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Feb 05, 2009


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LeVon Smoker

Interesting. But the understanding of human bodies and minds is not really a biblical one. It assumes that we can only read the Bible properly with "capitalist eyes." The creation account shows that all things including humans are gifts - our very existence is a gift. And we care for our bodies and minds because that is part of right worship of God and a right witnessing to the world that God's creation is indeed good and not to be abused.

Mapping Adam Smith's self-interest back onto biblical virtues will soon run into roadblocks. How can we account for the message in Romans 14-15? "For we don't live for ourselves or die for ourselves. If we live, it's to honor the Lord. And if we die, it's to honor the Lord" (14:7-8). It looks a lot like non-Christ-centered humanism which makes sense as Smith was speaking from a stance of classical Enlightenment liberalism.

Michael W. Kruse

Levon, I don't follow what you mean by your first two sentences. I need some elaboration. I couldn't agree more with the second two sentences of the first paragraph. I'm unclear why you think I would disagree.

"Mapping Adam Smith's self-interest back onto biblical virtues..." I didn't mention Adam Smith in this post (though I expect to get to him later.) Self-interest is an ethical term independent of Smith and I'm using it in its generic sense. Jesus and Paul repeatedly appeal to our self-interest.

All that we have and are is a gift from God. We were made material beings for a material world and given the mission of filling the earth, exercising dominion, and bring all creation to its fullness. We are the household mangers (oikonomos) or stewards of what God has given us. God makes us co-regents (though junior ones) and co-creators with him.

Stewardship is so central to Gods mission that in the Jubilee code, no person can be permanently alienated from the means of production: land and labor. Private property is taken for granted in the OT law books but its always understood to held in trust for God (and there a demands that place limits on the private ownership.) Ownership of resources, and employment of those resources toward our provision and the provision of others, is intrinsic to our relationship with God. God provides for us but he integrates us into that provision through stewardship.

Our human capacities are a central component of the resources God has entrusted to us. They are something in which we must take an interest if we are to be faithful to God. We can not be faithful stewards without being both self-interested and other-centered. Are the examples I mentioned in the post appealing to self-interest (not selfishness) or not? In not, how would you characterize him.

I'm not sure what content you give to the phrase "classical Enlightenment liberalism" but the popular understanding of Smith is grossly distorted from the reality. Smith did not advocate people acting in their own self-interest. Rather human nature being what it is, Smith did not believe a sustainable economy could be established on appealing to suppliers on the basis of benevolence. Rather, we should address ourselves to the self-interest of the supplier to make it in their interest to regularly provide for us. Self-Interest was essential but benevolence was the highest human virtue. He mentioned the "invisible hand" once in passing reference to foreign trade but never had any vision of dynamic system perfectly allocating all goods on a just basis. These ideas were borrowed generations later by people like John Stuart Mill and neoclassical types in the 20th century to articulate their economic models while falsely claiming support in Smith.

LeVon Smoker

Regarding my first two sentences - "the understanding of human bodies and minds is not really a biblical one. It assumes that we can only read the Bible properly with 'capitalist eyes.'": The Bible never characterizes humans (or any part of them) as "resources." We are most basically "creatures" made by God and for God. Any enjoyment or benefit we experience is derived from that. Referring to humans as "resources" does not acknowledge their "createdness" in the image of God but (I think) tends to see them as commodities with calculable value.

Regarding Adam Smith: You didn't need to mention him by name...

Regarding Jesus and Paul appealing to self-interest: That's a big stretch. Try convincing the general populace (including folks calling themselves Christian) that crucifixion and living as a slave to all are in their self-interest. I'm not convinced that Smith's understanding of self-interest would agree with the what you are calling self-interest, that is, eternal life with God. Also, the commandment to love God and love neighbor as yourself is not a commandment to love yourself - it's assumed that you do (most people do, those who don't need special attention). It orders our 'loves' - God first, then (radically) our neighbor on par with ourselves.

