Posts Tagged humanism

Don’t Cry Over Spilled Perfume: Overcoming Judas Syndrome in Our Economic Thinking

Mary, Lazarus, Judas, perfume, ointmentMuch of my focus on this blog has been on pursuing an economics that pushes beyond earthbound thinking.

Over at the Acton Institute PowerBlog, I attempt to lay out a basic baseline of this approach, using Judas’ harsh response to Mary’s outpouring of expensive perfume as a starting point:

Much like Judas Iscariot, who reacted harshly to Mary’s outpouring of expensive ointment on Jesus’s feet, we are prone to react only to the material implications, ignoring altogether whether God might prefer us to do something so peculiar as “keep it for the day of [Jesus’s] burial,” as was the case for Mary.

It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul urged us to present our bodies as a “living sacrifice” — to not be “conformed to this world,” but be “transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Such a life, Paul explains, demands a transcendent perspective made up by constant “testing” of the world as we naturally see it, that we might “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This is a life consisting of far more than surface-level observations of the physical world, requiring us to submit our reasoning about everything from material prosperity to human happiness to the ultimate will of the Supreme Creator.

Leveraging a striking Whittaker Chambers quote, I point to some extremes that such thinking can lead us to (e.g. Soviet Communism). But as I go on to note, such a tendency is typically far more tricky to discern:

The same temptations Chambers indicates — of earthbound thinking and intellectual arrogance — can easily sneak into our personal plans for achieving God’s ends. We may, for instance, openly recognize that God has called us to meet the needs of the poor and alleviate poverty, but far too often we attempt to resolve the “God question” here, moving quickly and comfortably to our own personal plans and designs for how might get there (e.g. foreign aid, fair trade, a higher minimum wage, etc.). Rather than continuing to push toward the heart of God — toward a life full of transcendent reasoning and discernment — we look instead to the spilled ointment on the floor, frustrated and not bothering to ask, “Lord, what would you have me do?”

This is the most basic question, and we must ask it with sincerity and a heart of sacrifice. It is crucial that we observe the physical world, and it is necessary for us to ask sincere questions about why and how resources are used, but these questions need to be asked in conversation with our Creator, not in humanistic isolation.

God meets us in the here and now. He cares about the earthbound needs of the sparrow and human alike, and his eternal purposes are already in Read the rest of this entry »

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Have Faith in America: Calvin Coolidge on Restoring Confidence

Calvin CoolidgePresident Obama has been re-elected, and as many commentators point out, he faces a nation even more divided than when he took office.

Over at the Acton Institute, I contemplate how President Obama might go about reuniting the country, using President Calvin Coolidge’s famous speech, “Have Faith in Massachusetts,” as an example:

I’m currently reading President Calvin Coolidge’s autobiography, and in it, he describes a situation quite similar to our own. In the 1910s, Coolidge was a state senator in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, yet even in his local community, he witnessed severe conflict and division among his fellow citizens, including the now-famous “Bread and Roses” strike and the accelerating split in the Republican Party toward Teddy Roosevelt’s emerging progressivism

…It would be January of 1914 that Coolidge was sworn in as President of the Massachusetts Senate. He would now have a louder voice, along with more opportunity to change things: to face the tide of radicalism and class warfare and restore confidence and unity in the Commonwealth.

Coolidge responded by giving an inauguration speech for the ages (now known as “Have Faith in Massachusetts”), one that downplayed the power of government as the primary agent of cultural and economic change, avoided divisive distinctions of class, gender, or race, and instead elevated the redemptive, restorative power and potential of the human spirit. Instead of promoting a zero-sum view of human engagement, Coolidge emphasized and romanticized the type of cooperation and collaboration that the market provides and prosperity demands.

