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Creation theology and human flourishing (Acton 5)

As I mentioned in my last post, an emphasis on free market economies as a key to human flourishing raises at least four questions: sin, power, the nature of human flourishing, and the impact of all this on the environment. I’ve already tried to explain some of the questions that I have about the first three, so in this post, I’m going to talk about ecological issues.

In the context of these discussions, questions of ecology actually arise from two directions: (1) How does ecology relate to human flourishing? And (2) how does this emphasis on free market economics relate to concerns about the growing ecological “crisis”? (Most of the Acton material that I saw placed the word “crisis” in scare quotes when talking about ecology, so I thought I’d do that too. They look nice.)  We’ll deal with the first question in this post.

My primary concern with respect to the first question was with the rather pronounced anthropocentrism involved in the emphasis on human flourishing. Most of the lectures assumed that creation exists for the sole purpose of facilitating the well-being of humans, and apparently it has no intrinsic value/purpose of its own. (I did attend one lecture that presented a different approach, but this seemed to be the creation theology lying behind many of the other proposals I heard.) But, such an exclusively anthropocentric understanding of creation’s purpose seems entirely inadequate for a robust theology of creation.

As far as I could tell, the primary concern seemed to be that if we view creation as having an intrinsic value of its own, quite independent of its facility for producing human flourishing, we would no longer be able to see humans as unique within in creation. Instead, we would have to view humans as just another part of creation. And, lurking in the background, was the concern that we would no longer be able to affirm a unique dignity and value for the human person. And, consequently, we would come to place the needs of animals and the rest of creation above the needs of humans. But, none of this seems to follow. It’s quite possible to see creation has having an intrinsic value and purpose of its own (e.g. to manifest God’s glory), while still seeing human person’s having a unique purpose and role within that broader plan (e.g., image-bearers in the creational theater of God’s glory). Indeed, I think recognizing the intrinsic value of creation is fundamental to an adequate ecological ethic, because it is this intrinsic value that provides direction for understanding what human ecological action should look like (i.e. facilitating creation’s purpose of manifesting God’s glory).

This idea that creation has intrinsic value hat should guide our understanding of ecological “stewardship,” came out in one of the lectures that I attended. This speaker contended that we should understand the “dominion mandate” in terms of “productive stewardship.” In other words, God filled creation with tremendous potential, all of which can and should serve to display his glory in and through creation. That is its intrinsic value. And, we have been gifted with the task of creatively cultivating that potential (as Adam and Eve cultivated the Garden) and expanding Eden until we have brought all of creation under our productive stewardship. In many ways, then, ours is a servant stewardship as we seek to unlock creation’s intrinsic potential. And, because of how God designed things, we will serve the purposes of human flourishing at the same time.

Unfortunately, his presentation also came with one notable flaw—the lack of any clear proposal for human action. It’s all well and good to say that we should “unlock creation’s potential,” but what does this mean in practice? For example, consider the process of drilling for oil. In doing so, we are tapping the potential of creation for the production of energy. That can be seen as a prime example of productive stewardship. But, at the same time we might be destroying natural environments, introducing pollutants into the world, and running the risk of significant environmental disaster (in case anyone’s not watching the news). At the very beginning of the process, though, how do you know? Given the finitude and fallenness of human persons, how can we ever actually know if a given action is productive stewardship or destructive evil? When pressed on this very point, the lecturer had no constructive proposals to offer. So, it’s hard not to see this is yet another example of find-sounding rhetoric that is difficult, if not impossible, to turn into practical action.

At the end of the conference, then, I’m confident that any adequate creation theology needs to be able to hold together the intrinsic value and purpose of creation, the need to foster human flourishing, and the ability to turn these principles into proposals for concrete action. It’s this third step that I found somewhat lacking in most of the presentations.

