Lazy Sentimental christianity: Part 2, christian

One of the most interesting things about non-theistic and humanistic reflections about morality and ethics is just how uninteresting they are.

For example, you read some non-theistic author trying to give a naturalistic account of morality. A common move in this genre is to discuss how human evolution isn't wholly competitive, Nature red in tooth and claw. We're social, cooperative creatures, it is argued. Consequently, working cooperatively together is adaptive and leads to human flourishing. We've evolved to be good.

Other accounts don't go this evolutionary route, they follow Kant and articulate some rational ground for goodness. The work of John Rawls' veil of ignorance is an example.

The journey you're taken on in these accounts--goodness rooted in evolution, reason, or whatever--can be quite varied, but they all dump out in the same location, the Judeo-Christian consensus of the West. That's what makes these books and arguments so uninteresting. Before we even start the book we've already read the last chapter. We know where this train is heading.

By Judeo-Christian consensus I mean the moral vision bequeathed to the West by the Old and New Testaments, some key features being:

  1. The created world is intrinsically good, and humanity is to be a good steward of this gift.
  2. Human beings are created in the Image of God, each person possessing inviolable dignity, worth, and value.
  3. The Ten Commandments
  4. We must pursue justice and care for the victims and the vulnerable, for "the least of these" in our world.
  5. Giving and receiving love is the surest path to a rich and meaningful life.
To be clear, for the unthinking reader, and there will be many, the issue here isn't about adherence, past or present. The issue is about the content of this moral vision, and its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the West.

Basically, it's a striking feature of non-theistic moral reflections that they rarely point toward anything new, morally speaking, than the Judeo-Christian consensus. The chain of reasoning non-theists and humanists use to reach the Judeo-Christian consensus varies considerably, but the outcomes they produce don't deviate sharply from the consensus. By and large, secular moral systems are broadly and functionally christian.

Yes, there are exceptions, like the work of Peter Singer. But what's interesting about Singer is how his work is publicly appropriated. Singer's controversial claims are universally rejected by the public, because they break so sharply with the Judeo-Christian consensus. Singer's work is only approvingly featured in think pieces when his ethics converge upon the the Judeo-Christian consensus, like his work on effective altruism. The public only listens to Singer when he's in a christian lane.

And it's curious sight to see people like the New Atheists, and their followers online, spend so much effort arguing that you don't need God to be good. Curious for two reasons. First, why this strong desire to be good? And second, why is your vision of the good just a warmed over version of Christianity?

Basically, why are atheists and humanists always passionately describing and defending themselves as christian? It's always some argument like this: "Look, I'm good! I also follow the Golden Rule! Just not for the same reasons you do."

I get the argument that you don't need God to be good. But what's so predictable is the vision of the good being described.

In short, secular, humanistic, non-theistic accounts of the good are not Christian in a strong metaphysical sense, but they are, broadly speaking, christian in their moral content.

Lazy Sentimental christianity: Part 1, Tom Holland's Dominion

A couple of months ago I finished Tom Holland's book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.

Holland is a historian, whose area of expertise is the Greek and Roman eras. And it's those studies that eventually, and unexpectedly, culminated in Holland writing a massive history of Christianity's impact upon the world, the West in particular, down to this very day.

Holland's premise is simple: The West is Christian, even as it becomes increasingly secular and post-Christian. That is to say, the moral ideals and humanistic values that the West broadly assumes is simply a secularized articulation of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

This insight occurred to Holland, who is not a confessing Christian, when he be began to compare his historical heroes, the Greeks and Romans, with his own modern, liberal, and humanistic sensibilities. As Holland summarized in an article anticipating Dominion:
The years I spent writing these studies of the classical world – living intimately in the company of Leonidas and of Julius Caesar, of the hoplites who had died at Thermopylae and of the legionaries who had triumphed at Alesia – only confirmed me in my fascination: for Sparta and Rome, even when subjected to the minutest historical inquiry, did not cease to seem possessed of the qualities of an apex predator. They continued to stalk my imaginings as they had always done – like a tyrannosaur.

Yet giant carnivores, however wondrous, are by their nature terrifying. The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable...

Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian. 
Our values in the West are not the values of ancient Sparta or Rome. Our values in the West are unmistakable Christian.

Well, more precisely, liberal humanism isn't Christian, it's christian. So that's not a typo in my title.

This is a short series about liberal humanism, the reigning worldview of the Western word, describing it as lazy sentimental christianity. Yes, even agnostics and atheists are lazy sentimental christians.

A post for each part, going backwards. Liberal humanism, first, as christian, then as sentimental, and lastly, as lazy.

Hunting Magic Eels: Cover Reveal!

My newest book Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age is scheduled to come out March 2021. Still a ways away, but the cover has been designed and the book is now out on Amazon for pre-order!


The enigmatic title comes from the first line of the book:
We were hunting for magic eels.
That opening starts a story about looking for a holy well associated with St. Dwynwen on Llanddwyn Island in Wales, a well said to be inhabited by enchanted eels. I use our visit to Llanddwyn Island to contrast our journey from enchantment to disenchantment in the West over the last five hundred years, and the ravages disenchantment is having upon faith in our secular, skeptical age. The book is about how we can recover our experience of enchantment to revitalize and renew our faith against the rising tide of disenchantment, doubt, and disbelief. In the end, the goal isn't to believe in magic eels but our desperate need to recover an eroding capacity, in the words of Fr. Stephen Freeman, to perceive and experience God as "everywhere present and filling all things."

We live in a secular age, a world dominated by science and technology. Increasing numbers of us don't believe in God anymore. We don't expect miracles. We've grown up and left those fairytales behind, culturally and personally.

Yet five hundred years ago the world was very much enchanted. It was a world where God existed and the devil was real. It was a world full of angels and demons. It was a world of holy wells and magical eels. But since the Protestant Reformation and the beginning of the Enlightenment, the world, in the West at least, has become increasingly disenchanted.

While this might be taken as evidence of a crisis of belief, Richard Beck argues it's actually a crisis of attention. God hasn't gone anywhere, but we've lost our capacity to see God.

The rising tide of disenchantment has profoundly changed our religious imaginations and led to a loss of the holy expectation that we can be interrupted by the sacred and divine. But it doesn't have to be this way. With attention and an intentional and cultivated capacity to experience God as a living, vital presence in our lives, Hunting Magic Eels, shows us, we can cultivate an enchanted faith in a skeptical age.

Aquinas and the Market: Part 11, The Irrational Choice Model

This will be our last post sharing insights from Mary Hirschfeld's book Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy.

Over the last three posts, we've summarized some of Hirschfeld's criticisms of the rational choice model. Overall, Hirschfeld has argued that utility maximization assumes unbounded desires, which creates scarcity as our desires always keep outstripping resources. So maximization is inherently problematic. And in the last post, Hirschfeld challenged the connection between utility and flourishing. If utility maximization doesn't produce flourishing, then why pursue it?

All of these are criticisms of the rational choice model, but not alternative proposals. So what does Hirschfeld suggest as an alternative model? It's here where Hirschfeld turns to Thomas Aquinas and his account of virtue and happiness.

I cannot and won't try to do justice to Hirschfeld entire argument, so I'll just pick one select insight.

Specifically, the rational choice model assumes a flat, simplistic psychology of human choice and flourishing. The way to achieve happiness is to always maximize your preferences. To be sure, for most of us most of the time, that's how we make choices and live our lives. We rank our choices and pick the one we find most attractive.

But for Aquinas, happiness isn't found in maximizing our good, happiness is achieved through virtue, through ordering our choices in light of ultimate ends. Virtue, and the concomitant ordering our desires, is therefore what is "rational." By contrast, it's failing to behave virtuously, just myopically satisfying your preferences, that is "irrational."

