David Koyzis teaches political science at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada, and is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (InterVarsity Press, 2003). He is an amateur poet and musician and has a special interest in sung metrical psalmody, especially the 16th-century Genevan Psalter. Born near Chicago and living now in Canada, he sometimes calls himself a Franco-Greek-Cypriot-Finno-Anglo-American-Canadian, one of the smallest ethnic minorities in North America. His second book, on authority, office and the image of God, is forthcoming from Pickwick Publications, a division of Wipf & Stock.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ conversation with his friends over the nature of justice takes a startling turn when Thrasymachus drops a bombshell. It is more profitable, he argues, for people to be unjust than just, if they can manage to get away with it without incurring a bad reputation. Of course, no society could function on this principle for very long, as individuals would seek to exempt themselves from the rule of law and to gain at others’ expense. Criminal activity is universally condemned as an obvious violation of justice. Here justice is evidently set against injustice of the worst kind.
However, most political issues do not have such a simple dichotomy between justice and injustice. In the real world, conflict is likely to lie not between just and unjust, but between different visions of justice. Partisans everywhere often have difficulty understanding this.
A good example of this is the debate over the closed union shop, an issue that goes back to the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 which legalized collective bargaining in the workplace. Those of a more conservative mindset argue for so-called right to work laws, which would free prospective employees from the obligation to join a union if they prefer not to do so. After all, the Constitution guarantees freedom of association, which the closed union shop appears to violate unjustly.
On the other hand, those of a more liberal bent argue that the closed union shop is necessary to enhance the power of potentially disadvantaged workers against management, who would otherwise unilaterally dictate the terms of their employment. Justice in the workplace requires worker solidarity, which the union guarantees. Requiring employees to join and pay dues to the union is thus very much in accordance with justice.
In Malcolm Magee’s fascinating book on Woodrow Wilson’s “faith-based foreign policy,” What the World Should Be, the author notes that, in the two major conflicts during Wilson’s administration, the president took sides largely out of a desire to divide the world into obvious “good guys” and “bad guys.” In the Mexican civil war, Wilson intervened on behalf of the faction to which he ascribed the most righteousness, although the murky realities of that country’s politics should have elicited a more cautious response. Similarly, during the First World War, Wilson’s admiration for British political institutions and his instinctive distrust of “German theology” predisposed him to commit the United States to the cause of London and Paris against Berlin and Vienna.
A century later, we face similar complexities in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, a series of popular uprisings which began with high hopes of a smooth transition to democracy but whose tragic reality has been civil warfare. The rhetoric of the Arab Spring fits into a larger narrative with which Americans are familiar: Subjugated people living under tyranny finally tire of oppression, rise up, overthrow their despotic rulers, and claim liberty for themselves and their communities. Having overturned a self-serving oligarchy, they set up a government more responsive to their own needs and aspirations.
Yet this narrative does not entirely fit the current situation in a region where there are no obvious good guys and bad guys.
I went K–12 to a terrible public school. My high school didn’t offer AP [advanced placement] classes, and in four years, I only had to read one book. There wasn’t even soccer. This is not a humblebrag! I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. You know all those important novels that everyone’s read? I haven’t. I know nothing about poetry, very little about art, and please don’t quiz me on the dates of the Civil War. I’m not proud of my ignorance. But guess what the horrible result is? I’m doing fine. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that I got a lame education. I’m saying that I survived it, and so will your child, who must endure having no AP calculus so that in 25 years there will be AP calculus for all.
Conventional wisdom tells us that satire doesn’t work if you have to explain it, but here goes. Anyone reading the article should quickly pick up that, if the author has to resort to such flimsy reasoning to denigrate parents desiring a better education for their children, then her own admittedly bad education obviously cannot have served her very well. A better education might have prepared her to mount a more effective argument and to avoid ad hominem attacks. It really is an exquisitely subtle jab at the public system, though perhaps a little too subtle for some.
It seems odd that so many readers have failed to pick up on this satirical element. Yet charity for the author does indeed require us to assume it’s satire, because if it’s not . . . well, it may be wise to allow readers to draw their own conclusions in that case.
The widely circulated discovery that our ancestors slept in two stretches during the night separated by a period of wakefulness has shed light on something that has puzzled many of us who retire between ten and eleven o’clock and expect to be up again between six and seven, namely, the hallowed practice of rising at midnight to pray, as reflected in a number of ancient texts, including the Bible:
Your ancestors slept in a way that modern sleepers would find bizarre – they slept twice. . . . The existence of our sleeping twice per night was first uncovered by Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech.
