Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

28 January 2009

Canada versus the US of A

I seem to have missed this when it first came out, but better late than never: Love Thy Neighbour, by 1989 Redeemer graduate Lloyd Rang, who, I seem to recall, majored in comedy writing.

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27 January 2009

Pledging allegiance

When I first encountered the following video on Rod Dreher's Crunchy Con blog, two things struck me. The second and less significant one first: (2) I didn't recognize a single one of these "instantly recognizable faces" until I read this article in TIME: Celebs Pledge Allegiance. I know, of course, that I'm not exactly immersed in popular culture, but I hadn't expected to learn that I am that out of touch. Oh, well.



Now back to the first: (1) The iconography of this video seems eerily reminiscent of the sorts of posters associated with the cult of personality in more than one mid-20th-century state. Furthermore, hearing people pledge their allegiance to one man, however well intended they and he may be, I cannot help but find a little chilling.

Oh, and my pledge? To keep tabs on this unsettling phenomenon and to alert others if it threatens to get out of hand.

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26 January 2009

Sir Bernard Crick (1929-2008)

Sir Bernard Crick

My students and former students will be well acquainted with this British political scientist, whose classic In Defence of Politics is well worth reading nearly 47 years after it was first published. The following is adapted from what I wrote about him more than five years ago in this space:

Remarkably Crick called himself a socialist, but, unlike many socialists, he was at pains to emphasize the distinctiveness of the political enterprise, which cannot simply be reduced to economics or an economically-based class struggle.
Politics is too often regarded as a poor relation, inherently dependent and subsidiary; it is rarely praised as something with a life and character of its own. Politics is not religion, ethics, law, science, history, or economics; it neither solves everything, nor is it present everywhere; and it is not any one political doctrine, such as conservatism, liberalism, socialism, communism, or nationalism, though it can contain elements of most of these things. Politics is politics, to be valued in itself, not because it is 'like' or 'really is' something else more respectable or peculiar. Politics is politics. The person who wishes not to be troubled by politics and to be left alone finds himself the unwitting ally of those to whom politics is a troublesome obstacle to their well-meant intentions to leave nothing alone (pp. 15-16).

One might, of course, quibble with his assumed definitions of religion and ethics, but this is otherwise a pretty good statement.

Among the antipolitical trends from which Crick defends politics are ideology, democracy and nationalism. (His critique of democracy is largely responsible for my including a chapter in my own book on democracy as ideology, a chapter that might initially puzzle otherwise sympathetic readers.)

Influenced by Aristotle and Hannah Arendt, Crick views politics as an irreplaceable and irreducible activity that peacefully conciliates the diverse interests in society. Politics in this sense is untidy and rarely conforms to every aspiration people would impose on it. It is necessarily limited and cannot solve every problem. Yet we cannot do without it.

Sir Bernard was knighted in 2002 for his service to civic education in the United Kingdom.

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24 January 2009

The pluriformity of legal spheres

For the past half millennium, since the rise of legal positivism, i.e., the belief that law is rooted in a sovereign legislative will, the popular mind has simply assumed that all law is a creature of the state. The Reformed Christian concept of sphere sovereignty and the Catholic principle of subsidiarity have been part of a larger effort to combat this statist conception. Seemingly following this tradition, John E. Coons writes In Defense of the Sovereign Family, an essay worth reading. Coons writes:

The original form of the American Constitution may be read as reserving to the individual states the authority to occupy law’s entire province, minus the federal fraction. But language expressly limiting the range of governmental law entered the national text in 1791, as nervous founders added the Ninth and Tenth Amendments in the Bill of Rights: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” and “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The most obvious aim of these reservations was to create a hedge against tendencies to monopoly not by the states but by the new federal regime. But, in doing so, they also by implication limited the power of the states to occupy all of the remaining range of lawmaking. Given the references to “the people,” it is hard to read these texts as an invitation to a local monopoly by, say, Oregon or Wisconsin. The people hold ground of their own in both amendments. The word or in the Tenth Amendment even makes the individual state and its people competitors in the creation of law, suggesting that the two could exercise their powers contrarily within the uncharted zone.

