Limits to Progress. Monday Monologues, February 5, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I will offer a G328 Prayer and talk about Limits to Progress.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Limits to Progress. Monday Monologues, February 5, 2019 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Limits to Progress

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The idea of progress arose out of the technological euphoria of the modern era and entered theology in the nineteenth century with the euphoria over the abolition of black slave trading and ownership. The idea that progress is an inevitable and irreversible force remains, however, economically and culturally tenuous. 

While the specific reasons for economic and cultural backsliding will always be unique, the general reason to be suspicious of economic and cultural progress is that progress is a cultural artifact that changes with circumstances.

If cultural progress an historical anomaly, especially in view of the economic stagnation that many Americans face, what conditions support it?

Economic Progress

Standards of living that were rising with the increasing rationalization of different industries and regions have come to an end with the construction of the interstate highway system, national media, national banking, and the internet.  In this context, rationalization means the opening up of local markets to competition from outside firms and the destruction of the local cultures through universal education consisting of both new knowledge and indoctrination.

If science can tame the natural world and put it to work in the service of humanity, then standards of living should rise. However, diminishing returns to new investment will be reached at some point as the cost of implementing new ideas rises. From that point forward, additional growth can only come from demographic growth and technological innovation. Falling fertility rates and poor choices with respect to education and public expenditures suggests that we are not focused on making public policy choices consistent with growth.

In an environment of slower growth, social groups will compete increasingly for limited resources and opportunities—this can get nasty, as we have seen. Outside of deliberate policies to focus economic resources on the most productive investments and to maintain equal opportunities for all groups, standards of living will decline for all but favored groups able to maintain and expand their relative position. This competition makes it increasingly unlikely that everyone will share in economic progress.

Cultural Progress

The abolition of black slavery in the nineteenth century is a source of pride for many people. In my case, I am named for my great, great grandfather, Stephen DeKock, who as a young man volunteered to fight in the American Civil War. Success in abolishing slavery motivated latter efforts to expand voting rights to women and minorities, to prohibit alcohol consumption, and to extend rights more recently to homosexuals. 

A byproduct of the Civil War seldom mentioned in this context was the development of large corporate firms that supplied Northern troops and major advances in weapons of mass destruction—iron clad ships, submarines, the gatling gun, and repeating rifles. Modern warfare (war on civilians) is said to have begun with Sherman’s march to the sea in Georgia that helped starve the Confederacy into submission. These innovations helped pave the way for the United States to become a super power (the American empire) over the decades that followed and, as a consequence, fueled the economic expansion that led to the economic and social progress than we enjoy as Americans.

The abolition of black slavery is unlikely to be reversed, but slavery itself has not so much gone away as been re-defined. Many former slaves in the rural South in American became share croppers who were technically free, but caught in debt to their former masters. During much of the twentieth century, American men were involuntarily drafted in the military and forced to fight in foreign wars from the First and Second World Wars to the wars in Korea and Vietnam. For women caught up in gangs, drugs, and prostitution, a different kind of slavery exists that never really went away.

While nasty institutions like slavery, debt-enslavement, and prostitution will probably continue to exist in the shadows of society, major reversals in the number of slaves occurred during the Second World War. Nazi Germany rounded up millions of Jews, political dissidents, and undesired groups and placed them in concentration camps where many were worked to death. Japan had similar policies and the U.S. had its own internment camps. Today such camps continue in communist countries, like North Korea.

The point of raising these examples is, not to throw salt in old wounds, but to highlight the tenuous nature historically of human rights and notions like progress. If progress is a cultural artifact and can be reversed by changing circumstances, it is not inevitable or irreversible. The key question is what foundation supports these rights and progress itself?

Cultural Reversal

For those who believe in progress, the biblical support is slim because of original sin and our fallen nature both individually and collectively. The most apt metaphor for progress is found in the Book of Genesis with the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), but other metaphors can be found. 

Although we are created in the image of God, original sin polluted both our hearts and minds instilling in us a rebellious spirit. Cain, best known for murdering his brother Abel, started the first city mentioned in the Bible (Gen 4:8, 17). Human sin, after Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, grew to the point that God destroyed most of humanity with a flood (Gen 5:5). However, starting out fresh with a new family, Noah’s, proved not to improve the faithfulness of humanity after the original sin of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:6). Even Jacob’s sons, the fathers of the Nation of Israel, sinned in selling their brother, Joseph, as a slave to the Egyptians (Gen 37:28). 

