27 December 2010

O Magnum Mysterium

The best-known version of this ancient Christmas matins hymn may be that of Tomas Luis de Victoria, but American composer Morten Johannes Lauridsen's lovely setting movingly conveys the spirit of the text:



O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
Alleluia!

07 December 2010

Kalinine exhibit


On sunday afternoon our family drove down to St. James Church in nearby Dundas to attend the opening of an exhibit by local Hamilton artist Guennadi Kalinine, a trained iconographer, painter and restorer of art. As Kalinine himself was present, I was able to converse with him about his approach to iconography in particular. As is typical, his own painted icons bear no signature, as they simply replicate much earlier works and are governed by the strict canons of Orthodox Christianity. There is no effort to express one's individuality. Kalinine told me he is often asked whether a particular icon is his own. He responds that it is not; it comes from, say, the 12th century. He is then asked whether he painted it. Yes, he replies, but it is not his own. When a musician plays a piece by Bach, he would never think of claiming it as his own; it remains Bach's. So it is with icons. Such an attitude is foreign to westerners.

We especially enjoyed Kalinine's efforts to incorporate traditional iconic images into his landscapes, which do bear his signature. Websters Falls is one of the more famous scenic locations in Hamilton. Kalinine managed to place an angel at Websters Falls in one of his "Fantazy" paintings.

The exhibit runs through 7 January 2011, which coincides with Christmas in the Julian calendar followed by the Orthodox Church. Definitely worth a visit.

02 December 2010

December snippets

  • The December issue of National Geographic Magazine carries an article, Kings of Controversy, exploring the debate over whether a united Israelite kingdom under David and Solomon ever existed or whether an overly fertile Hebrew imagination created these iconic figures — perhaps out of thin air or by elevating two tribal chieftains to their current mythical status. The debate pits biblical minimalists against those who assume that the Bible is a genuine record of events that actually occurred.

  • I have recently acquired an old copy of William Jennings Bryan's In His Image, published in 1922 from the James Sprunt Lectures the author delivered at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. Bryan, who lived from 1860 to 1925, ran three times for the US presidency for the People's and Democratic Parties and served as President Woodrow Wilson's first Secretary of State. Both Bryan and Wilson were devout Reformed Christians with a vision for living out the kingdom of God in the political realm — comparable in many respects to Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands. Bryan would come to be associated with the fundamentalist movement within the northern Presbyterian Church and gained notoriety for his testimony in the so-called Scopes "Monkey" Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, only days before his death. This book, published three years earlier, contains Bryan's reflections on human origins. I look forward to reading In His Image, which also has some relevance to my current book project on authority and the imago Dei.

  • Fundamentalists have a bad name nowadays, partly through association with radical islamist groups who have been thus labelled. However, the original fundamentalist movement started in the first years of the last century as an effort by confessional Presbyterians to combat the influence of liberalism in that denomination. Last year was the hundredth anniversary of the publication of The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. Far from being narrow-minded and obscurantist, the authors of the essays making up this collection were Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists and others with solid academic credentials and teaching at such institutions as Wycliffe and Knox Colleges (Toronto), Oberlin (Ohio), and Princeton and McCormick Seminaries. The church in which I grew up, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, had its origins in the Presbyterian controversies of the 1920s and '30s.

  • The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is currently on a campaign to blacklist faith-based universities on the grounds that they deny academic freedom to their faculty. Peter Stockland takes them on here: 'Academic freedom' turns to religious persecution. CAUT's approach to academic freedom is narrowly individualistic and is based on the epistemologically naïve assumption that knowledge can best be attained apart from one's basic worldview orientation. One notes that CAUT's bylaws prescribe as one of the organization's core functions "the defence of academic freedom, tenure, equality and human rights." One notes further that the CAUT Council may "suspend or terminate the membership of an Organizational Member or individual Associate Member of the Association" due to the latter's "adoption of a constitution or of local practices or actions which in the judgment of Council are contrary to those of the Association." Would this include disagreement with CAUT's interpretation of "academic freedom, tenure, equality and human rights"? CAUT is obviously devoted to a particular vision of life embodied in its bylaws. And how exactly does this differ from a university having a faith-based vision statement? It seems CAUT follows its own form of fundamentalism.

  • I have called attention before to the valuable work of my friend Stanley Carlson-Thies and his Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. We were privileged to have him speak here at Redeemer University College in October on the subject. His speech has now been posted at the Cardus website: Liberty or Liability: The Future of Institutional Religious Freedom.

  • I have just received a pdf file of an Afrikaans-language metrical psalter from one Josef du Toit, who incidentally shares the surname of the famous South African poet Jakob Daniël du Toit, better known as Totius. Read more here.

