The Nation State vs. the Market State

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The state in the West has itself changed dramatically in the last generation. It has moved from a nation state to become a market state. Nation states can control their boundaries, their economies, their cultures, and their security; they seek to provide in varying degrees health care, education, and old-age security. A cocktail of changes in communications, technology, the failure of socialism, and globalization have undermined the nation state. In their place we have market states. Market states concentrate on maximizing opportunity. They balance public and private means of delivering public goods; and they look to the market place and its practices as a criterion of success in what they do. This is true of Moscow, London, Tokyo, Brussels, Berlin, Dublin, Seoul, and the like. Politics and religion reflect the background music of the market state. So we have market churches, market preachers, and market research driven politicians. Even philanthropy is now administered on the model of market practices. We can rave and rant all we want about this, but this is where we now live. It will take time for the new religious, political, legal, and military dust to settle; it is not surprising that we feel blinded and disoriented.

William J. Abraham, Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, “Just War, Terroism, and Christian Ethics.”  Diane Knippers Lecture, Institute on Religion & Democracy, Washington, DC, 7 October 2013.

Read the whole address here.

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Locke, Rousseau, Heaven, Hell and Modernity

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Oil on canvas. 76×64 cm. Britain, 1697. Source of Entry: Collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Houghton Hall, 1779. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of the Acton Institute/Liberty Fund conference I attended emphasized the work of thinkers foundational to the contemporary views of social justice. This isn’t to say that the presentations and conversations weren’t critical in nature–they certainly were–but the point of our sessions was not for the speakers to present their own theories. A delightful exception was the session led by Nicholas Capaldi Legendre-Soulé Distinguished Chair in Business Ethics at Loyola University, New Orleans.

Capaldi began by outlining what he calls the two compelling narratives about social capital that have informed modernity from the Renaissance to the present day: John Locke’s liberty narrative and Jean Jacques Rousseau’s (and Marx’s) equality narrative.  Though a narrative contains arguments and an appeal to facts, it is not an argument as such. Rather it is a commitment about how we will habitually engage the world of persons, events and things. For many Christian–including Orthodox Christians–such a focus might seem of little value since (so their thinking goes) neither narrative is Christian and so of no interest to those who are in Christ.

This way of thinking is more than unfortunate; it is self-deluding. The fact that neither narrative is explicitly Christian doesn’t mean that one or both of them don’t influence (for good or ill) the Church’s life. In fact, to the degree that we don’t come to a critical appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of the narratives that inform modernity, we are likely controlled by them in ways about which we unaware. Continue reading

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Social Justice, Hayek, de Tocqueville, and Holy Communion

A central challenge in fostering a more just society, as I suggested in a previous post, is the general lack of a cultural consensus on what justice actually is and so isn’t.  Forget for a moment the practical questions involved. How do we decide if the redistribution of income by way of the tax code, to name a point of popular contention, is just or unjust? What standard do we use? Returning to the practical dimension for a moment, in the absence of an agreed upon understanding of justice how do we decide how money is to be shifted or who receives what? Or putting aside this question how could we, as some have, say that such redistribution is morally justified as long as the benefit received by person “B” for every dollar outweighs the pain caused to person “A” for every dollar taken?  Not only how we answer these questions, but even the questions themselves assume a particular understanding of the nature of justice and so what it means to live as a member of a society.

This is why, to give him his due, the economist Fredrick Hayek objected on both grammatical and linguistic grounds to the term “social justice.” Absent at least well delineated and mutually agreed to anthropology, the term simply means nothing and so everything. Moreover though his criticism of the political implications of the term opens him to charges of cynicism, we need take  seriously his argument  that appeals to social justice on behalf of the poor don’t necessarily benefit the poor themselves as much they benefit those making the appeal in the name of the poor. Continue reading

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Whose Justice?

Several years ago, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre published a book exploring different and competing notions of, among other things, justice (Whose Justice? Which Rationality?). Based on my own experience one approach to resolving the conflict inherent in different models of justice is simply to ignore those models with whom we disagree. Alternatively, we can try and co-opt those other models trying to in someway make them our own.