The key Thomistic virtue Hirschfeld focuses on is the virtue of prudence. Prudence is akin to practical wisdom, learning how to arrange and manage one's life in such a way so as to achieve your ultimate ends. Vital to prudence is bounding our desires, not allowing insatiable desires to swamp our plans. Prudence exercises what Hirschfeld calls "constrained maximization." Exercising the virtue of prudence I place limits on my desires, finding locations of "enough" so that my desires for any given good don't become excessive. Prudence achieves a sort of "balance" among all the goods on offer in life, always adjusting them so that my life keeps moving toward a flourishing life embodied by ultimate ends.

Now the challenge here, as we learned in the case of altruism, is if prudence can't be captured by the rational choice model. Recall, there is a utility function for Mother Teresa. Altruism can be a preference in the utility maximizing game. Couldn't the same be true for prudence? Imagine two choices, A and B, where B is the more "prudent" choice, and therefore preferred. Couldn't that be a thing?

Hirschfeld argues, no, prudence can't be modeled by the rational choice model. Yes, it is true, that the more prudent choice is being preferred, but the prudent preference isn't maximizing anything. The prudent choice is bounding desire, limiting it, stopping it at "enough."

Let me explain it this way. Under utility maximization there's always a preference that can pop up that you might prefer. Since desires are unbounded, there's no line in the sand, no limit. Maximizing just goes on and on. So, for example, you have choices A and B. You prefer B, so choose B. But at some future point the option C enters your life. Say it's a new iPhone on the market. Consequently, with the arrival of C, you now now prefer C over B. And so on. As Hirschfeld points out, this maximization game never terminates, it just goes on and on as long as more money or newer gadgets get made. This is what drives the insatiability of modern economics, the spur and demand of never ending growth.

But now imagine that I'm making my choices guided by the virtue of prudence. I have my iPhone, and another one comes on the market. Prudence says, my current iPhone is enough. So that's my preference, and I make my choice accordingly. I don't buy a new iPhone. And suddenly, the whole maximization game comes to a halt. I have no need for more or better. I have a preference here, but nothing is being maximized. I'm not seeking "more" good. The good I have is "enough."

Hirschfeld has a really wonderful discussion contrasting prudence with maximization. Maximization involves optimizing, making the choice that brings "more" good. By contrast, prudence is involved, not in ranking goods, but in arranging goods. In this way, prudence is akin to making aesthetic choices, like arranging flowers or paint on a canvas. The choices here aren't about "more," but about balance, contrast, and proportionality. And a critical component of these aesthetic choices is discernment in light of some final goal. In these aesthetic judgments, more isn't always better.

Now the rejoinder here is that people aren't prudent, that we don't make virtuous choices, and to expect this from people is ridiculous. That's true. And the degree to which the rational choice model captures our myopic, dysfunctional decision making, it's a great tool for describing human behavior. But with Aquinas now in hand, Hirschfeld has her own rejoinder: Fine, this may be the way we make choices, but let's stop calling it rational. Because what you're modeling is irrationality. Economics is founded upon the "irrational choice model," and irrationality isn't going to move us toward flourishing, not personally and not collectively.

At it's heart, this is Hirschfeld's project, a thorough interrogation of how human choice is related to flourishing and pointing out that the rational choice model fails in providing us an effective model of that connection. Speaking theologically, what the rational choice model models are disordered desires, unbounded, insatiable desires, which undermine our ability to discern and pursue "the good" in our world and lives. We need to exercise more prudence, personally and collectively. A sane life involves bounded desires. We need locations of "enough" rather than endless growth. An ever-rising GDP is not a metric of human flourishing. It may be "more," but more isn't always better.

To be clear, this is not to deny, in the least, that material prosperity isn't a good. It is, and it's an important one. And this isn't to deny that economic analyses shouldn't play a part in evaluating policy. It should. It's simply the sane acknowledgement that material affluence isn't the only social good we need for a flourishing life and global community. Instead of maximization, prudence tells us, here or there, when our affluence has reached "enough" and can be traded off for other goods, like sustainability or equity. In addition, we need to recognize that economics has ceased being a tool and has become a value system, a belief system, a vision of human flourishing. Market growth and market efficiency are being pursued as ends in themselves rather than as one among many means we use to pursue the social ends we have collectively selected and strive toward.

To borrow from Jesus, the markets were made for humanity, not humanity for the markets.

Yes, I know, I know, will any of this change how economists and policy makers think?

Perhaps not. But with theological critiques like Hirschfeld's in hand, we can start pointing out that the heart of modern economics is far, far from "rational." What we're modeling is disordered, irrational, and unhealthy. Perhaps the markets are ruling our world, but we can staring pointing out that the emperor has on no clothes.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 31, The Fall of Boromir

As the company travels down the great river heading south, they eventually have to face the choice they have been avoiding. Continue toward Gondor, or turn toward Mordor?

Boromir passionately makes the case to go to Gondor. And more, he argues for keeping the Ring and using its power in the fight against Sauron:

We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. And behold! in our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him.

This is the exact same temptation that both Gandalf and Galadriel faced, the temptation to use "strength in a just cause." But where Gandalf and Galadriel passed the test, seeing the corruption that awaited them, Boromir fails and falls, eventually trying to take the Ring from Frodo by force and breaking the Fellowship.

I don't want to over-interpret the narrative or read too much into it, but what strikes me here is how the battle against evil cannot be reduced to using power against it. Power used even in a just cause is only going to perpetuate evil. But it increasingly seems that this is the path our world is taking, the Good using power against the Bad. Using power in a just cause. We have become Boromir.

But as it says in Ephesians, our battle is not against flesh and blood. It puts me in mind of a quote I've shared here many times before from Michele Alexander, author of the book The New Jim Crow, about why she left a law school to teach at a seminary:

I no longer believe we can “win” justice simply by filing lawsuits, flexing our political muscles or boosting voter turnout. Yes, we absolutely must do that work, but none of it — not even working for some form of political revolution — will ever be enough on its own. Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power.

I think she is exactly right and I think Tolkien would agree. Alexander's point underlines what is, perhaps, the great theological theme of The Lord of the Rings: that evil can only be defeated by spiritual means. And very soon in the story we'll follow Frodo and Sam as they walk this scandalous, humble, and sacrificial path.

UPDATE:

As I re-read this post, I can't help but think that Tolkien's passion for this point comes from his experience as a solider in World War I. That is, whenever Tolkien would hear a call to "use power in a just cause" his mind would immediately go to the trenches and killing fields of the Great War.

That's where Boromir leads us, into trench warfare where gun-welding angels kill each other.

Aquinas and the Market, Part 10, A Vision of Flourishing?

Over the last two posts we've discussed one of Hirschfeld's criticisms of the rational choice model in her book Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy. Specifically, utility maximization assumes unbounded desires, causing our desires to outstrip resources, personally and globally. This causes many of the ills we observe about capitalism. And money, we also observed, supercharges the process. According to Hirschfeld, then, a key part of the path toward a more humane economy is a model of human choice that assumes that desires must be bounded. There needs to a capacity to say "enough," so that resources can be preserved, saved, and shared.

To make her argument about the need for bounded desires, Hirschfeld begins with one of the sharpest criticisms of the rational choice model. Specifically, what is the connection between preference satisfaction (utility maximization) and flourishing?

We've already observed how the word "utility" is taken as a cipher for well-being, happiness, and flourishing. But as we inventory the various ills of capitalism, from ruining the environment to increasing rates of mental illness and addiction, it doesn't seem that preference satisfaction is making us better off.

