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Money, Markets, and the Making of Humanity

“Governments should protect the people,” John declared, pounding the table for emphasis. “I’m tired of hearing about Americans struggling to make ends meet. I wish there were enough jobs and money for the whole world, but that’s a pipe dream. The hard reality is that we need a government that will protect Americans and American jobs. That’s what government is for.”

Alex was already shaking his head. “You just don’t get it. That kind of protectionism will destroy us.”

He pointed out the window to the small store across the street. “You see that? That’s a great little business. What if we could create four more? Or ten? Or a hundred? Think about all the jobs that would mean. We need to do more than protect existing jobs, we need to create more jobs. And to do that, we have to be fully and freely involved in the global economy.”

He hesitated briefly and then said, “And, we need to support the banks so we have enough money to invest in these new businesses.”

“No!”

John and Alex both jumped slightly at this outburst from the third person at the table. Visibly agitated, Tom glared at Alex. “You want to give even more power to government and the banks? That’s insane! They’re the ones who got us into this mess to begin with.”

He took a deep breath before continuing, “You’re both missing the point anyway,” he said. “Our problem is that we’re too focused on money and jobs in the first place. It’s not a question of how many jobs we need, but what kind of people we should be. Jobs, governments, banks, all of that is secondary. We need them, of course. But they can distract from the real task of living fully human lives.”

He looked sadly out the window at the bustling city street. “We need to get back to simpler ways: less government, less busyness, more humanity.”

What is government for? What does government have to do with business? And, how does any of this matter for life and ministry today?

These are some of the questions that I’ve been chewing on since attending John Pinheiro‘s paper at Acton University on “The Political Economy of the American Founding.” The point of Dr. Pinheiro’s paper was that economic realities lay at the heart of early American history. And, I was fascinated to see how economic factors drove so much of the story. You really can’t understand the American Revolution, the development of the Constitution, or the factors leading up to the American Civil War, without understanding the economic dynamics at work.

But, as I listened to the lecture, I was struck by how competing views on government and economics are really competing views of human flourishing. That is, they are really arguments about what true human living looks like, what factors are necessary to sustain it, and what role (if any) government has in promoting those factors.

3 Views on Politics, Economics, and Human Flourishing

Consider the fictional conversation above. One one level, it was a discussion of government and economic policy. But, as Tom argued, these should be means to a greater end. So, their perspectives were really just different views of the goal, the means, and the proper relation between them. And, these three views have been with us for a while.

John (John Adams) argued for a form of mercantilism, the dominant economic model of the British Empire. On this view, wealth is a relatively fixed commodity, and everyone (individuals and nations) compete over this finite wealth. So, the role of government is to establish economic policies that will keep as much wealth as possible within the nation to promote the well-being of its own citizens. So, in this model, human flourishing requires wealth, and the government promotes human flourishing by increasing their share of the world’s limited resources.

Alex (Alexander Hamilton) offers a perspective more influenced by Adam Smith, who argued for economic policy based on creating wealth through the astute investment of capital. For Smith, wealth is not finite, but can be increased through economic policy. As in mercantilism, this approach believes that human flourishing requires wealth and that governments should, therefore, work to increase the wealth of its citizens. But, it has a different view of how governments should do this. Rather than establishing protectionistic policies aimed at retaining wealth, this view promotes open policies aimed at creating wealth.

Tom (Thomas Jefferson) represented the approach of the French physiocrats. They were much less concerned with creating or even retaining wealth. Instead, they focused on promoting the kind of living that would produce free and virtuous citizens, their view of human flourishing. And, for many of these thinkers, the best way to do this was through simple, agrarian, productive living. The growth of urban industrialism and wealth-oriented business practices were problems to be countered, not positive developments to be protected or (heaven forbid) increased. So, on this view, human flourishing does not require wealth creation. Instead, human flourishing requires stable, productive living. The role of government, then, is to make whatever policies necessary to facilitate such living, and nothing more.  .

