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 →
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 →
The basic question. The nature of man (i.e. what it means to be human) is arguably the basic political issue of the twentieth century. It is certainly one of the chief points of conflict between Marx and Jesus, and therefore between the East and the West, namely whether human beings have any absolute value because of which they must be respected, or whether their value is only relative to the community, for the sake of which they may be exploited. More simply, are the people the servants of the institution, or is the institution the servant of the people? — John R.W. Stott
Suppose the reformer begins to say that God is like a good woman. Suppose she says that we might just as well pray to Our Mother which art in heaven as to Our Father. Suppose that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female form. Suppose the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called Daughter of God as Son of God. Suppose finally that the mystical marriage betwixt ‘Christ and his Church’ were reversed, that the Church became the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as priest. If all those supposals were ever carried into effect, we should be embarked on a different religion. — Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.
The paradox of humanness. It is part, I think, of the paradoxical nature of our humanness that we are both breath of God and dust of earth, godlike and bestial, created and fallen, noble and ignoble. That seems to be why we both seek God and run away from him, both practise righteousness and suppress the truth in our unrighteousness, both recognize the claims of the moral law upon us and refuse to submit to it, both erect altars in God’s honour and need to repent of our ignorance and sin. — John R.W. Stott
Self-denial and self-discovery. We are the product on the one hand of the fall, and on the other of our creation by God and re-creation in Christ. This theological framework is indispensable to the development of a balanced self-image and self-attitude. It will lead us beyond self-acceptance to something better still, namely self-affirmation. We need to learn both to affirm all the good within us, which is due to God’s creating and re-creating grace, and ruthlessly to deny (i.e. repudiate) all the evil within us, which is due to our fallenness. Then, when we deny our false self in Adam and affirm our true self in Christ, we find that we are free not to love ourselves, but rather to love him who has redeemed us, and our neighbour for his sake. At that point we reach the ultimate paradox of Christian living that when we lose ourselves in the selfless loving of God and neighbour we find ourselves (Mk. 8:35). True self-denial leads to true self-discovery. — John R.W. Stott
Why don’t we encourage sufferers to aim for joy? Perhaps we think of suffering and joy as a two-step process, as if what we see in Psalm 126:5-6—We go out weeping and return with shouts of joy—is the only pattern. This view sees suffering and joy as fundamentally incompatible and unable to be experienced simultaneously. But that can’t be true. Scripture indicates that life in the age of the Spirit will have the hardest suffering and the greatest joy—and both can be experienced at the same time. The Apostle Paul illustrated this as one of the many of the implications of the gospel: “in all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (2 Cor. 7:4).
This means that even when we are in pain, we can go in search of joy with the expectation that it will, indeed, find and surprise us. Think about the end of war and enemies defeated (1 Chron. 16:33, Ps. 27:6), water in the desert (Is. 35:6), how the Lord delights in the welfare of his servants (Ps. 35:27), how the Lord comforts his people (Is. 49:13), how the Father, Son and Spirit take joy in each other and, through Jesus, we are brought into that joy (John 15:11). Think about how forgiveness of sins has secured for us all the promises of God, which are summarized in his unceasing presence with us. This presence, and the future glory of seeing him face-to-face, is to be at the very center of our joy.
But in this search we still have a problem. The prevailing treatment and dominant metaphor today for alleviating pain is medication. We take a pill and wait for it to be effective. We give the treatment limited time to show its worth before we move on to a new prescription. Joy does not follow this pattern. It does not come quickly. In fact, if we expect quick results, we are not actually seeking joy and it will never come. Joy does counterbalance pain, but that is a side effect of joy rather than its goal.
An interesting observation that those Orthodox Christians who reject natural law in any form might want to consider:
By rejecting Hellinization, or Greek Philosophy, fundamentalist Islam denies the validity of reason, and therefore also denies the existence of natural law. Reilly argues that without reason and natural law it is impossible to develop the sort of constitutional systems that are prevalent in the West. He further traces the problem back in history and explains that a divide arose in “9th century in Baghdad between those who wished to give primacy to reason and those who wished to give primacy to pure will and power. So you had, on one side, the first theological school in Islam that said, ‘God is rationality and justice,’ and the other side which said: ‘No, God is pure will and power. Rationality has nothing to do with Him and whatever He does is incomprehensible to us and He cannot be confined to what is thought to be reasonable or unreasonable.’”The latter view ultimately prevailed, as Reilly points that even today the majority theological school believes “that God is the first and only cause of everything and there cannot be secondary causes (such as natural law) because that would be a challenge to God’s omnipotence. So for God to be omnipotent, nothing else can be even so much as potent. Therefore, gravity does not make the rock fall; God does. Fire doesn’t burn cotton; God does.”
As a result there is a:
…rejection of reason in fundamentalist Islam leads to the belief that “the mind is incapable of knowing good and evil from moral philosophy because there is nothing to be known, because things have no nature and are therefore neither good nor evil in themselves, [it is only because] God says so.”
And the practical conclusion?
The Church cannot expect to have any meaningful dialogue with either the secularists or the fundamentalists until both have been re-Hellenized. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD,” but such an invitation can only be accepted by a man who would say “I desire only to know the truth, and to live as well as I can.”
Acton University is a unique, four-day exploration of the intellectual foundations of a free society. Guided by a distinguished international faculty, Acton University is an opportunity to deepen your knowledge and integrate rigorous philosophy, Christian theology, and sound economics. At this year’s event, the following Orthodox speakers were featured.
Together with Fr Michael Butler and Fr Hans Jacobse, I lectured last week at Acton University. Fr Michael spoke on an Orthodox understanding of natural law as well as the relationship of Church and State in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. Fr Hans spoke on why Aleksander Solzhenitsyn matters to us today. My own talk was on consumerism and the ascetical life. All four talks can be found on Ancient Faith Radio (Acton University 2013) and are free to download or listen to online. You can also purchase the audio at the Acton Institute.
While I welcome people’s comments on the presentations, please listen to them before you comment.
Here’s the conclusion to yesterday’s post on intellectual formation. I hope to have the last post on pastoral formation and the whole essay available by the middle of next week.
The Personal Awareness of Grace. Just as I can’t live a Christian life without the grace of the sacraments, I can’t live this life without at least some subjective awareness of God’s presence in my life. It is here, in my subjective or personal, awareness of God that my intellectual formation becomes important. While not unrelated to academics, intellectual formation prepares me for joy. Undertaken in the right spirit, my studies are a preparation for the enduring experience of happiness that is essential to a wholesome human and holy Christian life. How does this happen? Continue reading →