His research found that we didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.
References are scattered throughout literature, court documents, personal papers, and the ephemera of the past. What is surprising is not that people slept in two sessions, but that the concept was so incredibly common. Two-piece sleeping was the standard, accepted way to sleep.
Here are a few telling references from Scripture:
But Samson lay till midnight, and at midnight he arose and took hold of the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and pulled them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron (Judges 16:3).
At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! (Ruth 3:8)
At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules (Psalm 119:62).
Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning (Mark 13:35).
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25).
What did people do with these wakeful hours in the middle of the night? According to Stephanie Hegarty, writing for the BBC, (more…)
At the start of the twentieth century the Middle East was largely ruled by the Ottoman Turks, with Great Britain administering certain territories in their behalf, such as Egypt and Cyprus. Although Muslims outnumbered Christians, there were still sizable Christian minorities, including the Maronite Catholics of Lebanon, the Assyrian Christians of Mesopotamia and the Coptic Christians of Egypt.
Centuries ago followers of Jesus Christ were in the majority in the region, even after the Muslim Arab conquests and possibly as late as the fourteenth century when the tide turned in favor of Islam. The Ottoman authorities were tolerant of religious diversity, content to rule their non-Muslim subjects through their religious leaders, or ethnarchs. True, they persecuted Christian Armenians from the mid-1890s, but much of the prosperity of the Empire depended on the commercial activities of the non-Muslim communities. Such cities as Thessaloniki, Constantinople, Smyrna and Alexandria were polyglot, religiously-diverse urban centers in which Muslims, Greeks, Jews and Armenians rubbed shoulders constantly in pursuing their respective livelihoods.
This all changed with the coming of the Great War, when nationalist regimes replaced the old imperial orders in so much of Europe and the Middle East. Nationalists pursued a policy of ethnic homogeneity, reserving Turkey for the Turks and Arab countries for the Arabs. This forced Christians to embrace a different strategy for coexistence with Muslim majorities. Up until then they did not generally see themselves as Arabs, but as Copts, Assyrians and so forth, identifying with the pre-Arab populations that had once dominated the region. But Arab nationalism compelled them to embrace an Arab identity or risk being treated as outsiders.
This coincided with the departure of the European powers, especially Britain and France, which had protected the Christian minorities of the Middle East and North Africa. In 1933, after the end of British occupation in Iraq, more than a thousand Assyrian Christians were killed by their Arab neighbors in the Simele massacre. (more…)
Claiming to speak for an entire generation to which she admittedly does not entirely belong, Rachel Held Evans tells us why Millennials are leaving the church. A sample of the reasons she cites:
Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. . . .
Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions–Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc.–precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.
Let’s for the moment leave aside the Episcopal Church. Held Evans appears to see Rome and Constantinople as little more than exotic ports of call for a disaffected generation whose members nevertheless retain their own spiritual autonomy. In all things, including spiritual, they jealously guard their right to choose, and their criteria for doing so tend to be idiosyncratic at best. Some people simply like smells and bells, so go for it!
Yet that is definitely not how these two communions understand themselves. To become Roman Catholic is to accept the authority of the Bishop of Rome, the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the decisions of Vatican II, the Bible, etc. To become Orthodox entails accepting the authority of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Bible, the patriarchs and bishops, etc. Both of these communions set forth teachings on sexuality, ordination, contraception and other issues with which it is difficult to imagine Held Evans agreeing.
During Great Lent and other seasons throughout the year, the Orthodox Churches impose a far stricter fasting regimen than most westerners are willing to tolerate. Rome obliges members to attend Mass, say confession, follow its own teachings, fast on designated days, and so forth. Ex-Catholics regularly excoriate their former communion on grounds of legalism, if not worse. Indeed, attending Mass and living as a Catholic is a matter of obedience, not merely of soaking up a “high-church” atmosphere with ancient roots while continuing to live as one wishes and following whatever agenda seems most congenial to the sovereign self.
Ultimately, the same can be said, not only of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but of any church communion taking seriously the normative character of the Christian faith. The way of the cross is always one of obedience. To come to the church with an idiosyncratic checklist of demands is to take the church as church less than fully seriously.
