Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

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.

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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.

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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.

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23 January 2015

What would Kuyper Do? Idolatry and the limits of pluralism

Forty years ago this winter, during my undergraduate studies, I discovered the great Dutch statesman and polymath, Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), whose thought would have a huge impact on the subsequent course of my life. Although I had been raised a Christian and had understood that Jesus had died on the cross to save me from sin and death, I had never heard in quite the same way that redemption in Christ is cosmic in scope and extends to the entire creation. Although this insight is by no means foreign to the larger Christian tradition, the way Kuyper expressed it struck me at the time as especially inspiring: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Kuyper famously delivered his Lectures on Calvinism at Princeton Seminary in 1898, and he would go on to serve as Prime Minister of the Netherlands between 1901 and 1905. In his own life, he exemplified the effort to live out the lordship of Christ in every area of endeavour, including politics.

Of course, politics in the real world is a matter of trying peacefully to conciliate diversity, as the late British political scientist, Sir Bernard Crick, aptly expressed it. It requires the tolerance of “different truths,” or, more accurately, different claims to the truth. How then can Christians, whose scriptures so frequently ring with the phrase, “thus says the LORD,” be expected to live with unbelievers who deny God’s sovereignty to begin with? How can we live out an all-encompassing commitment to God’s kingdom in such a diverse society and polity? Would not Kuyper and his followers be compelled to work for the establishment of some sort of theocracy? There are, after all, communities of Christians who would love to amend the U.S. Constitution to acknowledge, not just a generic deity, but the triune God in all his fullness and majesty.

But this was not Kuyper’s approach. During his political career, Kuyper worked, not to turn the Netherlands into a godly commonwealth, but more modestly to secure a place in the public square for his Reformed Christian (Gereformeerd) supporters in the face of the secularizing ideologies spawned by the French Revolution. He did so primarily by means of his Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP), which would come to govern the Netherlands at various times in coalition with the Christian Historical Union (CHU) and the Roman Catholic State Party (RKSP), thus anticipating by almost a century the ecumenical effort known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, spearheaded by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson.

In North America, Colson and his one-time collaborator Nancy Pearcey probably did more than anyone else to raise awareness of Kuyper’s legacy amongst evangelical Christians, and James Bratt’s magisterial biography of Kuyper promises to further disseminate knowledge of this pathbreaking Christian leader. Indeed it comes not a moment too soon. In many respects our North American polities are increasingly taking on the divided character of European countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, albeit without (yet) a comparable level of political instability. From 1789 until 1958 France endured a succession of transient régimes amid a society torn between partisans and opponents of the Revolution. The 1905 law mandating an official secularism, or laïcité, ratified the victory of the republicans over their opponents, entrenching a worldview in which religious faith is rendered innocuous and safely restricted to the private realm.

In the Netherlands, by contrast, Kuyper and his associates tried something different. Yes, the same tensions besetting the French polity were present in the Netherlands, but they were successfully defused for half a century by, among other reforms, adopting proportional representation (PR) and instituting an equitable schools policy. PR insured that political parties would be represented according to their actual popular support, while the educational reforms guaranteed funding for all schools, even those with overt faith commitments.

Here in North America, a number of organizations have drawn on the Kuyperian legacy, inspired by the desire to be agents of God’s kingdom in public life, including the Center for Public Justice (CPJ), the Christian Labour Association of Canada, and the Canadian think tank Cardus. Their efforts have sometimes been labelled principled pluralism, which, according to CPJ’s website, means

that there should be constitutional recognition and protection of religious life in society. Principled pluralism means that government should give equal treatment to different communities of faith. Government should not have the authority to decide what constitutes true religion. Therefore, government should not try to establish one religion or to enforce secularism in public life. Most religious ways of life seek expression beyond the walls of a church. Most guide their adherents in the way they should live in society and not only in their worship and creedal confessions. Justice, therefore, requires equal treatment of religions in public as well as in private life.

Of course, a tolerance of divergent world views might lead one to conclude that all such perspectives are evenly matched in the public realm, peacefully and co-operatively contributing their respective strengths. This may be the ideal for some, but one cannot count on it working out that way, primarily because of the presence of various political ideologies which, as I’ve described in Political Visions and Illusions, tend to take on an idolatrous character and, like all idols, are unwilling to share power with others. Despite legitimate efforts of believers to reserve a place in the public square, the followers of the secularizing ideologies have historically found ways to thwart such efforts, while, paradoxically, accusing the believers of trying to launch a theocratic takeover.

To begin with, the popular media often refer to adherents of traditional revealed religions as “people of faith,” a term that initially seems respectful but, on closer look, can be seen to carry condescending overtones. People of faith are those benighted souls who persist in ordering their lives around the arbitrary precepts of an unverifiable divine being. Such people can be lived with, the commentators imply, as long as they keep their beliefs safely within the confines of their own communities and leave the public square to those of a more modern and scientific bent. Or, following Rousseau’s proposal, they should tone down their claims that God has revealed himself in specific ways and admit that everyone is feeling their way towards a generic divinity that makes as few demands as possible. Under such a worldview, the religious liberty guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is downgraded to a more manageable freedom of worship, with the secularizing elites implicitly claiming to preside impartially over the rival communities of the faithful.

Yet, as philosopher Roy Clouser has correctly observed, everyone has a belief in a divinity of some sort. We worship either the one true God or we worship something within the creation that we have put in place of God. The God-substitute may be reason, the scientific method, success in career, wealth, academic prestige or popular esteem. In short, everyone is a person of faith, including those who deny God’s reality or claim that, if there is a God, we cannot know him or his will. There is, in short, no religious neutrality.

Today the most prevalent idols contending for control of the public square are the twin gods of human rights and sexual autonomy. Taken together these add up to the highly contestable proposition that individuals should be able to live their lives as they will, free from social mores and external standards that would constrain them. Such standards are increasingly regarded as oppressive and thus in violation of human rights. Therefore any church community that would discipline its members for living contrary to a biblical walk is now thought to be endangering the liberty of such members. Michael Ignatieff expresses this sentiment well: “Human rights is the language through which individuals have created a defense of their autonomy against the oppression of religion, state, family, and group” (emphasis mine). If our political leaders come to accept Ignatieff’s narrowly individualistic view, then the traditional North American understanding of religious liberty cannot easily coexist with human rights conceived in so expansive a sense.