Here’s a sample of the speech:

This Commonwealth is one. We are all members of one body. The welfare of the weakest and the welfare of the most powerful are inseparably bound together. Industry cannot flourish if labor languish. Transportation cannot prosper if manufactures decline. The general welfare cannot be provided for in any one act, but it is well to remember that the benefit of one is the benefit of all, and the neglect of one is the Read the rest of this entry »

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The Test of Self-Interest: Transforming the Natural into the Spiritual

The Journey of Abraham and Lot, 1356-67, Also Manfredi De Battilori Bartolo Di FrediUsing the example of Abraham, who listened to God’s call to ditch his comfort zone, Oswald Chambers provides a lesson in self-denial and obedience:

As soon as you begin to live the life of faith in God, fascinating and luxurious prospects will open up before you, and these things are yours by right; but if you are living the life of faith you will exercise your right to waive your rights, and let God choose for you. God sometimes allows you to get into a place of testing where your own welfare would be the right and proper thing to consider if you were not living a life of faith; but if you are, you will joyfully waive your right and leave God to choose for you. This is the discipline by means of which the natural is transformed into the spiritual by obedience to the voice of God.

Whenever right is made the guidance in the life, it will blunt the spiritual insight. The great enemy of the life of faith in God is not sin, but the good which is not good enough. The good is always the enemy of the best. It would seem the wisest thing in the world for Abraham to choose, it was his right, and the people around would consider him a fool for not choosing. Many of us do not go on spiritually because we prefer to choose what is right instead of relying on God to choose for us. We have to learn to walk according to the standard which has its eye on God. “Walk before Me.”

Such an insight is crucial if we are to successfully execute God’s plan for our lives. As it did for Abraham, such an approach will transcend our earthly concerns, impacting all of our decision making, whether economic, familial, personal/vocational, political, etc.

Without fundamental and intentional alignment to God—through his Word, prayer, the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit, etc.—we are left to our own devices and our own short-sighted notions of the “good.” In our profit-making, we will tend toward rationalizing and justifying actions that are in our perceived self-interest. In our sacrifice, we will tend toward emotionalization—allowing humanistic impulses to guide and direct our giving, which will, in turn, lend toward constructing golden calves.

To serve God, then, we must first deny ourselves, and to deny ourselves in any truly worshipful or productive way, we must live with “the discipline by means of which the natural is transformed into the spiritual by obedience to the voice of God.”

If we do not aim to achieve the right—i.e. the will of God, or what Chambers also calls the “best”—all of our petty, humanistic intellectualizing, emotionalizing, and excuse-making will lead to petty, humanistic outcomes. Surprise, surprise.

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Communism’s Rational Faith vs. the Logic of the Soul

Witness, Whittaker Chambers, logic of the soulI’m currently reading Witness, an autobiographical account of former Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers’s flight from communism and the events that ensued thereafter.

This week at Values & Capitalism, I take a brief look at two extended quotes from the book’s introduction, each pertaining to the moral and spiritual backdrop of communism.

The first, on communism’s age-old resemblance:

Communists are that part of mankind which has recovered the power to live or die—to bear witness—for its faith. And it is a simple, rational faith that inspires men to live or die for it.

It is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision…The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.

It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.

The second, on how one might convert from such a noble, utopian approach:

Yet there is one experience which most sincere ex-Communists share, whether or not they go only part way to the end of the question it poses. The daughter of a former German diplomat in Moscow was trying to explain to me why her father, who, as an enlightened modern man, had been extremely pro-Communist, had become an implacable anti-Communist. It was hard for her because, as an enlightened modern girl, she shared the Communist vision without being a Communist. But she loved her father and the irrationality of his defection embarrassed her. ‘He was immensely pro-Soviet,’ she said,’ and then — you will laugh at me — but you must not laugh at my father — and then — one night — in Moscow — he heard screams. That’s all. Simply one night he heard screams.’

A child of Reason and the 20th century, she knew that there is a logic of the mind. She did not know that the soul has a logic that may be more compelling than the mind’s. She did not know at all that she had swept away the logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, the myth of the 20th century, with five annihilating words: one night he heard screams.

