An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Interview with Lucas G. Freire

I recently caught up with Dr Lucas G. Freire, a professor a Mackenzie Presbyterian University in Brazil. He is also the most recent addition to the pages.

Before returning to Brazil in 2018 to work at Mackenzie, Lucas had been a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Philosophy of North-West University in Potchefstroom. While living in England, he was a Research Associate at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics and a Lecturer in International Relations (IR) at the universities of Plymouth and Exeter.

Could you start by telling us about yourself?

I divide my professional time between teaching, which takes up most of my time, and research in religion, history, and political economy. I'm a husband and proud father of three children. Since I married Emma, we've moved a lot, but now we live in São Paulo, where I'm an Assistant Professor of Economics at Mackenzie Presbyterian University's business school and she writes for US media outlets from home.

I was born and raised in Brazil, in a Presbyterian household. My parents made a point of taking me to church, Sunday school, and children's choir. A typical Brazilian schoolday lasts only four to five hours, so I had plenty of time to do other things. In my spare time, I would often play the piano, play football, or do English lessons. In my late high school years, I noticed that I had to be sure about the foundations of my worldview and I also noticed that much of the school curriculum was aimed at placing alumni at a good university, and not really on education per se. That was when I made the choice to read independently and to attend a model UN. That learning experience helped me decide on International Relations (IR) as my degree subject.

I was also offered a place at a public university's Economics programme. Since I couldn't make up my mind, I did two undergraduate degrees. Economics, for free, in the morning, and IR at a philanthropic Catholic university in the afternoon. Back then I had energy for this sort of thing, but I had to spend less time playing the piano. I had to read books like The Capital and Keynes' General Theory after midnight - can you imagine that? The thing is unreadable under normal circumstances! Cramming for calculus and econometrics was even worse. By the end of the fourth year, I was very tired. I guess you could call that a reductionistic lifestyle.

I applied for a bunch of postgraduate programmes and accepted a very good funding deal at the University of Exeter, in the UK, with PhD funding already included. I took half a year between graduation and the beginning of my Exeter MA in International Relations to obtain a license to work as an insurance broker for a family business. At Exeter I learned to do independent research. I had a very good supervisor, excellent lecturers, and a nice group of colleagues. Towards the end of my MA, it was clear already that perhaps I should have studied some field in the Humanities from the beginning. But in Brazil, you dream about doing either Engineering, Law, or Medical School. Doing Economics and IR was already a small act of rebellion at that time, but also a compromise, because I had indicated that History would have worked better for me and was discouraged from pursuing that. Now things have changed in Brazil. People are less traditional about their degree options. Unfortunately, if I could go back in time I'd still do none of the main ones. I'd go for Liberal Arts in the classical style, but that's not available in the country. Too bad.

My PhD supervisor was Colin Wight. He gave me a break to read Dooyeweerd and other Reformational work after my MA to try to come up with a Reformational project. In the end we agreed on a broader question, "what's the role of metatheory in IR?" and it did help to have taken four months to read philosophy, but mostly we agreed that doing Reformational IR would be too difficult to get it done in five years or so. I completed my thesis in 2012 and graduated in 2013.

By that time, I had developed an interest in the history of political ideas and also in the history of foreign relations in the ancient Near East. Since then, I have been writing on different topics, such as economics and politics in the ancient Near East, Reformational philosophy applied to politics, IR theory and a few historical topics.

Who or what are your key influences?

My parents taught me the importance of church attendance and the value of studying and working hard. My grandparents taught me to enjoy being around my extended family, including my cousins, and the importance of history, culture and the arts. My Italian granddad read me some Italian literature and Reader's Digest stories when I was little. We also heard classical music, travelled, and attended concerts together. In my PhD years, I had the blessing of meeting the Wieske family in Northeast Brazil. They were there as a missionary family. I went back to the area several times and they always showed hospitality and, in their daily routine, provided a role model of a Christian family working for the Kingdom.

In cultural or intellectual terms, I guess I should mention that paying attention to J.S. Bach's music shaped my worldview as much as reading Abraham Kuyper's Stone Lectures or Francis Schaeffer's trilogy. I found in Bach a good balance against some of the romantic tendencies you can see, for example, in Kuyper. I was under the preaching of a pastor who had strong views on Christianity not only as a religion or way of life for the individual but also a cultural force for the common good. When I discovered Kuyper and the rest, my heart and mind were already prepared for that sort of approach.

