Love Wins

Posted in Love on 04/24/2011 by rossemmett

I finished Rob Bell’s Love Wins almost a month ago, and have been ruminating about what to post. As I was nearing the end of the book, the thought I returned to over and over again was: he’s ripping this off of C.S. Lewis (see The Last Battle and The Great Divorce; maybe also Perelandra). But then in his suggested readings he encouraged people to read Lewis (and N.T. Wright, who was another one I was thinking of — esp. Surprised by Hope), and in his acknowledgements he thanked his parents for suggesting he read Lewis when he was in high school (it took him that long to find the Chronicles?).

Then I discovered that there are a host of people how have written about Bell and Lewis (see here and here, just for starters!), and I thought I’d have little to add.

But I keep returning to the book for several reasons:

1) Bell’s theological approach is narrative rather than propositional: he tells stories to illuminate questions rather than creating an argument through foundational truths and deduction from them. You’ve heard the promo video, of course: he tells a story, and then prompts your thinking by asking 12 questions (count them! — in the book he asks close to 30 questions in the first chapter alone!).

2) Because I am also not a systematic thinker (neither in theology or in economics), and tend to be analogical, I’m attracted to story-telling as an explanatory device. As Lewis said, stories help us get past the “watchful dragons” who patrol access to our minds. Bell thanks his parents for introducing him to Lewis: I have done the same for mine, but I have often said throughout my life that the biggest mistake conservative evangelicalism made with me was introducing me to Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, MacDonald, and L’Engle. Their stories led me into a sacramental view of the world, which meant I had to leave evangelicalism.

3) If I did put Bell’s ideas into propositional form, I would start with 2 statements:
a) God is love
b) God’s love pursues us infinitely

All of Bell’s questions come from agreement with those two statements. The questions about his views on hell, of course, have to do with his ambiguity on the issue of whether one could infinitely refuse God’s love. My own view is that Bell is not a universalist; he would rather focus on questions relevant to our life today than to speculation about infinity.

4) I find it ironic that so much attention has been focused on Bell’s views on hell that his understanding of heaven is simply ignored. If you want to see why he doesn’t talk about hell in the hereafter much, perhaps you should look first at why he doesn’t say much about heaven in the hereafter either! He isn’t opposed to talking about those issues, but is focus is on God’s action through us today. Love Wins. Not only in the end, but here and there, now. That is the promise of Easter.

5) While reading Love Wins, I kept remembering a hymn I used to have tacked to the wall of my office. I thought the translator of the hymn by Francis Xavier was John Mason Neale, but turns out it is Edward Caswell. The hymn is perhaps best known as “My God, I love Thee” but also as “Thou Art My God, and My Eternal King.” Here it is:

My God, I love Thee; not because
I hope for heaven thereby,
Nor yet because who love Thee not
Are lost eternally.

Thou, O my Jesus, Thou didst me
Upon the cross embrace;
For me didst bear the nails, and spear,
And manifold disgrace,
And griefs and torments numberless,
And sweat of agony;
Yea, death itself; and all for me
Who was thine enemy.

Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
Should I not love Thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heaven,
Nor of escaping hell;
Not from the hope of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward;
But as Thyself hast loved me,
O ever-loving Lord.

So would I love Thee, dearest Lord,
And in Thy praise will sing;
Solely because Thou art my God,
And my most loving King.

Francis Xavier, 1506-1552, Translated by Edward Caswall, 1814-1878


Ecumenism and Economics

Posted in Uncategorized on 01/04/2011 by rossemmett

Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social WitnessEcumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness by Jordan J. Ballor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ballor explores the history of social economic statements by three ecumenical councils — the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the World Council of Churches — in light of two issues: a) the relation between the church statements and their underlying dependence on a particular view of political economy; and b) the question, for whom does the council speak? A third issue — the question of what it means for an ecumenical council to make such statements in a democratic society, both for the society and for Christ’s church, lies behind much of his discussion.