What should we conclude from the witness of Genesis? The idea of adding fallen human beings together in forming a community will somehow result in progress towards righteousness is not to be expected. The biblical expectation cited earlier is the Deuteronomic cycle: doing evil, angering YHWH enough to produce historical subjugation, crying to the Lord in need, and raising up a deliverer (Deut 30; Brueggemann 2016, 59). This is not an endorsement of cultural progress, but rather of divine intervention in spite of the proclivity of human beings to sin.

From my earlier model of culture, reversal of progress is expected when any culture comes under stress. The dying culture then takes on more attributes of a traditional culture. These reversals normally occur on the outbreak of war or during economic crises. However, large corporations that now dominate markets throughout the world frequently have traditional cultures that profoundly influence their employees from morning to night. Democratic rights such as free speech are routinely denied corporate employees and even legislatively mandated employee rights, such as unionization rights and whistler-blower protections, are dead-letter for employees unable to afford legal counsel. Consequently, the inevitable, irreversible cultural progress is not expected and the progress that we have witnessed should be seen as a gift from God, not a natural right.

Christian Foundations

The only glimmer of hope cited in the Bible is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that led to the giving of the Holy Spirit and the founding of the church (Act 2:1-4). Yet, outside of faith even the church is a fallen institution as we read in the first three chapters of Revelation.

The warning in Revelation of special concern to the postmodern church is the letter to the church at Laodicea. John writes:

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Rev 3:15-17)

We could imagine the postmodern church sharing in tribulations similar to those articulated in Deuteronomic cycle that applied earlier to the Nation of Israel. More generally, Revelation talks about a great tribulation (Rev 7:14) that will occur before the second coming of Christ. This tribulation has all the markings of a reversal of cultural progress and should serve as a reminder that our only hope is in Christ.

Limits To Progress

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Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

Huston Smith. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York: Harper Collins.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Often the toughest part of any controversy is to ask the right question. Asking good questions requires deep knowledge of the subject, proper timing, and good intuition. In the scientific method,[1]the most challenging step is the first one where a felt need is converted into an hypothesis. Everyone can complain about needs, but it takes knowledge, timing, and intuition to form a working hypothesis.

Introduction

In Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes:

“In different ways, the East and the West are go

ing through a single common crisis whose cause is the spiritual condition of the modern world. That condition is characterized by loss—the loss of religious certainties and of transcendence with its larger horizons…The world lost its human dimension…” (1)

We are in a spiritual crisis characterized by a lost sense of God’s transcendence. The culprit? Smith writes:

“modern Westerners who, forsaking clear thinking have allowed ourselves to become so obsessed with life’s material underpinnings that we have written science a blank check…This is cause of our spiritual crisis.”(4)

While Western civilization could have accepted the benefits of scientific inquiry, but retained its traditions; it did not. Instead, it accepted materialism and shunned metaphysics that strives to explain everything not explainable through empirical observation and testing.

Three Philosophical Periods

Smith (11-22) outlines three philosophical periods—traditional, modern, and postmodern—focused primarily on their metaphysical assumptions and the principal problems that they addressed. The traditional period focused on the religious problem—how do we related to the cosmos? The modern period focused on problem of nature—providing food and shelter. The postmodern period has focused on the social problem—how we get along with one another. 

Smith chief issue with the modern and postmodern periods is that they are metaphysically handicapped. Focusing only on looking down, they have left us unable to find meaning in life and deprived the living of their humanity. Here we discover Smith’s reason for writing:

“I am convinced that whatever transpires in other domains of life—politics, living standards, environmental conditions, interpersonal relationships, the arts—we will be better off if we extricate ourselves from the world view we have unwittingly slipped into and replace it with a more generous and accurate one. That, and that only, is the concern of this book.”(24)

Smith is, of course, commending a traditional worldview with God at the center of our universe. (21-22).