This brings us back to Kuyper’s principled pluralism, which can function only if the participants in the public square make a good-faith effort to refrain from making monopolistic claims to the whole. Will the followers of those twin gods be able and willing to make this effort? Recent developments are not particularly encouraging, as claims to individual autonomy are generally thought to trump the conscientious objections of Christians, Jews, and others who might recoil at, say, funding abortions or issuing marriage licences to same-sex couples. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that the rhetoric of pluralism will itself lead to peaceful coexistence, but we would do well to follow Kuyper’s example and co-operate where we can with our opponents while being prepared to take unpopular stands when and where we must.

David Koyzis is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. This post is cross listed at First Thoughts.

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31 October 2014

Kindle edition

This is to let everyone know that We Answer to Another is now available in a Kindle edition.

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27 October 2014

Freedom as authority

More than half a century ago, Roman Catholic philosopher Yves René Simon observed that authority has come to have a bad reputation in the modern world. Our western societies value personal freedom so highly that any intervention by an authority outside our own wills is deemed an imposition at best and outright oppression at worst. The French Revolution of 1789, perhaps more than any other event in recent history, has implanted in western consciousness the myth of the heroic popular revolt against oppressive authority. So thoroughly did the Revolution succeed in this that the default position for many of us today is to be suspicious of authority’s claims from the outset, whatever their content.

The cultural shifts of the 1960s further exacerbated this prejudice against authority when the larger liberal tradition took the form of what I have elsewhere called the “choice-enhancement state.” By the turn of the last century, the state had expanded to check the private economic power of trusts and monopolies and to preserve market competition. By the 1930s, the state had expanded further to secure equality of opportunity for everyone, which necessitated the development of the welfare state. During the 1960s, however, professed progressives concluded that the principal threat to individual freedom was not the state, big business, or economic privation, but traditional customs and social mores that claimed authority over people’s lives and actions. Only if we can manage to liberate individuals from the authority of the past, they reasoned, will they truly be free. This movement from authority to autonomy called for a new ethic based on John Stuart Mill’s 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.”

The problem was, and is, that there has never been a society for which this harm principle forms the primary, much less the sole, basis of freedom. In a mature differentiated society, there is a multiplicity of non-state communities, each of which has its own identity and its own standards for membership. These standards are intrinsically related to the mission and task of the communities and necessarily impose constraints on those subject to them. But because the homogenizing worldview of liberal individualism exalts individual autonomy over all standards outside the will, adherents regard with suspicion all communities based on non-individualist assumptions, especially those such as marriage, family, and even the gathered church which are not obviously reducible to private contract.

All of these factors together have tended to reinforce the notion that authority and freedom are at least in tension with each other, if not altogether opposed. If freedom expands, then we assume that authority must proportionately diminish. If we seek to advance freedom, we must concomitantly try to decrease the role of authority.

But what if it turns out that personal freedom, far from being opposed to authority, is simply another manifestation of authority? If this is true, and I believe it is, we must change the way we view our society. When a child is small, she is directly subject to her parents’ authority in the minutest areas of life. They keep a close eye on her, feed her, clothe her, house her, and generally take care of her. But as she grows to maturity, her parents increasingly pull back, allowing her to take on more and more responsibility for the direction of her own life. And that is as it should be. As Simon observes, parental authority properly aims at its own disappearance. Yet as parental authority continually recedes, the adolescent, who is now free to set her own life goals, is simply assuming more authority for the direction of her life.

More than a century ago, Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper coined the term “sphere sovereignty” to account for the diverse forms of community found in the mature society. Families, business enterprises, states, labor unions, and schools each have their own proper sphere of authority, as ordained by God. But so does the individual as individual. The freedom that individuals legitimately claim for themselves is another manifestation of authority which other authorities are bound to respect. Although it may seem counterintuitive in our post-1789 world, I strongly believe that respect for the human person and his status as image of God is dependent on a general respect for authority in all of its pluriform manifestations.

Cross-listed at Capital Commentary and First Thoughts.

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23 October 2014

Seeking self or costly discipleship? Standing with the persecuted

The world is definitely smaller than it was even a decade ago, and, through the Internet and Facebook (which is very nearly a distinct medium of communication in its own right), we are in continual and unprecedented contact with distant friends, family, and many others around the globe. So why is it that the Christian faith, with its increasingly global reach, can differ so radically from one part of the earth to another? I do not primarily have in mind the various customs, rituals and cultural mores that differentiate one people from another. I am referring to something much more basic.

On this side of the pond, for example, we were recently treated to this bit of purported wisdom from one of the more prominent purveyors of the prosperity gospel: “Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy.” Don’t get me wrong; there is much to be said for happiness. Few of us would deliberately court unhappiness. Moreover, there is definitely a theme in the Bible connecting human flourishing with keeping God’s word (e.g., Psalm 128). Yet the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and a huge number of the Psalms should keep us from drawing too facile a connection here. In fact, the life in Christ is typically difficult and its undoubted rewards far from immediate.

Two of the more memorable chapters in Ross Douthat’s perceptive book, Bad Religion, are devoted to the prosperity gospel and the “god within.” In reading them one is particularly struck by the similarities between the two heresies in that both are focused on the self and its aspirations rather than on the path of obedience as set forth by the historic faith. Happiness can be found in the accumulation of material wealth, despite the contrary testimony of Matthew 6:24, or salvation can be found through improving one’s emotional well-being, again contrary to the witness of a host of scriptural texts which counsel, not feeling better about oneself, but repentance from sin and trust in Christ as Savior. Our North American heresies tend to reflect the priorities of liberal individualism: expanding the self and its claims with the assumed blessing of a god whose highest priority is our personal felicity. This god makes no demands on us that might conflict with our own chosen goals. Or, as Douthat puts it, he is “less like a savior than like a college buddy with really good stock tips” (189).

Across the pond, on the other hand, we are seeing daily reports from the Middle East and elsewhere of Christians, some as young as children, being put to death for refusing to abandon their faith in the face of the worst persecution imaginable. As ISIS/ISIL steamrolls its way across northern Mesopotamia, ancient communities of Christians are being uprooted or obliterated in its path. Those of us outside the region are horrified and sense that our governments are incapable of acting to stop these atrocities. Amidst this sudden upsurge in persecution, some of us find ourselves wondering what we would do in similar circumstances. If something like ISIS/ISIL were to overrun much of North America, would we follow the path of obedience even if it meant joining the “noble army of martyrs” from ancient times? If the heresies Douthat describes should, God forbid, end up dominating the spiritual landscape of North America, would we be willing to give up our lives for the sake of a gospel so fixated on the self and its needs? This question hardly requires an answer.

