An Exchange on Happiness, Freedom, and Spiritual Formation

 
 

How should we understand hierarchies, markets, freedom, happiness, anthropology, and spiritual formation? Three Christian thinkers respond to each other.

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Francis X. Maier and Timothy Reichert write:

In yesterday’s essay, Dylan Pahman regrettably misrepresents both the intent and content of our June/July 2018 First Things piece, “Origami of the Soul.” We encourage anyone interested to simply read our original article, reflect on it, and then compare it with Pahman’s sweeping critique.

It’s worthwhile to review our argument in brief. First, there are two modes by which human activity is coordinated—markets through prices and hierarchies through conscious direction. Second, formation of the person is long and arduous, imprinting information on the soul and requiring what MacIntyre called a “narrative view of human existence.” Third, prices do not carry enough information to form persons and do not conform to a single narrative view. Fourth, the work of formation—that is, the development of virtue—happens in hierarchies. Fifth, economic growth reallocates resources from hierarchies to markets. Finally, this resource reallocation is at the heart of the process of “enmassment,” and it leads naturally to the growth of the state.

None of the elements in this argument is controversial, in our view. What is novel, perhaps, is our having put them together into a coherent story that explains the role of markets in the political, cultural, and spiritual history of the West (and elsewhere). The process of marketization is relatively new to our species, and it is clearly true that economic growth has correlated with the erosion of traditional and essential social forms like the family. Every major market economy demonstrates this trend to some degree. What we have supplied is a causal mechanism by which this occurs.

As to whether the state and market are in symbiosis, which may be one of the things that most bothers Pahman, consider the two largest market economies in the world. While their political realities and aspirations are vastly different, neither the United States nor China has, in practice, a “limited” government. This is instructive. Indeed, advanced market economies (accelerated by modern technology) require an extensive administrative state, which, as Mancur Olson points out, also requires and symbiotically augments those markets.

Nowhere in our text do we “call upon the Church to overstep the scope of [her] authority and become consumed with temporal affairs.” But the Church does have an obligation to engage the world with the truth of the Gospel, and that includes a vigorous moral critique of social and economic realities. Pahman’s tour of certain aspects of Christian spirituality (celibacy, the Templars, monks, etc.) is interesting, but it is not relevant to our central arguments. We obviously do believe that the market’s rapid expansion tends to commodify all aspects of life and eat away at the non-market social sphere. We also believe that despite the many historical flaws and failures of her leaders, the Church—at least in the Western tradition—has the experience and social doctrine tools needed to effectively critique the market-augmenting state, not by grabbing institutional power but by educating and animating her people.

We do not assume that “shaping souls is only the product of external forces,” that the definition of happiness is confined to complementarity among persons, or that “markets are somehow independent of all other institutions of society.” As for our view of the soul and its formation, while we use novel language to describe the process of spiritual growth, it is anything but “bizarre.” We invite Mr. Pahman to reflect on thinkers from John of the Cross to Thomas Merton and John Paul II, all of whom argued that the person—the soul—finds itself in, and perhaps more importantly culminates in, relationship.

No one disputes that market economies have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. This is clearly a good thing—but that does not absolve us from understanding, and if need be resisting, the market’s less obvious consequences. We respect the Acton Institute and understand the need for capitalist apologetics, but a man being swept downstream by the current of a river (or a market) needs to acknowledge that a current exists before he can start to swim against it.

Francis X. Maier writes from Philadelphia. Timothy Reichert is an economist living in Denver.

Dylan Pahman writes:

I’m grateful to Reichert and Maier for their response to my essay, though I think it a bit much to call it an “Exchange.” They begin by encouraging readers to “simply read our original article, reflect on it, and then compare it with [my] sweeping critique.”

What readers will find is that far from “capitalist apologetics,” I actually address all of the points they list in their summary of their original argument, focusing heavily on their anthropology and theology of spiritual formation, saying very little about economics at all. Their original article grounded their economic critique on their understanding of the human person and human happiness. Thus, it is precisely what I focused on as well.

In particular, they summarize their position as follows:

First, there are two modes by which human activity is coordinated—markets through prices and hierarchies through conscious direction. Second, formation of the person is long and arduous, imprinting information on the soul and requiring what MacIntyre called a “narrative view of human existence.” Third, prices do not carry enough information to form persons and do not conform to a single narrative view. Fourth, the work of formation—that is, the development of virtue—happens in hierarchies. Fifth, economic growth reallocates resources from hierarchies to markets. Finally, this resource reallocation is at the heart of the process of “enmassment,” and it leads naturally to the growth of the state.

I addressed the first point by noting several ways in which hierarchies participate and depend upon markets.

I addressed the second by countering their largely unsubstantiated narrative with one drawn from Christian Scripture and the spiritual tradition. That they believe this is “not relevant to our central arguments” is unfortunate, but it at least confirms that I was right in critiquing their account for being disappointingly shallow.

The third point, I will admit, I did not directly address. This, however, is because I don’t think the market alone is a sufficient arena for spiritual formation—nor have I ever encountered anyone who does—as should have been apparent from my heavy focus on theological anthropology and spiritual formation, rather than on the workings of markets.

Fourth, their claim that “the work of formation . . . happens in hierarchies” was directly addressed by noting all of the Christian monks throughout history who fled traditional hierarchies, the family and Church authority in particular, for the sake of their own spiritual formation. Because this approach worked so well for them, the Church today still venerates them as saints, holding them up as models for imitation. And this is precisely why I criticized them for claiming that spiritual formation is a matter of external forces, rather than the grace of God and ascetic effort. I presume they do indeed value those things, but unfortunately they have yet to even acknowledge as much, nor reflect on how their centrality to spiritual formation and human happiness might contradict their narrative.

I addressed their fifth point by arguing that they operated under a faulty, zero-sum mentality, citing the counterexample of the expansion of global markets alongside the growth of monasticism inter alia. Their last point was addressed by the same.

Reichert and Maier spend no space actually responding to my critique, which was explicitly and purposely sourced from the Christian spiritual tradition, and instead recommend that I go read more John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, or Pope John Paul II, citing none of their work. This is too bad, because at the heart of my argument was an alternative view of human happiness, grounded not in social relations but in God himself. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Veritatis Splendor, “Jesus brings the question about morally good action back to its religious foundations, to the acknowledgment of God, who alone is goodness, fullness of life, the final end of human activity, and perfect happiness.”

In Christ, our social relations—even market exchanges—can be elevated to means of God’s sanctifying grace. In Christ, we can find true happiness in our families, churches, nations, and economies. In Christ, we may also—like St. Antony in his mountain cell or St. Boethius alone in jail awaiting execution—find true happiness even without them. But we will not be able to see where any of these spheres fail us today apart from this foundation, the most fundamental of first things.

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also a fellow of the Sophia Institute: International Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture. Follow him on Twitter @DylanPahman.

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