Idealism, Greed, and Human Flourishing

I don’t want to go into which of these is right, or even what it means for an economic system to be “right.” But, to each of these systems I want to say “yes” and “no.” On the one hand, I’m deeply sympathetic with Jefferson’s notion of a simple life that focuses more on becoming the right kind of person than on creating and/or protecting the right amount of wealth. Jefferson’s ideal appeals to me: the simple farmer, intimately tied to the land, unencumbered by governments, banks, and big businesses, and growing into human flourishing in small, local communities.  But, at the same time, Jefferson’s ideal seems overly idealized. Most of the “simple farmers” I know work far too hard and rarely know if they’re going to have enough money to make it to the end of the season. And, that’s just in America. Move outside this country, and the life of the simple farmer is even more difficult. When you spend all day just trying to get enough food to survive, it’s difficult to find much time for human flourishing. Jefferson’s view of the simple life was probably colored by his experience as a wealthy plantation owner. It’s easy to say that wealth-creation is unnecessary when you already have more than you need. And it’s easy to tell government to get out of the way, when you already have the resources necessary to do what you want.

So, on the other hand, I also appreciate the goal of wealth creation promoted by the other two views. “Wealth” and “greed” are not synonymous. If we define “wealth” as the material goods that promote and sustain human flourishing, then we can see that wealth itself is not the problem, and promoting wealth can be helpful, even necessary, for promoting human flourishing. But, there are problems here as well. First, both of these systems can easily make wealth an end in itself. This isn’t necessary to these systems, but so much attention gets paid to increasing the wealth of a country and its citizens, that the broader questions of human flourishing easily get lost. If asked, I’m sure they would say, “Well, of course all of this wealth is for human flourishing.” But, by sidelining human flourishing and focusing on wealth creation, they’ve made a fundamental mistake that disorients the entire system. And, when that happens, both end up promoting greed. As I said earlier, wealth and greed are not the same. But, a system focused on wealth creation as an end in itself can only encourage greed as the system strives for “more,” either by taking from others (mercantilism) or by creating more (Smith). Either way, separated from a higher goal, wealth-creation lapses into a constant drive for more that can never be satisfied. And, as a result, both tend to promote competition over cooperation. Rather than highlighting human flourishing as the cooperative production of human communities, wealth-creation untethered from a higher goal creates the perfect context for the most destructive forms of economic competition.

All three of these systems, then, have something valuable to say about how government, economics, and human flourishing relate to one another. But, each manifests some limitations as well. And, they’ve been competing for primacy in American identity from the very beginning. There was no “winner” in the debate among the Founding Fathers. Instead, they compromised by including elements of each in our founding documents and policies. So, like me, many Americans have a conflicted, and possibly contradictory, view of these issues.

Two Fundamental Questions

In the end, I found this all to be very helpful in highlighting the need to press beyond discussions of economics and governmental practices to more fundamental questions:

  • What is human flourishing?
  • What factors are necessary to promote and sustain human flourishing?

These are core questions that should interest any human, but especially those of us involved in Christian ministry, because they’re the same questions that we’re asking. Only when we’ve offered our answers to these questions will we be in any position to have meaningful discussions about the best economic and political policies and practices for fostering them.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

Eccentric Existence 4 (a trinitarian framework)

We are looking at David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence.  In the last post, we saw that Kelsey argues that what makes an anthropology distinctively Christian and theological is the fact that it begins with the claim that the triune God as revealed primarily in and through Jesus Christ relates to human beings in creation, redemption, and consummation. Thus, Christian theological anthropology is Trinitarian, christocentric, and oriented around these three relations. Before we move from the introductory material into the main argument of the book, it will be helpful to understand the four main ways in which this Trinitarian framework shapes the content of a theological anthropology.

Relations and Community

Kelsey spends a fair amount of time discussing the shift that takes place after Nicea from an emphasis on the economic Trinity to the immanent Trinity. In the process, theologians began to spend much more time reflecting on the perichoretic nature of the triune relations. And, this has implications for the way that we develop a theological anthropology guided by these Trinitarian reflections.

The character of God’s eternal life privileges a distinct set of images for the type of existential ‘how’ that constitutes human flourishing. The communion in self-giving love that constitutes God’s life presupposes and requires that the beloved is an irreducibly other reality than the lover. Indeed, such communion nurtures the flourishing of the beloved precisely as other. (72)

So, even without predetermining the actual content of a theological anthropology, this Trinitarian framework indicates that its basic shape will privilege relationship and community in its vision of human flourishing.

