19 August 2015

Interview by Yago Martins

Yesterday I was interviewed by Yago Martins, a director at the Academia de Formação em Missões Urbanas in Fortaleza, Brazil, and a student at Sibima (Seminário e Instituto Bíblico Maranata), on the subject of political ideologies in the Brazilian context. The interview is posted here: Entrevista exclusiva com David Koyzis sobre ideologia política e o cenário brasileiro. Here is the interview in English:

Martins: Among Christians in Brazil the most popular view is that Christians do not need to think about or be involved in politics. Some religious groups even think that it is a sin to be a politician. Can we be politicized (or politicians) and still be Christians?

Koyzis: Many Christians in North America think the same thing, but during my lifetime their numbers have decreased. And that is a very good thing. This reflects the biblical understanding that those who are granted political authority have a high calling to govern according to God's laws, especially those laws mandating the doing of justice. For example, Deuteronomy 17:18-20 says:

When [the ruler] has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.

Furthermore, if you read John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, you will see that the very last section of the book treats the civil magistrate, of which he speaks in unusually glowing terms: “Its function among men is no less than that of bread, water, sun, and air; indeed, its place of honour is far more excellent.” Politics is an important part of life, and our walk with God extends to the whole of life, including politics.

What is a political ideology and how does it differ from a simple political vision?

Everyone is animated by a vision of life, or what might be called a worldview (cosmovisão), which governs the ways they live out their callings before God. Even pragmatists, who claim to reject visions altogether, are living out a vision that privileges results over principles. We cannot avoid these visions, even if we fail to recognize them or admit their influence on us.

An ideology, as I see it, is a particular vision that fastens on to one element in life and improperly raises it to a position of preeminence above the rest. As such, an ideology is inescapably idolatrous. St. Augustine said that virtue is the right ordering of things loved. Those who are in Christ love God above everything he has created. But an ideology takes something good out of God's creation, e.g., individual liberty, national solidarity or popular participation, and effectively makes a god out of it. This leads to a distorted vision that is fundamentally out of touch with the realities of God's world. Such a vision may endure for a while, but eventually people lose their faith in it and seek something better. One hopes they will find the true God who is already seeking them, but they are just as likely to pin their hopes on another ideological vision. In other words, people tend to move from one idol to another.

As a young man I visited what was then called Czechoslovakia while the communists were still in charge. I quickly discovered that virtually no one believed in the official ideology anymore. So when the end came in 1989, I was not all that surprised. As soon as the Soviet Union relaxed its grip on the country, the people went their own way. But with what have they replaced the old idols? New ones, sad to say. That is good enough reason to pray for wisdom to see and love the truth, not only for Czechs but also for Brazilians.

In your book, you propose a supra-ideological perspective on politics. But is that really possible? Might not your critics say that you're proposing a christian ideology, but an ideology just like the others?

Yes, they could easily say this. It is certainly true that Christians have followed these distorted ideological visions, despite their faith. Animated by an idolatrous nationalism, for example, the Afrikaners in South Africa established the destructive apartheid policy between 1948 and 1994. And they did so for what they thought were good christian reasons. But, as the Bible says (Matthew 7:20), by your fruits you will know them. Apartheid led to obvious injustices against nonwhite South Africans and effectively destabilized the entire society.

There has never been a society which has followed a biblical way in its entirety. But I believe that there are at least two Christian traditions that have articulated an understanding of what I have labelled societal pluriformity, which, at least in principle, avoids the distortions of ideological thinking and practice. These are the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, as set forth by Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI and John Paul II, and the notion of sovereignty in its own sphere as articulated by the great Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper. The advantage of these approaches is that they recognize that the state is the state, the church is the church, the family is the family, and so forth. In other words, they recognize that the various communities cannot be reduced to the wills of individuals or to arms of the state or nation. They accept the legitimate diversity of God's creation, including his human creatures, and work with it rather than against it. 

Our politicians in Brazil are almost all Marxists in some sense, even if they don't explicitly appeal to Karl Marx's ideas. Our public and private universities, even our schools, are dominated by Marxists and adherents of the Frankfurt School. How can Christians behave in this political context?

It is not easy to have influence in a hostile political environment. Ideally, it would be good for Christians to organize for political purposes. A christian political party? It's been tried in some countries, such as the Netherlands. But in a country like Brazil, I think the best approach for now is probably to build a culture animated by the biblical story of creation, fall and redemption in Jesus Christ. This would entail establishing and nurturing institutions to carry the story, to explore the implications of the story for the whole of life, and to see it handed down to the younger generation. This means that both education and evangelism must be top priorities for the christian community.

In response to marxist hegemony, a lot of groups have popularized the thinking of the Chicago and Austrian schools of economics, with men like Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises and F. A. von Hayek. Is this a good thing for Brazil? Can Christians embrace this political view as a christian approach?

The virtue of the Chicago/Austrian school is that it understands in some fashion the limits of politics. There are many things that the state simply cannot do, and if it tries to do so, it risks doing harm. On the other hand, the Chicago/Austrian school is not very good at understanding the normative character of the state as a political community of citizens and government under the divine mandate to do public justice. Like Marxists, libertarian economists tend to be anti-political and assume that economics drives politics. But the reality is more complicated than that. Here in Canada, for example, we have the recurring issue of Québec separatism, which does not fit comfortably into either a marxist or Chicago/Austrian framework. The separation of Québec from the rest of Canada does not make much economic sense, yet it is a political reality in that people in the province genuinely believe in it.