  • In some fields, including archeology and biblical studies, it is common practice to add CE or BCE to the end of dates, as in 1453 CE or 587 BCE. We saw this on historical markers during our travels in Israel and the Occupied Territories 15 years ago. These initials stand for Common Era and Before the Common Era respectively and stand in for AD (Anno Domini) and BC (Before Christ). The theory behind this usage is that it removes the references to Christ and Lord, thereby making them more acceptable to adherents of other religions. However well-intended this effort at inclusivity may be, I do not find it altogether persuasive. According to the muslim calendar the year 1432 begins in five days. By islamic reckoning we are living in the 15th century after Muhammad's migration from Mecca to Medina. Under the jewish calendar today is the 25th day of Kislev, 5771, that is, 5,771 years following the creation of the world. Despite the best efforts of some to hide the christian belief that the coming of Christ into the world is the turning point in human history, the mere fact that the common era begins when it does is powerful testimony to the centrality of Jesus Christ, even to those who do not acknowledge him.
  • 29 November 2010

    Cardus makes The Globe

    My esteemed protégé and part-time colleague, Rob Joustra, has teamed up with his Cardus colleague Alissa Wilkinson to author Not their parents' conservatism, which appears in today's Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper. Definitely must-read material.

    17 November 2010

    Thomistic penmanship


    Who knew? When Fordham University posted this sample of Thomas Aquinas' handwriting on its page for today's Natural Law Colloquium, it provided needed evidence for something that had been only conjecture up to now: the late mediaeval theologian's writings were obviously transcribed for the printed page by pharmacists.

    16 November 2010

    Constantinople

    A song beloved by Byzantine-Rite Calvinists everywhere, though it's been decades since I last heard it. The University Six perform.

    11 November 2010

    A dwindling minority: Assyrian Christians

    Several years ago I had a student in my classes who was born in Baghdad and claimed to have grown up speaking both Aramaic and Arabic. Her family are Christian and consider themselves Assyrian, one of the most ancient communities in that part of the world. They had come to Canada some years earlier but had many relatives still in their ancestral Mesopotamian homeland.

    However, since the American attack on Iraq seven years ago, many if not most Assyrian Christians have left that country due to persecution. The BBC's Jim Muir reports that Christian neighbourhoods have been targeted in deadly Baghdad attacks. To follow ongoing developments concerning the Assyrian Christian communities, one may consult the Assyrian International News Agency and Assyrian Christian News. Open Doors USA prepared the following video to alert people to the trials of Assyrian Christians in Iraq:



    Please remember to pray for our beleaguered brothers and sisters in Christ living in that troubled land. Lord have mercy!

    08 November 2010

    Random act of worship

    Upcoming anniversaries

    Here is an incomplete list of some of the significant anniversaries taking place over the next several years.

  • 2011 — 400th anniversary of the King James Version Bible
  • 2012 — 450th anniversary of the completion of the Genevan Psalter
  • 2013 — 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism
  • 2014 — 450th anniversary of John Calvin’s death
  • 2015 — 800th anniversary of Magna Carta
  • 2016 — 500th anniversary of the publication of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament
  • 2017 — Martin Luther’s Reformation

  • Mark these in your calendar, and be sure to order your greeting cards early to avoid the rush.

    03 November 2010

    Theologians thinking through theodicy

    Although I am not an academic theologian, I have recently been grappling with a seemingly insuperable problem which for centuries has stumped the best minds in Christendom: How could a good God be so slow to answer a prayer for patience? Proposed solutions may be left in the comments below.

    01 November 2010

    NIV update published

    As of today the 2011 update of the New International Version Bible is available online here. Will it be accepted by longtime NIV aficionados, or will it suffer the fate of the TNIV? Time with tell.

    30 October 2010

    October snippets

  • A few days ago I saw a parhelion in the evening sky, commonly known as a sun dog. Apparently they are more frequent on the Canadian prairies and less so in Ontario. The ancient Greeks must have known it too, judging from its name.

  • Though I have lived most of my life in the Great Lakes region of North America, I had not known until recently that, from an hydrological point of view, Lakes Michigan and Huron are a single lake, with water levels rising and falling together. The "two" lakes come together at the Mackinac Bridge, which opened in 1957 and connects the two peninsulas of Michigan.

  • The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology has posted several interviews "on Christian political responsibility and the significance (or lack thereof!) of various biblical texts." Among those interviewed are James W. Skillen, yours truly, Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Land and Oliver O'Donovan, with more coming from Amy Sherman, William Willimon and John Frame.

  • Tolerance, like inclusivity, is one of those buzz words used in some circles as an unmitigated good, but generally without much reflection on its implications for specific communities. I have just posted something on the topic at First Things: Evangel: Normed tolerance, which is an expansion of something I posted here a few years ago.