Regarding "classical Enlightenment liberalism": I mean the Enlightenment shift in which humans were now seen as the center of the story rather than God. For instance Rene Descartes statement, "I think, therefore I am." I think of it as a second attempt at building the tower of Babel. Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill were firmly rooted in this tradition.

Finally, it looks like you like to read. Here are two books that come to mind and explain what I'm trying so say much better than I can: "After Christendom" by Stanley Hauerwas and "Calculated Futures" by D. Stephen Long.

And now a short quiz just for fun:
1. In one word, name the best economic system there is:

2. In one word, name the second best economic system there is:

Michael W. Kruse

Thanks for the clarification about bodies and resources. The last sentence of the fourth paragraph could probably be tweaked to read better but I think the basic concept is legit. No, the Bible never explicitly refers to our bodies/minds as resources but it also never explicitly refers to the Trinity, yet the concept is there. Also, I’m not looking at this through a capitalist lens but rather an economic lens. I’m sure there are anarchists, socialist, and Marxists would see the same concept at work.

The oikonomos (household manger) was a slave or free servant that a paterfamilias (head of the family) would leave in charge of his household in his absence. The archetypical household envisioned in NT parables is the large Roman villa. These were not just domiciles but business enterprises. The oikonomos was expected to have the very heart and mind of the paterfamilias in everything he did. Whatever he said and did carried the authority of paterfamilias. He was to make his master’s household as productive and prosperous as possible. This included caring for members of the household so they could be productive. The oikonomos was indeed a critical “resource” for the paterfamilias’ mission and this household image is appropriated by Jesus and Paul to illustrate one aspect of our relationship to God.

Furthermore, in Mark 12:30 “…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” Strength here is not referring to physical strength or the act of ginning up emotion. It means the totality of all that is available to you. That includes our bodies and minds. Loving God means first and foremost doing God’s will. God’s will includes the creation stewardship mandate and thus economic labor. Therefore, while our minds and bodies can’t not be reduced to being only an economic resource, our minds and bodies are a resource we employ to love God and carry out his creation stewardship mandate.

Jesus and Paul were appealing to self-interest. Jesus crucifixion was in his self-interest and living as a slave to others is in our self-interest. What Jesus and Paul did was stand self-interest on its head. Martin Luther King, Jr. has a wonderful sermon called, “The Drum Major Instinct,” reflecting on Mark 10:35-45, where James and John ask to be seated at Jesus’ side. King notes that Jesus’ never rebukes them for asking this. On the contrary. He says, “Go for it! And here is how you get there: You put everyone else ahead of yourself better than anyone else ever has and the seats are yours.” In other words, selfishness is not in your self-interest. Benevolence and caring for others is.

From an eternal perspective, suffering and death are not the worst things that can happen to us. Thus, avoiding these at all costs is not our self-interest. I’d suggest that there is no argument you can make to me about why I should follow God’s will without appealing to my ultimate self-interest.

Thanks for the clarification about “classical Enlightenment liberalism.” Not everything that came out of this was bad. You wrote, “I'm not convinced that Smith's understanding of self-interest would agree with the what you are calling self-interest, that is, eternal life with God.” He doesn’t need to, to be able to offer helpful insights. Smith was not an orthodox Christian yet he seems to have had some residual of Calvinism in him. He had a rather low view of human nature. He did not believe that human beings could be depended upon to act with benevolence toward each other on a sustainable basis; thus the need to appeal to each other’s self-interest. Yet appealing directly to the Golden Rule in Theory of Moral Sentiments he lifts up benevolence as the highest virtue and a quality that is indispensible to a just society.

I haven’t read Long but I’ve read “Resident Aliens” and “After Christendom” some years ago. I’ve also heard Hauerwas interviewed extensively in person. While I think he has some valid insights I’m not a fan. He draws to sharp a distinction between Kingdom and Empire. His critique of modern economic systems is influenced by Niebuhrian-Barthian socialism and liberationist leanings that are every bit as much influenced by the communitarian wing of classical Enlightenment liberalism as is his critique of systems emerging from the individualistic wing.

