Economic Wisdom and Human Flourishing


This is the first of two presentations given at at the Kern Family Conference for Theological Educators, January 25-26, 2013. The second presentation is Some Elements of Economic Wisdom to Be Addressed by Christian Ministry.



The Kern Foundation is deeply concerned about the moral foundations of economic prosperity and about the functioning of “the economy” in general. I think all of you will have received two pages expressing its views on “economic wisdom.” Clearly, on the views therein expressed, economic plans and processes must, if they are to lead to flourishing life for the system and for individuals, be guided by an appropriate vision of what is good and what is right. It is boldly said by the Foundation that “the economy is a moral system.” I take this to mean among other things that, on its view, “the economy” will not be successful for the purposes of society, the government, and individuals unless it substantially incorporates basic moral values and appropriate goals of productivity and distribution or exchange. A major objective, on this vision, is that individuals and groups should be self-supporting and not have to live off of others or outside sources. Moreover, God has an interest in all of this and supports those who see their economic life as one of stewardship for the benefit of everyone involved. He holds people responsible for the moral and prudential conduct of their economic activities and blesses both individuals and groups, including governments, who respect His ways and live in them. I hope this fairly characterizes, in brief, the Foundation’s outlook on “Economic Wisdom.”

For the present discussion, let us take “the economy” to be a loosely defined system of production and exchange of goods and services that human being regard as required for their life. Any activity that is not essential to life would not, on this understanding, be part of the economy, e.g., ‘professional’ sports and the “style’ industry, though these involve a lot of money. People want entertainment. But few stop breathing if they don’t have it. The economy is much more inclusive than just money matters or governmental action, though these nowadays get by far the most attention. It includes, for example, how people live together: what they regard as acceptable housing, how they think about and practice education, warfare or national security, and freedom to move about. All these and many other activities involve some exchange of goods and services, but there is much more to them than money and government action. It is logically possible that there should be a functioning economy without money or government action. The idea that it is the job of the government to secure the economic well-being of individuals is of fairly recent vintage. Also for the idea that a citizen is entitled to welfare, in the sense of having a legal right to it.

The question arises as to who is to teach and lead with reference to public organizations and practices, including the governmental, that play a significant role in the kind of economy we have and in its “successes” and failures. We especially want to take up a few questions related to the issue of whether or not the Christian minister has a responsibility (or even a right) to address economic issues bearing on the larger social and political order. Or is that none of his or her business? Also, should (could?) theological education and educators undertake to prepare those who minister in various ways—but certainly in the pulpit, the classroom, and in writing—to speak and write with incisive depth and thoroughness concerning which economic ideas, policies, and practices of society at large (or of parts thereof) are most supportive of the well-being of society as a whole and of significant components thereof, as well as of private households and of individual lives.

But this question involves yet deeper and more difficult issues. Does the spokesperson for Christ bring unique and indispensable knowledge to the human world at large, or is he or she merely an advocate of certain traditional opinions and courses of action, trying to motivate people to adopt them. In particular, does the Christian bring moral knowledge to bear on human life, and are moral positions and attitudes (whether they amount to knowledge or not) even relevant to economic understanding and the adoption and practice of economic and, more broadly, social policies.

There is, of course, much more here than I could cover on this occasion, even if I had the required abilities. But perhaps something helpful can be said about some central points.

First of all, the idea of economy arises where there is a certain complexity of interactive ends and processes that require proper (intelligent) arrangement, direction and subordination for the system to work best to the advantage of those involved or for the furtherance of the ends of the system as a whole. Hence the issue of economy arises in many connections, from a light bulb or internal combustion engine, to the behavior of banks, or to that of a world-wide monetary system. At the human individual level, the case of the addict provides a simple illustration of the failure of such intelligent direction and subordination and of the individual life ‘economy.’ But such failure is also seen on the larger scale when some particular individual or group or obsessive idea or motivation takes over the social/governmental system or systems and disrupts all order that would do justice to the range of values and needs which genuinely characterize the population involved. This was the case at the middle of the last century with Fascism and Communism, but it has happened without them, and it also can happen within Capitalist contexts as well. (The 19th Century “robber barons,” etc.)