This is not, of course, a matter of the US Constitution creating space for so-called civil society to exercise its proper jurisdiction. Rather, the document merely acknowledges the prior existence of such space: "The Constitution contains a clear textual recognition that ideas—and even rules—about the common good can originate outside the state and be entitled to dignified reception (“not . . . disparaged”) when presented for recognition as law" (emphasis mine). Coons continues:

A clear judicial recognition that parents are an independent source of law for their children—making and enforcing commands that no state or federal government can preempt or forbid—would have profound practical consequences. In the years to come, conflicts between agencies of the state and parents are likely to increase, and courts will be asked, more and more, to reexamine the limits of the parentocracy. Wealth and improving technology will constantly present new options for parents. The educational versatility of the Internet is making homeschooling easier and more attractive, for instance, letting more parents remove their children from the direct influence of the public-school system; already advocates of conscriptive public schooling worry that these children will not be properly socialized and given correct information about sex, medicine, the environment, or what­ever these advocates feel they need.

The significance of all this, however, depends less on who wins particular cases than on which of two master images dominates the consciousness of the nation’s judges: the image of delegation to parents from the monopoly state, or the counterimage of a sovereign parentocracy.

The former is the vision of legal positivism while the latter is the vision of what might be called the pluriformity of legal sphere, as articulated in sphere sovereignty and subsidiarity.

It is by no means coincidental that the widespread acceptance of legal positivism has produced a climate in which governments claim the right, not simply to adjudicate the boundaries of such essential institutions as marriage and family, but even to redefine them outright. Ironically, it is the very liberal individualism that would reduce such institutions to mere voluntary associations that calls upon the state actively to support this reductive vision. Over the long term individualism leads inexorably to statism.

If, on the other hand, these institutions exist, not only apart from the will of government and the wills of constitutive individuals, but as genuine spheres of law rooted in something beyond the human will, then government is obligated to respect their spheres of legal competence and to refrain from interfering in their internal life unless absolutely necessary to the doing of public justice. But this requires that the state abandon the "master image" of its own legal omnicompetence.

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22 January 2009

A new leader, a new era

The White House website cheerily proclaims that "Change has come to America." Like many people around the globe, I was glued to the television at noon two days ago for President Barack Obama's inaugural address, which, as expected, he delivered masterfully:





I often tell my students that an American president must be both king and prime minister and it is the rare occupant of this office who can do both well. David Warren makes a similar point:

Unlike such countries as Canada and Britain, which retained the outward institution of monarchy but developed constitutional conventions by which real power was devolved upon boring legislatures, countries such as the U.S. and France chose to enhance the power of their monarchs, by giving them the golden sceptre of democratic legitimacy.

The British genius was to separate the charisma and pageantry of State from the actual exercise of power within it. Thus, so great a leader as Winston Churchill could wear some pretty attractive hats, but never a crown.

The American genius has been to flaunt that pageantry, in direct association with the power. Their presidents wear no crown, but the omission merely commemorates the conventions of the 18th century, when kings often went hatless, if not headless.

Americans have just crowned a new king, who, like his "royal" predecessors, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, is wonderfully adept at giving voice to the ideals and values that unify Americans across the political divide. Whether he will be nearly as effective in his prime ministerial role remains to be seen. Forty-five years ago Lyndon Johnson had not a trace of the kingly about him. He was a crude, ornery arm-twister, who, while failing in his wars on poverty and in Vietnam, nevertheless succeeded in securing fundamental civil rights for black Americans through his prime ministerial skills. Thus far Obama has few accomplishments behind him, except for running the consummate political campaign for office. For what it's worth, I wish him well and offer him the assurance that he will have my prayers as he attempts to live up to the huge expectations so many have of him.

By the way, here are the lyrics of the old Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern song which the President quoted in his speech. And here are Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to it:

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15 January 2009

Gentil Montaña

One of the real benefits of the internet in general and of youtube in particular is that they facilitate the discovery of talent in remote corners of the globe outside of which it might otherwise languish in obscurity. One of these I found the other day: a fantastic guitar virtuoso from Colombia named Gentil Montaña. Here he is, playing his own arrangement of Ary Barroso's classic Aquarela do Brasil:

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13 January 2009

January snippets

  • With only days to go until the inauguration of the new president, many are relieved at this report: Obama to order Guantanamo prison closed: adviser. This is a needed first step in restoring America's reputation around the world.

  • After some uncertainty, Roland Burris will be occupying Obama's vacated Senate seat after all. Incredibly, the US Senate has decided to allow discredited Governor Rod Blagojevich's appointee to take the seat. Illinois politics at its best goes to Washington. Where is Jimmy Stewart when we need him?

  • Tributes continue to pour in following the death last week of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Among those weighing in on his life and work are his close friends and colleagues, Michael Novak and George Weigel, Canadian priest-journalist Fr. Raymond J. de Souza, Alan Jacobs, and his current colleague, Joseph Bottum. With some justification, de Souza argues that Neuhaus was the original blogger, beginning in print what later took off with everyone else on the internet. Of course, like all of us, Neuhaus had his dark side, as former colleague Damon Linker points out: The Two Neuhauses. "Crunchy Con" Rod Dreher remembers his own interactions with Neuhaus, some of which were less than positive.