Background and Organization 

Huston Cummings Smith (1919 – 2016)was born in China in a missionary family. He attended Central Methodist University and the University of Chicago. He taught religious studies at a number of schools, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Smith writes in sixteen chapters in two parts:

PART ONE: MODERNITY’s TUNNEL

  1. Who’s Right about Reality: Traditionalists, Modernists, or the Postmoderns?
  2. The Great Outdoors and the Tunnel within It
  3. The Tunnel as Such
  4. The Tunnel’s Floor: Scientism
  5. The Tunnel’s Left Wall: Higher Education
  6. The Tunnel’s Roof: The Media
  7. The Tunnel’s Right Wall: The Law

PART TWO: THE LIGHT AT THE TUNNEL’S END

  • Light
  • Is Light Increasing: Two Scenarios
  • Discerning the Signs of the Times
  • Three Sciences and the Road Ahead
  • Terms for the Détente
  • This Ambiguous World
  • The Big Picture
  • Spiritual Personality Types
  • Spirit

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments, preface, and introduction and followed by an epilogue and Indices.

The tunnel is an analogy to Plato’s cave where prisoners are chained to a wall so that the light at the end of the tunnel casts shadows in front of them that they mistake for reality. After a prisoner escapes, learns that reality does not consist of the shadows as believed and returns to inform his fellow prisoners, they refuse to believe him and murder him, a reference to Socrates.

Assessment

Huston Smith’s Why Religions Matteris a captivating book. Smith is a master story teller with an encyclopedic grasp of world religions, philosophy, and potpourri. My first reading influenced my thinking profoundly; my second reading after seminary proved equally interesting.

In part one of this review I have outlined Smith arguments and the structure of the book. In part two, I will look at his arguments in more detail.



[1]The scientific method consists of a number of steps in problem solving: felt need, hypothesis, data gathering, analysis, decision, implementation responsibility bearing.

Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

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Pathological Culture, Monday Monologues, January 21, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I will offer a family prayer and talk about Pathological Culture.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below.

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Pathological Culture, Monday Monologues, January 21, 2019 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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The Pathological Culture

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

At this point, it is helpful to return to a question posed earlier in our discussion of proper mental function in view of culture. What if a culture evolved that, far from supporting and sustaining proper function, made proper function more costly and unlikely? Would we see more dysfunction, anxiety, and suicide as people found it harder to thrive and survive?

Proper Mental Function and Rational Culture

If as Plantinga (2000, xi, 153-154) argued proper mental function is a requirement for warranted faith, then it is also required to meet the demands of rationality, which drives our earlier understanding of culture as a deviation from perfect rationality. Much like a traditional, modern, and postmodern cultures are deviations from perfect rationality, one could argue that secular culture is a deviation from perfect Christianity.

The Apostle Paul appears to be focused on this line of thinking when he writes about God’s peace:

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…” (Phil 4:8)

We can infer from Paul’s bracketing in verses 7 and 7 of this verse with God’s peace that when we take Christ as our role model we become more truthful, honorable, pure, lovely, and commendable. I could see Plantinga adding more rational to Paul’s list.

A Breakdown in Authority

If God is no longer a transcendent reality for most people, then obviously leaders in society no longer feel accountable for their actions outside of a political context and the organizing context for political action never extends beyond law. If postmodern society is also suspicious of all formers of authority (Blamires 2005, 132-133),  then our models of proper mental function and perfect rationality start to show wear and tear.

One explanation for this wear and tear is that the vesting of authority in parents, teachers, preachers, police, and government officials offers coherence and consistency to culture that is mostly dispersed in postmodern culture. Deconstructionism, a postmodern philosophy that is suspicious of all authority figures, disenfranchises traditional and modern leaders, via lawsuits and frivolous attacks, reducing the incentive to invest in leadership roles that previously gave stability to the culture.

Another explanation is that postmodernism no longer share Christian presuppositions that gave a foundation to objective truth during the modern era. Most moderns grew up in at least a nominally Christian environment, much like Nietzsche who was the son of a Lutheran pastor. Even if they rejected Christian faith, they knew its foundations. By contrast, many postmoderns are like sons of Nietzsche who have little or no experience with Christian beliefs and, because of the politics of suspicion, are not open to learning about it.

Thus, both practical and theoretical reasons can be cited for why postmodernism is not provide a stable foundation for unified national culture. Instead, it tends to decay into the formation of subcultures (tribes) that pursue their own interests at the expense of the larger society.

Formation in the Home

Consider the problem of raising children. Research by Stinnett and Beam (1999, 10) reports six characteristics of strong families:

  1. Commitment—these families promote each other’s welfare and happiness and value unity.
  2. Appreciation and Affection—strong families care about each other.
  3. Positive Communication—strong families communicate well and spend a lot of time doing it together.
  4. Time Together—Strong families spend a lot of quality time together.
  5. Spiritual Well-being—whether or not they attend religious services, strong families have a sense of a greater good or power in life.
  6. Ability to Cope with Stress and Crisis—strong families see crises as a growth opportunity.

