Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

30 January 2007

The politics of earth-keeping

The environment is taking centre stage in the new session of Parliament: Questions swirl as Canada's environment commissioner replaced. In the meantime, this report from south of the border will not exactly bolster public support for President Bush's approach to the issue: Climate scientists say White House pressured them. And while we're at it: Lights across Ontario blink after fire hits power station. We definitely experienced this at our house this morning, along with a brief decrease in water pressure.

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29 January 2007

And now to Ottawa. . .

. . . where our MPs get back to work today: Parliament expected to focus on Tory green plan.

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Children as lifestyle accessories

The media have been playing up this story in recent weeks: Spaniard, 67, becomes oldest new mother with birth of twins. And now this: World's Oldest Mother Lied to Fertility Clinic, telling them she was only 55. Why did she feel compelled to do this? "Clinics in the UK and many other countries will not help women conceive after a certain age in the belief that it is unfair to the child." But the new mother justifies her deception: "I think everyone should become a mother at the right time for them." That last pronoun does not, of course, refer to the children.

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27 January 2007

Milgram's experiments

Since I first learned about them as an undergrad, I have long been fascinated by Stanley Milgram's experiments conducted 45 years ago at Yale University. Twenty years ago, in my last year at Notre Dame, I had the students in my classes reading and discussing Milgram's Obedience to Authority.

Now one of my colleagues has alerted me to a website where a filmed documentary of Milgram's experiments can be found and downloaded for free. It's definitely worth seeing, and I plan to use it in at least one of my classes.

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26 January 2007

A single state in Israel/Palestine?

Could a proposed two-state solution to the festering standoff between Israel and the Palestinians be needlessly prolonging the crisis? That's what Ali Abunimah argues in One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, which is reviewed by Remi Kanazi in An Alternative Approach to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Here's Kanazi:

Abunimah's comprehensive criticism of the two-state solution is an insightful, well-founded argument that is essential for any reader looking for an alternative approach to resolve the conflict. Abunimah proposes that: "Creating a single state for Israeli Jews and Palestinians could in theory resolve the most intractable issues — the fate of Israeli settlements built since 1967, the rights of Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem." The alternative: perpetual conflict, [absence] of security for Jews or Palestinians, coupled with regional turmoil and the continuation of a biased American foreign policy that stands to benefit no one except a select few in Israel, America, and a handful of quislings in the Palestinian Authority.

Over time most Israelis and Palestinians have come to the realization that no matter the settlement, the Jews and Palestinians of Israel will remain living together and the Palestinians of the occupied territories will stay on their land. Abunimah presents a solution that meets the geographical needs of both peoples. He argues, "The main attraction of a single-state democracy is that it allows all the people to live in and enjoy the entire country while preserving their distinctive communities and addressing their particular needs. It offers the potential to de-territorialize the conflict and neutralize demography and ethnicity as a source of political power and legitimacy."

I myself have long thought that a single state within this small ancient territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea would be the best solution in the best of all possible worlds. Given my own family's experience in Cyprus, I intuitively shrink from the prospect of partition leaving people on the wrong side of an arbitrary boundary or, worse, separating them from their homes. Any effort to create a Palestinian state will inevitably call for the drawing of such a boundary.

Nevertheless, I do wonder how feasible a single state would be, given the history of the last nearly 60 years. What are the prospects of Israel giving up its self-identity as a Jewish state? Or of setting up a constitutional democracy in the midst of, not merely quarrelling ethnicities, but of contrasting political cultures with differing conceptions of the nature of political authority? In Lebanon the National Pact held for only 32 years. How long would a similar power-sharing arrangement endure in Israel/Palestine, especially considering that the Palestinian birthrate is higher than that of Israeli Jews?

Still, it does appear that the two-state solution has run into a dead end. In my more revisionist moments I find myself wondering whether it might not have been better, back in 1917, to leave the Ottoman Empire in charge of the middle east. The division of this territory into separate states has been little short of calamitous over the past 9 decades, effectively sowing, or at least exacerbating, intractable discord in the region.

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21 January 2007

More on the growth of Orthodoxy

The American media of late have been making much of the increasing number of conversions to Orthodox Christianity. Here's another article on the subject from The Detroit Free Press: Ancient ways entice Detroit Christians.

