Orthodox Social Thought

Hart Contra Acton

I couldn’t say for sure, but were I a betting man I’d put my chips behind the possibility that David Bentley Hart doesn’t look kindly on the Acton Institute and its ongoing attempt to fuse social, political, and economic liberalism with Christianity. In a new article for Commonweal, Hart briefly reviews the fallout from his First Thing piece on Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ before going into detail why he believes capitalism and the Gospel are at odds. Here’s an excerpt:

The final stage of my work on [translating the New Testament] coincided with my involvement in a series of public debates that I initiated by writing a short column for First Things praising Pope Francis and his recent encyclical Laudato si’, and that I prolonged when I contributed another article to the same journal arguing for the essential incompatibility of Christianity and capitalist culture. My basic argument was that a capitalist culture is, of necessity, a secularist culture, no matter how long the quaint customs and intuitions of folk piety may persist among some of its citizens; that secularism simply is capitalism in its full cultural manifestation; that late capitalist “consumerism”—with its attendant ethos of voluntarism, exuberant and interminable acquisitiveness, self-absorption, “lust of the eyes,” and moral relativism—is not an accidental accretion upon an essentially benign economic system, but the inevitable result of the most fundamental capitalist values. Not everyone concurred. The most representative statements of the contrary position were two earnest articles in the Public Interest by Samuel Gregg, neither of which addressed my actual arguments, but both of which correctly identified my hostility to libertarian apologetics. And on at least one point Gregg did have me dead to rights: I did indeed say that the New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns great personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil. No, he rejoined with calm certainty, it is not wealth as such that the New Testament condemns, but only a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it (the idolatry of riches, wealth misused, wealth immorally gained); riches in and of themselves, he insisted, are neither good not bad. This seems an eminently reasonable argument, I suppose. Certainly we have all heard it before, almost as a truism.

The Gregg pieces in question are typical Actonite rehashes of trick-down economic ideology; the glories of capitalism (and the woes of “crony capitalism”); and the compatibility of economic liberalism and Christianity. Hart — being Eastern Orthodox — is not bound to the social magisterium of the Catholic Church, though he arguably comes closer to following it than a professed Catholic like Gregg or Acton’s head-honcho, Fr. Robert Sirico. Where Hart is likely to raise some eyebrows is in his implicit suggestion that Christ’s teaching — and the witness of the Apostles — points to a form of Christian communism with wealth being condemned absolutely. Hart doesn’t have much interest in tethering himself to the development of Christian social doctrine nor, for that matter, engaging in that time-honored Orthodox practice of “appealing to the Fathers.” (He does, after all, have some brief but pointed words for St. Clement of Alexandria, who attempted to make the Gospel mesh with the conventions of his time.) Regardless, Hart’s retelling of the early Church’s admonishment of wealth is worth reflecting on, if only because it stands in such sharp contrast to the manner in which most Christians live their lives. Catholics like to speak a great deal about “avoiding the occasion of sin” but have almost nothing meaningful to say about doing so regarding riches. Instead, what we normally receive are finger-wagging reminders from men who make six figures a year about how even the poor today have it “better off” than the poor a century ago and even a man struggling to keep his family together working two jobs can also make an idol out of his earnings.

The Morality of the Market Economy? A Reply to Jensen

Fr. Gregory Jensen, an Orthodox priest who has been recruited into the Acton Institute’s side project of manufacturing a pro-capitalist social teaching for the Christian East, opined earlier this month that shifts in retail praxis during this “holiday season” away from the supersized “Black Friday” model (e.g., stores opening up on Thanksgiving) was due to the “moral cues of shoppers.” According to Jensen, shoppers wishing to do wholesome things have helped reshape the behavior of retailers by shaming them into dialing-down their formerly aggressive marketing campaigns for “Black Friday”-exclusive deals and keeping their doors closed so that their employees can spend Thanksgiving (an atrocious holiday) with their families. This alleged shift “is critical for helping us understand the moral goodness of the market economy,” or so says Jensen. Here are a few more of his words:

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Pink Christianity

Russian Orthodox Bishop Pitirim of Dushanbe and Tajikistan, in a provocative interview entitled “The Folly of Comfortable Christianity,” describes the phenomenon of “pink Christianity”:

Comfortable Christianity has always been around. But what I was talking about in my sermon was “pink Christianity”. This term appeared in the nineteenth century among the Slavophiles—thinking people who roused an interest in Christianity in an already quite secular society (similar to they way it was here in Russia at the end of the Soviet era), and there were people who wanted to live however they liked, denying themselves nothing, but nevertheless calling themselves Christians.

“Pink Christianity” is a kind of diluted Christianity. At the beginning of the twentieth century it led to renovationism, but fell under the grindstone of atheistic ideology. Not finding any response from the people it withered on the boundless spaces of the Soviet empire.

