Thursday, November 21, 2013, 3:02 PM
Lutheran Forum recently came to the end of its 2013 Theological Reading Challenge, with the last document on the reading-list being “The Gospel and the Church” (alternately known as “The Malta Report”). This 1972 document—a production of Lutheran-Catholic discussion—was written “less than a decade after official international Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical dialogue got underway,” as Rev. Dr. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson notes in her review. Much has changed in the interim. Consequently, readers today find “an optimism about the text that is surprising,” Dr. Wilson writes, “but also refreshing now fifty years later, when any hope of visible unity appears to have stalled out entirely.”
She has a point: as good as Lutheran-Catholic relations are today, the achievement of unity between the two in the foreseeable future is unlikely. Together, Catholics and Lutherans—who have been represented by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF)—have accomplished many great things in the course of the dialogue. The prime example of this is closer agreement on the doctrine of justification. Dr. Wilson highlights “institutional weight” as perhaps one reason why the call for unity has stalled. For my part, I can’t help but wonder whether a larger problem is that a number of LWF churches have moved in a theological direction which is hindering, rather than helping, Catholic-Lutheran relations.
A recent example of this hindrance is the subject of human sexuality. Prominent LWF churches like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Church of Sweden have given their blessing to same-sex marriages and approved the ordination of practicing homosexuals. To their credit, other LWF churches—like the 6.1 million member Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, for example—have resisted such theological innovation, even breaking ties with the ELCA and the Church of Sweden over the issue. Nevertheless, supporters of such changes make up a significant portion of the LWF. Given that support, it is understandable that optimism over Lutheran-Catholic unity has waned. Catholics, after all, still uphold the historic and biblical teaching on this matter. And there are many other issues we could raise—female ordination, for example—that have strained the hope for unity.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that dialogue has ceased. It hasn’t. In fact, the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity earlier this year released a new document entitled From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017. But even here, the “communion” envisioned is recognized as an unrealized goal; it is a future possibility. It is a hope. “The following text describes a way ‘from conflict to communion,’” the foreword reads, “a way whose goal we have not yet reached.” It in its final chapter on ecumenical imperatives, the document calls on Catholics and Lutherans to “again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.” The growing theological differences between Catholics and certain churches of the LWF, however, suggest this goal will become increasingly difficult to attain.
In that context, therefore, it is exciting to note a new dimension of Lutheran-Catholic discussions currently taking form: the International Lutheran Council (ILC) and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity (PCPCU) have announced plans to begin informal international dialogue together. While many churches of the LWF have embraced a theologically innovative understanding of doctrine, the ILC has not. (more…)
Wednesday, October 2, 2013, 12:00 PM
James R. Rogers’ recent essay “Credit the Calvinists” asks why Calvinists and not Lutherans have become the public faces of the doctrine of predestination. “For whatever reason,” he writes, “Lutherans are not widely identified with predestinarian doctrine.” And this, he notes, is “despite Luther counting his book-length rejection of free will, On the Bondage of the Will, as the only thing he wrote that he would rank with his Small Catechism.” As a Lutheran, I feel I should make a brief attempt—however imperfect its execution may be—at answering this question, for the benefit of the readers of First Things.
First off, it must be noted that Luther’s opinions are not necessarily the opinions of his spiritual descendants. The fact that Luther called The Bondage of the Will his favourite book would by no means mean any other Lutherans were required to agree.1 Nor should the 1932 doctrinal statement of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, however good and proper it is (and it is good, I hasten to add), be considered the voice of all worldwide confessional Lutherans. Instead, the text confessional Lutherans for centuries have acknowledged as the standard of their faith is The Book of Concord (an authoritative explanation of Christian doctrine based on the Scriptures, supported by reference to the church fathers). Other works may act as supplemental explanations of the Confessions, but these supplements aren’t necessarily binding for all confessional Lutherans around the world.
That all said, Rogers certainly isn’t wrong to say that Lutherans teach predestination. As he notes, it’s in our confessions (see Article XI of the Formula of Concord). The trouble instead with Rogers’ essay is that it implies the Lutheran doctrine is more-or-less the same as the Calvinist one. To be sure, Rogers lists some of the differences between the Lutheran doctrine and the Calvinist; he notes rightly that Lutherans affirm neither “double predestination” nor “limited atonement,” while Calvinists do. But while he recognizes these differences, Rogers doesn’t seem to think they alone explain why Calvinists and not Lutherans are associated in the pubic mind with “predestination.”
I disagree: the doctrinal differences between the two are the key to the whole thing. Indeed, the disparity between the identification of Calvinists with predestinarian doctrine vis à vis Lutherans is precisely because the concept of predestination that exists in the public mind is Calvinist, not Lutheran. (more…)
Thursday, September 12, 2013, 12:50 PM
Just under two weeks ago, I noted on First Thoughts the news that the province of Quebec was planning to outlaw public employees from wearing overt religious garb. While aspects of the proposed “Charter of Quebec Values” had been leaked, at the time the government hadn’t officially released the details.