In modern democratic societies economic systems and practices of whatever level are to be evaluated, we hope, by reference to human flourishing or well-being; and it is at this point, today, that serious issues arise for the Christian and the Christian spokesperson dealing with economic activities and policies. For the flourishing life, or human well-being and welfare, is radically different from the Christian and from the non-Christian or the strictly secular points of view. (Of course there are many non-Christian view points other than secularism.) Nothing makes this more clear than the opposition stated by Jesus between his “Beatitudes” and their corresponding “woes.” (Matt. 5 and Luke 6)

Two Versions of Flourishing/Well-Being

Well-being (in its upper levels, flourishing) for the secularist or non-believer is a matter of the satisfaction of our natural desires, focused mainly upon our bodies and our social relations. Moreover, the satisfaction is to be achieved by normal human abilities, applied in human community. “’What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘With what shall we clothe ourselves?’” was a range of individual objectives Jesus mentioned (Matt. 6:31) for those (the “gentiles”) who do not find their life in the kingdom of God. Of course the natural desires are considerably more complicated than this brief list might suggest. The apostle John in his first letter lists as what makes up the “world” (socially/historically organized human abilities) the intensive desires (“lusts”) of the flesh, those of the eyes (to see and be seen in a favorable light), and the pride of life (or the will to dominate or have ascendency over others). These and other thoughts and desires of the same sort make up what Paul calls “the mind of the flesh.” (Romans 8 and elsewhere) and “the works of the flesh” (Gal. 5). The basic idea of the “flesh” here is that of a life lived entirely in terms of unaided human powers and intelligence. To be well-off in these terms is be humanly secure in the satisfaction of the desires that rule in normal human existence. To flourish would no doubt be to possess such well being to a high degree. It is a fact that the secular vision of well-being tends to be materialistic and, in a capitalist system, consumerists. The Apostle Paul’s take on “the mind of the flesh” is that it is death and corruption. (Rom. 8:6, Eph. 2:3, and Gal. 6:8).

It is not an easy matter to characterize such “natural” conditions of well-being or flourishing, or the point at which one passes into and out of them. This makes it difficult or impossible to conceive of arrangements, in what we today think of as “the economy,” that would secure or tend to secure a population in such favorable conditions. It is easier to work from the other end of the scale, where people clearly lack well-being and certainly are not flourishing; and that is what we nearly always do. Franklin Roosevelt—who formulated for government attention much of what is treated today as “welfare”—spoke of a large population in the USA of his times who were “ill housed, ill clad, and ill nourished.” Here are conditions which in some cases, at least, are clearly identifiable and with reference to which actions might be brought to bear as remedies. And surely some action must be undertaken with regard to them.

In his eleventh State of the Union address (1/11/44) FDR proposed “a second Bill of Rights” that would supposedly undergird “economic security, social security, moral security” for all. “Essential to peace is a decent standard of living for all individuals,” he declared, and “freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want.” In spite of strong opposition from people at the time, he held that his country would be willing to extend guarantees of minimal social and economic security to all its inhabitants, and he was basically right. It would support rights to “a useful and remunerative job,” to fair (legally regulated) business practices, to a decent home for every family, to adequate medical care, to protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment, and the right to a good education. This all would provide a framework, at least, for a flourishing life—or, minimally, a life of well-being—without God. The increasingly explicit secularism (legal, social, political) of the last half of the 20th Century might be reasonably seen as a natural expression of the “discovery” that general human prospering can be provided for in strictly human terms.