Moreover, the Chicago/Austrian approach is really a variant of the larger liberal ideology, which privileges the individual and his wants above all else. Consistent liberals wish to expand individual freedoms at the expense of the communities of which these individuals are part. They try as much as possible to reduce communities to mere voluntary collections of individuals. And these collections are to be governed by John Stuart Mill's famous harm principle: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

This sounds good at first, but in the real world no society has ever operated on this principle. A society such as Brazil's or Canada's consists of multiple communities of all kinds, each of which has its own identity and standards for membership. There is a wonderful article by Douglas Farrow called “The Audacity of the State,” which shows how this libertarian principle, far from producing liberty, actually empowers the omni-competent state. This is something I address in my second book, We Answer to Another (which is only in English thus far). So, no, over the long term the Chicago/Austrian school is definitely not the solution. It simply tries to turn back the clock on the development of liberalism, but it does not break with the underlying assumptions of the larger liberal project.

It may be possible to make common cause with Chicago/Austrian libertarians on some issues, such as parental choice in education, but it would be most unwise to adopt their approach wholeheartedly. In the long term it will backfire on us.

In the end, do Christians need to abandon the identification with any political ideology to propose a true christian view of politics? In your book, you note that some conservatives have rejected ideologies. Should we then maybe propose a christian conservatism and be supra-ideological on this?

Here again we need to be cautious. Conservatism is too vague a label and can mean a variety of different things depending on context. If it simply means to stick with institutions and customs that have served us well over the course of history, then there is obviously much to be said for it. But traditions are multiple and contradict each other. We necessarily have to decide which traditions to maintain and which to modify or even abandon. And this means further that we need principles to enable us to choose wisely. This is what I try to articulate in my Political Visions and Illusions, especially in the final chapters.

We have a lot of protests taking place in many cities against our president, Dilma Rousseff. Her approval rate is now below 8%, the worst since the end of the military dictatorship. A lot of people are calling for her impeachment. Someone has called this a “Brazilian Spring,” which is, of course, a reference to the Arab Spring. What message can you bring to Brazilian Christians who are living through this moment in our history?

It is remarkable that Ms Rousseff has become so tremendously unpopular so soon after winning last autumn's presidential election. If this is indeed a “Brazilian Spring,” we can only hope and pray that it will not lead to the instability that has plagued so many Middle Eastern countries in the wake of the Arab Spring. As for a message to my Brazilian brothers and sisters, I suppose the place to begin is with the book of Daniel:

Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
to whom belong wisdom and might.
He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding (2:20-21).

Moreover, a refrain repeated throughout Daniel tells us that, despite the troubles we see around us, God is still in charge: “His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation” (4:3, cf., 4:34, 6:26). This doesn't mean we don't have to work for justice in our political communities; we definitely must do so. But we do so as those whose ultimate hope is not in our fallible political leaders or even in our own purported wisdom, but in the God who has redeemed us in Jesus Christ.

15 August 2015

By what authority? The limits of Niebuhr's transformational Christianity

Apart from the Bible, I am reasonably certain that I have read H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture more times than any other single book. I read it first as an undergraduate and have kept coming back to it over the decades, as it lays out with great clarity the principal approaches that the various Christian traditions take to culture. Niebuhr's five types rang true to me and helped me as I was developing my own understanding of the role the Christian community has historically played in the shaping of culture. The categories are familiar to many of us, but for those who do not know them, they are worth repeating:
  • The adherents of “Christ against culture” view the Christian community as a permanent counterculture characterized by a set of principles at variance with the larger culture. Tertullian and Leo Tolstoy are the typical proponents of this view, as are, to update Niebuhr, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and those who see themselves as articulating and living a prophetic witness from outside the secular polis.
  • The “Christ of culture” position identifies the cause of Christ with everything that is good in the larger culture, as judged by that same culture. Niebuhr's examples include Peter Abelard, modern liberal protestantism, gnosticism (in its extreme form), and the German protestant theologians Albrecht Ritschl and Friedrich Schleiermacher.
  • “Christ above culture” describes the synthetic approach of scholastic philosophy and theology. Proponents are neither for nor against the larger culture; they freely accept the philosophical paradigms of, say, Aristotle or the stoics, affirming that the latter can take us only so far in their use of unaided reason. Divine revelation is required to lead us the rest of the way—to truths that lie beyond what unaided human reason can grasp. Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas are the typical exemplars of this position.
  • The champions (if they can be called such) of “Christ and culture in paradox” approach the issue dualistically, holding in tension the demands of the Gospel and the imperatives of the larger culture. Christians are members of two kingdoms and owe loyalty to both. Certainly fidelity to the Gospel is paramount, but as sinful human beings we are still subject to the earthly powers that be, whose commands may nevertheless stand in considerable tension with the Gospel. According to Niebuhr, the Apostle Paul (though obviously not the Paul of the New Perspective), Marcion, Luther and Kierkegaard fit most comfortably into this category.
  • Finally, there is “Christ the transformer of culture,” whose followers aim at nothing less than the conversion of the world. For all their diversity, Niebuhr groups the author of John's Gospel, Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards and the English Christian Socialist F. D. Maurice in this category.
As a young man I found all this tremendously exciting. Niebuhr had come up with what seemed to me to be an enduring typology that served to aid us in understanding why, say, one group of Christians were conscientious objectors while another willingly fought in the military when called upon to do so, why Christians in one tradition might eschew public life while those in another might take it up with enthusiasm.

It didn't take me long to place myself in the transformational camp. Yes, of course, Christ would have us transform the culture in his name and for his glory. It took me much longer to see the potential drawbacks in Niebuhr's approach.

First, it turns out that nearly everyone ends up identifying with “Christ transforming culture,” no matter which tradition is their own. And why not? Who wants to be accused of being satisfied with the way things are when the world is so obviously off kilter in many ways? No one would willingly admit to parking their ultimate commitments to the side while participating in the workplace or public life. The lure of a holistic life is too strong for most of us. We want to live lives of integrity and consistency, if only for the sake of our own consciences.