On the first issue, I have little to add to Ballor’s commentary, because I largely agree with it. The three ecumenical councils all treat the basic human problem as one of evil structures and institutions — reliance of markets allowing corporations to gain both economic and political power which enables the oppression of the poor and the elevation of the rich. The world exists, it seems, in a zero-sum condition; in order to fix inequity (which seems the be the surest sign, if not the definition, of the presence of sin) we must reverse the course of economic takings and ensure that all policy decisions are done for the direct benefit of the poor (oh, and of course, the earth — a late addition to the argument). Ballor correctly points out that the veracity of the ecumenical council statements all depends, not on their theological and moral bases, but instead on the extent to which the world actually lines up with the underlying political economy. Both Ballor and I argue that it does not: the world is not zero-sum, not even close, and that increased reliance on markets over the past twenty years has significantly improved the lot of everyone, most especially the poor of the world (see “The Age of Milton Friedman” by Andrei Shleifer in the Journal of Economic Literature for a brief summary of the argument).

I expect Ballor would agree with me that another erroneous aspect of the ecumenical councils’ statements does not, however, stem just from their adoption of a seriously flawed political economy. For the argument that the basic human problem is one of evil structures is also deeply flawed. I will not say that institutions are morally neutral — the rules of the game can often be made for evil purposes and lead to tragic consequences. But locating evil in institutions opens one to the Rousseauian notion that all we need is the perfect set of institutions in order to have a perfect human society (and the line between perfect and tragic is quite thin, isn’t it?!). Orthodox Christianity in all its versions has resisted that mistake, even while accepting in different ways that human sinfulness permeates our institutional life.

I’m more interested in Ballor’s examination of the question, for whom and to whom do the ecumenical councils speak? In a sense, he argues that the two aspects of this question are collapsed into one: the council statements are NOT made “of the church, by the church and for the church” but rather by an elite within church governing bodies to themselves or those like them. (One could go farther here and argue that my comment reveals the underlying problem Christianity has with democracy). Consider this: Christianity has expanded rapidly over the past thirty years in exactly the same places that what the ecumenical councils sarcastically call “neoliberalism” has expanded, and in both spiritual and economic terms, the poor are better off. But if you judged their economic and spiritual state by the ecumenical councils’ statements, they are still poor and oppressed by evil structures. A cynical economist might say — thank God for the evil of the market, which has clothed the naked and fed the hungry! All I’ll say is, go read some of “Aunt” Deirdre McCloskey’s work!

Back to the main point: Ballor’s analysis suggests that the ecumenical councils face a dilemma. Either they are the church, in which case they should stop making statements and figure out how to help cloth the naked and feed the poor themselves, or at least help Christians sort through general principles that can inform how we ourselves participate in solving social and economic problems, leaving the actual policy formulations to the hustling and higgling of politics and markets. Or they are just an interest group with a moral agenda — something like the Sierra Club or Mothers Against Drunk Driving — operating in a democratic society, in which case they cannot appeal to some special moral authority, and will end up looking just like any interest group.

If Ballor is right, and he is, then one of the things economists need to do is start examining the work of the ecumenical councils not as reflections of theological truth but instead as the creation through political action of a common benefit for the councils’ members, at the expense of others in society. Such rent-seeking behavior can usefully be examined using theories already in use in public choice theory. Frankly, I do not believe that economics can explain everything, but I am confident that it can explain the actions of this type of rent-seeking behavior, and if the councils have reduced themselves to interest groups, then we should use economics to explain their actions!

In his conclusion, Ballor does call the councils to take up for themselves tasks that churches cannot do for themselves (p. 110); namely, to help Christians work through issues like the relations among wealth, value and work. In this regard, Ballor echoes themes that are common themes of the Acton Institute: the fundamental dignity of the human person, the recovery of the natural law tradition, and the principle of subsidiarity, both in society and in the church.

Those concerned about the role of the church in the world today can learn a lot by reading and reflecting on Ballor’s excellent critique of the ecumenical movement’s political economy.