Now it has. On Tuesday, the ruling Parti Québécois unveiled the new charter. “We propose to prohibit the wearing of overt and conspicuous religious symbols by state personnel in carrying out their duties,” the government writes in an English description of the proposal which restricts religious clothing. The ban will apply to all government ministries and organizations; members of the judiciary and police officers; all school board personnel (including teachers); daycare personnel; university personnel (including professors); public health personnel (including doctors and nurses); and municipal personnel.
Exceptions to the ban would include elected representatives. The charter would also allow individual universities, health institutions, and municipalities the right to “adopt a resolution allowing its personnel to wear such religious symbols.” But if you’re a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf and works in a government-subsidized daycare, you’re out of luck (and, as a result, out of a job). Likewise if you’re a turban-wearing Sikh who wants to be a school teacher or police officer.
Minor exceptions are to be made for small “non-ostentatious” religious symbols, such as the crescent-earring, cross-necklace, and Star of David ring in the image above. Anything beyond that (see examples in the image below) would be banned. (more…)
Friday, August 30, 2013, 8:31 AM
A little while back, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made headlines for his comments on the persecution (or lack thereof) of Christians in the West. “Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable,” he said. “I am always very uneasy when people sometimes in this country [the United Kingdom] or the United States talk about persecution of Christians or rather believers. I think we are made to feel uncomfortable at times. We’re made to feel as if we’re idiots—perish the thought! But that kind of level of not being taken very seriously or being made fun of; I mean for goodness sake, grow up.”
It’s perhaps best the Most Rev. Williams restricted his comments to the United Kingdom and the United States, because the threat of religious persecution in Canada just got a whole lot more real. The Province of Quebec is planning to pass a law which would ban public sector employees from wearing religious symbols, including such things as turbans, crucifixes, hijabs, and kippas. And it’s not just for government representatives: it would apply to all public institutions, including schools and hospitals. That’s right: teachers, doctors, and nurses, among numerous other workers, would all be forbidden from wearing religious symbols on the job. Don’t like it? Find another job.
It’s all part of the proposed “Charter of Quebec Values.” Indeed, Premier Pauline Marois says the plan reflects “universal” values and will bring Quebecers together. (more…)
Thursday, August 15, 2013, 9:00 AM
Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was defeated yesterday in his bid for re-election. In his place, the ELCA has elected its first female presiding bishop: Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Northeastern Ohio Synod.
The election went to a fifth ballot, the ELCA notes, where Bishop Eaton received 600 votes to Bishop Hanson’s 287. Sarah Pulliam Bailey notes at Religion News Service that the election of Bishop Eaton was something of an upset: “The election was a surprise to many,” she writes, “as Hanson was expected to win an unprecedented third term after 12 years in office.” Before becoming Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod, Rev. Eaton served as the pastor of Ohio congregations. She is married to Rev. Conrad Selnick, an Episcopal priest.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggests both Bishop Eaton and Bishop Hanson are considered “centrists” in the ELCA. It noted that while Bishop Eaton “supported the decision to allow local options on partnered gay clergy,” she further expressed the opinion that “being an inclusive church meant respecting those who had a different understanding of Scripture and doctrine.” “These people also have voice in this church,” she said. “We need to make room for those who do not agree with us, but agree with our claim upon the cross.” (more…)
Tuesday, July 30, 2013, 9:00 AM
Friday, July 19, 2013, 9:00 AM
A recent report by the Public Research Institute and the Brookings Institution attempts to present a clearer picture of American religious orientation. One of the things it explores, as Lauren Markoe notes at Religion News Service, is differing views among Americans as to what being “religious” even means, with 59 percent equating it with “living a good life” (moralistic therapeutic deism, anyone?) and 36 percent equating it with “faith and right beliefs.”
But let’s back up a bit: instead of asking what it means to be “religious,” let’s first ask what “religion” itself is. That’s the question currently under discussion in the United Kingdom. The Supreme Court is currently considering the case of Louisa Hodkin, a Scientologist who wants to get married in a building owned by the Church of Scientology. The problem is, the United Kingdom does not officially recognize Scientology as a religion. (more…)
Friday, July 12, 2013, 2:55 PM
This past Saturday, the 2.2 million strong Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod announced the re-election of Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison as President.
President Harrison was first elected in 2010. The same convention which elected him also adopted new policies for the election of the president—namely, that the presidential election would take place in the lead-up to future conventions, rather than at the conventions themselves (which is why we’re talking about this now rather than during the National LCMS Convention July 20-25).
Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a short article reflecting on President Harrison’s first term, noting some of the positive and negative events that were part of it. In recounting President Harrison’s service so far, Townsend mentions his participation in resisting the Health and Human Services mandate, quoting Harrison’s testimony before congress during which he said he was pleased to “stand with our friends in the Catholic church” as they opposed the excesses of the mandate.
That last topic brings to mind another topic worthy of discussion in considering President Harrison’s first term—namely, the LCMS’ increasingly friendly relations with other church bodies. (more…)
Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 12:48 PM
A few Fridays back, President Munib A. Younan of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) spoke to the LWF’s Council in Geneva about rising persecution of Christians in the Middle East, urging Christians there to remain as a witness to others.
“We are seeing a global rise in extremism,” he said. “Most often, extremism is supporting a political agenda even if it identifies with a religion.” He added, “Nevertheless, many Christians are being harmed on a daily basis.”