Second, Niebuhr is unclear about the authority for his vaunted transformational Christianity. He is not necessarily claiming it to be more biblical than the alternatives because he quite openly divides the biblical witness among them. As Niebuhr sees it, Paul's epistles support the paradoxical position, while certain passages in the Gospels, e.g., “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” (Matthew 22:21), are more characteristic of the “Christ above culture” position. Similarly, First John might be said to manifest an attitude of “Christ against culture.” But if the biblical witness is really as divided as Niebuhr believes it to be, on what grounds does he choose the transformational position? Since he makes no claim to having received a private revelation, we are left to wonder whether this transformation is little more than a personal preference on his part.

Third, if the moral basis for transformation is really this thin, it is not particularly clear why anyone would sign on to the project. Every ideological vision has transformative aspirations, whether its followers claim the liberal, socialist, nationalist, or conservative label. Yet in a democratic polity proponents must content themselves to accept means and procedures taking seriously the objections of opponents. This means that it is unlikely that all of our aspirations will ever be entirely fulfilled or even if, through some miracle, most are, they may be subject to reversal at some point in the future. Why? Because political debate is never ending. Coalitions shift, public opinion changes, and plans often fall afoul of unexpected contingencies.

Fourth, if we are unclear as to the authority for our transformative efforts, we run the risk of being transformed ourselves by the very culture we hope to change. In which case, there will be little difference between “Christ transforming culture” and “Christ of culture.” Critics of the notorious Jesus Seminar have observed that the “historical Jesus” its member-scholars claim to have uncovered bears an uncanny resemblance to themselves, namely, western and educated, with liberal democratic sentiments. If such a Christ were to transform our culture, would we be able to tell the difference? Not if he does no more than to parrot the conventional wisdom of a late modern worldview, a distinct possibility if we remain unclear as to the ultimate authority for our knowledge of Christ. Niebuhr himself recognized that the “Christ who speaks to me without authorities and witnesses is not an actual Christ; he is no Jesus Christ of history” (pp. 245–246).

Fifth and finally, although the hope of transformation is a heady one attractive to idealists and would-be social reformers, I myself have more recently been praying, not so much that we will be able to change the world for Christ, but that things will not get any worse than they are now. The many political illusions that have swept across the global landscape over the past two centuries have accomplished their own transformations, beginning with the French Revolution and leading up to the more recent sexual revolution. It is easy to lose heart in such a context, as evidenced in recent discussion amongst orthodox Christians of the “Benedict option” of communal withdrawal and regrouping.

This is perhaps where we need most to return to Augustine, whom Niebuhr placed in his transformational category. It may not be obvious that the Bishop of Hippo can be so easily claimed for this position, even if his own writings did contribute hugely to the creation of a new civilization in the wake of Rome's collapse. Nevertheless, he did recognize with particular clarity that the coexistence during the present age of the civitas Dei and the civitas terrena means that we cannot expect either city to score a definitive triumph prior to the return of Christ. This may be vexing to those of us impatient to see God's kingdom advance more quickly, but we may have to content ourselves with the biblical promise that, however strong the forces of evil may seem at the moment, they will not ultimately defeat his kingdom. Our own efforts may thus not amount to full transformation along Niebuhrian lines, but they will not be in vain either in so far as they keep alive a flicker of light in otherwise dark times—a light which, we are assured, will not be extinguished.

David T. Koyzis is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God and of Political Visions and Illusions.

11 August 2015

Liberalism and the church: how mere spirituality leaves the ego in charge

A century ago the Protestant churches in North America were divided between those who sought to defend the confessional integrity of their churches and those who believed that some form of compromise with the modern worldview was inevitable and desirable. The latter became known as liberal Protestants, and they would earn notoriety for denying cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, such as the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, and his resurrection from the dead. Typically they lauded the morality of the Gospels while denying anything that might conflict with a scientific approach to the world.

Yet liberalism in religion covers more than just the denial of the miraculous. A liberal Christian may be willing to affirm that Jesus literally walked on the water (Matt. 14:22–33) or rose from the dead, yet he still retains the right as an individual to accept only that which supports his own experience of faith. J. Gresham Machen, who was forced to combat liberalism within his own Presbyterian Church in the 1920s and 1930s, well understood the nature of this individualism and its impact on the larger Christian community. While liberals in his denomination claimed to accept the authority of Christ, it was a Christ remade in the image of the cultural prejudices of the day. According to Machen, “The real authority, for liberalism, can only be ‘the Christian consciousness’ or ‘Christian experience’ . . . truth can only be that which ‘helps’ the individual man.”

Of course, experience varies from one individual to the next, which is the principal difficulty with this approach. There can be no common faith professed by a community of Christians, each of whom retains for himself or herself the sovereign right to decide what he or she can manage to affirm within the larger deposit of the faith. From this comes the caricature of the eccentric and barely-believing cleric who crosses his fingers behind his back while reciting the Nicene Creed, confessing a shell of the faith while effectively denying its substance.

Is there a connection between this religious liberalism and political liberalism? There is indeed, and we see it already in the writings of the seventeenth-century English political philosopher John Locke. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke famously asserts that political authority is rooted in a social contract among individuals, who establish a civil magistrate to protect their life, liberty and property. If this civil magistrate fails to live up to the terms of this contract, the people may take up arms against him in what Locke euphemistically calls an “appeal to heaven.”

Locke did not limit this social contract to the state but applied it to the institutional church as well. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke puts forth his own definition of the Church: “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.” While there are undoubtedly many Christians, especially those in the free-church tradition, who would implicitly agree with Locke's definition, the mainstream of the Christian tradition has viewed the Church as the covenant community of those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, who is its savior and head.

