Greenfield’s theology; or, Does everything happen for a reason?

Decent people agree that deadly disasters like the tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma are tragic.  We all feel to some degree that this is not the way things should be.  Regrettably, columnist Jeff Greenfield compounds the tragedy by propagating unsound, incoherent reflections about the realities of life.

His latest column begins by citing a common, often offensive, response to tragedy: “This is all part of God’s plan.”  Greenfield contrasts this with an answer he prefers instead.  Once, he asked a priest whether John F Kennedy Jr.’s tragic, early death was part of God’s plan.  The priest responded candidly, “Oh, no . . . this sucks.”

Hold on a second. Why think these two views are at odds?

Greenfield complains about another attribution to divine will.  You might hear this upon the death of a child: “God must have wanted another little angel.”  The columnist confesses that he would not “sign up” for a God who works like that. I’m not particularly fond of such angel-acquisition schemes either. Not because it’s distasteful to me, but because it’s not true!

The columnist treats the appeal to divine purpose merely as a means of consolation.  He claims that most serious theologians have moved on from the “simplistic” notion that “everything happens for a reason.”  This is just not the case.  With the minor exception of Open Theism, Christian theology still describes a sovereign God, who either causes or permits everything to happen for a reason.  Whether a specific reason is knowable is another question.  But core Christian doctrine does not change on the charge of simplicity or any other whim.

The only explanations Greenfield accepts are naturalistic or psychological: either the random physics driving thunderstorms and plate tectonics, or personal phenomena like greed, anger, and mental illness.  This mixing of natural and personal causes ought to gives us pause.

Are emotions like greed and anger really knowable causes, in the same way as weather patterns or plate tectonics?  On the deterministic worldview of materialism–precisely where the writer is coolly headed with his criteria for explaining tornadoes and earthquakes–there is no causation outside of the laws of physics.  Greed and anger aren’t real.  Mental illness is merely an unconventional arrangement of molecules.  There is even a subset of philosophy of mind that operates on these metaphysical assumptions.  It’s called eliminative materialism.  Some will go to great lengths to avoid the idea that there might be ultimate purpose in everything.

No one slighted by the harshness of reality–nor anyone, for that matter–can have it both ways.  Ultimately, either chance or design is king.  Ravi Zacharias has often quoted a poem by Steve Turner to great effect:

If chance be the Father of all flesh,
Disaster is his rainbow in the sky,
And when you hear
State of Emergency!
Sniper Kills Ten!
Troops on Rampage!
Whites go Looting!
Bomb Blasts School!
It is but the sound of man worshiping his maker.

There are two candidates in the running to ultimately explain reality: chance or design.  Greenfield approaches the question based on who he would sign up for.  But how is ultimate meaninglessness in any way more palatable than a perfectly purposed cosmos?


Market reform: nothing too sacred

Recent days have seen major policy movements with respect to higher education and health care, two segments of the economy sorely in need of reform.  You probably did not miss last week’s NFIB v. Sebelius decision, better known as the Obamacare ruling.  Its headlines eclipsed the expected and relatively uncontroversial extension of Stafford student loan interest rates.

Unfortunately neither of these recent actions will do much to mitigate the twin crises in higher education and health care.  A reverential aura surrounding these fields blocks what could really help: serious market-based reforms.  While much of the problem is budgetary in nature, respective stakeholders are wary of commoditizing the near-sacred work they do.

Market advocates must deal with some serious objections: How can a price be put on teaching students how to think?  Is it moral to triage life-saving services on ability to pay?  Core values like critical thinking, equality, and compassion are at stake.  To address these challenges, let’s review what it is that makes the free market so great.

The Reality of Scarcity

First, markets operate on the assumption of scarcity, the idea that resources are finite.  This should be fairly uncontroversial, but there’s a powerful tendency in human nature to discount this reality.  Think of how the Federal government is so unpopular on the Right.  This is because it has tools at its disposal to deny fiscal truth.  It can print money or engage in deficit spending–things that state governments cannot do.  Perhaps nothing is more important to determining societal norms than fidelity to reality.  This must include a practical acknowledgement of scarcity.

Delivering Accountability

Second, markets are the best means of achieving accountability.  A market consists of rational agents entering into voluntary transactions under a fixed set of rules.  When it is relatively free of interventions, both consumers and suppliers naturally look to maximize their own self-interest.

It’s a necessary aside to admit that such an idea makes many uneasy.  We recall the simple and sure moral learned in childhood: don’t be selfish, don’t be greedy.  People presume illegality when they think of the market imperative to maximize utility or profit. Crooks like Bernie Madoff and Gordon Gekko commonly come to mind.  But the concern is utterly irrelevant.  Any society worth it’s salt is founded on the effective rule of law.  The free market assumes this, and any alternative system must deal with the same consideration.

Free markets breed accountability because rational actors must seek the most bang for their buck.  But say that a consumer comes to anticipate occasional interventions, like a benefactor dropping a huge cash subsidy in his lap.  He will rationally adjust his expectations, no longer accountable to material reality, but to the sociopolitical reality he reads from a market distortion.

Prices communicate truth, reveal what we value

This takes us to the third virtue of markets, which is the informational role of price.  There are countless examples of governments attempting to control prices in the modern era, just about all of them disastrous.  This is because prices, like language, transmit information about reality.  They inform us whether a good or service is relatively abundant or scarce, easy to produce or exacted only with great effort.  To adjust a price away from its market value is either to lie or to posit that some competing value trumps truth.  Typically, this is something like charity, equality, or decency.  Yes these are worthy ideals, but it’s immoral to superimpose a brute desire for better social conditions over an accurate grasp of economic reality.