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Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom

Posted in American religion with tags , , , , , , , on 01/03/2011 by rossemmett

The Myth of American Religious FreedomThe Myth of American Religious Freedom by David Sehat
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Given that Sehat follows in the same tradition of American intellectual historiography that I do, you will not be surprised to find that I found his argument compelling, even if I would quibble over some things. A healthy civil society, he argues, “preserves a disorderly space that provides a buffer between the power of the state and the freedom of individuals and serves as a breeding ground for the contentious politics that are a healthy part of modern democracies” (p. 285, my emphasis). In this sense, his book is a defense of the notion that America has had a health civil society throughout its history.

But the notion that America’s religious history has been a “breeding ground” for contentious politics undercuts both the myths about religious liberty held by conservatives and liberals. Sehat argues that American history has neither been a gradual decline away from a Christian nation (the myth of the Right) nor a nation that from the beginning protected politics from the incursion of religious controls (the myth of the Left). Sehat traces the tension and debate over what religious freedom means from Virginia to the Moral Majority (most of his emphasis, I might say, is on pre-20th century episodes).

I particularly enjoyed Sehat’s account of colonial Virginia in the early chapters, and the debates among the abolitionists in the second part. His account of the creation of a “moral establishment” in the early 19th century is compelling: “Moral establishmentarians … dismissed the assertion that religious liberty entailed freedom from religion in public life. They asserted instead that it required the freedom of believers to bring their religion into public life to establish an ordered society” (p. 155, emphasis in original). A common moral code escaped the constitutional constraint on religious activity in the public sphere, but simultaneously allowed coercion by the dominant religion; a point made well by Tocqueville and J.S. Mill. In a sense, that conundrum — how could America be both free of religious involvement in political life and at the same time dominated by a particular religious perspective that ended up exercising moral and political control — is the impetus behind Sehat’s book.

I would encourage those who read Sehat’s book to also read Hugh Heclo’s Christianity and American Democracy. What Heclo’s book lacks in historical detail, Sehat provides; and what Sehat lacks in philosophical nuance, Heclo provides!

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Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace: A review

Posted in American religion with tags , , , , on 01/02/2011 by rossemmett

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites UsAmerican Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recently read Huch Heclo’s Christianity and American Democracy, which is better that Putnam and Campbell’s book as an examination of the relationship between Christianity and political life in America. And you should know that although Putnam and Campbell talk about “religion,” they actually almost always mean “Christianity,” and Protestantism in particular (see pp. 30-31 for their recognition of this point). They do use some non-Christian religious examples, but not many.

Where American Grace succeeds is in its discussion of the social side of religious life and how it both knits us together and divides us. I actually expected Putnam to connect this aspect of religious life to the development of social capital more than he did. Isn’t religious participation one of those things that overcomes the “bowling alone” problem? He treats the issue at such a general level that it is difficult to relate it to how social capital is actually developed, expanded, sustained or eroded through the current movements in religious life.

So, on the whole, I was disappointed with the book, and thought Heclo saw deeper into the dilemma of American religious life today.

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Love & Justice

Posted in Capitalism, justice and charity with tags , , , , , on 01/29/2010 by rossemmett

Comments prepared for the Moral Case for Capitalism Forum
James Madison College, Michigan State University, January 28, 2010

Over the past year, I have returned several times to two very different sources of inspiration for my thinking about economics and society. Both sources will probably surprise those of you who have had me in class: i) Michael Moore’s movies; and ii) the two recent encyclicals by Pope Benedict.

I’ll confess that I’ve always enjoyed Michael Moore’s movies. By now, they’re predictable, of course, and he re-uses the same tricks each time, but I fall for them, and laugh at his shenanigans. His sense of fairness and his view of the world are similar to those of a lot of people I know, and I share some of his values. He sees himself as a spokesperson for the average Joe, and he admires the “kinder, gentler” nation to the north of us, which was my home for almost half my life. He tells us he loved the social contract he calls capitalism: a world in which Michigan’s large corporations looked out for their workers, the workers looked out for the companies they worked for, and the government provided the things that the employers and workers couldn’t provide for themselves. He is morally indignant that corporations and politicians actually put their own interests first, seeing it as a massive betrayal of capitalism’s social contract, and of the virtues of ordinary people. Despite his admiration for the system, he is led to the conclusion voiced by the Catholic priest from here in Lansing whom he films saying: capitalism is evil. [See Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story]