He ought to know. President Younan is Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. In his speech, he focused on a number of recent examples of persecution, including the abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, the imprisonment and mistreatment of an Iranian pastor, and the increasing difficulties of Egyptian Christians.
Unsurprisingly, he also mentioned Syria. “Christians in Syria continue to look at the destruction of their sister communities in Iraq and wonder if they will be able to remain in their country, the place where disciples of Jesus were first called Christians.”
Syrian Christians gained another reason for doubt with the murder of Fr. François Mourad this past Sunday. Fr. Mourad was a monk with the Monastery of St. Anthony of Padua in al-Ghassaniyah.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013, 2:26 PM
Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a comprehensive article over at Religion News Service on the election of the first openly gay bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As she notes, the election comes four years following the events of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly when a narrow margin of electors voted to allow the ordination of of noncelibate gay men and women.
That event of course led to major disagreement both at home and abroad. Bailey’s article finally gives us a number on just how severe that disagreement was in the United States. Following the 2009 vote, the ELCA lost nearly half a million members in 2010 and 2011. Granted, some of that is simply the steady decline which many mainline denominations (including the ELCA) have been going through for years. But that can’t account for most of it. In 2009, the ELCA lost 90,850 members (14,781 more than the year previous). Keep in mind that Churchwide Assembly happened late in 2009. By 2010, the membership losses were more dramatic, with the ELCA losing 270,349 people that year (5.9% of the entire church at that time). In 2011, they lost another 212,903 (4.98% of the entire church at that time). Statistics on 2012 are not yet reported online.
The North American Lutheran Church (founded in 2010) is now home to many of those who left the ELCA. At current, they report 130,000 members in more than 345 congregations. Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ has been another major destination for those disaffected in the ELCA, and they now list 716 congregations on their roster (in 2008, the number was 217). Chances are many other individuals have simply joined established churches in their area, Lutheran or otherwise.
Thursday, May 16, 2013, 9:30 AM
Recent news that Christians (including clergy and foreign diplomats) were attacked by Israeli police as they attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the day before Orthodox Easter stands as a stark reminder of the difficulties Christians face in the Holy Land.
Israel is a land which three of the world’s major faiths claim as holy—no city more so than Jerusalem. Jewish believers hold the city sacred as the place where the Second Temple once stood, and indeed revere the Western Wall (a section of the original outer wall of the Temple grounds, dating from the first century A.D.) as one of the holiest sites in Judaism. Muslims have in Jerusalem the Dome of the Rock, a massive, golden mosque built on the ruins of the Second Temple. It commemorates the place where they believe Muhammad traveled with the angel Gabriel before ascending to heaven to meet with the prophets. Christians, of course, recognize Jerusalem as the place where Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. It is also the place of Jesus’ triumphant resurrection, the place where Christ rose bodily from the dead—the place of the empty tomb.
Given these competing faiths, it is inevitable that conflict should arise. In fact, a few months ago when I traveled to Israel with the Canadian Church Press, I visited the Western Wall only to learn the area had been the scene of violence earlier that morning. The Jerusalem Post reports that a number of Muslims gathered for afternoon prayer at the Temple Mount March 8 began throwing rocks at Israeli officers on the bridge which leads to the Western Wall plaza. The event ended with Israeli police entering the Muslim area, using stun grenades to disperse the rioters who were throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. When we arrived at the nearby Western Wall later in the day, a very large number of police officers were still on site.
That is often the way the rest of the world views disagreement in the Holy Land: as conflict between Jews and Muslims. Less often remembered are the Christians of Israel and Palestine. That’s perhaps not surprising, given that Christians make up such a small percentage of both countries. Just 152,000 Christians are permanent residents of Israel, about 2.1 percent of the entire population. In Palestine, 8 percent of the West Bank‘s total population and 0.7 percent of the Gaza Strip‘s are Christian—approximately 210,000 and 12,000 people respectively, based on current population figures.
Thursday, May 9, 2013, 1:16 PM
New figures released yesterday by Statistics Canada suggest the increasing ethnic and religious diversification of the Canadian population. But, as Statistics Canada itself warns, the numbers (based on the 2011 Census) should be taken with a grain of salt, especially when compared to previous year’s data (more on that below).
First some general statistics on Canada’s ethnographic makeup. As of 2011, Canada’s total population was 33.477 million people (31.613 million in 2006; current estimates put the number at 35.056 million as of January 2013). The Aboriginal population is now 1.401 million people or 4.3% of the total population (3.8% in 2006). About 1 in 5 Canadians identify as a visible minority (19.1% in 2011; 16.2% in 2006). The total immigrant population in Canada as of 2011 was 6.776 million or 20.6% of the total population (19.8% in 2006). Of these immigrants, 93.5% are conversant in at least one of Canada’s two official languages. Total recent immigrants (arriving between 2006 and 2011) add up to 17.2% of Canada’s total immigrant population, with 56.9% of recent immigrants coming from Asia (including the Middle East).
