Friday, March 9, 2007


So, this is the longest I've gone without posting. I sort of gave it up for Lent, or at least the obsessive-compulsive urge to post everyday. Now you'll just get extremely lengthy posts whenever I feel like it. At least during Lent. The change of format is the result of a rather exceptional experience I had this past weekend at All Saint's Sisters of the Poor, an Anglican convent in Catonsville, Maryland. For those who don't know me well, this is not my typical weekend activity. But Sammy recommended it to a group of us at church, and I'm very glad he did. I'll try to relate it to you, just the interesting parts, hopefully.

Sister Catherine Grace told us to focus on stillness, which I suppose is to be expected at a convent. She recommended we wander around the property and observe nature. Something about the place was so serene and absolutely quiet (the picture doesn't convey it). She told us how she gave up all her possessions and joined the convent 45 years ago. She talked about the different kinds of people who have come through. It was a home for disabled children, and a hospice center, and now a retreat. She talked about the three strangers who came to die there, each prejudiced against the other, and how they became inseparable friends, and died within 4 hours of each other.

The guest house was full of interesting literature. I read some of the newsletters, tucked away in a bin labeled "Christian vices." These jumped out at me:
1) curiosity
2) self-expectation
3) pride
To the extent curiosity is self-serving, it is a sin. If it interferes with one's relationship with God, it is a sin. The same goes for self-expectation and pride. Clearly, these are virtues to most people, especially academics. So are the sisters just a bunch of fringe nuts? No, I think they are living consistently with an essential element of Christianity, which is the death of self. The ultimate story of selflessness is, of course, the life of Jesus.

I'm a believer, so this has meaning for me. It effects my incentives. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one. This is why I think economists should pay attention to religion. That's what I've been doing this week, while trying to keep the curiosity, self-expectation, and pride from consuming me. Are you sensing the cognitive dissonance? Larry Iannaccone says the scientific study of religion demands methodological atheism. F. Scott Fitzgerald said the mark of genius is the ability to hold simultaneously two conflicting ideas. Maybe that's why so many geniuses kill themselves. They run into their other persona and it scares the shit out of them. I don't think very many of us are geniuses, certainly not me, and I think even geniuses can't fully separate their sensibilities from their rational thoughts. Economists pretend to be objective, probably largely to signal intelligence, but it generally just results in deception and bias (see Dan Klein for more on this). However, I think figuring out the degree and the context in which people can become objective is important for economists, as that is the domain in which our models work best, and beyond which, we need to augment the theory.

Addendum: Here's what G. K. Chesterton said about it:

The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.

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