20 December 2010

A Model of Public Discourse

Our brother Denny Burk alerts us (via Russell Moore) to a fascinating hour-long conversation between two articulate Princeton University profs, conservative Robby George and progressive Cornel West.

1. I have never viewed anything like this. It is generally hard for me to rise beyond ambivalence toward today's cross-party dialogues, but this is a striking exception. Have you ever viewed such mutual respect and brotherly disagreement between two public intellectuals? There is a whole tone to the conversation of which moments such as 59:20-40 are just one example. A joy to watch. The discourse here involves no straw men or ad hominem attacks or yelling or braggadocio, and almost no interruption. A model for left and right alike. Can someone send this to both Bills, O'Reilly and Maher?

2. Both men appear to be believers (George a Roman Catholic and West a Baptist). This alone, though often implicit in this dialogue, gives significant overlap and sharing of foundation that would not otherwise be there.

3. As an example: I was surprised and encouraged to see both men make frequent reference to the image of God. In a conversation the thrust of which is the basis for human rights and civil justice, at several points each appealed to the imago dei and the dignity, honor, and inherent worth that comes solely from that, and which is true of all humans. Amen.

4. At times many of us who have been so helped by Piper and others may cringe when these two men (especially George) emphasize that humans are the end, not the means. No! we respond. God is the end. True enough. But let us be discerning and distinguishing here. The alternative to humans being the end, with which they are disagreeing, is not God as the end but the system. They are not saying: people are the ultimate end, not God. They are saying: people are the ultimate end, not the economic or political system. With this we can happily agree.

5. At key moments, nevertheless, massive questions were raised that cry out for an explicitly biblical answer, an answer that economic systems simply cannot provide. The two men both spoke more than once of the fact that people are 'cracked vessels,' implicitly endorsing a biblical understanding of sin. Good. Yet in the 36th minute when George asks where the greed and misery comes from he answers, 'the loss of faith in human beings as being anything more than material beings.' Cornel West, for his part, repeatedly argued that the current market-system fails because it promotes human greed.

To both I would say that the only final answer to these problems is the gospel. Perhaps both believe this and it simply was not appropriate in this venue to voice it? Still, to George I would say: Fundamentally, we do not need to lift our eyes from seeing humans as material creatures to creatures with souls. We need to lift our eyes from seeing humans as material creatures to creatures with souls gone horribly wrong. To West I would say: the blame for human greed as channeled through market capitalism is not the market system itself any more than a computer itself is to blame when a man hacks into bank accounts and steals money while online. The computer channels the problem, and the right computer with the right online checks in place will greatly alleviate the problem. But what is needed is a change of heart on the man's part.

My comments do not, of course, answer the question of which system is better. But I do not believe this question can be finally and meaningfully answered without recourse to the Christian gospel.

As Lewis (whom both men admire) has taught us, we need democracy not because every human is so good that he or she deserves a say but because every human is so bad that none of us may be entrusted with unchecked power. Certain economic structures and social systems may either accelerate or ameliorate societal problems, and let us have instructive, civil engagement about such things as is appropriate. But the final answer is for the government to be upon his shoulders (Isa 9:6).

6. It is truly remarkable to hear West self-consciously ignore the fate of the unborn as he fights to rescue the poor and helpless and defenseless. Like a Coast Guard diver self-consciously ignoring those who can't swim at all as he fights to rescue those who can only doggy paddle.

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