Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

31 July 2008

Copy-editing 101

Rule # 14: Eliminate ambiguous meanings from titles: Interview with an Ex-Vampire Novelist.

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30 July 2008

Compassion as a virtue?

Clifford Orwin has given us a fascinating, but all too brief, history of compassion: How an Emotion Became a Virtue. As for political implications, I have written before on The limits of compassion in politics.

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26 July 2008

Authority and hierarchy, II

This is a follow-up to my post of last month and an effort to respond to some of the points made by Tony Esolen and Daniel D. De Haan in the comments. De Haan asks: "But do you mean to say then, in agreement with Esolen, 'that obedience and genuine authority are inseparable' yet require qualifications as diverse modes of authority are commensurate to diverse modes of obedience and/or obligation?"

Richard De George's taxonomy of authority
All authority implies obligation, but just as the various manifestations of authority differ, so do the reciprocal obligations. Imperative authority, i.e., the authority to issue commands, entails an obligation to obey. Cognitive or epistemic authority entails an obligation to listen and learn from the person possessing such authority, but it does not imply obedience as such unless it is connected to a specific office requiring this. This again points to the difference between the expert in a particular field of study, e.g., psychology, and the professor of psychology who holds an office in a university. Exemplary authority entails an obligation to watch, learn and imitate. Richard De George's taxonomy of authority (above left; click to see a larger version) is helpful in enabling us to differentiate amongst the obligations entailed by the presence of authority. In general, the nonexecutive manifestations of authority do not require obedience as a reciprocal obligation.

Some of De Haan's other comments are relevant to the finer points of theology, a field that, admittedly, is not my own. However, I will focus on two issues. First:
The Creator God, as the sole Creative Cause, must possess in perfect simple identity the vast array of contingent perfections found throughout creation. If not we must ask who created them if not the Creator? And how could He Create such created perfections if they were not already entitative perfections of Himself.

The entire paragraph in which this appears strikes me as a case, not only of subjecting God to the laws he has posited for his creatures, but of claiming to know God's essence, which goes well beyond what he has chosen to reveal to us in Scripture. To be sure, God has accommodated himself to us, communicating in creaturely ways we can understand. However, for a mere human being to assert what God "must possess" in himself seems rather presumptuous. At the very least one ought to be careful in making such assertions in recognition that there are limits to what God has chosen to reveal about himself to us.

Second, there is this from David Deavel: "But there are various other views of ontological hierarchy that are compatible with a Christian doctrine of creation." This is De Haan's view as well.

My response begins with acknowledging that God's creation is complex, containing an amazing diversity of things, each with its own proper place in the whole. One of the characteristic errors of modern thought is reductionism, i.e., the tendency to reduce this complexity to one or two elements. For example, Darwin believes he can account for biological complexity (and perhaps the rich variety of human cultures?) in terms of the single mechanism of natural selection. Similarly, Marx reduces the fulness of history to an economically-based class struggle.

By contrast, I would argue, following Dooyeweerd and others, that no aspect of created reality can be elevated to primary status. Rather each aspect has its own appointed place and cannot be reduced to another. The aesthetic cannot be reduced to the economic (contra Marx) or to the biological (contra Darwin). Similarly the political cannot be reduced to the economic, a point made by Sheldon S. Wolin, Hannah Arendt, Sir Bernard Crick and others. The only sense in which these aspects might be seen as hierarchical is that the "earlier" aspects are foundational for the "later" ones. Biological life is necessary for sensation, which is in turn a precondition for thinking logically, itself a precondition for making aesthetic judgements.

My questions to De Haan and Deavel are as follows: Why would they deem it necessary to envision this diversity of created reality as hierarchical? What would it mean for a thing to be higher or lower on the ontological ladder relative to something else? Is their conception of hierarchy different from mine and Dooyeweerd's, as indicated in the previous paragraph? Or do they envision something else? Does diversity itself imply hierarchy?

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23 July 2008

July snippets

  • Taking us from Nicosia to Amsterdam to Boston, I find this piece by Matthew J. Milliner a little painful to read: Those Whitewashed Walls.

  • Chuck Colson asks What's the matter with Canada?, where he believes, with some justification, that religious freedom is threatened.

  • Last month I was privileged to participate in a WRF-sponsored online symposium on religious freedom in public life, in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the Williamsburg Charter. My own brief contribution is titled, Social mores as a bulwark of freedom.

  • I was recently surprised to learn that I am now teaching a second generation of students at Redeemer. The daughter of two of my very first students is now sitting in my classes. However, the chances of my teaching her children are, I would judge, fairly slim.