It is, of course, unwise to romanticize unduly the Christians of the global south. Like us, they too share in the human reality of sin and are in need of redemption in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, at the moment they also need us to stand in solidarity with them, and we will not do so credibly if we have accepted a faith that downplays the path of obedience to a God who claims the totality of our lives as his own. It is just possible that the best antidote to a peculiarly western religion focused on the self is to open our eyes and ears to our persecuted brothers and sisters overseas.

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22 October 2014

The death of the parish: a motor-driven ecclesiology

For most of the last two millennia the gathered or institutional church was organized on a territorial basis, beginning already in New Testament times when Paul's letters and John's Revelation were addressed to the churches in specific cities of the Roman Empire, such as Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. By the sixteenth century, when Christians were quarrelling over ecclesiology among other things, no one thought to question the traditional parish church model. The parish church serves a local community, and its membership is as diverse as the people of that community. Young and old, rich and poor, men and women worship together. According to this model, people who work together or buy from and sell to each other during the week gather on Sunday in their neighbourhood church to worship the God who has redeemed them in Jesus Christ.

Beginning just over a century ago, all this changed. Catholics and Protestants alike have now embraced a new ecclesiology based on the consumer model. Adam Graber tells us that this huge shift was sparked by the invention of the automobile: How Cars Created the Megachurch and put churchgoers in the driver's seat. As recently as the turn of the last century my great-grandparents, who lived in rural southeast Michigan, attended a Friends Church. Not because they were Quakers, but because it was nearest their farm and thus easily accessible. In their world a megachurch would have been an impossibility. If you couldn't walk or ride a horse or horse-drawn vehicle over unpaved country roads, you simply couldn't get there at all.

Now virtually every family has at least one automobile, and this reality has transformed, not only our cities, but also our churches. Here's Graber:

Cars have made distance less of a factor in our lives. For this reason, church goers can choose from a marketplace of churches. But in order to decide, they have to narrow down the options, and when they do, they (naturally) consider their personal preferences first. They’ll try on different churches and see what “fits.”

Pastors, in reaction, are today forced to account for these new dynamics of affinity. Because church shoppers are exploring their options, area pastors often respond by targeting “felt needs.” For pastors, attracting and retaining church goers often means preaching on the topics people are looking for.

The most important consequence of this trend is that the gathered church – as distinct from the church as corpus Christi, which is all-encompassing – has been reduced to a mere voluntary association of like-minded individuals who can join and quit, or come and go at their discretion. The church, like any other commodity in the marketplace, exists only to serve the needs of its individual members. In this respect John Locke's definition, scarcely deemed orthodox in seventeenth-century England, seems uncontroversial today: “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” (emphases mine). Note the contrast to the scriptural definition of church as the covenant community of those called by God into a living relationship with him.

The territorial parish cannot easily withstand this new ecclesiology. Near universal automobile ownership has made Christians in virtually every tradition into consumers of perceived spiritual goods. It is de rigueur these days to claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” because religion implies binding obligation within a larger authoritative community, while spirituality leaves the individual in control and need not entail a transformed life and redirected affections. Everyone becomes a seeker and churches are compelled to attract potential members by whatever means necessary. Why? Because no one has to show up, after all. They can easily drive past the nearest church building and find another congregation that better meets their subjective needs. Or they can simply stay home and sleep late. The net effect is that the institutional church has no more authority than its members are willing to grant it. In other words, it is one more voluntary association not essentially different from the local birdwatching society.

Now it is not quite right to blame the automobile as such for this defective ecclesiology. After all, it is our use of the automobile that lies ultimately at its origin. Yet no technology is neutral. The automobile has exacerbated the individualistic tendencies already at work in our culture, empowering individuals to treat even so central a community as the church as a mere extension of their personal tastes.

We cannot, of course, return to a pre-automotive past. That option is closed to us. However, what if every new church building were to forgo the ubiquitous parking lot in the interest of restoring a normative ecclesiology? Might it force the churches to reach out to their own neighbourhoods? Might it compel people to re-embrace the parish model, attending the church to which they can most easily walk? Or have the corroding powers of consumerism eliminated this as a viable possibility once and for all? Giving up our motorized vehicles will not happen any time soon, short of our oil wells finally running dry. In the meantime, we should do what we can to advance and support an ecclesiology less obviously dependent on the consumer model and more dependent on the grace of God in Christ.

David T. Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada and is the author of Visões e Ilusões Politicas, the recently-published Brazilian edition of his award-winning Political Visions and Illusions.

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15 September 2014

No compromise: Trudeau's dubious defence of 'rights'

In a Westminster-style political system ordinary Members of Parliament have little leeway to vote as they like, as they are in virtually all cases bound by party discipline. If you are a member of the Conservative parliamentary caucus, you must vote with your caucus or face sanctions. Although both Canada and the (thus far) United Kingdom operate under this system, party discipline is more rigid in the True North than in the Sceptered Isle. However, even here in Canada ordinary party discipline will occasionally be relaxed if divisive moral issues are at stake. In 1976 Bill C-84 passed narrowly on a rare free vote in the House of Commons. Bill C-84 legally abolished capital punishment, with the party leaders allowing members to vote their conscience.

Thirteen years later the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney proposed Bill C-43, An Act Respecting Abortion, intended to fill the legal vacuum created by the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1988 decision in R. v. Morgentaler, which invalidated Section 251 of the Canadian Criminal Code. Once again, because abortion was deemed a divisive moral issue, the political parties permitted a free vote, thereby avoiding the need to take a stand and risk alienating a segment of the electorate that might be needed at the ballot box. The bill passed the Commons, but it died in the Senate, Parliament’s so-called upper chamber. Although the appointed Senate rarely obstructs legislation approved by the popularly-elected Commons, in this case it did so because Senators were not bound by normal party discipline.

There is some wisdom in allowing representatives to vote according to conscience when confronted with an issue on which there is no popular consensus. Whether the controversial measure passes or is defeated, the party as a whole need not assume collective responsibility, thereby enabling it to focus on other potentially less divisive issues.