Is religious freedom only for individuals or does it also have a communal dimension? Timothy George writes:
The Southern Baptist Convention was right to pass a resolution at its annual meeting in Houston this month defining religious liberty as “the freedom of the individual to live in accordance with his or her religiously informed values and beliefs,” and citing in support Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”
To be sure, this is considerably better than the rather narrowly construed freedom of worship championed by the current administration. If religion consists only of what we do within the four walls of the church, synagogue or mosque, then safeguarding religious freedom need not accord the adherent much latitude to practice his or her faith, which now becomes a mere private matter with no public import. The Southern Baptist Convention correctly recognizes religion as a genuine way of life.
However, the SBC would do even better to acknowledge the communal dimension of religious observance. A religion is not a designer-label consumer item that individuals can tailor to their own tastes and predilections. Even if we manage to acknowledge the authority of a norm for faith outside of ourselves, many of us continue to assume that it is up to each of us to decide what that norm is, an approach that does nothing to challenge the hegemony of the dominant North American liberal worldview.
By contrast, Christians and other adherents of the major religious traditions live out their respective faiths in community. These communities inevitably set standards for membership, including expectations for faith and standards for life and conduct within the community. A robust public recognition of religious freedom must account for this communal dimension of faith.
To this end the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance is engaging in an important work. Under the leadership of Stanley Carlson-Thies, IRFA aims to safeguard “the religious identity and faith-shaped standards and services of faith-based organizations, enabling them to make their distinctive and best contributions to the common good.” In a society so heavily influenced by individualism, IRFA’s efforts deserve our support as it strives to deepen recognition of the communal character of religious freedom.
As a Reformed Christian who is in some fashion heir to Calvin’s legacy, I find myself puzzled when I see a title such as this: “Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention.” What does it mean to be a Calvinist in a Baptist denomination? It cannot imply an acceptance of Calvin’s view of the sacraments, which take up considerable space in his Institutes of the Christian Religion and are more than incidental to his theology as a whole. It does not seem to imply recognition of a real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, or of baptism as a sign and seal of God’s grace. Nor does it seem to imply an acceptance of Calvin’s ecclesiology, which takes up volume IV of the Institutes and is generally followed by those churches calling themselves Presbyterian or Reformed.
Although John Calvin and Martin Luther are generally recognized to be the two principal reformers of the sixteenth century, there is a certain asymmetry in their respective legacies, as seen in the fact that no one ever complains of creeping Lutheranism in the Southern Baptist Convention. As far as I know, there is no pro-Luther party in America’s largest Protestant denomination. Why not? If one becomes a Lutheran, it almost always means that one has joined an explicitly Lutheran Church, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (or Canada) or the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. By contrast, if one becomes a Calvinist, it usually means that one has embraced Calvin’s theology—generally his soteriology—while possibly staying put with respect to ecclesiastical loyalties. This is clearly the case with respect to Calvinist Baptists.
From a historical vantage point, the reason for this difference between the Lutheran and Calvinist labels is far from obvious. After all, Calvin was much more explicit in setting forth a reformed ecclesiology than was Luther, who was more willing than his Genevan counterpart to tolerate different ecclesiastical polities in different geographical contexts. The Churches of Sweden and Finland, for example, maintained an episcopal polity with bishops in apostolic succession. Nevertheless, when Swedes and Finns migrated to North America, their respective transplanted church bodies, the Augustana and Suomi Synods, were generally less hierarchical and more congregational in nature, without in any way impairing their continued communion with the mother churches. Their common adherence to the Augsburg Confession was more important than their polities.
On the other hand, when Reformed Christians established their churches in the New World, they usually brought their polity with them to this side of the Atlantic. Thus if Lutheranism has been historically more flexible than Calvinism with respect to ecclesiology, it is not immediately evident to some of us why becoming a Calvinist is usually thought to be a soteriological statement while becoming a Lutheran is an ecclesiastical one. But it may be that I’m missing something that others have picked up on.
While the Bible speaks of praising God with musical instruments (e.g., Psalms 147, 149 and 150), there is an ancient tradition of unaccompanied singing in the church. The Orthodox Churches, Reformed Presbyterians and the Churches of Christ sing a cappella in their worship services. Such groupings out of principle exclude musical instruments from their liturgies. Although many of us would not go quite that far, there is nevertheless much to be said for the argument Justin Taylor, drawing on John Piper and James K. A. Smith, makes in noting “The Difference between Congregational Worship and a Concert.” Taylor quotes Smith:
Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular “form of performance”), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there’s nothing wrong with concerts! It’s just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice–and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of “performing” the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can’t hear ourselves sing–so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become “private,” passive worshipers.
