Sadly, my day jobs are keeping me from being able to respond to each of you individually, or even to read in detail al the comments. I have skimmed them, however, and will use this as a means to offer some further details on my positions on these issues. Before I get into that, however, let me encourage us again to engage each other with civility and respect. Feel free to argue passionately with each other at the argument level, but DO NOT fall prey to the temptation to resort to ad hominem arguments. You should recognize that most folks take the resort to ad hominem attack the surest indicator that you have run out of rational response. So, some thoughts.
I picked up a disturbing hermeneutical position in the course of the comments which seemed to indicate that the only thing that would count as a “clear” biblical argument is the location of passages that explicitly state something. So, the only thing that would count as a persuasive and clear biblical argument for governments being involved in care for the poor is if one could find a passage that says, “Governments are to do x with regard to the poor.” Such a position is highly, highly problematic on a number of fronts.
First, as I recall, it was one of the Gregory’s (Nazianzus in The Catechetical Oration, I think) who noted that if Scripture says 5 and 7 it need not also say 12. In other words, Gregory explicitly recognized that reading Scripture rightly required more nuance than simply trying to find direct statement on everything Scripture actually addresses.
Second, Basil, in On the Holy Spirit, says that he is going to attempt to argue for the doctrine of the Trinity from Scripture, but notes that if you do not find his arguments persuasive, you should still adhere to the teachings of the Fathers. He recognized that it was going to take a careful and close reading of the biblical texts in order to draw the conclusion that God was Trinitarian. The early church spent four centuries before it was able to canonize its statement on the Trinity, showing how complicated drawing the correct conclusions can be.
Third, Athanasius, in Contra Arianos, readily admitted that the Arians had a long and persuasive list of proof texts. However, he argued they were wrong because they read Scripture in a “wooden and literalistic” fashion. It is worth noting that there were two major interpretive traditions n the early church—the Alexandrian and the Antiochene. One tended to interpret more literally and the other allowed more for figurative and non-literal interpretations. Many fundamentalists are shocked to find that the school that most often wandered off into heresy was the one that interpreted in a more literal fashion. So, the idea that I have to show a passage that says “Governments have a role to play in caring for the poor” would be quite a strange hermeneutic to the early Fathers. What I have done is consistent with what they did. I’ve tried to give a “sense of the text” from various locations and then drawn conclusions accordingly.
Fourth, I’ve alluded to it above, but let me make it explicit: if you hold that that which one affirms is only what Scripture claims explicitly, you will necessarily end up both a trintarian and Chalcedonian heretic—as neither the doctrine of the Trinity or the two natures of Christ is explicitly stated in Scripture.
Let me transition to a somewhat different hermeneutical concern, this one dealing with the sorts of presuppositions one brings to reading Scripture. I have a friend and colleague who points out that one of the most significant problems we have in reading Scripture rightly is that we bring what are essentially Western presuppositions to what is essentially a book written from the context of Eastern culture. This has numerous implications, important for this discussion.
First, as Joel Green points out in The Scandal of the Cross, while Western cultures may use the image of “blind justice” as a metaphor for the legal system, not all do. Most notably, some Eastern cultures go in precisely the opposite direction. He gives the example of Japanese culture wherein the judge is not perceived as blindly indifferent, but rather has his eyes wide open to observe the interactions between plaintiff and defendant. He gives the explicit example of a man who kills another person in an automobile accident. The judge does not pronounce judgment until he goes, himself, to the funeral to see how the two parties interact. Why? Because in this tradition, the law is not there to balance some invisible scales of justice, but rather is there to restore relationship. When we go to Scripture and impose the sense of justice that comes from a blind folded Lady Justice, we are taking a relatively contemporary Western definition of “justice” and reading it back into the texts.
Walter Brueggemann makes a similar point in his essay in Blackwell’s Companion
to Political Theology (don’t recall the title, but it is very early in the
volume). There he argues that what God
was mostly trying to get
Third, at a deeper level, we Westerners need to be fully cognizant of the fact that there is a fundamental difference to how we conceive the world as opposed to how the biblical writers would have. This difference is rather untidily summed up by saying that we live under the presuppositions of a “forensic” or “juridical” grasp of reality, whereas the biblical writers lived under an understanding of reality rooted in “honor/shame” categories. Because of this, we tend to over-exaggerate the importance of freedom in the sense of “freedom to choose,” and tend to be blind to the more biblical notion of freedom as freedom from corruption and perversion. In similar fashion, we think of justice as a concept that is more “getting what you deserve,” rather than in the more biblical notion of justice as that which promotes inter-dependent relationships. Given that none of God’s attributes stand in tension with any others, it is relevant here that the goodness of God is characterized most pre-eminently as his “blessing without regard to merit.” Persons are of infinite worth, and a system of justice that understands this and goes into analysis with “eyes wide open” is far more biblical than our contemporary forensically based justice systems. The ideas that freedom in the sense of “freedom to choose” and justice in the since of balancing the invisible scales are both rather far from a more deeply biblical view of how we are to live together.