However, Justin Trudeau, whose late father served as Prime Minister for a decade and a half, seems to have abandoned this wisdom: Justin Trudeau says abortion rights trump MPs’ freedom to vote their conscience.

“I have had a lot of Liberals come up to me and say, ‘I don’t quite understand, isn’t the Liberal party about freedom and about defending people’s rights?’” Trudeau said in an interview with CBC’s The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright.

“Absolutely it is. And the rights that women have fought for over decades to be in control of their own bodies and to control their own reproductive health is not a right I’m going to brush aside to defend the freedom of speech or the freedom to vote a particular way for an MP.”

Trudeau has said that any Liberal MP, regardless of their personal beliefs, would have to vote against any proposed legislation that could limit a woman’s right to an abortion.

“If they vote in favour of restricting women’s access to abortion, that’s taking away their rights. And that is something that we will not accept in the Liberal party. We are the party of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that’s a serious, serious position that Liberals have to defend.

“It’s time the Liberal party actually defended rights,” he said.

There can be no doubt that Mr. Trudeau is sincere in his desire to defend human rights. Yet, as Mary Ann Glendon has pointed out, the use of claimed rights as a trump card tends to end debate prematurely and does little, if anything, to advance dialogue. In this case, Trudeau has unnecessarily risked offending would-be supporters in the pro-life camp. Given that his party is in third place, this may not be the most astute political move on his part.

Yet it does demonstrate the extent to which a hardened ideological commitment can assume near religious fervour, as its adherents willfully ignore other factors that might mitigate that commitment. In particular, as the claims of sexual freedom have expanded, they have effectively usurped the space occupied by other, arguably more politically significant, liberties such as religion, speech and the press. Sexual freedom will brook no dissent, and that alone should tell us that we have crossed into the dangerous territory of idolatry.

Is it possible for believing Christians and others less enamoured of the claims of sexual freedom to compromise with its proponents for proximate political purposes? It should be, in theory, but we evidently need not look to Trudeau to provide a way forward.

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03 September 2014

Trinity Talk interview

The Rev. Uri Brito has posted his interview with me on the subject of my book, We Answer to Another. The interview can be found here.

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28 August 2014

Visões e ilusões políticas

I am pleased to report that the Portuguese edition of my first book, Political Visions and Illusions, has just been released by Brazilian publisher Vida Nova: Visões e ilusões políticas (although the website lists it as not yet available). I look forward to receiving a copy in the near future. Incidentally, the translator is my good friend and colleague Lucas Grassi Freire. Obrigado, Lucas, e obrigado, Vida Nova!

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27 August 2014

One hundred years later: the Psalms and the First World War


Everyone knows how it all started. It was the end of June in 1914. Tensions had been building for decades among the rival European powers. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was visiting Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, when he and his wife were assassinated by a Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. Vienna’s annexation of that province six years earlier had nearly led to war then, but now the real thing was only one month away. When the dust had cleared and the war was over four years later, some sixteen million people had died, and the world was never the same again. Ancient empires fell, with kings and emperors toppled from their thrones and exiled. Entire populations were cruelly uprooted from their homes, simply because they happened to live on the wrong side of arbitrary boundaries set during and after hostilities had ended.

Nearly four decades ago, I visited Prague, the capital of what was still communist-ruled Czechoslovakia and, before the First World War, part of Austria-Hungary. During my time there, I purchased in an antiquarian bookshop a Czech-language New Testament and Psalms published in 1845 for “Evangelical Christians of the Augsburg and Helvetic Confessions,” that is, for Lutheran and Reformed Christians. The print was in the old German black letter font, and even some of the spelling was obsolete.

It was not until seven years ago that I noticed something interesting about the Psalms in this volume. An early owner of the book, whose surname was Lány, read through the Psalms at the pace of approximately one psalm per day (except, of course, for Psalm 119), taking time to mark the date at the top of each. He started with Psalm 1 on “1./8.”, or the 1st day of August 1914, and continued until he read Psalm 150 on “18./I. 1915,” that is, the 18th of January 1915.

I am convinced that the timing of his praying through the Psalms was not accidental.

Read the complete article here.

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25 July 2014

Skillen on the Good of Politics

Does politics have only a remedial function or are we created for political life from the beginning? Does government exist only to counter the effects of human sin, or does it play an important role in human life even apart from sin? These are among the crucial questions James W. Skillen addresses in his new book, The Good of Politics: a biblical, historical, and contemporary introduction. Founding president of the Center for Public Justice, Skillen, now retired, has woven a rich tapestry that owes much to the tradition of political reflection associated with the great Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper.

The first part of the book lays out the contours of the biblical drama, particularly as it relates to the Christian's task of citizenship in the political community. As a Reformed Christian, Skillen characteristically begins with the sovereignty of God and the comprehensive scope of his kingdom. Indeed God's kingdom is not merely a spiritual kingdom, as some would have it, but has relevance for the totality of human life in his creation. God's kingship is "over every human authority in this world" (9). Caesar and God do not exercise separate domains, for even that to which Caesar has a relative claim belongs ultimately to the God who has given him his high office. In this respect, all two-kingdoms approaches to life fall short by failing to give God his full due.

What I most appreciated about this section is Skillen's exploration of the biblical notion of sabbath and its relationship to our work as God's image-bearing creatures. Many Christians tend to look at sabbath observance as a mere legalism telling us what we can and cannot do on the Lord's Day. But without a proper emphasis on sabbath, we fall into the temptation of thinking we can usher in God's kingdom by our own efforts. To be sure, we have definitely been given a task – multiple tasks in fact – to fulfil in his kingdom, but it is God himself who crowns our efforts and brings them to their ultimate fruition at the Seventh Day of his grand redemptive-historical week. As Skillen puts it, "Christians who focus only or primarily on the 'next life' fail to see how their lives and labors in this age are part and parcel of what God will bring to fulfillment in the age to come. By contrast, those who focus only on life in this age miss the revelatory and anticipatory meaning of who they are and what they are doing" (24-25). God is pleased to use our efforts to advance his coming kingdom, but only he can redeem these efforts through his Son Jesus Christ. Skillen is in the process of writing a new book precisely on the topic of creation's sabbath and the political vocation, and, if his discussion here is any indication, we have much to look forward to when it is published.