Moreover, the gathered church, as distinct from the body of Christ which is more encompassing, has been generally recognized to be an authoritative institution with the power to bind and loose on earth (Matt. 16:19, 18:18). As such it is more than the aggregate of its members but is a divinely-ordained vessel bearing the Gospel to the world and especially to those who are in Christ.

Tellingly, the voluntaristic ecclesiology of liberalism is by no means limited to liberal Protestant denominations here in North America. Even evangelical churches claiming faithfulness to the Bible implicitly communicate to their members that their own expressed needs are sovereign and strive to meet them above all else. Drawing on a consumer model, such congregations will hold multiple and different styles of worship services each Sunday to appeal to the varying liturgical tastes of adherents. If this entails toning down confessional distinctives and mounting concert-style litur-tainment, so be it.

It is common these days to hear people claim to be spiritual but not religious. Mere spirituality leaves the ego in charge, and successful churches try their best to appeal to this ego. On the other hand, religion implies a certain binding (Latin: religare) of the person to a particular path of obedience not set by the person herself. Just as the state is called by God to an irrevocable task of doing public justice, so also is the institutional church called by God to proclaim the Gospel in its fullness, administer the sacraments and to ensure that its members are living up to their calling before the face of God, who has redeemed them in Jesus Christ.

David T. Koyzis is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College. A slightly different version of this was published in Christian Courier.

06 August 2015

‘You're not really pro-life because . . .' On the supposed hypocrisy of the pro-life movement

Readers following facebook and other social media will likely have run across this quotation by Sister Joan Chittister posted repeatedly in the wake of the release of the notorious Planned Parenthood videos:
I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.
In recent days this sentiment has been echoed by many who apparently prefer to remain aloof from the controversy while implicitly appealing to the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin's Seamless Garment, which attempted to create a consistent ethic placing abortion within a larger web of concerns, including capital punishment, warfare and poverty.

Bernardin's approach is one that I found deeply compelling three decades ago, and I thought it showed promise of breaking through the impasse between the two sides in the abortion debate. But this was not to be. In fact, since Bernardin's death in 1996, his consistent life ethic has been (ab)used more often to deprecate pro-lifers than to expand their apparently narrow horizons. Indeed, Sister Joan's remarks seem to be cited disproportionately by pro-choicers and opponents of the Republican Party.

But let's put aside for the moment the partisan purposes behind these citations and examine the inner logic of the statement itself. Is it true that one cannot be pro-life if one is not equally concerned for every item on the increasingly extensive laundry list with which detractors come up?

Consider this hypothetical case: While visiting the city pool one summer day, a young man manages to save a child from drowning after she accidentally falls into the deep end. The young man is commended for his brave deed by virtually everyone, except for a single contrarian who publicly challenges his heroic status. Where was his concern for the depth of water in the pool beforehand? Why wasn't he concerned that the child be taught to swim before being allowed to go to the pool? Where was he when the possibly incompetent lifeguards were being hired? If he had no previous concern for these factors, then his ostensibly heroic deed was really nothing of the sort. Why? Because he is addressing only symptoms when he should have been attempting to rectify the underlying causes of the near mishap. Thus his heroism is fatally compromised, and he is little more than a hypocrite.

Sound familiar? Let us return then to the pro-life movement. For the moment we can put aside the fact that many pro-lifers are deeply involved in establishing and maintaining crisis pregnancy centres and other services to assist mothers and their children through difficult circumstances. We might even grant, if only for the sake of argument, the pro-choicers' point that pro-lifers are not sufficiently attending to other legitimate issues, including those that might prompt a mother to end her pregnancy. Nevertheless, if we recognize the propriety of a division of labour in which people with limited energy and resources try to do some good while other people seek other goods, then those working to avert and perhaps eventually end abortion are still serving the cause of life and of justice. We might legitimately question their strategies, their methods and their timing, but in most cases the charge of hypocrisy simply will not stand up.

David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God.

Cross posted at First Thoughts.

04 August 2015

In God's good time: awaiting the coming kingdom

The future's not ours to see, Que sera sera . . .
Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, 1956

J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.

Christians have a complex relationship with the future. On the one hand, we recognize that the future is in God's hands. But on the other, we cannot see clearly what it holds for us. The historical-critical enterprise in modern biblical studies has taught us that the Old Testament prophets were not so much looking into the future as warning God's people of his judgement if they continued to abuse the poor, if they failed to let the land rest every seventh year and if they generally declined to obey his law. In other words, they were speaking truth to power, as the old expression has it, rather than predicting the future in the fashion of psychics or clairvoyants.

Nevertheless, if we take seriously the narrative structure of scripture, and if we recognize that the Bible tells a single story of redemption, then we cannot avoid the reality that this story must have an ending at some point in the future. This narrative is sometimes outlined in terms of three acts: creation, fall and redemption. Or sometimes four: creation, fall, redemption and consummation. The Bible does address the future, even as it discourages speculation on specifics (e.g., Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32, Acts 1:6-7, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-2). We are promised that Jesus Christ will one day return to complete his inauguration of God's kingdom.

Within the discipline of theology, eschatology is the doctrine of the last things as taught by scripture. Writing in this subfield can be hazardous, because it tends to bring to the fore notions with a thin biblical basis. But Richard Middleton's new book is a welcome exception to this tendency. Indeed I would go so far as to say that it is one of the best books on the subject to appear in decades. What does Middleton do here and what is his unique contribution?