What makes a view of government/law Christian? (Acton 2)

How should Christians understand the nature and role of government? That was the question addressed in the second foundational lecture. This lecture builds from the premise that a particular view of humanity and human flourishing should lead to a particular understanding of the state. In other words, states are simply a means to achieve human flourishing in the world. Although they often fail to do so, that is their basic purpose (a purpose they would still have served even if humanity had never fallen into sin).  So, society serves the development of the person. Or, said differently, “The person is at the center of society.”

Before addressing the specifics of a Christian view of government, the lecturer argued that there is no single form of Christian government. Although certain forms are necessarily excluded because they are antithetical to a Christian worldview (e.g. Marxism, anarchy), there may be many other Christianly viable forms of government. Rather than identifying the one appropriate form of government, the lecture focuses on building from a Christian anthropology to those principles that a Christian view of government must maintain.

  1. Human flourishing: They keep coming back to this as a fundamental starting point, and I get the distinct impression that one of two things is true: (1) they think they’ve provided a definition already; or (2) they think that we all agree already on what this means. Either way, they’re wrong. This is such a critical piece for everything being discussed in these seminars that it warrants much more time than it’s been given and it cannot simply be assumed as an already existing part of a Christian worldview.
  2. Human fallibility: Since our fallenness there is a need both for coercion (we can’t be trusted to do what we should voluntarily) and limited government (governments can’t be trusted either).
  3. Natural law: This was the most fascinating to me. Nothing had been said about natural law earlier, yet this was still presented as a natural consequence of a Christian anthropology. (More on this when we discuss the fourth lecture.)
  4. Human choice: Since God created us to be volitional beings, government should facilitate healthy human choice. It must exercise a coercive function at times, but it’s primary purpose is to enable human choice whenever possible.

These principles lead directly to four principles that we must maintain about a Christian view of jurisprudence:

  1. Common good: Unsurprisingly, the primary purpose of law is to serve the common good (i.e. human flourishing). And, no, they still haven’t defined it.
  2. Rule of law: Interestingly, several ideas were introduced here as though they can simply be assumed from Christian anthropology and natural law: due process, consistency, impartial judiciary, etc. I don’t necessarily disagree with any of these, but much more work needs to be done to establish the idea that these are necessary correlates of a Christian anthropology.
  3. Subsidiarity: Not being particularly well versed in Catholic social teaching, this was probably the most interesting part of the lecture for me. The idea of subsidiarity is higher-level organizations should facilitate the agency of lower-level organizations or individuals. Thus, laws should promote the agency of individuals and non-governmental agencies. I would have appreciated hearing more here, though, about the presumption that the growth of the state necessarily weakens human agency and responsibility.
  4. Limits of law: Following from the idea that law should facilitate human flourishing without undermining individual/private agency, the lecturer contended that we need to recognize that laws shouldn’t try to cover everything. Some things are immoral (e.g. lying) but should not be made illegal. So, laws are one way of promoting human flourishing, but not the only way.

Concerns/Questions:

  1. I’m continuing to struggle with the lack of anything distinctively Christian about any of this. I’m not convinced that this is driven by a desire to operate out of a natural law/theology framework with which we can engage non-believers.
  2. Related to the first, I’m concerned about how “western” all of this sounds. We need to be aware of the danger that our understanding of “natural” law/theology is actually an attempt to read our cultural ideas/constructs into the natural structures of the world to make them seem divinely ordained. I’m not saying that’s happening here. But, my radar is up.
  3. I forgot to blog about this earlier, but there is a pervasive anthropocentrism  in all of this. That came out very clearly in this lecture. Law/government is entirely about the human person. Sure, we should care for creation because that (1) contributes to human flourishing (whatever that is) and (2) serves humanity’s creative purpose as lords over creation. But, law/government does not need to pay any attention to creation in its own right.
  4. Going back to the title of this post, I’m not sure that we’ve really addressed the question of what makes a particular view of law/government legitimately Christian? They’ve given a view of government that coheres with certain aspects of a Christian “worldview,” but that is inadequate to ground a robustly Christian approach to these issues.