  • As I read these reports, I am at a loss to know how to describe what exactly Neuhaus was. He has been called a theologian, but that doesn't exactly ring true, as theology never seemed to be his primary concern. Social commentator may be closer to the mark, but that description is too pale. The term public intellectual is vastly overused these days, but it may be the best we can do. My own guess is that Neuhaus, like his late friend, Cardinal Avery Dulles, would have called himself above all a priest in Christ's church.

  • And one more recent death: conservative political organizer Paul Weyrich, whose appreciation for rail transit has always struck a chord with me. By the way, whoever is now in charge of the Free Congress Foundation website might wish to correct the date of the article on the right hand side of the front page. Unless, that is, their founder really is writing posthumously.

  • Speaking of Dreher, his report here recalls to mind a name familiar to readers of this blog: A populist prairie fire from the right? Some of us, including yours truly (and also Fr. Neuhaus), have crossed swords with the formidable Caleb Stegall in the past. It seems that moving to Kansas was not enough for our friendly combatant. Stegall was recently elected Jefferson County district attorney on the following platform: "Stand up! Stand up on your own two feet. Stand on your own ground, with your own family and culture to love and care for. And if anyone comes to take that away, you give them hell!" Perhaps he'll take on Barack Obama in 2012?

  • If not Stegall, Canada's own David Warren envisions another possibility. Few were surprised when TIME Magazine chose Obama as its Person of the Year last month. Warren, on the other hand, would have preferred Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, whom he still judges — even post-Katie Couric — to have "star quality." As for her evident deficiencies, Warren judges that, "thanks to the loss of her ticket in what may well prove the recent U.S. election most worth losing, Ms. Palin now has time to hone her skills, to study and supply her deficiencies, and focus on the road ahead." That's putting it charitably.

  • The Orthodox Church in America has a new leader, Metropolitan Jonah, a convert from Anglicanism who was born in Chicago. Given that the OCA is an autocephalous (i.e., self-governing) church, I've often wondered whether it would not make sense for the other overlapping Orthodox jurisdictions, with their ongoing ties to their mother countries, simply to join the OCA. The quest for Orthodox unity in North America would appear to accord with Orthodox polity, especially the ancient canon that there should be only one bishop per city. Yet no one seems to have the authority to effect this unity. The Ecumenical Patriarch, in particular, has little motive for pursuing it, because it would vastly diminish his own flock, the majority of whom are part of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which is under his jurisdiction. Bishops are hardly exempt from the influence of institutional self-interest, so the current organizational disarray is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

  • Conventional wisdom tells us that Christmas began its life out of an attempt by the church to christianize a pagan feast day that had already occupied 25 December. However, William J. Tighe plausibly argues that the causal connection may have been quite the opposite: Calculating Christmas.

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    09 January 2009

    Youthful friendships

    Adolescence is variously defined as the time between puberty and adulthood. When does adulthood begin? Legally it begins at age 18 in many countries, but some observers hold that adolescence only ends around age 25 and perhaps even beyond. Within this period the young person makes decisions as to the course of the rest of his or her life. It is a time of increasingly taking on adult responsibilities, choosing a marriage partner, a career path and beginning a family. For our purposes here, it is also a time for either continuing and deepening current friendships or making new friends.

    Because early adolescence lies four decades in the past for me, I have little now to say about this period in life, crucial though it may be. But look me up in another two or three years, as our daughter reaches this stage, and I may have more to contribute. Late adolescence is quite another thing, because I have been a teacher of this age group for more than 20 years. I have seen friendships formed among university undergraduates, many, but not all, of which endure for years thereafter.

    My own undergraduate years were life-changing, no doubt about it. Some of it had to do with what I was learning in the classroom. Because I was at a liberal arts university, I was taking courses in a variety of subjects, and for the first time I was seeing the interconnections between, say, religion, philosophy, ethics and psychology. This happened my very first semester. Because this was a christian university, I was confronted with the Source of this coherence among the academic disciplines. This was a revelation to me, and I was excited by what I was learning.

    But much of what I was going through had to do with the friendships I was forming at the time. I had mostly disliked the social world of high school, with its cliques and pecking order. But university was much different. True, I still spent most of my time with people in the same age range as myself, but the maturity level made all the difference. I met serious-minded young people who genuinely desired to live for Christ and were enthusiastic about their studies. We were all away from home for the first time in our lives and possibly more teachable and open to friendships than at any other time before or after.

