“You have never encountered a mere mortal.” Men are either “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” Even at the beginning of an Acton conference its always popular to quote C.S. Lewis. But its more than popular – the quote is true and it was this truth of the basic, intrinsic value of the human person with which Father Sirico opened a conference ranging in topic from entrepreneur work to globalization, from social justice to Christian love, from anthropology to economics.

If those last two seem odd bedfellows, you’re not alone. We tend to think of economics as the manipulation of numbers, the mathematics of the market place. I remember being horrified that economics was a core class in our heavily humanitarian curriculum in college. “I don’t care about numbers to being with,” I whined to myself, “why should I care about vast amounts of numbers or other people’s cash?”

But at Acton Institute economics is something more. “Economics is the study of the way human beings interact in the market place,” says Father Sirico. Economics and anthropology, it seems, are joined at the hip. Or rather, anthropology forms the foundation and economics builds itself on top.

And with this new union, the identification of the human person in anthropology becomes terribly significant. Is the human being primarily a consumer, stripping the natural world of its treasures with no thought of replacing them? Or is the human being made in the image of God, reflecting the divine capacity to reason, to relate and to create as an individual in community? Is he merely the stuff of matter, mechanically functioning and grasping in order to survive? Or does he possess the God-like quality of transcendence in a soul that yearns for meaning? “What is man,” the Psalmist asked, “that you are mindful of him?’

The answer to the question determines the shape of the market place. And what’s so important about the market place? It’s the sphere in which immortal horrors or everlasting splendors spend most of their time; in it they have the ability to reflect the divine image or toil away mechanically like so many robots.

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Posted by Rebecca Elizabeth


  1. Sounds like a great start! How smart to start out a conference with C S Lewis.


  2. REBECCA ELIZABETH: Wow . . . . I just looked over the schedule for the summer conference at Acton University. As a humanities guy, I’m not interested in economics––but the course offerings are very attractive. What’s your personal motivation for attending the conference? Because you get to build your own curriculum, which courses are you selecting? Besides the Foundation Sessions, I’d choose the following if I was there:

    * Alexis de Tocqueville: Philosopher of Civil Society
    * Natural Law and Protestant Public Theology
    * Evangelical Social Thought: Justice Grounded in Love
    * Rousseau, Equality and Modernity
    * Bonhoeffer’s Social Ethics

    I noticed that one of the Foundation Sessions concerns “Christianity and the Idea of Limited Government.” I’m curious about this topic, so I hope you’ll share with Mere O readers about whether Christianity commits us to a certain size of government (limited or large) and, if so, why.

    Have fun!


    1. Christopher,
      Unfortunately, the only lecture that I’ll be attending of the ones you selected is “Evengelical Social Thought: Justice Grounded in Love.” Nevertheless, I’ll see what I can do to assuage your thirst for hearing some of the ideas bouncing around here. Regarding the lecture you were wondering about, he didn’t really address the type or size of government so much. He talked instead about the anthropological truths that must be kept in mind as we seek to discover what a Christian idea of government actually is. Of course, these are all introductory lectures – I imagine they will all go into greater detail. So I’ll keep you posted if I hear anything else on the topic. But for starters, the anthropological considerations to be kept in mind are (1. Human Flourishing (does this government provide an atmosphere in which human beings can flourish?) (2. Human Fallibility and the reality of sin (3. Natural Law and Moral Limits (4. Human Choice.
      I’m interested more in the economic and familial considerations of the conference simply because that’s more in my line as a history teacher and mother wannabe. Austin (my husband) and I have found that we keep on referring to the economic ideas discussed hear at Acton in our own conversations. This in itself is rather ironic as both of us are, like you, more in the humanities line. But we’ve discovered a fascination with economics as a means of bringing prosperity and dignity especially to the poor that keeps us coming back to the subject. Thanks for your interest and please keep asking questions. That way, I know what people are looking to hear.


  3. Winston Hottman June 15, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    Since first studying the subject, I’ve been struck by the relationship between economics and anthropology. Reading your post reminded me of some quotes from Ludwig von Mises’ seminal work Human Action:

    “For a long time men failed to realize that the transition from the classical theory of value to the subjective theory of value was much more than the substitution of a more satisfactory theory of market exchange for a less satisfactory one. The general theory of choice and preference goes far beyond the horizon which encompassed the scope of economic problems as circumscribed by the economists from Cantillon, Hume, and Adam Smith down to John Stuart Mill. It is much more than merely a theory of the “economic side” of human endeavors and of man’s striving for commodities and an improvement in his material well-being. It is the science of every kind of human action.”


    “No treatment of economic problems proper can avoid starting from acts of choice; economics becomes a part, although the hitherto best elaborated part, of a more universal science, praxeology (the general theory of human action).”

    His incorporation of the study of human action seems to have set a trajectory toward the eventual inclusion of a much broader and deeper anthropological consideration of human nature within the field of economics.


    1. Winston,
      A very apt point, and from Von Mises himself! I’m confused though, as to what exactly he is saying. Is he suggesting that our theory of economics provides us with insights into the human person, or is he suggesting that certain things we know about the human person should be brought to bear on the field of economics? It is important to join the two disciplines, but how you connect them is important too. Will you allow your economic theory to be shaped by Christian anthropology, or will you insist that humans behave in a way that accords with your own economic theory?
      Looking forward to your correction!


      1. Winston Hottman June 16, 2010 at 7:00 pm

        Von Mises seems to be arguing that economics must take into consideration a broader understanding of human behavior. Before we can begin answering the question of why human beings act in certain ways in the marketplace we must ask ourselves why they act in certain ways period. So it seems that he is bringing a certain level of anthropology to bear on economics.

        Obviously economics, like other fields of study, does give us insight into the human person. However, I agree with you that how we connect economics and anthropology is paramount. It seems that economics is a field of study particularly susceptible to developing theories and then trying to squeeze human experience into its paradigms. A Christian anthropology should form the foundation of our economic theories.


  4. […] a new voice, Rebecca Elizabeth, to AU. She covers Rev. Robert Sirico’s opening night talk in “The Kickoff to Acton University 2010.” Amy K. Hall at Stand to Reason covers AU’s opening night, and asks the right questions: […]


  5. I sympathize with the claim that “a Christian anthropology should form the foundation of our economic theories.” But let’s face it: the doctrine of man (and woman) hinges on the doctrine of God. How else can we make sense of the human being as an image-bearer of God? There’s a risk of becoming anthropocentric in our economics when we should be theocentric.


  6. @Christopher: well, maybe. Although, I think the point is that economics is a subset of anthropology and that is fine. After all, it is a study of human action. Theology is relevant, of course, but when human action is under the microscope, then anthropology is the thing.

    Or, let me ask this: what does it means to be theocentric in our study of human action? After all, within the confines of that study, human action and man, is the center.

    Theology is the queen of the sciences, but she isn’t the only science and, at some point, we’ve gotta start exploring each branch in detail.


  7. TEX: Here’s how I would put: economics is a subset of anthropology and anthropology is a subset of theology. The two best examples I’ve read of theocentric economics is Miroslav Volf’s Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace and William Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire.


  8. Christopher and Tex,
    Thanks for some helpful clarification of the issue. Theology is centrally important. It is at the heart and beginning of whatever it is we decide to study. Yet ideally, it can move us outward to man and the created order as well.
    Interestingly enough, this criticism hasn’t even been raised or addressed here at Acton yet. I wonder why…?


  9. congratulations :) .. you have finally won one new reader ;)


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