Them - A Review

Every generation has its share of people lamenting the loss of the good old days. Products were better before. Bread was only 5 cents a loaf. The cent symbol was still on a standard keyboard. People used two spaces after periods.

But at the same time, we are told that history is also fairly consistent and people are generally just people. In a recent Smithsonian Magazine article, the author claims that the ongoing Fortnite craze and the concerns of parents about their children’s excesses are no different than concerns about Pinball back in the early days. These are just fads. People that are concerned about the new thing are just clutching at pearls, and so the world spins on.

What if there really are some seismic shifts going on though? What if something is changing our culture and altering the way people view each other? And, what if some of those changes aren’t making things better?

Ben Sasse’s recent book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, asks some of these basic questions about the increasingly divided America. He’s not arguing that America was once great and needs to be made so again. In fact, throughout he notes many of the ways that America has failed to live up to her founding ideals. But without wishing for the restoration of a mythical past, Sasse does note that there have been fundamental changes in what it means—especially in the ideal sense—to be American.

According to Sasse, who is now a politician, the solution is not political. No election or new law will fix what is ailing the United States. Instead, the solution is found primarily through a restoration of a sense of community.

161761.jpg

If we can trust surveys, we know that people are lonelier now than they were previously. Multiple studies, some of which Sasse cites, correlate the loneliness to the rise of social media and even more significantly, the spread of smart phones. These devices that are supposed to keep us connected all the time seem to be making us less content and desperately disconnected. Add to that the shifts in work, not least of which is the increase of automation, which is replacing a lot of low skill labor, and you have a recipe for dislocation, disorientation, and breakdowns in communities. Sasse describes all of this as a break down in tribes.

Political anti-tribes are rising up to replace the geographic and more heterogenous (at least ideologically) tribes of the past, and they are being fertilized by the merging of politics and entertainment. This is the world that Neal Postman predicted in Amusing Ourselves to Death. But the perpetual IV drip of outrage and often misrepresentation is taking a toll on people’s ability to see others with different views as human. Sasse spends a chapter outlining many of the techniques that news organizations and pundits use to create and spread clickbait, fanning a tiny sliver of devoted followers into an addicted frenzy. His argument is both well-supported and frightening.

It’s no surprise, given Ben Sasse’s attitude toward Tocqueville and ideals that the country was supposed to represent, that he points toward building community and regaining a sense of place as solutions to the virulent divisions of our times. He urges readers to remember what the ideas of our liberal democracy were supposed to fulfill: free debate, opportunity, and a sense of the common good. There have certainly been gains in racial equality and equity between genders, but those gains should not require us to remember what it is supposed to mean to be American and teach our kids why that is important. Part of what will enable us to do that practically is limiting our tech exposure. Get off the continue flood of social media and enjoy the people you are around. Don’t click on clickbait headlines and read books, not just short articles. He commends building into communities and buying a cemetery plot. Find someplace to put down roots if possible. And, since many of have to move for one reason or another, look for ways to connect wherever you guy, find communities that you can become part of, and maintain permanent friendships through regular gatherings.

There is no panacea for the widening schism between our anti-tribes, but there are steps that we can take to begin to mend the rift. There are ways that we can begin to regain a sense of common ground, to build toward a common vision, and to seek the welfare of the city even when we disagree with many of the residents.

Sasse’s book is part of a bigger conversation that is happening and needs to happen. His analysis is solid and he makes a number of important points. As a Christian, he could have spent more time talking about the value of local congregations and the importance of the church being a family. However, all in all, this is an enjoyable volume that would make a good place to begin a discussion, especially between people of different ideological persuasions.

Economics of Neighborly Love - A Review

Our economic activity, when done properly, is primarily about loving our neighbors. Neighbor love is not merely a description of so-called spiritual activities, like those done under the umbrella of a local church. Rather, neighbor love should shape everything we do in the home, in the marketplace, and in our neighborhoods.

In a helpful, recent book, Tom Nelson helps bring theology and economics together in a way the average Christian can understand it. His volume, The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity, weaves together many of the themes in the Faith and Work movement in a single, digestible bundle.

Nelson’s basic assumption is that we live in a fundamentally economic world. His is not, however, an attempt to reduce humans to homo economicus. Instead, he argues for understanding humans to have the imago Dei, which leads to a demand to live compassionately among others. His basic argument in the entire book is that the best workers make the best neighbors, as long as they are working for reasons that matter.

Humans are made to flourish. Part of that flourishing is having our material needs met. Another component of flourishing is pursuing a purpose higher than ourselves. Work is a primary means by which humans flourish.

One sign of flourishing (though not the only or even best sign) is material wealth. Such wealth is a resource to be stewarded for the glory of God and the good of neighbors. It is neither the reward for holiness as the prosperity gospel argues, nor is it intrinsically evil. It is a simply one way that God provides for humans to be fruitful.

Lest Nelson be guilty of reducing flourishing to the accrual of wealth, he quickly explains that intimacy with other people, godly character, and productively contributing to the world around are vital ways that humans are fruitful. Being fruitful and productive are ways that we love the world around us by making this world a better place.

All of the productivity in the world does not do any good, however, unless it is directed toward our neighbors. Nelson explains a vision, consistent with Scripture, of how godly people can engage in a relatively free market for the glory of God.

