarely receives much attention. As Gregg writes:

There were several economic advantages to the gold standard. . . . A number of principled considerations were, however, also operative. The gold standard placed a high premium on economic security by reducing the uncertainty and risk that flows from fluctuations in the value of money that have nothing to do with the relative valuation of different goods and services. . . .

Another commitment at stake was the conviction that stable money meant greater economic prosperity for increasing numbers of people. Greater monetary certainty spurred productivity and investment, not least because many long-term contracts benefited from a confidence that prices would remain relatively constant over time. Then there were the ways in which the gold standard bolstered the economic well-being of particular marginalized groups. Monetary stability helps, for example, those who lack the financial sophistication to navigate the shoals of inflation, or who are on fixed incomes (e.g., the elderly and disabled).

At the same time the gold standard also encouraged governments to promote the common good instead of narrow sectional interests. Within nation-states, for instance, the gold standard diminished opportunities for the state to manipulate monetary policy in order to favor those with an interest in inflationist policies.

Likewise, the gold standard also generated a commitment on the part of governments to promoting the international common good. As the German economist Wilhelm Röpke once wrote, the gold standard relied upon the unwritten agreement of central banks and governments “to behave in matters of monetary and credit policy in such a way that this fixed and free coupling remained an undisputed permanent institution, irrespective of trade fluctuations”. This required central banks and governments to prioritize the global economy’s long-terms needs over the short-term exigencies of national economies. It also entailed a willingness to resist popular pressures to revert to a type of monetary nationalism in the face of the fluctuations in employment and growth sometimes generated by the gold standard’s adjustment mechanisms.

There is, Gregg notes, bound to be considerable opposition to any move away from fiat money. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, politicians, central banks, or Keynesian-inclined economists being very willing to give up a tool that — or so they believe — is a vital element of macroeconomic management. Gregg points out that there are also plenty of groups with a vested interest in the type of easy money policies (what’s euphemistically called “quantitative easing” these days) which are always an option under fiat money regimes.

Despite this opposition, Gregg says that going back to gold is certainly worth a second look — if only because no one seems especially satisfied with the present system.

For more from Gregg on this subject, see The Gold Standard: A Principled Case.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Wired magazine had a lengthy feature in 2004 on a new brand of transit design, specifically the kind that eschews signage and barriers, preferring instead more subtle signals.

In “Roads Gone Wild,” Tom McNichol profiles Hans Monderman (now deceased), “a traffic engineer who hates traffic signs.”

Monderman’s point of departure is that human interaction (e.g. gestures, eye contact) are preferable to explicit signage or signals that indirectly excuse us from conscious concern about our fellow travelers. “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

Monderman's Drachten Intersection

Drachten's busiest intersection after Hans Monderman.


Monderman’s design philosophy is to embrace chaos, and it’s effective because it allows for a kind of spontaneous ordering to occur. As McNichol writes, “The approach is radically counterintuitive: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.” It is counterintuitive, but it is in accord with what we know about human nature.

Human beings, when faced with danger, instinctively and naturally slow down and assess the threats with heightened sense and attention. Indeed, self-preservation is a constitutive element in the natural law.

There is still an element of planning in Monderman’s designs, but what is remarkable about them is that they embrace what we know about human beings in toto and not for the purposes of some engineered abstraction (such as homo automobilus or some such).

The kind of planning that allows for free and spontaneous interaction and creates space in which this can happen within the larger framework of the rule of law, in markets as well as traffic intersections, end up being the best because they account for the complexities of human nature. The kind of planning that relies on rigid rules and regulatory edifices, whether on Wall Street or surface streets, tend to incentivize the objectification of human interaction, in which we treat each other as simple means, obstacles, impediments, or resources to be plundered.

Recognition of the other as having dignity, as well as the corresponding power to do us good or ill and their own responsibility to act accordingly, is constitutive of a superior design approach.

