Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

30 April 2008

Unnormed tolerance

A régime of imposed tolerance can be very oppressive indeed, as indicated by the decision handed down by the Ontario Human Rights Commission in Heintz v Christian Horizons. Here is Don Hutchinson's take on this: The Ontario's Human Rights Commission is trying to take the mission out of Christian Horizons. It is past time to rein in these tribunals for the sake of public justice. Because this decision obviously violates the Charter protection of freedom of religion, perhaps an appeal to the Supreme Court is in order.

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23 April 2008

Normed tolerance

At the weekend I was privileged to attend a conference on Civil Society and Sphere Sovereignty, sponsored by the Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. The current holder of the Kuyper Chair is John R. Bowlin, whose full title is the Rimmer and Ruth de Vries Associate Professor of Reformed Theology and Public Life. Bowlin delivered a lecture titled: "Here the Shoe Pinches: Kuyper, Tolerance and the Virtues." (A taste of his approach can be had here.)

Is tolerance a virtue? Bowlin believes it is, and he attempts to defend this on Aristotelian grounds. Nevertheless, even if tolerance is in some sense a virtue, virtue itself is not an adequate place to start in any attempt to determine a right course of action. As a quality ascribed to human beings, virtue is necessarily ancillary to God's call and our obedience to that call. To obey his call is to respond to something quite specific rooted in the general command to love God and neighbour (Mark 12:29-31). This love has different implications for the various social and communal contexts in which we find ourselves. It cannot be adequately understood or practised unless we are in tune with the norms God has built into his creation. Otherwise, to tolerate an activity harmful to the practitioner, not to mention the larger community, is to perform a most unloving act!

To confess or deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ has different meanings within the institutional church and within the political community. Tolerating denial within the state might be seen as a political virtue in so far as it is based on a recognition that to regulate citizens' ultimate beliefs lies beyond the competence of political authority. Yet to tolerate this rejection of a cardinal christian doctrine within an ecclesial body can hardly be a virtue, since it would harm the confessional integrity of the church. Therefore, what might be a virtue in the state must be recognized to be a vice in the church body. The only way to determine the difference is to gain a grasp of the respective norms governing state and church. A general appeal to tolerance will not take us very far.

North American protestantism in particular is filled with church denominations that tolerate all sorts of heterodox views, yet take firm positions on highly contestable social and political issues. This represents a general failure to grasp the norms most applicable to the institutional church and can only produce a skewed tolerance scarcely to be labelled virtuous.

In summary, there is simply not enough substantive content in the notion of tolerance to justify it being categorized amongst the virtues, even if we accord virtue a modest place within a larger ethical framework.

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22 April 2008

Tragic conflict

This is a sad testimony to the world: Orthodox groups clash in Church of the Holy Sepulchre. One expects more from Christians preparing to celebrate Christ's resurrection.

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19 April 2008

Famagusta footage

It's remarkable what one can find on the internet. Here are two videos that have a certain poignancy for me. The first is of the old walled city of Famagusta, Cyprus, where my father's family spent the Second World War years:



The second takes us on a tour through the ghost city of Varosha, the once predominantly-Greek city south of the Venetian-era walls, and the centre of the tourist industry between 1960 and 1974: Return inside Varosha (embedding disabled).

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16 April 2008

Just war or cost-effective war?

The Frontier Centre for Public Policy is sponsoring this event: Do We Need to Go to War for Oil?, at which the Hoover Institution's David Henderson will speak. Here is the summary of his remarks:

Many people fear that a hostile foreign oil producer will be able to damage Americans and, for that reason, think that the U. S. government should ensure U.S. access to oil. But a hostile foreign oil producer cannot inflict more than a small amount of harm on Americans by refusing to sell oil to Americans. This harm is likely to be well under 0.5 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). Ironically, war for oil could well drive the price of oil higher, not lower, thus costing Americans twice as taxpayers and as oil users.