Now on to religion itself. The first thing to note is that the census “collected information on religious affiliation, regardless of whether respondents practiced their religion.” So there are plenty of cultural Christians (and others) in the following numbers. As of 2011, 22.103 million Canadians identified as Christian, about 67.3% of the total Canadian population. That’s down ten percent from 2001 when Christians made up 77% of the population.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 4:34 PM
One of my favorite podcasts is The Christian Humanist Podcast. The podcast is “humanist” in the best sense of the term: the Renaissance sense. In other words, it’s committed to exploring “literature, philosophy and other things that human beings do well”—studying anything and everything in the world from within a Christian framework.
Because it’s not a theology program per se, the three hosts (all literature scholars at Christian colleges) are able to take on a wide-ranging number of subjects. For instance, since January they’ve had episodes focusing on intellectualism, Edgar Allen Poe, the prophet Elijah, modernism, online education, forests, pragmatism, and in-depth looks at the poems “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Kubla Khan,” and “Intimations of Immortality.” The semester prior they discussed the Crusades, dystopian fiction, homiletics, chess, politics, and death among other things. The discussions are always entertaining and enlightening. (See the blog here and download the podcasts here).
It’s yesterday’s episode (Episode 105) that I’m interested in talking about here though. The hosts recently encouraged their listeners to read Martin Luther’s Freedom of a Christian in preparation for this week’s episode on the same work. None of the three hosts are Lutheran, so I was curious to hear their thoughts. What would these three non-Lutherans make of this important early work by Luther?
Tuesday, April 23, 2013, 12:17 PM
An update from Pravmir:
There have appeared many reports in both the Eastern and Western press that the two hierarchs who were abducted yesterday by terrorists in Syria, Metropolitan Boulos Yazge, Antiochian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, and Archbishop Youhanna Ibrahim, Syriac Archbishop of Aleppo, have been released.
His Eminence Metropolitan Philip spoke by phone this morning to His Beatitude John X, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, who said that these reports are false, and that the release of these two hierarchs has NOT taken place.
AlJazeera is reporting that the two archbishops (one each from the Syriac and Greek Orthodox Churches) who were kidnapped yesterday in Syria have now been freed.
The archbishops were kidnapped in the northern province of Aleppo after their car was targeted by unidentified gunmen. Metropolitan Paul Yazigi (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo; brother of His Beatitude Patriarch John X of the Great City-of-God Antioch and all the East), and Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim (Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo) were taken captive, and their driver—apparently a deacon—was shot and killed. The World Council of Arameans indicated earlier today that they had reports the archbishops were being held in Kafar Dael, but were “safe and sound.”
Back in September, Archbishop Ibrahim had told Reuters that Christians in Syria were experiencing renewed suffering in the uprising. “Christians have been attacked and kidnapped in monstrous ways,” he told Reuters, “and their relatives have paid big sums for their release.”
Pope Francis earlier offered “intense prayers” on their behalf. Vatican Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi called the event “a dramatic confirmation of the tragic situation in which the Syrian population and its Christian communities are living.”
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Department of External Church Relations for the Moscow Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, called on the “world community to join efforts in order to find the abducted hierarchs as soon as possible,” and prayed for peace to be “re-established in the ancient land of Syria and for Christianity to keep developing there.” Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow and all Russia had also called on the Russian government to take steps to ensure the archbishops’ release.
Bishop Munib A. Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land expressed “anger and dismay” at the act, urging all sides in the Syrian conflict “to refrain from using religion as a weapon.”
Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani called for the archbishops’ release, and condemned any act that would “harm any religious authority figure regardless to which sect he belongs.” Likewise, the Lebanese Shiite scholar Sayyed Ali Fadlallah (son of the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah) urged Christians and Muslims to work together for the archbishops’ release, calling the kidnapping “a direct assault on the freedom of two figures that have long worked toward unifying ranks and rejecting strife.”
Thursday, April 18, 2013, 11:56 AM
Yesterday, media was buzzing with news that Canadian music icon Rita MacNeil had passed away after complications following surgery. She was, as The Canadian Press put it, “a singer-songwriter from small-town Canada whose powerful voice explored genres from country, to folk, to gospel.”
That last genre—gospel—brings up the matter of MacNeil’s faith. As it is with many people, Macneil’s faith was complicated. Growing up in Cape Breton, she was raised Roman Catholic. As a child she even dreamed of becoming a nun, as she noted in her 1998 autobiography On a Personal Note.
But as the years progressed, her connection to the established church waned somewhat. At the time of her book’s release, she did an interview with Canoe which reported “she still goes to church occasionally, but is no longer a practising Catholic.” Whether she remained unaffiliated from the institutional church over the next fifteen years is difficult to determine online; she still identified as Christian, as evidenced in her participation at the 2009 “Alive on the Island Festival of Christian Unity” (which also featured such artists as Bill Gaither, MercyMe, and Jeremy Camp).
Friday, April 12, 2013, 9:37 PM
Thursday, April 11, 2013, 9:00 AM
Two days ago, the Catholic Herald posted a story about Pope Francis meeting with Rev. Dr. Nikolaus Schneider. The article is entitled “Lutheran pastor meets Pope Francis in Rome,” and the text of the article also refers to Dr. Schneider as a Lutheran pastor. There’s just one problem, as the friend who brought this story to my attention noted: Dr. Schneider isn’t Lutheran.