That said, economists have responded to this criticism. Specifically, economists can draw a line between being scientists versus ethicists. True, it is agreed, perhaps we do make poor choices in the utility maximization game. But the purpose of the rational choice model isn't to tell people how to live their lives. The model is descriptive, not normative. The model describes what people do, how they actually make their choices, as dysfunctional or myopic as those might be. Hirschfeld quotes two economists who've contended, "standard economics has no therapeutic ambition."

But that's not quite true, argues Hirschfeld. Specifically, as we've talked about, economic growth is used to make normative judgments. Growth is simply assumed to be "good." In short, economic growth is functioning here as a vision of human flourishing. Because if growth were uncorrelated with human flourishing then why are we pursuing it so relentlessly?

Beyond growth, Hirschfeld also points out how market "efficiency" is also used by both economists and policy makers to make normative judgements. Efficient markets are good, and inefficient ones are bad. Hirschfeld observes,
[W]e can observe that "efficiency" is invariably used in an evaluative sense. Policies and institutions are better or worse to the extent that they are more or less efficient. To take the example of most relevance to theological economics, economists typically urge us to recognize that many policies that might promote economic equality or alleviate poverty also generate economic inefficiencies...Textbooks present this problem as the trade-off between equity and efficiency.

The intuitive sense that efficiency is a good is related the the intuition that greater economic wealth or income is a good. If more of something is better, then it is desirable to get as much of it as possible from a given set of resources. In other words, efficiency is desirable because it would seem to be in service of something we value as good. [And] that good presumably has something to do with human welfare or well-being. To put this all as directly as possible, economic analysis is taken seriously by policy makers and the public at large because economics is thought of as the science of improving well-being, at least in a material sense. Were economists to seriously adopt the view [that standard economics has no therapeutic ambition] it would seem that economics could no longer command the public attention it currently enjoys. Yet most economists do, in fact, want to influence public policy.
Summarizing, if market efficiency isn't related to human flourishing then why would we give a fig about achieving it? We only care about market efficiency if it brings about social goods. And that's a helluva an "if." And what happens when market efficiency interferes with social goods, like equity? It seems like, in that instance, we would make choices to improve flourishing over market efficiency. But if efficiency is being leveraged against these social goods, as a good over against other goods, then it's functioning as a value, as having a therapeutic function.

In sum, economics isn't as value-free as it thinks it is. Implicitly, economics is chock full of values, and holds before us a metaphysics of human flourishing. And those values and that vision is open to theological critique. Economic growth and market efficiency are good, but they are just two goods among many other competing goods, other goods we care about, goods that promote health, happiness, shared prosperity, and sustainability. A humane economy challenges the metaphysics of maximization, where growth, profit, and efficiency are held and pursued as the greatest, ultimate goods, ends in themselves.

Flourishing, by contrast, isn't produced by maximizing a single good (material wealth), but by prudently balancing multiple goods, even when that balancing involves trade-offs in growth, profit, and efficiency. Those trade-offs are not failures or problems. Those trade-offs are prudent and wise. Because trade-offs are what happens when we balance and arrange multiple goods in our lives over seeking to maximize a single good, like profit or growth, over all others. Markets might "suffer" because of these trade-offs, but that's precisely the point: other goods are being inserted into the system, tamping down maximization, bounding previously unbounded desires, a signal that locations of "enough" are being located and settled upon.

In the end, I guess Jesus said it the best. You cannot serve both God and money.

There's going to be a trade-off.

Aquinas and the Market: Part 9, The Problem with Money

In the last post we discussed one of Hirschfeld's criticisms of the rational choice model in Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy. Specifically, utility maximization assumes unbounded desires, and this insatiability eventually leads to scarcity as our desires always outstrip our resources. 

In this post I want to turn toward Hirschfeld's analysis of money, as money supercharges this insatiability.

Specifically, and building upon Aquinas's account of virtue and happiness, Hirschfeld tells us that we need to keep in mind two things about created goods.

First, since created goods are particular conduits of God's grace, they are not interchangeable. Each created good is a sacramental sign telling us something qualitatively unique about the goodness of God. Hirschfeld uses the example of an apple. She writes,
In essence, this is an argument that material goods should be viewed as sacramental signs, representing God's goodness to us in the only way possible in a finite creation. Recall that for a finite creation to reflect God, the qualitatively distinct goods we find in the world represent some aspect of God's goodness. The appleness of the apple tells us something of God, distinct from what the orangeness of the orange tells us...To put it another way, the apple is not merely a device for delivering us nutrition, one that is not interchangeable with a pill containing the same set of nutrients. It is a way of sustaining bodily life, along with the goodness communicated in the crunch, smell, and taste of biting into an apple.
Second, and following Aquinas, our appropriation and use of these created goods must be ordered toward ultimate ends. This ordering creates bounded desires for created goods. Finite goods are met with finite desires, and infinite desires are directed only toward God.

Given all this, we find that money distorts our relationship with created goods. To be clear, Hirschfeld is very clear that money is a vital tool for modern economics and, therefore, modern levels of economic prosperity. So we're going to keep money around. But if we are not extraordinarily vigilant, money disorders our relationship with created goods.

In two related ways. First, the power of money is that, via liquidity, it makes goods fungible. Each good has price it can be exchanged for, and that money from the sale can be used to buy a different good. All created goods get monetized, reduced to a price.  

This ability of money, to reduce all goods to a single, interchangeable metric, to a price, is the great dynamo of modern markets. I don't have to barter my pig for your eggs, or my labor for a gallon of milk. We can use money instead, putting prices on an hour's labor, a dozen eggs, or a pound of bacon.

But there's a danger lurking here. As Hirschfeld points out, money is a tool, a means toward an end, the created good itself. But due to money's liquidity and fungibility, we stop using money as a tool and begin pursing money as an end in itself. Instead of seeking an experience of God's goodness and grace in created gifts, our goal becomes simply to get money, and more of it.

This creates the second problem. Our desires for created goods tend to be bounded. We can think prudently about having "enough." How many apples do you need? Or square feet of a house? Practical reason and wisdom can help us bound and limit desires for these goods. We have too many apples if we can't eat them all before they rot. And we have too big a house if we aren't able to put all the space to good use. Bigger isn't always better when it comes to houses.You can look around and say, "We don't need all this space."

True, discernments will vary on how much of any created good is "enough." You and I might disagree on how many shoes or books is "enough." Our desires for shoes or books can become insatiable, unbounded, and disordered. But discernments about created goods are much more amendable to analysis as goods exist within a teleological framework, goods are related toward particular ends. Having more books is disordered if you can't read them all. And a good intended to bring you delight only makes sense if it actually brings you delight. If you buy a fishing boat but work so much you never take the boat out, something is disordered about that. The fishing boat is only a conduit of God's grace if you take the time to get out on the water. But that would demand ordering the other goods in your life, like how much you work. As Hirschfeld discusses, for Aquinas the virtue of prudence is the ability to bring all these goods into proper balance and proportion. And seeking this balance and proportion in life helps us find "enough."

But when money becomes the focus of our desire, we lose this connection to created goods. How much money is enough? Since money is an abstraction, there's never enough. More money is just always better than less. That's how you end up working weekends instead of taking the boat out. You're working on the weekend because money became the goal rather than a means to an end.

In short, money fuels insatiability. Our desire for money is infinite. Why? Because the logic of utility maximization says that $$ is preferred over $. And $$$ preferred over $$. And on and on and on. You can never have enough money. Unlike our bounded desires for created goods, our desire for money is unbounded. By separating us from created goods, money supercharges the insatiability being driven by utility maximization. Economic growth--more and more money--becomes our final, ultimate goal. And once we start playing that game there will never be enough.

Aquinas and the Market: Part 8, Unbounded Desires, Growth and Scarcity

So far, these posts have been ground clearing, reviewing the ways theological economics tries go about its business, but how it often fails to make a contribution to the conversation. In a few concluding posts I'd like us to now turn to Hirschfeld's positive proposal in Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy. The coming posts will only be a sketch, however. If you want her fuller and more comprehensive argument, I encourage you to pick up the book.