Given that communism per se is not currently a prominent threat in the West, how might we think about Chambers’ critique of “rational faith” and his elevation of Read the rest of this entry »

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Working and Keeping the Garden: The Human Body in Earthly Engagement

Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our FaithI have previously examined the ways in which sociability and strong relational bonds can impact societal health and economic prosperity. Likewise, I have persistently emphasized that spiritual transformation through Christ and subsequent obedience to God play crucial roles in strengthening such bonds.

Without recognizing and embracing such an alignment, I have argued, we will be severely impaired in identifying real value as God sees it, and will be ill-equipped to pursue our proper mission.

Yet throughout all such considerations, I have rarely (if ever) contemplated the role of the body in the spiritual and intellectual workings that drive our stewardship. This is strange, to be sure, for despite the great importance of all the other inputs to our actions, it is the body that actually does the doing.

But alas, even this basic realization does not go far enough, says Matthew Anderson, editor of Mere Orthodoxy and author of the new book, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter To Our Faith.

For Anderson, the body is much more than some tool we use to move our spirits from here to there; it is an essential and inextricable part of what it means to be human, a truth affirmed and amplified by the reality that have we been created in the image of God. For Anderson, the connection is crucial, but has been largely ignored by an increasingly dualistic culture. For many of us, the body has become nothing more than a mere means for pleasure or a “prison for the soul.”

Yet for those of us who over-emphasize the spiritual side of man, Anderson argues that any such transformation will never be complete without a full understanding the bodies position therein:

The gift of God in Jesus Christ is a gift for and to human bodies, and as evangelicals, we need to attend carefully to the ways in which the Holy Spirit shapes our flesh. In a world where the body’s status is in question, we have an opportunity to proclaim that the God who saved our souls will also remake our bodies; that the body is nothing less than the place where God dwells on earth.

Anderson proceeds to tackle a number of issues through this approach, from tattoos to homosexuality to death (and beyond), yet throughout each revealing insight, my mind consistently flashed back to his chapter on how our bodies more simply relate to the other (Chapter 4). It’s easy to understand how an appropriate body-faith orientation might improve our marriages or our churches, but what about our larger socio-economic engagement and overarching earthly stewardship?

“We are social even in the womb,” says Anderson, and that sociability “is inextricable from the structure of our bodies.”

When we score a goal, we like to bump chests and give high-fives, the act of which is sometimes followed by hazardous, celebratory dives into a large piles of teammates. When socializing with friends and family, we often prefer to do so over a cup of coffee or a meal, sharing in the most basic bodily necessities as we relate to each other, pour out our hearts, and foster social bonds. These shared bodily pleasures and activities “not only curb our loneliness,” says Anderson, but are “a manifestation of our gratitude for the goodness of the created order that God has placed in us.”

Yet, as is the fundamental premise of the book, Anderson believes the distortion of the body’s place in such interactions has by and large distorted God’s created order in the process. Thanks to the rise of a self-absorbed, short-sighted, and materialistic culture, the social ties necessary for a healthy and flourishing society have largely vanished, and our views of the human body have corresponded accordingly. No longer are our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit, but rather, we have perverted them into serving as temples unto ourselves.

As Anderson explains:

In our late-modern world, the body’s basic dependency upon the world for both its sustenance and its pleasures has been distorted to the extent that what we consume has become central to our identity as persons. What we wear, what we eat (or don’t eat), what we endorse—these become the means by which we construct ourselves…

….In a consumerist society, the world is flattened out as everything becomes an instrument for the individual’s well-being. Things only have value when a consumer desires  them, which means that there is no order of goods to which our desires should confirm.

At the root of this, then, is a sort of “degraded” individualism, as Anderson calls it — the type of misaligned, atomic hedonism that submits to no authority other than its humanistic God of Autonomy. Edmund Burke railed against such an approach back when we Read the rest of this entry »

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Divine Generosity: Making “Good Intentions” Good

God So Loved, He Gave, Divine Generosity, Kelly Kapic, Justin BorgerI have previously written on the importance of the Holy Spirit in aligning our lives to God’s perfect will and have also noted the limits of a spiritually dead worldview as it relates to generosity. What I haven’t done, however, is examined what will emerge — and how it will emerge — if we get all of our ducks in a row.