You’d be forgiven for thinking so. He is, after all, President of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany. And surely the Evangelical Church in Germany is Lutheran, right?
It depends. The thing English speakers often miss is that the Evangelical Church in Germany (which formed in 1948) is actually a federation of separate church bodies in Germany rather than a unified denomination itself. Among its twenty-two member churches—all but one of which are regional churches, restricted to a particular geographic area—are Lutheran, Reformed, and United Protestant church bodies. While the churches have full altar and pulpit fellowship with each other, they each retain their own denominational distinctives.
Which brings me to the point: Dr. Schneider is a member of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland (EKIR), which he served as Praeses (the equivalent of “president”) from 2003 to 2013. And the EKIR is not Lutheran: it’s part of the Union of Evangelical Churches, and originally comes out the United Protestant tradition.
The United Protestants can be traced back to the early nineteenth century. At that time, King Frederick William III began instituting the unification of Lutheran and Reformed churches in Prussia. (For lack of a good online history of the Prussian Union, you can read the Wikipedia article here. Lutheran dissent over this forced union led, by the by, to Old Lutherans immigrating to Australia and the United States—laying the groundwork for today’s Lutheran Church of Australia and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.)
The resulting Prussian Union represented a blending of Lutheran and Reformed traditions, and it’s out of this body that the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland comes. Indeed, they claim not only Lutheran documents like the Small Catechism and the Augsburg Confession as part of their heritage but also accept the Reformed Heidelberg Catechism.
So no, Dr. Schneider isn’t a “Lutheran” pastor. While the error is understandable, it shows the need to be careful when discussing German Christianity. Twenty-two regional church bodies may together hold membership in the Evangelical Church in Germany, but these churches profess different theologies. Some are Lutheran, but the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland is not one of them.
Thursday, April 4, 2013, 9:00 AM
Gene Edward Veith, author of God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in all of Life and Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenthood, and Childhood (among numerous other books), has a new article on vocation over at Intercollegiate Review. In that article—“How to find your vocation in college”—Veith offers good advice to students seeking their “calling” in life. While it’s written for the college crowd, the content is applicable for those of us elsewhere too.
He reminds us, first off, that vocation is bigger than just where you work:
Your job is only part of [vocation], and sometimes not the most important part. We have vocations in the family (being a child, getting married, becoming a parent) and in the society (being a citizen, being a friend). There are also vocations in the church (pastor, layperson).
In short, every situation of life is part of vocation. And all these vocations are callings from God through which “we love and serve our neighbours.” That perspective—seeing vocation as service to other people—can help us not get caught up in seeking some divine secret calling for our lives. We serve God best by letting Him serve others through us where we are now. We don’t need to get bent out of shape looking for an extraordinary calling from God; He works regularly through down to earth, ordinary means—through farmers raising crops, doctors mending broken bones, children loving their parents, friends comforting friends.
In his article, Veith is writing specifically for college students trying to figure out what to study, so he has some specific advice for the “job” side of vocation too. The first thing he does is dismiss the idea that all students should be pursuing the professions.
Certain Republican governors, Fox News pundits, libertarian think tankers, and others worried about skyrocketing taxpayer-funded student loans that are often impossible to pay back are arguing that students should stop majoring in liberal arts subjects like philosophy and history… The assumption is that if students would just choose a profession, any profession, that would make them lots of money, all would be well.
Veith criticizes this view as shortsighted. After all, if everyone was trained in a STEM field, “both the salaries and the employment rate in these fields would plummet, since the supply would overwhelm the demand.” Instead, he suggests, we need to take stock of our own particular interests, background, and talents when considering career paths. “If you are no good in math, hate working at a desk, and fail your accounting classes,” Veith warns, “that field is not for you. Or, rather, you are not for that field.”
“If, however,” he continues, “what you do best is philosophize, you may be doomed to be a philosopher.”
Learning to see vocation as doing what you can with who you are—rather than always seeking to discover some illusive future “calling”—is something we can all learn from, student or no.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 1:21 PM
It is Holy Week, a time devoted to prayer and reflection on the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ. But there is a danger for Christians that, if we are not careful, we externalize the event too much. We watch the story from afar: We see Christ arrested by others, beaten by others, crucified by others. In so doing, we can fail to see our own place in the story.
That’s a point Martin Luther makes particularly well in his sermon “concerning meditation on the holy sufferings of Christ,” a 2004 translation of which has just been (partly) reprinted in The Canadian Lutheran. “You should believe, and never doubt,” writes Luther, “that you are in fact the one who killed Christ. Your sins did this to Him. When you look at the nails being driven through His hands, firmly believe that it is your work. Do you see His crown of thorns? Those thorns are your wicked thoughts.”
Luther’s point is an important one: If we do not see ourselves as the persecutors of Christ in the passion narratives, then we read them wrongly. As the disciples failed to keep watch with the Lord in Gethsemane, we too in sloth ignore him. As Judas betrayed him with a kiss, so in our thoughts, words, and deeds we betray him daily. We reject him like Peter, wash our hands of him like Pilate, call for his death like the crowds, and lead him out to Golgotha. We crucify him and hurl insults at him as he hangs dying on the cross. We kill God.
