We can’t create heaven on earth: more from #ActonU

We can’t create heaven on earth: more from #ActonU June 18, 2015

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More of our “correspondent on the spot” at Acton University! Read his first post here. And follow the Twitter feed from the conference here.


By Edwin Woodruff Tait

Last night’s lecture was a plenary session introducing the themes of Acton University as a whole. As a first time participant, I am required to attend four introductory lectures today which further lay out the basic principles that shape how Acton University addresses specific questions of politics and economics. Both the plenary last night and the first lecture this morning (on the Christian view of human nature) were given by Dr. Samuel Gregg, an Australian (really Tasmanian) moral philosopher and political economist who serves as “director of research” at the Acton Institute. Both lectures covered very similar ground–an overview of what Dr. Gregg sees as basic Christian philosophical principles, especially having to do with human nature, and a polemic against ideas that Gregg finds to be irrational and socially harmful. The words “emotivist” and “sentimental” occurred a lot in both lectures.

In both lectures, Gregg laid out the classical Christian, natural law perspective in which reason is a reflection of the divine Logos, the ordering principle of the universe. This perspective, as he pointed out, laid the foundation for Western civilization as we know it, and in particular of the university system. In an argument reminiscent of chapter 6 of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, Gregg accused modern academia (and society in general) of having ripped out the foundation for serious inquiry into ethics and social justice by denying the transcendent source of human reason. Without the conviction that there is an ultimate, eternal truth, questions of justice and equality come to be resolved in the language of “offense” and “hurt” rather than in the language of truth and falsehood.

Specifically, Gregg addressed the contemporary social concern with “inequality,” arguing that rationally many forms of inequality are necessary for human flourishing. He professed to be “puzzled” by Pope Francis’ statement that inequality is the source of social evils, because after all, isn’t sin the source of social evils? The only inequality he specifically admitted to disapproving of was the inequality attendant on proximity to government. (He pointed out that the ten richest counties in the U.S. are all in the neighborhood of Washington, D.C.) Free markets and economic growth, Greg argued, depend on hard-working, risk-taking people who have reason to believe that their efforts and risks will be rewarded. Governmental concern with reducing inequality can lead to a situation (as in Venezuela) where the rich flee the country, the middle classes become poorer, and so there is less inequality. Rational inquiry into the nature of the created order, according to Gregg, prevents such naive, sentimental mistakes. If we truly desire to express love in a just social order, then we will support economic and other forms of freedom, even if this results in inequality.

In this morning’s lecture, Gregg provided a more systematic account of the Christian view of human nature (philosophical anthropology) as he understands it. The six basic principles of Christian anthropology, according to Gregg, are

  1. Humans are embodied persons
  2. Human reason is capable of going beyond positive sciences to know the truth of normative claims
  3. Humans have unique capacity–choice
  4. Humans are creative beings and essentially different from all other created things
  5. Humans are fallen and therefore fallible
  6. Humans are simultaneously individual and social in ways no other creatures can be

On each of these points, Gregg contrasted the Christian perspective with “secularist” alternatives, typically divided into contrasting pairs. (This reflects Aristotle’s idea that virtue is a “golden mean” between two destructive extremes.) So, on the first point,  the Christian understanding of the human person as an embodied soul contrasts with both dualist and materialist views of personhood. If human dignity depends solely on consciousness, then people who are not fully conscious (such as infants or severely disabled people) are not fully human and lack full human rights. Materialism, on the other hand, makes moral absolutes impossible–you can say that totalitarianism is unpleasant but not that it is wrong. Pleasure and pain are not moral qualities.

Read about what Gregg thinks is wrong with secularism on the next page!

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