A Christian View of “Well-Being"

Of course that is sharply opposed to the traditional view of human flourishing as expressed in the Bible, in biblical history, and in the literature and practice of the Christian church through the ages. For this view of human well-being and flourishing two non-human elements are required: the actual presence of a living, acting God in human life (corporate as well as individual) and provisions (including material provisions) from God outside of the course of mere natural events. (Phil. 4:19)

Scriptural texts abound in Old and New Testament concerning human flourishing, in which these two elements are conspicuously present. One of the most well known, of course, is the 23rd Psalm. The opening words of the Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” turn out to express the two essential elements of the flourishing life on the biblical and Christian view: the presence of God and provision by God. The Psalm proceeds to spell these out. The presence of God secures abundance of physical provision (green pastures, quiet waters) as well as supervision in moral and spiritual practice (“He leads me in paths of righteousness”). His presence also secures freedom from fear of death and from hostility involving enemies. (“Thou art with me,” and “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”) Moreover the provision involves more (anointing with oil, cup running over) than just necessities. Finally, the presence of The Shepherd guarantees continuity of goodness and mercy throughout life, extending into “forever.”

Taken by itself, however, this Psalm may give a false impression of the well-being that comes with life in God. Other passages in the Bible emphasize a life of well-being that does not place such a weight upon the abundance of provision. They make clear the adequacy to human well-being of God’s presence and care, even in circumstances where desirable provisions of the usual sort are indeed in short supply or totally lacking. Habakkuk 3:17-19 reads: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail, and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold, and there be no cattle in the stalls; yet I will exult on the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and He has made my feet like hinds feet, and enables me walk on dangerous places.”

But while the cases of well-being in extreme deprivation are covered, the scriptural texts usually present a condition of sensible provisions in a life freed from greed and obsession with material goods: “freed” because of the presence in life of the kingdom of God “at hand” and always in action. Jesus’ summary statement on this is in Matthew 6:33: “But seek above all God’s kingdom and its righteousness, and all these things (meeting material needs) will be supplied to you.” (Cp. Joshua 1:8 & Psalm 1) This is a point made repeatedly and applied in numerous ways in his teaching, and in the “life style” he himself lived and taught to his disciples. God’s intent for us, according to Paul, is that our leaders should rule well and “that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” (1 Tim. 2:1-8)

Contentment with what you have in the active presence of God becomes a major emphasis in the New Testament writings. Paul’s astonishing statements in Philippians chapter 4—especially, given the harsh conditions in which he found himself at the time of writing, but indeed for most of his life—expresses the understanding and attitude on “flourishing” that were part of the disciples’ way of living in the earliest phase of the Christian movement and through most of the following centuries. Paul said: “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (4:11-13) Elsewhere he says: “Godliness is great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.” (1 Tim. 6:6-8) Yet again the New Testament tells us: “Let your character be free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you’.” (Heb. 13:5)

So while a certain radical independence from satisfaction of those natural desires that wholly make up the “without God” life has characterized basic Christian teachings and examples, the overall outlook of Jesus, and Paul, and the Bible on “secular” human values is not one of rejection, but of subordination. Food and desire to eat and decent housing and clothing, for example, are not rejected from a godly life; but they are not to control us; and the same is true for all “natural” desires and their satisfactions. We are not to serve “mammon,” but we are to use it for good ends under devotion to God. (Luke 16:9, 1 Timothy 6:17-19) But this will only prove readily accessible for those who have sources of supply and contentment beyond the merely human, and hence are not in bondage to “the economy” or the material conditions of life..

So: flourishing without God and flourishing with God, or simple well-being in the two cases, yield two very different versions of “success” against which human arrangements and activities, including those which make up our economy, might be evaluated. One might think that Christian spokespersons, out of mere love of God and neighbor, should be deeply involved in understanding these two versions of human flourishing, and in communicating with their world about the wisdom or foolishness of various economic plans and practices, or of socially prevailing attitudes and institutions, that might come up for consideration. Surely that is the case. That was the enduring stance of the biblical “prophet.” The Christian spokesperson would always be learning much from the “experts,” of course. He or she must gain the appropriate knowledge and speak as a properly informed person. But in teaching and leading in public and private life they would bring to bear an understanding of what is good and what is possible for human beings that falls beyond the reach of mere secular analysis of human desires and abilities. That understanding would prove necessary for the wise application of what can be learned from a strictly secular study of economic phenomena. It would be the a duty of appropriate Christian ministers and spokespersons to address before the broader public the meaning and application of what can be thus learned. That is not something which the results of technical economic knowledge (where there is such) wears upon its face. There is no such thing as economic wisdom within the boundaries of economics as academically studied. That a certain economic policy would make for a better flow of money in society, or for lower unemployment, and so forth, does not by itself entail that it should be implemented. There are further issues involved in such implementation.