In chapter 2 of my own Political Visions and Illusions, I trace the development of liberalism in five stages: (1) the Hobbesian commonwealth, (2) the night watchman state, (3) the regulatory state, (4) the equal-opportunity state, and (5) the choice-enhancement state. The movement from each stage to the next requires an expansion of the state beyond its normative sphere of competence into the minutest corners of life—all in the name of expanding personal freedom. I have summarized this development here: Tracing the Logic of Liberalism.
Not everyone will agree with my analysis, especially those who persist in thinking early liberalism to have been solidly grounded and its later decadent manifestation a betrayal of the original vision. Yet I am by no means alone in noting the spiritual continuities among the stages of liberalism. To take just two of many recent articles on the subject: Douglas Farrow’s The Audacity of the State is one of the more trenchant analyses, and this past Friday Wesley J. Smith’s The Coercive Freedom of Choice probed what I call the choice-enhancement state, roughly encompassing the period since 1960. According to Smith, “We have now reached the point that others are expected to pay for individuals’ ‘choices’ and maximizing others’ self-identity—even when it violates the payer’s own beliefs. . . . Not too long ago, Americans mostly believed in ‘live and let live.’ The ironic motto for the current day: ‘You do it my way.’”
Is this paradoxical quality in the unending expansion of individual autonomy implicit in the logic of liberalism? I don’t know what Smith would say, but I would say: Yes, most definitely. If liberalism is based on the tendency to reduce all manner of communities to mere voluntary associations, as we see in the contractarian approach of Hobbes and Locke, then we should not be surprised if the effort to mitigate this tendency by, say, an appeal to natural law in the more conservative English-speaking liberals is unsuccessful over the long term, and in the name of freedom tyranny ends up extinguishing freedom.
God’s people have sung the Psalms for millennia, especially in dark times when it seems that he has abandoned them. One young man nearly four hundred years ago found himself in a horribly difficult situation. His name was Wojciech Bobowski (c. 1610—1675), a Polish Reformed Christian who at the age of eighteen (or perhaps as old as twenty-eight, depending on the year of his birth) was kidnapped by the Tatars during one of their occasional raids into his homeland. Sources differ on his birthplace, some pointing to the village of Bobowa (hence Bobowski) and others to Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine). During his childhood and early youth, he had come to know the Bible thoroughly and to sing the Genevan Psalms, apparently in his native language.
Because Bobowski was intellectually brilliant and an accomplished musician and linguist, the Tatars sold him as a slave to the Ottoman Sultan. In an act reminiscent of Pharaoh’s promotion of the biblical Joseph, the Sultan recognized his gifts and elevated him to the positions of court musician, treasurer and translator. Bobowski at least nominally converted to Islam and came to be known as Ali Ufki. Yet even if his conversion was genuine, he did not leave behind his interest in, and apparent love for, the Bible, which he translated into the Turkish language, in which it came to be known as Kitabı Mukaddes, or “Holy Book.” Well into the twentieth century Ali Ufki’s Bible was the only translation available in the Turkish language.
Ali Ufki also translated the Church of England’s catechism and the works of Hugo Grotius and Jan Comenius into Turkish. He eventually gained his legal freedom and lived out his years in Egypt as a dragoman, or diplomatic interpreter.
Yet it is his translation of the first fourteen Genevan Psalms into Turkish for which Ali Ufki is best remembered today. As it turns out, the distinctive modal flavor of the Genevan tunes made them well-suited for adaptation to the musical system used in the Ottoman Empire. This enabled him to publish his collection, Mezmurlar (Psalms), in 1665. We do not know whether he ever intended to translate the entire Psalter and, if so, why he stopped at 14. Nevertheless, in the first decade of this century increasing numbers of musical performing groups began paying attention to them.
For example, in 2005 the German musical group Sarband, in conjunction with the King’s Singers, produced a recording titled, Sacred Bridges: Christian, Jewish and Muslim Psalm Settings. Featuring Ali Ufki’s renditions of Psalms 2, 5, 6, 7 and 9, most of which are sung in both French and Turkish, this recording brings together two quite divergent musical traditions, and the overall effect is little short of astounding. Employing Turkish instruments, Louis Bourgeois’ sturdy tunes take on the unmistakable flavour of typical Near Eastern music. In fact, a youtube video performance of at least one of these comes complete with whirling dervishes, an addition that would leave the typical Dutch or Hungarian churchgoer reeling.