“1. In one word, name the best economic system there is:”

Give me your criteria for best.

Michael W. Kruse

Also Levon, keep in mind this the first in a series. I can't say everything at once all the time. :-) I hope maybe you'll check back for the follow up posts.

Michael W. Kruse

One other comment I intended to make. I agree the Golden Rule is not a command to love ourselves and that self-love is assumed. What I'm suggesting is that we can't appropriately love others without first also appropriately loving ourselves. Without healthy self-love (or self-interest) we have no basis on which to empathize with others and appropriately love them. Self-love and love of the other are inextricably tied.

The attempt to totally eschew any hint of self-interest or self-love is an over-reaction. Total denial of self-interest in preference for other-centeredness means I should make sure everyone else has a physical and take no interest in my own health. As a good teacher I should disciple others into having the same outlook. In this case, no one would get physicals and we would all rapidly decline in health.

We don't need to abandon talk of self-interest. We need to properly frame it.

Stay tuned.

LeVon Smoker

A couple of things. The Golden Rule ("Do unto others...") is not the same as the Double Love commandment.

You're misreading Hauerwas by confusing communitarianism with a strong Christological ecclesialogy. He is certainly influenced by Barth (and I would think someone in the Reformed tradition would appreciate that), but you can't put too much Niebuhr in him.

I still think you're wrong to put 'self-interest' back into the NT. It simply doesn't help us understand the Bible. I do not believe that God doesn't want us to care for ourselves. I just don't think that the modern, commonly understood meaning/usage of the term gets us closer to knowing how much God cares and provides for us. I also think it pushes towards a Deistic view of God. As far as Jesus going to the cross, it was obedience to the Father, not self-interest. Everything else flows from that - his love for the disciples and his people Israel, his ability to forgive his enemies, etc. His resurrection ultimately shows God's glory, not primarily that he got a reward.

Hmm. I'm getting snarky. It's bedtime. I'll leave my comments about your method of reading parables for another time. G'night.

LeVon Smoker

One more thing. People in the church *should* be expected to love others and share goods with those in need. That's simply part of what a church is. So the idea that you can't rely on benevolence really has no place in the church. Furthermore, our witness to the world is one of saying "Hey you! Come on in to our community. Acknowledge our Lord, and learn from him as we are doing right now." If the world wants to copy us... fine. We should then ask them why they are copying us and further challenge them. But, if we Christians are heard to be talking about the way of Jesus and sharing abundant life together (Bonhoefer allusion intentional), and then go on to announce that actually in "real life" you just can't count on benevolence and charity since not everyone is Christian. (Here I could go off on the tangent that many Christians are simply greedy, and many non-Christians are very willing to share what they have.) My question then is "what message needs to be heard by the world?" Or "are they hearing a mixed and confusing message?"

LeVon Smoker


...But, if we Christians are heard to be talking about the way of Jesus and sharing abundant life together (Bonhoefer allusion intentional), and then go on to announce that actually in "real life" you just can't count on benevolence and charity since not everyone is Christian, we undermine our own witness. "In Christ, there is a new creation." Old creation is passing away. It is definitely still here, but we ought humor it as little as possible....

Michael W. Kruse

"A couple of things. The Golden Rule ("Do unto others...") is not the same as the Double Love commandment."

Oops! This comes from trying to carry on three blog conversations at once. :-) Yet I think my point applies to both the Golden Rule and the double love commandment. Self-interest is essential to other-centeredness.

I guess in my response to why we should talk about self-interest (or self-love) is that it is pervasively there. You can't escape it. Sometimes the gospel is best communicated by talking cultural terms captive and transforming them, not be ignoring them. I got lost on the Deism thing.

"As far as Jesus going to the cross, it was obedience to the Father, not self-interest."