    This is a time when young people experiment with their own identities, trying on one for a time and then removing it to assume another. At the outset I gravitated towards an anabaptist approach, under the influence of some of my professors, John Howard Yoder's books, and what would shortly become Sojourners magazine. I've written of these changes in thinking before in this space. What is significant for my purposes here is that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I found myself part of a burgeoning community of peers revolving around, not only a common faith, but a commitment to social justice. I had decided to switch my major from music to political science, adding history and economics as minors. I found this new camaraderie an exhilarating experience.

    One friend, Doug, with whom I am still in contact, introduced me to the writings of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd — names that were unfamiliar to me at the time, but whose ideas resonated with my Reformed upbringing. Remarkably, Doug turned out to have more of an influence on me than all of my professors put together. I acknowledge this influence in the preface to my book. I almost certainly would not be doing what I do now if it had not been for our friendship.

    Many, if not most, friendships revolve around shared passions. This may be more pronounced in youth than at any other time of life. I've seen this phenomenon again and again during my years at Redeemer. Young people have an infectious enthusiasm that inevitably draws to them others sharing it. As a teacher I have had the privilege of seeing friendships formed among my own students, who go on to collaborate on common projects, such as student government, organizing or attending a conference together, taking a trip to Ottawa or Queen's Park, or even singing together in the choir! I myself have not exactly been a direct catalyst for these friendships, but I do see "buddies" (Australian: "mates") sitting together in class or having lunch in the cafeteria or even rooming together in the residences or off campus. Of course, some friendships do not survive this living at close quarters, but those that do are likely to strengthen with time.

    I love seeing the developing camaraderie among my own students, and I often feel that I am part of this. I will be writing later about mentor-protégé relationships, which mean much to me and on which I have reflected at length over the decades.

    Back to my own undergraduate experience. At the end of that crucial academic year, this new-found camaraderie came to a sudden end, as most of the group graduated, leaving me with another two years to go. Admittedly, this left me feeling somewhat at loose ends, and I experienced the absence of these friends as a loss. This was the first sign I had of what might be called the tragic element of adolescent friendships. The easy camaraderie is a hallmark of youth, and it can no more last for ever than youth itself. Undergraduate students in particular feel free to drop by and visit someone down the hall or in a neighbouring dorm with little or no notice. Friendship is casual at this stage, and close friends can spend hours with each other as often as every day, if they so choose.

    But this must inevitably give way to a more structured life, with varied responsibilities. Marriage and family, which place constraints on the old friendships. The 9 to 5 job. The mortgage. Community and neighbourhood activities. Moving to another city, after which the friendship may tend to fade. More demands are made on our time from more than one direction. The friendships of youth may not survive this transition, or they may endure mostly as memories, possibly to be taken up again briefly at reunions and similar events.

    Yet, as with childhood friendships, it may be that, as young people stand at the threshold of adulthood, they need to think already of the future of the friendships they are forming. Of course, many will not endure past graduation, and there is nothing intrinsically amiss in that. We are, after all, limited creatures with a limited affective capacity. We simply cannot remain close to everyone who passes in and out of our lives. Nevertheless, there are always people whose friendships are life-changing for us and for them. These are gifts of God to be cherished for the long term. That maintaining such friendships takes considerable effort nearly goes without saying, but it is an effort that will be rewarded over the long term.

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    08 January 2009

    Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009)


    This is sad news indeed, but by God's grace his was a life well lived. May he rest in peace until the resurrection.

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    07 January 2009

    The end of the Quiet Revolution?

    Paul Allen appears to have found evidence in the video below that at least some Québécois are weary of the excesses of the province's Quiet Revolution of half a century ago: Translating “Dégenerations”: From Québec with Love. Before today I had not heard of Mes Aïeux or of their controversial song. Its popularity almost certainly does not portend a mass return to the Roman Catholic faith in that province, but it does indicate that some are asking an important question: in casting off the perceived shackles of the past, did we perhaps give up too much? After viewing the video, I find myself wondering whether a repudiation of secularization necessarily entails a return to an agrarian society — something that no longer lies within the realm of possibility. In short, is there more than just nostalgia in this song?

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    02 January 2009

    Childhood friends

    When I was around 6 years old, I had a friend, whom I'll call Billy, who lived round the corner from us. He was in my elementary school class, and I saw him virtually every day. We would play at each other's homes, and I recall our walking one day to the Sunnyside Market, which was several blocks from our street. This was a big deal for us, because we were still quite small and our mothers naturally feared for our safety. But this minor adventure was something of a bonding experience for us.