A few weeks ago I was on the GO train to Toronto filled with morning commuters. I would shortly be arriving at Union Station, where I would then transfer to a VIA Rail train to Montréal. Although my mind was initially on the lecture I would be delivering at the end of my journey the following day, I became aware, sitting across the aisle from me, of a middle-aged woman who looked to be Filipino. She was reading from a very small tattered booklet that appeared to lack a cover. After reading she would close her eyes for a time and then resume reading again. She was obviously not dozing. As I myself had prayed the daily office using my e-reader back at the Hamilton GO station, I knew exactly what she must be doing. I had to resist the inclination to ask to see her well-worn booklet. Instead I silently prayed that God would answer her prayer.
Because I am not a regular commuter into Toronto, I will likely never see this woman again. I may have been the only person on the train who knew that she was praying, but because of this, I felt as if the two of us have something—or rather Someone—very precious in common. Someone whose sacrifice on the cross we observe with gratitude during this Holy Week.
The following appeared in the March 11 issue of Christian Courier as part of my monthly “Principalities & Powers” column:
In November 1976 I was privileged to visit what was then called Czechoslovakia and its capital city, Prague. Although the communists were still in power and the weather was cold and gloomy during my stay, I fell in love with this beautiful fourteenth century urban jewel, which managed to glitter despite the austere Stalin-era buildings at its periphery. As a child I had grown up hearing one of my mother’s favorite musical pieces, Bedřich Smetana’s Vltava, or Moldau, a tone poem dedicated to the river on which Prague is built. Thus I was thrilled finally to walk across the fabled Charles Bridge spanning the waterway that had inspired the 19th-century composer.
For an amateur musician Prague is a treat, as its residents glory in the music of Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček, Bohuslav Martinů and many others. Stepping into a church one Sunday I heard a soloist singing two of Dvořák’s Biblical Songs, which I had worked up in my undergraduate voice lessons and had come to love. Dvořák wrote these haunting songs based on the Psalms while in the United States, after learning of the death of his friend and conductor, Hans von Bülow, and of the imminent death of his own father back in Europe. Not surprisingly, the grieving composer turned to the Psalms for comfort. (more…)
I consider myself a Reformed Christian of strongly confessional bent. I love Scripture and recognize it to be God’s Word, the final authority for faith and life. I love the Heidelberg Catechism with its warm, evangelical flavor as it speaks to the heart of believers of our “only comfort in life and in death.” I love singing the Psalms, especially the sturdy melodies of the Genevan Psalter.
Given my unequivocal commitment to the Reformation, and especially to the branch stemming from John Calvin, some may find it surprising that I would pray for Pope Francis and the communion which he leads. Yet I do so, because all Christians in every tradition have a stake in the world’s largest ecclesiastical body. The sixteenth century Reformers themselves initially had no desire to break with the western church, doing so only when forced to. Instead they wished to reform an institution they loved—an institution they believed was corrupt and not living up to the demands of the gospel.
I take no pleasure in the scandals that have beset the Roman Catholic Church in recent decades. Some Protestants may experience a certain schadenfreude at the travails of the church with which their forebears broke so many centuries ago. But not everyone. I genuinely hope and pray that the new Pope, who took the name of another would-be reformer loved by Protestants and Catholics alike, will be able to clean up what needs to be cleaned up in his church. My prayer to God is that, where there is despair he may sow hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is corruption, holiness and unwavering fidelity to the cause of Christ.
In the continuing controversy over climate change it is difficult to sort out the validity of conflicting reports. Here, for example, is a Financial Post column by Lawrence Solomon, “Not Easy Being Green.” According to Solomon:
Arctic ice has made a comeback, advancing so rapidly that the previous decade saw less ice at this time of the year than exists today. And previously balmy Arctic temperatures just nose-dived, according to the Danish Meteorological Institute, which has tracked Arctic temperatures since 1958.
Alarmists shudder when looking south, too, at the stats from Antarctica. There the sea ice extent started growing early this year, and the ice cover remains stubbornly above average. All told, the global sea ice — including both polar caps — now exceeds the average recorded since 1979, when satellites began their measurements.
In September 2012, sea ice in the Arctic Ocean shrank to a record low extent and volume. The region has warmed 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1960s—twice as much as lower latitudes. With less snow and ice to reflect the sun’s rays and with more exposed ocean to absorb heat, a vicious cycle leads to even warmer temperatures. Thinner ice combined with rising temperatures makes it increasingly difficult for the sea ice to recover. The historically ever-present white cap at the top of the globe could disappear entirely during the summer within two decades. . . .