Moore’s movies always leave me with a paradox: if capitalism is evil, and his gloom and doom sentiments about world that capitalism created are true, I can’t help wondering why he pines for a mythical world in which his version of capitalism flourished (say, Flint about 1957). And if his gloom and doom sentiments about the world aren’t true (not all of the world is Flint, after all), well, then maybe capitalism is something other than what he thinks it is. My own view of morality and capitalism has taken me down the second side of this paradox.

Which brings me to the Pope’s encyclicals. I’m not Roman Catholic, but have long found the encyclicals well worth reading. Especially the ones by Pope Benedict, whose writings display both his careful scholarship and his appreciation for the ordinary lives of real people. What Benedict has done in his first two encyclicals is to take the entire history of papal social teaching and encompass it within the simple expression: God is love. In doing so, he has succeeded not only in a brilliant philosophical endeavor, but he has also re-invigorated Christianity’s engagement, both intellectually and practically, with the secular modern world. [see Deus caritas est and Caritas in veritate]

Now love is something that economists are not comfortable talking about. Discussions of capitalism usually focus on efficiency and productivity arguments: the closest most economists get to the topic of love is talking about the economics of sex and marriage (check out the chapter on the competition prostitutes face in the new edition of Freakonomics for an example). Even Adam Smith, who as the first economist was also the last to integrate ‘benevolence’ as well as ‘self-love’ into his economic thought, downplayed love. Benevolence is not quite the same as “charity”: the former reflects my willingness to take the interests of others into account in choosing my actions; the latter asks of me to give of my own to others.

Discussion of benevolence takes us quickly into the topic of justice: giving each of us our due, acknowledging our rights. Discussion of love transcends, and possibly completes, justice: As Benedict says, “The earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion.”

Well, what does this discussion of love and justice have to do with capitalism? I want to draw out two implications for your consideration today.

First, it is ironic that a capitalist society – with its priority on freedom, a value I haven’t mentioned yet today, rather than justice – provides the potential to transcend justice; whereas non-capitalist societies, whether they be mercantilist – give us our due – or socialist – give everyone their due, do not. I was struck long ago by the realization that the first requirement of a socialist society is the denial of charity: a socialist society is undone if people voluntarily choose to give up what is their own. This is one of the reasons that voluntary associations are so uncommon in non-capitalist societies: voluntary associations are one of the ways in which we transcend the requirements of justice, giving freely of what is rightfully ours as an expression of charity and love.

My second point has to do with innovation. As some of you know, I have been working for a couple of years now on a project I call “The Constitution of Innovation.” Ample evidence exists that innovation is the fundamental driver of long-term economic growth, but economics is ill-suited to provide us guidance on how to encourage innovation. For the economist, innovation is almost “an act of God” – something we cannot predict or control that intrudes on our smoothly functioning system and disrupts it. Joseph Schumpeter’s description of innovative entrepreneurship as “creative destruction” gives you a good sense of what economists think of it.

As with charity, non-capitalist societies are particularly bad at enabling innovation. We often say that this is because they do not respect property rights, and there is some truth in that, but my own argument runs deeper: innovation is an act of love.

Think about it for a second: if you develop something new just for yourself, it isn’t an innovation, it has no social consequence. New creations are only innovations if they create value for other people. As I define it, innovation is the process of creating value for others; put in the terms I’m using here, it is a gift of yourself for the sake of others as well as yourself. The value created by your innovation will far exceed the value you receive from its entrance into the market. Of course, market societies ensure that the value you receive will be in some way proportionate to the value you create for others. But that’s the unintended consequence of my action: not what I set out to do. Just as capitalism provides the potential for charity because it doesn’t primarily aim at justice, so too it provides the potential for innovation because it doesn’t settle with simply ensuring that we continue to do what we are currently doing.