Well-Being In Human Relationships

One of the most important things to understand about Christian well-being (and flourishing) is that it is fundamentally, and for the most part, relational. That is, it is a matter of our relations to other persons (beginning with God) and encompassing the people whom life has placed in the most intimate and abiding human relations to us. These are our “neighbors,” but modern usage has robbed the word of some of its most important bearings. Its most important reference is to our family members and those we are most engaged with in living. One cannot place a monetary value upon relations to these people, and those relations cannot be adequately dealt with by government action or social agencies in the ordinary sense. Such relations are loaded with factors of production and exchange. But when these relations are ruined—especially between parents and then between parents and children—human existence is deeply impaired. “Welfare” then becomes a cloudy and confused condition. People then tend to search for substitutes for adequate human relations. There are none. This leaves the lonely individual desperately trying to fill the void by pursuing “the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” Flourishing for such a person means some degree of satisfaction of these “lusts.” He or she is apt to settle for addictive fulfillment, where food or something else fills “the God-shaped vacuum.”

The Great Commandment (Mark 12:33 ) by contrast directs us to love God with every aspect of our being and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Finding well-being or a flourishing existence in such a condition is much less difficult than on the secular view. This love is not abstract or theoretical, but vital, concrete, positive, and practical. It is devoted to seeking the good of the person loved. It occupies and energizes our life. I have never known a person devoted to serving God and others who had a problem with “the meaning of life.” To love God is to be constantly seeking to do, and be involved in, what is good to and for Him. Similarly for loving our “neighbors.” Thus each one of the Ten Commandments is relational, and especially as later internalized by Jesus. (Matt. 5-7) Our first and most important “neighbors” are our parents, and that is why they show up first in the human part of the Big List, and are associated with a promise of long life. Relation to parents go that deeply into determining what our life will amount to. After marriage, of course, our closest neighbor is our spouse, with whom we “become one,” even closer than parents. The other of the Ten Commandments concern not harming those we are close enough to injure or bless. (“Thou shalt not covet” is a very interesting and important case.) They are concerned with protecting what C. S. Lewis called “the weight of glory” that is in every ordinary person. To miss these relationships in their fullness intended by God, is to lead a deprived existence and to be locked into the “lives of quiet desperation” H. D. Thoreau famously spoke of as the fate of most humans. Inability to relate slides into many forms of mental disfunction and pain. (Jim Wilder, “Thrive” program) To provide true well-being, much less a flourishing life, for such wounded people is a daunting if not impossible task; and in most cases it requires an endless and expensive sequence of external goods—which nevertheless fail of that aim.

The language of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) about human “felicity” pretty well captures the broken situation of humanity. Happiness “of this life consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied,” according to him. “Felicity,” he says, “is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter.” And the more one gets, he acutely observes, the more one strives for, to secure possession of what one already has. So he finds as “a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” (Leviathan, Bk I, Chap. XI) The substantial accuracy of these words for the broken condition of man ruled by desire (as Hobbes insists is the case) surely makes one want to think more deeply about desire as a guide to well-being and flourishing. Surely we need something beyond human desires to guide us.

Desire, whether of an individual or of a group, is variable, conflictual, limitless, and deceitful. It does not remain the same, but is highly changeable. Then there are always other desires, in the individual or group, and they often are incompatible. (“What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?” James asks. Answer: your pleasures and lusts. 4:1-2) Desire also, as Hobbes insisted, never comes to a final rest in satisfaction. There is always “more” that is desired. And it is deceitful because it promises rest in satisfaction—“If I only had that.” With all its problems, however, it can serve humanity well if it is governed by the presence of a larger framework set in terms of what is good. The Christian perspective on well-being provides precisely that, thus providing a place to stand to deny desire, if need be, to postpone gratification if that is good, and to place desires in their order of genuine importance.