While Greenland’s ice loss is astonishing, on the other side of the globe, parts of Antarctica’s vast ice sheet may be even less stable. The continent is flanked by 54 major ice shelves, which act as brakes slowing the movement of ice in land-based glaciers out to sea. Twenty of them show signs of thinning and weakening, which translates into accelerated ice loss. After the 3,250-square-kilometer Larsen B Ice Shelf collapsed in 2002, for instance, the glaciers it was bracing flowed up to eight times faster than before. The most dramatic thinning is in West Antarctica.
Which is right? Obviously they cannot both be. The two reports are separated by only a week, yet their respective accounts as to what is happening to the polar ice caps could not be more divergent. As a complete layman in the field, I am incompetent to judge the veracity of the two reports, which I am certain is true of most other readers as well.
However, in the absence of certainty on the issue, our political leaders must still make policies while weighing in the balance the various conflicting considerations at stake. The balance will never be perfect, of course, but in general it seems to me that, even if anthropogenic global warming is not occurring, we still have an obligation to pursue policies to protect our physical environment, both for the sake of future generations and in recognition of our responsibility before God for his creation. We may not be able to settle the debate, but it seems wise to err on the side of caution and of minimizing the environmental risks to our descendants.
Sometimes it takes a nonbeliever to speak truth to believers. This time it comes from the “not even religious” George Jonas in Canada’s National Post: Searching for one-size-fits-all religion. Amidst calls from some Roman Catholics that the new Pope toe their own line rather than lead them into truth, Jonas mentions the minor character Helene Bezuhov in Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel, War and Peace.
Exquisitely drawn, like all of Tolstoy’s creations, once you make the Countess Bezuhov’s acquaintance, you can’t quite forget her. Helene is married to Pierre Bezuhov, one of the leading characters in the novel, but she doesn’t feel suited to him and hopes to contract a more agreeable marriage. Maybe even two marriages. She contemplates marrying an older prince first, and then, after he dies, perhaps saying yes to a much younger applicant.
Helene is beautiful. Her arms and shoulders are the marvel of Moscow. She doesn’t lack rich and socially prominent suitors, but she belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church. Divorce being unthinkable in that church at that time—during the Napoleonic wars—she converts to Roman Catholicism. Rome doesn’t permit divorce as such either, but the Pope can sometimes annul a marriage.
“According to her understanding,” writes Tolstoy, describing Helene, “the whole point of any religion was merely to provide recognized forms of propriety as a background for the satisfaction of human desires.” Then Tolstoy continues: “I imagine, (says Helene to her new Jesuit confessor) that having espoused the true faith I cannot be bound by any obligations laid upon me by a false religion.”
Helene would be reassured to know that her heritage lives on. Her standard is held up by men and women who, having acquired the liberty to do as they please, now demand religion to also applaud their moral choices. They want their churches, their priests, even the very Vicar of God, to approve and endorse what they do, or else they threaten him with irrelevance. God Himself becomes irrelevant unless he can be used to rubber stamp human desires—because, as Tolstoy points out, that’s what God is for, at least as far as Helene Bezuhov is concerned. That’s how it was in 1812 and that’s how it is in 2013.
If, on the other hand, genuine religion concerns the little matter of what is true and how we are to live in light of that truth, then whether that truth is relevant to and confirms our desires is beside the point. The martyrs of the church undoubtedly preferred to avoid suffering and keep their lives, but they chose instead to accept their lot for the cause of Christ. Accordingly, we remember and celebrate their lives as signposts pointing to the coming kingdom.
In a world where so many of our brothers and sisters are still on the receiving end of persecution, martyrdom never loses its relevance, sad to say. Therefore, if we love God with all our hearts and glory in our salvation in Jesus Christ, we will do well to look to the likes of St. Stephen the Protomartyr and St. Polycarp of Smyrna rather than to the Helene Bezuhovs of this world.
The following appeared in the 11 February issue of Christian Courier as part of my monthly “Principalities & Powers” column:
I love the Hungarian people. Among their many national virtues, they boast some of the greatest musicians, such as Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), who did so much to shape 20th-century music by drawing on their country’s unique folk idioms. There is a substantial Reformed Christian minority in Hungary, and they are well known for their love of singing the Psalms. In fact, it can be justly argued that psalm-singing carried them through four decades of communist tyranny.