Mystery

Kelsey is actually rather cautious about introducing the idea of mystery into his discussion of theological anthropology. He warns,

 Although Karl Barth grumped that ‘transcendence’ is the most tedious concept in theology, ‘mystery’ is surely a close runner-up, so loosely is it commonly used. (72)

Tightening up the definition significantly, he argues that properly used “mystery” refers exclusively to God himself. He alone is the true mystery. But, insofar as a Christian theology begins its understanding of the human person by looking to this essentially mysterious God, there will always be an element of “openness” and “transcendence” in theological anthropology. Since he’s written over 1,000 pages on the subject, this obviously doesn’t mean that Kelsey doesn’t think we can say anything constructive about the human person. But, as we will see, he does think that there is a lot about our understanding of human beings that must remain “open.” Indeed, we will see that he thinks we can say a lot about the shape of human flourishing in the world, but he is quite reticent to offer much in the way of particular content. And, much of that is driven by the fact that God himself is ultimately mysterious.

Human Flourishing

And, that segues nicely into the third feature of his Trinitarian anthropology. For Kelsey, the Trinitarian relations provide the key for understanding human flourishing.

Therein lay its anthropological implications, for it defines human flourishing. By such engagement humans are called to analogous life which is their flourishing. Their flourishing lay in a community in communion analogous to that of the triune God, marked by mystery – that is, by analogous glory, incomprehensibility, and holiness, analogous to that of the triune God. (77-78)

As we’ll see throughout the discussion, Kelsey does not think that everything we need to say about the human person can be derived directly from Christology or the doctrine of the Trinity. He indicates at the very beginning of the work that he has a high view of what non-theological anthropologies can provide to our understanding of human beings. But, he does think that the Trinity offers the only legitimate starting point for a Christian understanding of human flourishing.

The Three Relations that Constitute Theological Anthropology

As I’ve mentioned several times, the entire shape of Kelsey’s theological anthropology is driven by the three ways in which God relates himself to humanity—creation, redemption, and consummation. A proper understanding of the Trinity, though, nuances these relations in two important ways.

First, each of these three relations involves all three persons of the Trinity, but with their own distinct pattern.

Formulated abstractly, these differences of pattern are the following: It is the Father who creates through the Son in the power of the Spirit; it is the Spirit, sent by the Father with the Son, who draws creatures to eschatological consummation; it is the Son, sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit, who reconciles creatures. (122)

So, as Kelsey unpacks the significance of each relation for understanding anthropology, he will need to pay close attention to these distinctive Trinitarian patterns.

Second, he also argues that although all three of these relations are fundamentally important, we do need to notice several important “asymmetries” in these relations.

  • God’s relating to create is ontologically prior to and logically independent from the other two relations. The idea that God creates human beings does not necessarily entail that he will need to redeem them or consummate his creation in any way. But, for there to be anything for him to redeem or consummate, he must already have created. So, stories of creation will have a certain primacy in developing a theological anthropology. Though never in a way that undermines the significance of the other two.
  • God’s relating to consummate and God’s relating to reconcile as “complexly interrelated” (122). In other words, there is a sense in which stories about the redemption of humanity and the consummation of God’s redemptive plans for humanity are intertwined and inseparable. This means that the two will be mutually informing in the context of a theological anthropology.
  • Nonetheless, stories of redemption and consummation remain distinct stories, and neither should be subsumed under the other. There is a sense in which the idea consummation is logically independent of redemption. That is, it is conceptually to tell a story about bringing creation to its proper consummation without implying that it has fallen and is in need of redemption. On the other hand, stories of redemption seem necessarily depending on stories of consummation. That is, a story about redemption would seem to imply some story about the completion of that redemptive process.
  • So, although each of these stories needs to remain independent of the other and should be told with its own narrative logic, there is a complex pattern of relationships among the three stories that influences the way each will function in developing a theological anthropology.

Desiring the Kingdom 7

Chapter 5 is really the heart of the book. Here Smith walks through the embodied practices of a typical into people whose loves are directed toward the Kingdom of God: the space of worship,  gathering together, greeting one another, singing, reading the law, confession, baptism, reading the Apostles’ Creed, prayer, Scripture and sermon, eucharist, offering, and the sending out

I won’t take the time to walk you through each of the various practices that he discusses. Instead, I’ll mention just a few to give you a sense of how his argument develops.

1. The space of worship.

He begins by talking about how the physical space of worship can itself be used to create a “space of worship” that changes according to the liturgical calendar. In this way, “just the space of worship would tell a story that actually organizes time – an indication that here dwells a people with a unique sense of temporality, who inhabit a time that is out of joint with the regular, mundane ticking of commercial time or the standard shape of the academic year” (156). Such a practice would serve as a “counter-formation to the incessant 24/7-ness of our frenetic commercial culture” (157), by shaping us as a people formd by an eschatological imagination.