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” go the words of the old spiritual. “Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?” And while there is a place for such songs, a steady diet on them is unwise: they externalize too much the story as something “they” did. We must never forget that we were there—that we crucified the Son of God.
This recognition should fill us with fear. As Luther writes, “When we meditate on the Passion of Christ the right way, we see Christ and are terrified at the sight. Our conscience sinks in despair.” For in the suffering of Christ, we see God’s great wrath at sin. Sin is not something God simply ignores; he does not “look the other way” from our failings, whether great or small. They are inexcusable and require judgment.
But while Christians should consider their sins during Passion Week, they ought not remain focused on sin alone. “When a person, whose conscience has been filled with terror, understands his sins in this light,” Luther writes, “he needs to watch out that his sins do not remain in his conscience, for then nothing but pure doubt will result. Just as our sins flowed out of Christ and we became aware of them, so we should pour them back on Him again and set our conscience free.”
Yes, God’s judgment on sin is severe. But in mercy, God has borne the punishment for sin himself. As Isaiah writes: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (53:5). We see in the cross not only God’s anger at sin, but also his immeasurable love for sinners. “Look how full of love God’s heart is for you,” Luther urges. “It was this love that moved Him to bear the heavy load of your conscience and sin.”
Passion Week must culminate in the darkness of Good Friday’s eclipse; in liturgical churches, we signify this through the gradual extinguishing of the candles in the tenebrae service. But at the end of the service—after the strepitus has sounded and the altar has been stripped—one candle is returned. Its small flame signifies hope in the midst of darkness. Easter will come.
We must let the Passion narratives of Scripture do their work and terrify us with the Law. But we must not remain in its darkness forever. We must turn at length to the light of the Gospel, to hear Christ calling, even as we crucify him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). We must, in the end, “see our sins laid on Christ and see Him triumph by His Resurrection,” Luther writes. “This is how we know God as He wants us to know Him. We know Him not by His power and wisdom, which terrify us, but by His goodness and love. There our faith and confidence stands unmovable.”
Friday, March 22, 2013, 5:55 PM
Yesterday marked the 457th anniversary of Thomas Cranmer’s martyrdom, something Philip Jenkins noted here yesterday. Cranmer is justly remembered for his work in framing the traditional Symbols of Anglicanism, notably The Book of Common Prayer and The Forty-Two Articles (which later became The Thirty-Nine Articles under Elizabeth I). But what is less well remembered is his other great work: The Book of Homilies.
This is somewhat puzzling given that the book is theologically normative for Anglicans (or at least that’s what The Thirty-Nine Articles intended). Article 35 calls for the homilies’ continued public reading “in Churches by the Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they may be understood by the people.” Moreover, Article 9 actually defers to one of the homilies as the “more largely expressed” articulation of the church’s theology of justification.
Written during a time of intense theological division in England, the Book of Homilies (or Certain Sermons or homilies, as it was originally titled) was intended to do a couple of things: first, it was to provide appropriate preaching material for a church that had not previously focused on sermons (canon law from the 13th century required churches to have four sermons a year, but records suggest this was an ideal rather than the norm). Emphasis on sermons increased dramatically in the 16th century, however; the Book of Homilies was meant as a tool, therefore, for priests who had never studied sermon-making themselves.
But more than that, it was Cranmer’s hope to use this book to bring theological unity to the fractured church. Under Henry VIII, the nation had seen its religious allegiance swing from Rome to an evangelical faith, and then back (as Henry VIII became increasingly worried over theological innovation by evangelicals) to a more conservative (if not Roman) position. Various statements of faith had been prepared over the years, but as new ones continually succeeded the previous, it was difficult to establish what exactly the Church of England officially believed.
Cranmer wanted to solidify the church’s theology in a new way. And while the Articles of Religion (1552) and the Book of Common Prayer (1549) were part of Cranmer’s long-term plan in realizing that vision, his first real success came with the Book of Homilies (1547). The book’s publication came with a royal injunction (from Edward VI) mandating the homilies’ continual use, in perpetuity, throughout all churches in England.
But healing a broken church is not easy. As a first attempt to build bridges between the different factions, Cranmer invited both conservatives and evangelicals to contribute sermons for the book: of the four known authors, we know two (Bishop Bonner and John Harpesfield) were conservatives and two (Thomas Becon and Cranmer himself) were evangelicals. In fact, the question of unity was so important to Cranmer that one of the twelve sermons (the last) was devoted entirely to that subject: “A sermon against contention and brawling.” That homily, likely written by Cranmer himself, calls for renewed commitment to making peace in the church. “We cannot be jointed to Christ our head,” it warns, “except we be glued with concord and charity one to another. For he that is not in this unity is not of the Church of Christ.”
It’s difficult to find a copy of Cranmer’s original edition of the homilies, unless you have a subscription to Early English Books Online and a penchant for reading old gothic type (confession: I do). For everyone else, you can read the book as updated in Elizabeth I’s era, during which time a second volume was appended to Cranmer’s. (And I just discovered that Trinity School for Ministry has videos of the first three sermons actually being preached, so you might want to check those out too.) The homilies are well worth reading. Who knows? You might just conclude that they’re still, as The Thirty-Nine Articles assert, “necessary for these times.”
