Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

31 January 2005

Decent left, decent right?

A question from a self-described fanatical moderate: If there were ever to be a decent left and a decent right, would they come to agree more than they disagree?

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Whither Baylor?

After a turbulent tenure as president of Texas' 160-year-old Baylor University, Robert Sloan will step aside to become chancellor of the institution, in a move that would seem to amount to being kicked upstairs, as the expression goes. What will this mean for Sloan's controversial Baylor 2012 programme, intended to push the university to the front ranks of America's major research universities while deepening its distinctively christian character? While I, as a christian academic teaching at a christian university, find it difficult to fault Sloan's desire to recover Baylor's confessional moorings, I do wonder whether he was perhaps overly ambitious and insufficiently patient with those who might have qualms about this agenda. A more incremental approach might have had greater long-term success.

Incidentally, this week Redeemer is privileged to host Baylor philosopher C. Stephen Evans, who will be speaking thursday and friday. The subject? Kierkegaard.

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30 January 2005

Iraqi vote today

Today Iraqi citizens went to the polls in the first multi-party election in more than half a century. Although I have expressed doubts over the prospects for a democratic Iraq, we should all hope and pray that the doubters will be proved incorrect in their fears. Nothing would make me happier than having to eat my words because things turned out better than anticipated.

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A dangerous bishop

Bishop Michael Ingham, of the Anglican diocese of New Westminster, is supremely tolerant of a variety of lifestyle choices but not of those who disagree with Bishop Michael Ingham. He would, moreover, use the coercive power of the state to force such people to conform to his enlightened beliefs, even if it entails a dangerous abridgement of religious freedom. Funny, but the rest of us were under the impression that the Inquisition had been abolished some time ago.

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Psalms in Slovak

Branislav Micieta is a young Reformed Baptist from Slovakia with an interest in the Genevan Psalms. He has written a versification in his own language of Psalm 23 which he has posted here, along with two translations of Isaac Watts' common metre psalms. Those who love the biblical Psalter and want to hear it sung around the world should check back to Micieta's website occasionally as he adds more such versifications.

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And now, on to Lotusland . . .

. . . where the following story shouldn't come as too much of a surprise: "Former B.C. Liberal officials charged with fraud, taking bribes." By now I should think people would be more astonished to hear of a BC politician staying out of jail than going to jail.

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29 January 2005

A 'blueblood' society for the Antipodes?

Although I have a longstanding interest in genealogy for less purposeful reasons, some people's interests in this field are motivated by the desire to join one of the following "blueblood" societies: the United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada, the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Membership in such societies is undoubtedly a satisfying experience for those able to prove prestigious ancestral connections. However, I rather like the idea behind this website: Convicts to Australia: A Guide to Researching Your Convict Ancestors. Makes you wonder what sort of societies might spring up down under from this research.

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Ingenuity in a pinch

You have to hand it to this man for thinking quickly and getting himself out of a life-threatening situation.

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28 January 2005

Kay on marriage

As the country awaits the federal government's proposed marriage legislation next week, Barbara Kay has her own take on the issue which is worth reading and considering: "The Broken Windows Theory of Marriage." This article appeared as an op-ed piece in wednesday's National Post and has been republished on Lifesitenews.com.

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Welcome to new readers

I would like to extend a warm welcome to the students of Paul Brink's Political Science 330 class at Eastern University, St. David's, Pennsylvania. They are reading my book and have recently discovered this blog. Of course, they are more than welcome to join the conversation! Brink is one of my protégés from my early years at Redeemer and will shortly be defending his dissertation at Notre Dame. When he does, I will certainly mention it here!

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An oppressed minority?

It's about time to push for the next item on the politically correct agenda: affirmative action for Franco-Greek-Cypriot-Finno-Anglo-American-Canadians, easily the smallest and most marginalized minority in this country.

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27 January 2005

Redrawing the maps

In my personal library I have a number of old maps and atlases dating to the beginning of the last century and the end of the 19th century. Given their age, they include a number of countries which no longer exist, including the Russian and Ottoman Empires and Austria-Hungary. Such countries as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia did not yet exist, and a few, such as Greece and Romania, were quite a bit smaller than they are today. Then the Great War broke out in 1914 and everything changed.


It's All Relative

Potential Central European Federation?


After the war ended representatives of the great powers met in Paris, where they set about to redraw the map of Europe. One of the casualties was the last of the once vast Habsburg dominions in Europe, Austria-Hungary, as shown in the map above. Had I been present at Paris in 1919 and been in a position to influence the proceedings, I would not have favoured the wholesale carving up of Europe. We now know, of course, that this new Europe created the conditions that led to the Second World War scarcely two decades later. Yet even without this foreknowledge, Clémenceau, Lloyd George, Wilson and others ought to have understood the dangers of acting in so rash a fashion. Opening up the question of international borders was certain to leave huge numbers of people dissatisfied, even as it placated some of the louder and more militant ethnic nationalists who had agitated to move them. Short of uprooting countless millions of minorities -- which, of course, is eventually what happened -- drawing new borders inevitably left sizeable communities believing they were on the wrong side of what seemed to them arbitrary lines on a map.

There would seem to be no obviously just way to partition an empire. More than eight decades later, I find myself wondering whether it might not have been better, rather than breaking up Austria-Hungary, to revive it as a Central European Federation within most of its pre-1914 territory. Perhaps the House of Habsburg could have been left as the reigning, but not ruling, dynasty, with representative parliamentary institutions in Vienna or Budapest, and substantial powers devolved to the constituent regions. Within each of these regions, political institutions might have been established to encourage power-sharing amongst the various ethnic communities, along the lines of the smaller consociational democracies.

The one exception I would have made to the preservation of much of prewar Europe is Poland. The old Polish commonwealth had been cruelly extinguished in 1795, after three successive partitions enlarged Russia, Austria and Prussia at its expense. The great powers were right to bring back Poland. But creating new countries such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, which did not survive the 20th century, was a spectacularly bad idea.

Only if a particular geographically-bounded community is obviously not being done justice within a larger territorial polity might secession or partition become necessary. But it is certainly not an answer to every ill and, even as a last resort, will almost certainly have deleterious consequences for everyone concerned. So although I am generally averse to political slogans, if I had to choose one it would be: Up with federalism; down with partition!

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Murder motive being downplayed?

Chuck Colson comments on the Jersey City murders in today's Breakpoint commentary: "Murder in Jersey City." Is the possibility of a religious motive being deliberately downplayed by local authorities? Colson says yes.

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25 January 2005

Sephardim in New Mexico?

Our own resident hispanophile, Richard Greydanus, will undoubtedly find this of interest. It seems that a number of hispanics in New Mexico are discovering their genealogical roots in the sephardic Jewish community exiled from Spain after 1492: "DNA tests explain old traditions."

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An appropriate appellation?

If neocalvinists are properly nicknamed neocals, might young neocalvinists be known as neocalves?

     
Sources: Parlement en Politiek, Breeders World

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Campaign to protect Assyrians

Yesterday in London George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, launched a campaign to save the Assyrian Christians of Iraq from extinction. Despite the change in régime in Baghdad nearly two years ago, the plight of Assyrians has only worsened. According to Lord Carey, "In recent months and years churches and monasteries have been attacked and people have been killed." Although estimates differ as to numbers, the following is from The Telegraph: "About 800,000 Assyrians live in Iraq with an additional half a million around the world. They still speak the ancient biblical language of Aramaic." We would do well to pray for these brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as to support Carey's campaign.

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24 January 2005

Murder of Armanious family religiously motivated?

This is a story which we at Redeemer are watching, due to a personal connection with one of our staff: "Killing of family shatters religious harmony." Given the centuries-old tensions within Egypt between Muslims and Christians, it is not surprising that middle eastern Christians, including Assyrians, suspect the worst in the brutal slaying of the Coptic Orthodox Armanious family in Jersey City, New Jersey. Pray that justice will be done and that at least a semblance of interfaith harmony might return to the Egyptian community in Jersey City.