Another influence I should mention came from people and events that taught me to mistrust the hubris of political authoritarianism. My Italian granddad was a child during World War II and his family never joined the Fascist party. As a result, they had much less access to food and clothes and suffered a lot during the war. This is part of the reason why he later decided to try something new in Brazil. I grew up hearing his stories about the horrors of war. My other grandfather was older and he had been drafted by the Brazilian Army to join the allied forces and fight the axis powers in Italy. But, before shipping to Europe, in the Army base, he decided he shouldn't go fight the war, so he had to hide for a few years before amnesty was granted for defectors. When I was born, Brazil was still under the rule of a military junta, but later transitioned to a convoluted period of democratic transition. High inflation was destroying people's livelihoods. I remember running in front of the "price man" at the supermarket to get products for the previous day's price before the new tags were placed in them. My father got his salary and would have to immediately spend most of it by stocking up groceries for the entire month. This was very early in my childhood, until age nine or so, but I still have vivid memories of the national currency changing name every six months or so. By college time, I was already immune to the idea that politicians are more enlightened than the rest of us.

Then, when I read books such as The Road to Serfdom or, say, Orwell's 1984, they helped me conceptualize what I had already noticed intuitively. I had already grasped Lord Acton's maxim that "absolute power corrupts absolutely". If you have, let's say, an Augustinian view of the potential damage we can cause to fellow human beings if unhampered by checks and balances, then you can easily identify some of the naivete about human nature both right and left on the political spectrum, and that can lead you to the normative point that civil government should be limited in scope.

A final influence I should mention is Dr Jonathan Chaplin. I worked with him part-time as an assistant in a project on religion in the EU at KLICE. I'm very thankful for the interactions I had with him and that helped me advance a publication agenda in Reformational political philosophy after my PhD. But the most striking thing Jonathan taught me was how to have a proper academic conversation on contentious issues. Jonathan is a very skilled writer and communicator. I noticed I was at odds with some of his political views, but he's such a gentleman, and he taught me a lot through his polite behaviour. He played the role of mentor, of someone who wants to focus more on the common ground, making sure I knew I had a place in the Reformational movement and had something to contribute. I'm very thankful for the time I spent at KLICE.

How did your interest in Reformational philosophy begin?

I guess I was hearing a lot of preaching on the need to be a Christian in whatever you do, not just family life or personal conduct towards others, but also in the way you frame your vocation and think of it. Then I searched for material on this and Schaeffer was the first stop, Kuyper was the second stop, Van Til the third and, finally, Dooyeweerd. By the second year of college, I had read a good selection of articles on faith and culture across the Reformed spectrum - from Sproul to Rushdoony. I have to say I ran some risk reading theologically controversial material at such an early age, but those writers had a gift with words, plus it helped me improve my English language skills, and I had been well catechised, so that provided me with a good filter.

By around 2007, like-minded people in my town set up an association for translating and discussing Reformational material and later they managed to obtain the rights to publish Dooyeweerd in Portuguese. This is how I met Guilherme de Carvalho, who later on also trained at L'Abri and opened its first urban branch ever in Brazil. He encouraged me to read not only Dooyeweerd but also Rookmaaker and Alister McGrath. At that time I started to translate Reformational material into Portuguese. First, a book chapter by Matt Bonzo on globalisation. Then, Dooyeweerd's 32 propositions on philosophical anthropology for private circulation.

In 2011, during my PhD years, I attended the "Future of Creation Order" conference in Amsterdam and presented a paper on IR and Dooyeweerd and a paper written with another Brazilian colleague, Leo Ramos, who at the time was pursuing the notion of using Dooyeweerd in IR as a critical theory. The 2011 conference was crucial to rekindle my interest in Dooyeweerd's philosophy.

What are your current research interests? How does your Christian faith influence your research projects?