2. The gathering.

Smith argues that the very act of gathering together for worship is an embodied practice. At the very least, we could be at home doing something else that would be shaping us in very different ways. More importantly, gathering expresses our identity as those who have been called from the world to be constituted as the community that praises God. And, the gathering of the community expresses the conviction that this is the place in which human flourishing truly takes place – we are fully human beings insofar as we are worshipping beings.

3. Greeting one another

One of my favorite parts of the chapter was his section on the greeting as a formative practice. Looked at one way, nothing in the service is more trivial and awkward than the practice of “shaking hands with the person next to you.” But, Smith argues that we should see this is as practice that shapes us into a people that appreciates the importance of the community. We are not here as individual and isolated worshippers, but we are here as the people of God.

4. Baptism

Unsurprisingly, Smith sees this as a critical practice for the church. Indeed, “it is a microcosm of the entirety of Christian worship and the story of God, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (182). More interesting was his emphasis that because baptism serves as the constitution of the people of God, it also serves as a counter-formation to the “idolization of the family” (186). He thinks that modern, liberal society has placed too much emphasis on the family as the primary locus of human flourishing. And, thus, we’ve placed a burden on the family that it was never meant to handle. Instead, baptism reminds us that the family should be a part of the larger people of God. It thus “opens the home, liberating it from the burden of impossible self-sufficiency, while also opening it to the ‘disruptive friendships’ that are the mark of the kingdom of God” (186-7).

Through each of the different discussions, Smith wants us to understand two things. First, each of these practices serves as a counter-formation to other formative practices, directing us toward true human flourishing in the world. And, second, although it’s good for us to understand the theological significance of these practices, it is not necessary for them to have a formative influence. Indeed, the whole idea of a “practice” as he understands it is that its formative significance is pre-cognitive; it shapes us even if we don’t understand precisely how it does so. And, that’s why he argues that these are formative practices even for children or handicapped individuals who would not otherwise be able to grasp the theology embedded in the practices.

Desiring the Kingdom 7

Chapter 5 is really the heart of the book. Here Smith walks through the embodied practices of a typical into people whose loves are directed toward the Kingdom of God: the space of worship, gathering together, greeting one another, singing, reading the law, confession, baptism, reading the Apostles’ Creed, prayer, Scripture and sermon, eucharist, offering, and the sending out

I won’t take the time to walk you through each of the various practices that he discusses. Instead, I’ll mention just a few to give you a sense of how his argument develops.

1. The space of worship.

He begins by talking about how the physical space of worship can itself be used to create a “space of worship” that changes according to the liturgical calendar. In this way, “just the space of worship would tell a story that actually organizes time – an indication that here dwells a people with a unique sense of temporality, who inhabit a time that is out of joint with the regular, mundane ticking of commercial time or the standard shape of the academic year” (156). Such a practice would serve as a “counter-formation to the incessant 24/7-ness of our frenetic commercial culture” (157), by shaping us as a people formd by an eschatological imagination.

2. The gathering.

Smith argues that the very act of gathering together for worship is an embodied practice. At the very least, we could be at home doing something else that would be shaping us in very different ways. More importantly, gathering expresses our identity as those who have been called from the world to be constituted as the community that praises God. And, the gathering of the community expresses the conviction that this is the place in which human flourishing truly takes place – we are fully human beings insofar as we are worshipping beings.

3. Greeting one another

One of my favorite parts of the chapter was his section on the greeting as a formative practice. Looked at one way, nothing in the service is more trivial and awkward than the practice of “shaking hands with the person next to you.” But, Smith argues that we should see this is as practice that shapes us into a people that appreciates the importance of the community. We are not here as individual and isolated worshippers, but we are here as the people of God.

4. Baptism

Unsurprisingly, Smith sees this as a critical practice for the church. Indeed, “it is a microcosm of the entirety of Christian worship and the story of God, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (182). More interesting was his emphasis that because baptism serves as the constitution of the people of God, it also serves as a counter-formation to the “idolization of the family” (186). He thinks that modern, liberal society has placed too much emphasis on the family as the primary locus of human flourishing. And, thus, we’ve placed a burden on the family that it was never meant to handle. Instead, baptism reminds us that the family should be a part of the larger people of God. It thus “opens the home, liberating it from the burden of impossible self-sufficiency, while also opening it to the ‘disruptive friendships’ that are the mark of the kingdom of God” (186-7).

