Report from the Karam Forum, Los Angeles, 2018

The Oikonomia Network hosted their second annual Karam Forum last weekend in Los Angeles. The forum is an opportunity for theological educators at seminaries throughout the U.S. and beyond (there were also a few folks from Australia in attendance) to learn and reflect on themes of faith, work and economics – and really, at a big picture level, about God’s created order and human flourishing. They consider how these ideas ought to inform their work as seminary educators.

In this post, I offer a (somewhat piecemeal) summary of sessions followed by a few observations and takeaways. If you’re interested in a more detailed review of session topics, speakers and panelists, feel free to hop over to the Karam Forum website and read the program schedule.

  • Law in a Pluralistic Society: Christian Perspectives. This year, Karam featured a conversation about law and human flourishing in a “slot” that Karam Forum uses to focus on a selected discipline (they focused on the social and natural sciences at last year’s conference). This panel presented an impressive group that included a Wisconsin supreme court justice, the dean of a law school, the director of Wheaton College Center for Faith, Politics, and Economics, and others.
  • What is Flourishing? In this plenary talk, Andy Crouch warned against “low friction, high margin” activities, suggesting the more disciplined route of “high friction, low margin,” characterized by a dedication to things that matter.  To illustrate his point, he highlighted the difference between the long and arduous process of learning an instrument and achieving mastery (high friction, low margin) and merely pressing play on your Spotify account (low friction, high margin). Both produce music, but learning and playing an instrument contributes to flourishing in a way that merely pressing play can never. The point that came through is that flourishing should not too quickly be equated with ease, but rather with the results of human effort, attention, and discipline.
  • Crouch’s panel was followed by two follow up panels on how the church can help people better understand flourishing as well as Christian hopes for a globalizing world. I came away from these sessions with an increased desire to see some of the theory surrounding our faith and work messages to be translated into practical applications. How, for example, should these messages inform hiring practices? How should they inform performance review processes? (This thought occurred to me when Amy Sherman proposed that churches replace the term “church budget” with the new term “flourishing fund.”)
  • God’s Mission as a Way of Life. Vince Bacote opened this portion of the conference with a plenary talk, reminding his listeners that God’s mission is as big as life. The following panels, facilitated by Darrell Cosden and Don Guthrie, featured a variety of interesting ideas and suggestions related to unique contributions theology and higher education can make to our understanding of God’s work in the world. There was an interesting textual analysis of the Great Commission and the observation that the textual imperative is not the word “go” but rather “make disciples.” This produced discussion on the implications that everyone is a missionary, so to speak, in and through their manifold vocations. There was also a fascinating suggestion that Christians ought to consider replacing their usage of the term “God’s mission” with the term “God’s economy.”
  • Seeking Economic Wisdom. P.J. Hill opened this session with a fascinating reflection on the important role of free markets and their capacity to structure social interactions between people who don’t know each other. But even more striking was his brief exploration of the limitations and insufficiency of markets to produce flourishing on their own. Markets extend and enable people’s desires, whether these desires are ordered or disordered, right or wrong. The talk was followed by a panel discussion on Biblical perspectives regarding economic wisdom.
  • Educating for God’s People and World. The conference wrapped up with a plenary talk by Charlie Self on the critical role of educators in the formation of new generations of Christians who seek the flourishing of their communities through the exercise of their vocations.

While the event was similar in some ways to other recent faith and work conferences, there was something new as well, something fresh–it seems to me that Karam succeeded in pointing to some important ways forward this year, helping at the very least to identify some conversational threads the faith and work community should start pulling on. I’m thinking of several instances:

  • Darrell Bock pressed his panelists to take structural/cultural disadvantages among minority groups seriously. Although this was in response to an audience question about (social) justice, I appreciate that Darrell pressed for a robust response. The possibility seemed to be there for a conversation I’ve sensed has been off the table in other such faith and work events. I’m hoping this is a hint that the faith and work crowd might be able to explore the idea that free markets are necessary but not sufficient to address social disparities, that there are social realities that also much be accounted for.
  • Nathan Hitchcock pressed his listeners to reconsider flattening the unique role of the church when elevating the sacredness of so-called secular vocations. In fact, he made a further provocative suggestion that perhaps we shouldn’t do away with the “sacred-secular” distinction altogether, but rather recognize that all vocations are both sacred and secular at the same time–church-paid work is sacred on the surface, but “secular” in many ways when you go deeper, and vice versa with vocations represented among congregants.
  • Brain Fikkert of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development confessed to recent personal concerns about the limitations of global markets.
  • P.J. Hill offered a balanced perspective on the important, but limited role of free markets, noting that markets “extend people’s desires” and that when desire is disordered, free markets extend that too (markets can efficiently provide both food and pornography where desires exist for these things).

I’ve come away from some of these (faith and work) conferences wondering how long we’re going to talk about how CEOs and other white collar folks can experience their work as meaningful (don’t get me wrong – this is important, but the conversation needs to be free to range further afield as well). I’ve found myself with a growing hope that we’ll be able to offer more as a community, and I find myself heartened after this year’s event that we have that ability to attend to a broadening range of concerns.

I saw increasing racial diversity with this event (a little less gender-wise), but of course, there is a long way to go if this movement is to demonstrate the relevance of its message to other communities. I’m quite sure the steering committee has heard this feedback in the past and they are clearly responding to it, and to them I say, keep up the good work!

Kudos to the conference team on some significant developments this year: the conference proceeded through a mix of modes and formats: a short plenary session, followed by panel discussions, plentiful opportunities for the audience to submit questions (via a nifty cell phone app), and key short video clips thrown in throughout the event. The diverse formats and varied pacing gave the conference a nice feel.

In the end, the Karam Forum turns out to be one of the best things going on in the faith and work movement today.

  One thought on “Report from the Karam Forum, Los Angeles, 2018

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