One of the central criticisms Hirschfeld levels against the rational choice model, which undergirds the edifice of economic theory and modeling, concerns the metaphysics of maximization. Specifically, utility maximization assumes that human desires are unbounded, that the desires of homo economicus are insatiable. Economists might object to this assessment, but Hirschfeld responds:
Economists frequently object to this claim, arguing that the rational choice model does not require an assumption that desires are unbounded. But the assumption that desires are unbounded undergirds most of economic thought. This can best be seen in the widespread assumption that, ceteris paribus (all else being equal), more economic growth is preferred to less. Because individuals have infinite desires, growth in wealth is to be desired since it will allow consumers to achieve higher levels of utility...The unstated premise of macroeconomics and development economics is that economic growth is always desirable.
We can see this assumption at work in how the well-being of a nation is always gauged by two things: An ever increasing GDP and a stock market that always goes up, up, and up.

The trouble with all this, as Hirschfeld points out, is that unbounded desires and infinite growth produce scarcity. As Hirschfeld says, "Scarcity is inevitable because human desires are infinite while our resources are finite."

This is the dynamic that sits behind a suite of issues: The inability of the planet to sustain infinite economic growth, radical wealth inequality, and the most affluent people in the history of the world feeling strapped for cash. All of this, according to Hirschfeld, is because we lack a basic ability to say "enough." Lacking a global ability to say "enough," we're unable to find that sweetspot where broad prosperity is balanced with environmental sustainability. Lacking an ability to say "enough" massive wealth is increasingly accumulated among the top 1% and fails to be shared with the 99%. And lacking an ability to say "enough" in our own personal lives, we find ourselves wealthy beyond belief compared to ages past, yet massively in debt and increasingly unhappy. Insatiability, unbounded, infinite desires, along with perpetual economic growth, keep pushing and pushing, depleting resources, concentrating wealth, and driving up debt and unhappiness.

As Hirschfeld will go on to argue, this inability to say "enough," to have bounded, finite desires, is rooted in the metaphysical assumptions of the rational choice model. The metaphysical logic of utility maximization, of preferring A over B, is unbounded because having an extra dollar is always going to be preferred over the amount you already have. And a new, better iPhone is always going to be preferred over the one you currently have. The logic of maximization never terminates, it just goes on and on and on. More and more, and better and better, is always preferred. Consequently, without a metaphysics of "enough," we're doomed to scarcity as desires keep outstripping resources.

Aquinas and the Market: Part 7, They Have a Utility Function for Mother Teresa

Another moment in Mary Hirschfeld's book Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy that made me sit up and take notice was when she turned to common critiques of the rational choice model and dismissed them as superficial.

As discussed in the last post, the model of human behavior in economic modeling is the rational choice model. This is homo economicus, human persons who are rational, self-interested, and utility maximizing animals.

The rational choice model takes a lot of heat because it's so central to economic modeling. If the rational choice model is wrong, then the economic modeling based upon it going to be wrong.

So a lot is hanging on the rational choice model. And over the years, there have been a variety of critiques of the model. Two of the most important, as reviewed by Hirschfeld, have to do with rationality and self-interest.

Let's start with rationality.

Are humans really rational?

There have been a host of findings from the field of behavioral economics that have shown that human decision-making is often irrational. In addition, the long, sad history of financial panics and bubbles provide case studies in how irrationality and emotions can trouble and crash markets.

So, if humans are irrational then the models of economics are fundamentally flawed and untrustworthy. Correct?

No so fast, says Hirschfeld.

It is true, Hirschfeld points out, that the findings of behavioral economics and recent market collapses like the 2008 US housing bubble have chastened and challenged the assumptions of mainstream economic modeling. But she also goes on to point out that there's a rapidly growing literature among economists working to accommodate and model various sorts of "irrationality" in human choice and market behavior. The point here is that economists are aware of the problem and are on it.

True, we might find this work inadequate, or complain that it has yet to impact real-world economic modeling in any broad or comprehensive way, but the point here is simply to say that if your theological criticism of the rational choice model is that humans sometimes behave irrationally this will be very old and uninteresting news for any economists in the audience. They will yawn at you.

Let's now turn to the issue of self-interest, which is, probably, of most concern to theologians.

Are humans wholly self-interested? Aren't we fundamentally social, cooperative creatures? Can't we make decisions based on love, self-sacrifice, altruism, and compassion?

This is, perhaps, the most common theological criticism of modern economics. So, again, I sat up and took notice when Hirschfeld also dismissed this criticism as superficial.

Hirschfeld dismisses the criticism that, since humans can behave altruistically then the rational choice model is false, in two ways.

First, Hirschfeld writes: "A second set of common misconceptions cluster around the idea that economists falsely assume that human beings are purely self-interested. In point of fact, homo economicus [economic man] is not identical to homo avidus [greedy man]."

Again, to review from the last post, in economic modeling "self-interest" simply means "preference satisfaction," that if you prefer A over B you choose A. Self-interest in economic modeling isn't competitive nastiness or selfish indulgence. Self-interest isn't greed or Machiavellianism. Self-interest simply means that if you like Dr. Pepper more that Coke you buy Dr. Pepper. That's it, that's all it means.

Once that clarification is made you can see how this whole line of criticism evaporates. More, and this is Hirschfeld's second, related point, economists can model altruism and social consciousness within the rational choice model.

For example, if you prefer to spend more for fair trade products, because you value making sure that the person picking the coffee is getting a fair wage, then that's your preference. Your utility function ranks the fair trade coffee over Folgers, so that's what you buy. Your "preference satisfaction" reflects your social consciousness. The same goes for a company that wants to go green and reduce carbon emissions. Or a nation that wants to expand healthcare. All these social goods can be easily handled by the rational choice model. As Hirschfeld bracingly points out:
The content of Bernie Madoff's utility function may well differ from that of Mother Teresa's, but formally there is no difference in the logic of maximizing utility...[T]he model of utility maximization can handle altruism.
To be sure, as with irrationality, the degree to which altruism plays a role in markets remains an open question. But that's a question of values, not of models. The point to be observed here is that raising the issue of altruism and cooperative motivations in human choice isn't really a challenge to economic thinking and modeling. When we realize that "self-interest" simply means that if you prefer A over B you choose A, for whatever reason, then this entire line of criticism is effectively shelved. A theologian who challenges homo economicus by pointing out that humans can behave altruistically and cooperatively is also going to elicit yawns. The economists have a utility function for Mother Teresa.

To wrap this up, it's clear the reason that Hirschfeld can dispense with these criticisms so quickly is that she has a PhD in economics. She listens to the theological criticisms, and she knows exactly how economists in the audience would hear and respond. So she's uniquely equipped to get past the first unhelpful rounds of theological conversation--But aren't people irrational? Aren't people altruistic?--and move us on down the road.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 30, The Danger of Light and Joy

After the company receives gifts from Galadriel they say their goodbyes to Lothlórien. The parting fills Gimli with grief, and he shares this lament with Legolas:
“Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would have never come, had I known the danger of light and joy.”
Legolas responds with a reflection about the relationship between love and loss:
"Alas for us all! And for all that walk the world in these after-days. For such is the way of it: to find and lose, as it seems to those whose boat is on the running stream. But I count you blessed, Gimli son of Glóin: for your loss you suffer of your own free will, and you might have chosen otherwise."
Such is the pathos of life, the "danger of light and joy." To find is to lose, such is the way of it. The price of love is grief and sorrow.

The alternative, as Brené Brown points out, is numbness. Withdrawing your heart from life and love. Choosing protection and emotional armor over risk and vulnerability.