My final comments: in university settings, I have lots of opportunities to interact with those who believe capitalism is all about greed, and expect an economist like me to think the worst of human beings. Their own socialism, however, is tinged with their cynicism about ordinary people and skepticism about the prospects for the human race. When they discover that I can be a hard-ass economist but not be cynical, and that I am hopeful about the human prospect without being naïve about how people behave, they can’t believe it.

This is the night … Love wins.

Posted in Uncategorized on 04/11/2009 by rossemmett

From the Service of Light in the Easter Liturgy:

    This is the night when of old you saved our fathers,
    delivering the people of Israel from their slavery,
    and leading them dry-shod through the sea.

    This is the night when Jesus Christ vanquished hell
    and rose triumphant from the grave.

    This is the night when all who believe in him are freed from sin
    and restored to grace and holiness.

    Most blessed of all nights,
    when wickedness is put to flight and sin is washed away,
    lost innocence regained, and mourning turned to joy.

    Night truly blessed, when heaven is wedded to earth
    and all creation reconciled to God!

In the midst of the economic downturn, with ordinary people across the globe hurting and fews glimmers of hope on the horizon, the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection seems foolish. What does it mean in the world of babel and mammon to affirm that Love wins? I plan to continue pursuing that question. I know the answers aren’t simple, and there is much to learn from both theology and economics. But today (Easter) I simply affirm the mystery of faith — Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

Free to Choose

Posted in justice and charity, Theology and Economics with tags , , , , , , , , on 03/10/2009 by rossemmett

The lectionary reading a couple of Sundays back was Mark 1:40-45

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. (italics added)

The expression “Free to Choose” is often identified with a view of economics which glorifies unfettered individual choice. The late Milton Friedman, a Chicago economist and Nobel laureate, is most frequently associated with the use of the expression, because it was the title of the PBS series he created back in the 1980s. But in this passage from Mark, we find Jesus freely choosing to heal a leper. Because leprosy made you unclean under Jewish law, a leper was unable to keep the law, and hence became a social outcast, cut off from family, friends and access to civil society. Jesus’ choice made it possible for the person to be restored to his family and community (and he immediately went out and told everyone how it happened, much to Jesus’ chagrin).

The leper knows that Jesus has a choice. He knows that Jesus can heal him, but also that Jewish law does not require it of him. And surely there were other lepers at the edge of town that day; why should Jesus choose to heal him rather than others? We can clearly get into some thorny theological issues with this story. But I’ll keep my focus on the choice for the moment.

Jesus chose freely to use resources at his disposal to restore another person to full participation in his community. Some will view Jesus’ free choice here as the opposite of the view of choice usually associated with the expression “free to choose.” After all, how many first-year economics texts proclaim that human are selfish and have unlimited wants? Suggesting that Adam Smith was the first to argue that unfettered selfishness in a market setting would promote the common good through wealth creation is de rigueur in introductory economics and, for that matter, among those who think they are thereby dismissing Smith, markets and economics. A trifecta!

Except they’re wrong about Adam Smith (and markets), but that would be a longer story to which I’ll have to return sometime. And they’re even wrong about Milton Friedman, who has a much more nuanced view of choice than the standard first-year textbook does.

Jesus’ choice to heal the leper was an act of charity.

I was tempted to say love, of course, because that’s the word we’d use today. And agape in the New Testament can be translated with either love or charity. But the theological meaning of charity carries along with love the sense of incorporating the other into one’s community. The command to be charitable to others implies my commitment to them as another member of my community. Treat them as you would yourself. Do not treat them as an outcast, as someone you would simply throw scraps of food or a few pennies to. Biblical charity is not what we think of as charity today: a way to feel good about a few causes and reduce my tax burden at the same time. No, charity is the ultimate act of welcoming someone into your community, of giving her status.

That is what Jesus did with his free choice.

If I was preaching, I’d tell you to go out and do likewise. But I’m an economist, and usually end up asking a different kind of question. Not to stop you from being charitable, but to broaden our appreciation for what is at stake.

