Did you know that you have unlimited, untapped potential within you? Did you know that the power permeating everything that exists lies deep within you? And, did you know that you can find out how to tap into this mysterious well of semi-divine being for a mere $23.95 ($11.98 from Amazon)? That’s a pretty sweet deal.
Rhonda Byrne’s latest book The Power follows up on her earlier best-seller The Secret, and looks like it will be equally well-poised to tell people exactly what they want to hear. Check out the trailer. It’s quite well done. (If only my books had cool trailers like this. I’m sure that a book on the christological anthropology of Karl Barth as it relates to contemporary philosophy of mind could have been a bestseller if it just had a cool trailer.)
[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.
Several of us from the ThM program got together last night to discuss James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (thanks to Pat for the hospitality!). I thought the discussion was very interesting, and Brian’s contributions were invaluable.
I won’t rehash all the particulars of the book since I’ve posted links before to good reviews and discussions of the book here and here. One thing that really stood out to me, though, as I was looking over things again before the meeting was Chuck Colson’s response to the book and how badly he seems to have missed Hunter’s point. In his response to Hunter, Colson comments, “I don’t think that the differences are that great.” Instead, they are “more apparent than real.” And he specifically identifies this point of connection in the idea that “Changing people’s beliefs and influencing elites are not mutually exclusive.” And here he demonstrates that he just did not understand the heart of Hunter’s argument.
As I read the book, there are three basic moves in Hunter’s argument, and Colson grasped two of them. First, Hunter contends that evangelicals get culture change wrong because we misunderstand culture. We are implicit idealists, thinking that culture is really about what people think and believe. Hunter contends instead that ideas are important, but that it is really the institutional structures of a society that provide the context in which ideas can have a sustainable impact. So, a crude summary could be: culture = ideas + institutions. And, this works for Colson. Though he wants to affirm the importance of worldviews (i.e. ideas), he’s very aware that institutions are critical in promoting and sustaining these worldviews. That’s why he devotes so much attention to social/institutional change.
Hunter’s second point is that the implicit idealism in our view of culture means that we think the best way to change culture is to change how people think. Instead, he argues that cultures only change through a top-down process driven by overlapping networks of elite power and influence. Just changing what the average person thinks won’t affect long-term cultural change because that leaves unchanged these elite networks that really exert long-term influence. In other words, you can affect short term popular change in a culture by appealing to the average person, but long term cultural change always involves these elite powers structures. And, Colson thinks they’re on the same basic page here as well. Although Colson’s efforts are largely geared toward changing culture by informing and influencing the worldviews of average people, he is very aware of the power and importance of cultural elites. If there’s one thing Colson understands, it’s how social/political power works in this country.
So, Colson seems to think that he and Hunter are on the same basic page here. Evangelicals can change culture, they just need to do a better job engaging cultural institutions and the elites who control them. The problem is that this misses the third, critical, and (in my opinion) most interesting move in Hunter’s argument. Hunter acknowledges that it’s possible to change culture in this way—though he also contends that it is difficult if not impossible to do this through intentional action, that attempts to change culture intentionally like this always have unintended consequences, and that it takes generations before you can really see if culture has really changed. But, Hunter contends that the only way to bring about cultural change like this is by becoming complicit in the broken power structures that make it all possible. And, this is exactly what he thinks both the Christian Right and Christian Left have done. By embracing power politics in seeking to accomplish meaningful change, they have been coopted by worldly power structures that are antithetical to Gospel/Kingdom values.
So from a Hunterian perspective, Colson is right that you can accomplish (at least limited) cultural change. But, when we focus on change as the goal, we inevitably become part of the very problems that we’re trying to fix. As an alternative, Hunter offers his idea of faithful presence. Rather than trying to change the world, we should see to live faithful Kingdom lives in the world, seeking to foster human flourishing both within the Kingdom community and without. Whether the world changes as a result is entirely up to God. That’s not our job.
So, Hunter and Colson really are on completely opposite sides of this discussion; the differences are not “more apparent than real.” Colson summarizes the goal as “Changing people’s beliefs and influencing elites,” which is a great summary of exactly what Hunter thinks we should not be doing.