But Jesus wanted to be obedient to the Father. He placed this above all else. Therefore, because he valued the Father's will above all else, it was in his self-interest to go to the cross.

I sense no snarkiness at all and I really enjoy this exchange. I hope you do as well.

Michael W. Kruse

"One more thing. People in the church..." and following.

Again, you are only seeing this first post. I can't say all I have to say all at once. I'm unpacking here. There is more to unpack.

God created us to be self-interested but within the context of a holy other-centered relationship with him and with each other. Sin fractured that. The Enlightenment was all about putting the individual at the center of the universe. Self-interest with one's self at the center of the universe is a horrible distortion. What is needed is a redeemed understanding of self-interest. This is what Jesus and Paul were doing.

"For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?"

Gaining the whole world at the expense of your life is a bad bargain. It is in your self-interest to lose you life for Christ's sake because in doing so you will find it.

So yes, the Christian community needs to be benevolent. But what will perpetuate and sustain benevolence is people seeing that benevolence is what is in their self-interest.

That said you can not build a complex economy on benevolence alone. Stewardship and trade are critical. Without them there is no information system to match need with production and supply. Markets are indispensable.

Through trade we are compelled to take on the mindset of others and think about what they need, not just what we might want to produce. Through our economic stewardship we create that which we can trade with others to meet their needs. They do likewise. When we trade, we do so because we each believe that what our trade partner is offering is worth more than what we are giving up. We both win. Both parties are made wealthier.

So I agree that the church needs to exhibit benevolence. But that is incomplete. We also need a redeemed self-interest that will transform how we trade not just how we see benevolence.

LeVon Smoker

FYI, I have looked at the other posts in this series. I'm just continuing to post where I started.

From your 2nd to last post: "But Jesus wanted to be obedient to the Father." Again, I say you are cramming a Smithian term from Enlightenment philosophy into biblical theology. What does it add? Is it needed for a good understanding of the Gospel? And what does "not my will, but yours" mean?

I also thought of Matthew 5:46-48. Self-interest is not mentioned. Wouldn't a general understanding of self-interest say that a person should love those who love them? And Jesus' reasons for saying that requited love is not enough are 1) we need to be distinct from pagans and 2) we need to be perfect (in the sense of being complete) as the Father is perfect. What does that say about a 'self' who is in Christ?

Regarding the quiz, just use you own operating definition of "best." Here it is again:
1. In one word, name the best economic system there is:

2. In one word, name the second best economic system there is:

Michael W. Kruse

The phrase “self-interest” seems to me to the stumbling block in what I’m writing. It is clear to me that for you, it has overpoweringly negative connotations and is synonymous with selfishness. (And I’ll interject here that it is not understood as synonymous at in economics.) I’ve given some examples like the following:

Brushing our teeth so our teeth don’t rot.
Looking both ways before crossing the street so we don’t get hit by a car.
Getting an annual physical so we can stay healthy.
Don’t judge in order not to be judged.
Be willing to lose the whole world to obtain a treasure in heaven.

Scratch the word “self-interested.” Are these acts selfish? If not, what would you call this quality of engaging in an action based on a benefit I will receive? It is pervasive in the Bible.

“Wouldn't a general understanding of self-interest say that a person should love those who love them?”

What is the standard against which I will measure what is in my best interest?

A. My personal comfort and economy of effort to achieve a sense of happiness in the now.
B. My experience of close relationship with God and the people of his Kingdom for all eternity.

If A, then the answer is clearly yes. If B, then clearly it is not.

“What does that say about a 'self' who is in Christ?”

At the core of discipleship is the deepening relationship with God and his people. Our self becomes intertwined in God and community. That causes us to shift our standard of measure, but the self is not obliterated. I see oblietration as an overreaction to the Enlightenment placing the self at the center of the universe.

Market systems in one word? 1. Market 2. Feudal (Lots of unpacking needed if you want to go there.) :-)

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