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Growing into faith

Because Nancy and I are older parents, we know of a number of people who are ill with cancer and other life-threatening diseases, and we pray for them regularly during our daily evening prayer. These illnesses seem to weigh on Theresa, who tends too readily to take on other people's burdens. She is blessed with a generous and compassionate heart, but we have to keep reminding her that such-and-such is not really her responsibility and she should just be a little girl. This is not an easy thing to do for someone who tries to solve her parents' problems, even to the extent of giving us medical advice! Recently something happened to relieve some of her burden.

On the last day of the year our family was observing evening prayer. Following the readings from the Daily Office Lectionary, I read Revelation 21:1-6. After reading scripture, the three of us usually say the Lord's Prayer and then proceed to petitions and thanksgivings. However, before we were able to do this, Theresa stopped us and asked a question. She was intrigued at hearing of the new heaven and new earth and wanted to know what it was all about. So I explained to her about the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead and the renewal of God's creation. A look of great relief came over her face and she gave her mother a hug. Smiling, she said that that was really great. She then mentioned the people we knew who have died, including one of the pillars of our church whose daughter had taught her in sunday school. After this she was not quite so worried about them, as she had been before.

This was one of those moments that brings tears to a parent's eyes. It is inspiring to see our daughter take one more of those precious steps in growing into the faith and making it her own.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

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19 January 2007

Ice storm: four days later

downed branch

Nancy and I somehow failed to notice until yesterday this bit of damage in our back garden from monday's storm. We assume this branch from our manitoba maple collapsed due to the weight of the ice.

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17 January 2007

Principal required in Cyprus

I have been requested to post the following announcement:

American Academy, Nicosia
CYPRUS

Required for August 15th, 2007 (or nearest time after this date)


PRINCIPAL


The American Academy (established 1922 by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America) is a private, selective co-educational 6-18 school of over 300 students, with English as the medium of instruction. Courses offered lead to a recognized High School Diploma, IGCSE, O, AS and A levels.

The Principal is responsible for the curricular and administrative organization of the whole school, strategic planning and implementation and the maintenance of the Reformed Christian philosophy of the school.

We are looking for a well-qualified professional educator, conversant with and committed to Christian Education, with proven management experience at secondary level, good interpersonal and communication skills and the vision to further develop and strengthen the school as a Christian witness.

The initial contract is for 3 years, renewable. Benefits include salary and allowances, some of which are taxable (including subsidized pension/medical scheme, accommodation, transport, return annual flight to country of origin), equivalent to Cy£40,000 which is, approximately, US$ 88,000 at current exchange rates plus relocation expenses at commencement and termination of the contract.

Further details from:

Chairman of Search Committee of Governing Council
The American Academy (Nicosia) Ltd
3A Michael Parides Street,
Nicosia
CYPRUS
Tel.: +357 99 63 06 83, Fax.: +357 24 53 15 94
Email: mastronet@logos.cy.net
Web.: www.aacademynicosia.ac.cy

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16 January 2007

Ice storm: the day after

After the ice storm, Ancaster, Ontario

After the ice storm, Ancaster, Ontario

After the ice storm, Ancaster, Ontario



After the ice storm, Ancaster, Ontario

After the ice storm, Ancaster, Ontario

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15 January 2007

US holiday observed in southern Ontario?

This is the first time in my memory that we in Hamilton have been able to take the day off for Martin Luther King's birthday.

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Trudeau was right after all

Here's another benefit for Canadians knowing both official languages: Bilingualism may delay onset of dementia: study.

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14 January 2007

The growth of Christianity: two contrasting tales

Could secularization in the Netherlands be running its course? That's what Joshua Livestro reports in Holland's Post-Secular Future. (Hat tip to Paul Bowman.) Despite recent predictions to the contrary, the future of that country may belong to . . . yes, Christianity! The Rev. Stanley Hofwijks pastors a fast-growing charismatic congregation in Amsterdam. The key to its success? Here's Hofwijks:

"If you look closely, you'll see that only the traditional churches are affected by secularization. Almost all nontraditional churches are growing, and growing strongly. The reason is simple: While the message stays the same, the methods change to suit the times. If people want it, we'll have flags, loud music, people jumping up and down in the pews, even hip-hop. But Jesus remains the same as he was 2,000 years ago. The Word never changes."

Perhaps. But here's another article on the growth of the Orthodox Church in the United States that suggests that not all conversions are fuelled by such an instrumental approach to liturgy: Orthodox appeal: More Americans are being drawn by liturgy, theology. Why?

Many converts credit the beauty of the liturgy and the durability of the theology, which can be a comfort to those seeking shelter from divisive battles over biblical interpretation in other Christian traditions.