  • I don't know whether to laugh or cry at this:



  • Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the luminaries of the Social Gospel movement of a century ago. While we might justifiably applaud the Social Gospel's emphasis on the corporate character of redemption, we should certainly disagree with its tendency to identify redemption with social reform. My own thesis is that the Social Gospel, liberation theology and similar movements are rooted in a conflation of the cultural mandate, given to man at creation (Genesis 1:28), with the redemptive focus of history as accomplished in Jesus Christ. In short, it improperly makes us our own redeemers. I hope to expand on this thesis at some point.

  • Municipal elections were held across Ontario this past week. Hamilton's new mayor, Bob Bratina, won the election with only 37.3% of the vote. With only 39.9% turnout, that means he received the support of a grand total of 14.9% of eligible voters. Am I the only one to think something's badly amiss here? A runoff election or instant runoff voting would be more appropriate than simply relying on such a small plurality to fill the mayoral spot.
  • 22 October 2010

    CPJ: Capital Commentary revamp

    The Center for Public Justice was founded in 1977 and since then has undertaken to articulate a Christian vision for public policy in the United States based on the principle of what I would call societal pluriformity. Recently its long time president, James W. Skillen, retired and was replaced by my friend and sometime colleague Gideon Strauss, who is now overseeing its activities.

    Among the changes that Strauss has effected is to revamp CPJ’s Capital Commentary series, making it an online magazine with its own website. In today’s issue Strauss, who served as an interpreter on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, writes on Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope, the second instalment of a series on the Psalms that grows out of this difficult experience.

    I am pleased to be playing a small part in the new Capital Commentary. Every other week for the next six months, Michael Gerson, former speech writer to President Bush, will be analyzing a political issue of significance from the previous two weeks under the general title, The Decision. The following week I will post a response to Gerson called Deliberation. Gerson’s first contribution appeared a week ago today: Fighting Disease in the Developing World. Today my response appears: Making Tough Decisions. Stay tuned. There’s more to come.

    13 October 2010

    Another milestone

    This fourth printing comes only 14 months after it went into a third. I am, of course, gratified that readers continue to find my book of value.

    09 October 2010

    Yet another English Bible . . .


    . . . to fill what some persist in believing to be a desperate need for good translations of the Good Book. This one’s called the Common English Bible, which is an improvement over existing translations because of . . . what? I’m not sure, except that it appears to use more contractions than most other versions. Which prompts me to ask: after so many decades, is the runaway proliferation of bible translations in English still about making the Word of God more comprehensible to ordinary people? Or is it by now about niche marketing?

    04 October 2010

    On the Brink of pluralism

    The Center for Public Justice continues its series on pluralism with this contribution from my esteemed protégé, Dr. Paul Brink: On Dreams of Justice and Cups of Cool Water.

    01 October 2010

    From Wellhausen to 'God's politics'?

    Several years ago my friend and former colleague Paul Marshall wrote a review of Jim Wallis' God's Politics for The Review of Faith & International Affairs: Jim Wallis’ Politics — or Lack Thereof. Marshall's paragraph below is worth rereading:
    Obviously, no popular book should be weighed down with ponderous theological reflection, but it should show some sign of having considered such reflection. For example, Wallis writes, “The place to begin to understand God is with the prophets.” There is no wisp of an argument justifying this unusual contention. He never asks why the Bible does not begin with the prophets, but with Genesis. He never mentions that the majority of Christian reflection on politics has begun with Genesis. He never carefully relates what the prophets say to the Torah, hence acknowledging that they challenge their rulers on the basis of God’s law, not on their own feelings of injustice. Maybe most of the church has been wrong for two millennia on how it addresses politics; it has certainly been wrong on other things. But Wallis never says why. He simply asserts a novel doctrine as indubitable fact.

    This critique seemed obviously right to me when I read it. Of course the prophets were calling the people of Israel back to obey God's law. How could anyone doubt it?

    Since reading this review, however, I've come to wonder whether there might be something else behind Wallis' "unusual contention" — one related to some of the more contestable assumptions of modern biblical scholarship. Since Julius Wellhausen and others articulated the Documentary Hypothesis on the origin of the Pentateuch more than a hundred years ago, it has generally been thought that the first five books of the Bible were written long after Moses. Indeed there are indications of later authorship embedded in the text itself (e.g., Genesis 36:31–43, Deuteronomy 34:5–10), as Spinoza pointed out already in the 17th century.