  • Is America an empire? I would answer yes. However, in contrast to the views of some, I do not believe that all manifestations of empire are irremediably bad. I will come back to this topic at some point.

  • The fallout from Henry Morgentaler's misplaced honour continues: Humanitarian's family returns Order of Canada.

  • Robert Louis Wilken tells us How to Read the Bible, endorsing allegory as a way of finding Christ in the Old Testament. I would suggest a better option: reading the whole of scripture as a grand redemptive historical narrative pointing to Christ as culmination. Rather than looking for bits and pieces hidden in the text, we read with eyes open to the unifying big story that is the Bible.
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    21 July 2008

    Hungarian Reformed Church

    I have posted in my sidebar a blog, Magyar Református Egyház, maintained by my cyberspace friend, the Rev. Chuck Huckaby (aka Hukabyi Károly Pál), devoted to the Hungarian Reformed Church in the US and diaspora.

    Hungarian Reformed Church, Calvin Synod, coat of arms
    Coat of Arms
    Hungarian Reformed Church
    Calvin Synod

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    20 July 2008

    Ending or defending discrimination?

    There is more than one way to define discrimination, and this is evident in the debate south of the border over the faith-based initiative, which has become part of the current presidential campaign. Keith Pavlischek weighs in on the subject in The Weekly Standard: Doubting Obama: His faith-based initiative isn't what it's cracked up to be. Ironically, despite the longstanding libertarian element in the Republican Party, it is the Democrats who are now taking the narrowly individualist approach to the issue. Stanley Carlson-Thies offers his own Memo to Presidential Candidates on "how to get the faith-based initiative right." Let's hope Obama and McCain will read this.

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    19 July 2008

    A grim anniversary

    On the 90th anniversary of the murder of Nicholas II and his family by the bolsheviks, Thousands honour last tsar at mineshaft burial site. But was Nicholas really the last tsar? Some think not: The Last Tsar Was Michael, Not Nicholas.

    Michael Aleksandrovich
    The Last Tsar?

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    18 July 2008

    Post-holiday postmortem

    Our family just returned from 12 days travelling in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. Here are some photographic highlights.

    Virginia Capitol, Williamsburg
    Among other places we visited Colonial Williamsburg, the seat of government for the Virginia colony between 1699 and 1780. The city was named for King William III of England, who reigned from 1688 to 1702. The above reference to his sister-in-law and successor, Queen Anne, is inscribed over the door of the Capitol, which housed the bicameral legislature, consisting of the elected House of Burgesses, the lower chamber, and the appointed Council, the upper chamber.

    pre-1801 Union Jack
    The pre-1801 Union Jack flies everywhere in the historic district of this city. This flag reflects the union of England and Scotland in 1707 (and, earlier, the personal union of the two kingdoms in James VI and I), but not the subsequent union of Great Britain and Ireland 94 years later. Consequently the flag above lacks the red diagonal Cross of St. Patrick.

    Courthouse, Williamsburg
    I was privileged to be part of a re-enactment of three court cases in the Couthouse on Duke of Gloucester Street. Actors were chosen from the audience to participate in real cases from the historical records. I was one of the jurors (above left, wearing three-cornered hat). It was a fascinating look back to an earlier form of our own contemporary justice system.

    Mount Airy Mansion
    We visited Mount Airy Mansion, once the home of Benedict Swingate Calvert, the natural son of Charles Calvert, the 5th Lord Baltimore. It is located in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, not too far from Washington, DC.

    Mount Airy Mansion
    Here is the plaque outside Mount Airy, describing its historical significance.

    Dance studio, with drive-thru
    This has nothing to do with our travels, as I took the above photo after our return home. It portrays the only dance studio in Canada with a drive-thru, an innovation that is, admittedly, unlikely to catch on elsewhere.

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    14 July 2008

    Price rises and eating local

    This report perplexes me: CanGro's shock waves.

    The doors of the country's last fruit canning plant [in St. Davids, Ontario] closed yesterday with a soft thud that echoes beyond Niagara. It was a pragmatic decision on the part of CanGro, owned by American private equity firms Sun Capital and EG Capital Group.

    Quite simply, the products can be made cheaper elsewhere.

    Many union reps, growers, economists and even consumers reluctantly acknowledge the canned products put out by the plant, Del Monte fruit cocktails and the like, were approaching their best-before date. Consumption of canned goods is near stagnant (about 2 per cent growth a year), fruit production costs (particularly labour) are escalating, and the plant, while it made money, was not considered efficient in global terms.

