Just before he joined the church triumphant, Dallas Willard gave two talks on economic wisdom at the Oikonomia Network’s first faculty retreat in January 2013 (audio available here). Material from these talks has been incorporated into Willard’s posthumously published book, “The Divine Conspiracy Continued,” co-authored with Gary Black. Below is the first part of an excerpt from the book, which appears by gracious permission of Black and HarperOne.
In modern democratic societies the economic and political systems, traditions, and practices, at whatever level, must be evaluated by reference to the freedom to pursue human flourishing or well-being; and it is at this point that serious issues have arisen for Christian leaders, spokespersons, and professionals in dealing with current social, economic, and political issues. For students of Jesus and his teaching, what is understood as a revolution of goodwill and the good life is often radically different from the distinctly non-Christian or strictly secular points of view on human flourishing and progress.
It is not an easy matter to characterize such “natural” conditions of well-being or flourishing or the point at which one passes into and out of the myopia of materialism. This makes it difficult, but not impossible, to conceive of arrangements, in what we today think of as “the economy” that would secure, or tend to secure, a population in such favorable conditions. It is easier to work from the other end of the scale, where people clearly lack well-being and certainly are not flourishing; and that is what we nearly always do. Franklin D. Roosevelt – who formulated for government attention much of what is treated today as “welfare” – spoke of a large population in the United States of his times who were ill-housed, ill-clad, and malnourished. These dire conditions, which in many cases are clearly identifiable, require immediate remedies. Surely some reasonable action can and must be undertaken with regard to these bare necessities required for human existence for those unable to maintain them for themselves. In his eleventh State of the Union address (January 11, 1944), FDR proposed such action.
It came in the form of a “second Bill of Rights” that would undergird “economic security, social security, moral security” for all. “Essential to peace is a decent standard of living for all individuals,” Roosevelt declared, and “freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want.” In spite of strong opposition from some at the time, FDR held that a country should extend guarantees of minimal social and economic security to all its inhabitants. Americans supported creating such a “safety net,” which included “a useful and remunerative job,” fair (legally regulated) business practices, a decent home for every family, adequate medical care, protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment, and a good education. Eventually the language of a “net” transitioned into a “right” or an entitlement, which is the common terminology today. All this would, at minimum, provide a framework for a flourishing life – a life of well-being – without God. This increasingly explicit secularism (legal, social, political) of the last half of the twentieth century might be reasonably seen as a natural expression of the “discovery” that general human prospering can be provided for in strictly human terms.
We especially want to reject the idea that there is this relatively self-contained system called “the economy” or “the state” that runs on laws that can be discovered by clever people and manipulated in such a way that the system produces human well-being (general welfare) all by itself. There is no invisible hand, divine or otherwise, that winds the clock of an economy or government that can be trusted to produce exactly what we want the way we want it. Some seem to think that if we tinker with the economic/governmental vending machine long enough, if we can produce the right legislation or the right experts in positions to guide governmental action or inaction or shift emphasis into one area from another, we will eventually be able to create the appropriate “conditions” and out will pop our intended aim…
The language of philosopher Thomas Hobbes about human “felicity” pretty well captures the difficulties in the secular, American democratic proposal for human flourishing. He states that the happiness “of this life consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied.” Instead, for the modern citizen, “Felicity is a continual progress of desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter.” And the more one gets, Hobbes acutely observes, the more one strives to secure the possession of what one already has. As a result he finds a general inclination within all humanity: “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” The verifiable accuracy of Hobbes’ description of humanity’s broken condition should at least cause us to pause and think more deeply about the inherent hazards of directly combining a “restless desire of power after power” with the ballot booth. However, for the democratic secularist, there is simply no other acceptable foundational means of pursuing corporate well-being and flourishing…
Surely we need something less unstable than human desire on which to build either our lives or our societies in seeking the level of flourishing indicative of life under the direction of a good and loving God. Desire, whether of an individual or of a group, is variable, conflicted, limitless, and routinely deceitful. It does not remain the same, but is highly volatile and therefore unpredictable. Then there are always desires, in the individual or group, that are incompatible and given to competition and domination. Desire also, as Hobbes insisted, never comes to a final rest in satisfaction. “More” is always desired. The moving sands of desire are deceitful because they promise rest in satisfaction “if only” or “only when” more of what is desired becomes attained. Such is the nature of the endless spiral of covetousness.
We have encoded constraints to pure desire in our laws. However, we have witnessed for centuries now how even the Constitution changes under the impact of the desires of interest groups and sophisticated theories of linguistic meaning that are no longer constrained by old-fashioned logic. Once even the shadow of good has faded, nothing is left but the drive to win, and the desires that “win out” will rule the day, and with them whatever consequences follow. Similarly, the morality of our laws is disappearing under the impact of desire. Nietzsche accurately prophesied the “will to power” motivation would grow and flourish long before it institutionalized itself broadly throughout the Western cultural consciousness. Even the Judeo-Christian “shadow” is now on the verge of disappearing as a public resource for legal morality.
The writer of James understands this tension as well when he asks, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” The answer: from the pleasures and lusts hidden in unbridled desire (4:1–2). As T. S. Eliot recognized decades ago, the secular mind is “looking for a system so perfect that we will not have to be good.” But such a system is not going to rise from nothing. There is no autopilot “answer” of that sort for the problems we face today. Spokespersons for Christ and those leaders who are disciples of Jesus, in every area of our economic and political systems, need to repeat the poignancy of Eliot’s insight often and with emphasis. Only then can we deal realistically with the human condition. A “good life” requires much more than favorable economic or political conditions, because such a life is most certainly not accomplished as a result of human ingenuity.
Look for part two of this excerpt in next month’s newsletter.
From “The Divine Conspiracy Continued: Fulfilling God’s Kingdom on Earth.” Copyright © 2014 by Dallas Willard and Gary Black Jr. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.
Image credit: “Dallas Willard” by Loren Kerns from USA – WillardDallas_MCC_Sept08_026. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.