Even our most cherished ideals come at a price.  That’s why we call them “values.”  Market prices, subsidies, and taxes all contribute to a picture, a mirror if you will, by which societies can see what they really value.  Diamonds are pricey because of the social significance we assign them.  We see the Federal government values green energy–correctly or not–because of the subsides it gives in its name.  From national security to food stamps to Baby Einstein videos, we can grasp what a society values by how much is produced, consumed, paid, subsidized and taxed toward the respective ends.

Shielded from reality

Medicine and education are very high callings, their integrity guarded at times with something approaching religious zeal.  Last winter, in inveighing against the presence of U.S. Bank, a California Aggie editorial declared the campus a “sacred place” in need of protection from bank profiteering.  By contrast, a recent Wall Street Journal editorial is right to criticize the circled wagons of higher education as a “Green zone” where reality does not apply.

The academic pursuit of truth, and the transmission of the discipline to the next generation, are indispensable to society.  Yet, inasmuch as the academy serves society–and not vice versa–all its constituent enterprises must submit themselves to fiscal accountability.  The self-selecting institution of tenure especially needs to justify to the outside world, in some formal way, its oft-wildly ranging research pursuits.  Let’s allow the market to deliver accountability.

The healthcare industry also needs this help.  Policy has been tied up for so long in questions of access and affordability that the field is virtually disconnected from the salubrious effects of the market.  Things will only improve when consumers, loosed from subsidies, internalize the value of the myriad services they pursue.  I’ve been a fan of high-deductible insurance plans.  And the earthshaking decoupling of insurance from employment benefits is essential.  To have a multitude of companies actually competing for customers will do more to eliminate waste and drive down prices than the amalgam of regulatory magical thinking known as the “Affordable” Care Act ever could.

At what cost?
Is the price of submitting the highly-esteemed callings of medicine and education to market forces too steep?  We can learn a lesson from Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias.  As he writes in Can Man Live Without God, even faith itself is about making a choice and paying a cost:

Oscar Wilde once said that we do not appreciate sunsets because we do not have to pay for them.  Oscar Wilde was wrong.  We can “pay” for sunsets by living in accordance with the purpose of our Creator and of His grand design.

No ideal is too sacred to be untouched by the fact that life is about measuring costs and making choices.  There is nothing profane and everything noble about squaring our actions and aligning our values with reality.  Markets are the best way we can collectively make choices based on knowledge of value, and as such ought to be embraced.

Deferential Discourse

Recently I was fortunate enough to see a stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. I really appreciate the points that Lewis conveys in his original work, and while the play was well-produced and had its shining actors, I had some problems with the writing of the adaptation itself. In translating the letters to a more concrete narrative, Lewis’ emphasis on attitudes and distinctions is lost. For example, the patient’s early dealings with haughty, progressive friends in the book are supplanted by the devils’ conspicuous trumpeting of social class, which the play ultimately does nothing constructive with. However, it does insult liberals by making the patient’s drunken louse friend a socialist.  In introducing the parish pastor, the play brandishes its disdain for the overreach of cultural relativism with a reference to church karate classes taught by a Japanese Muslim. But since these introductory remarks show no connection to the characters they describe, they come off as cheap hits on unfavored practices. If we recall the patient’s haughty pacifist friends or the morally picky parish pastor of the book, Lewis does better by withholding direct judgment on specific issues and individuals. Whether examining social activism or church sermons, the book’s Screwtape turns our attention toward our attitudes of approach rather than the specific practices or practitioners before us.

This deference given toward individuals and institutions with which there is disagreement is something I see a lot with British writers, more so in the past than today. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis criticizes the ideas put forward in a science textbook, but chooses to leave the work unnamed in order to stem the sensational urges that come from connecting individuals to their ideas. So those whose idea he criticizes are called in his text “Gaius and Ticius.” In old works of fiction, its not uncommon to see authors go out of their way to avoid impugning real people or places by calling them “Mr. X” or  “M. S____.”  Today I see the survival of this sense of deference in people like apologist Ravi Zacharias, well-connected with Oxford and Cambridge, and British-born journalist Peter Hitchens. In his past talks, Zacharias has often left broad elements ambiguous for the sake of his audience’s attention, saying only that such an anecdote occurred in some city on the West Coast, or that a cutting conversation happened with a professor of some unnamed Eastern religion (really, how many can we choose from?). Likewise, in a recent interview promoting his latest book The Rage Against God, Peter Hitchens consistently avoids “personal” criticisms of his famously strident atheist brother Christopher. If you press him too hard on his conjectures of their personal relationship, his deference will block you and return the conversation again to the ideas, not to the people who espouse them. Peter, who claims that he is a pariah to his countrymen because of his beliefs, points to the demise of deferential discourse in his earlier book, The Abolition of Britain.

This old-style deference is remarkably rare in a sensate age where more points are conveyed with blunt images and sound bites rather than well-reasoned arguments. Yet I’m attracted to the power of shorthand that specific people and places convey. If we look at the controversies of today, so much emotion and meaning can be unpacked if you just drop some names: merely mentioning Sarah Palin or Jerry Falwell will set off a certain crowd, while mentioning Chairman Mao or Che Guevara will set off another. The deference writers do have the advantage of taking the high road and keeping their discourse focused, but I do believe there are times and places where it makes sense to be more direct. However, if someone is going to drop names, they ought to be more than just smears by association. Whether constructing a talk or writing a work of fiction, we will benefit just by being a little more careful about the specific mentions we make.

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