Proceedings of the Interdisciplinary Congress for the Development of Economic Personalism August 9-12, 2001 Grand Rapids, Michigan: Moderator's Opening Remarks

By Gregg, Samuel | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Proceedings of the Interdisciplinary Congress for the Development of Economic Personalism August 9-12, 2001 Grand Rapids, Michigan: Moderator's Opening Remarks


Gregg, Samuel, Journal of Markets & Morality


Ladies and Gentlemen,

May I begin by thanking you for joining us in what I hope will be the first of many annual conferences conducted under the auspices of the Acton Institute and focused on themes and ideas associated with economic personalism. Gathered here today are philosophers, jurists, economists, historians, and theologians--all of whom are committed to facilitating a meaningful conversation between Christian social thought and the modern discipline of economics.

This type of discussion is relatively rare in Christian circles, precisely because it is a difficult one. Though the roots of modern economics lie, intellectually speaking, in the thought of Aristotle, medieval philosophers, and the sixteenth-century Spanish Scholastics, there is little doubt that the dominant philosophical and anthropological influences on most modern economic thought have been generally positivistic in nature. Even today, there are many economists who are relatively uninformed of the ultimate roots of their discipline, and who have never questioned the moral-anthropological assumptions that underlie much of their work.

This state of affairs presents particular challenges for Christian scholars conscious of these issues, but who also believe that the Christian Church's ability to preach the Gospel and to evangelize the world would gain much from serious reflection on the character of subjective economic value, the reality of scarcity, the nature of self-interest, the difference between positive and normative economics, and the critical role played by law, constitutions, and other institutional settings in shaping the free economy and the free society. The challenge is magnified by the fact that the same scholars believe that the modern world would also gain from listening to a Christian Church that grasped the importance of these facts. Christianity has profound things to say about the social order, as evidenced, for example, by its doctrine of Original Sin, the Kuyperian notion of sphere sovereignty, as well as its teachings on the ultimate origin and purpose of material goods and economic activity. In this regard, the moral significance of our freely chosen acts in the economic realm is especially important, as it is through such acts that we can struggle to achieve integral fulfillment through participation in the human goods to which Aquinas says we are directed by right reason: (1) the basic reasons for action that the encyclical letter, Veritatis Splendor, describes as "fundamental human goods." (2)

Such a conversation between the modern world--and, more specifically, modern economics--and Christianity is bound to be difficult. Part of the problem lies in the apparent inability of many contemporary Christian intellectuals to engage in a conversation with modernity that manages to be meaningful but also consistent with orthodox Christian teaching. There is, of course, no alternative to a Christianity that is fully engaged with modernity. But if such an engagement is to be meaningful, then Christians should maintain no illusions about precisely what they have been called upon to engage. Certainly, modernity has helped to create a world that is unquestionably more materially prosperous and scientifically advanced, but it has spawned some terrible beasts. The following list summarizes only some of the deep chasms between the respective visions of modernity and orthodox Christianity:

1. Modernity insists that God-talk is, at best, metaphorical and, at worst, irrational. Christianity teaches that the Creed professed by Christians every Sunday is the truth of the world.

2. Modernity's view of history remains that of the Continental late-Enlightenment: one of an "automatic" linear forward movement achieved almost by the passage of time and without enormous personal effort. Christianity, however, maintains that historical change is not necessarily ipso facto benign, and insists that without a shared knowledge, understanding, and belief in the objective moral order that transcends time, place, and culture, there can be no coherent, believable, or effective knowledge of how to improve either oneself or society. …

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