This is one of the reasons I'm a Christian: The cross.

Love and loss sit at the very center of our lives.

Aquinas and the Market: Part 6, Homo Economicus

Having reviewed various approaches toward theological economics, in the posts to come we're going to start turning toward and discussing Mary Hirschfeld's critiques of modern economics in Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy.

Again, Hirschfeld isn't going to simply lament capitalism and let her proposal cash out into a simplistic appeal for social welfare and/or socialism. That debate, between capitalism and socialism, is longstanding, and theologians aren't equipped to wade into evaluating the various trade-offs within each system. In that debate, theology is reduced to rooting for a preferred economic team.

Hirschfeld's approach, by contrast, involves a close examination at the fundamental assumptions of economic theory. She begins where working economists begin, with models and mathematics.

At the heart of economic modeling is what is called "the rational choice model."

For the formulas of economic models to work, you have to have some working assumptions about how humans make their choices. If you have that model in hand you can run this fictional human person through the equations to produce descriptions and predictions for how a given market (an ecosystem of goods, choices, and constraints) will behave, along with the trade-offs involved. The model of human choice used in modern economics is the rational choice model, what is called Homo economicus, "economic man." This is the gas that makes the equations hum.

The heart of the rational choice model is that human choice is involved in "utility maximization." Utility is a slippery, contested concept. Broadly, utility means something like satisfaction, pleasure, or happiness. To maximize your utility, then, when faced with the choice between A or B, is to make the choice that produces the most satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness.

As it stands, the rational choice model is perfectly sensible. It's both very simple and very comprehensive. It conforms to both common sense and empirical data. People make choices that they believe will make them happier, more satisfied, and give the more pleasure.

Of course, we can all imagine exceptions to this rule, but these are rare exceptions and anomalies. And even then, these might not even be exceptions if we looked closely at the situation. Take addiction, for example. It might not look like the addict is making a choice that will maximize his happiness and satisfaction, at least not in the long term. But there is a trade-off between short term satisfaction and long-term satisfaction. We tend to discount future goods. As we say, a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush. In short, while to the outside observer the addict might be behaving "irrationally," if we were to model his utility function we'd see the "rationality" of the choice.

Still, terms like "satisfaction" and "happiness" do murk up the waters. We're going to return to this issue in coming posts. For now, Hirschfeld notes that most working economists don't want to wade too deeply into the philosophical waters about the nature of "utility." All the economists need from Homo economicus for their models to work is a ranking of preferences, that you prefer A over B. We can speculate to the moon and back about why you might make that ranking, the "utility" lurking behind it, but all the models need is a ranking. In short, for working economists, utility maximization is "preference satisfaction." If you prefer A over B you choose A. That's Homo economicus, that's rational choice.

Okay, all this review is necessary going forward as this is where Hirschfeld will begin her theological critique of economics. Specifically, the rational choice model presumes to be value-free, without metaphysical content or baggage. Hirschfeld, however, is going to argue that the rational choice model is smuggling in a suite of values and metaphysical assumptions. Given that situation, her goal is to interrogate the metaphysics of modern economics.

However, as Hirschfeld points out, she isn't the first to question the values and assumptions of the rational choice model. So, before turning to Hirschfeld's analysis, we'll look at two common criticisms of the rational choice model and how economists have addressed them.

Aquinas and the Market: Part 5, Is the Answer Always Socialism or Voting for the Democrats?

I've hinted at this point a few times in these posts, but I wanted to pause and devote a whole post to this observation.

Specifically, we've talked a lot about how theologians tend to marginalize themselves by effectively reducing their theological project to rooting for a preferred economic team.

Globally, the two teams are capitalism and socialism. Or, more precisely, capitalism with a welfare and social security system versus democratic socialism.

Here in the US, the two teams within a broadly capitalistic consensus are the free marketeers (aligned more with Republicans) and those wanting more robust and comprehensive social safety net (aligned more with Democrats).

Given these teams, when you hear theological criticisms of capitalism or free markets the conversation always lands in a very predictable place. The moves of the argument are pretty standard:
  1. Capitalism is bad. Describe all the problems.
  2. Describe how God's economy is based upon mutuality, creation care, grace, gift, and abundance. 
  3. Therefore, socialism and/or the Democratic Party.
Let me be clear, as regular readers know, my political and economic sympathies are toward the Democratic party and socialism. That's how I vote. I want a broader and deeper social safety net, starting with universal health care. But if that's true, why am raising concerns about theological arguments of the type described above?

Some of it is simply due to the fact that I'm invested in being self-critical, of myself and my "tribe." But my deeper concern, I've come to realize, has been highlighted by Mary Hirschfeld in Aquinas and the Market, that theological conversations about economics have become 1) all pretty predictable, and 2) are reduced to rooting for a preferred economic team.

My worries about this are diverse. The list includes:

1. Aren't we always just preaching to the choir with these arguments? How many times have I seen a group of theologically like-minded individuals gather to rehash and restate what everyone in the room already believes? Where's the persuasive task of theological argumentation?

2. Aren't we just using God as political and economic leverage to argue for why our preferred political vision must be the one adopted by all? Isn't theology just being used as a pawn here, on one side or the other, in our already too-polarized political debates?

3. The predictability of these arguments is, well, just boring. We listen to these long theological discourses, but we already know how it is all going to end, for this party or this candidate. So why don't we cut the theological mumbo jumbo and just vote already?

4. Can't theology say anything self-critical? Why don't we ever see conservative theologians leveling critiques at capitalism and the Republican Party, or progressive theologians leveling critiques at socialism or the Democratic party? Where is evidence for the radical independence of theological thought?

Anyway, what made me interested in Hirschfeld's book was how it seemed to cut across the tired lines and positions that emerge over and over again in these debates.

For example, the issue of private property.

Why do theological critiques of capitalism always tend to cash out (sorry for the pun) into socialism or the Democratic party?

As Hirschfeld describes, it's a simple move. "God's economy," as described in the last post, isn't characterized by competition but by sharing, an economy of mutuality and the exchange of gifts. However, as we talked about in the last post, this "economy of grace" is very idealized. So what's the next best thing for sharing in our world? The answer comes from a simple mapping. Sharing, which is good, maps onto public, and competition, which is bad, maps on to private. Simply:
Public goods are shared and therefore "good."

Private goods are not shared and therefore "bad."
A great deal of theological windbaggery can be reduced to this simple mapping. It's the mapping that causes a lot of theological discussion to dump out as socialism or the Democratic party. Public = Shared = Good.

Stepping into this debate, Hirschfeld points out that Thomas Aquinas is an interesting conversation partner, because Aquinas held the private property is actually a good. To be sure, this is Aquinas of course, this good can be distorted and disordered. And it often is disordered in capitalism. But that doesn't make private property bad. Private property, contended the Angelic Doctor, is actually a good.

That's interesting to me. A surprise. Simply because it cuts across the tired lines of these debates. Hirschfeld is going to level a criticism at modern economics and capitalism, but she's not going to adopt a simplistic moral mapping of Public = Good and Private = Bad, a mapping which predetermines where her critique might go or how it will all cash out.

And this, all by itself, is both noteworthy and interesting.

Aquinas and the Market: Part 4, An Economy of Grace?

I want to linger a bit with the third approach toward theological economics described by D. Stephen Long in Divine Economy and surveyed by Mary Hirschfeld in Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy.

Recall, this third approach toward theological economics is devoted toward the task of critiquing the values and metaphysics inherent in modern economics, capitalism most specifically.

To be clear, this project isn't just pointing out all the ways capitalism is bad. No doubt, there are a host of ills associated with capitalism, but addressing those ills quickly brings us back to the conversation about trade-offs which, once again, effectively sidelines theology.