    The Documentary Hypothesis ascribes the bulk of the Torah's legal code to the priestly source (or P), who ostensibly wrote around 500 BC during the Babylonian exile. Deuteronomy is similarly thought to have been written around the time of King Josiah, who is assumed to have instructed Hilkiah to "find" this in the temple to justify his reforms (2 Kings 22). These late dates are crucial because they imply that the law, so extolled in Psalm 119, was written well after such prophets as Isaiah and Amos had railed against the wickedness and injustices committed by the peoples of Israel and Judah. If so, then perhaps there was no actual law at that time to which the prophets could refer their hearers. Yet the prophets managed to demand forcefully that the people do justice, especially to the widow, the orphan and the sojourner — something that came to resonate with the people who codified these precepts a century or two later.

    It is entirely possible that I am off base here, but I do wonder whether the Documentary Hypothesis might in part account for Wallis' "novel" approach of beginning his discussion with the prophets. If, on the other hand, one accepts the tradition that the bulk of the material in the Pentateuch is Mosaic in origin, one is more likely to start one's reflections on "God's politics" where the Bible itself starts: with Genesis.

    Crossposted at First Things: Evangel

    26 September 2010

    Studying (cautiously) the Qur'an

    This story from the New English Review blog is worthy of an Indiana Jones film plot:
    On the night of April 24, 1944, British air force bombers hammered a former Jesuit college here [Munich] housing the Bavarian Academy of Science. The 16th-century building crumpled in the inferno. Among the treasures lost, later lamented Anton Spitaler, an Arabic scholar at the academy, was a unique photo archive of ancient manuscripts of the Quran.

    The 450 rolls of film had been assembled before the war for a bold venture: a study of the evolution of the Quran, the text Muslims view as the verbatim transcript of God's word. The wartime destruction made the project "outright impossible," Mr. Spitaler wrote in the 1970s.

    Mr. Spitaler was lying. The cache of photos survived, and he was sitting on it all along. The truth is only now dribbling out to scholars -- and a Quran research project buried for more than 60 years has risen from the grave.

    Of course, any attempt to explore the evolution of the current text of the Qur'an risks igniting controversy in the Islamic world, which is why such scholars as the pseudonymous Christoph Luxenberg are not anxious to attach their given names to their own work.

    Beginning with Spinoza in the 17th century, scholars have been using modern critical methods to analyze the text of the Bible, which virtually all Jews and Christians agree was written by multiple authors over a period of at least a thousand years. Despite the resulting expansion of knowledge of the biblical text, this has not been an entirely unproblematic venture, as the mainstream of biblical scholarship, especially what goes by the label higher criticism, has accepted the presuppositions of modernity, including the dichotomy between faith and fact, the impossibility of predictive prophecy and the belief that no single author could have referred to God as both Elohim and YHWH.

    In principle there may be good stylistic reasons to conclude that Isaiah was not the author of Isaiah chapters 40-66, but there is nevertheless a prechristian tradition that God revealed to the 8th-century BC prophet events in the far distant future [Sirach 48:22-25], something to which the New Testament writers themselves testify, e.g., Matthew 3:3 and Acts 8:26-40. Moreover, there is no tangible manuscript evidence for two or more books of Isaiah either. Contemporary scholars need to take these factors seriously.

    All the same, despite such reservations, Christians have little difficulty accepting that different authors produced the biblical texts at different times and that these texts were gradually sifted and collected into a body of canonical scripture. No one disputes the value of lower criticism, with its empirical focus on actual manuscripts.

    Unlike Christians and Jews, Muslims believe that the Qur'an is a direct and immediate revelation by God to Muhammad. If Qur'an scholars bring the assumptions of western-style higher criticism to Islam's sacred text, believing Muslims are certain to question its validity, especially if it excludes ipso facto the possibility of miraculous divine interventions in the natural order.

    However, as I understand it, the current efforts at studying the Qur'an, are not (yet) of a higher critical character. At issue is establishing the evolutionary history of the Qur'an based on ancient manuscripts or at least photographic evidence of these manuscripts. Muslims will find it difficult to deny the validity of such a modest endeavour. The findings of such Qur'an scholarship need not challenge outright the faith of devout Muslims, but the latter may be forced to rethink the belief that the Qur'an, in its present form, came directly from Muhammad. One can only guess at the repercussions of this for the Islamic world as a whole.

    Crossposted at First Things: Evangel

    25 September 2010

    September snippets

  • Those of us who grew up with the biblical account of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea never thought it the least fantastic or implausible. Now someone has come up with a fascinating model of what may have happened: Parting the waters: Computer modeling applies physics to Red Sea escape route.



  • My young colleague and protégé, Rob Joustra, has written a review of Jordan Ballor's Ecumenical Babel that, in my opinion, hits the right note: The Ecumenical Social Justice Ship: Full Steam Ahead or Teetering Titanic? Here's Joustra:
    The [institutional] church is not just another activist NGO for socially-minded Millennials. True: It does mission. It has a concern for justice, absolutely. But the church is not a think tank, a policy shop, or a political party. Where critical advocacy should be done, Christian citizens are called together for the common good to present their arguments in the public square—not as denominational representatives, but as Christian citizens formed in the liturgies and practices of the church. . . .