This kind of approach works, as I’ve said, because we instinctively recognize the worth of other human beings. The same reason that a bus filled with people must wait for a single person to cross an intersection is the same reason that the rule of law must limit majority rule, or absolute democracy. The rights of the individual must be respected, even when the majority must otherwise wait or acquiesce. A bus full of people on their way to a destination must often first wait for a single individual to go on their way.

In political economy, as Lord Acton writes, “The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded.” And in traffic economy, the true natural check on absolute democracy might well be the spontaneous order arising out of a seemingly chaotic intersection.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Monday, July 19, 2010

In Somewhere More Holy, Tony Woodlief offers a serious account about tragedy, God, family, and grace. He also spins a great spiritual yarn which can move you from laughing to tears in mere moments. One of the strengths of this book is that it is not another bland self help book that promises “Your Best Life Now.” I’ve always wondered anyways about Christians who do not even realize their best life is in Glory. This is a very honest confessional book that really contrasts itself with the prosperity gospel and the kind of superficial Christianity that eschews a theology of suffering.

Soon after Woodlief and his wife’s conversion to Christianity, their three year old daughter Caroline is diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was soon dead. The author offers a lot of emotional devastating details of the heartbreak of losing their first child along with the tragic details of physically watching their little girl waste away. “God never promised everything will work out okay in your lifetime, and that each trouble you face will yield a blessing out of all proportion to the pain,” says Woodlief. The story goes on. Woodlief talks about how he drifted apart from his wife and family and was even unfaithful. His home was breaking apart and he was too angry with God and his circumstances to care. He plotted to leave his wife. But he came to a realization that he really had nowhere to go and everything he cared about was right at home.

He seems to profoundly recognize that his wife extended immense grace in his situation and he is now happy he has a front door to enter. He praises his wife for not giving him over to destruction. He offers an exceptional thought from a Greek Orthodox Priest named Aimilianos of Simonopetra, who says “It is an adulteration of marriage for us to think that it is a road to happiness, as if it were a denial of the cross.” And while the priest and the Church understand the joy of marriage and its level of suffering, much of our society sadly views marriage as a means of self-fulfillment and an arrangement rather than a sacrament.

Woodlief has four boys now and he takes us on a spiritual journey through the rooms in his house explaining how the grace of God abounds. He weaves together devotional thoughts about the power of the incarnation within the stories of his family. He understands that through the incarnation we do not just receive a glimpse of God, but can better understand ourselves. It was Martin Luther who said the angels are envious of humanity, “They worship Christ, who has become our Brother, our flesh and blood.” Woodlief says of helping his young sons clean themselves in the bathroom:

Dad, does this look clean?. . . Cleanliness is next to godliness, I think to myself in these moments of degradation. And if God can see me in these moments, perhaps he will forgive all the times I supposed I was better than anyone else.

The author offers some beautiful thoughts on a theology of death too. Towards the closing he admits, from the experience of losing a child, “If you love anything, you must live with the reality that you may one day lose it.”

This is an impressive account because it does not pretend to have easy answers for life’s tragedies, heartbreak, and shame. It only offers up the ancient truths of grace, incarnation, resurrection, and divine love. It is a deep contrast with the spiritual glibness that many in today’s culture and churches encounter. It is confessional and authentic and I think by allowing himself to be vulnerable readers will easily relate to his story.

The book reminds me a little of Treasure in an Oatmeal Box which I read long ago when I was younger. Both books see the beauty in children and understand they offer a lot of spiritual insight. Both authors are excellent at telling a story and capturing the greater purpose and value of life. They also both deal with heartbreak, tragedy, and perseverance. I am sure fathers and mothers of children will receive a lot of insight and will have a lot to ponder with this account. But this book is really for anybody who has felt heartbroken, betrayed, or separated from God. The beauty of the cross of course is just how much triumph and victory can come out of the deepest depths of evil, and how the world is transformed because of it. American slave culture and the Appalachian people always possessed a strong theology of death and resurrection because of the immense trials and suffering that surrounded those communities. I always like to listen to Appalachian bluegrass and gospel music because it doesn’t pretend to soften the blows and pain of human suffering but deals with it head on. And it always struggles to deal with pain and tragedy with the redeemer in mind. Woodlief says of his daughter Caroline, and of that day when he will wake to sleep no more:

I believe in a God who loves even the likes of me, and so I believe I will wake once more after my body betrays me, to the sound of singing. I am sure the songs of angels must be beautiful, but it will be the warbling of a little girl that my ear searches out. It has been so long since I have heard her voice. It has been so long, but I needn’t wait forever. Spring is coming, a spring with unfolding colors, enduring warmth, life that doesn’t mourn its own passing.

The NYT Freakonomics blog notes that the Fair Trade movement does not exist independently of the laws of economics:

But the problem with Fair Trade coffee is that as the program scales up, the alternative market ethics it wants to sustain collapse. Inevitably, the Fair Trade market becomes subject to the same laws that drive the conventional commodities market. When the price of coffee drops, the appeal of Fair Trade’s price support lures growers into the cooperatives that sell coffee under the Fair Trade label. As poor growers rush into Fair Trade agreements, the supply of Fair Trade coffee rises. Protected by the price floor, the Fair Trade coffee remains inflated despite flagging demand. What Fair Trade importers thus end up doing with the excess Fair Trade coffee is dumping it—upwards of 75 percent of it!—on the conventional market.

This is a huge problem for Fair Trade. Essentially, to be successful, it must, as I have stated in the past, “argue for a complete standardization of its price-fixing methods.”

Fair TradeThis gets at the paradox of religious support for Fair Trade. It makes those who argue so vociferously against “consumption” as an evil, something that feeds the Big Ag “devil” (to use the Freakonomics blog’s terminology), instead rather promote and endorse consumerism of another kind: Fair Trade consumerism.

That’s how you get to the point of mainline denominations pushing Fair Trade commodities (like coffee) in the church narthex and small groups, like moneychangers in the temple courtyard.

The Freakonomics post is lengthy and worthy of attention. But for a more comprehensive discussion of Fair Trade, be sure to check out the new monograph in the Studies in Christian Social Ethics and Economics series, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

In this book, Henderson State University economics professor Victor Claar examines the case of coffee in particular, and relates that in his

past place of worship, dedicated parishioners freely gave of their time and talents throughout the year to serve the retailing, advertising, and distribution efforts of Equal Exchange. Those parishioners who had taken on the ministry of fair trade coffee advertised frequently in the weekly bulletin and monthly newsletter—at no charge, of course. They also operated a coffee cart that was open for business between and after Sunday services, and they took great care to stock up on extra-special goodies in anticipation of gift-giving occasions such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day. They carefully maintained their inventory on hand, placing
orders with Equal Exchange when stocks were getting low. Of course, Equal Exchange was the only coffee served during coffee hour, where an Equal Exchange sign was prominently displayed to remind everyone that ours was a congregation that cared about the poor.

Claar concludes presciently: “In any other setting but a church, the message would be clear: If you enjoyed today’s free sample, be sure to pick some up on your way out to savor at home all week long.”

Order your copy of Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution today.

A little while ago, and in the context of the health care reform debate, Sam Gregg observed in this space that the American Catholic hierarchy had, to the detriment of church and country, neglected the importance of subsidiarity.

Now, Deal Hudson at insidecatholic.com argues that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is practically going about what the bishops have theoretically ignored. Of course Christie doesn’t invoke the principle explicitly, but Hudson sees the idea of subsidiarity at work in the governor’s proposals to, among other things, privatize state parks and outsource worker’s comp and pension systems.

I’m inclined to agree with Hudson (besides, I already admired Christie for his courage in taking on teachers’ unions). But there’s an interesting discussion in the comments section at the bottom of Hudson’s article, where readers are debating the meaning of subsidiarity and making some accurate qualifications: for example, “privatization” is not necessarily a synonym for subsidiarity.