Volume 95 (CD Edition)
Guests on Volume 95: Stewart Davenport, on how nineteenth-century Christians separated the moral and practical aspects of economic life; William T. Cavanaugh, on how theology and economics are necessarily intertwined and on how a larger understanding of the meaning of freedom would change our economic actions; J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael R. Stevens, on Wendell Berry’s concern for the dislocating and fragmenting forces in modern life; Craig Gay, on how language — specifically the spoken word — is central to our human experience; Eugene Peterson, on how Jesus’ use of ambiguous language encouraged active spiritual engagement; and Barry Hankins, on how the late Francis Schaeffer moved from being a defensive fundamentalist to a prophet of cultural engagement.
“What is first and foremost for these clerical economists is that they simply wanted stability. They love order . . . They didn’t want [the U.S.] to go the way of France: poverty-stricken and potentially revolutionary.”
Stewart Davenport identifies the beginnings of a transformation in economic understanding with the birth of modern capitalism. The nineteenth century saw the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and Davenport wanted to understand the response of Christians during this transformative period. He found that clergy and laymen had a number of responses to the new economic thinking and social structures that developed in that time. Some of these responses resonated the popular Enlightenment notions of autonomy and scientific objectivity to the exclusion or marginalization of moral concerns. The roots of contemporary dualism between economics and morality and ethics among Christians can be traced in part to this separation of facts and values in discussing Smith’s theories. Many Christian contemporaries of Smith believed that if Smith’s economics rested on purely objective observations about natural laws and scientific principles, they need not bother with thinking about ethical and moral concerns when discussing economics. Indeed, opposing this new science could render God and religion irrelevant in the face of changing times. Others saw in capitalism a stabilizing force that would ensure social health and promote the strength of America and, in so far as America promoted the kingdom of God, the reign of the kingdom of God as well.
“Professors are constantly admonishing [students] to stick to the subject and to separate these things. But I think they have a very good and real sense that in real life things are not separated: that the way you buy has a lot to do with the way you worship and who you worship and what you worship.”
William T. Cavanaugh explains how theology shapes how we understand and evaluate economics. Cavanaugh discusses the particular temptation that Christians face to compartmentalize parts of their lives so that finance or business or economics or politics is separate from religion and theology. In many ways, such compartmentalization makes it easier to cope in contemporary society. One example of compartmentalization is how greed is good in economics though it is evil in the religious aspect of our lives. Another is the way freedom is understood as different concepts when we're being religious compared to when we’re being political. The “freedom” that autonomous individuals have in modern democratic societies contrasts with the Christian understanding of freedom as rightly attached to our God and neighbor in love.
“Churches ought to have a role in creating local economics spaces where discernment about what the human good is can go on in a real concrete way. So it’s not a matter of churches making monetary policy or whatever; it’s really much more a matter of scaling the economy down and trying to make these kinds of face-to-face interactions.”
William Cavanaugh continues his conversation with Ken Myers on economics by questioning some of the typical assumptions underlying contemporary economics. He questions whether freedom is best understood without reference to the ends one can desire and wonders whether the two options of a individualistic economic free-for-all on the one hand or statist collectivism on the other exhaust the possibilities for economies. Might there be a substantive place for churches and other non-government groups in our economics? He also talks about Thomas Aquinas’s view of property, advertising’s cultivation of perpetual dissatisfaction, and the need for communities to embrace interdependence as part of human flourishing.
“One thing that Berry stresses over and over again that really resonated with students was this idea of ‘How do you create a home not as a retreat from work, but as a place where you can do meaningful work?’”
—J. Matthew Bonzo
J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael Stevens discuss themes from their recent book on the life and thought of Wendell Berry. Berry’s main concerns are related to the ways in which community is undermined and destroyed by the ways modern people live in and treat the land and the rest of creation. Because community is tied to the creation as the realm in which we live our lives, the exploitation of creation by rationalistic approaches to controlling and dominating nature in our work and life serves to fragment relationships and dislocate men and women from community. In divorcing our humanity from creation, the relational reality of created humanity itself is denied in the breaking of relationships and the reduction of the world to mere raw material that must be antagonistically mastered for profit.
“Where we are and who we are and what it means to live and how we ought to live . . . these are not questions that can be answered simply by making careful observations of our circumstances, but there are rather questions that can only be answered by listening . . . to what God has said.”
Craig Gay reflects on the essential linguistic nature of humanity: how our growth (or decline) in life is tied to words. Language is not merely a tool for humans to use, but it is a part of our very being as creatures made in the image of the God who is the living Word. Because of this, words are essential to our life. Gay further discusses the distinction between “seeing” and “hearing” as metaphors of knowledge and understanding. Gay stresses that our culture does not encourage us to know by receiving words from a person or a personal God, but by making impersonal observations. For Gay, this mode of understanding, while extraordinarily valuable and necessary, is nevertheless partial and insufficient for life.
“Poets don’t make things plain. They makes things more complex. But as they become more complex, they start to resonate all over the place.”
Pastor Eugene Peterson talks about the kinds of language Jesus used when talking to people. He points out that Jesus rarely gave sermons in the gospels, but spent most of his time speaking normally and conversationally, and the Spirit infused this normal speech. He observes that many Christians generally do not understand their everyday language to be a participation in spirituality; for them, spiritual language is a contrived, churchy kind of language. For Jesus, Peterson reflects, there was no such division or distinction: his normal, everyday speech was always seasoned by the Spirit without artificiality. Moreover, Jesus’ language was often ambiguous, radiating meaning on different levels and encouraging listeners to pursue and participate in multi-dimensional, personal truth, rather than one-dimensional, impersonal data. In this way, Jesus’ language conformed to the nature of truth as personal and complex as reality itself.
“[W]hereas in America the intellectual stuff of fundamentalism was used primarily to defend the faith [against theological liberalism], in Europe Schaffer could use the intellectual stuff of fundamentalism to evangelize. In other words when he would sit down with European young people from universities, he had to intellectually make a case for the veracity of the Christian faith, not with regard to defending it against liberalism, but with regard to making it coherent to people who were intellectually searching for a philosophy that made sense.”
Professor Barry Hankins talks about the American missionary Francis Schaeffer. Hankins describes Schaeffer as, after Billy Graham, the second greatest influence on evangelicalism in the twentieth century. He started off a disciple of Carl MacIntyre and saw himself as a general for fundamentalist orthodoxy whose war front would be in Europe. As a leader of fundamentalism, he advocated separation from secular culture and the positive, militant defense of the faith against theological liberalism. But when Schaeffer arrived in Europe, he found that there wasn’t much Christianity, orthodox or not, to defend; consequently, his mission of defending the purity of the faith was replaced by a mission to re-evangelize a post-Christian Europe. Schaeffer channeled his intellect to understanding the cultural moment in Europe, and his efforts led him to engage the existentialist philosophies and cultural institutions expressing those philosophies in order to provide answers to the questions plaguing the young Europeans he encountered.