What happens when both spouses work, neither feels like they are in charge, and the family finds itself under economic and time pressure? The strong family model outlined here breaks down. Assuming a strong family starting out, stress shows up potentially in all six characteristics outlined as time and economic pressure are increased.

A key point in unifying these different models of behavior as it pertains to raising children is that adults are present and fully attentive to the children. When television becomes the primary baby-sitter and the adults are buzzing to and from work and activities for the children, the children are not formed rationally or in the image of Christ. It is not unusual in my home town to observe children roaming in packs through the neighborhoods and to hear complaints from libraries, neighborhood pools, and church vacation-Bible school leaders that children are simply abandoned for long periods of time by their parents during the summer. 

The model of strong families clearly is being tested severely in our society.

Signs of Wear and Tear

News reports and studies showing a stagnating standard of living, drug use, declining fertility rates, lower life expectancy levels, and record levels of suicide all point to a culture under stress.⁠1 This stress leads to greater deviations from rationality because highly rational decisions require time and energy that are no longer available. In this environment we expect cultural change to occur more rapidly and, because of stress, we expect traditional subcultures to become more pronounced, as argued earlier. 

Broken Glass Theory

While the exact time-path and particular difficulties cannot be exactly forecasted, the general trends are obvious and dysfunction in one area of society increases the likelihood of contagion elsewhere. In his book, Serious Times, James Emory White (2004, 158) highlighted of the broken glass theory of criminologists James O. Wilson and George Kelling (1982). The idea is that crime is contagious. It starts with a broken window and spreads to an entire community. 

Cleaning up trash, graffiti, and broken windows and minor violations of law through increased emphasis on foot patrols by police, New York City substantially reduced crime in the 1980s. For those of us who grew up scared to walk the streets of New York, this reduction in crime was a big deal. Pushback against this program came later as not everyone was happy about the increased police presence in the neighborhoods.

The broken glass theory has a familiar ring: “I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.” (Lev 11:45). If attending to the appearance of neighborhoods in New York helped reduce crime, how much more couldn’t focusing on our own sin and weakness and forgiveness in Christ improve the quality of life in our families, churches, and communities?

References

Bernstein, Lenny. 2018. “U.S. life expectancy declines again, a dismal trend not seen since World War I.” Washington Post. November 29. 

Blamires, Harry. 2005. The Christian Mind: Hoe Should a Christian Think? (Orig Pub 1963) Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.

Plantinga, Alvin. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stinnett, Nick and Nancy  Stinnett,  Joe Beam, and Alice Beam (Stinnett and Beam). 1999.  Fantastic Families:  6 Proven Steps to Building a Strong Family.  New York:  Howard Books.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High.” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

White, James Emery. 2004. Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Wilson, James Q. and George L. Kelling. 1982. “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” Atlantic Monthly. March.

Footnotes

1 (Tavernise 2016); Bernstein 2018).

A Pathological Culture

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Blamires: Lost Art of Christian Thinking

Harry Blamires. 2005. The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Orig Pub 1963) Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Loneliness is not having anyone who speaks your language. Christian intellectuals (13-14) are probably lonelier than garden variety intellectuals because in addition to being considered eccentric, they may be accused of having a six-foot invisible rabbit for a friend.[1] What do you do when you see the world in technicolor and those around you see only black and white?

Introduction

In his book, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? Harry Blamires writes:

To this Christianly is to accept all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God… There is nothing in our experience, however trivial, worldly, or even evil, which cannot be thought about Christianly…The purpose of this book is not to judge [people], whatever their religious position, but to clarify a problem by defining states of mind.” (44-45, 144)

In my own writing, I describe this idea by saying that God is my denominator, the measure by which all things are measured. My own Christian frame of reference has been a source of complaint within my family so I have learned to translate my own thoughts into secular concepts. Blamires (70) observes:

“…the modern Christian, a schizophrenic type who hops in and out of his Christian mentality as the topic of conversation changes from the Bible to the day’s newspaper, or the field of action changes from Christian stewardship to commercial advertising, or the environment changes from the vestry to the office.”

The hardest translation in my experience is explaining why gave up a six-figure income working as an economist to go to seminary—instead of referring to my call from God I need to find some excuse like “I wanted to give back”or “I wanted to have more fixable work hours”or some other such silliness. Sadly, my sacrifice in attending seminary has often marked me as a kind of village idiot even with my ordination committee.