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Unlocking Locke, II: synthesizing conflicting narratives

Last week I posted two back-to-back posts dealing with the Lockean and biblical narratives. Here I will try to bring these two subjects together and, in so doing, complete the argument begun there.

We noted in that first post that Locke borrows the basic framework of his political philosophy from that of Thomas Hobbes, employing the same categories and drawing similar conclusions. Leo Strauss argues that Locke is simply a more moderate version of Hobbes and can be understood only against the larger context of the Enlightenment. Yet we also observed that Locke owes a debt to an older tradition of philosophizing, stemming in some measure from the natural law theories of Thomas Aquinas, as mediated through Richard Hooker. It is this latter influence which often persuades contemporary Christians that Locke is a christian thinker putting forth christian ideas on the nature of the state. Given Locke's influence on Thomas Jefferson and the American founders, Americans anxious to emphasize their country's christian origins have an incentive to claim Locke as their own.

However, as I have suggested below, claiming a particular philosophy as biblical on the basis of certain apparently biblical features found therein, is deeply problematic, particularly if the larger animating narrative is glossed over. (I am here using animating narrative as roughly the same as worldview.) To be sure, one may be thankful that Locke, e.g., believed in limited government, opposed tyranny, favoured consent of the governed and advocated the protection of private property. But there is much more to Locke than this, and one needs to dig deeper to find the narrative undergirding his thought as a whole. Perhaps it would be helpful to compare what might be called the Hobbesian/Lockean and biblical narratives to illustrate how they differ at a basic level:

(1) The Hobbesian/Lockean narrative:
State of nature -> social contract -> civil government -> appeal to heaven

(2) The biblical narrative (in elaborated form):
Creation -> fall into sin -> redemption in Jesus Christ -> renewal in the Holy Spirit -> consummation of the kingdom of God

That these two narratives are in conflict should be apparent from even a superficial reading. A deeper reading will reveal, among other things, that each makes for a different understanding of the role of government in human society. According to the Lockean narrative, political authority is by no means intrinsic to humanity. The more "natural" state is one characterized by equality and independence, which can be given up or modified only by mutual consent. This consent is thus deemed the basis of legitimate government, and its absence removes this legitimacy. However much natural law limitations may make their appearance in Locke's thought, there is no avoiding the fact that the centrality of contract would tend to leave the interpretation of the meaning of such limitations up to the people themselves, who will likely change their interpretation from one generation to the next. Hence the stages in the development of liberalism, of which I detect five in my book.

By contrast, the biblical narrative affirms that the role of political authority cannot be understood apart from the larger context of God's dealings with his image-bearers. There is no prepolitical natural state in which we are all equal and independent of one another. Indeed, the state of nature might be seen as a parody of the Garden of Eden. Political authority arises, not from contract, but out of two elements of human nature: first, our created limitedness and, second, our sinfulness. The first of these elements is intrinsic to our status as creatures, irrespective of our fallenness. The second is, of course, rooted precisely in our fallenness. Because of the latter, the purpose of political authority is, in part, a remedy for the destructive effects of sin. Because of both elements, political authority is called by God to do justice, as affirmed repeatedly throughout scripture (e.g., Deuteronomy 16:18-20; Psalms 72, 82; Proverbs 29:4, 14; Isaiah 10:1-2; Romans 13; I Peter 2:13-14).

Another way to put this is that government has an intrinsic jural task to which the notions of contract and popular consent, with their potential arbitrariness, cannot do full justice. As for redemption and renewal, Christians acknowledge that political authority itself cannot redeem, despite the exaggerated hopes which the followers of secular ideologies might place in it. Yet government, like the rest of God's creation, is caught up in the larger drama of redemption, which is cosmic in scope.


Christian History Institute

Thomas Aquinas


This means that, although we are justified, because of God's common grace, in recognizing the moments of truth in the theories of, say, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Kant and Marx, one cannot simply lift these moments eclectically out of the larger narratives animating their thinking without doing damage both to the intregrity of these thinkers' ideas and to the biblical narrative which is, after all, the story we are called to inhabit, as Lesslie Newbigin puts it. What might be called a spiritual eclecticism is the central difficulty in, e.g., Thomas Aquinas' grand synthesis of Christian revelation, Aristotle's ethics and Stoic legal theory in his own philosophy. While I have a tremendous respect for Thomas Aquinas and particularly for his neothomist disciples of the 19th and 20th centuries, it is not clear that his enterprise, taken as a whole, succeeds in freeing itself from the aristotelian and stoic narratives from which he borrows so freely.

Two decades ago one of my Notre Dame professors wrote a series of journal articles attempting to determine whether Thomas Aquinas is a natural law or a natural virtue theorist. He argued for natural virtue, but others argue just as plausibly for natural law. My own response would be that Thomas is both and that, if the two positions are not exactly compatible, this is due to the unstable nature of his attempt to synthesize two conflicting narratives. Something similar could perhaps be said of Locke.

So where does this leave us? At square one? Do we spurn all pre-existing philosophies, including political philosophies, and start from scratch? Hardly. In any attempt to gain a theoretical understanding of God's world, we inevitably enter a larger conversation which has been going on for centuries before us and will continue for long after we are gone. Yet there are resources out there to help us make our way through the conflicting claims put forward in academia, in the popular media and in the context of government itself. I trust I am not too immodest in hoping that my own book might be one of these, though I am quick to recommend as well the writings of Skillen, Bob Goudzwaard, Paul Marshall, Bernard Zylstra, Rockne McCarthy, Jonathan Chaplin, Al Wolters, Mike Goheen and Craig Bartholomew, in addition to Kuyper and Dooyeweerd.

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22 January 2005

Two inaugural addresses and natural law

As I was reading President Bush's second inaugural address, I was struck by its similarity to one delivered by a predecessor exactly 44 years earlier. Here is John F. Kennedy speaking on 20 January 1961 after being sworn in as president:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

And now President Bush:

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

Aside from the strong sense of national purpose invoked by both speeches, both manifest a commitment to an expansive, interventionist foreign policy which would see the United States playing a substantial role in the defence/advance of freedom outside its own borders. Both employ rhetoric manifesting a weak sense of the limits of government and the limits of the resources at the disposal of even a global superpower. We ought not forget that the idealism of Kennedy's administration was soon followed by the debacle in Vietnam. Hard on the heels of Camelot came Chicago 1968, Kent State and Watergate.

Napoleon had virtually the whole of Europe under his control. But he overextended himself and his military by invading Russia in 1812. The US currently has troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they are finding it difficult to keep even a semblance of order. Now we hear rumours that covert operations are occurring in Iran. Threats have been directed at North Korea as well. Is Bush in danger of making the same error as Napoleon, Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and many others? Time will tell, but one would be foolish to deny the possibility.

In the meantime, there are a number of voices in the media castigating Bush for bringing "too much God" into his inaugural address. Joseph Bottum, writing in the Weekly Standard, argues that Bush's speech had just the right amount of God. Far from sounding like a theocrat, Bush is appealing to a natural law tradition extending as far back as Thomas Aquinas. Writes Bottum:

So, we've got an enduring and universal human nature ("ancient hope"). We've got final causation ("meant to be fulfilled"). We've got a moral problematic (the "ebb and flow of justice"). We've got intelligible formal causes (the ideal of "liberty" as shaping a "visible direction" for history). And we've even got a prime mover ("the Author of Liberty"). There isn't much more a natural-law philosopher could want in an American president's inaugural address about nature and nature's God. I'd guess not a lot of gloating is allowed around the throne of the Maker of heaven and earth, but somewhere in the vicinity, St. Thomas Aquinas must be smiling. . . .

Yet Bottum admits there is much in the address to cause discomfort to the more devout believers in his audience.

The president's Evangelical supporters may have been reassured by the public religiosity of the occasion--the prayers, the Navy choir singing "God of Our Fathers," the bowed heads. But the god of the philosophers ain't much of a god to be going home with. A deistical clockmaker, an impersonal prime mover, a demiurge instead of a redeemer: This is hardly the faith Christian Americans imagine the president shares with them. There was not a mention of the Divine in Bush's speech that Thomas Jefferson couldn't have uttered.

