Looking at the group photo from the TFAVS Conference in Doorn in the Netherlands brings back fond memories. A solid bunch of some twenty participants plus the lecturers convened in an idyllically green setting located about an hour away from Amsterdam. Canals, green fields, cows and windmills – you get the picture?
The event was co-organized by the Acton Institute and the Edmund Burke Foundation - which is a Dutch conservative think-tank. Accordingly, there was a strong ‘Dutch flavour’ to the conference in terms of the participants. But there were also a few people from outside of the Netherlands including one participant from Austria, two Americans living in Europe, and yours truly from Finland.
The conference provided a wonderful opportunity to hear great lectures and to interact with both the lecturers and with the other participants. Basically, the contents and the format followed other TFAVS conferences you can read about on this website. What I shall do is to carry on with some of the discussions started at the conference as well as make some personal observations about the proceedings.
The ‘trans-Atlantic’ nature of the event was undoubtedly one key factor contributing to a very fruitful dynamic. Hearing a ‘North-American voice’ on an issue like ‘bold state’ versus ‘no state’ was very “refreshing” for European ears to say the least. Most countries of the world can, of course, be placed somewhere between these two extreme positions of the continuum, but the European nations have clearly adopted a significantly “bolder” form of state compared to the United States or even Canada. Accordingly, in our European context many of us have lost touch with the idea of a society relying more on the initiative and entrepreneurship of a single individual. This is even more evident in my Finnish-Scandinavian setting where the citizens do, in fact, feel proud of what seems like the “ever-expanding” public welfare system. Unfortunately, not too many seem to realize the link between this development and the eroding sense of personal responsibility.
Another very fruitful aspect of the conference was the mix of different church affiliations both in terms of the participants and the lecturers. Admittedly, the participants were predominantly Protestant, but especially the lecturers were more evenly divided between Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions. This was very inspiring and opened up several new avenues for further thinking. One such new perspective was presented for instance by Rev. Robert Sirico, the president of the Acton Institute, as he exemplified the principle of subsidiarity through the idea of allowing citizens to decide for themselves how half of the income taxes they pay would be used. In his scenario, taxpayers could choose which organizations (NGOs) they would like to support with their tax money. It is easy to see how such a system would bring vital decisions to the grass root level, where there is real knowledge both of people’s needs and of the effectiveness of different organizations in meeting these needs.
One broad theme generating a lively discussion was the question of ‘Christian social teaching’. What is this and how does one determine whether a propounded idea can indeed be identified as ‘Christian’? This is a fundamental methodological question, which might deserve to be revisited in future conferences.
A session was devoted as well to the issue of globalization. This was – as the lecturer Dr. Gaylen J. Byker, the President of Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan noted - a very modest start for a systematic and more exhaustive treatment of the topic. But as we know, there are such attempts already. We could mention for example ‘God and Globalization’-project led by Dr. Max Stackhouse at Princeton.
Let me finish by pointing out certain personal highlights from the conference – in addition to all that has already been said. There were at least two major insights that were more or less new to me and will provoke further processing in the years to come, as I prepare my doctoral dissertation in ‘ethical organizational environment in international corporations’. While I have been rejoicing about the new openness of the corporate world to address ethical issues and to engage in discussions on their guiding values, I had not been able to put my finger on why the so called “values talk” that goes on feels somewhat hollow. Dr. Samuel Gregg, director of the Center for Economic Personalism at the Acton Institute, pointed out in one of his presentations, how the current focus on ‘values’ tends to lead to over sight of the more crucial issue of the virtues and the character of moral actors which make aspiring towards ‘higher’ values possible in the first place. I still see a lot of positive potential in the increased readiness of the corporate world to open up the issue of values. I also hope to be able to steer the discussions I’m personally involved in towards the deeper questions of virtues and character, emphasized by classical Christian or Greek ethics.
Another new insight came through a question-and-answer session following one of the lectures. The question raised by one of the participants concerned the tension between economic growth and the limited natural resources of our planet. What is a proper Christian response to this? In commenting on this question Rev. Sirico questioned the common tendency to see the issue in light of limited resources only. He pointed out how instead of seeing people as a problem – as so often seems to be the case in many environmentalist’s arguments – the Christian biblical heritage also encourages us to see people as a solution. As images of God, people also possess creative resources which can be used to deal with our challenges. Such an answer can, of course, be only a beginning of a more comprehensive response (to start with, how do we take note of the fallen character of human beings and nature in our environmental ethics?). But it points us to a very different direction from the mainstream environmental discourse – whether Christian or non-Christian. Personally, I still feel challenged by the seemingly overwhelming ecological problems, such as the constantly decreasing biodiversity of the earth. But I can see the very positive potential contained in Rev. Sirico’s answer. As was noted at the conference, environmental issues would certainly deserve a session (if not a whole conference) of their own.
We are indeed living exciting times as Christians in the era of growing globalization. This ever-changing reality throws new questions at us at an increasing pace. What a privilege it is then to have the opportunity to get together with other Christian brothers (no sisters this time!?) to wrestle with the issues in an effort to find intelligent and informed responses to our common challenges.
This TFAVS conference was first of its kind in Western Europe. Several conferences have been held in Prague in previous years. It would be interesting to see how bringing the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ together would work. Is the time ripe for a conference for the ‘New Europe’?