The second and middle part of the book deals with "key historical developments," extending from the early Christian era up to the present, with special emphases on Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, the Anabaptists, John Calvin and Johannes Althusius. Here Skillen explores the ambiguity in Augustine's identification of the two cities, which in some passages seem to encompass two quite distinct communities of persons driven by their disparate loves, but in others appear to mark a contrast between the present earthly life and eternal life in the heavenly city that transcends it. If we follow the latter approach, then it turns out that the two cities do not manifest themselves in two different groups of persons but encompass many of the same persons in the present age. This ambiguity is carried forward especially in Lutheran circles, but also by other Christians who tend to read the spiritual/directional opposition between obedience and disobedience into the structural differentiation of such human communities as state and gathered church.

I was pleased to see Skillen's treatment of Althusius in particular, because the 17th-century political and legal theorist is unjustly neglected in the English-speaking world, though he is better known among German-speakers due to the influence of the great 19th-century legal scholar Otto von Gierke. Althusius laid the groundwork for a revived notion of citizenship as active membership in a political community as opposed to mere subjection to a monarch. More significantly, for Skillen's purposes, Althusius articulated a theoretical basis for what might be called the pluriformity of communities and authorities characterizing a mature differentiated society. (In this respect, Gierke's effort to view Althusius as a precursor to Rousseau's popular sovereignty is wrongheaded.) Catholic social teachings have labelled this conception subsidiarity, while Reformed thought has spoken of "sovereignty in its own sphere" or sphere-sovereignty. Both of these have profound implications in countering the influence of the various totalistic ideologies that have so marred recent human history.

Then there is John Locke, whose treatment comes, not in the second section of the book, but in the third. Lock, of course, had a powerful influence on the American founding, as evidenced by Thomas Jefferson's use of his thought in the Declaration of Independence. Many American Christians are reluctant to take on Locke because of his exalted status in that country's civil religion. Indeed Locke is a moderate compared to such radical French Enlightenment philosophers as Rousseau and Voltaire. His thought seems superficially to be more compatible with conventional religious observance. Nevertheless, Skillen effectively reveals the defects in Locke's approach, especially his understanding of government as the product of social contract: "for Locke there is no such thing as public authority or public government but only the consolidation of many private self-governments into a common or compound self-government" (172). Government is not ordained by God to do public justice; rather it is established by sovereign individuals to fulfil their own chosen purposes. As Skillen puts it, "Locke's god simply turns over the world to autonomous individuals for their own individual appropriation" (180). Government is ancillary to the needs of these individuals. This is all part of the larger liberal tradition's tendency to reduce the diversity of human communities to voluntary associations.

In the third part, Skillen makes a positive case for "engaging politics today." Much of this will be familiar to those who have read his previous books, especially In Pursuit of Justice, but it is worth revisiting this material in the larger context of the present book. Here he reaffirms that "God created humans for political life. God did not establish government and politics only in reaction to sin" (117). Along with this comes the basic conviction that justice is not simply about the needs and wants of individuals. A biblical understanding of justice requires that government attend to the institutions of civil society as well by protecting their distinctive identities and unique tasks in the world. Government itself is not intrinsically tethered to a pagan ethic, as Robert Kaplan and Anabaptists alike aver, but, like every human community, is obligated to live out in its own proper way the divine command to love God and neighbour.

The third part, where he fleshes out the implications of the first two parts, is where some readers may take issue with Skillen. First, electoral reform.

Like most English-speaking democracies (with the notable exception of New Zealand), the United States has a single-member-plurality electoral system, popularly known as first-past-the-post (FPTP). This means that the entire country is divided up into so many territorial constituencies, each of which elects one member to the legislative body based on who receives the highest number of votes, even if it falls short of an absolute majority. Skillen rightly points to the defects of this system, which are even more obvious in Canada, where majority governments are almost always formed based on only 35 to 45 percent popular support. Skillen's proposed reform would turn each of the 50 states into "a single, multimember district from which the state's allotted number of House seats would be filled by means of PR [proportional representation]" (149). This would ensure that few votes would be wasted, as they are under the current arrangement, and that more voters would be represented by the parties for which they voted. Among other things, he believes that this would hold Congress more accountable to voters, facilitating the advance of the public good, breaking the power of special interest groups, and diminishing pork barrel politics.

Although I would like to think Skillen is right, I suspect that he has overstated the likely virtues of PR and of the more highly disciplined parties that it might encourage. European democracies, which generally operate under some form of PR, are not immune to the influences of interest groups, even if the institutional context in which they are compelled to operate is significantly different from that of the United States. Furthermore, as this page from the German Bundestag's website indicates, the input of such groups may actually be solicited as part of the formal legislative process. To be sure, public justice cannot simply be the sum total of the aggregate influence of the most powerful interest groups. Yet, as the late Sir Bernard Crick understood, political authorities must take into account a diversity of interests, recognizing that the common good consists, not in abstractions hovering above the hurly-burly of ordinary politics, but in the often contentious deliberations over the relative merits of their respective claims on the body politic. Here even local communities need to have a voice, which FPTP does well at representing, but which a party-list form of PR would not. This is something that Skillen perhaps needs to acknowledge more explicitly.

My own preference would be for a form of PR that preserves the best of the current arrangement, such as the mixed-member-proportional (MMP) system currently in use in the Federal Republic of Germany, New Zealand and elsewhere. Then again, if most North Americans are unpersuaded of the injustice of FPTP, they may not find the case for any form of electoral reform especially compelling, which explains the failure of the 2007 referendum on MMP in Ontario and repeated failed efforts to abolish the Electoral College in the US. Clearly those of us favouring reform must surmount the twin hurdles of complacency and cynicism standing in the way of just representation.

This brings us to a related issue, namely, the adequacy of the US Constitution to account for an America which is no longer a collection of federated states but is a fully integrated national political community. I suspect that many readers will bristle at the thought that their country is saddled with an "outdated Constitution" (134). Many conservative protestant Americans identify strongly with a narrative in which the framers of the Constitution play a near messianic role and the Constitution itself functions as something approaching a scriptural text. Skillen bemoans the fact that there have been so few efforts at updating this document to bring it into the 21st century (135).