I suppose we should all be happy at Henderson's conclusion that such a military conflict would not be cost effective. Nevertheless, conspicuous by its absence is any effort to determine whether a war for oil would conform to the traditional criteria for a justified war. One assumes that, if there were ever to be a net economic gain for the US, Henderson would be more favourable. So it's no for now, but maybe the US should keep its options open?

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14 April 2008

Building our vocabulary

I came up with most of these a few years ago and posted them on my blog piecemeal. Here they are in one place:

leprokhan, n. 1. an Irish gnome misspelt; 2. a Mongol ruler with skin condition.

vegetarian, n. a person who avoids meat and eats only vegetables.

seminarian, n. a person who eats only seeds.

Schwarzeneggerländer, n. An inhabitant of California.

Leningrad, prop. n. former name of city of St. Petersburg, Russia, from 1924 to 1991.

Undergrad, prop. n. the St. Petersburg subway system.

Koyzistan, prop. n. A former Soviet republic in central Asia.

Paradigms, pl. n. for definition click here.

Bebop, n. 1. a sophisticated type of jazz developed after the Second World War, employing experimental tonal and rhythmic forms; 2. the name of one of the juvenile dinosaurs in Barney and Friends.

Parallel fifths, pl. n. (music), for definition click here.

Relativism, n. a variant of ancestor worship.

faux pas, n. surrogate dads.

Broadmindedness, n. the mental state predisposing one to accept the truth claims of a plethora of mutually incompatible reductionisms.

Narrowmindedness, n. the stubborn refusal to admit that the sheer variety in the cosmos might be reduced to a single key element.

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12 April 2008

The danger of sects

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa is the preacher for the papal household at the Vatican. In this sermon for the 4th sunday of Easter, he warns against the influence of sects: Sheep that go astray. Though the current Pope is often thought to be a conservative, especially on ecclesiological and liturgical matters, his official preacher refrains from assigning the sectarian label to all Christians outside the Roman fold:

When we speak of sects, we must be careful not to put everything on the same level. Protestant evangelicals and Pentecostals, for example, apart from isolated groups, are not sects. For years the Catholic Church has maintained an official dialogue with them, something that it would never do with sects.

The true sects can be recognized by certain characteristics. First of all, in regard to their creed, they do not share essential points with the Christian faith, such as the divinity of Christ and the Trinity; or rather they mix foreign and incompatible elements with Christian doctrines -- re-incarnation, for example. In regard to methods, they are literally “sheep stealers” in the sense that they try to take the faithful away from their Church of origin, to make them followers of their sect.

The other day one of my colleagues alerted me to this group: the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity. Judging from Gretta Vosper's account of what her group believes — or rather, does not believe — it is safe to say that it would quite nicely qualify as a sect, using Fr. Cantalamessa's criteria. One assumes then that a Catholic-Progressive Christian dialogue will not be convened any time soon.

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No more chariots of fire please. . .

It seems that many Britons enjoy singing William Blake's Jerusalem, set to Hubert Parry's rousing 1916 melody. Now the Very Rev. Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark Cathedral in London, has banned the use of this song in his church. My response? Good riddance! I agree with Slee and Tim Footman that Jerusalem is not really a hymn at all and has no place in the church's liturgy. Whatever criteria are used to determine what belongs and does not belong in the liturgy, anything based on William Blake's quirky combination of "mysticism, Manichaeist dualism, anti-industrial pastoralism and Enlightenment radicalism" is highly unlikely to pass muster.

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11 April 2008

Ethnic nationalism and the 'normal' state

Given my family's painful experiences in the divided island of Cyprus, I have a continuing interest in the impact of the various forms of ethnic nationalism on politics. It is thus with considerable ambivalence that I read Jerry Z. Muller's Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. Here is the summary of the article:

Americans generally belittle the role of ethnic nationalism in politics. But in fact, it corresponds to some enduring propensities of the human spirit, it is galvanized by modernization, and in one form or another, it will drive global politics for generations to come. Once ethnic nationalism has captured the imagination of groups in a multiethnic society, ethnic disaggregation or partition is often the least bad answer.