Background and Organization

Harry Blamires (1916−2017) graduated from Oxford University, where his tutor was C. S. Lewis, and he was an Anglican theologian, literary critic, and novelist.[2]He writes in eight chapters divided into two parts:

PART ONE: The Lack of a Christian Mind

  1. The Surrender to Secularism
  2. Thinking Christianly and Thinking Secularly

PART TWO: The Marks of the Christian Mind

  1. Its Supernatural Orientation
  2. Its Awareness of Evil
  3. Its Conception of Truth
  4. Its Acceptance of Authority
  5. Its Concern for the Person
  6. Its Sacramental Cast (v)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by a postscript.

Let me say a few words about each part.

The Lack of a Christian Mind

Blamires (3,15) believes that modern Christians have conceded the mind to secular thinking in what could be described as the triumph of romanticism. He writes:

“Christianity is emasculated of its intellectual relevance. It remains a vehicle of spirituality and morel guidance at the individual level perhaps; at the communal level it is little more than an expression of sentimentalized togetherness. The mental secularization of Christians means that nowadays (1963) we meet only as worshipping beings and as moral beings, not as thinking beings.” (16)

Writing as he does in the early 1963s, Blamires is commenting primarily on a modern problem of intellectual irrelevance because Billy Graham was still drawing crowds and hosting television interviews well into the 1970s. Still, one wonders whether the Christian intellectual suffers any worse than intellectuals more generally (19) as modernism started to give up the ghost already in the 1950s with severe criticism of the scientific method that started in the immediate aftermath of the World War II.

Blamires’ illustration of the Anglican church’s problem in selecting bishops highlights the problem that even within the church secular values dominated thinking. Unlike the Orthodox church that promotes bishops only from within the ranks of its monks, Anglican bishops are expected to be good administrators—thoroughly worldly individuals (54-59). It is hard to argue with his logic here as church administrators are often the most talented, but also the most cynical and manipulative of people. Blamires concludes:

“Since we refuse to think Christianly even about the office of bishop, it is scarcely surprising that we lose the habit of thinking Christianly about secular matters.” (59)

Blamires is even careful to distinguish Christian thinking from scholarly thinking (51).

The Marks of the Christian Mind

In this second part Blamires inventories areas where the Christian mind differs most dramatically from secular thinking, starting with metaphysics—the physical world is not all there is. 

Supernatural

Because God created heaven and earth, he must stand apart from them. He is eternal; we are not. It sounds quaint to talk about the supernatural only because so many people cannot think beyond the natural world (67).

Good and Evil

If God is good, then the antithesis of good is evil, another topic that moderns typically avoid. Denying evil or discounting it, however, gives it space to grow. Blamires goes on to show how it is considered sophisticated to discount sin in its portrayal in the media (96). He notes that “flowers grow best in manured soil” (97), as we have seen in recent years. He writes:

“Immoral literature is literature which recommends immoral behavior. If a play or a novel wins sympathy for adulterers, sodomites, dope addicts, or nymphomaniacs in the sense of making the audience or the reader feel that such people are right to indulge their vices and aberrations, then it is immoral.” (98-99)

His comments appear dated today as the film industry insists on checking all the boxes above in practically every film.

Truth

The idea of objective truth is grounded in faith in God (108). Measured against the eternal judgment of God, other truths lack appeal or pertinence. Blamires observes: “You cannot construct truth at all; you can only discover it.” (112) His anchoring in the modern era and rationality is clearly evident when he writes:

“Two opinions are rarely better than one. If A thinks rationally on a given matter and B thinks irrationally on the same matter, then neither A nor the world in general will benefit from having A’s view adulterated with B’s.” (113)

In this regard, Blamires seems to equate rationality with Christian thought.

Authority

If the Christian loves and respects God, God’s authority is obviously recognized. But what if the world around us rejects all forms of authority? Does God then become our buddy? Blamires obsevers that: “distaste for authority is unparalleled in history.” (132-133) The respect for the authority of God allows the Christian to in turn respect other authorities—parents, teachers, preachers, police, and government officials—in ways that are hard for secular people to emulate.

Blamires writes:

“For if the Christian faith is true, and the Christian church the authoritative vehicle of salvation in time, then it is the most urgent, inescapable need of the modern [and postmodern] world to adapt itself to the church [not the other way around]” (148) 

Obviously, it all forms of authority are questioned and ignored, then salvation is indeed an unlikely outcome of secular thinking.