Last year saw the 450th anniversary of the completion of the Genevan Psalter. Although the Psalter’s texts were originally written in French verse, they were quickly thereafter translated into a number of other languages, including German, Dutch, Czech and Hungarian. The remarkable polymath, Albert Szenczi Molnár (1574-1634), was responsible for the Hungarian version. A pastor, linguist, poet, writer and translator, Molnár (whose surname means miller) was born in Senec (Szenc), near what is today the Slovak capital of Bratislava, and would come to exercise a formative influence on the development of the Hungarian language. (more…)
The following piece appeared in the January 14 issue of Christian Courier as the latest installment of my “Principalities & Powers” column. The story related therein is based on Constantijn J. Sikke’s book, Een waarlijk vrije: levensschets van Dr Kornelis Sietsma (A Truly Free Man: A Sketch of the Life of Dr. Kornelis Sietsma) (Amsterdam: Kirchner, 1946).
On a Monday early in 1942, the Rev. Dr. Kornelis Sietsma was arrested by the German Sicherheitsdienst (SD) at his home in Amsterdam. The previous day he had preached a sermon on Luke 4:1-13, the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, in which he emphasized the temptations that come with power. This was at his own congregation, the Schinkelkerk, which worshipped in a fifty-year-old building in the Dutch capital city. At the offering he announced that a collection would be taken for the denomination’s mission to the Jews, something that had come to the attention of the SD, whose agents had attended his church that day.
German troops had occupied the Netherlands for not quite two years. Queen Wilhelmina and her government had taken refuge in London and the occupiers set up a pro-Nazi régime in its place. All of this occurred despite the Dutch declaration of neutrality at the beginning of the war in 1939. However, only months later Germany violated Dutch neutrality and invaded the country. Now German soldiers patrolled the streets, and the Jewish population was beginning to receive discriminatory treatment at their hands, with much worse to come. (more…)
Last week marked the fortieth anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. In the absence of a consensus favoring legal protection of the unborn, what are the alternatives available to us in the short term? In my most recent Capital Commentary piece, I make four suggestions:
First, we always do well to assume that our pro-choice opponents are people of good will who love their families and genuinely care for the welfare of their communities. It will not do for pro-lifers to vilify those on the other side of the issue, a perennial temptation for anyone viewing the struggle in stark apocalyptic terms and focusing on the legislative battle. Those taking a pro-choice position do not hate babies; rather, they see themselves having a heart for vulnerable women in crisis pregnancy situations. We need to build on this sympathy, making a case that it should be extended to the vulnerable child in the womb as well.
Second, those of us who can speak from experience should do so, and in such a way as to open, rather than to close, the lines of communication. Although I personally have no experience with abortion, my wife and I do have experience with an early birth. Our daughter was born fourteen weeks premature nearly a decade and a half ago, weighing in at just over two pounds and spending her first ten and a half weeks in two area hospital neonatal intensive care units. During this difficult time we quickly discovered that our daughter would smile briefly when she was content. It did not take much to convince us that, if she could smile at such a young age, then fetuses, who are more than just inert tissue, must surely smile in the womb. Several years later our suspicions were confirmed by a British study which discovered as much through 3D/4D ultrasound imaging. We were struck by the sheer incongruity between our daughter possessing the legal status of personhood outside the womb, where she should not yet have been, and her lack of such status if she had remained in the womb the full nine months.
Some of us may have missed it, but President Obama declared yesterday Religious Freedom Day in the United States. Here is an excerpt from the presidential proclamation on the White House’s website:
Today, we also remember that religious liberty is not just an American right; it is a universal human right to be protected here at home and across the globe. This freedom is an essential part of human dignity, and without it our world cannot know lasting peace.
As we observe Religious Freedom Day, let us remember the legacy of faith and independence we have inherited, and let us honor it by forever upholding our right to exercise our beliefs free from prejudice or persecution.
While it is good to know that the U.S. government is doing something to recognize so fundamental a right, it would be better if it could acknowledge the injustice of forcing Hobby Lobby and other businesses to act against their owners’ consciences on pain of crippling fines. Otherwise such a proclamation sounds empty indeed.
In order to draw inspiration for his magnum opus, John Rawls travels back through time to converse (in song) with a selection of political philosophers, including Plato, Locke, Rousseau and Mill. But the journey is not as smooth as he hoped: for as he pursues his love interest, the beautiful student Fairness, through history, he must escape the evil designs of his libertarian arch-nemesis, Robert Nozick, and his objectivist lover, Ayn Rand. Will he achieve his goal of defining Justice as Fairness?