So has Bush embraced natural law theory? If Leo Strauss (no, I am not a Straussian) were alive today, he would probably say no, underscoring the considerable distance between the mediaeval notion of natural law and the peculiarly modern notion of human rights: "In the modern development, 'natural law' is as it were replaced by 'the rights of man,' or in other words the emphasis shifts from man's duties to his rights. Whereas pre-modern natural law was on the whole 'conservative,' modern natural law is essentially 'revolutionary.'" There is, of course, more to Strauss' argument than these two sentences, but it would seem truer to observe that Bush is more evidently the heir of Jefferson than of Thomas Aquinas and his scholastic followers. In this respect at least, Bush's speech is unexceptional in his country's history.

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World federalism an option?

Are such organizations as the World Federalist Movement and its various national affiliates the wave of the future or are they the nostalgic vestiges of an obsolescent idealism? Here is the WFM's self-description:

The World Federalist Movement (WFM) is an international citizen's movement working for justice, peace, and sustainable prosperity. We call for an end to the rule of force, through a world governed by law, based on strengthened and democratized world institutions. We are inspired by the democratic principles of federalism.

Few are likely aware that John B. Anderson, one-time third-party presidential aspirant in 1980 and long-time member of the House of Representatives from my home state of Illinois, is a world federalist. Anderson is a self-described evangelical Christian who was well known in this community in the 1960s and '70s. He is (or at least was) president of the World Federalist Association in the US, now called Citizens for Global Solutions. Here is Anderson on his vision for the future:

Humankind's best guarantee of peace is a legal system which provides for the resolution of the disputes that will inevitably arise in human society. Resolution by peaceful methods that renounce the use of force as a substitute for reason will contribute to the acceptance of the rule of law as an inescapable paradigm. Peace must be acknowledged as a human right which if violated by nations or by individuals will be upheld and protected by judicial process. No ruler or national leader however described should by claim of state sovereignty be able to subvert the principles of accountability to clearly established legal principles through a democratic process based on an equitable and fair and democratic form of government. I further believe that it is through a democratic world federation equipped with adequate authority to deal with truly supra-national questions that our best hopes for a peaceful and secure future reside.

Needless to say, Anderson's is a minority viewpoing among his compatriots, much less his co-religionists.

My own view is that the movement towards the adoption of effective international legal principles is a needed one, even as the notion of a global federation is almost certainly a nonstarter. Hannah Arendt once said that freedom, wherever it has existed as a living reality, is always spatially limited. Democracy on a global scale is more likely to be an empty abstraction than an effective political framework. Moreover, I become immediately suspicious when I hear people contrast the rule of law and the exercise of force. After all, the very efficacy of law rests on the legitimate possession of forceful means.

The reformational school of political theorizing associated with Kuyper and Dooyeweerd I have found extremely fruitful for understanding at least domestic politics. Yet followers of this approach have done little in the way of fleshing out a biblical, creational understanding of international politics. As there is much work to be done in this area, I have been steering my own better students in this direction. God grant that perhaps fifty years from now they and others will have given us more of substance to work with.

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20 January 2005

Hail to the chief

Today US President George Walker Bush begins his second term in office. I will likely be commenting on his inaugural speech at some point.

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"Dominion" of Canada?

Recently I was asked whether Canada is still a dominion. Certainly on the old maps from my childhood the northern half of the North American continent had DOMINION OF CANADA emblazoned across it. But now one rarely if ever hears this term used. What happened in the meantime?

When the Fathers of Confederation were meeting to negotiate a union of the British North American colonies in the 1860s, they considered a number of possibilities as to its name. Canada at that time applied only to the united province of Canada, that is, southern Ontario and southern Québec. Here is the account of the London Conference of 1866-7 from the Library and Archives Canada website:

Choosing "Canada" as the new country's name was relatively easy, as was the choice of "Ontario" and "Quebec" for the two halves of the Province of Canada. However, difficulties arose in choosing a designation. The delegates wished it to be a kingdom; the British feared that such a title would anger the United States, and denied the request. An alternative, "Dominion," was suggested by Samuel Leonard Tilley, from a line in Psalm 72 of the Bible: "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth."

By the early 20th century dominion had come to describe those countries within the British Empire which were effectively autonomous with respect to domestic affairs but were still dependent on the United Kingdom with respect to external affairs. At the time of the Statute of Westminster, 1931, when the dominions became effectively independent, there were six dominions, which now had legal equality with the UK itself: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Newfoundland and the Irish Free State. After this point, these six countries had the authority to alter their own constitutions and set their own foreign and external policies.

However, Canada remained anomalous for just over a half century thereafter. Our chief constitutional document was not an entrenched document but an act of the British Parliament known as the British North America Act. Whenever our political leaders wished to change this act, they had to appeal to the Parliament in London to do so. Of course, London would accede to this request as a matter of course. Yet, because these leaders could not agree on an amending formula for an entrenched document, they could not manage to change Canada's continued status of technical dependence on the United Kingdom. At some point during this period the word dominion came to be associated with this dependence and fell into disuse as a consequence.

At one time Canada Day, 1 July, was known as Dominion Day. Federal-provincial relations were called Dominion-provincial relations, as indicated in the earlier editions of Robert MacGregor Dawson's Government of Canada. Certainly by 1978, the year I moved to Toronto, dominion was gone, apparently for good. No one, as far as I know, had made a deliberate decision to dispense with the word. But gradually it had become obsolete.

Not everyone is happy with this. If John Diefenbaker were still around, he would be kicking up a fuss. Moreover, someone with obvious monarchist sympathies is maintaining a website devoted to the Dominion of Canada (note Diefenbaker's image on the left). However, for most other Canadians the disappearance of the word dominion does not loom large in their consciousness.

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19 January 2005

Parka weather on Titan

Here is one of the pictures which the European Space Agency's Huygens probe has sent back from Titan, ostensibly the most earthlike of the many moons orbiting Saturn:


ESA


According to this report, the probe detected a surface temperature of -180 degrees Celsius upon landing. It is unclear whether this includes the wind chill factor.

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18 January 2005

Scripture as narrative

Among Christians there seem to be three primary approaches to scripture, one of which lends itself better than the others to functioning as a "lamp to [our] feet and a light to [our] path" (Psalm 119:105).

1. Collection of diverse literatures. One view of the Bible sees it as little more than a collection of human writings of disparate origins. Much of the mainsteam of biblical studies is preoccupied with, e.g., discerning the various traditions underlying a text such as the Pentateuch. The Documentary Hypothesis of Julius Wellhausen and Karl Heinrich Graf is typical in this regard in so far as it claims to detect Yahwist (J), Elohist (E), Priestly (P) and Deuteronomic (D) sources behind the first five books of the Old Testament. Similarly, those scholars examining the Synoptic problem attempt to figure out which gospels are dependent on which and whether another source, Q, might have been drawn on by the authors of Matthew and Luke.

To be sure, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such analytical enterprises, as long as their proponents maintain a certain humility concerning their own hypotheses, which usually lack hard manuscript evidence. (No one has yet turned up a copy of "Second Isaiah" in an Egyptian cave!) Yet many such scholars (though by no means all) often operate on the undergirding assumption that the Bible is a collection of heterogeneous writings reflecting the subjective spiritual aspirations of their own faith communities rather than the unique revelation of God's word.

2. Inerrant propositions. This approach to scripture is found among those protestants describing themselves as evangelicals and fundamentalists. Scholars taking this approach will expend great time and effort attempting to demonstrate that, e.g., Job's statement that "the morning stars sang together" (38:7) anticipates modern science's understanding of stellar radiation or that the differing numbers between the Kings and Chronicles are not so contradictory after all. To critique this approach is not to say that there are errors in scripture; it is simply to say that its truthfulness must be understood in ways that conform to the historiographic standards of the nurturing culture. More to the point, like the first approach, the second risks losing sight of the larger biblical narrative.