One way humans engage wisely in economic activity is to be generous, using our wealth to provide the means for the church to do good works in the name of Christ. Another way is to actively pursue the good of the materially poor around us. In the process of helping the poor, however, a biblically shaped worldview recognizes there are forms of poverty that no amount of material support will resolve. People are desperately need of the gospel, so we are called to demonstrate it through our actions and verbalize it through our language.

As part of our economic activity, Nelson also urges Christians to fight economic injustice, to show grace to the communities around us. Most of all, people simply need to get moving. It is altogether too easy to stay cooped up in our homes, never meeting our neighbors, and thus never learning how best to meet their needs. By making personal connections and seeking the common good in all of our economic activities—not just the ones where we spend and earn—Christians can demonstrate what hope looks like to the world.

The Economics of Neighborly Love is the sort of volume that makes a great introduction to a biblical view on faith, work, and economics. Nelson shows how the ordinary lives of ordinary Christians can be leveraged to make this world a better place for the love of God and the good of our neighbors. He presents a practical vision for Christians to be salt and light in the world.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this volume is that there is a way for Christians to show neighborly love not despite our economic system, but because of our economic system. Though Nelson recognizes that sometimes sinful people oppress others in a free market economy, he also recognizes that freedom is an important part of allowing people to fulfill their potential as beings imbued with the image of God. The freedom within the market system helps make financial prosperity accessible to many more people, which helps provide the resources for many forms of productive engagement with society.

Nelson’s book, however, will fall short of its final purpose if it fails to encourage Christians to live their lives for the good of the world around them. This is a book that deserves to be read, discussed, and shared widely as the body of Christ seeks to fulfill the greatest commandment by living out the second greatest commandment in a world of people who desperately need to be loved. The Economics of Neighborly Love is a volume that needs to be applied wholeheartedly, too.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this book from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Empirical Foundations of the Common Good - A Review

Empirical Foundations of the Common Good is the sort of project that offers hope for interdisciplinary dialogue. The premise of the book is to provide a response to the basic question how social sciences can inform theology. For the most part, the essays are helpful in this regard, especially for those who rely on traditional Catholic Social Teachings as a foundation for their theology.

With a few exceptions, the non-theologians’ explanations of their contribution to theology are helpful. The majority of the authors avoided the assumption that theology should conform to the findings of their discipline; instead they argued that their disciplines could inform the application of theology.

For example, Christian theology makes the moral claim that Christians should be engaged in seeking the welfare of the poor. Economics provides evidence for how best that should take place. Or, to state it differently, theology provides the telos for the method of economics. When political science, public policy, sociology, and economics claim to provide both the definition of the common good and the method for attaining to the common good, they transgress into the area of applied theology, or ethics. When discipline failure like that happen, the result is the current elevation of politics, economics, and sexuality to the status of summum bonum for society. That, as we see around us, is a guarantee of the pursuit of anything but a true common good.

After Daniel Finn’s editorial introduction, the volume contains eight essays by experts in a variety of disciplines, all making arguments about how their particular discipline contributes to theological arguments about the common good. Chapter One is political scientist, Matthew Carnes, showing how his discipline contributes to a cross-disciplinary discussion through four emphases within Political Science. In the second chapter, Andrew Yuengert asserts that economics can help theologians understand the role of individual choice in seeking the common good. Mary Jo Bane, a public policy specialist, argues in Chapter Three for the contribution of her discipline in helping theologians understand trade-offs implicit in pursuing the common good. In the fourth chapter, Douglas Porpora argues that sociologists have little to say about the constitution of the common good, but have a great deal of expertise in showing how to measure and evaluate the pursuit of those theologically identified ends.

Charles Wilber, an economist, echoes Porpora in his essay in Chapter Five. He argues that economics can help measure progress toward human flourishing, while acknowledging the failure of most economists to separate economic metrics from a holistic understanding of the common good. The sixth chapter puts bureaucracy in perspective, as Gerardo Sanchis Muños dissects the failure of public service to serve the common good. Theologian David Cloutier critiques contemporary iterations of Catholic social teaching, pointing to less individualistic emphases in earlier stages of the tradition in Chapter Seven. The eighth and final chapter, theologian-economist Mary Hirschfeld reasserts the importance of theology for the social sciences, so that a proper understanding of the common good may develop.

The clear message of this volume is that theology needs social sciences to understand how to accomplish its moral ends, while the social sciences need theology to inform them of the nature of the common good. In the present fragmented state of academia, there is too much isolation in separate ivory towers. That is unhealthy for students and tragic for the development of robust worldviews that have a defined end and cogent methodology.

Somewhat surprisingly, this volume is favorable toward markets, though critical of market economics untethered to a moral foundation. However, the various authors regularly affirm the improved possibilities for flourishing that come from enabling market economics. Given the use of Catholic Social Teaching by some to argue for forms of economic socialism, this is volume that deserves careful attention. It may be that proponents of various forms of socialism are, in fact, conflating a pursuit of the common good with discredited means to achieve it.

Like other volumes that Finn has edited, this collection of essays reflects careful conversation. The essays refer to one another and show signs of having been shaped by the arguments in various chapters. This makes the volume easier to read and more helpful for classroom instruction or dialog than many edited volumes that appear to be a random collection of voices shouting in the wilderness.

If there are two things clearly explained in this volume it is (1) that we need more interdisciplinary dialogue, else theology and social sciences tend toward tyranny, and (2) we need not abandon the methodology of market economics for central planning to better approximate the common good.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.