Saturday, February 28, 2009

Credit crisis: a visual aid

An animation in two parts.

I found this to be quite a helpful summary of some of the structural causes for the present economic downturn. Notice the assumptions at play: that money can always be multiplied through the opening of new markets, that someone else can carry the risk, that my pursuit of wealth is good for the whole system. All false.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Departing from fear

“The path out of fear is not power but trust, not strength but vulnerability before God.”

Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, 12.

Is it actually possible to fear not? So often, we think that the way to not be afraid is make ourselves stronger, become more secure through the acquisition of more resources, more money for a rainy day, or by hitting our enemies before they can hit us, or hitting them back harder than they hit us. Only when we have either removed the threat, or made ourselves impervious to it, can we let our guard down and cease our anxiety.

But a world where everyone is gathering more goodies lest they miss out is a world that is condemned to perpetual fear of our neighbour, and, increasingly, fear of the world itself that strains and groans under the demands we make of it. The only true and living path out of fear is trust. Trust in the God who provides abundantly. There is enough, and more. We can cease our desperate grasping and learn contentment.

But the path out of fear is not simply trust in God; we must also learn to trust our neighbour. This is a qualified trust, since trust has to be earned, or built, or grow. It is not simply bestowed unilaterally. Thus, I am not advocating a utopian vision that would recommend you leave your doors unlocked. Nonetheless, the way out of fear is showing yourself to be trustworthy and that you are willing to give some small sign of trust to your neighbour. Trust is built slowly as it is given and received. And fear is banished not by banishing enemies, but by loving them.

Of course, this is only possible through trusting the one who raised Jesus from the deadly hatred of his enemies. It is trust in this God that makes the attempt to love even a recalcitrant enemy thinkable. In this way, we make ourselves vulnerable to God, risking ourselves on his promise. We put him to the test, not in an empty show of self-aggrandisement, like throwing ourselves off a tall building to see if he sends an angel to catch us. No, we test him in the same way that Jesus did: through obedience, through not allowing fear to stop us loving our neighbour.
Eight points for guessing the country. Fifteen for the location.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Do not be anxious about tomorrow

"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."

- Matthew 6.23

Is it possible for a government to follow this instruction? Can a corporation? What does this mean for thinking about possible threats that might arise the day after tomorrow? Or for any projects that require years of careful planning?

Perhaps we need to distinguish two meanings of "worry". On the one hand, worry can have a negative meaning similar to anxiety: a persistent fear of what might be, an endless imaginative dwelling in negative possibilities over which one has little control. I am worried that it might rain tomorrow and the party will be ruined.

But worry can also have a more neutral meaning close to concern: a careful focus upon the welfare of the object of concern. This need not involve anxiety, but is simply love looking forwards, anticipating needs before they arise.

I don't think that Jesus is ruling out this latter meaning, only the former. It is the anxious striving after security that he is addressing in this passage. Instead of trying to obtain safety, we are to seek first the kingdom of God, God's loving reign over all things. This kingdom is something that needs to be sought, it is not obvious. It is a treasure hidden in a field over which you might stumble, or a jewel of great price that you might discover after much seeking. It is hidden in plain sight in this extraordinary ordinary man from Nazareth.
Image by Andrew Filmer. Ten points for guessing the city.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Democracy: concession or perfection?

"Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

- Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness.

Is democracy merely a concession to human weakness or the truest expression of Christian convictions in the political sphere? Niebuhr believed that democracy had much to commend it, though he thought that the way that it was often justified in his day (the early to mid 20thC) involved overly optimistic estimations of human nature. He sought to defend democracy from its detractors while placing it on a firmer theological foundation by arguing that the checks and balances of democracy are a concession to human sinfulness.

In the early modern period, Martin Luther and Thomas Hobbes shared a deep conviction of the human capacity for and inclination towards destructive behaviours, but they thought that this necessitated an absolutist state to restrain these tendencies. Niebuhr is equally realistic in his assessment of human failings, but applied this also to political authorities. If the tendency towards selfishness is ubiquitous, then not even governing authorities are exempt. Who watches the watchers? This is why a political system that has mutual accountability built in and a separation of powers will prove slightly more corruption-resistant.
Five points for the first to identify this democratic institution.