In 2018 I delivered the Calihan Lecture at the Acton Institute and applied the notion of sphere sovereignty to interpret the crisis we are facing in the public square. This lecture has recently been published in the Journal of Markets & Morality. Last year I finished a project on the classical liberal background of the anti-revolutionary movement. An article summarising the main findings will come out in the Journal of Church and State in 2021. I didn't want it to be too controversial and deliberately toned down the argument after the first peer review, but the main point is that Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper fall under the category of "anti-rationalist liberals", together, of course, with figures such as Lord Acton, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and others who were, together with the anti-revolutionaries, very critical of the "rationalist liberalism" of, say J.S. Mill or the French liberals. As part of this project, I wrote an epilogue to the Portuguese translation of Kuyper's speech on the social question, a book chapter for a South African publisher on Christian ethics and entrepreneurship in an interventionist economy.

My faith influences my projects mostly in the research questions. Sometimes, this is very obvious, such as when I want to offer an application of the concept of sphere sovereignty to a particular policy area, like my 2016 article on security studies in Philosophia Reformata. In other projects, the connection is less direct. I share Dr David Koyzis' concern with idolatry in our political life, but use a different angle when I approach the subject. My PhD on metatheory used some of M.D. Stafleu's views on theory to conceptualize metatheory, but non-Reformational readers will probably have the same use for the thesis as Reformational scholars. I also study particular Christian thinkers, like Martin Wight or Johannes Althusius and this obviously appeals more to a Christian audience. Finally, my research in Assyriology is thinly connected to my Christian faith, as it tends to be mostly empirical. But of course being Reformed means I would have more of an interest in trying to understand how covenants worked in the ancient Near East, as it was the case with Meredith Kline and others in the past.

I have changed some of the focus of my views over time, and now I think that the Christian worldview applied to how you interpret your vocation and act can be developed in a less theoretical and more organic way in the context of a solid local church, good catechesis, good Christian schools and solid family time with prayer and Bible reading. I see less of an emphasis on life in the local church than I'd like to see in the Reformational movement, particularly, after Dooyeweerd, and that's a development that the movement should perhaps regret. For that reason, I keep my eyes open to identify positive contributions of "implicit" Christian scholarship out there that might not be as fluent in "Reformational" as I wished in the past.

You have experienced academic life in the UK, South Africa and Brazil. What contact have you had with the reformational movement in each of these countries - how are they the same and how are they different.

My contact was mostly with philosophers and political theorists and, to a lesser degree, theologians. In Brazil and the UK, Reformational scholars tend to be outside the university system, working academically on the side, and they are theologically diverse - I'd say more diverse in the UK than in Brazil, but in both countries, you'll see a lot of interest in Reformational scholarship across different church communities. I think one key difference is that people interested in Reformational scholarship in Brazil tend to be more influenced by American evangelicalism, whereas in the UK it's easier to find a Reformational attending a mainline church.

In South Africa, I was working at what is, or was, perhaps the last 'Reformational' philosophy department in the world at NWU in Potchefstroom under the leadership of Prof Michael Heyns. I was there when Prof Renato Coletto became the Chair in Philosophy and saw Prof Daniê Strauss, Prof Bennie van der Walt, and Prof Henk Stoker present and discuss papers at our internal seminar. Professors Bob Goudzwaard and Elaine Botha also visited and offered advanced courses. In that environment, I had the impression that there were many scholars still influenced by Reformational philosophy applying it to different fields and with tenure at different universities. I'm not sure if that will be the case in five years or so. But there was more of a formal presence in the university setting. And most of them were in some sort of Reformed church, either the GKSA or two of the "national" churches.

There are more historical Reformational associations in South Africa than in Brazil or the UK. I think the Koers journal exists since at least the mid-1930s. But in Brazil, one particular association - the Brazilian Association for Christians in Science / ABC2 - managed to obtain good funding over the last few years and is now probably one of the best-funded Reformational associations in the world. In the UK I didn't get the chance to network with people based North of London, but I'd say Reformational philosophy has a strong presence reaching indirectly to students in Oxford and Cambridge, via KLICE or some other association, but the number of academics openly pursuing scholarship in this tradition is much smaller.

Central and South America seem to be hot spots for Reformational interests. Why do you think this is the case?

I think there are a number of reasons for that. First, Dooyeweerd and Kuyper are being translated and are for the first time being read in Spanish or Portuguese, in places like Mexico or Brazil. 

