Books on the church and economics are not all that common, so I was eager to talk to the Acton Institute’s Jordan Ballor, who edits the Journal of Markets and Morality, about his new volume Ecumenical Babel.
Writing a book is serious undertaking that requires a lot of motivation. What was it that inspired you to write Ecumenical Babel?
A number of years ago I first became closely aware of the kinds of advocacy that was going on by officials at ecumenical organizations. In the meantime, while pursuing graduate work and various duties at the Acton Institute, I kept an eye on ecumenical affairs, and when the 2010 Uniting General Council of the soon-to-be-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) was announced I had the idea to write something engaging the social teaching of the various ecumenical groups. The WCRC was going to be formed at a meeting here in Grand Rapids at Calvin College, so I thought that this was an event that was perfect for the launch of a project that would later become Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. (The less-colorful working title was Ecumenical Ethics & Economics: A Critical Engagement.) As I say in the book, given my denominational background, including my current membership in the Christian Reformed Church (a member denomination of the WCRC), I have a real theological as well as spiritual interest in ecumenism, which I believe is of utmost importance in contemporary Christian life. The real promise and challenge of authentic ecumenism is undermined to a great extent by the kinds of frivolous and downright irresponsible pronouncements coming out of the mainline ecumenical groups, and this is a tragic state of affairs that I feel needs some ongoing response. Building on a line of criticism I find in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Ramsey, and Ernest Lefever, Ecumenical Babel is an opening statement in what I hope will be a renewed conversation.
Part of your argument, as I understand it, is a complaint against the practice of left-wing economics tied to the Christian faith. You would prefer that denominational confabs leave matters of economic policy undeclared and advert to prudence, instead. Is that a fair representation? And if so, does your book cut into the efforts of many Christian thinkers to encourage the integration of faith with a variety of fields?
It is a fair representation, provided that it is balanced with my similar discomfort at particularly right-wing economics coming from pulpits as well as denominational and ecumenical offices. What I hope is that my book interrupts the efforts of many Christians to bring their faith to bear on public life in a facile and superficial way. I do believe that the Christian faith is relevant for all of human life. It is a vigorous and comprehensive faith. As Jesus says, he has come that we may have life “to the full” (John 10:10 NIV). I take this to refer to the “bigness,” the comprehensiveness and complexity, of the Christian life in this fallen world. But it is typically not the case that there is a single Christian position on particular economic or political questions, and I find that there is all too often a kind of ideological imposition on the church and its social witness. This happens both on the left and the right, but in this case I focus particularly on the ecumenical movement where the problem is largely left-wing brands of economic and political ideology. Carl Trueman has written a book, Republocrat, that focuses on a rather different context, that is, socially and theologically conservative or confessional Presbyterianism in the United States, where he finds the problem to be an unduly close connection between conservative theology and conservative politics. Insofar as our objects of critique are different (and indeed our sensibilities are rather different regarding the prudential questions of economic and politics), then our respective criticisms are on one level quite radically opposed. But this opposition is particularly in the application, not in the principle, which is that we both write against the ideological interpretation of the Christian faith along particular economic or political lines.
This book was published by the Acton Institute where you have worked for a number of years now. In a nutshell, can you make their case for “religion and liberty?” And can you tie that mission to your book’s message?
The focus of the Acton Institute is to promote a society characterized by both freedom and virtue. The thesis, you might say, is that true freedom is only possible and realized within the context of virtue, the kind of virtue you get from a biblical account of God and his creation. The two must go together; you don’t get lasting or vigorous freedom in society without a virtuous people, and you don’t get a virtuous people without the institutional and structural freedoms that minimally allow, and maximally promote, such virtue. My book’s message relates to this in that it engages a particular set of voices that undermines this rather tenuous balance that holds freedom and virtue in harmony. The mainline ecumenical movement has been advocating for decades now for a kind of social, political, and economic transformation that I think would have deleterious consequences, and they have done so in a way that overreaches the mandates and responsibilities of the Christian churches as institutions in social life. One of the founding motivations for the Acton Institute was to present religious leaders with some introduction to economic ideas, so that their proclamation of the Gospel might be informed by some familiarity with what is involved with entrepreneurship, vocation, and business. The recent statements of the mainline ecumenical movement display the kind of ignorance of economics and un-nuanced rejection of economic realities that the Acton Institute has been working to dispel for the last two decades.
Finally, this book is the first publication of a renewed Christian’s Library Press, which was purchased and put back to work by Acton. Why did Acton buy the press? And what are Acton’s plans for the press going forward?
The Acton Institute’s acquisition of Christian’s Library Press was part of the institute’s reception of the literary and intellectual estate of Lester DeKoster, who passed away in 2009. Along with DeKoster’s books, notes, and unpublished manuscripts, the Acton Institute became the steward, you might say, of the publishing imprint that DeKoster began with his friend Gerard Berghoef and their families in 1979. Over the following decades Christian’s Library Press put out a number of important and valuable books on stewardship, discipleship, and Christian leadership that got some significant, albeit limited, circulation in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. One of the things Acton is committed to doing with CLP is to update and bring some of these texts back into circulation, introducing some of them for the first time to the broader evangelical world. So, for instance, we published DeKoster’s book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, in a second edition last year. This is a little book that captures well, in an accessible and popular way, a core understanding of the value of work and its meaning in the Christian life. Moving forward we have plans to expand the imprint as we make available some of the CLP backlist in new editions as well as publishing new books in the broad area of Protestant social thought.