Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
Greetings from Bangalore, where I am attending a conference on “Bounds of Ethics in a Globalized World” at Christ University, which is run by the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, the first Catholic religious order started in India. The headline attraction on the opening day was the appearance of the Dalai Lama and his remarks promoting “secular ethics.” This may seem surprising coming from one of the world’s most famous religious leaders (and a monk, at that), but like his counterpart in Rome, the Dalai Lama has a talent for speaking to the irreligious in a way that challenges and flatters democratic prejudices at the same time.
Being completely ignorant in Buddhism, I will refrain from evaluating the orthodoxy of his adoption of secular rather than religious ethics. The Dalai Lama knows how to poke fun at seemingly pious people by highlighting their hypocrisy. He preaches using liberal concepts like compassion and equality that are pleasing to the ears of the audience; in fact, he makes living with compassion by renouncing oneself the key to happiness. He goes even further by stressing that the world would be better off with perfect equality and no leaders to pose as authorities. And he does it all so easily, with a smile and joking asides that make him seem like your not-completely-all-there grandfather, which is all this one would be if he wasn’t the 14th incarnation of a great Tibetian leader, feared and exiled as a boy by communist China. The Chinese would prefer to see him renounce his leadership as well.
In spite of his treatment by the Chinese government, the Dalai Lama called himself a “social and economic Marxist” during his talk, saying that capitalism is only about “money, money, money.” He said this while also speaking well of George W. Bush, the United States, and even suggested that NATO headquarters should be moved to Moscow in order to spiritually disarm the Russians. Listening to him makes you think that human pride could simply be shamed out of existence. It would be too easy to call his ideas contradictory and utopian.
Considering the Dalai Lama in light of Pope Francis, one may conclude that our age is not as anti-religious as some atheists would like to believe. A religious leader who renounces the trappings of office (while very much and shrewdly maintaining it) and knows how to relate to the common man can become the most popular of global celebrities, even if he does nothing to change the ancient dogmas that have been entrusted to him. But he has to know how to criticize modernity using modern language. Blaming capitalism and using modern communications and travel to spread a message of compassion and equality is an exemplary way to do it.
The first and, in my opinion still the best, critique of this kind came from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Preparing an Acton University  lecture on Rousseau’s influence last year got me thinking that Catholics who simply blame Rousseau for the French Revolution and ignore his insights are missing something important. Combining religious/spiritual impulses with egalitarianism is what the Savoyard Vicar does in Rousseau’s Émile. With its pantheism and “natural religion,” it’s also the part of the book that got him into trouble with the Catholic and Calvinist authorities of his time.
If there are among us Christian defenders of free-market economics despite all the obvious tensions and paradoxes, what’s to stop the religious left from doing the same, one may ask. Well, for starters, the free market actually delivers on its promise of raising material living standards, as modern Bangaloreans can attest, while full equality is never achieved. Yet, as Bret Stephens points out in this excellent Wall Street Journal op-ed , as social conditions become more equal, the zest for equality only grows. It’s one thing for a pope from Argentina or a Tibetian monk to talk about the dangers of material wealth and income inequality, but something all together different for the President of the United States to do so.
Making “compassion for all creatures” the basis for life, as the Dalai Lama and the Bounds of Ethics conference claim to do, raises other questions. Doesn’t the term “creature” necessarily imply a Creator or at least something that exists before and presumably after our time on earth? Wouldn’t this something also reveal itself or demand our reverence, and thereby get us back to those difficult theological questions so many liberals wish to avoid? Even if we admit that all human beings are fundamentally equal in being made in the image and likeness of God, this still doesn’t resolve the immense inequality between the Creator and the creature. The Christian Incarnation of “God made flesh” is due to God’s love for the world rather than a form of redistribution, something that requires much more on our part than sitting on the couch and watching TV. A Buddhist monk’s life of self-renunciation wouldn’t seem to fit the spirit of our times either.
All of the above is to say that I am continually gaining in my understanding of why so many religious leaders, East and West, seem critical if not hostile to the market economy. At first glance, faith and economics are different ways of looking at the world. At a fundamental level, who actually produces wealth, God or man? The religious answer seems clear. Wealth creation may have appeared as something divine, when the division of labor, the protection of private property, limited government, and the encouragement to buy and sell with each other were missing. Taking elements of the Christian tradition that emphasized individual liberty and equality together with these advancements is what has made the West more prosperous than the rest of the planet, even if it came at the expense of more stable, “conservative” societies. Now that the rest of the world is getting in on the act, there seems to be no stopping it. The trick will be in getting the intellectual and religious leaders to admit that the poor may actually be better off in richer, growing economies. Instead of criticizing the means of their escape, our opinion leaders should be helping the poor become spiritually richer as they work to get out of poverty.
Bringing religion and market economics together requires an integration of perspectives or a synthesis of Christian and Enlightenment thought. The political philosopher Leo Strauss once remarked that “syntheses effect miracles.” Perhaps so with Christians and liberals; turning the Dalai Lama and the pope into Marxists would be an even greater one.