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Half Empty or Half Full?

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Sylvia Nasar's recent book, "Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius," frames Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol" (citing James Henderson) as an attack on Thomas Malthus's unsettling predictions in his "Essay on the Principle of Population." Even today one might divide the economic, social and political world into those who see a glass that is half empty and draining or one that is half full and filing.

Certainly strong arguments may be developed for both sides of the debate. One may assert, however, that religious doctrines are inherently optimistic. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there are optimistic examples from the Old Testament and New Testament. Indeed, Genesis begins with abundance in the Garden of Eden although one may counter that human activity destroyed that pristine setting. The New Testament quotes Jesus, "Freely you received, freely give" (Matthew 10:8), and there is a constant theme of abundance and sharing.

What response does the Bible suggest when prospects appear gloomy? The Old Testament book of Job is an account of one who maintains religious integrity in spite of all the evidence. The New Testament book of Revelation has a similar theme. Both books provide a "backstage" look as the story unfolds. Both feature clashes between powerful forces of good and evil. Both commend adhering to good. Are there lessons to apply to our contemporary world?

Recent reports estimate a 7-billion-person world population. Many of this number live in poverty and suffer numerous catastrophes. Others have an abundance of wealth and ease. The Judeo-Christian tradition emphasizes charity and gratitude on the part of the wealthy. In contrast with the viewpoint that bad things only happen to bad people and consequently they deserve what happens, Jesus' comments on a tower collapse (Luke 13), and a man born blind (John 9) apparently question that concept. Nasar writes that "Malthus was extremely critical of the traditional English welfare system, which provided relief with few strings attached, for rewarding the idle at the expense of the industrious." This critique cause Parliament to exact "a new Poor Law in 1834 that effectively restricted public relief to those who agree to become inmates of parish workhouses." Charles Dickens had seen much empty land in America and believed that human industry and progress could defeat Malthus' gloom. Will secular human progress or Divine intervention prevent or overcome a catastrophic collapse? Are "free riders" an exception to charity? How does one distinguish the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor? The answers to these questions shape public and private actions and our view of the future.

Two recent secular futurists predict a technological solution. Michio Kaku in "Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100" states: "One possible solution [involves] crops specifically engineered to thrive in dry, hostile, and barren environments." However, Kaku is less optimistic about the elimination of disease and the possibility of "dictatorial governments that may want to use genetic engineering for their own purposes, such as breeding stronger but more obedient soldiers."

Miguel Nicoleis, in "Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines--and How it Will Change Our Lives," criticizes "the fear and anxiety spread by 'futurologists,' who warn us that humanity's doomsday waits just around the corner since a revolutionary generation of extremely smart machines are about to take over our planet and make slaves of us all." He discusses why he sees "a future filled with blunt optimism and eager anticipation, rather than gloom and calamity."

Nasar concludes that "economic calamities -- financial panics, hyperinflations, depressions, social conflicts and wars -- have always triggered crises of confidence, but they have not come close to wiping out the cumulative gains in average living standards." Finally, "the men and women on the streets of Tunisia, Syria, and other Middle Eastern nations in 2011 represent the latest wave of citizens to imagine an economic future characterized by growth, stability, and a business climate favorable to entrepreneurship. Once such a future can be imagined, returning to the nightmare of the past seems increasingly impossible."

Consequently, I return to the question that began this comment: Do we see a glass that is half empty and draining or one that is half full and filling?