I can readily agree with the first two statements, but the last one makes me uneasy. It's not so much that I think he's wrong empirically but that he is straining to find a good side to the massive uprooting of millions of people who lived on the "wrong" side of arbitrary borders. Is partition and what he euphemistically calls the disaggregation of peoples really the least bad option in many cases?

I can understand why Muller comes to this conclusion, but there are flaws in his argument. To begin with, his history is sometimes a little shaky. For example:

The conventional narrative of European history asserts that nationalism was primarily liberal in the western part of the continent and that it became more ethnically oriented as one moved east. There is some truth to this, but it disguises a good deal as well. It is more accurate to say that when modern states began to form, political boundaries and ethnolinguistic boundaries largely coincided in the areas along Europe's Atlantic coast. Liberal nationalism, that is, was most apt to emerge in states that already possessed a high degree of ethnic homogeneity. Long before the nineteenth century, countries such as England, France, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden emerged as nation-states in polities where ethnic divisions had been softened by a long history of cultural and social homogenization (emphasis mine).

The phrases I've italicized are problematic at best. France, for example, has always been linguistically diverse, including Basques, Bretons, Corsicans and vast numbers of speakers of Occitan or what has often been labelled the Langue d'oc in the south of the country. Homogenization was deliberately cultivated by the Bourbon monarchs over the course of more than two centuries and was continued by the post-revolution régimes. Much the same can be said of Spain, with its Castilian Spaniards, Catalan-speakers, Basques and Galicians. In this respect, José Ortega y Gasset is closer to the mark in recognizing that, historically speaking, the state has created the nation — at least in the west.

Yet the upshot of Muller's argument seems to be that the modern democratic welfare state depends on an internal homogeneity of the sort sought for and achieved by the ethnic nationalists of the 19th and 20th centuries:

These ethnically homogeneous polities have displayed a great deal of internal solidarity, moreover, facilitating government programs, including domestic transfer payments, of various kinds. When the Swedish Social Democrats were developing plans for Europe's most extensive welfare state during the interwar period, the political scientist Sheri Berman has noted, they conceived of and sold them as the construction of a folkhemmet, or "people's home."

The establishment of welfare states, with their pretence of implementing domestic social justice, seems to have come at the expense of creating millions of refugees — ethnic minorities, such as Greeks, Jews and Armenians, who were either more educated and entrepreneurially skilled than the majority population or became scapegoats simply because they were perceived to be "foreign." This seems a rather high price to be paid for "social justice" and it would appear to differ from Soviet-style communism only by degree rather than in kind.

I have a visceral distaste for Muller's argument, due primarily to the events of 1974 in Cyprus. Yet there may be something to it all the same. I quote Muller again: "Once ethnic nationalism has captured the imagination of groups in a multiethnic society, ethnic disaggregation or partition is often the least bad answer."

What if we were to understand this statement empirically instead of normatively? In my own Political Visions and Illusions I argue that accepting the idolatrous worldviews undergirding the ideologies will inevitably have social and political consequences. This is what I attempt to demonstrate in discussing the five stages in the development of liberalism in chapter two of this book. When people come to believe the false gospel of nationalism, they will inevitably incur the negative results of so doing. This may include the partition of one's own country and the loss of one's home, as cruel and painful as that may be to the ordinary people caught up in this. I do not believe it can ever be a just option in the normative political sense. Yet I have to wonder whether it might effectively constitute a kind of divine judgement on those who persist in investing the nation with redemptive hopes.

This is all the more reason to confront nationalistic claims when they occur, recognizing the legitimacy of communal solidarity while challenging those who would subordinate the diverse loyalties properly characterizing ordinary human life to the jealous demands of the god of nation.

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05 April 2008

The penny revisited

If some Canadians find the loss of the penny unpalatable, then perhaps we would do well to follow French precedent and revalue our currency in toto. In 1960 the franc was revalued so that one new franc became equal to 100 old francs, whose value had been eroded by inflation, especially during the troubled years of the Fourth Republic.

What if we were to do the same thing here in Canada? The Royal Canadian Mint could issue one new dollar at the value of, say, 10 old dollars, thereby making the new penny worth 10 old cents. That would, of course, mean that our salaries would be slashed by 90 percent, but so would prices. Would it work? Or might the floating rates of exchange amongst international currencies be an obstacle to such a move?