    This closure strikes me as premature and short-sighted. The past half a year has seen fuel prices rise to new levels. As fuel prices rise, so, for obvious reasons, do those of products transported from long distances. Over the past two decades or more, we North Americans have become accustomed to finding reasonably-priced fresh fruit and vegetables in our supermarket's produce bins all year round. During the winter months we are privileged to eat peaches and nectarines imported from Chile and South Africa, whereas in my childhood and youth, these were available only certain times of the year. The rest of the time we were compelled to eat them canned or frozen.

    Given the lower fuel costs of the 1980s and '90s, it is not surprising that demand for canned goods fell. Who would not prefer fresh over canned produce? Yet it may be that this period represented a spell of exceptionally fair economic weather that could not last. As fuel costs raise the prices of everything else, the selling of canned fruits may soon become more profitable than it has been in decades. Eating locally, which is being touted by many, may well become necessary for virtually everyone with limited means. If Niagara orchards have been uprooted and if all the fruit-canning plants have been closed, this could mean that even canned fruit will be scarce, thus driving up its price for all of us.

    Couldn't the owners of the St. Davids plant have held out a little longer? They might have been able to turn a tidy profit while maintaining 150 jobs.

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    12 July 2008

    Suburban air quality

    It has long been assumed that people flee to the suburbs to escape the foul air of the city. However, could it be that, because outlying communities are so tied to the automobile, its residents pollute more than those remaining behind in the cities? Ted Mitchell examines the evidence with a look at the Chicago area: Not My Problem: Taking Responsibility for Air Quality.

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    09 July 2008

    Misplaced honour, part 2

    The controversy continues: Former N.B. lieutenant-governor to return Order of Canada in protest.

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    08 July 2008

    Theodore Plantinga (1947-2008)

    Redeemer has just posted this announcement on its website:

    It is with deep sadness that Redeemer University College announces the death of Dr. Theodore Plantinga, Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department. Dr. Plantinga died peacefully at his home in Dundas on the evening of July 4, 2008 . Visitation will be held in St. James Anglican Church from 6:30 – 8:30 Tuesday evening (137 Melville, Dundas), and a memorial service will be held there on Wednesday at 1 pm.

    Theo Plantinga was born in 1947 in Ee, Friesland , the Netherlands . His family emigrated to Canada when he was four, settling in Winnipeg , where he attended elementary and secondary schools. He went to university at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan , where he received a B.A. in philosophy in 1969. He subsequently completed a Masters degree, and a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Toronto (1975). His doctoral dissertation, published by the University of Toronto Press in 1980, was "Historical Understanding in the Thought of Wilhelm Dilthey."

    During the next two years, Dr. Plantinga held a full-time position as lecturer in philosophy at Bishops University in Lennoxville, Quebec . Subsequently, he was a translator and managing editor for Paideia Press in St. Catharines, Ontario . He was appointed Executive Director of College Development for the Ontario Christian College Association, founded to explore the possibility of starting a Reformed Christian liberal arts and science college in Ontario .

    In 1980 (the same year that his Rationale for a Christian College was published) Theo accepted a position in the philosophy department of Calvin College. But the work of the Ontario Christian College Association came to fruition in the founding of Redeemer College just two years later, and Theo returned to Ontario in 1982 to become Redeemer’s first professor of philosophy. He taught in (and chaired) the Department of Philosophy ever since then—an unbroken span of twenty-six years. He has written numerous books, articles addresses and reviews on philosophy, apologetics, memory, the problem of evil, Christian education, and reading the Bible as history. He has also translated into English numerous books by Dutch authors, including the philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd; Dr. Plantinga became managing editor of the Dooyeweerd Centre at Redeemer in 2005.

    For more than a quarter century, Theo Plantinga served our Lord faithfully through Redeemer University College in his teaching, scholarship and research. Especially in the early days of the university, he was a force to be reckoned with in our debates on policy, institutional purpose and identity, pedagogy and a host of other topics. He had a lively wit, a vibrant faith, a ready laugh, a listening ear and a particular fondness for the eccentric. He will be greatly missed as a friend, colleague, teacher and mentor. "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints."

    Please pray for the Redeemer community as it mourns the loss of one of its founding professors.

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    03 July 2008

    Misplaced honour

    Our own Sir Frederick Banting was knighted in 1934 in recognition of his discovery of insulin and his contribution to extending the lives of diabetics. Three-quarters of a century later Dr. Henry Morgentaler is to be awarded the Order of Canada for his contribution to shortening the lives of infants in the womb. Makes us proud to be Canadians.

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