    Our friendship seems to have faded after he came over to my house one day to tell my mother that I had said a bad word ("damn") during gym class. He made sure I was in my room before he told her, but I could hear him through the closed door all the same. Not only did my mother not get angry with me later; she didn't even mention it, much to my relief. In any event, Billy and I were not quite as close after that episode.

    I had other friendships as a boy, but the one thing that stands out about these is that not one of them lasted even into adolescence, much less adulthood. We moved out of that neighbourhood when I was 13, leaving behind an entire community that I had grown up in. In the context of North America, I doubt that I am unusual in this. While I was privileged to grow up in one town, many have moved from one city to another throughout their growing-up years, thus making it difficult for them to nurture friendships at all.

    Two years ago, I read Marilyn Robinson's prize-winning novel, Gilead, and wrote of the experience here:

    [A]lthough I have never lived in a small town, I was taken with the setting and the relationships nurtured by it. Imagine living in one place one's whole life and enjoying the proximity of lifelong friendships. In a mobile society friendships are generally cultivated for a time and then have to be maintained in attenuated form over a distance as someone moves away. (I have never entirely reconciled myself to this fact of contemporary life.) But [John] Ames and old Boughton — best friends from childhood — grow old together and seemingly face death at nearly the same moment.

    Mobility is definitely an obstacle to long term friendships. But there are other, less context-driven factors, such as different paces of maturation. Because they are children, two friends will connect with each other in, well, childish ways. They toss a football back and forth, play hide-and-seek or tag, or build a snow fort together. Little girls may play dolls, while boys may play cops and robbers. In-depth conversations about personal struggles are unlikely, except perhaps in the form of superficial complaints about parents or teachers. The distance between, say, grades 3 and 4 seems vast at that age. Those only a year younger seem to us hopelessly immature, while those a year older look by comparison to be suave and sophisticated.

    Even those of the same age may grow apart simply because one of them is growing up more quickly. Two girls happily playing with barbies only a few months earlier may drift away from each other as one suddenly becomes more aware than the other of how endlessly fascinating are the boys they have shunned so recently. The less mature girl can't understand what the fuss is all about, and it's enough to make both seek company elsewhere.

    However, that in itself need not curtail the maintenance a lifelong friendship. There is something powerful that binds us to the land where we grew up, even after we leave. Most forms of patriotism depend on this bond, and it is not unusual for a national anthem to extol something of the homeland's unique topography. It has been said that true patriotism can only be local, and I'm inclined to agree. Certainly Robert E. Lee well understood this as he was weighing military commissions offered by both Union and Confederacy in the opening days of the American Civil War. In so far as childhood friends are shaped by the land of their birth, they continue to share something profound that could conceivably last a lifetime, given supportive circumstances. Having once collaborated in building a treehouse in a familiar nearby forest makes for a lasting relationship that may deepen with maturity.

    Yet I fear this is exceptional for those of us who have grown up in one place and now live in another. It is difficult personally for me to imagine having a lifelong friend, because this has not been part of my experience. One of my closest friends here in Hamilton I have known for 30 years, which is in fact the major part of my life thus far. But there is more than a decade between us. Furthermore, we both grew up in different countries and cannot claim to share the love of a common homeland.

    As a father, I look at my daughter and the friendships she has formed. In kindergarten and grade 1 these were fairly simple in nature, and she and her friends revelled in each other's companionship. As they grow older, however, these have become more complicated for a variety of reasons. Given that we are far from family on both sides and that she is an only child, we are naturally concerned that she should have stable friendships that, we hope, will endure into adulthood. Yet, if our own experience is any indication, the odds are against this.

    It may be that our communities need to be more intentional about fostering such friendships among our children. Perhaps we need to think more deeply about this and discuss it within our families, neighbourhoods and churches. Friendship and community are not the same thing, and there seems to be a paradoxical relationship between the two. Friendship is the basis for community, as Aristotle already understood more than two millennia ago. But it is also true that community nurtures friendship, as we are more likely than not to choose our friends from among the members of the communities of which we are part. Thus the health of our friendships and of our communities is very much interconnected. Building and strengthening community facilitates the nurturing of friendship and, I'm inclined to think, vice versa.

    Next: Youthful friendship.

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    01 January 2009

    Fanfare for the new year

    I can think of no better way to herald the new year than to play the opening movement of the great Czech composer Leoš Janáček's rousing Sinfonietta. The complete piece is well worth listening to.

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