[The Rev. John] Dixon, who was raised an Old Regular Baptist, an austere faith of the Southern Appalachians, said his conversion grew from his studies about the origins of Christianity as an undergraduate at Marshall University. The turning point came when he first attended services at an Orthodox church.

"As soon as I came in that day," he says, "I knew I was home."

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11 January 2007

And while we're on the subject. . .

Here is a transcript of President Bush's address to the American people last evening.

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10 January 2007

Bush’s dilemma

The following piece appears as my monthly column in the 8 January issue of Christian Courier:

President George W. Bush appears to have painted himself into a corner with respect to his middle eastern and central Asian policies. In 2001, within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, he sent American troops to Afghanistan to capture Osama bin Laden, who has nevertheless successfully eluded his would-be captors for half a decade. The US, with the help of Canadians and others, easily toppled the Taliban régime in Kabul, thus bolstering American confidence in its own ability to transform countries in the grip of tyrannical governments.

On an apparent roll, the US and its “coalition of the willing” attacked Iraq – once again quickly toppling Saddam Hussein’s oppressive Baath régime, and this time without overt Canadian assistance. From the outset this venture was fraught with risk, with a strong probability of it going wrong. Though Bush and his advisors may have had the best of intentions – with which, the old cliché assures us, the road to perdition is paved – they were gambling on a policy predicated on the successful confluence of at least five factors: (1) the presence or development of a cohesive sense of Iraqi identity, (2) the general applicability of democratic principles and institutions across cultural boundaries, (3) the willingness of Shiite and Sunni Muslims and Kurds to co-operate for political purposes, (4) the willingness of the American people to stay the course over the long term, and (5) the willingness of Bush’s successor to continue his policies.

Though Bush is often accused by his critics of being “too conservative,” he has in fact taken actions that many professed conservatives would judge entirely too incautious. There may be no such thing as a coherent conservative political philosophy, yet most conservatives share at least three things: the awareness (1) that well-meaning efforts at abrupt change are likely to make matters worse, (2) that institutions working well in one cultural context may not work in another, and (3) that policies lacking clear and feasible goals will almost certainly go awry. These principles were better understood by the elder Bush, who calmly presided over the end of the Cold War and skilfully cultivated a broad international consensus for the limited goal of expelling Hussein’s Iraq from Kuwait.

However, with the US bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is painfully obvious that toppling a régime does not guarantee that a just and workable government will replace it, especially if the country lacks a mature sense of common citizenship in a shared political enterprise. Like it or not, the US now has responsibility for these countries’ welfare. Quitting too precipitously will leave them to civil war and, in Iraq’s case, to a possible partition of its territory among Turkey, Syria and Iran, a disastrous development for an already unstable region of the world.

Bush is correct, of course, to argue that setting a date for American withdrawal would only strengthen the hands of the terrorists. Yet this is precisely what made his policy so risky to begin with. No democracy, in which government is necessarily responsive to its citizens, is in a position to fight a hundred-years war, whatever the apparent justice of the cause.

What now? None of the alternatives is obviously better than the others. One possible short-term option would be to bring in a larger multinational force to replace the Americans, providing that other nations, who after all opposed the initial attack in the first place, are willing to take on this responsibility. Over the longer term the US will have to abandon its current unilateral approach and return to acting in concert, where possible, with its historic allies.

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07 January 2007

War on disabled heats up

This unsettling development highlights a conspicuous tension in the current mindset of the larger society:

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada will recommend next month that all expectant mothers undergo screening for fetal abnormalities such as Down's syndrome — not just those over the age of 35, as is the practice.

One of the aims of this measure is to test for Down's Syndrome in unborn infants to allow expectant parents a choice whether or not to abort. The National Post article on the subject quotes Dr. André Lalonde, executive vice president of the society, as follows:

"Yes, it's going to lead to more termination [of pregnancy], but it's going to be fair to these women who are 24 who say, 'How come I have to raise an infant with Down's syndrome, whereas my cousin who was 35 didn't have to?'" Dr. Lalonde said. "We have to be fair to give women a choice."

Lalonde would do well to unpack his concept of fairness for the rest of us who may not be inclined to follow his reasoning. A child is not a consumer item with a manufacturer's guarantee attached, as most parents intuitively understand. Pandering to such an immature notion of fairness can only confirm some people in the belief that quality of life — understood as a lack of hardship or even inconvenience — trumps life itself.