A former student suggests that I should audition, but only if I get to sing this song by none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Everywhere in Chains.
The line about the American general meeting the Arab Christian isn’t as familiar as it should be. “When did your family convert?” the general asked. “About 2,000 years ago,” the Arab answered wryly.
The general’s ignorance is widely shared. Take but one example from closer to home. Over-zealous teachers in London have recently been pulling Syrian Orthodox refugees out of school assemblies in London, on the basis that Arab children must by definition be Muslims. The truth, of course, is that Christianity is an import from the Middle East, not an export to it. Christians have formed part of successive civilisations in the region for many centuries – they were, as Rowan Williams has pointed out, a dominant presence in the Byzantine era, an active partner in the early Muslim centuries, a long-suffering element within the Ottoman empire and, more recently, “a political catalyst and nursery of radical thinking in the dawn of Arab nationalism”.
Today, though, the religious ecology of the Middle East looks more fragile than ever, as the Arab spring gives way to Christian winter. [Emphasis mine]
Sad to say, the numbers of Christians in the region have steadily declined over the centuries, with emigration accelerating over the past decade. Threats to Christians continue, not only in Egypt, but also Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria, China and many other countries.
Here in North America, the threats to religious freedom are not as overt, and most people appear not to recognize them as such. (more…)
The truth is that the Sexual Revolution had the power to alter our way of life, but it could not alter our essential nature; it could not alter the reality of who and what we are as human beings. It made nearly everyone feel that they were free, or free-er, than their parents had been—free to smoke pot, free to sleep around, free to pursue the passing dream of what felt, at the time, like overwhelming love—an emotion which very seldom lasts, and a word which is meaningless unless its definition includes commitment.
How easy it was to dismiss old-fashioned sexual morality as ‘suburban,’ as a prison for the human soul. How easy it was to laugh at the ‘prudes’ who questioned the wisdom of what was happening in the Sexual Revolution. Yet, as the opinion poll shows, most of us feel at a very deep level that what will make us very happy is not romping with a succession of lovers. In fact, it is having a long-lasting, stable relationship, having children, and maintaining, if possible, lifelong marriage.
Wilson cites statistics concerning abortion, sexually-transmitted diseases and divorce to bolster his case, none of which will come as a surprise to most of us. What is surprising is that a prominent newspaper in post-Christian Great Britain has chosen to publish this piece, and that the readers’ comments are as positive as they are. I find this moderately encouraging as we head into 2013.
For many years now I’ve been teaching my students that a constitution is more than a scrap of paper but is to be found in the deeper principles and commitments of a particular political community. Here in Canada in recent decades we have embraced the notion that our constitution is identical to our codified Constitution Acts, while traditionally we have recognized other sources of our constitution, including organic statues (i.e., ordinary laws whose subject matter is constitutional), court rulings (including those of London’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council prior to 1949), and, above all, the unwritten conventions of the constitution, such as responsible government.
Superficially, Louis Michael Seidman would appear to agree with this understanding of a constitution, desiring to import it into his American context:
Countries like Britain and New Zealand have systems of parliamentary supremacy and no written constitution, but are held together by longstanding traditions, accepted modes of procedure and engaged citizens. We, too, could draw on these resources.
However, Seidman goes much further: Let’s Give Up on the Constitution. Why? Because it’s been ignored numerous times in the past and, as an 18th-century document, it is no longer suited to the 21st-century United States.
What has preserved our political stability is not a poetic piece of parchment, but entrenched institutions and habits of thought and, most important, the sense that we are one nation and must work out our differences. No one can predict in detail what our system of government would look like if we freed ourselves from the shackles of constitutional obligation, and I harbor no illusions that any of this will happen soon. But even if we can’t kick our constitutional-law addiction, we can soften the habit.
Yet what if it turns out that the most central of these “entrenched institutions and habits of thought” is the respect that Americans hold for the very document he wishes to abandon? No one is asking Seidman or anyone else to believe that its origin is divine, but one would be foolish to give up on something as crucial as the general reverence for the rule of law, which can hardly be taken for granted in much of the world outside of the west. Seidman is, of course, welcome to work for changing the law, but it seems incomprehensible that a constitutional law professor would be so ready to relinquish, not just an old document, but that intangible and durable consensus undergirding its status — and indeed his own profession.