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"Religion is life . . ."

Could Rod Dreher have been reading H. Evan Runner? Or have they both drawn on the same wellsprings? Listen to this podcast and judge for yourself: Orthodox Christianity and American Religious Life.

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04 April 2008

A sad anniversary

Forty years ago today the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fell to a gunman's bullet. I grew up during this tumultuous era in the United States, and I recall hearing of King's assassination on the car radio as our family was on its way to a church supper. Here is an excerpt from his prophetic final speech, delivered 3 April 1968:

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03 April 2008

More on Obama's pastor

The Acton Institute's Anthony B. Bradley analyzes The Marxist Roots of Black Liberation Theology, as espoused by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. While I largely share Bradley's concerns, it seems to me that one must first recognize that a past experience of genuine oppression is precisely what makes the marxist vision appear plausible. Black Americans have really faced concrete acts of discrimination and still do in countless small ways. Yet, as Bradley correctly notes, it is by no means empowering to keep harping on this. If past progress is denied or belittled, then it becomes difficult to hope for a better future. If a community persists in defining itself as victim, it will effectively incapacitate itself in attempting to meet the challenges of the future. Furthermore, it will tend to blame all its problems on its presumed oppressors. This is hardly liberating.

As for Barack Obama's inspiring speech, delivered in the aftermath of the controversy over Wright, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus is rather less than inspired, believing that it unduly demeans the very black American community he claims as his own: The Strange Ways of Black Folk.

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An end to division?

Back in 1995, during our visit to Cyprus, Nancy and I stood at the barrier in Ledra Street dividing the capital city of Nicosia between Greek and Turkish zones. More than a dozen years later there is potent symbolism in this positive development: Ledra Street crossing opens in Cyprus.

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02 April 2008

Um, I don't get it. . .

Methinks the Russian news service Interfax hath fallen for ye olde April Fool's joke: The Anglican Church to face a new clerical reform. From its report:

When you a person is hired [sic], especially to a British state religious organization he shouldn’t be discriminated for his confession. The Anglican Church should give an example of fighting against xenophobia in our multicultural tolerant society and give equal opportunities to all people no matter if they believe in God, gods or any other power,” the [Rev Anthony Priddis] stressed.

Priddis has not excluded the possibility of future ordaining atheists in the Anglican Church, the weekly reports.

On the other hand, given recent precedent, maybe there is something to this after all.

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01 April 2008

A penny saved . . .

It's about time: MP to introduce bill to eliminate the penny. If it meets with success, we will follow the examples of the Queen's antipodean realms. Of course, this will raise a possibly insurmountable problem: if there is no such thing as one cent, and if a dollar is equal to 100 coins that do not exist, then our currency will presumably be worthless!

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Turning to the faith

When someone, or even a group of people, abandons one historic religion and converts to another, difficult issues are raised for many. Some people may become estranged from their families for taking such a step. In some countries persecution will surely follow, as it did in Rome in the first century of the christian era. Conversion is not infrequently a costly step, as it is even today in many parts of the world.

If the catechumen is a former Muslim turned Christian, the stakes become high indeed, given that many muslim states prohibit conversion and punish it with death. Thus when Pope Benedict baptized Magdi Allam at the Easter vigil at St. Peter's in Rome, he touched off a firestorm of controversy. Why, it was asked, did he see fit to do this in so public and provocative a fashion? Could not an ordinary parish priest have baptized Allam at another church away from the press? Yet it seems Allam is not alone, according to this Breakpoint commentary by Chuck Colson: 'They Want Jesus Instead'.

There are some churches where preaching the gospel to adherents of other religions is considered proselytism and thus frowned upon. Some ecclesiastical bodies prefer to court respectability, as this is defined by the larger society, by de-emphasizing the exclusive claims of the gospel and Jesus' Great Commission. But then, as they have done for two millennia, those seeking salvation turn to the incarnate Word and say: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68).

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