    This does not mean that churches have no place in the political process. They can be critical institutions that provide a principled ballast in the fast and easy world of politics. And policy prescription is certainly not outside Christian competence! Christians, as citizens, should and must be doing the range of economic and political work.

  • Speaking of the Titanic, this story will interest aficionados of the ocean liner, which sank on its maiden voyage 98 years ago: Titanic sunk by steering mistake, author says. Could be. I'll leave it up to the experts in nautical matters to judge this one.

  • The Center for Public Justice, which some of us are coming to think of as the American counterpart to Canada's Cardus, is publishing a series of Capital Commentaries on pluralism. Earlier in the month Ashley Woodiwiss published The Problem With Pluralism, in which he advocated a "Christian agonism" as a more realistic alternative to pluralism. One week later yours truly responded with Pluralism in the plural. Joel Hunter has made the most recent contribution: Radical Responsibility for the Presence of Justice. The entire series can be found here. Watch for future instalments.
  • 17 September 2010

    Loving theoretical activity

    In the absence of a general cross-referencing apparatus to aid readers in negotiating the multiple First Things blogs, I thought I would draw the attention of Evangel readers to R. R. Reno's Love Rather Than Theory, published yesterday at On the Square. It's an important piece well worth reflecting upon. Reno writes:
    There is nothing uniquely modern about the move toward theory and abstraction. . . . However, an exaltation of theory is unique to late modern culture, and it’s what makes an intellectual an intellectual rather than what used to be called a “man of letters.” For example, Dr. Johnson and Matthew Arnold—two men with very different views of religion, morals, and literature—achieved a rhetorical rather than theoretical synthesis. They analyzed their experience with an integrated sensibility rather than an all-explaining system of thought. The same was true for Edmund Burke, who gave a rhetorical defense of the interplay of prejudice and tradition that he thought allows us to achieve an integrated sensibility. . . .

    Ortega y Gasset once wrote against the theoretical impulse: “To create a concept is to leave the world behind.” An overstatement, no doubt. . . . But there is a real temptation in theory, one to be resisted. It is the temptation to become an intellectual in the modern sense of the term. We search for a magical key, a general theory, a philosopher’s stone of the intellect that will turn the vast heterogeneity of life into the filigreed gold of a comprehended coherence. We hope for vision that will give us mastery, and through mastery release, release from the need to return again and again and again to the question of how to live.

    I don’t think we can underestimate the power this temptation today. It is easy to become an intellectual, someone intoxicated with the promise of theory and addicted to vain images of its triumph. . . .

    The fullness of reality we can only reach by abandoning ourselves to life’s particularity, allowing the truth of things—especially the truth of other human beings and our common life together—to dissect our souls. The proper word for this abandonment is love. Love works very differently from theory. It conquers the lover rather than the beloved. Love renders, and thankfully so, for truth shines from the outside.

    It is appropriate that Reno's reflections came one day after my review of Jamie Smith's Desiring the Kingdom, whose author affirms the primacy of love as the sine qua non of humanity. Reno is in large measure right in alerting us to the dangers of misdirected theory. Academics in particular are always tempted to assume that the theories by which they undertake to account for reality are identical to that reality. For most of us the prospect of being ruled by one of Plato's philosopher-kings is not a pleasant one. Anyone convinced of the certainty of his own knowledge will not be of a mind to listen to his supposed intellectual inferiors, which is a recipe for autocracy at best and tyranny at worst.

    Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that there is such a thing as loving theoretical activity, assuming, of course, that this is a rightly-ordered love. This entails nothing less than the loving use of our intellectual gifts for the service of God and neighbour. What does it look like? To begin with, it is not arrogant but is undertaken with great humility, recognizing that our theories will never completely grasp, much less control, the complexity of God's creation and must therefore be open to constant correction from lived experience.

    Loving theoretical activity also eschews reductionism, that is, the assumption that there is a "magical key" enabling us to unlock all the mysteries of reality. Man is not simply homo economicus, as Marx and his followers would have it, even if economic motives are genuinely present in all human actions. Similarly, we cannot be reduced to psycho-sexual beings, as if sexual desire accounts for everything we do. Contrary to Darwin's adherents, the single biological mechanism of natural selection cannot adequately account for the unfathomable complexity of human cultural activity, in which we adapt the environment for our own ends rather than the other way round.

    Theoretical systems need not be reductionistic, as long as they are open systems capable of being modified and corrected by reality. Over the decades I have found very useful the Christian philosophical framework articulated by several philosophers in the Kuyperian tradition, including Herman Dooyeweerd and D. H. Th. Vollenhoven. I have appreciated especially Dooyeweerd's effort to articulate the place of political life in the larger context of a normative creation order. His is an excellent example of loving theoretical activity, deliberately undertaken in the recognition that our world belongs to God.