However, I would like to suggest from my Canadian experience that focusing too heavily on amending a constitutional document may not be the most fruitful avenue for pursuing political change – even badly needed change. We've tried it north of the 49th parallel more than once, and the last two such efforts have failed miserably. Moreover, there will always be a certain distance between a constitutional document, however well- or badly-framed, and the empirical constitution, that is, the political system as it actually functions. For example, no matter how carefully a document delineates the respective powers of federal and state/provincial governments, the balance between the two levels will shift over time with the changing needs of the polity. And all of this occurs without a word of the document being altered.

There is much more to be said on the issue, but I will limit myself to observing that Skillen may not be wise to risk tampering with the popular reverence for the Constitution as a document when there may be other, more effective ways, e.g., legislative, judicial or merely conventional, to compensate incrementally for deficiencies in the larger political system. In this respect there is something to be learned from Martin Luther King's appeal to the Constitution, and not just to an intangible natural right, to secure the status of black Americans as full citizens of the body politic.

The Good of Politics is part of a series of projected volumes by Baker Academic on Engaging Culture, and as such it admirably fulfils its purpose. However, the publisher might wish to move this information into a preface from its current position opposite the title page where it is easily missed.

Readers have come to appreciate the wisdom and insight that Skillen has displayed in his work over the years. This new book certainly lives up to our expectations. The Good of Politics is a biblically and historically rich primer on the political life for everyone persuaded that the claims of Christ extend to our calling as citizens. Of course, not everyone will necessarily accept that political life has a creational basis, and even Kuyper had his doubts on this score. But Skillen makes a strong case for this position here, and even sceptics would do well to add this book to their summer reading list.

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14 July 2014

Like father, like son: The Trudeau legacy

In 1969 the Criminal Law Amendment Act, known as Omnibus Bill C-150, was granted Royal Assent. Introduced two years earlier by Pierre Trudeau while he was still federal Justice Minister, the bill had sparked heated debate in the Commons and the popular press, because it proposed, among other things, to decriminalize homosexual acts, permit abortion and contraception, and allow government-regulated gambling. In the midst of shepherding this bill through the parliamentary process, Trudeau famously asserted that “there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” and that “what's done in private between adults doesn't concern the Criminal Code.”

As a belated recognition of the intrinsic limits of government, this statement would appear indisputable. After all, a law against nonmarital sexual activity could hardly be enforced with any consistency and would necessitate something close to a totalitarian surveillance state. Even Thomas Aquinas admitted centuries ago that human laws cannot suppress all acts of vice, only those egregiously detrimental to the commonwealth. So far, so good.

However, there was more behind C-150 than recognition of reasonable constraints on government. The sexual revolution of the 1960s had already begun to upend the widespread acceptance of a normative understanding of sexuality and to substitute for it an ethic of mutual consent: whatever two (or more?) people agree to is right, no matter what others may think. Yet over the long term something that sounded initially like an advance in the progress of personal liberty would necessitate an expansive government infringing on other previously-protected, and arguably more central, liberties.

For example, does a woman have a right to end her pregnancy if she so desires? The US Supreme Court said yes in 1973 and reaffirmed this in 1992. By contrast, the Supreme Court of Canada refrained from asserting such a right in R. v. Morgentaler (1988), deliberately leaving room for Parliament to legislate new regulations on abortion that would conform to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

However, over the past quarter century many of our political leaders act as if there were such a right and that the debate over it has been settled. How else can one explain the attempt of Ontario’s Minister of Education two years ago to dictate to the province’s Catholic schools what they can and cannot teach with respect to abortion? Because abortion is a “right,” then the schools should not be teaching something that violates rights. Case closed.

Never mind that she had made no real argument, only an assertion. What is worse is that a government had put itself in the untenable position of telling a faith-based institution what must be the content of its own teachings, thus negating the Charter guarantee of religious freedom. If the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, it apparently does have a place in its schoolrooms, and perhaps even its churches, as the newer sexual freedom calls on an expansive government to protect it against those communities, now deemed oppressive, with stricter moral and behavioural standards.

Not unexpectedly, Trudeau’s son Justin, current leader of the federal Liberal Party, has inherited his father’s understanding of human rights and is using it against members of his own parliamentary caucus. In May he announced unilaterally that his party would not be accepting pro-lifers as candidates for Commons seats in the next election. Present caucus members who are pro-life will be tolerated – for now. But the handwriting is clearly on the wall: “We are steadfast in our belief . . . it is not for any government to legislate what a woman chooses to do with her body,” claimed the younger Trudeau, echoing his late father’s sentiments.

Once again, something touted as extending personal freedom is being advanced at the expense of real persons compelled to act in ways that violate their sense of right and wrong and perhaps even their recognition of reality itself. If some Liberal MPs persist in seeing clearly that abortion ends the life of an unborn child, they must be browbeaten into suppressing this knowledge for the sake of retaining their jobs over the long term.

Let us pray that these MPs will retain their integrity and do the right thing, even if, in the name of a spurious freedom, their right to live out their convictions increasingly goes unrecognized by our political leaders.

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15 May 2014

Losing faith: Québec at the crossroads

What happens when a people loses faith in its gods?

Half a century ago the province of Québec underwent a sea change that saw a once Roman Catholic monolith become radically secularized in a breathtakingly brief period. Where once the ecclesiastical hierarchy had presided over, not only churches, but schools, universities, labour unions, hospitals and charities, many people in La Belle Province felt a need for liberation from what they had come to consider an oppressive institutional presence dominating so many facets of life.

This Révolution tranquille, or Quiet Revolution, coincided with the coming to office in 1960 of Jean Lesage’s Liberal government in Québec City. Lesage’s premiership promised to open up Québec society after a generation of Union Nationale rule under the recently deceased premier, Maurice Duplessis. Québec was on the move. While Montréal was preparing to host a world’s fair to celebrate Canada’s centenary, Quebeckers were trying to establish a new identity after the virtual collapse of the Catholic Church’s authority. Would they find their place within a renewed Confederation or would they go it alone?

While generations of Québécois had felt estranged from a spiritually apostate France after the 1789 Revolution, this antirevolutionary ethos vanished during the 1960s. The French Revolution had begun when Louis XVI had convoked the Estates General. Shortly thereafter, the Third Estate, consisting of commoners, rose up and abolished the first two estates, representing the clergy and nobility, declaring itself l’Assemblée nationale, that is, the National Assembly.

