More Thoughts on Economics and the Church

My post on the implication for the Orthodox Church of Novak’s understanding of capitalism (for the original post, click here)  has inspired an interesting, if not always edifying, conversation over at the American Orthodox Institute Blog where I cross posted the piece (for the post and comments, click here).

As I mentioned on the AOI blog, my interest in Novak’s work is not a technical interest (I am not primarily interested in how his understanding compares with who other scholars view capitalism) but on the anthropological vision that he says  contributes to the extraordinary success in capitalism (or a free market approach to the economy) is raising the standard of living for the vast majority of people on the planet.

This all came to mind when I read Matt Cavendon’s post (“Sowell and Benedict XVI on Economics and Culture“) on the Acton Institute‘s blog, Powerblog.   Cavendon makes, I think, a point similar to my own, when he argues that both Pope Benedict XVI and the economist Thomas Sowell challenge us to look at the human meaning of cultural and economic structures.  For both men, development (whether economic for Sowell or more vocation for Benedict) is not divorced from culture because human beings are foundationally social beings.  Our success and failure is not simply private but more often then not shared.  And so, Cavendon observes, “cultures that insist on rigid boundaries between certain types of people will not be able to enjoy the fruits of everyone’s creativity and productivity. ”  He uses, as an example, the

Afrikaners (people of Dutch descent in South Africa) under apartheid, . . . , believed that it was unacceptable for native Africans to hold many jobs. Instead of letting Africans develop the gifts that God gave them and sharing with them in prosperity, the Afrikaners chose segregation. South Africa was poor under apartheid: neither Afrikaners nor native Africans advanced economically.

Likewise, I think, in the Church.  If we do not allow people to develop the gifts–spiritual, intellectual, or cultural–that God has given them, then the whole Church suffers a a real impoverishment in not only from the immediate lost of these undeveloped gifts but also a more long term loss.

This more long term loss is akin to JFK’s phrase a rising tide lifts all boats.  In foster the development of your gifts (and again, economic, intellectual, cultural or spiritual) I enrich both you and the whole community of the Church of which you are a member.  This greater wealth brings with it not only more opportunities for you but for me as well and so by not fostering your gifts I impoverish us both.

Following Benedict’s analysis Cavedon next turns to critical and appreciative analysis of American culture.  As with any culture

there are some aspects of American culture that honor the common good and that promote real development. Our tradition of liberty in the context of morality honors the dignity of the human person. Our beliefs in free action unrestricted by the government give people the free choice that makes virtue possible. Our distaste for unjust privilege and belief in the equality of all people make social mobility a deeply-entrenched value.

At the same time, we are not always our best selves as Americans.  And so together with our great strengths we must also frankly acknowledge that

America also has a history of exclusion. African Americans were held in slavery for hundreds of years here, and only recently did they gain full legal rights protected by the government. At various points, Mexicans, Chinese, Jews, and other immigrant groups have been treated brutally by Americans unwilling to open society to people with new gifts to offer. Secularism also poses a grave threat to authentic development: without values and morals guiding people’s free choices, liberty becomes license and freedom can become an excuse for depravity.

Rightly Cavedon turns not only to the Church as the basis of his critic of American culture, but also (if only implicitly in this post) to contemporary thought (in this case Sowell’s writing in economics).  In doing this I think that he has not only offered useful insights in the intersection of economics and the Gospel, but also offered a model of engaging the contemporary world that is applicable for the Orthodox Church’s witness.

While certainly central to our engagement is the truthfulness of what we say to the world.  But the truthfulness of our words are, I think, undermined if we are not willing to first look at ourselves.  I spent two days last week at a meeting of Orthodox Christian urban parishes.  While some of these parishes are doing well, people love each other, the Gospel is being preached both by word and through an active life of philanthropic engagement, other of these parishes are slowly (or not so slowly) dying.  Taking a hint from Cavendon I can’t help but wonder if the difference between the experience of the two types of parishes is found precisely in the strengths and weaknesses he outlines as part of American culture.

This isn’t to set some parishes up as heroes and others villains.  It is rather meant to suggest that what might make the difference between a living parish and a dying one isn’t to be found in the particular parishes ability to see itself and those outside the community as gifts from God?

Well, as always, your comments, criticisms and questions are not only welcome but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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