So this project isn't about pointing to noxious outcomes of modern economics and saying "Bad!" It is, rather, an attempt to evaluate the assumptions, values, and metaphysics of modern economics to locate the source of these noxious outcomes, to get to the root of the matter, if you will.

Phrased differently, we want the critiques to be more than descriptive, we want them to be explanatory. Descriptive critiques are too easy and generally useless. It's easy to gesture over the world of modern economics and finance and lament all the locations of desolation. But that tour of sadness typically doesn't cash out in any practical proposals beyond a broad "Capitalism is bad, therefore, socialism."

To be clear, my economic thinking tends toward the socialist. I'd like a much larger and robust social safety net, starting with universal health care. But the socialism vs. capitalism debate is a live and longstanding economic debate about trade-offs that, again, sidelines theology, reducing theologians to cheerleaders who, given their theological commitments, root for their preferred economic team.   

All that to say, the work of this third approach toward theological economics isn't about 1) descriptively lamenting capitalism, or 2) theologically rooting for socialism. That isn't to say that something "socialistic" might not emerge from the critique of capitalism, just that it has to flow out of a conversation that starts down at a deeper level.

So, we have to start our theological critique the level of values, assumptions, and metaphysics. Now, when you survey theological works of this type, as Hirschfeld points out, what you often come across is a contrast that is made between capitalism and "God's economy." On the one side, with capitalism, you see assumptions like self-interest and scarcity.

It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that self-interest and scarcity are foundational to modern economic thought. As Hirschfeld writes, "The standard definition of economics identifies it as the science of how to allocate scarce resources...It is the scarcity of resources that necessitates a science of choice." And the model of choice behind modern economics is the self-interest of Homo economicus. As Hirschfeld describes: "[Homo economicus] seeks to reach his ends as efficiently as possible. He is generally modeled as doing so by maximizing his utility..."

These assumptions, scarcity and self-interest, among others, are then used to create the models of modern economics.

But what if these assumptions are wrong? For example, if we assume scarcity and self-interest we create a system that is inherently competitive. To be sure, that's the great win in capitalism, how it leverages competition toward the common good. As Adam Smith famously wrote: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages." And there's no questioning that this appeal to self-interest does produce economic growth.

And yet, the theologians counter, might some of the ills we find in capitalism be ameliorated if we found ways of emphasizing the cooperative aspects of human relations over the competitive? If so, perhaps we should question the assumptions of self-interest and scarcity, the twin engines of competition.

And so, a contrast is made. On the one side is capitalism, with self-interest and scarcity. And on the other side is "God's economy." In contrast to capitalism, "God's economy" is characterized by mutual aid and cooperation, and it flows out of abundance and gift. In these discussions, you'll often hear the refrain, "Capitalism is an economics of scarcity, but God's economy is an economy of abundance." And where there's abundance rather than scarcity, there is enough to share, and an economy of gifts can emerge.

In sum, what you often find in this theological critique of capitalism is self-interest, scarcity, and competition set to one side, with gift, abundance, and cooperation set on the other. From that contrast theological criticisms are leveled against the assumptions, metaphysics, and values of capitalism.

To give an illustration of what this sort of critique looks like, Hirschfeld examines some of the work of Kathryn Tanner, one of the best theologians in the world who has tackled theological economics. For example, Tanner describes God's economy as an "economy of grace," which sharply contrasts with the competitive economy of capitalism. Tanner writes:
God creates the whole world, in all its aspects--material and spiritual--according to such a noncompetitive economy, so that it should be such a noncompetitive economy to every degree possible...
Hirschfeld summarizes Tanner's approach in contrasting a noncompetitive "economy of grace" with modern financial markets:
Tanner identifies a field of Christianity as a contrasting case [to capitalism], wherein the good, grace, is not scare and the pursuit of it is noncompetitive. Finally, she asserts the dominance of the theological discourse by arguing that we should contest the notion that all fields of human endeavor are inherently competitive. In particular, we should take the principles of the economy of grace and apply them to the material economy to transform it into a field that is likewise noncompetitive to the degree possible.
My first observation is simply to note how Tanner illustrates this particular approach to theological economics. Specifically, Tanner is making a theological evaluation and critique of the values and assumptions at work in modern economic thinking and modeling. She's not merely lamenting an ill of capitalism (e.g., income inequality), positing a value we need to reach (e.g., climate care), or advocating for a specific policy (e.g., raising the minimum wage). She's working at the level of values, assumptions, and metaphysics.

My second observation is that, as it stands, I love what Tanner is saying. Whenever I hear a vision of the kingdom of God articulated and envisioned--economies of grace, gift, and abundance--my heart sings.

But my third observation is why I'm doing this series. The problem, as Hirschfeld reminds us, is that the Machiavellian critique we highlighted in Part One is looking us squarely in the face. Economies of grace, gift and abundance are very idealistic. Just how realistic is an "economy of grace" in a global economy? That question haunts me whenever I hear theological critiques of capitalism. As Hirschfeld comments:
Unfortunately, [Tanner's critique of capitalism] is left with no answer to the Machiavellian challenge that we should avoid utopian thinking. Tanner's critique, [for example,] of the role of finance in our our economy omits any account of the function finance could play if it had the right spirit. As a result, there are no tools for pragmatically thinking through what could be done to combat the negative effects she details. Correlatively, Tanner's take on financial capitalism is one sided. There is indeed much to critique. But Tanner gives no tools for thinking about how to balance the negative effects of modern capitalism with its beneficial role in, say, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the past few decades. Tanner thereby leaves herself open to the Machiavellian charge that this is mere utopian thinking.
It's this utopianism that haunts me in theological discussions of capitalism. I know that God's economy is an economy of abundance. But the real world, the world of the Fall, is governed by scarcity. Resources and goods are not infinite. And yes, I don't like building a world through appeals to self-interest. But any economic scheme that doesn't make self-interest a key feature of human motivation is doomed. The sad history of communism testifies to this.

And so, here I stand, waffling between realism and idealism. And it raises a question for me: Can theology offer anything to economic discussions other than descriptive laments about capitalism tied to idealistic contrasts with "economies of grace"?

Because while capitalism might be bad, prescribing heaven doesn't seem to be very practical.

Aquinas and the Market: Part 3, Is Economics Value Free?

In the last post we reviewed two approaches regarding theological economics, a taxonomy developed by D. Stephen Long in Divine Economy and surveyed by Hirschfeld in Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy.

Summarizing, the first approach involves theologians embracing global capitalism and the culture it produces, which guts any prophetic or critical relationship that theology might have with economics.

The second approach involves theologians working in the area of normative economics, discussing the various social goods we should collectively pursue. This approach assumes a division of labor between theologians and economists, with theologians specifying the values and economists evaluating the best means to achieve those values. We noted some of the tensions within this approach, especially how it also sidelines theology.

Which brings us to Long's third approach for theological economics.

This third approach involves a more confrontational, oppositional, critical and prophetic stance toward modern economics.

Recall from the last post how, in normative economics, theologians and economics are to stay in their own sandboxes. Theologians talk about values, and economists talk about policy. Trouble is, as we discussed, no one stays in their sandbox.

Specifically, we noted how theologians, along with Christian Twitter, frequently drift from values to policy, assuming a straightforward relationship between a value (like reducing poverty) and a specific policy (like raising the minimum wage). Obviously, the assumption goes, if you care about the poor you should support a minimum wage increase.

Trouble is, there is a lively economic debate about if increasing the minimum wage will have deleterious effects upon the poor. There are liberal economists on one side of the debate and conservative economists on the other, and Christians are drawn toward their respective sides in defense of their positions. But as Hirschfeld points out, faith isn't really informing these debates. All we are doing, she observes, is rehashing "existing economic disputes in a theological key." As the economists debate the trade-offs of a minimum wage increase, faith stands on the sideline, picking a team and cheering them on. Consequently, faith isn't substantively contributing to the economic debate. Faith is just an expression of our team preference, about which economist we're rooting for.