3. Redemptive-historical approach. This way of looking at scripture understands that, for all the different literary genres comprising it, the Bible is a single story of God's redemptive interventions in history. Thus it begins with the story of creation, culminating with the creation of humanity in God's image. Our first parents fall into sin and die. Their descendants continue to sin and stand in need of salvation. So God sends his Son, Jesus Christ, to accomplish redemption through his shed blood on the cross. He thus inaugurates his kingdom, whose final consummation will come with his return at the end of history.

The first two approaches tend to find people coming to scripture as though it were so much data for scientific scrutiny. But, by concentrating exclusively on the details, such people are in great danger of missing the larger story. Given that this is so often the case, I am pleased to be able to recommend a new book recently published by Baker Academic and written by two of my colleagues, Craig Bartholomew and Mike Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story.



In this book the authors have written a survey of the Bible which takes precisely this redemptive-historical approach. It deserves a wide reading, particularly by first-year university students at christian colleges and universities. I suspect it will catch on in such settings as more faculty learn of its existence. There is also a website associated with the book, titled simply Biblical Theology.

The redemptive-historical approach to scripture, strongly associated with the Reformed tradition, is singularly well suited to serve as a "lamp to [our] feet and a light to [our] path." The first two approaches are rather less adequate to forming a coherent christian worldview, precisely because they view scripture in fragmentary form, which does not lend itself very well to life application. Moreover, there is a certain risk of blindness which comes with staring into the light rather than shining it on the path ahead. I pray that God will use my colleagues' new book to advance his kingdom further.

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17 January 2005

Unlocking Locke, part I

In response to one of my readers who calls him- or herself Pensans (or is it Pensant, as in "thinking"?), I will here set forth my reflections on John Locke's political philosophy.

It is generally acknowledged that the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) had a considerable influence on the American founding, as evidenced particularly in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. To be sure, other thinkers, such as Montesquieu and Adam Smith, would make their own impact, but Locke's influence is such as to warrant mention in a speech delivered by President Bush at Whitehall a little over a year ago.


The John Locke Page


Locke's most famous works are his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690, 1706) and his Two Treatises of Government (1680, 1690). The latter was written to combat Sir Robert Filmer's patriarchal theory of the origin of human government and to set forth a new theory based on consent of the governed. His refutation of Filmer is contained in the First Treatise, which is little read now, primarily because Filmer's ideas enjoy no currency today. Consequently it is Locke's Second Treatise that is the better known and more widely read of the two. Although it was apparently written before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, its publication followed it, and it is often seen as a defence of the deposition of the Stewart monarchs and the supremacy of Parliament.

Locke's political thought has sometimes been viewed as something of an amalgam of that of Thomas Hobbes and Richard Hooker, the latter of whom he quotes directly. Hobbes is a philosophical nominalist who sets forth a number of categories that were borrowed and adapted by Locke for his own purposes, which are, admittedly, different from those of Hobbes. Hooker is the author of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, which defended the quasi-protestant Elizabethan settlement in England and whose legal theory is dependent on the mediaeval scholastics, including Thomas Aquinas. It should not be surprising that Locke's political theory brings together, in very nearly a thomistic-style synthesis, the older natural law tradition, with its recognition of intrinsic constraints on human action, and the newer liberalism, with its notion of voluntary contract.

To avoid making this post into an academic treatise, I will cover the highlights only of Locke's political thought, focussing on his principal categories and their place within what might be called the controlling narrative. This is the first part of my analysis. More will follow as I have the time to devote further to it.

Like Hobbes, Locke posits a prepolitical state of nature, which is a "State of perfect Freedom" wherein people have the liberty "to order their Actions, and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other Man" (II.5). While Hobbes views this prepolitical state as characterized by a "war of all against all," Locke is unwilling to go quite this far, believing that "the State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it," which law teaches that "no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions" (II.6). Clearly, over against Hobbes, Locke cannot bring himself to admit that force and fraud are the only virtues in the state of nature. Nevertheless, given that everyone has the executive power of the law of nature to protect his or her property, and given further that there is no generally-acknowledged common court of appeal in cases where this law is violated, the enjoyment of one's life, liberty and property is precarious at best. If the state of nature is not automatically a state of general warfare, there is the ever-present danger of it degenerating into such a state.


Library of Congress


This is where the social contract enters the picture. Another category adapted from Hobbes, the social contract stands at the origin of political society and the authority that presides over it. Because the enjoyment of property is so uncertain and precarious in the state of nature, individuals have an incentive to leave that state and to enter into political society, thereby gaining "a common establish'd Law and Judicature to appeal to, with Authority to decide Controversies between them, and punish Offenders. . . " (VII.86). Consent of the governed lies at the origin of all governments, or at least of those which have been established peacefully (VIII.112). In contast to the Hobbesian contract, whereby human beings yield up all their rights, save that of self-defence, to the sovereign, the Lockean contract requires that people give up only the executive power of the law of nature, while retaining most every other right they enjoyed in the prepolitical state, especially the right to property. In short, government under the Lockean scheme is restricted to protecting life, liberty and property and ought not take on tasks much beyond this.

Why the word contract? It is not at all clear that this is a true account of the origin of human government. To be sure, the modern state, defined as a political community of citizens and government, can be traced only to the early modern era of half a millennium ago. But political authority seems always to have existed in some fashion. This is undoubtedly what Aristotle recognized in observing that the human being is a "political animal" or "political being." This ubiquity of political authority is also what St. Paul had in mind in stating that "the powers that be are ordained of God" (Romans 13:1). Political authority would appear to have its origins in both created human limitations and in the fallenness of humanity. Where then does contract enter the picture? It doesn't. Unless, that is, one uses the term to describe the commission given by an electorate to a new government of the day. But government in the general sense has been a constant in every human society. In other words, Locke's apparently proper emphasis on natural laws serving to constrain the parties to a contract cannot vindicate his use of this questionable term. Historically, the contract metaphor has taken on a life of its own, leading centuries later to unintended consequences.

Locke's focus on the possession of property is also notable, as it constitutes the principal, if not the sole, end of political society and government: "The great and chief end therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property" (IX.124). Elsewhere he goes so far as to argue that "Government has no other end but the preservation of Property (VII.94, emphasis mine). There are, of course, many ways to describe the central task of government, including: to do justice, to pursue the common good, to defend the innocent and punish the guilty, to enable us to live peacefully with each other despite our diverse interests, &c. Tellingly, Locke has chosen the protection of property, the possession of which is defined so as to emphasize its individual, private character. Defending the common property of the body politic, e.g., pasture lands, public buildings, forests and other Crown lands, appears to play no role in Locke. Even the acknowledgement of the diverse forms of property ownership, as related to the various responsibilities assigned to individuals and communities, does not seem to figure into Locke's approach. The public and common would seem to exist solely for the sake of the private. It is perhaps for this reason that, in his Whitehall speech, Bush (or, more likely, his speech writers) saw fit to mention Locke in tandem with Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations (1776) laid the groundwork for classical liberal economic theory.

Finally, it should be noted that, if government fails to live up to the terms of this contract, i.e., if it fails to protect the citizens' property, the citizens are within their rights to dissolve government, even by means of what Locke euphemistically calls an "appeal to heaven," i.e., rebellion (XIV.168). Although Hobbes would not have admitted the legitimacy of rebellion, he did admit that a king who makes war on his people does so at the risk of losing his throne. Thus Hobbes made room for what might be called a practical right to rebellion. By contrast, Locke puts the matter this way:

Whensoever, therefore, the Legislative shall transgress this fundamental Rule of Society, and either by Ambition, Fear, Folly, or Corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an Absolute Power over the Lives, Liberties, and Estates of the People, by this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power, the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty, and by the Establishment of a new Legislative (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own Safety and Security, which is the end for which they are in Society (XIX.222, emphasis mine).

Similarly, Locke holds that, in the event of the government's dissolution, "the People are at liberty to provide for themselves, by erecting a new Legislative", &c. This is obviously something more than the legal dissolution of a parliamentary body and the holding of new elections, such as we see in a constitutional democracy. Although there is a superficial resemblance between Locke's remedy for tyranny and that of, say, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Johannes Althusius, the latter three focus on the constitutional role played by lesser magistrates authorized to check the power of the chief magistrate. In short, they envision an authoritative office playing this role under domestic positive law. By contrast, Locke's cryptic phrases, "it devolves to the People" and "the People are at liberty," leave unanswered the central question of who these "people" are and what offices they occupy authorizing them to take such an action.

