J. Peter Nixon January 18, 2009 - 1:03am
I was listening to a BBC program this afternoon that was focusing on the financial crisis. One aspect of the program was discussing the moral and spiritual underpinnings of the crisis. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of focus on greed and the need for individuals in the financial sector to reflect on their motivations and values.My own reflections on the crisis, however, have led me to the conclusion that we need to focus more on a different deadly sin: pride. I'm not sure that the financiers who got us into this mess were significantly greedier than those who came before them. I do think, though, that they were significantly more confident that "financial engineering" had rendered obsolete many traditional assumptions about financial risk.There are parallels, of course, to the conduct of the Iraq War. A close reading of many of the books on the war reveals that a key reason things went so badly was a confidence among the war planners-particularly the civilians in the highest reaches of the DoD-that a "revolution in military affairs" had upended previous models of war planning.After eight years of an administration where the refusal to face hard facts was treated as a virtue, it's tempting to believe that these kinds of problems are the result of ideology or self-interest trumping evidence. Those things certainly played an important role. Equally important, though, was a strong faith in the ability of human beings to gain mastery over the eddies and currents of history. That's not merely a bipartisan belief. It's an American one. It's one that our new President-elect once powerfully and pithily summarized: "Yes we can!"If Christians bring something unique to the public square, it is less a set of policy prescriptions than a set of convictions about what Reinhold Neibuhr once called "the nature and destiny of man." An anthropology shaped by the biblical narrative should lead us to be skeptical of policies and proposals that depend too heavily on the goodness and wisdom of human beings. In some cases, this may demand that we stand up and say: "No we can't."I won't deny that Christians are called to something more than anthropological pessimism. Nevertheless, it remains our task to remind the world that wars get out of control, that markets do not always self-regulate, that regulators are not omniscient, that the architecture of creation imposes limits, that we cannot always be trusted with power over life and death, and that, sometimes, God's response to man's "yes" is "no."