And yet, while theologians do get out of their sandbox, economists get out of theirs as well. And that's where the third, critical approach to theological economics comes in.

Recall, economists see themselves as dispassionate, objective, empirical scientists. Their models are "value free." But are they? The third, critical school of theological economics argues that economic models and assumptions are very, very far from being value free. Embedded within economic thought and practice are assumptions that have normative and metaphysical content. For example, the fact/value split that most economists work with--values in one sandbox and empirical analysis in the other--is a metaphysical assumption. There are rival metaphysical models on offer, so it's ridiculous to say economics is "value free." Economics has a metaphysics, a metaphysics that is open to criticism. In addition, the anthropological vision at the heart of economic modeling--homo economicus, the rational, self-interested, utility maximizing animal--is far from being value neutral.

The point here is that modern economics isn't value neutral or uninvolved with metaphysics. Economics gets out of its own sandbox, and that is where theological economics can have real, substantive engagement. Theological economics does more that debate "the good," it critically engages economic thought and practice by examining and questioning its value-laden and metaphysically-charged assumptions and tools.

Basically, there is a widespread assumption that what Adam Smith discovered with the Invisible Hand is akin to Newtonian physics. Economic theory is simply about the lawful, value-free facts governing human behavior. But markets embody a metaphysics. Capitalism enshrines a value system. There is a philosophy of human flourishing at work in the "science" of economics. This is where theology can, should, and must engage economics.

Hirschfeld's book is a part of this critical, prophetic effort. But she goes about it in a unique way. More on that in the next post.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 29, The Temptation of Galadriel

During their sojourn in Lothlórien, Galadriel brings both Sam and Frodo to look into her mirror. After looking and comprehending the power of Sauron seeking him and standing against him, Frodo despairs and offers the Ring to Galadriel. This becomes Galadriel's great moment of temptation. She declares to Sam and Frodo:
"You will give me the Ring freely! In the place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen! ... All shall love me and despair!"
It's the same temptation that Gandalf faced earlier when offered the Ring, the temptation to use power benevolently. As Sam shares, he wishes Galadriel would take the Ring as, "You'd put everything to rights!" But Galadriel pushes back, "I would...but it would not stop at that, alas!"

The scene reminds us of Jesus' temptation in the desert where Satan offers him the Ring of Power:
Then the devil took him up and revealed to him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. “I will give you the glory of these kingdoms and authority over them,” the devil said, “because they are mine to give to anyone I please. I will give it all to you if you will worship me.”
Jesus refuses the Ring. As does Galadriel. Refusing Frodo's offer, and Sam's wish that she use power to set things right, she says, "I pass the test."

There's many things we could unpack here. I'm pondering Sam's comment, how we're tempted to use power to make things "right." Who hasn't been tempted in that way? Anyone with power, of any sort, tries to use it make the world come out right. And we would, I'm sure. But alas, it wouldn't stop at that.

Aquinas and the Market: Part 2, Values, Policies, and Staying in Your Sandbox

Early in her book Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy, Hirschfeld reviews D. Stephen Long's Divine Economy to contrast three approaches of theological economics. We'll review the first two types in this post.

The first approach is characterized by theologians who "tend to accept global capitalism and the culture it produces." Both liberal and conservative theologians can be in this stream, mainly disagreeing about "the extent to which markets should be free to operate without government intervention."

As Hirschfeld points out, the prospects of this approach for theological economics is poor as theology is being used to justify, support, or endorse the existing economic system, liberal or conservative. The problem, Hirschfeld notes, is that "such theology risks being seen as an effort to adorn prior political commitments with theological dressing." There's not much for theology given this approach. The economical dog is wagging the theological tail. So we'll quickly move on.

But before moving on, let's just stop and say that we see this at work everywhere. There is little critical engagement between our faith and our politics/economics. Jesus doesn't bother Republicans, because Jesus is a Republican. And Jesus doesn't bother Democrats, because Jesus is a Democrat. Jesus doesn't bother capitalists, because Jesus is a capitalist. And Jesus doesn't bother socialists, because Jesus is a socialist. Everywhere you look, prior political commitments are adorned with theological dressing.

The second approach to theological economics is to work in the area of normative economics. By and large, economists sees themselves as social scientists, describing, modeling and predicting human behavior. Questions about values, norms, and ethics--not what humans do, but what humans should or ought to do--economists leave to ethicists, moral philosophers, and theologians.

The role of values in markets is called normative economics. Normative economics asks questions about what a good and just economy would look like. Economically, what values to we want to pursue? For example, do we want to reduce poverty? Do we want to protect the environment?

For the most part, economists don't care about those values. Or at least their models don't. Economists leave the values to others and set themselves the task of evaluating the various means by which we can realize our values, mainly through evaluating the various trade-offs, incentives, and unintended consequences at work in any concrete policy proposal.

Basically, economists see their work as "value-free." Welding their models, economists say to the theologians, "Just tell me what your preferences are, and I'll tell you how best to accomplish that goal, along with all the trade-offs you'll have to make and consider."

According to Hirschfeld, the trouble with this division of labor--values for the theologians and concrete policy recommendations for the economists--is that no one is staying in their sandbox. Theologians, along with any Christian with a Twitter account, frequently slip from values (Reduce poverty!) to policy recommendations (Raise the minimum wage!). Economists then step into the debate by pointing out that certain policy proposals (like raising the minimum wage) have a variety of trade-offs and unintended consequences. Sometimes to the point where the policy being recommended actually undermines the value it is supposed to be realizing. As Hirschfeld comments:
Economists who disagree with the proposition that we should raise the minimum wage, for example, are not arguing that we should be unconcerned about the working poor. On the contrary, they are arguing that out of concern for the working poor we should be cautious about adopting policies that might well result in fewer of them having jobs. The same sort of point can be made about macroeconomic policies...Economists who argue against government policies to boost employment do so on the grounds that such policies are either ineffective or actively counterproductive.
The point here is that we think we're talking about values when we're actually talking about trade-offs. We assume that questions such as "Are you for or against a minimum wage increase?" and "Are you for or against a guaranteed minimum income?" are moral questions, questions about values. Thus, people who are against these things are, by definition, bad people. But these questions aren't moral questions, they are questions about trade-offs. And these trade-offs can be empirically evaluated, and perhaps reveal that the policy being recommended actually undermines the value it is supposed to realize. A policy aimed at helping the poor could end up hurting the poor.

The upshot of all this is that theology, again, gets effectively marginalized. At the end of the day, there really is no serious debate about what values we all hold in common. There is a broad consensus among economists and theologians about what values we should be pursuing. Hirschfeld quotes Partha Dasgupta:
I have yet to read an economic document which does not regard as given that involuntary unemployment should be reduced wherever it is extensive, or that destitution should be a thing of the past, or that it would be a tragedy if the rain forest were to disappear. But there are many disagreements about the most effective ways to reduce involuntary unemployment, destitution, and the extinction of rain forests.
Dear theologians and Christians on Twitter, we already agree with you! So step aside, and leave the policy proposals to the experts. You don't really know what you're talking about.

So that's how theologians drift into the sandbox of economists. But it's also true that economists drift into the sandbox of theologians. How that happens goes to the point of Hirschfeld's book, which we'll get to later.

Lastly, there's a third approach to theological economics, but I'll leave that for the next post.

Aquinas and the Market: Part 1, The Machiavellian Challenge

I want to devote a series of posts sharing and interacting with Mary Hirschfeld's book Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy.

