From Fracture to Flourishing: Reclaiming the Middle in a Polarized Society

You don’t have to look far to see fractures in American society.  Rightly or wrongly, nearly every move by the new Trump administration has been met with steep opposition.  From the Dakota Access Pipeline, to Black Lives Matter and transgender rights protests, our political, economic, and cultural divides run deep.  In view of this moment in history, Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic (2016) is a timely book diagnosing what ails our divided America and why this moment is unique.

While Trying to Keep Terrorists Out, We're Breeding the Problem Within

Regardless of what you think about President Trump’s travel ban (suspended, thanks to multiple judges, as of February 9, 2017), we should all admit that there is something very good about a president trying to protect his people. My real concern is that almost everyone is overlooking the real elephant in the room: The vast majority of Islamic radicals in the USA are being radicalized after they come to the USA. 

Please, Please Mess with Culture

Should outsiders try to change others’ cultural practices?  Academic anthropologists have long boomed a resounding “No!”  And not a few Christians have swayed along to the beat of a cultural relativism that preserves cultural practices in the name of liberation from Western colonialism and cultural superiority.

Good News for the Bad News about International Aid

Nobel prize-winner Angus Deaton has some really bad news, especially so in this Christmas season of giving: Most international aid not only does not work, but it is harmful to countries who receive it.  Before you slam shut your checkbooks and stuff the credit cards back in your wallets and build an emotional moat around your Christmas-giving heart, let me explain why he is right but also what he misses (hint: The Good News).

Why Truth No Longer Matters (But Should)

The September 10, 2016 cover story in one of the world’s most widely-read magazines, the Economist, is about “post-truth politics.”  The article argues that the main contenders in our torturous 2016 US presidential campaign have stunningly sacrificed truth with reckless abandon. I highly recommend the article, but with a major caveat: The writers fail to satisfactorily answer the question: “How did we get to the place where truth is at best a literary doormat for those bent on power and conquest?”  The answer to this question is the real story that will linger long after the presidency is decided in November.

Helping Others Join Us on the Social Escalator

More than six months ago, the Academy's Executive Director Dr. Bob Osburn was commissioned by the Center of the American Experiment's founder Dr. Mitch Pearlstein to join several dozen other essayists in addressing the question,   "Specifically, What Must We Do to Repair Our Culture of Massive Family Fragmentation?"   Dr Osburn's essay (scroll down about 75% of the way to page 43, past brilliant essays by the likes of Dr. Heather MacDonald, who is currently famous for her new book on race and policing) is titled "Helping Others Join Us on the Social Escalator."  Like some of the other essayists, he is convinced that family fragmentation, in all its forms, is one of America's greatest challenges, but one that also provides an enormous opportunity for the Gospel of the Kingdom to be proclaimed and lived by those who aspire to be redemptive change agents right here in the USA.

Christian Hospitality at the Frontlines of Islamic Terrorism

As the Lutheran bishop of the Mayo-Belwa Diocese of the Lutheran Church of Christ, Musa explained that setting up camps for refugees, or internally displaced people, was out of the question. So, their church (and churches in other denominations) had all agreed that the refugee crisis would be addressed by having their members open their homes to those who had lost theirs to Islamic radicals. 

The Secularists' Dilemma

Are Westerners misanthropists?   A few, perhaps.  But, the dramatic contrast in the way we respond to human fetal suffering versus animal suffering unveils a striking dilemma that most secularists, the vast majority of whom are materialists of some kind (whether naturalists, existentialists, nihilists, or postmodernists), would rather not think about. 

John Locke and Religious Freedom

What always made me uneasy with this neat, clean distinction between the intolerance of the religious and the cheerful tolerance of secular Enlightenment thinkers was this question: From whence did Enlightenment philosophers derive their concepts of tolerance?  Joseph Loconte is the latest scholar to offer a clear answer to that question in God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West (2014). 

Back to the Future in Tipton, Michigan: Rural Churches' Return to Evangelical Roots

It had been over 50 years since I last entered the doors of Tipton Community Church, a rural Michigan congregation whose building testifies to the influence of its New England Congregationalist roots.  Around the time I graduated from elementary to junior high school in 1963, our family had drifted away.  The pressures of part-time farming, on top of full-time factory work, were too much for my father.  The fact that the church hired a theologically liberal Congregational pastor was incidental to our departure.

Taming Christian Dualism: The Vision of Worldview Matters

I first met Christian Overman in 1999 at a Colorado Springs conference organized by Chuck Colson. (I also ran into an old college friend whom I hadn't seen for 28 years since we had studied the Bible together in our dorm on the University of Michigan's North Campus. He has since gone on to be become the editor of Touchstone magazine, a wonderful publication. That's another story.) Anyway, meeting Christian, hale, hearty, and enthusiastic, was like meeting another old friend, except that we had never met before.  We have since become very good friends, and I want you to become his friend as well.  The work he does with Worldview Matters is terribly valuable. His guest blog introduces his work that "brings meaning to life."

Kisongo Mbeleulu: Redemptive Change Agent for Eastern Congo

Our good friends at William Carey International University, founded by the late Dr. Ralph Winter, recently carried an article about the work of Wilberforce Academy on their website.  One of our earliest and oldest mentees, Kisongo Mbeleulu of Congo, is highlighted, in particular because he has recently graduated with his Masters degree from WCIU.

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 - 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