Middleton attempts to demonstrate from the biblical record that the true hope of salvation for the Christian is not a disembodied soul survival in heaven after death but the resurrection of the fully-embodied person at the return of Christ to rule over a renewed earth. Redemption in Christ, moreover, covers not just individual human beings but the whole created order, which, as Paul tells us, is groaning in anticipation of the final consummation (Romans 8:22). Middleton grapples with the relevant biblical texts as he works through his argument, and he does so in a way that is persuasive and honouring to scripture's status as God's word. In so doing, he comes up with some conclusions that many will find surprising. For example, the ancient Hebrews appear to have had no firm doctrine of the afterlife, as indicated in several Old Testament passages (e.g, Psalms 6:5, 30:9, 115:17, Isaiah 38:18). Apart from vague references to Sheol as the abode of the dead, Middleton tells us, “one thing is clear: there is no access to God after death” (p. 133).

Furthermore, he concludes that, while the Bible speaks of heaven as God's dwelling place, there is little evidence for the popular notion, often expressed from the pulpit during funerals, that the souls of the righteous join him there after death (pp. 211-237). Here is Middleton:

Having studied the relevant texts, I am surprised at how little evidence there actually is for an interim state in the New Testament, certainly less than I had expected. In the end, however, it does not matter. Authentic Christian hope does not depend on an intermediate state; nor do Christians need the Platonic notion of an immortal soul in order to guarantee personal continuity between present earthly existence and future resurrection life (p. 236).

But, some will protest, doesn't the apostle Paul express the desire to be absent from the body and present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8)? He does, but it is clear from the first verses of this chapter that Paul is in fact speaking of the final resurrected body in the redeemed earth. Does this mean there is no interim or intermediate state between death and resurrection? Possibly, but once again it may not finally matter much. Even F. F. Bruce suggested that “in the consciousness of the departed believer there is no interval between dissolution and investiture, however long an interval might be measured by the calendar of earth-bound human history” (p. 236). In other words, it could be that, after I die to this life, the next thing I will be aware of is my resurrection at the last day, never having missed the believers I left behind because, by God's grace, they too will be present on that day. That is a comforting thought.

I myself am open to the possibility of an intermediate state, largely because I am reluctant to break with what appears to be the historic consensus of the church on the matter. At the same time, it is true that the ecumenical creeds profess a belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” and not explicitly in the immortality of the soul. Furthermore, it is also true that belief in resurrection requires considerably more effort than does mere immortality. After all, the ancient Greeks whom Paul encountered in Athens had no difficulty with the latter concept, as they would have known it from Plato's writings, but they scoffed at the resurrection (Acts 17:32). Indeed our confidence is not just that we will survive death in disembodied form but that God himself will miraculously intervene to bring us back to life perhaps aeons after our bodies have dissolved into the earth. And that, to be blunt, is simply hard to accept. Yet this is what God has promised us in his word.

This is such a marvellous book that I am reluctant to point to weaknesses, but they do come towards the very end. In his final chapter, “The Challenge of the Kingdom,” Middleton warns of the dangers of combining two types of dualisms, namely, that between sacred and secular, and that between “us” and “them.” Unfortunately, because he discusses this rather too quickly and superficially, the relationship between the two dualisms may not be obvious to the reader. Furthermore, Middleton makes a derogatory, and to my mind wholly unnecessary, comment on the Tea Party movement in the United States (pp. 279-280), charging that its followers “are basically upset at the perceived loss of their own privilege; they are not angered by the injustice shown to others, especially not others who are different from them.” I am no fan of the Tea Party, whose understanding of the task of the state is severely deficient and which errs in assuming one can combat a decadent late liberalism by recovering an earlier form of the liberal project. Nevertheless, adherents are not wrong to point to the dangers of an overweening state, something which has taken on idolatrous proportions in so much of the world. Middleton similarly dismisses the so-called culture wars: “We need to extricate ourselves from these wars, which are predicated on an oppositional dualism of 'us versus them' (or 'in-group versus out-group'), since this dualism is antithetical to the gospel of the kingdom” (p. 280). Once again the connections are far from obvious in this statement. Another, and almost certainly fairer, view of the matter can be found in J. D. Flynn's “The One and Only Culture War.”

Nevertheless, despite these deficiencies, Middleton is correct to point to the link between eschatology and ethics. If we think we are on our way out of the earth to live eternally in an ethereal heavenly realm, that will have definite implications for how we treat the earth in the present. If it is ultimately to be destroyed and is destined to be discarded like an empty milk carton, then we can apparently abuse it with impunity, because, after all, God is preparing another place for us elsewhere. This, however, is not consistent with the biblical witness. “The earth is the LORD's and the fulness thereof, the world and all who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). Furthermore, “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) and intends to save his good creation from the power of sin and death. Our salvation has not yet arrived, but we await it patiently, confident that God's purposes will be worked out “on earth as it is in heaven.” For that we can rightly thank God.

03 April 2015

Magna Carta at 800

It doesn’t read like a constitutional document. It contains odd provisions like, “All fish-weirs [fish traps] shall henceforth be entirely removed from the Thames and the Medway and throughout all England except along the sea-coasts.” It wasn’t formulated by a meeting of political leaders intending to establish constitutional government but was drafted in the wake of battle. Nevertheless, Magna Carta, whose eight-hundredth anniversary we observe this year, has come to be considered a seminal document in the constitutional history of the English-speaking peoples, including Americans.

Read the entire article here.

18 March 2015

On Not Accepting the Tyranny of the Possible: Twenty-five Years Post-Communism

 Although I lived my first thirty-five years during the Cold War, I had only one unforgettable opportunity to visit a communist country while communism was still in some fashion a going concern. In November 1976 I travelled with a student group to Prague in what was then still communist-ruled Czechoslovakia. November happened to be Soviet-Czechoslovak Friendship Month, in commemoration of the 1917 Revolution, and the weather during our visit was cold and overcast. Prague I found to be a stunningly beautiful city, a fourteenth-century jewel largely untouched by the world wars but blighted by the Stalinist architecture that had risen at its periphery in the years since 1948.

