Saturday, January 06, 2007

Corporate growth

What is wrong with the world?

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4.15-16)
Having been recently thinking about bodies and health, I've been pondering corporate metaphors. Here's my thought: free-market capitalism assumes that the selfish interest of each is good for the health of the whole. If we each pursue our private goals rationally, even if selfishly, the whole body politic will flourish. However, medically speaking, when a part of the body decides to maximise its growth without reference to the rest, we call it a tumour. Individualism might then be seen as cancer: a part of the body living for itself and ignoring those around it. In the end, either it goes or the body goes.

Perhaps strangely, cancer is simply too much of a good thing: growth. Or rather, it is a disordered growth, a growth without reference to the whole body. In terms of the Ephesians passage mentioned above, it is growth without reference to the head, the organising principle and ruler of the body, which for the church (and the entire created order) is found in Christ. What is wrong with the world is the pursuit of little goods without this being properly ordered to Christ as the head of all.

Perhaps we can push this picture further and apply it on both larger and smaller scales. Personally, when I select one good thing and absolutise it into the be-all and end-all of life, then I have not only become an idolater, but have stimulated a malignant condition that threatens the balance and health of my whole life. Whether it be a relationship, a goal, a sense of fulfilment or security, or even physical health itself, unless each part of life is working properly with reference to the others, growing together into Christ, then I have become a threat to myself and those around me.

Moving in the other direction, humanity as a whole can attempt to flourish without reference to the rest of the created order. We pursue our short-term goals of economic prosperity, little aware that unless the pace, nature and direction of our growth is directed by what is apt for our ecological context, then we too may be more hindrance than help to the earth we were directed to serve (Genesis 3.23).*
*Although often translated "the LORD God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden to till [or work] the ground from which he was taken," the Hebrew verb can also include the idea of 'service'.
Ten points for the famous museum in which this statue is presently located. More points available in comments.


Anonymous said...

That is the statue known as "The Discus Thrower" (aka Diskobolos), and the museum in which it is housed is the National Museum of Rome. Ten points, Dan?

By the way, I thought that the way in which you compared corporate growth and individualism to cancer was excellent. In fact, I'll probably use that example in a talk that I'm giving in the near future (I'll mention you -- if that's alright with you).

Grace and peace.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Byron, I hadn't realized that you have been battling cancer yourself. My prayers are with you.

byron smith said...

Dan - I'll give you five points for the name of the statue and another five for correctly naming one of the two locations in which Roman copies of this 5thC BC Greek statue (originally in bronze, I think) are installed. I'm still offering ten for the location of the one in the photo. Indeed, I've just discovered that that the two copies have a significant difference (and that the one pictured is a mistake). Another ten points to anyone who can say what the difference is and why the one in my picture is 'wrong'.

byron smith said...

Michael - yes, since December 4. I hadn't mentioned it directly on the blog until this post.

byron smith said...

I should also note that individuals with a single focus in life (which I here called cancerous) can nonetheless achieve wonderful things, but even these good things will also be having ill-effects since not related properly to Christ. Last night I saw Gorillas in the Mist: a classic example of a single individual with a singleminded goal achieving so much, but at high cost to herself and others.

Mister Tim said...

Interesting thoughts on capitalism.

I think that most people realise that pure free market capitalism doesn't work, which is why we have so many controls and limitations in real llife. And we do despise overdone growth in just one area - e.g. housing prices, which is why we have government intervention in various methods, including through tax incentives/disincentives and the Reserve Bank setting official interest rates, to either promote or limit economic activity in certain areas.

So, following your metaphor through - maybe the housing 'bubble' as a tumor.

byron smith said...

I like it - cancerous parts of the economy. It's a metaphor that seems very transferrable to a huge number of contexts and systems.

Unknown said...

As I posted in the other thread...

The Archbishop has made some comments on population growth and resource consumption.

God had created us to rule the world under him. We could have learned to live with the world instead of against it. All sorts of things such as overpopulation and building housing where it is unwise and the exploitation of non-renewable resources would have been avoided by a morally good creature. When we criticise God’s creation we must remember that we do so from a perspective thoroughly warped by human sin.

Jonathan said...