Through each of the different discussions, Smith wants us to understand two things. First, each of these practices serves as a counter-formation to other formative practices, directing us toward true human flourishing in the world. And, second, although it’s good for us to understand the theological significance of these practices, it is not necessary for them to have a formative influence. Indeed, the whole idea of a “practice” as he understands it is that its formative significance is pre-cognitive; it shapes us even if we don’t understand precisely how it does so. And, that’s why he argues that these are formative practices even for children or handicapped individuals who would not otherwise be able to grasp the theology embedded in the practices.

Acton roundup

Here are all of the posts from my recent trip to the Acton conference:

Free market economics through the lens of sin, power, and human flourishing (Acton 4)

[Oops. I wrote this while I was at Acton, but neglected to publish it. So, before anyone comments, yes I know that 4 comes before 7.]

One of the consistent themes here at Acton has been the idea that economics is not a zero-sum game. Rather than trying to determine how to divide up a finite pie of economic resources (wealth re-distribution), we should be focusing on how the proper use of capital resources creates more capital and greater global wealth. And, the best way to allocate those capital resources properly is to allow local economies to flourish. Some centralization of governmental authority is necessary to ensure that market forces don’t get out of hand, but in general we should facilitate the development of free markets that can respond swiftly to market demands and tap the resources of creative individuals/communities.

An issue that often arises in these discussions is that of global poverty, particularly poverty in majority world countries. Applying these free market principles means that the best way to address poverty is through the development of free market economies that will facilitate the production of greater wealth. Although “aid” should be an important part of our response to crisis situations, continual aid leads to an unhealthy dependence that destroys local economies. So, instead of “aid”, we should be focused on supporting local, free market economies. This is the best way to address global poverty. And, the growing economies of China and India are often cited as case studies in the application of these principles.

Although I can appreciate a lot about this arrangement, I am still left with at least four questions. One of them, the impact of this free market approach on the environment, I’ll save for my next post. In this one I’d like to focus on the issues of sin, power, and human flourishing.

1. Sin. As I mentioned in the previous post, it’s easy to talk about a “market” as an abstract force in society, and then discuss its potential for good in the world. That’s nice. But, when we realize that markets comprise the actions of individuals and communities which are themselves sinful and driven by sinful desires, the level of optimism should decrease significantly. And, Acton is fully aware of this problem. That’s why none of the lectures rejected a role for government in monitoring markets entirely (even though some of the rhetoric still pressed in this direction). But, their preferred answer to the problem of sin is the development of “virtuous” people and societies, who will then develop more “virtuous” markets. Unfortunately, “virtue” is one of those terms that never received adequate definition. Presumably they meant the Christian virtues (love, joy, peace, etc.). But, since they’re not talking about evangelism per se, they must be talking about developing “Christian” virtues in non-Christian contexts. (In other words, for market purposes it doesn’t really matter if you’re a Christian or a Buddhist, as long as you’re trustworthy.) But, I’m still waiting for some discussion of what it means to develop Christian virtues apart from Christ, who gets to determine which virtues are necessary, and how they do that. So, in general, I’d still like to see more reflection on the nature of sin and how it impacts this appeal to free markets.

2. Power. This one is similar to the last, but nuanced in a particular way. In one discussion this week, someone pointed to the problem of malaria in the majority world as an example of a situation that free markets seem poorly positioned to address. According to him, Malaria has the greatest impact on poor children in the majority world. Since such children have no capital resources, large pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to invest in affordable malaria medications. An example like this powerfully demonstrates the problem of unequal power distribution in the world and its impact on free markets. It would seem that as long as such inequities exist, there will be a tendency for free markets to cater to the needs and desires of those already powerful and wealthy. Granted, as someone points out, it’s actually in the best interests of the market to bring people out of poverty because it creates a larger and wealthier market. But, to hope that the market (i.e. the sinful people making economic decisions) will take such a long-range view, often against its own short-term interests, is a little more than I can manage.

