Economic Wisdom and Human Flourishing

2013-01-24_17-18-26_247I just got back from the retreat sponsored by the Oikonomia network. In addition to my earlier post, I joined a number of school faculty in a marvelous discussion on faith and economics.

We heard a solid overview around the role of money and economics by Victor Claar that proved helpful as a sound introduction to economics and monetary theory (both insightful but also disturbing).

Dallas Willard
In addition we heard two presentations by Dallas Willard, well known for his work on spiritual formation. Willard pushed the themes of theology and economics, providing I think a key framework based in large part on a theologically shaped virtue ethics (at least that is how I understood the backdrop).

Trying to summarize his complete presentation is not easy; however, Dr. Willard did provide talking points that should provoke considerable reflection and discussion. (I did include some additional info in parenthetical statements where Willard elaborated on his perspectives). Dallas Willard’s humility is lost when these are presented in stated form, but we need to recognize that his conviction is also shaped by his willingness to see each point a beginning point for ongoing conversation and nuance. I loved it.

2013-01-25_07-44-32_3841)      Economic wisdom directs the production, management, and exchange of vital goods and services in such a way that a high (or at least “satisfactory”) level of well-being is achieved for most of the participants in the system.

2)      Question: Do Spokespersons for Christ (“Pastors”) bring unique and indispensable knowledge of how people, including society as a whole, can live in economic wisdom. Willard’s position is that they do (as a matter of fact Willard believes that no such thing as Economic Wisdom within the boundaries of academic economics as studied…a critique of all social science… since it is hard to get beyond the discipline to determine what is good versus what is bad).

2013-01-25_12-20-12_9843)      Individuals, groups, and governments evaluate economic systems and practices by reference to how well they do or do not contribute to human well-being or flourishing. So what then is human flourishing?

4)      Two versions of well-being/flourishing

    1. The secularist or non-believer view — it is a matter of the satisfaction of our natural desires, achieved within the limits of natural human abilities… so Desires rule.
    2. A Christian view with two main elements: The presence of God and provisions by God in real life. This usually means sensible natural provisions, in a life freed from greed and obsession with material goods. A life of contentment and service under God.

5)       Christian well-being is essentially, and for the most part, relational, that is, a matter of relations to other persons

6)      Desire fails as a guide to economic well-being. It is variable, conflictual, limitless, and deceitful. One cannot run government on desire, or on what “the people” want. (Under question, Dr. Willard did note this is a fault of misaligned desire or desire alone without a greater sense of the good. To be sure Willard notes the Christian view does not rule out desire … like stoics or Buddhism… but merely recognize desires cannot “rule” our one will be ruined.

7)      2013-01-25_07-45-16_529The Christian version of well-being subordinates desire to what is good, and enables us to distinguish needs from wants. It enables us to deny desire altogether, if that is wise, or at least bring it under control of what is good. The point of reference is God and God’s will.

8)      A major service of the Christian spokesperson, therefore, is to keep before the public— including governments— the 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.

9)      Spokespeople for Christ (“pastors”) are in the public square, and there they speak and serve. They and their constituencies are in the real world and cannot be private— not that they must not be. “A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” “One does not light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket.”

10)   Love of God and neighbor requires us to address the issues of living with economic wisdom. They are too important for human life to be set aside. There is much else for “pastors” to do, of course, and not every pastor will engage the lessons of economic wisdom to the same extents, However, to engage them in whatever ways are appropriate to the individual — fit is just studying and teaching the biblical book of Proverbs — is essential to being an authentic spokesperson for Christ in our world

There were a number of other key insights that first session; however, one idea continued to revolve in my mind. Willard argued that discipleship exits not for the church. Instead Willard asserts that the church exists for discipleship, and discipleship exists for the world. Initially his understanding of the “world” includes the whole of human action (which he noted is a shorthand definition), that might well include misaligned desires (the lust of flesh, the lust of the yes and the pride of life) but the world also includes the potential for human flourishing, which does not mean having everything, but having a sense of godliness with contentment. This view of discipleship resonates with a missional perspective with the goal of true human flourishing or “the good life.” A worthy reflection to be sure as we continued into the day

2013-01-26_07-38-52_503Willard continued the second day by offering some elements of economic wisdom to be addressed by Christian ministry. He again offered several “talking points” from his presentation:

  1. Let’s say, for present purposes, that a public/social setting expresses economic wisdom if the ordinary person living there, under normal conditions, is able to engage in productive work (maybe with a “job”), with adequate resources to meet basic needs of life, with assurance of security, and with a reasonable hope for attainment of familiar human objectives, given appropriate application of thought and effort. To be sure this view is not an Utopian vision of economics but one that acknowledges the reality of day to day life.
  2. Achieving a life of economic wisdom is not a simple matter of fine tuning a system, and it always depends on factors beyond human control (these external factors, perhaps understood as “accidents” of history, can include war, disease, disasters, that can change or at least interfere with the most efficient and productive systems).
  3. 2013-01-25_12-20-07_306Individual and personal characteristics of the relevant population are always primary to the life exemplifying economic wisdom (for Willard, the character of the individual and the choices he or she makes always impinges on economic systems… or other social systems… so one cannot create a system where moral choice is unnecessary or avoided). Willard expanded by noting that social systems require individual traits of virtue which should result also in systems that mirror those traits, but this correspondence only occurs through intentional leadership.
  4. The “Fruit of the Spirit” proves foundational to any life of economic wisdom (Willard unpacked love, faith, and peace examples)
  5. More directly, “economic” traits depend upon the foundational traits —industriousness, resoluteness, steadiness, thrift, etc.
  6. 2013-01-25_07-43-08_189Welfare or well-being cannot be produced for people generally
  7. The “pastor” (spokesperson for Christ) has some more explicitly public activities than concerns for character. (A) Addressing economic and social issues that affect all citizens, (B) Preparing people under their influence to occupy public positions and to lead toward practices and policies of economic wisdom, (C) Being well-informed on what is actually going on in social/economic  affairs of their world, and interacting with those in responsible positions in society and government about it. How and why is money being spent and properly being utilized in the ways it is?

Again, one must see each of these statements as “talking points” not immutable statements of fact. The resultant discussions with faculty proved quite stimulating. At the heart of this approach is the emphasis on character and spiritual formation in the development of economic wisdom, and the dignity of pastors to embrace their role rather than adopt surface notions of economics, politics, and pragmatic practice. To be sure Willard was cautious in his formulations of what the product of these economic endeavors might be (since context also shapes the systems in play) but at least he offered an important bridge, both for theologians (where theological ethics provides a foray for research and pastoral practice) but also economists and business people. Any number of people can embrace the role of the fruit of the spirit and ask how those theological gifts/virtues shape daily practice. An intriguing two day presentation.

About Dean G. Blevins

Dr. Dean G. Blevins currently serves as Professor of Practical Theology and Christian Discipleship at Nazarene Theological Seminary. An ordained elder, Dean has ministered in diverse settings and currently also serves at the USA Regional Education Coordinator for the Church of the Nazarene. A prolific author, Dr. Blevins recently co-wrote the textbook Discovering Discipleship and edits Didache: Faithful Teaching, a journal for Wesleyan Education.
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1 Response to Economic Wisdom and Human Flourishing

  1. Pingback: Dallas Willard Audios | Discipleship Commons

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