    Theory undertaken without rightly-ordered love will amount to little more than "a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1). Yet love and theory are not intrinsically opposed to each other. The best theory is that which is ordered to the love of God and the love of our neighbours as ourselves.

    Crossposted at First Things: Evangel

    15 September 2010

    Shaping the heart, not just the mind

    Over the past twenty or so years, publishers have turned out a steady stream of Christian worldview books, which together have altered the conversation over the relationship between faith and cultural activities in God’s world. Most of these have sought to reshape a “Christian mind.” From Harry Blamires and Francis Schaeffer to Nancy Pearcey and Al Wolters, there has emanated a growing library of writings dedicated to fashioning a Christian worldview from which to approach all of life.


    But are such efforts adequate to the realities of living in the real world? Probably the worst title I have seen among such efforts comes out of Australia: A spectator’s guide to world views: Ten ways of understanding life, to which I myself contributed a chapter on liberalism. (Don’t let the title deter you from reading an otherwise excellent book!) Of course we are by no means mere spectators; we are active participants, intimately involved in a way of life, with all its rituals, customs and usages, which inevitably shape us as persons created in God’s image.

    This is something that philosopher James K. A. Smith understands well and it forms the thesis of his Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. We are not simply thinking beings. We are not even believing creatures, as important as this facet is. We are, rather, desiring beings, motivated in a basic visceral way by what we love. We do not necessarily consciously decide what or whom to love; we are in fact shaped by certain rituals, by pedagogies of desire that form us without our even being aware of them. We are habituated to desire certain things by the larger culture, and it is Smith’s task to get us to recognize these secular “liturgies” and how they work themselves into our hearts. Following Augustine’s insight, Smith asserts that we inevitably worship what we love. We are homo liturgicus – liturgical man.

    07 September 2010

    Juristocracy versus democracy

    Under its late founding editor, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, First Things made its reputation in part by its opposition to the judicial usurpation of democracy, culminating in its controversial 1996 symposium under that title. Those interested in the topic would do well to read James Grant's fascinating article, The Scourge of Juristocracy, published in the spring 2010 issue of The Wilson Quarterly. In the United States, and increasingly in Canada, opposition to an apparent judicial supremacy comes in conservative guise. The courts are presumed to be imposing progressive values on a recalcitrant public in the habit of maintaining older institutions and mores. In this respect First Things has tended towards what I would call a highbrow populism, based on the (not altogether incontestable) assumption that the people possess an innate wisdom superior to the political illusions of their élites.

    However, by Grant's account, the historical development of juristocracy is more complicated than this: in the first years of the last century American courts were often seen as obstructing the progressive will of elected legislatures, culminating in the Supreme Court's early opposition to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. Grant traces the diverging paths of Britain and the US in their respective attitudes to the role of judges and courts in the political process, with Britain embracing parliamentary supremacy after 1688 and the United States adopting Blackstone's more conservative respect for the judge-made English common law. In the latter a political role for the courts could be seen as a concession to the classical mixed constitution:
    Modern judicial activism is in many ways an expression of the old belief that democracy must be tempered by aristocracy—an idea that was prevalent in the late 18th century and now masquerades in democratic garb. The main vehicle by which judicial activism has been brought about is, of course, the language of rights. Coinciding with the articulation of the secular, anti-religious feelings of the Enlightenment, the flourishing of constitutional debate in the 18th century witnessed regular appeals to the idea of inalienable natural rights, which took on a sacred role. But it was only in the latter half of the 20th century that the idea (now described as human rights) became an intrinsic part of legal and political discourse. For many today, a world without rights enforced by a judiciary is unthinkable. Especially in undemocratic regimes and in new or unstable democracies beset by deep corruption and other ills, rights-based judicial review is a necessary protection against arbitrary government. But in ostensibly healthier democracies, it inevitably comes at a cost.

    For the most part I find Grant persuasive. However, conspicuously absent from his analysis is a recognition of the important role of political culture in the protection of rights and in the smooth functioning of a constitution. A political culture includes a variety of attitudes, usages and mores that condition the ways people act politically. Respect for the rule of law, for example, cannot be legislated into existence where it does not already enjoy longstanding support in the culture of a particular body politic.

    Americans have long esteemed their 18th-century founders as near geniuses who crafted a carefully balanced system of government that has proved durable over the course of more than two centuries. However, from the standpoint of the student of political culture, this esteem, while not altogether misplaced, somewhat misses the point. Without a supportive culture of respect for constitutional government, no political framework, however well-thought-out, could have survived for long.