In 1968, in an eerie echo of the events of nearly two centuries earlier, Québec similarly abolished the upper chamber of its provincial legislature, le Conseil legislatif, while the lower chamber, l’Assemblée legislative, changed its name to – you guessed it – l’Assemblée nationale! The French Revolution had finally caught up with La Belle Province. That same year saw the formation of the Parti québécois, which sought a wholly French-speaking nation separate from Canada.

Much as the 1789 Revolution had seen France shift from a highly centralized absolute monarchy under the Bourbon kings to a series of highly centralized post-revolutionary régimes, so the Quiet Revolution saw Québec emerge out from under the weight of a monolithic church into the hands of an equally monolithic state, which replaced the old bishops in controlling schools, universities and hospitals. Gradually, faith-based schools, ostensibly protected by the Constitution Act, 1867, were phased out by both Liberal and PQ governments, while even private schools, such as Montréal’s Loyola High School, are being pressured to conform to an officially-mandated religious relativism, which holds that all religions are equally true – or, perhaps more accurately, equally false.

Finally, as if to cap off the process of secularization, the PQ government of Premier Pauline Marois had proposed a Charter of Québec Values, which would establish the supposed religious neutrality of the provincial government and ban the wearing of overt religious symbols for public employees. With the dissolution of the National Assembly, the Charter – numbered Bill 60 – died, although the new Liberal government of Philippe Couillard has unwisely decided to revive a diluted version in the new Assembly.

With the recent defeat of Marois’s PQ government, some observers, such as the National Post’s Andrew Coyne, are heralding the demise of separatism after nearly half a century. But this is almost certainly premature, as separatism’s death knell has been sounded many times before.

Yet even if separatism is in terminal decline, Québec’s enduring quest to establish a post-christian identity will not go away any time soon. The heart needs to believe something. When a society loses faith in the true God, a thousand idols will compete to replace it. For the past two generations, Quebeckers have looked to l’État du Québec – the Québec state – as their established church and nationalism as their new religion. But this faith will not ultimately satisfy.

St. Augustine famously addressed God with these words: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you!” At some point, Quebeckers may come to recognize the spiritual emptiness of a secularizing nationalism as they taste the sour fruit of an overgrown state trying to impose its values on society. Unlikely to return to the days of an overextended church institute, Quebeckers may one day nevertheless stand at a crossroads where they will be face to face with the God who revealed himself uniquely in Jesus Christ. Let us pray that they choose the right path.

David T. Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College and is the author, most recently, of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (Pickwick Publications, 2014). This appeared in the 12 May issue of Christian Courier as part of his monthly “Principalities & Powers” column.

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13 May 2014

Autonomy's Triumph in Canada: what George Parkin Grant foresaw

The late Canadian philosopher, George Parkin Grant (1918-1988), argued that, while the American experiment south of the border was preoccupied with the development of technique in the service of the expansive desires of sovereign individuals, both English and French Canadians were traditionally more communitarian in orientation. However, already half a century ago Grant lamented that Canada was becoming more individualistic and almost certainly for the worse. Although Grant initially expressed concern about the homogenizing influences of liberalism and capitalism on his country’s distinctive traditions, in his last decades he became increasingly worried about the easy acceptance of euthanasia and abortion in western societies and the inevitable cheapening of human life that would follow in its wake.

Unlike most of his socially-prominent extended family, including his nephew, former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, Grant was no fan of liberalism and held the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in particular disregard. Were he still alive today, Grant would be livid at what his nemesis’ son, the current Liberal leader, has unilaterally decreed to his parliamentary caucus: Anti-abortion candidates need not apply in 2015, Justin Trudeau says.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says all candidates running for nomination to represent the Liberal Party in 2015 will have to support the party’s pro-choice position, but that the same rule does not apply to sitting MPs. “I have made it clear that future candidates need to be completely understanding that they will be expected to vote pro-choice on any bills,” Trudeau said Wednesday following his party’s weekly caucus meeting in Ottawa. . . . “We are steadfast in our belief ... it is not for any government to legislate what a woman chooses to do with her body. And that is the bottom line.”

But the Liberals are not alone. Although Grant, as a Red Tory, tended to support the Conservative Party, he would scarcely be enthusiastic about what that party has become today under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who moved two years ago to shut down a backbencher’s effort to reopen the issue of when human life begins. Unlike the Liberals and the socialist New Democrats, the Conservative position seems to be to tolerate pro-lifers as long as they keep their mouths shut on the matter in the House of Commons. This means that all three major federal parties have effectively banished pro-lifers to the political wilderness. The autonomous person, liberated from the constraints of the past and free perhaps even from the stigma of social disapproval of his chosen lifestyle, has become the new god of the Canadian civil religion, almost totally eclipsing whatever communitarian elements have managed to survive the cultural shifts of recent decades.

The notion of freedom as the right to define ourselves autonomously was famously heralded by the US Supreme Court’s notorious Planned Parenthood vs Casey decision in 1992. But, as Grant feared so many decades ago, this notion has expanded north of the 49th parallel. If John Locke is right that “everyone is orthodox to himself,” then perhaps freedom as autonomy must be held to trump the claims, not only of institutional religions, but of any faith that recognizes that we answer to God and to the covenant community he has called into being. A Catholic like his late father, Justin Trudeau objects to anyone who might question that status based on his abortion stance. The use of such expressions as “a private matter” and “between God and me” suggests that his Catholicism, however sincere, has been considerably attenuated by Canada’s civil religion, which, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s, will brook no dissent, particularly from those whose faith entails obedience to something beyond the socially-sanctioned quest for autonomy.

Grant would definitely not be pleased.

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22 April 2014

Defying authority in obedience to authority: Milgram's experiment

Half a century ago, a junior faculty member at Yale University undertook a notorious experiment familiar to anyone who has taken an introductory psychology course. Stanley Milgram set up the experiment to find out the extent to which people will obey authority. This was motivated, in large measure, by the horrors that had taken place scarcely two decades earlier in Nazi-occupied Europe, where large numbers of otherwise decent people were caught up in an effort to eliminate entire categories of humanity.

In the experiment, two persons came into the laboratory. One of them, designated the “teacher,” believed he would be taking part in a study of learning and memory. The other person, designated the “learner,” was an actor privy to the real aim of the experiment. The learner was brought into a room, strapped into a chair, and attached to electrical wires. The teacher was put before the console of a formidable looking machine which, he was told, controlled the amount of electricity flowing through the wires into the body of the learner. The teacher was to ask questions of the learner, and each time the learner made an error, was instructed to administer successively higher doses of electricity to him.