What might it look like if we were to actually succeed in avoiding the desires of the flesh, producing the fruits of the Spirit, and leveraging the subsequent alignment toward reaching the Lost, healing the sick, and helping the needy? What might it look like if our actions were guided by the Love of God rather than the Love of Man?

My friend Robby Moeller recently wrote eloquently about having a “head for the poor,” but while this is an important point, I am also concerned that our hearts might be further off than we think (hint: we’re sinners). Like anyone else, Christians are prone to what the Apostle Paul calls “futile thinking” and “foolish hearts.” We are constantly struggling to overcome a debased, idolatry-prone worldview.

In short, I fear that we often give our “good intentions” the benefit of the doubt.

What is “good” in the first place, and according to whom? Does it have anything to do with truth, and if so, how does that impact our view of love? What does “effective” mean under such a framework, or what about “compassion”? Are there any intentions worth esteeming if they fail to orient themselves correctly?

We need to correct our brains, yes, but more fundamentally, we need a spiritual revival that aligns our hearts and minds accordingly. This will certainly impact our perspectives on loftier political and philosophical levels, but more importantly, it will transform the way we approach our most mundane of day-to-day tasks and choices. Unbeknownst to many, God actually speaks, and we have the amazing opportunity to listen. Sound “radical” yet?

As Kelly Kapic argues in his recent book, God So Loved, He Gave, we have been called into a movement of divine generosity — one in which we reject bondage of this world and embrace God’s absolute ownership over our lives. “When captured by the depths of God’s gifts in the gospel,” Kapic states, “we discover that he frees us to participate in his work of grace, hope, righteousness, and love. This is the generous life: this is what belonging to God is all about.”

Sin is all around us, and although we are typically good at talking about it in church (or at least we used to be), we seem to forget that it’s a constant competing force in our fundamental decisionmaking. “No human relationship is free from this corrosive power,” as Kapic states, yet in our attempts to build relationships and community we seem to think that “good intentions” are all Read the rest of this entry »

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The Ethics of Ayn Rand: Guest Post by a Rational Egoist (Part 1)

William Schultz

Guest Contributor, William Schultz

By William Schultz, Guest Contributor

Editor’s Note: I have previously noted the differences between Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” and Christianity, as well as where I see some overlap. Given the recent prominence of Rand in both the budget talks and the cinema, I thought it timely to provide readers with a general introduction to Randian ethics. To provide such an introduction, I called on William Schultz, an atheist Objectivist and friend of mine. William will follow this post by providing a closer discussion of how Randian ethics (generally) line up against those of Christianity.

I am a rational egoist. In any discussion on morality, the first question I address isn’t “Which moral code should I accept?” Instead, the first question is “Why should I accept any moral code?” Why should I even bother applying “right” and “wrong” to specific actions? Is it all simply a waste of time?

And why shouldn’t I ask this? At first glance, it seems that adopting a moral code is going to place prohibitions on the ways I can act, which might mean all kinds of delightful activities get thrown out the window and the bars of morality are erected in their place. Why would I want that?

Well, I think there are reasons. But first things first.

In order for someone to persuade me that I should accept any moral code, we must first understand what a moral code is. A moral code tells you the types of things you should go after. A moral code is a hierarchy of values. Values are things you act to gain or keep. A hierarchy is a ranking structure. But why should I value some things and not others? And why should I place the things I do value in hierarchical order.