Second, there are a number of scholars and public intellectuals that are particularly successful in their fields or in their media presence who are enabling people to make sense of this material. I can think of

Adolfo Garcia de la Sienra in Mexico, 
Manfred Svensson in Chile, 
Guilherme de Carvalho 
Rodolfo Amorim 
Pedro Dulci
Jonas Madureira 
Igor Miguel 
and Davi Charles Gomes in Brazil. 

Third, at least in the case of Brazil, a Reformational research agenda has two good chances of thriving in terms of funding. ABC2, the association that is promoting Christian scholarship among evangelicals, has obtained funding to translate books and to expand on them through videos, conferences, and online courses. This is one space that is open to Reformational scholarship. Another space is Mackenzie Presbyterian University, where there's an internal trust that funds Christian scholarship with small grants. Professors at the university can apply for that every 6 months. 

Fourth, individual publishers are also interested in this material. An important project is that of the Acton Institute with Lexham, publishing some of Kuyper's works for the first time in English. Since many of us don't read Dutch, this is a crucial project with international impact. Similarly, Paideia Press has been republishing some mid-20th century Reformational material and this is helping the current generation to rediscover some of the classics in the tradition. 

Fifth, there are pockets of a more implicit Reformational presence in those places where the Evangelical or Protestant community is small and they end up gaining a great deal of influence. I can think of Plataforma C in Costa Rica, under the leadership of Dennis Petri for one. They are doing important non-academic work, particularly with the agenda of promoting freedom of religion. 

Finally, organisations such as Cardus and authors like Rob Joustra and Jordan Ballor lead by example when they draw novel conclusions and applications to our contemporary setting from the classic Reformational authors. This is a good model for public intellectuals and associations to follow in Latin America.

What Reformational resources are available in Portuguese?

Publishers like Monergismo and Vida Nova in Brazil, as well as Thomas Nelson Brasil and Ultimato, are bringing authors such as J.M. Spier, Goudzwaard, Rookmaaker, Dooyeweerd, and Kuyper, to a Portuguese-speaking audience for the first time. There is an emerging literature of original local authors applying Reformational insights to public theology, such as Gui Braun, Josué Reichow, Jonas Madureira, and Pedro Dulci. When something "Reformational" is about to be published, I'm often contacted to write a foreword or epilogue and "introduce" the work to the Brazilian reader, but the funny thing is that I haven't written a book myself!

Guilherme Carvalho has a column in a newspaper called Gazeta do Povo and for a long time he had one on Ultimato's website, where he writes on public theology from a Reformational point of view. Franklin Ferreira, a Reformed Baptist pastor at Martin Bucer Seminary, has written on what I'd define as "broadly Kuyperian" political concerns from a conservative perspective. There is a new generation of young scholars that are publishing in Portuguese now, some of them under the supervision of Leo Ramos, my coauthor. Tiago Rossi wrote an MA on Reformational political thought and IR and is now working on a PhD exploring this topic further with a focus on Kuyper.

ABC2 and L'Abri are doing a fantastic job to popularize Reformational scholarship through videos, presentations, events, online courses, seminars, and much more. Pedro Dulci runs an "Invisible College" mailing list with a list of Reformational resources in public theology and, for subscribers, a premium mentoring programme that involves essay writing and discussion groups.

Between 2012 and 2015 I blogged on Brazilian politics drawing on a Reformational framework. There's a group called Nucleo Althusius in Recife that runs a reading and discussion club, live internet meetings and an annual Forum in public theology. The group is planning to publish a translation of Groen van Prinsterer's lectures, some original material, and to organise now as a Christian think tank similar to Canada's ARPA combined with Cardus. Matheus Andrade and Vinicius Pimentel are ahead of this. They have experience in politics and law, and Vinicius is also training to be an ordained minister.

What do you do for fun? 

I watch my kids play. That's my TV these days. When I can, I also play music.

What books are you reading at the moment? 

I'm reading La Lingua dei Sumeri, a Sumerian grammar written by four Italian scholars, and The Humane Economist, a Wilhelm Röpke reader edited by Daniel Mugger and published by the Acton Institute.

If you were on a desert island what two luxuries would you take with you?

A harpsichord with spare parts and a good edition of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

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