On a different point, I continue to be distressed at the extent to which history is being cited in ways that attribute only good things as causally connected to capitalism and all bad things are merely correlated to it. The objections that Eastern cultures raise to modern capitalism often have to do with the problems that historically attend the introduction of capitalist presuppositions. Can capitalism be chastened so as to prevent these seeds from blooming? Probably, but the market is not a metaphysical reality that has some existence apart from the persons who make it up. Hence, I argue for the reasons I have cited before, that the confidence that the market “can handle all the rest” is a serious error in reading history, human nature, and particularly God’s expectations for us. The “blind justice” and the individualism implied in pursuit of self-interest necessarily run counter to the focus on relationships I have attributed to Eastern cultures.
Similarly, I continue to be confused by the attempts to distinguish between “self-interest” and “selfishness.” Here are a couple of popular definitions:
Self-interest: regard for one's own interest or advantage, esp. with disregard for others.
Selfishness: devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one's own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.
I must say I am pretty amazed that we think we can construct arguments that sanctify self-interest, especially in light of the biblical witness on the issue. But, even beyond that, the difference in meanings of the words will simply not support the distinctions being made. Of course, one of the single most telling points here is that, when asked to explain the differences in detail, we get an admission that one cannot do it! I fear we have more of the tendentious reading of data—trying to create a distinction that is supposed to anchor the reasons supporting a position, but when pushed, we only get more assertions about how it is just so.
Finally, I really am surprised that we are still arguing the idea that persons only act in accord with their interests. I’ve given examples (and, it only takes one!) of why this is false, but the retort is that it is just true that folks act out of their interests. The examples are dismissed on the basis that this claim (people just act in accord with their interests) is a better explanation of what is going on, better than my alternative or an individual’s own explanations of why they chose a particular act. When ask why this is a better explanation, we are simply given the premise again. This simply will not do, and there are several problems with the thesis to begin with—not the least of which it puts its defenders in a profound contradiction. How so? Well, to say folks always act in their own self-interest is to say that all actions are causally determined—by what we see to be in our best interests. Yet, the same defenders of this position are defenders of libertarian freedom. You really cannot have it both ways…… At the end of the day, if humans are free, a frequent answer to why someone did x has to be simply because they chose it with no answer, other than it was a free choice, as to why they chose it.
Of all the Delphic utterances of Alan Greenspan over the course of his time as Fed Chief, his observation that various market investment mechanisms might possibly be overvalued, and thus suggesting that folks might be motivated by an “irrational exuberance,” was my favorite. Some would say the observation was prescient in light of subsequent events in the global economy. Of course, the observation that someone is acting with “irrational exuberance” need not be limited the Greenspan’s application. I want to explore another, but related, application in the following few paragraphs. Let me say that I am at least conceptually indebted to Harvey Cox’s well known essay entitled “The Market as God.”
If there is anything that continues to enjoy a high degree of “irrational exuberance,” it has to be the belief that an unrestrained, free market holds the answer to all of our economic woes and uncertainties. One would think this would be less the case, given current circumstances. Even Greenspan commented that his confidence in people doing the right thing in a free market was misplaced. Yet, we continue to hear free market ideologues telling us that if we would but free markets so that they were governed merely by free associations between free individuals, all would be well. Go figure!
Consider some of the language that free marketers use in regard to the market. We are told that free, unrestrained markets would just “do the right thing,” that they are able “to determine the correct value for goods and services,” that they will “self correct” when errors occur, and that there is an “invisible hand” that directs markets in wise and beneficent ways. And, following Cox, consider some of the ways we personify the market (to hear these on a daily basis, pick any financial news show). We say that the market “liked” or “disliked” certain actions, that the market was “upset” with a particular corporation, and that the market “punished” a corporation for daring to violate one of its self-evidently true principles. If one ponders these ways of thinking of the market, one has to wonder why in the world Christians would be comfortable with this way of thinking. After all, some of these concepts, as Cox suggests, are ones that Christians would normally not be inclined to apply to any entity other than God, much less to something as abstract and indeterminate as “the market.”
Perhaps the deepest problem (beyond the minor issue of idolatry!) becomes evident if we take the time to ask exactly what we mean when we deploy the term “the market.” First, “the market” is merely a rhetorical construct that we use to reference a set of relations that obtain between individuals and groups in a variety of contexts. Second, since these relationships exist between humans (sinful humans, on Christian accountings), there is no reason to assume that these relations will be carried out in a moral, and more importantly, Christian manner. Of course, history bears this out. One thinks of the abuses under the laissez faire capitalism of the early 20th century. Third, we have to recognize that there is an irremedial tension between this exaltation of the market and Christian faith. At the core, the free market ideologists believe that it is the coming together of persons to engage in free economic relations, each pursuing their own interests, that makes them work in the long run. However, all of Scripture in general and Jesus in particular, tell us that, to be imitators of God, we are to be motivated not by our own self-interest, but rather by the interests of others. As long as we intend to be followers of Jesus, we cannot embrace systems that sanctify self-interest. In fact, some of the church’s great theologians have connected sin most essentially with being motivated by self-interest. Is it irrational exuberance to put such faith in markets? You betcha, and it is well time that we Christians stand up and say so!