Monday, February 23, 2009

For whom are we disrobing?

"The reason we eschewed formality in church services was because that was what WE on the inside wanted (or some of us, anyway) - the missiological reason was in fact only a justification for it."

Michael ponders the current reasons for anti-formality in some Sydney Anglican churches. Go on over to his post to contribute to the energetic and interesting discussion.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Atheist theologians

"Is not every unbeliever who has a reason for his atheism and his decision not to believe a theologian too? Atheists who have something against God and against faith in God usually know very well whom and what they are rejecting, and have their reasons. Nietzsche’s book The Antichrist has a lot to teach us about true Christianity, and the modern criticism of religion put forward by Feuerbach, Marx and Freud is still theological in its antitheology.

Beyond that, moreover, there is a protest atheism which wrestles with God as Job did, and for the sake of the suffering of created beings which cries out to high heaven denies that there is a just God who rules the world in love. This atheism is profoundly theological, for the theodicy question -- "If there is a good God, why all this evil?" -- is also the fundamental question of every Christian theology which takes seriously the dying Christ’s question to God: "My God, why have you forsaken me?"

- Jürgen Moltmann, "Godless theology".

Not all atheism is the same. There are atheists who are closer to the kingdom than they realise when their very repudiation of God is on moral grounds. They refuse to believe in God not primarily because such an idea of illogical or unnecessary, but because doing so would be immoral in a world so filled with suffering. Such people are often asking the right questions to which the gospel is such good news.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Augustine on the emotions

Scripture places the mind under the governance of God for his direction and assistance, and places the passions under the governance of the mind for their restraint and control so that they may be turned into the instruments of justice. In fact, in our discipline, the question is not whether the devout soul is angry, but why; not whethuer it is sad, but what causes its sadness; not whether it is afraid, but what is the object of its fear. To be indignant with the sinner with a view to his correction, to feel sorrow for the afflicted with a view to his release from suffering, to be afraid for one in danger so as to prevent his death - those are emotions which, as far as I can see, no sane judgement could reprove.

Augustine of Hippo, City of God, IX.5.

Augustine is sometimes criticised for being too Platonic, too quick to dismiss the emotions and the bodily in favour of the rational soul. But here, he shows quite a dramatic break with the classical tradition regarding the emotions.

Augustine claims that despite their differences, the various ancient schools of thought all basically agree that the wise man will suppress his emotions as much as possible, that the affective life is sub-human and to be transcended through reason. Earlier, he lampoons an example in Stoic teaching of a philosopher who is embarrassed that his face turns pale and his knees shake when he is on a boat threatened with shipwreck. For the Stoic, these unwanted expressions of fear don't belong in a life ruled by reason. The philosopher is to tell himself that the shipwreck can do no harm to his virtue, which is all that really matters and so is to be calm and composed.

Augustine contrasts this with the Christian view, in which the emotions not only have their proper place, but their own rationality. They can be investigated and understood, appreciated and even turned into "the instruments of justice". That is, he thinks that a healthy emotional life is possible in which my feelings are neither forcefully suppressed as irrational manifestations of my bodily nature, nor allowed to rule and make me their victim. The philosopher in the wind-tossed boat, far from aiming at a Stoic detachment from the crisis, ought to be rightly concerned for the lives of those on board and that emotion ought to lead him to do all he can to save them from the danger.

It is indeed possible to love God with all your heart, as well as all your mind.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The logic of pollution: exporting our mess

"Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of dirty industries to the LDCs [less developed countries]? I can think of three reasons: 1) The measurement of the costs of health- impairing pollution depends on the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable, and we should face up to that. 2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low costs. I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. . . 3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income-elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostate cancer than in a country where under-five mortality is 200 per thousand."

- The Economist, Feb. 8, 1992

This quote, an World Bank internal memo signed by its then chief economist, Lawrence Summers, illustrates the logic of a narrow view of economy that fails to place it in a larger context. Although this memo puts it bluntly, this logic is at work every time the bottom line is seen as the bottom line.

Obama has recently appointed Lawrence Summers as head of his National Economic Council.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Consuming security

An interesting article arguing that consumerism is destroying America's national security. Which idol is more powerful?