To be sure, Locke understands that human activities are inevitably bounded. He is not a partisan of sheer wilfulness or unlimited autonomy. He is not an anarchist or an advocate of the fifth stage of liberalism, which I have labelled the "choice-enhancement state." Nor can his thought be harnessed to something as potentially dangerous as Rousseau's general will. Nevertheless, for all his debt to a much older tradition that recognizes our dependence on a higher law, there is an obvious narrative structure to Locke's political theory which is difficult to square with the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and renewal. The logic of this Lockean narrative tends in the direction of the choice-enhancement state, much as the logic of Marx's thought leads to the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, even if its progenitor would likely have blanched at this notion. In short, if Locke is heir in some fashion to Reformed Christianity, it is in a very much attenuated and secularized form, as Zylstra correctly saw. This Locke shares with the other ideologies, which, if they are indeed idolatrous, as I argue in my book, are precisely post-christian idolatries incompatible with a biblical worldview.

I will have more to say on the relationship between the Lockean and biblical narratives before too long.

Continued: Unlocking Locke, II: synthesizing conflicting narratives.

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16 January 2005

Ecumenism and two divisive issues

Although I usually think of myself as a catholic Christian with broad ecumenical sympathies, the following Zenit reports are indicative of two issues on which I have never been able to comprehend the Roman Catholic position: "New Plenary Indulgence to Mark Year of the Eucharist," and "Faith and Reason Aid Each Other, Says John Paul II." The very notion of an indulgence would appear to diminish the work of Jesus Christ, while the 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio would appear to posit too extrinsic a relationship between faith and reason.

Of course, as everyone knows, the 16th-century Reformation had its beginnings with Luther's protest against the sale of indulgences. I am unaware of anything remotely similar to the doctrine of indulgences in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Perhaps someone like Gregory Daly would be able to enlighten me further on this issue from the Roman perspective.

As for faith and reason, these should be understood, not as "two wings" or two dialectically related epistemic faculties, but as what might be called the fideic and logical aspects of a single human cognitive capacity. As such, there is no such thing as faithless reasoning. All reasoning is rooted in faith of some sort -- either a true faith or a false faith, but a faith nonetheless.

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Napoléon geographically confused?

Since reading Troubetzkoy's Imperial Legend, I've been looking a bit more into Napoléon's ill-fated invasion of Russia. One element of this has always puzzled me, as seen in this quote from the French emperor, apparently uttered after the invasion had begun: "If necessary, I shall go as far as Moscow, the holy city of Moscow, in quest of battle, and I shall win the battle. . . . [F]or a capital to be occupied by an enemy is equivalent to a girl losing her honour." Did someone neglect to tell Napoléon that St. Petersburg, and not Moscow, was the capital of Russia at this time? If he had pointed his army towards the city at the mouth of the Neva, or if he had sent a fleet of ships there, would history have turned out differently? Would we all be speaking French?



Russia's would-be ruler

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15 January 2005



Those reading this blog will hardly be surprised to know that I have been a longtime member of the Center for Public Justice and its predecessor organizations for about three decades. For over 20 years the organization has put out the Public Justice Report, which was at one time a monthly newsletter but now comes out on a quarterly basis. The latest development has it becoming an exclusively web-based periodical, something for which I am less than enthusiastic. All the same, I remain an enthusiast for the PJR's approach to political life.

Here is what you will find in the latest issue, as reproduced from its website:

From Re-election to Inauguration. What should we make of George W. Bush’s solid victory last November? Public Justice Report editor, James Skillen, offers his assessment, drawn from a speech he was invited to give in Beijing, China on December 8 at a conference of leading America-watchers. Skillen argues that the so-called "moral values" vote, which includes an attitude toward economic issues and foreign policy, must be understood against the backdrop of the tension between America’s Puritan and Enlightenment traditions, each struggling for dominance in our nationally weak federal system.

Faith-Based Hiring Rights. A brief review introduces a new book, published by the Center for Public Justice, that has been sent to legislators and other public officials throughout the country—at both state and federal levels. The book is The Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations to Staff on a Religious Basis, by Carl Esbeck, Stanley Carlson-Thies, and Ronald Sider. This is one of the most controversial subjects in relations between faith-based social-service organizations and the government. This book is the authority—the most complete and detailed assessment available of the law and politics on this issue.

With or Against the World?. Significant excerpts are presented here from the second chapter of James Skillen’s forthcoming book with this title. The subtitle is America’s Role among the Nations (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, due out at the end of February). This first of two installments from the book focuses on the "forgotten depths" of history that lie behind America’s response to terrorism. Americans know too little of the history of Islam and the rise of Islamic radicalism, but they also know too little about the birth of the United States as a "nation with the soul of a church."

Stars Forever. Stanley Carlson-Thies reviews a book that will surprise those who have little good to say about combative Evangelicals in American politics. The book — Like the Stars, Leading Many to Righteousness — is by an evangelical pastor, Glenn Parkinson, who calls his fellow-believers to a positive role in society rather than to a negative one. The goal of Christians should be to serve their neighbors and bless them with good things, not to try to defeat them in a culture war. Integrity and public forthrightness should go hand in hand with a generous way of life that can lead neighbors to a high regard for their fellow citizens who are Christians.

The Question of a Christian Worldview. This essay introduces and reviews two books: first, and primarily, Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: The Liberation of Christianity from its Cultural Captivity (Crossway Books, 2004), and second, David K. Naugle’s Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans, 2002). The first is a best-selling exploration of how Christians have become bogged down by dualistic views of life and what they need to do to become full, free, and productive Christians. Naugle’s book is more academic, but for anyone who wants to know what’s behind all of today’s "worldview talk," this is the book to read.

Education Reform to Empower the Poor. David Van Heemst is the author of Empowering the Poor, Why Justice Requires School Choice (ScarecrowEducation, 2004). Building on the work of Charles L. Glenn and others, Van Heemst makes the case for real pluralism in education, with real choices for parents, and why these reforms will do more than anything else to empower the poor in America.

Editor's Watch: Postmodern President: Second Edition. The Editor’s Watch this quarter hypothesizes that if Bill Clinton was our first postmodern president, as some have argued, then George W. Bush is our second. Bush's "social-constructivist" approach to policy making and his efforts to impose his political will reveal him to be more a man of pragmatic gusto than a man carefully attuned to principles of justice.

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14 January 2005

New year's day

A happy new year today to those Russians still following the Julian calendar.

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Opposition to Roemer as Democratic Party chair

The head of the Massachusetts state Democratic Party says in effect that it would be "extremely foolish" for the national party to choose as its chairman someone who might help it to win a future presidential election. The party's seeming death wish can only cheer Republicans, who for this reason might also oppose Tim Roemer's candidacy for the position.



Tim Roemer,
pro-life Democrat

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13 January 2005

Americanism as puritanism, once again

I know that this sequel to my earlier reflections comes too late to qualify for Joe Carter's contest, but I will not let that prevent me writing further on the subject of Puritanism and Americanism. Indeed, on second thought I think there may be something to David Gelernter's assertion that, far from disappearing from the scene, Puritanism became Americanism over time. Here is where the phenomenon of secularization plays a role.

My mentor at the Institute for Christian Studies, the late Dr. Bernard Zylstra, used to argue that there is an historical connection between the variety of Christianity dominating a country and the ideology it was likely to embrace after it became secularized. A secularized Christianity does not exactly cease to be Christian, even if it no longer retains an orthodox soteriology. Many of the old features remain and mutate into something different. However, the focus on God's sovereignty and redemption in Jesus Christ come to be supplanted by the assumption that we will in some fashion save ourselves.

