Was Jesus a socialist? More from #ActonU

Was Jesus a socialist? More from #ActonU June 26, 2015


More of our reports from the recent Acton University conference. Read the first five posts here:

  1. The refreshing difference
  2. We can’t create heaven on earth
  3. “Don’t immanentize the eschaton”
  4. Is there really enough to go around?
  5. Letting our Jesus Freak flag fly

By Edwin Woodruff Tait

Acton University, obviously, has a lot to say about economics. All the sessions deal with economic matters in one way or another. I come to these discussions at a disadvantage, because I don’t know a whole lot about economics. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to attend Acton. I am pretty clear on where I think society needs to go. What I’m not clear on is the best policies to get there. The motto of Acton University is “connecting good intentions with sound economics,” and that’s something I very much want to do.

One problem I  run into in this endeavor is that the folks at Acton tend to use the term “economics” to mean a particular approach to economics. For instance, Lawrence Reed, whose lecture on Austrian economics I attended Thursday morning, made a few dismissive references to “Keynesianism,” acknowledging that mainstream economics is more or less in this tradition. He cited a former professor of his who said, “I am in the minority, and I am right.”

Well and good–but for someone like me, being plunged into a world in which people go around taking for granted views that they themselves admit are minority views is rather disorienting and not particularly helpful in making up my own mind. I know that it is unfair to expect Acton to present a “balanced” perspective on economics and to do my work for me. Acton exists in part to give a forum to views that aren’t well represented in mainstream academia. But a great deal of the discourse at Acton is based on the assumption that a thoroughly “free-market” approach to economics is the approach most in keeping with the divinely created order, and that conventional wisdom is wrong on questions such as whether the collapse of the housing market was the fault of too little regulation or too much.

I see a fairly close parallel between the way the folks at Acton talk about free-market economics and the way theistic evolutionist Christians (such as myself) talk about evolution. Both evolution and free-market economics are descriptions of how the world works. Both are opposed by some Christians (usually different Christians) on grounds of faith. Both, if taken as a model for society and ethics, have deeply disturbing implications that clearly contradict basic Christian virtues. And both rest on the principle of competition and survival of the fittest. In both cases, Christians who uphold them as telling the truth about the world generally seek to limit the potential damage by saying that they have only a limited role and do not tell the whole story about human existence.

But in both cases, the sheer explanatory power of the theories makes this limited approach hard to maintain without a very robust theological framework in which to place them. And in my opinion, this robust framework in both cases needs to include a very strong doctrine of sin and evil (structural sin in the case of economics, demonic power in the case of evolution), because both theories tempt us to accept as part of the “natural order” things that cannot possibly flow from a good God. (And, of course, in the case of evolution at least, a view of demonic power sufficient to exculpate God from involvement in the suffering and horror of the evolutionary process seems to approach Manicheanism. See my blogs on Greg Boyd’s warfare theology, especially http://stewedrabbit.blogspot.com/2014_12_01_archive.html.)

One obvious difference between the two issues is that the overwhelming consensus of scientists favors evolution. Unless I’m mistaken, most economists accept a basically free-market model but see value in far more regulation and government intervention than the speakers at Acton regard as healthy. In that sense, Acton’s view of economics is more like ID than like evolution in terms of its acceptance in academic power structures. And this raises the question: what about free-market economics makes it particularly appealing to theologically conservative Christians? (To be fair, a particularly radical version, Randian Objectivism, is appealing to certain atheists and is roundly condemned at Acton.)

Is it simply, as Dr. Gregg and other speakers suggest, that Christians believe in truth rather than in sentimentality? Or is it, as Fr. Sirico (founder of Acton) suggested in his closing plenary address, that the Christian vision (rightly understood) of the human person as a creative individual embedded in relationships finds its natural expression in a free market? (These are not, of course, mutually opposed options.)

Click onto the next page for possible answers!

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