Persons

Being created in the image of God confers a high regard for persons in Christian thinking that is only borrowed in secular discourse, which focuses more on material goods and mechanics (156-157). Blamires sees the secular notion of progress as imbedded in the acquisition of things (161) He writes that we are:

“… so engrossed in performing functions in contemporary society that they have neither the time nor the energy left for the business of merely being human.” (164)

He goes on to observe that: “The Christian will think in terms of persons and institutions; but modern secularism thinks in terms of units and mechanisms.” (166) Perhaps the worst of it is that no one actually forces us into this mold more than we ourselves when we get carried away with trying to provide for our families and achieving success.

Sacred

Recognizing the sacredness of God and of life go hand in hand. The loss of the idea of these things is perhaps an example of the slippery slope that we have been on in recent years. Blamires writes: “There is no doubt that commercial interests actively stimulate youthful sexuality and self-indulgence” (173) making money by corrupting our youth.

Assessment

Harry Blamires’ The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? is a thoughtful, assessible, and well-written book on the interface between Christian and modern culture before political correctness. Blamires documents that many of the problems of postmodern culture were already in view in the late modern period (1960s). While it is likely to be perceived by many as a period-piece, I found it helpful in identifying contemporary points where the Christian and secular mindsets deviate.

Footnotes

[1]This is an allusion to a movie called Harvey about a man who sees a six-foot, invisible rabbit and is committed to an insane asylum until others start seeing the rabbit for themselves. Harvey is a 1950 American comedy-drama film based on Mary Chase’s play of the same name, directed by Henry Koster, and starring James Stewart and Josephine Hull (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_(film)).

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Blamires.

Blamires: Lost Art of Christian Thinking

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Cultural Adaptation, Monday Monologues, January 14, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I will pray Over Culture and talk about Cultural Adaptation.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Cultural Adaptation, Monday Monologues, January 14, 2019 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Prayer over Culture

Sign
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Heavenly Father,

All praise and honor be to you our mighty role model who is merciful, gracious, patient, loving, and faithful (Exod 34:6) even when we are not.

We confess our sin too rarely, cling to our idols too tightly, and seldom make room in our lives for your divine intervention–forgive us.

We thank you for your willingness to accept us and blot out our sin in the name of Jesus Christ who lived a perfect life, died on a cross, and was raised from the dead.

Resurrect these dead bones again (Ezek 37) and breathe your breath of life into us again for winter is upon us and cannot save ourselves.

No music, no magic words, no technology can save us from our selves; only you can.

In the power of your Holy Spirit,

take pity on us from the depths of your mercy and raise up your church amid the fashions of death that grip us.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Prayer over Culture

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Cultural Adaptation

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Up to this point, most of our discussion has focused on individual behavior and learning, but no one is an island—even Robinson Crusoe was never truly alone even before he met Friday.⁠1 We live and participate in the cultures of our families, workplace, and society that influence our thinking and behavior directly through rules, regulations, and law and indirectly by structuring the presuppositions that we use in all our decisions.

What is Culture?

Culture is term taken from sociology that is often described as the sum of a society’s traditions, especially as they pertain to literature, the arts, language, and music. A more helpful framework, however, can be built based on decision requirements in a corporate context. Far from irrelevant to spiritual formation, the culture context of work plays a key role in secular formation. The same framework for culture can by analogy help interpret personality.

Nobel laureate economist Herbert Simon defined rationality as making a choice among all possible alternatives. Economists more generally hypothesize that the firm strives to maximize its net present value assuming perfect knowledge of all future cash flows. If all decisions are rational and predictable given knowledge about technology and market prices, this theory implies that a firm has no culture (or no cultural effect) because given a set of circumstances every managers would reach the same decision.

In practice, we observe that decisions are costly, resources are limited, and decisions are frequently made based on rules of thumb and habit. For these reasons, in part, Simon extended the theory of the firm to limit rational behavior—his theory of bounded rationality (Simon 1997, 88). Culture arises because highly rational decisions are costly. Managers ration their time by applying rules of thumb based on previous decisions and known costs and benefits, not perfect information. These rules of thumb plus manager training and experience determine a firm’s decision culture. Interestingly, the more costly rational decisions are, the stronger the cultural effect.