According to Zylstra, those countries affected by the Reformation, with its emphasis on the priesthood of all believers and individual responsibility, in their post-secularization forms come to embrace individualistic liberalism, with its focus on individual liberty and social contract. Examples of this can be seen in Great Britain, the Netherlands and the United States, where individualism and the "rights talk" that accompanies it have been taken to the furthest degree. By contrast, those countries whose christian traditions are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox are likely after secularization to embrace a more collectivistic ideology, such as socialism or nationalism. As the hold of a strongly institutionalized and hierarchical church on the people becomes weakened, its place is taken by highly centralized, dirigiste state. Those countries exemplifying this development would include Russia, France and post-1960s Québec.

To be sure, it's not an airtight thesis and one can easily think up counter-examples. Yet it is true that a country's dominant religious tradition can hardly refrain from having an impact of some sort on its political culture. With respect to America, one might say that that country's prevailing political culture is one of secularized puritanism, which amounts to an odd amalgam of individualistic liberalism and collectivistic nationalism. The old Puritan commonwealths in New England were definitely protestant, with all this implies for ecclesiology and the direct relationship of the individual believer to God. Believers were encouraged in this faith, with its highly personal focus, while at the same time they were deemed members of a "Citty upon a hill," to quote John Winthrop. This implied a singular focus on the community and its prerogatives. Failure to conform to this community placed one outside its boundaries, as Roger Williams and others discovered. Of course, all communities exist within boundaries, but there the political community acted very much as an ecclesial community, going so far as to excommunicate perceived dissidents from its confession.

Needless to say, Puritanism in its specific christian manifestation is indeed dead. But in its secularized form it lives on in the form of Gelernter's Americanism. Americanism calls for a confessional commitment to individual liberty and liberal democracy, but it does so in a way that makes this commitment a mark of membership in the national community. A mere birth certificate or passport is not sufficient, if belief in these ideals is not also present. Americanism is thus a form of nationalism. To be sure, it is not an ethnic nationalism like that held by many Greeks, Serbs and (at one time) Italians and Germans. But it goes well beyond the legitimate requirement of loyalty to one's political community and the land it occupies by requiring adherence to ideals with a genuine spiritual provenance. In this respect, Americanism functions as a civil religion. Although it is not as obviously oppressive and intolerant as Rousseau's vaunted civil religion, it does require a certain attenuation of the particularities intrinsic to any religious orthodoxy, including its spiritual core.

Of course, Americans are still great church-goers, unlike most Europeans and (perhaps) Canadians. Secularization in the US has not led to a decline in church attendance over the past half century, as it has in other western countries. However, that does not mean that secularization has not occurred there. Secularization is not limited to the pro-abortion Democratic Party or to the urbanized "blue" states that voted for Gore and Kerry in the last two presidential elections. Where devout church-goers in the "red" states persist in believing that their country enjoys a special covenantal relationship with God and that America is a "Citty upon a hill," a biblical worldview that recognizes the larger corpus Christi as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people" (I Peter 2:9) has already been considerably weakened.

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12 January 2005

Europe's 'Meech Lake Accord'?

The European Parliament has overwhelmingly approved the European Union's new constitution. Now it must be accepted by all 25 member states. The Lithuanian and Hungarian parliaments have done so thus far. But referendums will be held in France, the Netherlands, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Poland and the United Kingdom, where its fate is far from certain. If Canadian precedents are any indication, there is a good possibility that the proposed document will find its way into the dustbin of history.

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Bergonia? Where's that?

I stumbled across this website today while researching something else. Which prompts me to ask: what sorts of people spend their time creating imaginary countries? Unemployed political scientists perhaps?

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11 January 2005

Sir John, eh!


Library and Archives Canada

Happy 190th birthday to
Sir John A. Macdonald
and many happy returns of the day.

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No beer merger?

There is increasing opposition amongst shareholders to the proposed merger of the Canadian Molson and the American Coors breweries. If the deal does indeed collapse, both companies might be subject to "potential takeover attempts." Here's an idea: why not a merger between Molson and, say, Heineken! Everyone would win: especially Joe Canadian.



Note: you must be 19 years or older
(or a Byzantine-rite Calvinist) to read this entry.

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10 January 2005

Ethnic Germans in Brno/Brünn

Remember the Sudeten Germans whose supposed oppression Adolf Hitler used as a pretext to annex much of Czechoslovakia in 1938? Well, it seems that a few ageing members of this minority community continue to live in the Moravian city of Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic. Transitions Online tells their story in this fascinating article: "Twilight of a Minority." At one time this city, more often known by its German name Brünn, was one of a number of polyglot cities that dotted the landscapes of the former Habsburg, Russian and Ottoman Empires. Among the natives of the city were the founder of genetics, Gregor Mendel, and one of my favourite composers, Leos Janácek. Like the Greeks of Constantinople, the German-speaking community in Brno has been reduced to very small numbers indeed. However, the end of communism has allowed them to come out into the open and to form the sorts of cultural associations which would have been unthinkable a short time ago.

Nationalism artificially homogenized such cities as Brno, Vilnius, Budapest, Constantinople, Alexandria, Thessaloniki and Smyrna -- and at tremendous human cost. One hesitates nowadays to express nostalgia for the empires of old. Yet I cannot help thinking that something was lost in the transition from these polyglot dynastic commonwealths to the plethora of ethnically pure nation-states that supplanted them.

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Zwiep's sweep of Reformed history

One of my protégés, Michael Zwiep, has started his own blog, the first two (and thus far only) entries of which are devoted to an historical account of the various Reformed denominations in the Netherlands and in the Dutch diaspora. Michael is a researcher for The Michael Coren Show on CTS Crossroads Television System.

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The benefits of olive oil

Although I have cut down my consumption of olive oil since last August, I have not cut it out entirely. Indeed it seems to play a role in preventing cancer and other diseases. Now scientists know why: "Tests found that oleic acid, which is found in olive oil, dramatically cut levels of a type of cancer-triggering gene called an oncogene." Hooray for olive oil.

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Peace comes to Sudan?

This is something worth celebrating: "Sudan, Southern Rebels End 21-Year War." The peace accord allows for the possibility of a new independent state in the south after six years. But. . . what about Darfur?

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09 January 2005

Puritanism and Americanism

The Texas überblogger Joe Carter has convened the first quarterly blog symposium over the following article from the Jewish neoconservative periodical Commentary: "Americanism—and Its Enemies," by David Gelernter. Gelernter writes:

By Americanism I do not mean American tastes or style, or American culture -- that convenient target of America-haters everywhere. Nor do I mean mere patriotic devotion; many nations command patriotic devotion from their citizens (or used to). By Americanism I mean the set of beliefs that are thought to constitute America’s essence and to set it apart; the beliefs that make Americans positive that their nation is superior to all others -- morally superior, closer to God.

Not an insignificant number of scholars have noted the impact of the early American colonists' Puritanism on the development of what might be labelled American exceptionalism. Where Gelernter departs from this consensus is in his assertion that Americanism is itself a continuation of Puritanism and can thus be identified as a Judeo-Christian religion.

I believe that Puritanism did not drop out of history. It transformed itself into Americanism. This new religion was the end-stage of Puritanism: Puritanism realized among God’s self-proclaimed "new" chosen people -- or, in Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable phrase, God’s "almost chosen people."

Many thinkers have noted that Americanism is inspired by or close to or intertwined with Puritanism. One of the most impressive scholars to say so recently is Samuel Huntington, in his formidable book on American identity, Who Are We? But my thesis is that Puritanism did not merely inspire or influence Americanism; it turned into Americanism. Puritanism and Americanism are not just parallel or related developments; they are two stages of a single phenomenon.

I have little to add to Gideon Strauss' well-thought-out reflections on this article, and I am mostly in agreement with his approach. Writes Strauss:

America is a nation among the nations of the world. It is a political community subject to the same norms for the organization of administrative and military power in the service of public justice as all other states. It is not exceptional in the sense of having a special mission from a god that would elevate it in principle above the other nations in the world. It is not a "nation [...] superior to all others — morally superior, closer to God." It is exceptional in being in a position at the present moment of unequaled political and military power, with which comes certain unique responsibilities, at least for the time being.