3. Human Flourishing. And, we’re back to this one again because I think it’s at the center of so many of these issues. At the very end of one session someone asked why it is that so many people look at the growing economy of China and worry about what that economic growth is doing to the overall well-being of the people. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to discuss this one because I thought it raised a great question. If we’re not careful, this approach would seem to run the risk of equating human flourishing with economic well being, albeit virtuously economic well-being. So, we end up with a more Christian version of the homo economicus. I think the concerns people raise about rapid economic development are based on an almost unconscious realization that human flourishing involves so much more. So, a discussion of economics has to be grounded in an understanding of (at least) what makes for human flourishing in the world so that we can determine when economic growth does or does not serve that greater end.

One of the consistent themes here at Acton has the idea that economics is not a zero-sum game. Rather than trying to determine how to divide up a finite pie of economic resources (wealth re-distribution), we should be focusing on how the proper use of capital resources creates more capital and greater global wealth. And, the best way to allocate those capital resources properly is to allow local economies to flourish. Some centralization of governmental authority is necessary to ensure that market forces don’t get out of hand, but in general we should facilitate the development of free markets that can respond swiftly to market demands and tap the resources of creative individuals/communities.

An issue that often arises in these discussions is that of global poverty, particularly poverty in majority world countries. Applying these free market principles means that the best way to address poverty is through the development of free market economies that will facilitate the production of greater wealth. Although “aid” should be an important part of our response to crisis situations, continual aid leads to an unhealthy dependence that destroys local economies. So, instead of “aid”, we should be focused on supporting local, free market economies. This is the best way to address global poverty. And, the growing economies of China and India are often cited as case studies in the application of these principles.

Although I can appreciate a lot about this arrangement, I am still left with at least four questions. One of them, the impact of this free market approach on the environment, I’ll save for my next post. In this one I’d like to focus on the issues of sin, power, and human flourishing.

1. Sin. As I mentioned in the previous post, it’s easy to talk about a “market” as an abstract force in society, and then discuss its potential for good in the world. That’s nice. But, when we realize that markets comprise the actions of individuals and communities which are themselves sinful and driven by sinful desires, the level of optimism should decrease significantly. And, Acton is fully aware of this problem. That’s why none of the lectures rejected a role for government in monitoring markets entirely (even though some of the rhetoric still pressed in this direction). But, their preferred answer to the problem of sin is the development of “virtuous” people and societies, who will then develop more “virtuous” markets. Unfortunately, “virtue” is one of those terms that never received adequate definition. Presumably they meant the Christian virtues (love, joy, peace, etc.). But, since they’re not talking about evangelism per se, they must be talking about developing “Christian” virtues in non-Christian contexts. (In other words, for market purposes it doesn’t really matter if you’re a Christian or a Buddhist, as long as you’re trustworthy.) But, I’m still waiting for some discussion of what it means to develop Christian virtues apart from Christ, who gets to determine which virtues are necessary, and how they do that. So, in general, I’d still like to see more reflection on the nature of sin and how it impacts this appeal to free markets.

2. Power. This one is similar to the last, but nuanced in a particular way. In one discussion this week, someone pointed to the problem of malaria in the majority world as an example of a situation that free markets seem poorly positioned to address. According to him, Malaria has the greatest impact on poor children in the majority world. Since such children have no capital resources, large pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to invest in affordable malaria medications. An example like this powerfully demonstrates the problem of unequal power distribution in the world and its impact on free markets. It would seem that as long as such inequities exist, there will be a tendency for free markets to cater to the needs and desires of those already powerful and wealthy. Granted, as someone points out, it’s actually in the best interests of the market to bring people out of poverty because it creates a larger and wealthier market. But, to hope that the market (i.e. the sinful people making economic decisions) will take such a long-range view, often against its own short-term interests, is a little more than I can manage.

Human Flourishing. And, we’re back to this one again because I think it’s at the center of so many of these issues. At the very end of one session someone asked why it is that so many people look at the growing economy of China and worry about what that economic growth is doing to the overall well-being of the people. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to discuss this one because I thought it raised a great question. If we’re not careful, this approach would seem to run the risk of equating human flourishing with economic well being, albeit virtuously economic well-being. So, we end up with a more Christian version of the homo economicus. I think the concerns people raise about rapid economic development are based on an almost unconscious realization that human flourishing involves so much more. So, a discussion of economics has to be grounded in an understanding of (at least) what makes for human flourishing in the world so that we can determine when economic growth does or does not serve that greater end.

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.

