Sunday Sermon: Home, sweet oikos

Many years ago, the University of Chicago invited Amartya Sen, who had recently won a Nobel Prize in Economics, to come and speak. He appeared beside Gary Becker, a distinguished professor of the University’s famed economic department, and an adherent to the “Chicago School of Economics.” At one point, after the speeches, a question was posed about how the two would define the role of economics in society. Becker gave what is probably his standard Econ 101 introduction, explaining how economics studies how rational human behavior influences the aggregate behavior of markets, etc. After several minutes of this, the question was posed to Sen.

Economics is the study of how to eradicate poverty. That at least, is what I remember him saying. He may have continued on after that, but he didn’t have to say more. His study of development was not an abstract problem of defining and maximizing utility. Economics was about helping people.

Economist Brad DeLong reminds us that the word “ecumenical” shares a root with “economics” and “ecology.” The root is oikos or home. “‘Ecumenical’ dialogues,” DeLong writes, “are inside-the-house-dialogues, dialogues with people who you trust and like enough to invite into your house to warm themselves by your fire and toast marshmallows. If a dialogue is not ‘ecumenical’ but ‘interreliglous’… well, you are saying that they’re not your friends, not people who you invite in to sit by the fire.”

That’s a comment directed at a discussion about whether evangelicals will embrace Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon ? that is, whether they will see including him in their discussion as “ecumenical” or “interreligious.” But the conversation began by discussing Pope Benedict XVI’s shift away from the ecumenical outreach that his predecessor so nobly undertook, outreach not just within the household of Christian faiths, but to Jews, Muslims, and many other groups.

Billmon argues that the Pope, in recent remarks quoting a theologian who said that Muhammad brought only “evil and inhuman” things to the world, did Osama bin Laden a solid favor. He points out that bin Laden’s strategy rests on polarizing the world, and pulling Muslims onto his side:

Anything that promotes or facilitates this grand strategy helps Al Qaeda win. Anything that inhibits it — that prevents the Islamic world from polarizing into pro-Western and anti-Western camps — helps defeat bin Laden.

Ecumenicism is bin Laden’s enemy. Seeing the world as fundamentally full of “them,” with a tiny core group of “us” is how he achieved whatever success he’s gained.

This distinction, between those who see the world as fundamentally “us-versus-them” and those who look for ways to bring people together, gets to the heart of a lot of the debates we find in society. I think this divide encompasses the “red-family/blue-family” divide that Doug Muder proposes as a supplement or replacement for Lakoff’s Strict Father/Nurturant Parent dichotomy. We see it in debates between liberal theology and conservative theology. Indeed, we see it in the dialogue between Francis Collins or Ken Miller and Richard Dawkins or Dr. Myers.

Like any of these sorts of archetypical viewpoints, everyone has the capacity to enjoy both, to encourage people they disagree with to come into their home and the tendency to want to keep certain people out. We want a Strong Father to protect the home (Muder’s “inherited obligation family”) against outsiders, and we want a nurturing parent to welcome new people in to Muder’s “negotiated obligation family.” American voters seem to want protection against dark-skinned people, whether immigrants from the south or insurgents in Iraq. George Bush appeals to that by waging war in the Middle East, but he’s prudent enough to hedge. Bush’s rhetoric about bringing democracy to the Middle East may seem hypocritical, but it is meant to appeal to our better angels, the part of our minds that want to welcome people into our household of democracy.

When we recognize this, a lot of conflicts become less important. Slactivist’s discussion of the evangelical perspective on Biblical inerrancy fits neatly within this framework, his call for “evangelicals ? to approach scripture with a bit more ? Niebuhrian humility” is a call to treat people who disagree as friends, not as outsiders to be hated or feared.

These divisions have important consequences, we care for, and feel ethical obligations to, those who we consider part of our group, the ones we invite under our roof. Those we keep outside, we feel less obligation for. In 1948, Aldo Leopold argued that ethics had been expanding since time immemorial, and that this expansion was necessary and appropriate for our environmental future. Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is a classic of nature writing and ecological thinking for many reasons, but his argument still holds today. His claim was simple:

The first ethics dealt with the relation between individuals; the Mosaic Decalogue is an example. Later accretions dealt with the relation between the individual and society. The Golden Rule tries to integrate the individual to society, democracy to integrate social organization to the individual.

There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property. The land relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but no obligations.

“The extension of ethics to this third element in human environment is,” he argued, “an ecological necessity.” We live in a home, we invite more and more people into that home. But unless we recognize that home, our oikos, itself as within our sphere of common interest, we cannot protect it.


  1. #1 Chiefley
    September 18, 2006

    Thats one of the best pieces of writing I have seen in a long time.

  2. #2 Josh
    September 18, 2006

    That’s sweet of you.

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