We spent only two weeks there, but that was enough for me to get a feel for the city and for the people living under what was obviously an unwanted régime. The Prague Spring was not even a decade in the past, and the Warsaw Pact invasion that ended this brief experiment in “socialism with a human face” had occurred only eight years earlier. Our group was granted unprecedented access to places that would not have been on the normal tourist itinerary. We visited two factories, a state-controlled farm, the Foreign Ministry, the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp, and the site of Lidice, a village obliterated by the Nazi occupation forces in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia. There are many stories worth telling about this visit, including a potentially embarrassing question posed by one of our group to a kindly Foreign Ministry official. But one episode in particular stands out for me.

I was in the Old Town Square trying to figure out a way to get into a rather large church that appeared to be surrounded on all sides by smaller buildings. (I can no longer trust my memory so many decades later, but I think it may have been the Church of Our Lady Before Týn.) At this point a man came up to me and started talking to me in German, a language still familiar to many older people who had grown up under the Habsburg dual monarchy. We quickly switched to English, and he offered to buy any foreign currency I might have for twice the official exchange rate, something that was technically illegal but to which the authorities appeared to turn a blind eye.

I inquired as to how I might get into that church, and he was kind enough to take me inside. While there he began to talk politics, which surprised and unnerved me. At the time police and military personnel were ubiquitous, contributing to the feel of an occupied city. Yet this man seemed to have no fear of their presence. He told me quite openly that one day they would kick out Leonid Brezhnev and the Russians, and bring back Alexander Dubček, demoted architect of the Prague Spring. The man made no effort to whisper, and his voice echoed inside the sanctuary. Other people were milling about, but they paid no attention to him.

I glanced about nervously, expecting at any moment that we might be accosted by the police. But nothing happened. Nothing at all. That's when it hit me: no one actually believed the official ideology anymore. People were keeping their heads down, going through the motions of living day-to-day under an ostensibly liberating ideology, yet anticipating the day when the régime would end.

Just under two years later Karol Józef Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II, and soon thereafter the independent Solidarity trade union burst onto the scene in Poland, beginning the process of communism's slow unraveling. Thirteen years after my visit, the Velvet Revolution would bring down the communist government in Prague, thus contributing to the end of what had appeared to be a permanent division of Europe.

Last evening I was at Tyndale University College in Toronto for a Convivium-sponsored conversation between Fr. Raymond de Souza and George Weigel, the Pope's biographer. Among other things, Weigel told us that John Paul II refused to accept “the tyranny of the possible.” He never accepted as permanent the Berlin Wall and the ideological division of Europe, which did indeed end a quarter of a century ago. I cannot claim any special prescience in advance of these events, but my youthful experience in Prague had prepared me for the likelihood that, when the Soviet Union relaxed its grip on its East European clients, they would rid themselves of their rulers sooner rather than later.

The collapse of communism offered the global Christian community a brief respite from the adversities engendered by an atheistic political illusion with global pretensions. Now we face new challenges, including Islamist terrorism and a radical secularism impatient with our refusal to accede to the new cultural norms claiming to liberate the autonomous individual from traditional moral constraints. Yet, as Weigel reminded us last evening, John Paul II firmly believed that we need fear only thoughtlessness and lack of courage. Just as Czechs and Slovaks maintained patience in the face of tyranny for four decades, we ourselves have reason to expect that current trends, however disheartening in the short term, will not endure forever. We can affirm with the prophet Daniel that God's “kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion is from generation to generation” (4:3).

David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. This is cross-posted at First Thoughts.

21 February 2015

The courts and the impossibility of autonomy: Carter v Canada

Earlier this month the Supreme Court of Canada delivered its long-awaited decision in Carter v Canada, known to some as the “Death with Dignity Case.” The Court ruled that the Canadian Criminal Code’s blanket prohibition of assisted suicide violates section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees everyone “the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” The reader of section 7 might be forgiven for assuming that its wording would favour the protection of life in virtually all cases. Nevertheless, the justices decided that forcing a critically ill person to take her own life while she is still able to do so but before she would prefer is a violation of the autonomy of the person as ostensibly guaranteed by the Charter. The Court has suspended its ruling for one year to allow Parliament to craft a law that would address its concerns.

My friend Peter Stockland, of the Canadian think tank Cardus, has raised several important issues with respect to this ruling, especially his concern that, if Parliament fails to take up the Court’s challenge, this country could become literally lawless, as we have been for the last twenty-seven years with respect to abortion.

However, I would contend that the principal issue raised by this and similar rulings in both of our countries’ supreme courts is whether the quest for personal autonomy is a feasible goal for either legislatures or courts to advance. Does justice consist of giving everyone the maximum ability to fulfil their desires, whatever they might be? Do constraints on the ability to choose constitute oppression? Is it the task of our political institutions to liberate us from such constraints?

This would appear to be the accepted orthodoxy in this latest stage in the centuries-long development of liberalism, as I have described elsewhere. The U.S. Supreme Court’s judgment in Planned Parenthood v Casey (1992) claims to grant citizens an impossibly expansive right to autonomy in this oft-quoted passage: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Here the human will seems to be sacrosanct and is limited only by the requirement not to inflict harm on others. Yet attempts to flesh out the legal implications of this statement can only run aground because it ascribes to mere human beings godlike powers, which is, of course, the spurious promise given to our first parents. No society can long endure whose members think themselves gods, no matter how many courts rule differently.
For now the Court seems content to allow that no physician will be required to assist in providing the lethal means to a patient determined to die. But how long this régime will endure cannot be foreseen. Precedents elsewhere would seem to indicate that, if individual autonomy is the jealous god it has proven itself to be, no rights of conscience or religious freedom will be permitted to stand in its way over the long term.