In the beginning, there was work. And it was good?

What are these goofy human creatures that God made? What does it mean to live a truly human life? How do human communities flourish and what does that look like? These are some of the questions that got me interested in studying theological anthropology in the first place. Along the way, I’ve looked at the significance of Jesus Christ for understanding true humanity, the nature of the mind/body relationship, free will, gender/sexuality, eschatology, and I’ve started looking at the ecclesial nature of humanity. Among the glaring absences in this sadly incomplete list is the nature of work. God gave us work to do in the Garden and he has work for us to do in the eschaton. Beyond teling us that eternity won’t be just harp solos and cloud sculpting competitions, what significance does this have for understanding humanity as God intended it?

That’s what I’m off to explore tomorrow. I’ll be attending the Acton University conference in Grand Rapids for the rest of the week. Although Acton tends to focus more on issues of economics and politics, there will be plenty to explore in my own areas of interest. Mostly I’ll be focusing on understanding economics, social justice, and environmental stewardship, hoping that they will all contribute to a better understanding of work and human flourishing in the world.

Here are the seminars that I’m considering at the moment. If I’m feeling really energetic, I’ll try to post some thoughts on the more interesting ones as the conference progresses. We’ll see how that goes.

  • Thoughts on Human Dignity
  • Christian Anthropology
  • Christianity and the Idea of Limited Government (not sure why this is on my list)
  • Economic Way of Thinking
  • Foundations of a Free and Virtuous Society (hoping for some thoughts on human flourishing here)
  • Evangelical Social Thought: Justice Grounded in Love
  • Social Justice: Fair and Victimless vs. Free and Virtuous
  • Biblical Theology and Environmental Ethics
  • Bonhoeffer’s Social Ethics
  • Environmental Sustainability: Creature Care beyond Stewardship

The ambiguity of death

Should Christians see death as an enemy to be feared and resisted or as a friend welcoming us to a new and better home? Or, as Paul Griffiths argues, is it both? On the one hand it is a horrible consequence of sin and a sign of our brokenness. On the other hand, it is “a transition to a new condition,” and one whose way has been marked out and sanctified by Jesus himself.

And, Griffiths argues that the ambiguous nature of death has two interesting implications. First, it should lead us to emphasize that life is a good to be cherished and one that should not be lightly cast off through life-ending practices like euthanasia. But, more interestingly for the purposes of this discussion, Griffiths draws a second conclusion from death’s ambiguity:

To jettison the view that death is a friend to be welcomed, a friend who will greet you one day whether you like it or not, suggests blindness to life eternal and a fixation on postponing death at all costs and for as long as possible. That fixation, because of our ever-increasing capacity to keep the body alive, now often leads to tormenting the body and the person by refusing to permit death to do its work.

Both of my parents worked for years in the nursing home industry. So, I have witnessed first-hand what happens when the ambiguity is lost and death becomes something to be resisted at all costs. Every family must face these decisions for themselves, but watching the doctors resuscitate the same ninety year-old man for the fifth time, practicing every emergency measure available in a technologically advanced society, knowing full well that the end has come and that such measures can only hold death back for a few days at best, makes you ask some hard questions.

Griffiths hints that we need to consider issues of global equity and justice when a country like America spends as much money as it does keeping its wealthy citizens comfortable and healthy despite the costs involved and regardless of the disease and death rampaging through the rest of the world. (On a similar note, see the recent Yahoo news article today on the rise of unnecessary back surgeries in America.)  To combat this, he concludes that we “need to begin to think and teach again, in public, about the ars moriendi, the art of dying.”

So, for the first half of the essay, I thought Griffiths did a nice job challenging us to recognize the ambiguous nature of death for Christians. Unfortunately, the latter half of the essay went in directions that I found less compelling. Swinging the pendulum too far back in the other direction, Griffiths concluded that Christians can (should?) pay less attention to preventative care and diagnostic testing, and we should spend less time celebrating those who have “survived” in their battles against illness. Neither of these conclusions seems warranted and both press against his earlier contention that we should cherish and celebrate life as a gift. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with seeing each of these as examples of human flourishing, even as we try to redress the balance between death as curse and death as gift.

What do you think? What is the proper response of the Christian in the face of life-threatening illness? How do you counsel people to deal with their own mortality? Do we have a responsibility as wealthy westerners to be more careful with the way that we use the world’s resources to sustain our own lives?