Thoughts after Paris

Recent events have shocked us all. With the Middle East continuing to degenerate into chaos, human depravity in the shape of ruthless terrorists, and human misery in the shape of desperate refugees, are spreading further and further abroad, and the Western world is reeling under the challenge. What should be clear by now is that military solutions or political solutions can take us only so far – what we are dealing with appears to go much deeper.

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 -






Poor Atlas

Longtime friend Dr. Christian Overman hosts and writes for the Worldview Matters blogsite.  He always has fascinating short video clips and articles that, together, make the compelling case that how we see reality has far more consequences than we ever imagined.

Recently, he invited the Academy's founder Dr Bob Osburn to write about the work and ministry of Wilberforce Academy.   Read "Poor Atlas" to learn more about how we can leverage the future of the nations through international students dedicated to Jesus Christ and trained to apply a Christian worldview to social challenges.

A Tired Stroll Down Memory Lane

When most of us turn 60, or thereabouts, memory fires up at thoughts of college days: romantic walks about campus, inspiring professors and books that opened our eyes, big games against rivals and stirring calls to “come help change the world!”  A recent symposium at the University of Minnesota sparked the same urge to reminisce, but this time the thoughts were entirely different.  It was a sad, weary, frustrating stroll down a memory lane made for old radicals.

An Open Letter to My International Student Friends

Over the past 30 years, thousands of international students and visiting scholars like you have brightened our lives and challenged our thinking. Some of you have become followers of Jesus Christ, others not, but all of you agree that the exhilarating freedom to choose whom and what to believe is one of America’s great virtues.  I am sorry to tell that this freedom, which you so richly and justifiably cherish, is now at risk.

In Memoriam: William Monsma (1942-2015)

I have only fuzzy, hazy memories of our first meeting on the University of Minnesota East Bank campus in front of Coffman Union almost 30 years ago.  I had just departed a part-time pastorate among farmers in the wheat fields of Western Kansas for a campus ministry amongst international students in the marketplace of ideas (or so I thought).  At any rate, bearded, lanky, and warmly engaging, William Monsma’s reference that day to Francis Schaeffer was all I needed to know that I had found a campus minister cut out of the same cloth.  I needed to get to know him and, perhaps, see what I could learn from him.

Axiomatic Christianity (Part Three)

If we accept these axioms, where do they lead us?  If God exists and is perfect and we aren’t perfect, and that is a problem for both us and God, what should we expect to happen next?  It seems to me that there are five corollaries of the four axioms.

Axiomatic Christianity (Part Two)

I start with a set of basic axioms.  Interestingly, many of them are not specifically Christian in nature.  The axioms could be presented as undefended assertions, an approach that is perfectly acceptable from a logician’s point of view.  Instead, I offer a few real-world experiences and observations to defend their reasonableness.

Axiomatic Christianity (Part One)

“Axiomatic Christianity” — what an awful name for a paper.  Why not give it a name that will attract some attention like “Christianity: The Shocking Truth” or “Steal This Manuscript”?  Perhaps a better name would result in wider readership, but at the time of writing, it seemed to me that wider readership would be of little benefit if the wider readership’s intelligence was insulted in the process.

The Church as Model Nation

© 2015 Robert Osburn

I thought about titling this essay “The Magnificent Church,” but, to some folks, calling the church “magnificent” is like calling a trailer court an “estate.”   “Fractious, stumbling, squawking” may seem like better adjectives for an institution in which Americans have declining confidence. One reason for the decline may be that, although only a tiny percentage of church leaders abuse, sexually or otherwise, their flocks, the media widely report about such abuse.  But, there is something going on inside of our churches, at least evangelical churches: While in most of the world, especially the Global South, the evangelical church is vibrant and growing, by contrast, a weary, cautious, shrunken spirit has infected North American evangelicalism.

The church muddles along.

But, then, like a diamond that stubbornly glistens on the cloudiest of days, Ephesians 3:10 declares:

[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.

Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, precedes this declaration with the stupendous claim (believe me, it was utterly shocking at the time it was written in about AD 60) that Gentiles are now “heirs together with Israel” in a completely new institution, the church. By its presence and practice, the church stuns the world by revealing that God has more wisdom than the gangs of professors that roam the halls of academia.  God intends it to be a model nation.

The church?!