But when does a person actually possess this autonomy to which he is said to have a right? We are constantly influenced by the people around us and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I may feel emotionally down on a dreary day in November when the daylight hours are diminishing, yet I am likely to feel cheerful on a freezing day three months later when the days are lengthening, the sun is shining, and the snow is diffusing its light everywhere. My mood on each of these days will inevitably affect the decisions I make. If I am wise, I will postpone making important decisions until I am feeling better. But what if my capacity to access this wisdom is hindered by my dark mood, which for me often leads to a loss of appetite? What if it takes only a good meal to improve my emotional state, thus leading me to decide differently than I might have an hour earlier? When does my autonomy kick in?

This is a question no court can possibly answer, because, to be blunt, there is no such thing as autonomy. As one of the Reformation-era catechisms puts it, we are not our own. We do not belong to ourselves. We are created in God’s image, which entails a grant of limited authority under God’s sovereignty. Yet as Victor Lee Austin observes, to possess authority is to be under authority. We are embedded in a network of communities and relationships that inescapably condition our choices, and it cannot be otherwise. Perhaps no court is willing to acknowledge this reality, but it remains reality all the same. Only if our courts abandon this fruitless quest to advance autonomy can we hope for even a modicum of justice to be done, especially to those whose lives are at risk but also to those unwilling for conscience’s sake to end these lives. In the meantime, we have good reason to support the efforts of  the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition here in Canada and similar groups in the United States.

This post is cross-listed at First Thoughts.

15 February 2015

The flag plus 50

At first glance a flag would appear to be little more than a piece of fabric lending a hint of colour to our lives and activities, especially those touching on politics and government. But of course it is considerably more than this. A flag can be a powerful symbol of the very fabric of a nation’s common life. To shift the metaphor, it often functions as a glue to hold a country together through triumphs and adversities alike.

For virtually all of its first century of existence, Canada did not have its own flag. From 1867 until 1965 we used either the Union Jack or a series of Red Ensigns with the Union Jack in the upper hoist, that is, the top left quarter, of the flag. The fly, that is, the half of the flag farthest from the pole, initially carried an increasingly busy combination of the provincial coats of arms and, after 1921, a much simpler Canadian coat of arms. Moreover, the Royal Canadian Navy used a Blue Ensign similar to the current flags of Australia and New Zealand. That made for three alternative flags, none of which precisely enjoyed official status.

These flags appeared to many people to indicate that Canada was simply one more self-governing territory in the far-flung British Empire and Commonwealth. Only its coat of arms distinguished Canada’s Red Ensign from those of Bermuda and the Isle of Man. Yet into the 1960s many Canadians continued to feel a sentimental attachment to these flags, including, most notably, Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. But when Lester Pearson took his place in 1963, he moved quickly to develop a new flag for a country thought to have come of age. While heraldic expert John Matheson wanted a simple flag consisting of three connected red maple leaves on a white field, Pearson wanted two vertical blue stripes added on either side.

Eventually, of course, after many possible designs were submitted and considered, the Red Ensign was lowered and our current flag raised on Parliament Hill on the 15th day of February 1965. Since then we have had half a century to become accustomed to this familiar national symbol, and most Canadians have never known any other. Young people hiking across the globe have long stitched a maple leaf flag to their backpacks to identify themselves as Canadians and are instantly recognized as such. Although I was not especially young at the time, I did the same thing while travelling in the eastern Mediterranean two decades ago.

Having grown up in a country with a strong sense of national identity, I know from experience the symbolic importance of flags. Even if the American national anthem is not particularly singable by people with ordinary vocal abilities, its subject matter is dear to the hearts of Americans everywhere. The Star-Spangled Banner yet waves o’er the land of the free, and Americans would not have it any other way.

In the public elementary schools of my childhood, we pupils would start the day pledging allegiance to the flag with our right hands over our hearts. Anti-war activists in the 1960s severely miscalculated the impact on public opinion of their flag-burning protests. While most Americans had no great confidence in their leaders’ military efforts in Vietnam, they were thoroughly alienated from anyone who would desecrate the flag. Since then there have been sporadic, if unsuccessful, efforts to amend the Constitution to prohibit such disrespectful treatment of the stars and stripes.

It is difficult to imagine Canadians taking similar offence at someone damaging their flag. Yet if we are not exactly fervent about it, we are by now thoroughly comfortable with it, viewing it as a mostly unremarkable fixture on our national landscape. Far from exciting or inspiring, the maple leaf flag goes largely unnoticed. Until, that is, we return to this country from travels abroad, and then we find that the flag is still there, ready to welcome us home before once again receding quietly into the background of our collective consciousness.

We may yet encounter the occasional holdout for the old Red Ensign, such as the owner of the building at the corner of Locke and Aberdeen here in Hamilton. (Google streetview will confirm this!) But for virtually everyone else, our no-longer-new flag has had fifty years to secure at least a modest place in our hearts, and that is something worth celebrating.

David Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College.

03 February 2015

When we turn inward: Evangelism and the limits of pluralism (part 2)

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was one of the giants of his era, wearing any number of hats during his long life, as recounted in James Bratt’s definitive biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. Starting his career as a parish pastor, he would go on to found a university, a political party and a church denomination. He taught theology, served in the second chamber of the Dutch Parliament and later as prime minister, edited two periodicals, and spearheaded a movement to mobilize the orthodox Reformed Christians of his country to resist the onslaughts of the secularizing ideologies engendered by the French Revolution. And he was successful. For a time, that is.

Few would deny that the Netherlands today is a very different place from the country Kuyper served a century ago. As a young man I was shocked during a visit to Amsterdam to see the proliferation of “sex shops” and the brazenness of the city’s red light district. In the four decades since then the Netherlands has come to be known for its permissive attitude towards euthanasia, recreational drugs and, of course, sexual expression. What happened? And why did it happen so quickly, that is, within two generations of Kuyper’s death?

