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Acton roundup

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

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.

The inadequacy of a “Christian” Anthropology (Acton 1)

The first four seminars at the Acton conference serve to lay out the basic framework that the rest of the seminars will build upon. They focus in turn one:

  1. Christian anthropology
  2. Limited government and the rule of law
  3. Developing an economic way of thinking
  4. The foundations of a free society

Together, these are supposed to provide a fundamental framework for developing a Christian view of human flourishing that can then drive our view of government, law, economics, and society. In other words, if we properly understand what a human person is and what makes for human flourishing in the world, we can strive to orient our governments, markets, and societies around that vision.

Such a project has two fundamental tasks to perform before it can even get off the ground. First, it has to present a compelling vision of what it means to be human and what makes for human flourishing in the world. And, second, it must explain how we move from that vision to specific proposals and actions in the world. I want to deal with how the conference has addressed the first of those in this post.

So, taking up the first of these two tasks, the opening seminar was on developing this foundational anthropology. The speaker began by saying that his intention was to explain how a Christian anthropology is fundamentally different from a “secularist” anthropology, and that he would be doing this primarily by offering a philosophical analysis, rather than a biblical/theological one. His reason for doing so is that it would be “too easy” to identify the differences between these two anthropologies through biblical/theological categories. The differences would be more stark and compelling, he indicated, if we established on the basis of philosophical reasoning (more on this later).

He then went on to argue for five areas of emphasis in a Christian anthropology that demonstrate how it is different from a secularist anthropology:

  1. We are embodied beings, which means that they are neither souls inhabiting bodies (Cartesian dualism) or merely material things (physical reductionism).
  2. We are volitional beings with a will that is both free and determined, rather than being completely autonomous (nominalism) or physically deterministic (hard and soft determinism).
  3. We are creative beings, which means that although we are fully a part of the created order, we are unique within creation in having dominion over creation (understood primarily as the right and responsibility to creatively bring out the full potential of creation).
  4. We are fallen beings, and as such, we can not simply follow our own passions (hedonism) nor place all our faith in the ability of humanity to perfect itself (utopianism).
  5. We are individual/social beings and thus we cannot see ourselves as exclusively individual (anarchy) or social (collectivism).

Although I have some questions/observations about how the speaker unpacked each of these in the seminar, I’ll restrict myself to offering three fundamental concerns about the overall project.

First, there is nothing uniquely Christian about this anthropology. Although the word “Christian” was used quite a bit, there is very little in here that many Jews, Muslims, or even atheists would disagree with. (Indeed, even the argument against the “secularist” in the lecture only works by focusing on the secularist’s weakest arguments – e.g. hard determinism.) Of course, they wouldn’t use words like “soul” or “sin”, instead preferring terms like “transcendent mental capabilities” and “brokenness,” but the fact remains that the basic shape of this anthropology can be found in many belief systems. None of what makes an anthropology uniquely Christian (Trinity, Christology, image of God, the Gospel, etc.) factored into the discussion at all.

That observation in itself would raise some questions, but as I indicated earlier, the speaker did indicate that his intention was to offer a philosophical rather than a biblical/theological presentation. Apparently that means you get an anthropology that is less obviously Christian. The more fundamental problem, though, is that this seminar was supposed to serve as the foundational seminar for the other three. Indeed, all of the other speakers referred to this one as though it had provided that basic Christian view of the human person and human flourishing that could ground subsequent discussions about government, economics, and society. It didn’t.

That lack grows in significance when you remember that many of the people here have no formal Bible/theology training. At dinner last night, I set with a nice young man who is a medical student in Texas. (By the way, during the opening dinner, the Republic of Texas was counted as one of the represented countries.) He thoroughly enjoyed the lecture and had no idea that there was more to a Christian anthropology than he had heard. How is he supposed to engage some of the challenging issues addressed later in the conference with no more than a generic understanding of what a human person is or what constitutes human flourishing.

All of this leads to my third concern. Although it was never said explicitly, I’m fairly certain that the lack of robust theological reflection stems from the presumption that such would hinder, or even preclude, meaningful dialog with non-Christians. That would undercut the idea of social engagement from the very beginning. So, instead of offering us a distinctively Christian anthropology, they gave us an anthropology that they would say is grounded in a Christian “worldview,” but one that can also be communicated to non-Christians and used to ground economic/political/cultural discourse in the public realm. If I am correct, this raises a whole new set of issues that I’ll address when we get to the fourth lecture on the role of the Bible and natural law in public discourse. For now I’ll simply observe that such an anthropology would seem to be “Christian” in a secondary sense (at best), since it is an anthropology with much of its Christian distinctiveness stripped out. And, that seems an unfortunate foundation on which to build an understanding of human flourishing (which they still haven’t defined).