    This has implications for the functioning of courts as well. Here's Grant once again: "Especially in undemocratic regimes and in new or unstable democracies beset by deep corruption and other ills, rights-based judicial review is a necessary protection against arbitrary government." This conclusion is open to question at the very least. If corruption is as deep-seated as it is in many countries, it is a rather tall order to expect the courts to function in a way that places them above such ingrained patterns of public life. Moreover, even if the courts somehow manage to free themselves from the taint of corruption and tyranny, there is no inevitability that the governments at issue will heed their rulings, especially if the citizenry is accustomed to such governmental arbitrariness.

    It would be interesting to see how a recognition of the pivotal role of political culture might change the debate surrounding the role of the courts in a political system.

    Crossposted at First Things: Evangel

    03 September 2010

    Czechs chuck church, prefer pub

    The Economist carries two stories that may or may not be related to each other. First, in a story about beer consumption in Asia, we find a nifty map showing the levels of beer-drinking per capita for several countries around the world. Second, in an article on Europe’s irreligious, there is a bar graph showing for each European country the proportion of the population that never attends religious services.

    Reading these prompts me to wonder whether there might be a correlation between beer-drinking and the level of religious observance in these countries. For example, the Czech Republic has the highest percentage (60% plus) of people who never attend religious services, and it also boasts a whopping 161 litres per person in beer consumption, by far the highest among the countries surveyed. On this basis might one be justified in speculating that those specializing in spirits tend to spurn spirituality?

    02 September 2010

    Hawking's 'god'

    The eminent British physicist has issued this seemingly troubling pronouncement ex cathedra: Stephen Hawking: God was not needed to create the Universe. Though some may find this disillusioning, others will easily (and gratefully) recognize the measure of truth in his conclusion:

    Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. . . . It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.

    Hawking is right: the god he describes does not exist. The true God did not simply set the cosmos in motion. He does not merely inhabit the gaps in our explanatory theories. Rather he upholds his creation, including the laws of physics, at every conceivable moment. Without his doing so, it would cease immediately to exist. A god who is subsequent to the law of gravity is definitely not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Thank God there is no such god as Hawking conceives of him.

    28 August 2010

    Citizenship and the kingdom of God

    In the midst of his peripatetic activities, my friend Gideon Strauss has managed to come up with another thoughtful post for the Center for Public Justice’s Capital Commentary series: Becoming an American.
    This decision [to pursue US citizenship] raises big questions for me: What does it mean to become an American? What does it mean to be an American? Is it possible to fulfill the responsibilities of American citizenship while retaining citizenship in Canada and South Africa, or must those citizenships be relinquished? What is the relationship between the duties of a citizen of the USA and the duties one has to all of humanity—that is, can one be both an American citizen and in some sense a cosmopolitan? And perhaps the biggest question of all: what is the relationship between being a citizen of the USA and being a citizen of the kingdom of God?

    This is not the stuff one typically hears from those American Christians who speak too readily of "saving America" or of a supposed American exceptionalism. Yet I can easily resonate with Strauss's questions, given my highest allegiance to the kingdom of God coupled with my subordinate citizenships in two (and possibly as many as four) political communities.

    My own view is that, in a federal system, one already owes overlapping and simultaneous political loyalties to municipality, province/state and federation. Moreover, in a complex differentiated society an ordinary person has multiple commitments to such pluriform communities as state, church institution, marriage, family and a variety of voluntary associations. If any one of these claims ultimacy, in effect it assumes an illegitimate godlike status. True, many states may stake such a claim to the citizen's ultimate allegiance, but the Christian's citizenship in these is always a tempered and limited allegiance subject to the higher loyalty to God's kingdom. The just state will recognize this and will refrain from asking more than it should from its citizenry.

    26 August 2010

    Notre Dame on life

    My alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, released an Institutional Statement Supporting the Choice for Life on 8 April 2010:
    Consistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church on such issues as abortion, research involving human embryos, euthanasia, the death penalty, and other related life issues, the University of Notre Dame recognizes and upholds the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.

    Although this brief statement is fine as far as it goes, one might question the wording of the title. Why "the choice for life" rather than, say, "the defence of life"?

    24 August 2010

    Love and justice in politics

    It is all too common these days to play off love against justice. My friend and one-time colleague Gideon Strauss, now of the Center for Public Justice, has written a marvellous piece that properly draws an intimate connection between the two. It is worth republishing below in full:


    “Justice is what love looks like in public.” So says Cornel West in the movie Call + Response. It reminds me of the kind of thing one of my philosophy professors would say during my university years: that the central divine call to humanity—that is, the call to love—is refracted in the rich diversity of human relationships into a prism of distinct callings: to practice frugality in business, to practice imagination in the arts, to practice justice in politics.

    Justice is not something less than love or something other than love; it is the very expression of love when faced with the question of what is due God’s creatures in a particular situation.