To answer the above questions, we must first recognize a crucial distinction between entities in the universe: the difference between inanimate and animate matter. Inanimate matter has no values. A rock, a rocking chair, the rings of Saturn — these entities don’t have values. These things could care less whether you beat them, break them, or throw them in a box. They can’t “care” at all. They don’t “act” at all. On the other hand, animate organisms face a fundamental Read the rest of this entry »

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Ayn Rand: Closer to Christianity than Marx

Ayn RandThe American Values Network recently lambasted Rep. Paul Ryan for expressing pro-Rand sentiments in several statements and online videos. In a response ad geared toward Ryan’s supporters, AVN criticized Rand’s atheism and ethics, acting as though Christian conservatives would be shocked to learn of her beliefs.

How could we, as admirers of Rand, ever be aware of her rejection of the Judeo-Christian ethos? She’s sooooo subtle.

I doubt any Christian Rand admirers were surprised at the news. Most of us draw value out of Rand in very specific ways, and we are very used to hearing the majority of our conservative brethren rejecting and lambasting her views outright (see Whittaker Chambers). What the ad really did, then, was illuminate the way the Left continues to misunderstand conservatives, particularly when it comes to what value, if any, they see in Rand.

Let us remember: For progressives, Rand is the epitome of what they are not. She boasts an emphasis on individualism that, in its most basic orientation, is opposed to their top-down, mechanical view of human engagement and society. For them, it is (supposedly) all about the “other,” and for Rand, the other only matters insofar as she is beneficial to the self (not a charming alternative, if you ask me). Faulty ethics aside, in mere political application, Rand’s message is in many ways your typical pro-capitalism shtick — rational self-interest does not negate or disregard the other; rather, it allows humans to identify ways through which they can share, exchange, and collaborate in a productive manner.

Where conservatives typically differ with Rand is on her view of the human person — the nature of the individual himself — and the subsequent moral responsibilities we as individuals have toward others. For example, what precisely is our value? Is it intrinsic? What precisely is in our self-interest? Could it actually be selflessness? It is here that we move away from the political jabber — the primary kumbaya nexus of, say, Atlas Shrugged — and toward the more fundamental disagreements over philosophy and theology (still a largely evident feature of Atlas Shrugged, if not too much so).

Yet, I suspect, even on matters of philosophy and theology, conservatives and Christians can actually find more in common with Rand than they might assume (not to mention what they might learn from their differences). As a way of illuminating this, one might consider how Rand stacks up against other atheist or “non-Christian” thinkers. For example, I continue to hear Rand compared to Karl Marx, as though Read the rest of this entry »

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A Robot’s Utopia: Socialism’s Reduction of the Human Person

robot, utopia, socialism, human natureMany opponents of socialism often concede that it would be wonderful if only it actually “worked.” This week at Ethika Politika, I argue that such claims require an extremely strange version of “wonderful.”

Socialism may indeed propose utopian ends, but such a utopia is one that humans could never — and should never — identify with.

The argument centers on the notion that humans tend to desire freedom and that we will ultimately be discontent without it. If we rid ourselves completely of such liberty and cede ultimate control to others, how can this really be a “utopia” in any human sense?

To embrace socialism is to reject “economic knowledge” (as Art Carden recently explained), but it is also to reject something much deeper.

Here’s an excerpt:

To escape this fundamental craving [for freedom], one assumes that a different sort of rebellion needs to take place—one aimed at the control of others rather than the control of one’s self. This is why any fantasies about “realistically sustainable” socialism are problematic: They rely on a view of humanity that is unrealistic, and in turn, they promote unreal humans. Based on such premises, true utopia—the kind we might actually enjoy—is something that cannot exist, even in theory. We can call this “idealism,” but I’m not sure it leads to ideal outcomes. We are who we are, and that is not a bad thing.

Indeed, “idealism” is often just another word for glorified falsehood, and in the case of socialism, that is certainly the case. Such falsehood might be admirable if reality were really that grim, but it isn’t. There is a beauty in humanity that must be tapped, channeled and ultimately embraced. This beauty is inherently linked with truth, which is why to be an “idealist” of the socialist order is to worship a lie — and an ugly one at that.

As I argue, the “ideal” of socialism does not elevate humanity; it degrades Read the rest of this entry »

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