Strauss calls for a christian anti-anti-Americanism, i.e., an approach that rejects the sort of facile anti-Americanism that lends support and comfort to international terrorists while at the same time repudiating as idolatrous the Americanism Gelernter describes and seemingly espouses. In this context I might refer readers to my own Political Visions and Illusions, especially chapter 4, "Nationalism: The Nation Deified." Although I am particularly critical of the ethnic nationalisms of 19th- and early 20th-century Greek, German and Italian irredentists, I believe one must also recognize the potential dangers of the civic nationalism associated with, among other things, the proponents of American exceptionalism. Nationalism is no less idolatrous for being attached to a successful polity with an inclusive, nonethnic notion of citizenship.

I will close with the following book alert. James W. Skillen's With Or Against The World?: America's Role Among The Nations is due out next month from Rowman & Littlefield. I've read a sample chapter and, as is typical of Skillen's work, it looks very good indeed. As I've written before in this space, I suspect it will occasion some controversy among American Christians, huge numbers of whom have come to embrace uncritically the American exceptionalism that is so thoroughly ingrained in their political culture. Perhaps Carter will see fit to hold his second blog symposium on this book.

Later: I might add to this that I wrote something just over a year ago on this theme: "A mixed legacy: evangelicalism's puritan roots." This was written in response to Skillen's Capital Commentary piece, "An American Covenant with God?"

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Was Tsar Alexander I unOrthodox?

In 1721 Peter the Great of Russia effectively made the Russian Orthodox Church an arm of the state, declining to replace the deceased Patriarch of Moscow and appointing in his stead a lay procurator of the Holy Synod. Although the emperor gained no spiritual or doctrinal authority over the church, he nevertheless gained political control over it, following the pattern of the Scandinavian and English state churches.

Thus Alexander I inherited this position of effective head of the church when he came to the imperial throne. As I wrote last week, after his first years as a would-be reformer, he became increasingly devout and plunged into the study of scripture. However, might he have been less than Orthodox -- with an upper-case O -- in his beliefs? Alexis Troubetzkoy quotes something Alexander wrote in 1813:

Address your prayers to the Supreme Being, to Our Saviour and to the Holy Ghost, which emanates from them, so that they will guide me and strengthen me in the only path, which leads to salvation (Troubetzkoy, p. 68, emphasis mine).

The italicized passage above stands out, as it seems to reflect a belief in the double-procession of the Holy Spirit, as affirmed by the western church. This makes me wonder (1) whether the passage was translated into English correctly or (2) whether Alexander himself was less acquainted with the specifics of Orthodox doctrine than with the Bible itself. Either alternative would seem possible, but I cannot say which is true.

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08 January 2005

Mourning for tsunami victims

Flags across the country are flying at half-staff as Canada observes a day of national mourning for the victims of the south Asian tsunami disaster.

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Girl or boy: you choose

Keith Pavlischek, fellow at the Center for Public Justice, argues in the latest Capital Commentary that arguments against allowing parents to select the sex of their unborn offspring cannot stand up to the logic of the US Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v Wade decision:

There is no obvious logical or legal inconsistency in permitting freedom of choice in sex selection before birth while outlawing sexual discrimination after birth. After all, U.S. law has permitted such discrimination before birth for a long time. Under Roe v. Wade, a woman can choose an abortion for whatever reason she wants. On those terms, there would appear to be no moral reason, including objections to sex selection, that could trump her autonomous freedom to choose an abortion, even if the abortion were for the purpose of sex selection.

If the law may not stand in the way of a woman’s choice to destroy a fetus for reasons of sex selection, it is impossible to see how the law might regulate her decision to choose the sex of her child when it does not involve the destruction of the fetus.

If you are offended by the consequences of that logic, too bad. That’s the moral and legal logic of Roe v. Wade. As long as Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, you may be personally opposed to eugenic sex selection, but you simply may not impose your personal, anti-sexist, anti-gender-discrimination morality on the rest of society.

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Confessional universities growing

Charlotte Allen writes that "America's religious colleges are growing in popularity and quality." This is something which we who teach at such institutions have known for some time, but only now, it seems, are the media catching up to this reality. Citing Naomi Schaefer Riley, Allen observes that

the number of students attending the 100 schools of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities -- an organization of four-year liberal-arts schools dedicated to promoting the Christian faith -- rose 60% between 1990 and 2002. In those same years the attendance at nonreligious public and private schools stayed essentially flat. The number of applications to the University of Notre Dame, the nation's premier Catholic college, has risen steadily over the past decade, with a 23% jump last year alone.

Here in Canada there are far fewer such universities, even relative to this country's much smaller population. I am happy to say that my employer, Redeemer University College, is one such institution and it is definitely growing. (In fact, from my office at the south end of the academic building I can clearly hear the noises associated with our library expansion project.) Other similar institutions include The King's University College, Trinity Western University and Atlantic Baptist University. What impact will the graduates of these institutions have on Canada as a whole? It is, of course, difficult to discern their long-term influence, but there are ample grounds for hope. Pray that God might see fit to prosper these institutions for his greater glory.

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07 January 2005

Turkey and Europe

Here is a good survey of opinion in the European press on the possibility of Turkey's admission to the European Union: "Turkey at the Gates."

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Dr. David's papadam diet

This article asks: "Which diet is the best at weight loss?" One of my personal achievements during my recent sabbatical was to lose 20 pounds, which occurred between August and October of last year. A few things spurred me on to this: (1) I have a six-year-old daughter and I am pushing the half-century mark. This gave me an incentive to bring myself to a healthier weight more likely to increase longevity. (2) I was having trouble fitting into my clothes. I could not afford a new wardrobe. (3) I was suffering from bursitis which made moving around a fairly painful experience.

There were no fad diets involved in this. I simply began to exercise on our cross-country-ski machine at home and I began to eat less, cutting down in particular on the olive oil which has been a staple of my diet since I was a small child. I was aided in this by keeping a stack of papadams in the kitchen. A papadam is a kind of Indian cracker made from lentil flour. It is thus high in protein and, if toasted and not fried, low in calories. I generally eat one or two of these before retiring at night or if I am hungry in the mid-afternoon.

As a consequence of this, I now weigh slightly more than I did as an undergraduate three decades ago. I feel terrific and have more energy than I had had in years. I can play with our daughter without conking out prematurely. My bursitis is gone and I feel twenty years younger. I am inclined to think that exercise is the key to losing weight and keeping it off. That and the papadams.

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'Byzantine-rite Calvinists' in Greece?

Although the vast majority of the people of Greece are at least nominal members of the Orthodox Church, there are two very much smaller denominations in that country which claim the evangelical label. The larger of the two is the Greek Evangelical Church (GEC), which is a Reformed church holding membership in both the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC).



Here is a description of this group from the REC's website:

The Greek Evangelical Church traces its beginnings to 1858, when a young convert began publishing a weekly newspaper and started a bible study. The newspaper, Star of the East (Astir Tis Anatolis) is still the official monthly of the GEC and is the oldest publication in Greece. In 1924 the congregations formed a synod, and adopted its present name in 1938.

The GEC divides its 29 congregations into two regional synods in Greece and one in North America. It counts about 6,000 members and regular attenders. There are currently seven preaching stations and several house meetings. With only 17 ordained pastors, several smaller rural GEC congregations are led by elders. The GEC added two new urban congrega tions in 1996, but the rural congregations are struggling with declining and aging populations. The GEC conducts a cautious, but active evangelism program and maintains a missionary outreach in Albania.

The GEC is a Reformed church, with a modified form of the Westminster Confession and the Nicene Creed as its main doctrinal standards.

The GEC, though small, is the largest Protestant church in Greece. The vast majority of Greeks are members of the Greek Orthodox Church, though few are active. One of the challenges in Greece is to witness to this secularized population without breaking the Greek laws against proselytism. They encourage personal witness by their members, but also operate two centers for drug and alcohol addicts. The GEC has an active youth movement and youth camp.

Its confessional standards include the Nicene Creed and the Confession of Faith of the Greek Evangelical Church. It is noteworthy that the GEC follows the Orthodox Church in (1) omitting the filioque clause from the Creed, and (2) making no reference to either the Apostles' Creed or the Athanasian Creed, which are unknown in the christian east. How the Greek Evangelicals worship from one sunday to the next I do not know. Whether they manifest any Orthodox influence in their liturgy I cannot say.