One of the things I noticed when studying economic theory was that, in order to ensure justice, some approaches to social economic organization require society to deny people the right to be charitable. The argument is simple: if everyone is already a member of the community, and everyone has equal resources, then charity is unnecessary. Justice has already been achieved; why would you need charity?

There are two problems with the social “criminalization” of charity. First, it denies me the individual opportunity to exercise virtue in the context of a free choice. Put differently, such a society assumes I will be selfish, even though as a human being I am more than just selfish, and need opportunities to discover what that “more” involves. If I never have the opportunity to be charitable, I will never experience love. Secondly, the criminalization of charity allows the State to define who has status, to remove those who don’t have it, and to punish me for extending “status” myself to them through acts of charity.

The tension between justice and charity runs deep through every civil society. Justice may be the “the first virtue of social institutions” (Rawls), but it is not the only, or highest, virtue. When designing social institutions, we need to examine where the borderline of that tension lies. I am not afraid to say that as much as I value justice, in the end, “Love wins.”

NOTE: I want to thank Kit Carlson for including the expression “free choice” in her sermon on the lectionary readings, the sixth Sunday of Epiphany, 2009, at All Saints Episcopal Church, East Lansing, Michigan. That prompted this entry. Of course, she bears no responsibility for what I did with her expression!

Globalization & Unity in the Church

Posted in Religion and Globalization with tags , , , , on 03/09/2009 by rossemmett

Woke up this morning thinking about how globalization affects churches. Tyler Cowen has an interesting notion of the impact of globalization on culture. He argues that we see both homogeneity and heterogeneity in cultures because of globalization.

The heterogeneity argument is the one that most critics of globalization focus on: in traditional cultures we now see a diverse set of options, which threatens the indigenous values, institutions and way of life. I ate at a McDonald’s in Moscow, and could probably do the same in Mumbai, Bangkok, or Guangzhou. Latin America’s fastest growing religious group is Pentecostalism. You get the idea.

Cowen’s argument about homogeneity cuts the other way. Just as each nation now has a more diverse set of cultural values, institutions and opportunities, the set of options available to it are increasingly the same as those options available to other nations. In any major city, one can eat a restaurants representing practically any culture in the world, not just the local fare. And so it is with churches also: in any major center, almost the same church options are available regardless of where one is located. (We could talk about how the availability varies between countries with “regulated” church markets, but that will have to wait for another time.) In many cases, those churches even operate in the language of their home; thus, the “joyful noise” offered to the Lord in Accra, Ghana each Sunday morning is almost as linguistically varied as that offered on the same day in Los Angeles.

What does this say about babel and ecumenism?

If the goal is one united church, then globalization does not seem to be helping the cause: we see the proliferation of diversity rather than an increase in unity. The increasing diversity of churches in any one place may be seen as a threat to those who have been there a long time (if you live in our town, you’re a Baptist). But it also increases the likelihood that all the churches will become more attuned to the needs of their parishoners and the communities they serve. Competition has a tendency to do that. The recognition that the increasing diversity of churches isn’t going away may also lead to another result: increased cooperation among the churches in a particular location for common projects. And increased cooperation may lead to greater reconciliation among the churches. [Check out the photos of 30 Lansing area churches working together: Love in Action, pictures by Brett Maxwell from the Riv.]

In other words, globalization may promote diversity among churches in any particular location, but the acceptance of that diversity may lead to a reconciliation to our common relation as members of Christ’s body. Without giving up our own traditions, working together with Christians of other traditions helps to reconcile our differences and promote unity.

I recognize that this argument runs the theological risk of claiming that human-designed institutions can ameliorate the consequences of our sin (in this case, the building of the tower of Babel, which led to the dispersion of the people into different language groups). T. Robert Malthus ran afoul of the same theological risk in the first edition of his Essay, on which I’m sure I’ll have occasion to write more later. But for now I can only point to Romans 5:20, and say, surely where sin abounds, grace abounds much more.