The existence of culture implies that a firm’s history is interesting. The time sequence of decisions and their consequences predisposes the organization toward some growth paths and away from others, a concept sometimes described as path-dependence. The personal histories of leaders are important in understanding attitudes about alternatives and the speed at which decisions are made. 

Cultural Personality Types 

The existence of culture suggests why organizations develop classifiable personalities. Several widely observed types can be described. Criteria describing these types include preferred decision style, key values, primary mode for training, nature of control process, and default transaction-opportunity cost trade-off. A culture articulates key values in terms of where decisions ideally take place. 

Three cultural archetypes stand out in society today that compete for dominance: a traditional culture, a modern culture, and a postmodern culture. A fourth type, a dying culture (or culture under stress) is more of a transition phase than a stable culture. At any time, subcultures within society may favor any one of these types. Competition among these types is influenced by the resources available and other circumstances in the environment beyond immediate control. This suggests that one or the other subculture can rise in dominance and dominance can also pass back and forth. Progress from one to another is neither inevitable or expected because circumstances external to the firm dictate the ideal culture.

The Types⁠2

A modern culture delegates authority to line managers, whose leadership role is often earned through technical competence, because good decisions require the objective information they produce. A postmodern culture shares decision authority to assure that decisions are equitable. A traditional culture centralizes many decisions to adhere to senior management preferences. Training and control processes reinforce these cultural preferences. 

A dying organization is an organization in crisis. A dying organization may start with any cultural affinity but evolves toward traditional culture. This is because crises consist of a rapid series of nonstandard problems that exceed delegations and require senior management input. Cutbacks likewise strengthen the position of senior managers.

The mix of transaction costs and opportunity costs also reflects cultural affinities. Transaction costs rise with the number of people participating in decisions, while opportunity costs (the cost of no choosing the next best alternative) rise as decision alternatives are excluded. The traditional culture has the lowest transaction costs because it considers the fewest options—only senior manager preferences are consulted. The postmodern culture consults the most people, but it is not particularly reflective—only options actively advocated are considered. Transaction costs in the modern culture fall between these two extremes, but the modern culture prefers a review of all options.

Williamson (1981, 1564) sees both organizational costs constrained by market prices. The implication is that cultures evolve to reflect competitive conditions in the markets that firms serve. The dominant culture type may evolve with both market pressures and leadership changes, which may over time lead to overlapping cultural attributes. An office evolving from a modern to a postmodern type, for example, may begin to exhibit more group decision making, place less emphasis on academic credentials in assignments and promotions and rely less on peer review of work products. As Alchian (1950) argues learning process is likely a combination of trial and error, imitation of successful firms, and deliberative planning because uncertainty makes it unlikely that future market conditions can be fully anticipated.

Behavioral Weaknesses Impede Learning

Cultural types describe attributes at a point in time. Changing circumstances, however, force organizations to learn and adapt. Learning behavior is therefore a key measure of risk management performance. We observe behavior problems when incentive structures disrupt normal learning processes, create logical traps or exacerbate normal organizational inertia.⁠3

An organizational culture mirrors its environment because decisions and rules evolve over time to deal with environmental challenges. Rewards of money, power and status within an organization accrue to leaders that facilitate this evolution. When prior decisions and rules need to change, a conflict arises because those changes may threaten the social position of those leaders.

Consider the case of a firm in a growing business. Suppose the firm starts out as a specialized firm in a competitive market. As it grows and acquires competitors, it takes market prices as given. As market share grows, however, it eventually becomes the market and can set price. Further growth requires that it diversify into new markets. At each stage in the firm’s growth, the rules for success and risks change (Porter 1980, 191-295). If the organizational culture adapts with a lag and a threat grows quickly enough, firm solvency could be threatened before adaptation is complete.

Christian Culture

Although the Christian faith encourages rational decisions, Christian culture should not be confused with any of the cultural types outlined above. Christian culture differs from these types because the objective of Christian culture is conformity to Christ rather than conformity to the rational model. Still, the above cultural types are also evident in a Christian context, as when dominations employ different polities.

The term, polity, refers to how a denomination or church is governed. A denomination managed by bishops is likely organized with a traditional culture while a church managed through direct voting by the congregation likely has a postmodern culture. Meanwhile, a church managed by elders and professionally trained clergy likely has a modern culture. Each of these polities can operate differently in practice, but the formal structure of the polity clearly shapes the culture of churches and denominations.