In reality, of course, no shocks were ever given or received. The real test was to determine how far the subject/teacher would go in carrying out orders, even when hearing the agonizing cries of the victim/learner at the end of the wires. Would the subject break off the experiment, thereby defying authority, because he believed he was being commanded to do something wrong? Or would the subject, upon being assured by the white-coated experimenter that he assumed full responsibility, continue to administer “shocks” even up to the dangerous level of 450 volts?

Read the entire article here.

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02 April 2014

The Niagara Psalter

I have now found a provisional title for my second psalter project: The Niagara Psalter. Read all about it here.

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28 March 2014

Solzhenitsyn on Russia and Ukraine

The late novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn comes as close as anyone to being one of my heroes. In the midst of the darkest days of the Soviet regime, he stood fast for his convictions, explicitly rejecting Marxism-Leninism and embracing the Christian gospel. Yet he was also very much the Russian nationalist, which prompts me to wonder how, if he had lived a little longer, he would have responded to the recent crisis in Ukraine and Crimea, which came to a head earlier this month.

We cannot know this for certain, of course, but based on his writings, I rather think he would not have taken the side of the West in arguing for the inviolability of interstate boundaries. This is from his book, The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century:
Russia has truly fallen into a torn state: 24 million have found themselves “abroad” without moving anywhere, by staying on the lands of their fathers and grandfathers. Twenty-five million – the largest diaspora in the world by far; how dare we turn our back to it?? – especially since local nationalisms (which we have grown accustomed to view as quite understandable, forgivable, and “progressive”) are everywhere suppressing and maltreating our severed compatriots.

Along with this awareness of the ethnic Russian diaspora in the so-called Near Abroad, Solzhenitsyn had already expressly favored a political union of the three Slavic republics in his Rebuilding Russia. Ukrainians, he opined there, should not be forced into such a “Russian Union,” but separation of Ukraine from Russia, if it were to come to that, should be settled only on the local, rather than the republican, level. One assumes this would entail allowing those parts of Ukraine, including Crimea, that feel themselves to be more Russian than Western, to stay with the larger Russian Union, if they so desire, while permitting the more nationalistic oblasts in the west to go their own way.

Solzhenitsyn explicitly addresses the plight of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, calling attention to what he sees as their mistreatment at the hands of those who would proclaim: “Ukraine for the Ukrainians!”
A sizeable portion of the ethnic Ukrainian population itself does not even use or have command of the Ukrainian language. (The native language for 63 percent of the population is Russian, while ethnic Russians make up only 22 percent of the population; i.e., in Ukraine, for every Russian there are two “non-Russians” who nonetheless consider Russian to be their mother tongue!) (Russian Question, 91)

Add to this his reference to “the false Leninist borders of Ukraine (including even the Crimean dowry of the petty tyrant Khrushchov)” (90), and we can be reasonably confident that the famed Russian author would be squarely on the side of Vladimir Putin.

I am reluctant to conclude too quickly that Solzhenitsyn would be guilty of the sin to which his colleague Evgeny Barabanov pointed decades ago when he stated that “we shall be obliged to acknowledge that in Byzantium and Russia ideas about the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar too often merged and became interchangeable.” But Solzhenitsyn’s nationalism was his great blind spot.

The late Orthodox theologian, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, had wide-ranging discussions with the novelist in the mid-1970s and made some revealing observations on this encounter in his personal journals. Among other things Schmemann wrote of
Solzhenitsyn’s “idolizing obsession with Russia” (p. 65). “For [Solzhenitsyn] there is only Russia. For me, Russia could disappear, die, and nothing would change in my fundamental vision of the world. ‘The image of the world is passing.’ This tonality of Christianity is quite foreign to him” (p. 61).

While one can understand Solzhenitsyn’s concern for ethnic Russian minorities, his nationalism is off-putting. Changing interstate boundaries at the whim of the powerful, however strong the justification might be for territorial adjustments, is a recipe for the sort of irredentist bloodletting that marred the first half of the twentieth century, in which Solzhenitsyn himself was caught up.

Yet even our greatest heroes usually distinguish themselves in one area for which they properly earn recognition. Much as we do not look to the great scientists and inventors to produce great poetry or art, so we read Solzhenitsyn, not for his expertise in international relations, but for his considerable insight into the human condition and into a world that has largely forgotten its dependence on God.

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27 March 2014

Sweetness and power: reflections on nationalism


Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism

BOOK REVIEW:
Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism 
by Doug Gay. SCM Press, 2013. 192 pp.

Later this year, citizens of Scotland will vote in a referendum whether to continue their country's 300-year-old union with England or to go it alone. For author Doug Gay, the possibility of Scottish independence provides an occasion for reflecting on the larger issues surrounding nationalism. Is nationalism a good thing? Or is it, as many Christians have historically believed, an idolatrous overestimation of one's nation at the expense of other image-bearers of God elsewhere? Gay's project here is to defend nationalism based on his Reformed tradition of Christianity, an admittedly tall order, given nationalism's dark history.

The title comes from the Samson cycle of stories in the biblical book of Judges, in which the flawed Israelite hero scoops honey from the carcass of a lion he has earlier killed (Judges 14:5-9), and from the Tate & Lyle syrup cans familiar to Scottish households from the late nineteenth century. "The relationship between lions and honey I read (freely) as a metaphor for the central question of political theology and political ethics—the relationship between power and virtue." Although nationalism has indeed led to grave injustices and oppressive polities, it need not do so. Accordingly, Gay undertakes to defend a modest and "sweet" vision of nationalism that is more compatible with the Christian faith than, say, the version in Quebec, which aims to snuff faith from the public square.

Gay defines nationalism as "the making of combined claims, on behalf of a population, to identity, to jurisdiction and to territory." His use of the word claim is significant in that it points to the need to weigh and assess something, particularly against contrary claims in a public forum. What I read him to say here is that there is nothing automatically right and salutary in Scottish independence. Whether or not Scotland should be a sovereign nation-state is ultimately a prudential judgement about whether justice for its people would be better served in a United Kingdom or in a separate country. After weighing the relevant factors, he believes a separate Scotland is a defensible goal for the serious Christian.

Read the entire review here.

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