The way God shows He has a much better grasp on reality than Oxford’s dons and Harvard’s robed gods is to craft a Body (v. 6) whose Head bled to death so that He could end the hostility between ethnicities that are now reconciled by His blood (2:14).  God’s wisdom is not only multi-faceted (“manifold”), but He intends to make that wisdom known to those who are both spiritual and earthly leaders and authorities. (Please understand that the phrase “in the heavenly realms,” in this passage and Ephesians 1:21, was likely a metaphor for powerful authorities who reigned imperially over their subjects, though it probably also has secondary reference to the spiritual powers that animate much leadership in our world.)  Those with imperial authority desperately need a wisdom greater than theirs that is on full exhibition through the church that is envisioned as a model nation.  As such, the church has replaced Israel’s previous role as a model nation (Isaiah 60:1-3).

My friend Dr. Bob Moffitt of Harvest Foundation (and a co-founder of Disciple Nations Alliance, of which the Academy is a member) declares around the world that the church is God’s instrument for healing communities and nations.  But I think it is not only that the church, whether in its universal or local expressions, is the most effective institution for solving community problems; it ought also be a meaningful institutional example of how leaders should organize public affairs. 

When I spoke over a month ago in the troubled northeastern Indian state of Manipur, I told churches there that the leaders of Manipur aren’t finding solutions to the multiple systemic dysfunctions that plague their region.  I said that the only way Manipur’s leaders will find lasting, genuine solutions is by learning from the church (which is very pervasive in that part of India). What prevents Manipur’s churches from being effective models to government officials is their disunity.   

For too long, the church of Jesus Christ has pictured itself as either a social club or a social agency (mostly liberal denominational churches), or, in the case of 20th century American fundamentalism, a refuge from society.  In the former case, theological liberals have made themselves virtual appendages of government (as have many Christian social service agencies, for example); in the latter, fundamentalists made themselves irrelevant to government by solely teaching the personal dimension of Christian faith.   The former is the ever-shrinking mainline church, the other a marginal church.  I am suggesting that Paul’s vision in Ephesians 3:10 was that the church would be a model to the nations of the world.

Imagine a church whose vision is inspired by this verse in Ephesians: “We exist to demonstrate God’s multifaceted majestic wisdom to the leaders of our community.”

How will they impact the “rulers and authorities” in their communities?  Through them, political and other leaders will discover that leadership is best done by serving the community, that the central problem facing the community is spiritual (lack of forgiveness, reconciliation, and regeneration), and that politics is a necessary but insufficient system for solving community problems.  As did America’s founders, they will also learn from the church that a federal system of government best balances local, regional, and nationwide concerns and interests.  They should learn from the church a vision for public justice that takes account of both individual and collective needs by means of what is often called principled pluralismAnd, finally, they must learn that religious freedom, or freedom of conscience undergirds all other human freedoms of speech, assembly, and association.  In the final analysis, by proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus Christ, our churches will remind our international, national, regional, and local leaders that there is One Just Ruler after whom they should model their own leadership.

If our churches catch the vision as model nations, the church will increasingly be known as magnificent, not muddling.

The Failure of the Liberal Imagination

New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has uncovered, through his research which he reports in the 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, a stunning insight into the very different ways that American[1] liberals and conservatives imagine reality as seen through others’ eyes.  Conservatives, he found, are very adept at imagining the lifeworld of liberals.  By contrast, liberals are stunted when it comes to imagining life through the lens of a conservative. 

Entrepreneurs and Environmentalists

In the next few weeks I will introduce professors, pastors, and other leaders in the northeast Indian state of Manipur to the story of Christianity’s contribution to the development of nations.  One topic I will address is finding the proper balance between entrepreneurship and environmentalism, a balance that, in the gloomy twilight of the early 21st century, clearly tips Green in the post-Christian West.  Finding the right balance not only concerns development, but has everything to do with what it means to be human.

Just Imagine

Imagination is one of three “i” words that have special places in all our lives and especially our thinking and, in my view, do not get the attention and respect they deserve.  In addition to imagination, the other “i” words are intuition and inspiration.  (We might add innovation, since innovation often is the product of imagination, intuition and inspiration.)  We use these words frequently when admiring creative genius, but less often when we we’re referring to “rational” thought processes.  That strikes me as odd.  

The Potential of Pluralism

I am a big fan of World magazine, but on one issue however, I part ways with them---not mildly, but strongly.  The issue is pluralism, and to put my difference as clearly as possible: Columnist Janie Cheaney and World’s founder Joel Belz believe pluralism is an ideology floating under the banner of tolerance, whereas I think that the term more often describes a social reality where religious and philosophical differences can genuinely cohabit and thrive without compromising the passion for truth.