Prof. Joseph Boyle, an ethicist at the University of Toronto, is pro-life but admits that, if the Society's recommendation is implemented, even prospective parents opposed to abortion could be seduced into acting against their own convictions:

"From the point of view of a lot of people, even people who are pretty stoutly resolved not to get abortions, it might be pretty tempting," he said. "And, of course, you don't put yourself into temptation's way without a very good reason. My wife and I are long past having to deal with an issue like that, but I don't know what we'd do."

As for the tension mentioned above, some would have us suppress any awareness of the distinction between normal and abnormal by urging the use of such euphemisms as "differently abled", "mentally challenged" and the like. At the same time, much of the medical profession would have us rid ourselves of such persons before they reach the birth canal, thereby tacitly identifying such "differences" as, if not abnormalities, at least inconveniences that we cannot reasonably expect others to bear.

Yet living the good life does not consist in minimizing hardship and maximizing comfort. To live well means to take up the ordinary and extraordinary challenges that everyone encounters sooner or later and to act responsibly in the face of these. It means to "do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with [our] God" (Micah 6:8), recognizing that the blessings of this life are not rights to be grasped tenaciously for our own purposes, but gifts of God's grace to be enjoyed and shared with others. Furthermore, as many of us know from hard experience, even our adversities can become blessings, both to us and to others, as we try to live in ways manifesting this grace through the power of the Holy Spirit.

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04 January 2007

Abortion and partisan politics

In the January issue of First Things (not yet on-line), Fr. Neuhaus recounts at some length the argument of a recent Human Life Review article by George McKenna, Criss-Cross: Democrats, Republicans, and Abortion. Some 40 years ago it looked likely that the Republican Party in the US could become the pro-abortion party and the Democrats pro-life. At that time the old New Deal coalition remained at least partially intact, with four major groups constituting the Democratic Party's support base: southern whites, black (or African) Americans, liberal intellectuals and Roman Catholics. The Catholic bishops themselves were closely aligned with the party, perceiving its ongoing efforts to champion the cause of the "little guy" to be in keeping with the church's social and political teachings, as found in the encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI.

Given the significance of these ties, it would have been unthinkable, even as late as the early 1970s for the Democratic Party to thumb its nose at one of its largest constituencies by embracing the abortion licence, particularly since the party had been compelled to do precisely that to southern whites by embracing civil rights for blacks. Indeed, given the Republican Party's libertarian and free-market orientation, an educated guess made in, say, 1965 would have seen that party the more likely to allow freedom of choice on the issue and to spurn efforts to involve government in so personal a matter.

Yet by 1980 the two parties had polarized on abortion, with the Republicans pro-life and the Democrats definitely pro-choice. Although there are pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans, they are increasingly marginalized within their own parties. Few recall anymore that Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton and Al Gore once opposed the abortion licence, only to embrace it as a right when the party began to make it a test of political orthodoxy. What had happened in the meantime? That's the story McKenna tells in what Fr. Neuhaus effusively labels "a remarkable article."

Though I largely agree with Neuhaus' assessment, something is conspicuously lacking in both McKenna and Neuhaus: a recognition of the historic trajectory of liberalism as it developed and worked out the logic of its own tenets in the public square. Their focus is almost entirely on policy programmes, issues and coalition groups, not on the spiritual underpinnings of the larger liberal project as manifested in different ways in the two American parties. My own view is that, because the Republicans and Democrats represented earlier and later stages respectively in the development of liberalism, it should not be surprising that the latter should take the side of the issue that would expand human choice virtually for its own sake. True, there was nothing inevitable in this and it's easy to be a retrospective prognosticator, but it shouldn't have been altogether unexpected.

On the other hand, perhaps no one should be surprised that Neuhaus at least should neglect the undergirding spiritual foundations of liberalism. As I have written before, Neuhaus is a liberal critic of liberalism who persists in believing that liberalism is basically a good thing that some have nevertheless merely distorted. All the same, I firmly believe that, as long as the debate over abortion remains within the parameters of an individualistic focus on rights, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to make any headway on the issue.

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02 January 2007

Sidebar update

I have added two new blogs to my sidebar. One is that of my good friend, William G. Witt, an Anglican Christian and nonordained theologian whom I know from our graduate student days at Notre Dame.

The second is that of one Rick Moran, called Right Wing Nut House. Though I do not know Mr. Moran personally, he is first cousin to my wife's sister's husband, as well as brother to ABC News Nightline co-anchor Terry Moran.

I am also pleased with the name change to Steve Pypker's blog, A Closer Walk, which is far better than the old name.

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