Desire, without some outside principle of good, will always degenerate into power contests. It is inherently conflictual, both within the individual and in the group. There is always, for an individual, a number of desires in play, and no desire, merely as such, is an indicator of what is good or what is best. What is not good or right is often desired. Secularism now has a track record in dealing with desire, and it has not succeeded in finding a place to stand for public institutions and figures to say “no” to desire. The ultimate court of appeal then becomes legal or political power: the courts, the legislature, and political campaigns. The objective is simple: the win; not to find what is true, good, and right. That is the nature of the political. As long as these secular processes can at least stand in a convincing shadow of what is good, desire will fall under some constraint other than opposing desires and the ensuing power contests. Hopefully that constraint would be encoded into laws. Once even the shadow is gone, however, nothing is left but winning, and the desires that win out will rule the day, with whatever consequences, benign or disastrous, may come. The Christian ‘shadow’ is now on the verge of disappearing as a public resource. (Law is disappearing under the impact of desire, and the provisions of the Constitution are now widely understood as changing under the impact of—guess what—the desires of group interests and sophisticated theories of linguistic meaning [not old fashioned logic].)

A major service of the Christian spokesperson, therefore, is to keep before the public—including governments—a true picture of what human well-being is and is not, as well as ways in which genuine human welfare can and must be served. A major part of this task is the forming of individual Christians themselves (and others who come under their influence) so that they can be present and influence and lead in those situations where policy is set and decisions are being made that effect human well-being and flourishing at all levels. The Christian spokesperson is not one who tries to dictate government or social policy and practice, though there is a great need for well-formed Christians to be deeply involved in political and legal and social processes. The church must prepare well-formed Christians for that calling. The aim of the spokesperson is to teach and to form character through example, teaching, and guidance (disciplines etc.). But there is no way this can be kept “private.” The churches are automatically in the “public square” because of the people who attend and because of how, as everyone knows, they constantly interact with “the public good.”

Resistance to the calling on Christians to address economic, governmental, and social issues intelligently and with spiritual force arises within some churches from a number of misunderstandings. One is that you can develop Christian moral character without dealing with the social setting. This is simply impossible because we all live in a social world, and we cannot be people who love our neighbors and practice thoroughgoing integrity if we accept practices that harm them or fail to advance and support social and legal conditions that help them with their vital needs. Another misunderstanding has to do with the gospel itself and with the mission of Christ and his people in the world. According to some, the only thing that matters for the Christian is forgiveness of sins and securing heaven in the afterlife. This ‘salvation’, as now erroneously understood, is a private matter. It is “Just between me and God.” It, it is frequently thought today, has nothing to do with Character development in individuals, much less with rectifying conditions of life in this world. Hence it might be private. This world is a hopelessly lost cause, that story goes. Our only concern must be to get as many people to heaven in the afterlife as possible. 

We train ministers to do that, not to understand and teach what is right about economic and other social conditions. But the gospel presented by Christ and the New Testament has to do with leading an eternal kind of life now in the Kingdom of God, heaven after death being a natural outcome of the life we have now received. We are called into discipleship to Christ that unavoidably leads us increasingly into the character of Christ, with effects on our social setting that are world transforming. A final misunderstanding in some church settings is that to deal with economic and social issues is “political,” and that our Christian leaders are not to be political. There is a small element of truth here. The Christian spokesperson aims to help Christians and all others understand the economic and other dimensions of society. Their primary task is not to initiate political/economic change, but to bring understanding and truth to our lives in our world. But Christians may, and often have (Wilberforce, M. L. King) worked explicitly for political and economic change. That was essential to their discipleship in the Kingdom of God. There is nothing wrong, ungodly, illegal or unconstitutional about that. The First Amendment is about something Congress cannot do. It is not about what Christians will not and cannot do. (We now live under the influence of a gigantic myth about a “wall of separation” between “church and state.” It has been generated and elaborated from a few phrases, scattered here and there, with no legal standing or force.) Though the teaching of pastors and Christian spokespersons will certainly have social consequences, and including consequences for the economy, that is not (in the usual case) what the Christian teacher/minister is trying to bring about. They usually leave those consequences to the actions of those to whom they bring understanding, and to God who is always at work in our world.

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