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The Pluralism of Errors and Lies

If diversity becomes the highest principle, there can be no universal human values. . . . If there is no right and wrong, what restraints remain? If there is no universal human basis for it, there can be no morality. ‘Pluralism’ as a principle degenerates into indifference, superficiality: it spills over into relativism, into tolerance of the absurd, into a pluralism of errors and lies.

– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nashi Pliuralitsy

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Ancient Faith Acton? – More Quotes to Digest

Here are a few more words, penned by Eastern Orthodox Christians, for “Ancient Faith Acton” to digest.

[T]he structure of the state is secondary to the spirit of human relations… The strength or weakness of a society depends more on the level of spiritual life than on its level of industrialization. Neither a market economy nor even general abundance constitutes the crowning achievement of human life.

– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Rebuilding Russia, pg. 49

The turn introduced by the Renaissance evidently was inevitable historically. The Middle Ages had come to a natural end by exhaustion, becoming an intolerable despotic repression of man’s physical nature in favor of the spiritual one. Then, however, we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal. This new way of thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs. Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any superior sense. That provided access for evil, of which in our days there is a free and constant flow. Merely freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones.

– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1978 Harvard Address

The attitude of Orthodox Christians to property should be based on the gospel’s principle of love of one’s neighbor, expressed in the words of the Savior: «A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another» (Jn. 13:34). This commandment is the basis of Christian moral behavior. For Christians and the Church believes for other people as well, it should be an imperative in regulating interpersonal relationships, including property relations.

According to the teaching of the Church, people receive all the earthly blessings from God who is the One who holds the absolute right to possess them. The Savior repeatedly points to the relative nature of the right to property in His parables on a vineyard let out to be used (Mk. 12:1-9), on talents distributed among many (Mt. 25:14-30) and on an estate handed over for temporary management (Lk. 16:1-13). Expressing the idea inherent to the Church that God is the absolute owner of everything, St. Basil the Great asks: «Tell me, what do you have that is yours? Where from did you take it and bring to life?» The sinful attitude to property manifested in the conscious rejection of this spiritual principle generates division and alienation among people.

The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, ch. VII(1)

Ancient Faith Acton?

Reading the papers today, we see the growing crash of the Western world. . . . I am totally infuriated, not so much by the Left as by the huge bankruptcy of the “Right” that generated this crash, this dead end, with a complete absence of any dream, any ideal. Stifling boredom of capitalism, of consumerism, the moral baseness of the world that they created. What comes as a “replacement” is even worse. The guilty ones are those who, having power and opportunity, have led the world into that dead end.

Freedom? Capitalism is reducing it to the freedom of profit. The essential sin of democracy is its bond with capitalism. Capitalism needs the freedom guaranteed by democracy, but that freedom is there and then betrayed and distorted by capitalists. The vicious circle of the Western world is democracy without morality–at least so it seems to me.

The choice is frightening: a terrible “Right” or an even more terrible “Left”–they both have the same disdain for man and for life. There does not seem to be any third choice, which obviously should be the Christian one. But Christians themselves are divided into right and left, without any other idea.

– Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Journals pg. 49 (October 7, 1974)

These words, penned by a great man of the Eastern Orthodox Church, appear to hold no sway with the folks at Ancient Faith Radio who, regrettably, have given streaming space to so-called “Orthodox Christian Lectures” from this year’s Acton University. It brings me no comfort to report that “Actonism” is not a unique pathology infecting segments of the Catholic world; it has now made its way (ecclesiastically) east where it’s unlikely to meet the stern resistance it deserves.

Some Solzhenitsyn for Saturday

[I]n early democracies, as in the American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. . . . All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the 20th century’s moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as in the 19th Century.

– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart (Harvard Address 1978)

Much has changed in the 40 years since Solzhenitsyn delivered those words, including the number of Christians open to the idea that the American Founding had much of anything to do with God. There is a small but vocal minority of Catholics (and a few Orthodox and Protestants) who oppose all liberal-democratic institutions on the grounds that they are essentially godless and, further, that their triumph has meant the decline of Christian belief in the West. Most still claim to be Christian, but very few live it out in any discernable manner. God, at most, provides some soft spiritual comfort, but that type of belief really has very little to do with Christianity and much more to do with trite existential security. As for the moral poverty of which Solzhenitsyn speaks, I believe we can all agree that none of the technological achievements of this century, which has given us iWatches and unfettered access to “revenge porn,” has done anything other than bankrupt the entire culture. A few decades ago it was still possible to believe that the most rank and unnatural absurdities would never be front and center in society; now they are enshrined in law. Some still say it didn’t have to be this way. Others, contra Solzhenitsyn, hold that this was inevitable. God’s glory and truth weren’t radiant at the Founding; they were eclipsed by it.