It shouldn’t have been that way. The Reformed Christian communities that Kuyper led boasted some genuine heroes during the German occupation between 1940 and 1945. I have worked with Dutch-Canadians for nearly thirty years, and they have told stories of how the Christian churches and schools defied the demands of the nazi occupation authorities and contributed to the resistance movement. In fact, the family of one of my closest friends risked their lives to hide a Jewish family during the war, and this story was by no means unusual. Many paid with their lives for their wholehearted commitment to God’s kingdom. Yet all of this faded surprisingly quickly in the post-war period. By the end of the 1960s the secularizing forces that Kuyper sought to stop in their tracks had completed their work. Today many members of the Christian Reformed Church here in Canada have relatives in the old country who no longer attend church and are little different in their lives and commitments from their unbelieving neighbours.

Explanations for this tragedy are not easily come by. The mystery of unbelief has puzzled theologians and laypeople for centuries. Why do some people believe and not others? Why do so many Christians, after spending their early lives in the church receiving proper teaching, leave their childhood faith behind? Obviously only God can see into the heart. It is perhaps small comfort to observe that the Netherlands was part of a much larger trend that saw secularization sweep away the remaining vestiges of belief throughout western Europe and the Canadian province of Québec. As late as 1957 Michael Fogarty discerned the presence of a swath of territory of high religious observance extending from the Low Countries to the Venetian coast of Italy. But the following decade saw this European “bible belt” disappear as an unprecedented wave of prosperity would combine with the spiritual exhaustion that had set in after two world wars to produce a nihilistic consumerism largely indifferent, if not altogether hostile, to the traditional faiths. If fewer Dutch people attend church, the same can be said of their French, German, Swiss and Italian counterparts. Similarly, if the French political system finally achieved stability after 1958, it may be due less to a better legislative-executive balance in de Gaulle’s constitution than to a secularizing laïcité finally defeating the traditionalist subculture with which it had been locked in battle for nearly two centuries.

However, something else may have derailed the Kuyperian enterprise: However, something else may have derailed the Kuyperian enterprise: an underemphasis on evangelistic outreach among his followers. Here in North America the Christian Reformed Church has lost members since 1992, and Kuyper’s Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland) ceased to exist a decade ago when it merged with the Netherlands Reformed Church (Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk) to form the generic-sounding Protestant Church (Protestantse Kerk in Nederland). There are lessons here for evangelicals and Catholics aspiring to secure a place in the public square.

During the 1960s and ’70s a number of political scientists, including Arend Lijphart and Hans Daalder, turned their professional attentions to a phenomenon they called consociationalism. In a consociational polity the leaders of mutually hostile subcultures have learnt to collaborate for proximate political purposes, even as their respective constituents remain fairly isolated from the others. Power-sharing occurs at the élite level, while at the grassroots each subculture has its own churches (if applicable), labour unions, hospitals, charitable organizations, fraternal associations and so forth. This social segmentation is often referred to by the Dutch word verzuiling, or pillarization. Kuyper’s efforts led to the establishment of a variety of explicitly Christian organizations parallel to their secular counterparts. (The painter Piet Mondrian grew up in this Gereformeerd subculture.)

As Kuyper’s heirs immigrated to North America, they brought over his penchant for establishing and maintaining Christian institutions of all sorts, including a network of Christian day schools, a Christian trade union, more than one political organization, and a network of institutions of higher education. I myself have long been committed to these efforts and have taught at one of these affiliated universities.

Nevertheless, I have found myself wondering whether Kuyper’s perhaps too peaceful coexistence with the forces of secularization in 1917 might not have been sufficient to maintain the subculture he led over the long term. Kuyper certainly wouldn’t have been pleased by his followers’ failure to evangelize, and pillarization needn’t lead to a lack of outward strategy, but historically such power-sharing agreements place a premium on reaching a least-common-denominator form of consensus and toning down differences. In a pillarized society, the distinct subcultures became adept at erecting and maintaining barriers against the other subcultures, yet the consociational arrangements they come up with have tended to be short-lived. Lebanon’s National Pact lasted from 1943 until civil war broke out in 1975. A similar arrangement in newly independent Cyprus lasted only three years. The classic era of Dutch verzuiling endured from 1917 to around 1966, when the divisions among the subcultures began to break down.

A religious community focused only on its own survival in a hostile environment may already have lost the battle, and this is where the efforts of Kuyper and his followers perhaps fell short. If we genuinely believe that the redemptive story contained in the Bible is not just our story but the world’s story, then we have reason, not to keep it to ourselves, but to proclaim that news with urgency and enthusiasm and to live accordingly. A political ceasefire may serve the proximate good of intercommunal peace, but it can never be a substitute for the biblical command to preach the gospel to the world, whose salvation ultimately depends on it. Different confessional groups may agree to disagree for the present, but the followers of Jesus Christ must manifest a confidence that the truth that sets us free is everyone’s truth, and not just a subjective truth peculiar to our own community. We should, in short, not be content to turn inward defensively but ought always to reach out to the larger world. If we lose confidence in the transforming power of the gospel, we run the risk of losing ground in a conflict we may forget is still being waged, even under formal conditions of a political ceasefire.

While their European counterparts are fading, the rapidly growing churches of Africa appear to understand this. What, then, would the 21st century look like if we were to bring together the Kuyperian cultural agenda, with its emphasis on institution-building for the kingdom, with the evangelical dynamism of Africa’s churches? Inspired by this vision, the Christian community could never afford to rest content with a mere ceasefire but would strive, one hopes, to live out its faith that God’s truth is indeed the world’s truth.

David Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. This post is cross-listed at First Thoughts.


Blog Archive

About Me

My Photo
can be contacted at: dkoyzis@redeemer.ca