There is a smaller group of evangelical Christians styling themselves the Free Evangelical Churches of Greece, which are more separatistic and bear some similarity to the Plymouth Brethren and similar groups elsewhere. We had some contact with this group when we stayed at the building of the Hellenic Scripture Union near Athens ten years ago. Since such groups typically tend to dispense with written creeds and confessions, the filioque issue may lie beyond their concerns. I suspect that the Free Evangelicals have at least some connection with the Greek Bible Institute associated with the Greater Europe Mission, whose American headquarters were once located in my hometown of Wheaton, Illinois.

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05 January 2005

Hillsdale Academy

As I wrote earlier, Nancy and I visited the Hillsdale Academy in Hillsdale, Michigan, four days ago. It was started in 1990 and is associated with Hillsdale College.



We were favourably impressed by the facilities, which were built as recently as 1998 and still have something of a new feel to them. The curriculum is, however, utterly traditional, focussing on three objectives:

one, to teach children the skills to be productive citizens; two, to nurture in them the moral qualities and habits of mind to be good citizens; and three, to provide America with an educational model that can be useful nationwide.

The academy is devoted to passing down to students the best in western civilization, a commitment to which underlies the mission of the school:

The time-honored liberal arts curriculum and pedagogy direct student achievement toward mastery of the basics, exploration of the arts and sciences, and understanding of the foundational tenets of our Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman heritage. The curriculum by purpose and design is a survey of the best spiritual, intellectual, and cultural traditions of the West as they have been developed and refined over countless generations.

Notably, each classroom has a large copy of the Ten Commandments posted on the wall by the door. A chapel is held every wednesday, and its contents are christian, we were told. The Hillsdale Academy has become something of a model for similar schools which have sprung up across primarily the United States. A map in my brother-in-law's office shows hundreds of such institutions -- most seemingly in the so-called "blue" states, remarkably enough. There are even two in Canada and one in the Bahamas.

The Academy's approach certainly has much to recommend it. I rather like the fact that all children learn Latin, once a staple of a solid education. More generally, and in contrast to the contemporary focus on building self-esteem for its own sake, teachers at the school do not fear to assign low grades for poor work and to reward concrete academic achievements, however inegalitarian this may seem.

Of course, some questions might also be raised. Christianity's origins are, of course, nonwestern, although it certainly contributed to the subsequent formation of the west. Yet the worldviews underlying the "Judeo-Christian" and "Greco-Roman" elements are quite different, even if they were brought into a kind of unstable synthesis by subsequent generations. How does the Academy sort out the tensions between these two when they arise? Which heritage takes priority? Does commitment to the kingdom of God come first and order everything else? Or is the Judeo-Christian heritage a cultural artefact which is part of a larger civilizational legacy? My suspicion, based on a perusal of its website, is that the Academy leans towards the latter approach, at least in its official documents. However, as my brother-in-law and his family are serious Christians, his decisive influence over the past few years may in some fashion serve to tip the balance in the other direction. I wish him well in his work there.

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04 January 2005

The mysterious fate of Alexander I

Ever since taking a course in the subject as an undergraduate some thirty years ago, I have had a fascination with Russian history. Thus I was pleased to receive for Christmas a copy of Alexis S. Troubetzkoy's Imperial Legend: The Disappearance of Tsar Alexander I. Alexander was the grandson of the Empress Catherine the Great, who raised him to embrace the liberal reformist ideas which she so admired in the philosophers of the French enlightenment. He came to the imperial throne in 1801, after a palace coup deposed and assassinated his father, the militaristic Paul I, who had reigned for only five years. A youth of only 25, Alexander had been persuaded to co-operate with this conspiracy on condition that his father's life be spared. When it was not, the new Tsar felt he himself was culpable and spent the rest of his life trying to atone for the sin of patricide.



Alexander I


Alexander came to the throne brimming with notions of reforming a terribly antiquated autocratic political and social system, including the introduction of a constitution, the drafting of a comprehensive legal code and the abolition of serfdom. By the time he had twice fought Napoléon, these proposals had largely been forgotten and the Tsar grew more introspective and less interested in affairs of state. Alexander immersed himself in the Bible and consorted with christian mystics of various sorts, ostensibly as part of a lifelong effort to expiate his sin.

After reigning for nearly a quarter century but living for not quite fifty years, Alexander suddenly became ill at the end of 1825 in the unlikely port city of Taganrog on the Sea of Azov. He had brought his wife Elizaveta there from St. Petersburg to recover her health. The official history has it that he died there from a mysterious illness that felled an otherwise healthy man within days of its initial symptoms. But did he really?

Troubetzkoy points out the numerous discrepancies in the various accounts of his death and the extreme measures taken to prevent the vast majority of his subjects from viewing his body as it made its way back to St. Petersburg for burial. For years Alexander had spoken of wishing to retire from the throne, possibly leaving the country to do so.



Fyodor Kuzmich


In 1836, eleven years later, a certain Fyodor Kuzmich, a man who seemingly came out of nowhere, suddenly appeared near the Siberian town of Tomsk. He was a starets, an "elder" and hermit, who lived until 1864 and gained a widespread reputation for wisdom and holiness. On his wall he kept an icon of St. Alexander Nevsky, patron of the "late" emperor. He spoke at least three languages and had something of an aristocratic bearing -- unusual for a simply-living starets. Most extraordinary of all, he bore a startling physical resemblance to Alexander I, as more than one acquaintance observed. Rumours that he was Alexander surrounded Kuzmich for the rest of his life, but he did nothing to either confirm or deny them.

Troubetzkoy (descended, incidentally, from the Sergei Troubetzkoy who instigated the Decembrist rebellion in the chaotic aftermath of Alexander's sudden "death") examines the evidence surrounding the case and tentatively concludes that the two men were one and the same. Most impressive of all, the late Grand Duchess Olga, the sister of Nicholas II who lived in Toronto until her death in 1960, told the author that "we have no doubt that Feodor Kuzmich was the emperor" (p. 11).

Was it so? I personally believe the book's thesis is plausible. However, two factors give reason for doubt. First, there are quite a number of minor errors of fact throughout the book, extending even to the final paragraph. For example: Alexander II was on the throne in 1874, not Alexander III. The Times could not have carried a story on Alexander I's possible poisoning in March 1825 because the Tsar was still very much alive at the time. Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich was Nicholas II's cousin, not his uncle. Peter III inherited the throne from the Empress Elizaveta, who was his aunt, not his mother. Alexander's journey from St. Petersburg to Taganrog took just under two weeks, not three weeks. I could keep going, but I'll stop here. These are fairly minor points, but the cumulative effect is to make the book as a whole less persuasive for the reader knowing something of Russian history. One hopes these have been corrected in the paperback edition.

Second, the story of Alexander I's survival is by no means unusual in the larger context of his country's historical narrative. Remember the two "false Dmitris," who claimed to be the deceased son of Ivan IV the Terrible. During Catherine the Great's reign a rebellion was fomented by a certain Pugachev, who claimed to be her assassinated husband, Peter III. Then of course there are the rumours circulating after 1918 that Nicholas II's daughter Anastasia (whose name in Greek means resurrection) survived the family's murder by Bolsheviks and lived until 1984 as "Anna Anderson." Finally there has been more than one claimant to the identity of the hemophiliac tsarevich, Alexei. The fact that the remains of Alexei and one of his sisters were never found when the family's bodies were exhumed at Ekaterinburg several years ago has only served to fuel the rumours. So Troubetzkoy could be right, but there are also good reasons to doubt his conclusions.

One last thing. After reading this book I purchased the DVD version of Anatole Litvak's 1956 cinematic rendition of Anastasia, starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner. It's a great film, albeit highly fictionalized. It struck me that the story of Alexander I and Fyodor Kuzmich would also make a good film, and I am somewhat surprised no one has ever undertaken it. Perhaps someone in the film industry will come across this entry and take up the challenge one day.

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