Just as you can’t find Cranmer’s 1547 edition easily, it’s also difficult to find secondary sources that focus on it. (I’m hoping to help fill that gap a little by revamping my honours thesis on the original Book of Homilies, with plans to eventually submit it for publication in a journal somewhere.) For a more general introduction to Cranmer, check out Diarmaid MacCulloch’s masterpiece Thomas Cranmer: A Life; it’s the best resource on Cranmer, bar none.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013, 1:00 PM
The Weekly Standard has a compelling story highlighting philosopher Thomas Nagel and his rejection by fellow atheists for questioning materialism. The article, cleverly titled “The Heretic,” appears here. It begins by noting how Nagel found himself so despised by his colleagues:
Thomas Nagel is a prominent and heretofore respected member of the country’s intellectual elite. And such men are not supposed to write books with subtitles like the one he tacked onto Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.
Imagine if your local archbishop climbed into the pulpit and started reading from the Collected Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel?” demanded the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, on Twitter. (Yes, even Steven Pinker tweets.) Pinker inserted a link to a negative review of Nagel’s book, which he said “exposed the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” At the point where science, philosophy, and public discussion intersect—a dangerous intersection these days—it is simply taken for granted that by attacking naturalism Thomas Nagel has rendered himself an embarrassment to his colleagues and a traitor to his class.
The article goes on to detail the quick condemnation the book gathered, noting that The Guardian awarded it the prize for Most Despised Science Book of 2012.
“Thomas Nagel is of absolutely no importance on this subject,” wrote one [commenter on a negative review of Nagel’s book]. “He’s a self-contradictory idiot,” opined another. Some made simple appeals to authority and left it at that: “Haven’t these guys ever heard of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett?” The hearts of still others were broken at seeing a man of Nagel’s eminence sink so low. “It is sad that Nagel, whom my friends and I thought back in the 1960’s could leap over tall buildings with a single bound, has tripped over the Bible and fallen on his face. Very sad.”
Nagel doesn’t mention the Bible in his new book—or in any of his books, from what I can tell—but among materialists the mere association of a thinking person with the Bible is an insult meant to wound, as Bertie Wooster would say. Directed at Nagel, a self-declared atheist, it is more revealing of the accuser than the accused. The hysterical insults were accompanied by an insistence that the book was so bad it shouldn’t upset anyone.
Nagel’s main thrust in the book, and the reason for the ferocious anathema imposed upon him by other scientists and philosophers of science, is that materialism—the idea that everything can be explained (eventually) in terms of physics—actually fails to do just that.
Nagel insists that we know some things to exist even if materialism omits or ignores or is oblivious to them… It doesn’t explain, for example, why the world exists at all, or how life arose from nonlife. Closer to home, it doesn’t plausibly explain the fundamental beliefs we rely on as we go about our everyday business: the truth of our subjective experience, our ability to reason, our capacity to recognize that some acts are virtuous and others aren’t. These failures, Nagel says, aren’t just temporary gaps in our knowledge, waiting to be filled in by new discoveries in science. On its own terms, materialism cannot account for brute facts. Brute facts are irreducible, and materialism, which operates by breaking things down to their physical components, stands useless before them. “There is little or no possibility,” he writes, “that these facts depend on nothing but the laws of physics.”
These things are known to be real by sheer common sense; the fact that materialism rejects them as the effects of solely physical processes seriously undercuts the ideology’s ability to make sense of the world.
Read all of Andrew Ferguson’s article at The Weekly Standard. At more than 6,500 words, it’s a longer read, but well worth it.
Saturday, March 16, 2013, 10:00 AM
In an article for Canada’s National Post at the end of February, I warned of a growing intolerance north of the border to people of faith. The prevailing mindset, I suggested, goes something like this: “If you must be religious, then for heaven’s sake do it in the privacy of your own home, where no one else has to see or hear you; religion has no place in the public sphere.” In so far as the religious “fail to conform to a set of approved public positions,” I argued, they are now “expected to be silent.”
As if to prove my point, a group of protesters prevented pro-life MP Stephen Woodworth from giving a public lecture at the University of Waterloo this past Wednesday. Woodworth, a Christian, recently brought forward a private member’s motion in Parliament calling for a study to determine at what point a child becomes a human being. Canada is the only Western country in the world where no legal restrictions on abortion exist; our Criminal Code states a child gains rights as a human being only after it has fully emerged from its mother’s womb. While Woodworth’s motion failed, it has nevertheless reignited public discussion of life issues in Canada.
Woodworth was scheduled to speak on the topic at the University of Waterloo this past week, but protesters interrupted him partway through his lecture. What about freedom of speech? Well, according to at least one of the protesters, Woodworth doesn’t get any: “That kind of speech, that kind of facts, are not acceptable,” the protester is quoted as saying in the National Post. He also shouted, “Who do you think you are, trying to impose your bigotry, your views on society through your Christian monotheistic faith?”
The implication is clear: Religious views are not welcome in the public realm. Be silent or we will silence you.