Of the two approaches, the former is common among those Orthodox Christians who see the Church as in somehow isolated from the surrounding culture. Looking back at some of things I wrote as a graduate student in my mid to late 20’s this is was what I did. Becoming Orthodox meant that, again somehow, I could skip over the challenges of modernity. Of course I did this while obsessed with what I saw as modernity’s shortcomings and errors. In compassion for my younger self let me simply say this is  an understandable if ultimately maladaptive strategy typical of youth. Less charitably it falls somewhere on the continuum between psychological neurosis and spiritual delusion.

The latter approach might seem to be a more mature and sophisticated way of dealing with the conflict. Unfortunately, and like my youthful neurosis, it’s aim is to resolve conflict not through reconciliation but through a leveling of intellectual disagreement. Often this takes the form of arguing that the other side doesn’t actually believe what it says it believes. Rather they actually believe what I believe even if they are confused about this. Happily I’m here to help correct this state of affairs.

Far better I think to acknowledge our differences even while we look for points of commonality however elusive and frail such agreement might be. For those looking for a system neat and tidy this is an unsatisfying response to intellectual or cultural conflict. And yet especially for Christians it is the only way that we can hope to remain faithful to both our own convictions and the inherent dignity of those with whom we find ourselves in disagreement. And, needless to say, if I am willing to sacrifice your dignity can the loss of my own be far behind?
Continue reading

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The Four Lies

Culture-Wars-Web-300x270David French, Senior Counsel at the American Center of Law and Justice, lists what he calls the “four quite seductive lies [that] play to our innate selfishness while convincing us that we’re also somehow brave and selfless.” He concludes by arguing that “The conservative project to reclaim culture – a far more important project than reclaiming the White House – has to relentlessly and creatively expose these lies while also demonstrating the attractiveness of true virtue. I fear we’re better at the former than the latter and thus succeed mainly in making people feel bad, not in inspiring them to do good.”

So what are these four lies? Take a look: Continue reading

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Nature or Will? A Final Look at the Marriage Debate

Here’s the last of my posts on the same-sex marriage debate. You can read parts one and two here and here.

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Contemporary discussions about marriage (and sexuality more generally) have largely abandoned the conjugal model in favor of one that focuses on consent. We have seen a shift from a conversation rooted in human nature—and the moral norm of conformity or obedience to nature—to a radical emphasis on the will as the sole source of what is humanly meaningful. These are strong words on my part I know. And I don’t mean them to suggest that I would reject out of hand the consensual dimension of marriage. It is however to say that while consent is an element of the traditional, conjugal view of marriage, it is not the whole of it. We must attend not only to the human will but to human nature which is its proximate source.

The real social and pastoral problem is not  same-sex marriage (SSM) but  that both popular culture and many Christians have abandoned a morality based in human nature in favor of one based in the human will. Though serious the SSM debate is an adoption and application of a truncated view of marriage to the needs and desires of same-sex couples. The ease, indeed the eagerness, with which some Christians have taken up the cause of SSM would suggest that for a significant number of Christians the classical biblical and natural law understanding of marriage simply doesn’t matter.  For all that they may affirm the Creed in matters of dogma, when it comes to matters of personal morality (and public policy) many otherwise orthodox Christians are estranged from, and even hostile to, their own moral tradition. Continue reading

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Bonhoeffer, Asceticism, the Free Market and Philanthropy

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation.

Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship

I ended my Acton talk with a quote from Bonhoeffer. I did so because I think it is important ( both evangelically and culturally) for Orthodox Christians to make the argument, as I did at Acton, that asceticism is not unique to the Church but a discipline common to all Christians. The ascetical intuition of the Orthodox Church isn’t, in other words, foreign to other Christian traditions or at odds to how many Christians understand their own spiritual journey.

Culturally, it is important to emphasize that whether we are concerned with the benefits of the free market or the care for those in need, both require an ascetical effort. Without such an effort the free market doesn’t remain free and prosperous and we will be unable to care for the poor. The irony here is that this is so in BOTH cases because we will remain encapsulated in lives centered on the pursuit of self-aggrandizement and pleasure.

As I said in my talk, the “Third Way” of Christianity is not some accommodation between the economic policies of the political right and the social policies of the political left. Rather our Third Way, is the Way of the Cross, the way of personal ascetical struggle.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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