I picked up the book because of a burgeoning interest in Aquinas, along with a longstanding interest in how Christianity relates to economics given issues like poverty, inequality, consumerism, and climate change. I found Hirschfeld's book accessible and well-written and very insightful and illuminating. Thus my desire to share and direct you to her book.

Today, let me start by sharing a recurring dissatisfaction I have when Christians and theologians talk about economics.

Specifically, there's always a whiff of utopianism around Christian critiques of capitalism. That is, we see the ills of capitalism and set next to it a better vision of economic practice and life, a sustainable economy that benefits everyone, an economy that cares about the climate and that leaves no one behind.

But how practical are these wished-for economies? It's easy to dial up idealized visions of the economy. But these visions often amount to wish lists than realistic and implementable policy recommendations. Economic talk among progressive Christians spends all its time talking about what the economy should be where economists see themselves as dealing with the economic realities on the ground. So Christians talk and talk, but economists don't listen because we aren't talking about anything real.

What I found refreshing about Aquinas and the Market was that Hirschfeld begins with this demand that theological economics start with the practical concerns of economists. This is likely due to the fact that Hirschfeld received a PhD in economics from Harvard, followed by a second PhD in theology from Notre Dame. This makes Hirschfeld uniquely qualified to assess how a typical economist would hear theological critiques about economics. Which leads Hirschfeld to start the book with a very practical, non-utopian posture.

Hirschfeld calls this posture the Machiavellian challenge. And I think theologians should keep this challenge always in mind. Quoting Machiavelli:
Since my intent is to write something useful to whoever understands it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it. And many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.
This quote captures much of my angst when Christians, mainly progressive Christians, talk about the economy. We can articulate such beautiful alternatives to capitalism, and my heart sings when I imagine these worlds, but after the talk is over there's always this Machiavellian voice in the back of my mind: "This is beautiful, but it'll never work."

To be clear, don't read this series thinking that, by the end, Hirschfeld is going to solve all that ails us, economically speaking. She's keen to avoid the Machiavellian trap as well. Hirschfeld's point is that Christians need to do more than offer up economic wish lists, and stop assuming that wish lists are real critiques and solutions to our economic problems.

In short, Hirschfeld contends, if Christianity wants to engage economics it needs to start where economists do their work, offering substantive critiques at that level of engagement, at the level of economic modeling and thinking. And that's what Hirschfeld tries to do in her book.

Beach Glass and God

We spent a lot of time during our two weeks on Lake Erie looking for beach glass. It's become a family passion.

It struck me that looking for beach glass is a lot like looking for God. My next book, coming out next spring, is built around the idea that life with God is largely a matter of attention. Not belief, attention. God is always there, grace always a ribbon through life, but we have to bring attention. Otherwise we miss it.

Searching for beach glass, it seems to be, is a wonderful metaphor for the kind of attention we need to bring to our lives. Life seems drab and grey, but bits of light shine everywhere, a kaleidoscope of colors, rainbow seeds planted everywhere.

But only for those who are looking.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 28, Love and Understanding in the Heart of an Enemy

Taken into Lothlórien, the company meets Galadriel. They share with her the sad news about the death of Balin, the awakening of the Balrog, and the fall of Gandalf.

Reliving the darkness that has overtaken his people, Gimli grows sad. Seeing this, Galadriel speaks tenderly to him, using the language of the dwarves to speak of the former glories of Moria. Hearing this praise, and in his own language, becomes a conversion experience for Gimli. As Tolkien writes:
And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer.
From this point on, Gimli will declare Galadriel to be the fairest lady in Middle Earth, and will tolerate no ill word spoken against her. He becomes completely devoted to the one he once swore was his enemy.

As Fleming Rutlege points out, love and understanding, especially from one you considered an enemy, is shown here to be a profound and powerful tool of peace-making, healing, and reconciliation.

And what's more, we all have this power.

Mysticism and Revolution

It is my growing conviction that in Jesus the mystical and the revolutionary ways are not opposites, but two sides of the same human mode of experiential transcendence. I am increasingly convinced that conversion is the individual equivalent of revolution. Therefore, every real revolutionary is challenged to be a mystic at heart, and one who walks the mystical way is called to unmask the illusory quality of human society.

Mysticism and revolution are two aspects of the same attempt to bring about radical change. Mystics cannot prevent themselves from becoming social critics, since in self-reflection they will discover the roots of a sick society. Similarly, revolutionaries cannot avoid facing their own human condition, since in the midst of their struggle for a new world they will find that they are also fighting their own reactionary fears and false ambitions.

--Henri Nouwen

Whoever Has Ears, Let Them Hear

In the gospel of Mark we find what Bible scholars call "the Messianic secret." Specifically, throughout Mark Jesus seems very keen in keeping his identity under wraps, a secret.

In some places, this secret can seem extreme, a way of so hiding Jesus's identity that some people are purposefully left out and excluded from the kingdom. For example, in Mark 4 Jesus is teaching in parables, the meaning of which are hard to understand. And Jesus seems to say, that's exactly the point, I don't want people to understand. He then quotes a very troubling text from Isaiah:
Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!"
The reference to Isaiah seems to suggest that Jesus is using parables to prevent people from seeing and hearing, and therefore throwing up a barrier to their repentance and forgiveness.

That's an exceedingly strange situation. Doesn't Jesus want people to be forgiven?

The text from Isaiah is tough to understand, one of Jesus's "hard sayings." But if we keep reading in Mark 4 I think we do see that Jesus does want people to respond to his message. He says:
He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”

“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” 
Jesus isn't putting the lamp under a bowl. He wants the kingdom proclamation to shine. Visibility is what he's after. Trouble is, people aren't hearing the message correctly. Jesus instructs that we must "consider carefully what you hear." The "measure we use" when listening to Jesus is critical. If you're hearing Jesus correctly, if you have "more," more of the kingdom message will be understood by you. If, however, you're missing Jesus's point, if you measure him with "less," you're going to miss everything Jesus is saying, and even what you get of Jesus is going to get "taken away," lost in your miscomprehension.

This is why in Mark 4 Jesus starts his parables by saying, "Listen!" and then repeats the refrain "If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear."

The parables, then, aren't obstacles as much as they are tests. The kingdom is disclosed, but only to the one who "hears" Jesus, to the one who "measures" him rightly. But to those who don't "hear" Jesus, who misunderstand who he is and what the kingdom is all about, the parables prevent people from distorting and amplifying the wrong message.

The Law of the Gift

I recently came across the phrase "the Law of the Gift." The phrase was coined by John Paul II.

According to John Paul II, there are two paths toward self-fulfillment and self-actualization.

On the one hand we can act with self-assertion, centering and privileging our own needs and concerns. By contrast, and paradoxically, the Law of the Gift says that you become more fully human, alive, and yourself to the extent that you give yourself away. You self-actualize by becoming other-focused.

In the words of Bishop Robert Barron, the Law of the Gift can be formulated this way: "Your being increases in the measure that you give it away. Your being decreases in the measure that you cling to it."

I Was Cast Upon Thee from the Womb

I like to do my devotional reading in the King James Version. I was reading Psalm 22, and a line struck me from Verse 10:

"I was cast upon thee from the womb."

Modern translations render the verse very similarly, "From birth I was cast on you" (NIV) and "On you I was cast from my birth" (NRSV).

The meaning of the Hebrew word for "cast" can range from the passive ("left") to vigorous ("thrown").

Anyway, it's strange how a line can interrupt you when reading the Bible, and the interruption is hard to explain since it's an emotional thing, the Word of God and your particular life at a particular time intersect to create an experience. And this experience was just a powerful feeling that, from the moment of birth, I had been "cast upon" God, totally dependent upon God, even when I didn't know or recognize it.

All my life, I've been held by God. As have you.

All of us, cast upon God from the womb.