The University of Waterloo has condemned the protest, but the fact that it happened at all is evidence of a society which is growing increasingly intolerant of public expressions of faith.
[You can see raw footage of the protest here.]
Friday, March 15, 2013, 10:00 AM
Following the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI, a number of Lutherans (myself included) were left wondering what support his successor might lend to future Lutheran/Roman Catholic discussions. Few Roman Catholics have understood Lutherans so well as did Benedict. As John Allen Jr. has written, “Lutherans are to Benedict what the Orthodox were to John Paul, the separated brethren he knows best and for whom he has the greatest natural affection.” The theological disagreements between Roman Catholics and Lutherans were of course not undone under Benedict’s papacy, but one could at least be sure that the subject itself was of importance to the man.
What ought we to expect from newly elected Pope Francis? Some Lutherans are beginning to fill in the blanks for us. In a news release, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America quotes Bishop Mark Hanson as saying he is “encouraged that Pope Francis has worked with Lutherans in Argentina.” Unfortunately, the release fails to give any examples of that work. The Lutheran World Federation does a bit better and mentions that Pope Francis (then still Archbishop of Buenos Aires) took part in local Buenos Aires activities commemorating the adoption of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999, but is also light on details.
Lutherans in Argentina are also speaking positively to the media (here and here) about the former archbishop’s elevation, so its fair to say he’s had some involvement at the national and local level with Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue. And if the associations of the pastors above are anything to go by, Pope Francis’ past dealings with Lutherans have impressed members from both the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the International Lutheran Council (ILC), the two largest global associations of Lutheran churches. (Of the Lutherans interviewed in the above two articles, Edgardo Salvucci is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Argentina (an ILC church with just over 28,000 members), and Cloivis Eloi Kurtz is a member of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Argentina (a LWF church with about 11,000 members). Both sound optimistic about good relations with the Pope going forward.
Whatever Pope Francis’ previous experience in Catholic/Lutheran dialogue, one thing is sure: he will have the opportunity for more of it during his papacy if he should so choose. Dialogue with the Lutheran World Federation continues, and burgeoning dialogue with confessional Lutherans is also on the horizon.
Tuesday, March 12, 2013, 3:00 PM
In March 1913, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story “The Paradise of Thieves” was first published in an issue of McClure’s Magazine. The story revolves around acting and deception, and ends in the suicide of one of the characters. Now, a hundred years later to the month, comes theatrical news of a much more positive nature: the BBC has commissioned a second series of its popular Father Brown programme.
Haven’t heard of it? You’re not alone. Apparently Chesterton fans west of the pond have been missing out. The BBC recently produced a new television series of Father Brown stories starring Mark Williams (“Arthur Weasley” of Harry Potter fame) in the title role. The series was initially designed as a ten-episode arc, with one episode airing every day (weekends excluded) from January 17 to January 25. It began with “The Hammer of God” and ended with “The Blue Cross.”
Of course, there are some difficulties in transitioning Chesterton’s famous priest-detective from the page to the small screen. As Michael Newton noted a day after the series began, Chesterton’s protagonist is so humble a character, so unconcerned about his own self, that it’s hard to make a show that focuses directly on him:
Father Brown is comically unobtrusive. Indeed it seems that Chesterton was at first occupied with making a joke in which he wrote detective stories where the aim was to puzzle out who the real detective is. Often Brown makes his first appearance as an aside or as one item in a list, edging sideways into the story. His most conspicuous feature is his inconspicuousness. Neither film nor TV is a medium built for the celebration of humility.
So we are to understand that the new series has had to make certain changes in order to “work” for television. Father Brown makes a more direct transition to the centre of the stories. Moreover, the tales are reconfigured to take place in one small English village in the 1950′s. As a result, the great French detective Valentine (Chesterton’s initial foil) becomes an English detective, rather than a world-renowned investigator. But then, such changes are to be expected: all translation is by necessity interpretation and re-creation.
We know that the show was well-received in England; more than 2 million people tuned in for each episode, and so the show has been commissioned for a second series. But has the new translation to television done justice to Chesterton’s original? Well, that’s something we in the United States and Canada will just have to wait to discuss until the show makes an appearance in North America.
The question as to what religious impact the show might have on the English audience also remains to be seen. After all, the stories of Father Brown are about a Catholic priest. More than that, they are about a respectable, intelligent Catholic priest. In a country where only 59.3 percent of the population still self-identifies as Christian (2011 statistics, down from 71.8 percent in 2001, and increasing numbers are declaring themselves atheists, the presence of a strong Christian character on popular television is certainly significant.
After all, as starring actor (and self-described “pantheistic humanist”) Mark Williams himself explains, Father Brown is not simply another television detective:
[Father Brown] has a huge appetite for the detail of life and for humanity, and he cares very much about people’s souls. That’s the most interesting thing about him as a sleuth: it’s not him solving a conundrum or a crossword, he’s dealing with what he sees as people’s eternal damnation. And when he works it out, the sky turns black and is full of harpies; he’s desperately committed to his morality.
I have to say, I’m looking forward to seeing BBC’s new small-screen take on redemptive mystery.