What a great metaphor, if it is only a metaphor! It makes sense in so many situations, including helping me get my head around some difficulties with the possible implication that we should desire as much as possible of all God's good gifts in an earlier discussion.

byron smith said...

Jonathan - yeah, heard a great sermon last night on 'self-control' as a fruit of the Spirit. Made me realise that even in God's new world, we won't just pig out on chocolate cake all the time - we'll have our desires ordered according to the truth of who we are as finite creatures and will feast to satisfaction without gluttony. That is, self-control is good in itself as part of being who we are meant to be, and this reflects the fact that all created goods are good insofar as they remain in their secondary places. I really feel I've learned a lot from Augustine on this over the last year.

byron smith said...

Christian - why don't cancers occur more often - yeah, the body truly is an amazing creation. There is so much going on all the time. Although sometimes doctors can be the de facto priests of our culture (Hauerwas has some very intriguing comments to make about the place of medicine in Western culture), I am in awe of the depth and complexity and progress in knowledge over the last few decades.

how does orderly growth actually work at the level of the church? How is it that so many ligaments and sinews managed to knit themselves together in the way needed to grow the body up into the to speak?
This is a great question. I was considering saying something about it in the post, but thought it might already have been getting too long. Although the answer probably only gets more complex when we think about society or the created order, in the church, these questions have always provoked controversy and has been one of the primary sources of division over the centuries. We can't even agree on the extent to which there might be a single correct pattern of ecclesial self-organisation. There are certainly some minimal ways that the gospel message structures the community which it calls into existence (and which passes it on), but even articulating these is difficult. The idea of DNA could be a useful one - that each member, since she belongs ('genetically' so to speak) to the body, will be directed by her new nature brought to life by the Spirit of Christ. However, perhaps we need to remember that cells gain stimulus from a variety of sources of which DNA is only one. There are also local conditions, nerve messages, hormones, and probably hundreds of other factors of which I'm ignorant. So if there's anything to avoid in our thinking here (and this was really the point of the whole post), it's reductionism of any kind (including a reductionism that would deny any place to reductionism - occasionally a little reduction can bring clarity).

Sorry for a long ramble in response to an excellent question.

byron smith said...

Dave - interesting comments from the AB. Thanks for pointing them out.

peter j said...

I like the thought.
If I were to start now, how far behind on points would I be?

byron smith said...

Pete - the points table as it currently stands (along with links to all the unclaimed ones) is here.

h. goldsmith said...

the statue is in the capitoline museum; the difference from the original is the position of the head. (the original is looking back, i guess more like an actual discus thrower.)
and in the interest of full disclosure, that's not one of the things i know of the top of my head - i had to google it and poke around a bit.

peter j said...

British Museum!

byron smith said...

h. goldsmith - ten points for getting the wrong head right. As for location, I'm afraid that Peter J gets the ten points for British Museum (which is where this photo was taken). It is just up some stairs to the left of the main entrance and has a whole wall to itself. There is indeed a similar statue in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, though it is a derivative work (as I understand it from my own Googling: see here. Since you were close, I'll give you another five. All points now claimed for this post. Good work everyone!

ndefalco said...

Part I
Jeez, how many people in this world actually beleive a free market system means "no laws whatsoever". A free market system is limited by those things that contradict the free market. Natural monopolies are not welcome in free markets. So are those actions that infringe on the liberty of the buyer (such as fraud, political bribes, broken contracts, physical force/bullying).

Part II
Also, concerning government regulation of businesses: let's do a little experiment- let's give businesses a choice of whether or not they have the government's seal of approval. And then let's see of the consuming public cares if it is given the government's seal of approval (in the U.S. this would be the Food & Drug Administration).

I would venture the public wouldn't care. They may care of it has no seal of approval at all, but that's where organizations such as the American Heart Association would come in and create the accountability the public could be looking for- a non-government system of accountability. Let the free market solve its own problems.

And the free market is not a freakin' tumor. Using the word 'selfish,' which is obviously anti-christian, is not the appropriate word. Sure people have the freedom in the free market to pursue selfish desires. But, Christians are also have the freedom to pursue Christian desires!

So what if people will have the freedom to pursue selfish desires? I say let them! When they collapse on themselves, the ones left standing will be Christians. And when people begin to realize that, as the scripture says, "there is a way that seems right unto man but in the end it leads to destruction" then they will have no choice but to turn to God. NOT government.