Just like no perfectly rational firms exist, Christians cannot obtain perfection in this life but Christ is the standard, our sacred North Pole, and the Holy Spirit to guide us. With our compass set on north, we are not easily led into darkness, but focus on the light. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we normally avoid logical traps and quickly repent when we fall into one. The basic ideal is that in Christ we have the perfect guidance system even when our lives are not perfect.

Footnotes

1 The name of a characters in a novel (DeFoe 1719).

2 Adapted from (Hiemstra 2009).

3 Inertia is the physical property expressed in Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion: a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Inertia leads organizations to resist change and discount low-probability events.

References

Defoe, Daniel. 1719. The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. United Kingdom: William Taylor.

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2009. “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pp 51-54 of Risk Management. Society of Actuaries. Issue 16. June.

Porter, Michael E. 1980. Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors. New York: Free Press.

Simon, Herbert A. 1997. Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organizations (Orig pub 1945). New York: Free Press. 

Williamson, Oliver. 1981. “The Modern Corporation: Origin, Evolution, Attributes.” pp. 1537-1568 in Journal of Economic Literature. December.

Cultural Adaptation

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Moore Engages Secular Culture, Part 1

Russell Moore, OnwardRussell Moore. 2015. Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group.  (Goto part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the fall of 2013 I attended the annual conference of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) to visit with book publishers about my first book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality. While I spent most of my time with the publishers, I attended a luncheon sponsored by the Colson Center where I got a chance to hear Russell Moore speak.[1] He impressed me enough that I looked up and purchased a copy of his book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel.

Overview

In his acknowledgments, Moore writes:

“In some sense, I’ve been writing this book all my life, seeking to articulate what I believe about the relationship between the kingdom of God and the cultures of this present age.” (223)

In further highlighting the themes of his book, he writes:

“As the culture changes all around us, it is no longer possible to pretend that we are a Moral Majority. That may be bad news for America, but it is good news for the church…we need a church that speaks to social and political issues with a bigger vision in mind: that of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (back cover)

“Moore is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention,” (back flap) which is the largest Protestant denomination in in the United States.[2]

The need to cite these summary statements arises, in part, because Moore writes primarily in narratives, avoiding the usual academic convention of a stating a major premise and outlining how it will be demonstrated. His use of narratives is interesting because it forces opponents to lesson to his entire presentation before jumping in to offer objections.

Outline

Moore writes his book in ten chapters that highlight major themes in his thinking:

  1. “A Bible Belt No More
  2. From Moral Majority to Prophetic Minority
  3. Kingdom
  4. Culture
  5. Mission
  6. Human Dignity
  7. Religious Liberty
  8. Family Stability
  9. Convictional Kindness
  10. A Gospel Counter-Revolution” (ix)

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion and acknowledgments sections.

God and Country

What makes Moore so interesting to read is that he accepts the premise that we live in a post-Christian society and he proceeds to deconstruct America’s pagan culture laying bare some of its most cherished myths.

The myths of a “Moral Majority” or the existence of a “Bible Belt”, in Moore’s view, were always more about shared values than about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As an Eagle Scout myself, I found Moore’s discussion of his travails in trying to earn the God and Country badge most entertaining. As a Scout teen, he asked:

“Can a Christian be possessed by a demon, or are we protected from that by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?” (11)

This question, of course, set his Methodist pastor advisor to squirming and the pastor eventually admitted that he did not believe in demons, but more to the point the question unmasked the real intent of the Scout badge of instilling just enough Christianity to “fight the Communists and save the republic”, but not enough to have spiritual significance. His leaders wanted to instill the shared values of a kind of civic religion while as a kid Moore just “didn’t want to risk projectile vomiting demonic ooze.” (12) Never mind that an answer to Moore’s question continues to distinguish American denominations.

Assessment

In part 1 of this review, I give an overview of Moore’s book. In part 2, I will drill down into some of his arguments.

Russell Moore’s Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel challenges us to distinguish the gospel of Jesus Christ from different manifestations of Christendom in American culture. Moore advocates engaging the culture, not simply criticizing it, to expose aspects of the culture that present opportunities for Christian witness. His narrative style facilitates this engagement and makes his writing both entertaining and accessible.

[1] Jackson Watts, ETS 2013: Inerrancy in Perspective (http://www.helwyssocietyforum.com/?p=4261).

[2] https://www.RussellMoore.com. @DRMoore.

Moore Engages Secular Culture, Part 1

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