One Hand Tied Behind His Back: Professor Sachs and the Cost of Ignoring Culture

©2015 Robert Osburn

He and I were both raised in southeastern Michigan, and, if his family had their way, we might have been classmates at the University of Michigan.  But, our similarities end there. 

Jeffrey Sachs, a few years younger and, unlike me, raised in a white-collar home, was preternaturally brilliant and, so, he attended the only place for those so endowed: Harvard University.  By contrast, yours truly gladly put Ann Arbor and a subpar grade point average behind him when I graduated in the Spring of 1973.

We also took very different trajectories religiously.  I became a convinced evangelical follower of Jesus Christ during my first year of college, and then went off to seminary and a series of small pastorates until age 35.  By contrast, Sachs was a wunderkind, as even the casual reader of Nina Munk’s The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty (2013) would agree.  He was a Harvard University professor at age 25 and a full professor at age 28. 

He also was, and still seems to be, a full-blooded materialist.   He believes matter is all there is, although, in a 2013 Veritas Forum conversation at Columbia University (where he is now a distinguished professor), he suggested that “we cannot escape our fate.”   When matter is the sole substance in the universe, then life in that world must feel a bit like what the fatalistic Muslim feels when everything is purely and simply God’s will (inshallah).

For the past 20 years, this earnest professor has been on a multimillion-dollar crusade to wipe out poverty across the globe. He has invested vast amounts of money in technical solutions to poverty, whether financial incentives to pharmaceutical companies, improved access to high–quality seed and fertilizer for poor farmers across the globe, or his famous Millennium Villages Project.  “A selfless genius driven to improve the world” (as his followers see him, writes Munk), he has valiantly poured himself into these efforts.  He buttonholes world leaders to challenge them on the matter of poverty and the human suffering that it causes, but his efforts have always seemed like he has one hand tied behind his back. His obvious commitment (functional or otherwise) to a materialist, or scientific naturalist, worldview, makes him single-handed.

Eradicating poverty, however, takes “both hands”--- the material and spiritual domains of reality.

Unfortunately, Sachs simply cannot imagine that the culture of the people he is helping has any profound connection to their material poverty.  As Munk shows so clearly, he runs up against brick wall after brick wall of failure (or near failure) with his costly initiatives.  His results have fallen far short of his expectations, and the reason, I suggest, is that he has paid far too little attention to the deepest assumptions and beliefs that shape the worldviews of the poor whom he seeks to help.  Putting the point positively, were he to invest in community-centered, long-term cultural renewal strategies that invite the poor to see life through the redemptive lens of Christian faith, his otherwise-valiant efforts at providing material incentives might work.

A recent Economist magazine article “Of Cars and Carts” (September 19, 2015) pays attention to the cultural dimension of development that Sachs misses.

It is wrong to think of the vision between the modern Mexico and the rest of the country as purely one between north and south… The distance between them is not just to be measured in kilometres; it is to mapped in terms of formality and informality, the rule of law and its absence, of race and of culture.

Sachs, on his current trajectory, seems to have no choice in the matter, and for several reasons.  There is a certain sense in which materialism, or philosophical naturalism, creates an iron cage (to adapt Max Weber’s famous metaphor about modernity) of purely material cause and effect.  Sachs carelessly used the frozen language of “fate,” but that was very honest: As Jacque Monod declared in Chance and Necessity (1971), “Man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance.”

That hand tied behind his back would be released were he to embrace a Christian vision for human development.  Christian faith not only recognizes the interlocking and interdependent nature of the material and immaterial dimensions of reality, but it takes very seriously the questions of human motivation, human aspiration, and those things that are our deepest loves.  We are more than mere human material that responds to economic incentives like Pavlov’s dog; we dream, we give our allegiance to causes, we knowingly cause harm and sometimes blessing.  For many of us, we sense that our actions answer to something greater, a higher calling or something truly Transcendent.  Whereas Sachs can only soldier forward in the cold shade of a bleak materialist worldview, the believer worships while also imaginatively deploying God-given creativity and rationality to create solutions to human problems. Beyond all that, the Christian has a remarkable, though terribly flawed, institution in which the believer finds his home: the church.  The Christian’s sacred text, the Bible, opens one to worlds of wonder and enchantment, real worlds whose allegiance and loves are meant to mimic and align themselves with those of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There really are no handy, dandy ways to write about these matters that we call culture.  By its very nature, culture lacks the precision of the economic laws and principles that Sachs teaches and tries to apply.   For that reason, many scholars steer very clear of claims about culture, because it is often not easily empiricized.  How, after all, do we measure the economic impact of believing that God in Christ rose from the dead?  We could talk about how that belief develops a culture of hope, but how do you measure the benefits of such a belief? 

Professor Sachs’ materialist philosophy has, in far more ways than I have elaborated in this short essay, made him single-handed and less than able to help those he wants to help.  While he would find insight in the burgeoning literature on religion and development, I warmly welcome him to the foot of the Cross where his other hand (appreciating and nurturing the role of culture in development) can be released.  “So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

And so will those you want to help, Professor.

 

Image credits: "Jeffrey D. Sachs - World Economic Forum on East Asia 2011" by World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland - Jeffrey D. Sachs - World Economic Forum on East Asia 2011. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jeffrey_D._Sachs_-_World_Economic_Forum_on_East_Asia_2011.jpg#/media/File:Jeffrey_D._Sachs_-_World_Economic_Forum_on_East_Asia_2011.jpg