Noted historian and radio talk show host Micheal Medved once said, "When people stop trusting in the big G, God, they start trusting in the little g, government."

All government regulation does is mask the problem. Provide the freedom (economic and social) for the problem to fester so that people will see Christ's way as the diamond in the rough.

You know, now that I think about it, I think what you are describing is atheistic libertarianism (which is truly selfish) I hope you understand, Byron, that I am trying to promote Christian Libertarianism. A view of the government which I believe relies on strong Biblical presuppositions (as opposed to surface-level prooftexts that I hear people on all sides use).

byron smith said...

ndefalco - thanks again for your comments.

Jeez, how many people in this world actually beleive a free market system means "no laws whatsoever".
I don't believe I said or implied this. In fact, if you read it carefully, this post isn't about government regulation; it's about growth without reference to the whole or the head.

ndefalco said...

I'm sorry I didn't make the connection more evident. It's not your point I'm taking issue with, it is your illustration. You used the free-market system as the illustration to talk about how individualism (which, in and of itself, is not Biblical- so you and I would agree on that)can lead to a selfish and therefore destructive end, especially to the whole or head.

But, using the free-market system as your illustration simply doesn't work. Because, the free-market, as I defined it above, has its own way of leveling things out so that the whole benefits.

There are only three other options to balancing out the economy: communism, socialism, and fascism.

Fascism, unfortunately have been too closely identified with Hitler for the avg joes like us to continue using the word to describe an economic system. But, technically, it is the system in which private citizens own their own businesses, but the government controls or regulates them. It is the GOVERNMENT'S way of balancing out an economy that may be "cancerous".

I was trying to anticipate your "fascist" (meant only the economic sense of the word) response to the free market system by pointing out the flaws in government regulations.

Outside of a misused application, your point is something I agree with. Other than a person's individual salvation experience, they need to consider the whole (the church) and the head (Christ) above themselves.

byron smith said...

A free market system is limited by those things that contradict the free market. Natural monopolies are not welcome in free markets. So are those actions that infringe on the liberty of the buyer (such as fraud, political bribes, broken contracts, physical force/bullying).
Yes, I didn't mean to imply that the free market is a free-for-all. It wasn't unrestrained liberty I was criticising, but growth without reference to the whole, shortsightedness. Perhaps putting the term free-market is inaccurate, but I was trying to refer to the common view of economics in which "if everyone seeks to maximise his/her own personal good, then everyone wins". You rightly point out that in actual practice this is not how the free market works, because many agents are not simply out for their own good. There are many people who enter the marketplace a (right) concern for their neighbour as well, and not just because they can profit more if their neighbour doesn't suffer too much. It was the mindset, rather than the system, which was in my sights. Thanks for clarifying.

Outside of a misused application, your point is something I agree with. Other than a person's individual salvation experience, they need to consider the whole (the church) and the head (Christ) above themselves.
Why "other than a person's individual salvation experience"? I would have thought that in salvation above all things, it is vital for us to consider the head and the whole (not just the church, but the world!) above outselves. This seems to be Paul's attitude. In Romans 9.1-3, he expresses his anguish over his lost countrymen, and even expresses a willingness (if it made sense) that they be saved instead of him. In 1 Corinthians 9.19ff., he subjects his personal liberty to service of others to win them over. I am not sure that there is any genuine experience of salvation without reference to the head and the whole.

ndefalco said...

"I am not sure that there is any genuine experience of salvation without reference to the head and the whole. "

Absolutely. Especially in reference to the head. I guess the way I mean individual salvation is not that it is the most important experience in a person's life, but the FIRST important experience. And only in propositional truth. First you recognize your need for salvation (self), then you recognize Christ (the head), then you recognize the whole (which I guess, keeping it in context is the church).

All three of these happen simultaneously as a person lives his/her life and is therefore of equal (if not lesser importance at least to the head), but propositionally, I think saying it is first important is the best way to express it.

Believe it or not, that is honestly what I meant. :) Not trying to backpeddle here.

byron smith said...


byron smith said...

Gary Egger: Economic growth, obesity and the creed of greed. Nice quote:

A simple and logical definition of growth is “maturation till maturity.”