    Love unites the citizens of a distinct political community, binding them together with a care for both the individual and the common good. It imbues them with a devotion to the constitutional order to which they subject themselves. It burdens them with fealty to those who bear political authority. It grants them the gift of affection for the symbols, traditions and institutions of their particular political community and for the territory that harbors them.

    Love calls both those who govern and the governed to consider themselves subject to the rule of law. Love also calls those who govern to exercise their authority with a primary concern for the well-being of those they govern rather than for their own self-interest. Love calls all citizens to submit to and respect the proper authorities.

    Love of country at its best is a love for the common good and its expression in a just legal order in a particular place. Such a love is beautiful not only when it commands a willingness to serve the preservation of that good, but also when it provokes a commitment to reform that order wherever injustice persists.

    Love happens in politics when justice is done “symphonically.” My understanding of justice has been brought to imaginative life by Jim Skillen’s suggestion that justice is symphonic. That is, doing justice is like writing or conducting a musical symphony, giving each of the various instruments of the orchestra room to contribute their distinctive sounds in such a way that these sounds come together in rich, lively rhythm and harmony rather than a dismal cacophony or a dull monotone.

    Love, then, finds expression in public justice when governments and citizens recognize their own proper political responsibilities as well as the appropriate limits to those responsibilities, including the responsibilities and limits of the state.

    Love also finds expression in public justice when governments and citizens recognize, and seek to protect and nurture, the proper responsibilities and limits of other kinds of human relationships—relationships distinct from the relationship between a citizen and his government and not dependent on the state for their meaning and purpose.

    So, for example, when the state recognizes, protects and nurtures the freedom of communities of faith to practice their beliefs freely and authentically, love is being expressed as public justice. When the state recognizes, protects and nurtures the wonderful gift that marriages and families bring to a society, love is being expressed as public justice. When entrepreneurs, investors, managers and workers are each free to manufacture goods, provide services, and perform their trades with dignity, love is being expressed as public justice.

    The Beatles were probably right when they sang that all we need is love. But love is nothing simply. It is a complex and fragile thing—finding one of its richest and most precious expressions in the communal practice of public justice that we call “politics.”

    23 August 2010

    The ‘Oppressiveness’ of Civil Society

    What is oppression? According to the OED, to oppress means to “govern tyrannically, keep under by coercion, subject to continual cruelty or injustice.” There is general agreement, at least in the English-speaking world, that it is unjust for a government to infringe on such fundamental freedoms as speech, press, assembly, and religion. But is there something intrinsically oppressive in communities imposing standards on individual members?

    Read more here.

    18 August 2010

    Hip Christianity

    For those who care about the future of the church this Wall Street Journal article by Brett McCracken is worth reading: The Perils of 'Wannabe Cool' Christianity. All of us are familiar with churches whose worship services feature bands, jugglers, and other forms of litur-tainment, and whose pastors seek to be cool, from a pop-culture perspective. It's not restricted to North America either, as this skateboarding priest from Hungary illustrates:



    Here's McCracken, a 27-year-old professing evangelical:
    But are these gimmicks really going to bring young people back to church? Is this what people really come to church for? Maybe sex sermons and indie-rock worship music do help in getting people in the door, and maybe even in winning new converts. But what sort of Christianity are they being converted to?

    In his book, The Courage to Be Protestant, David Wells writes: "The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God.

    "And the further irony," he adds, "is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them."

    If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that "cool Christianity" is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don't want cool as much as we want real.

    If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it's easy or trendy or popular. It's because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It's because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It's not because we want more of the same.

    McCracken's book on this subject is called Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide and is published by Baker.

    The CBC's misleading question

    The CBC's website asks its readers to vote on this question: "Should Canada end its ties to the British monarchy?" The CBC is a Crown corporation and arguably it should know better than to ask so obviously anachronistic a question. Not since 1931 have we owed loyalty to the British monarch. Queen Elizabeth is queen in her own right of 16 Commonwealth realms, of which Canada is one. We owe allegiance to the Queen of Canada.

    The CBC's confusion could perhaps be alleviated in part by officially recognizing our current Queen as Elizabeth I of Canada, rather than Elizabeth II. In fact, only in England — and possibly Newfoundland — should she bear the title of Elizabeth II.

    17 August 2010

    August snippets

  • This undoubtedly explains the lack of respect I receive relative to my fellow academics: Good-looking academics lose out in peer credibility: "Academics are sexy at their own risk, according to a new report that finds professors who are considered good-looking are often written off as 'lightweights.'" Perhaps it's time for me to tone things down a bit, especially my ongoing efforts to be at the cutting edge of fashion.

  • Decades after the events of 1974 which left the island of Cyprus divided between its ethnic Greek and Turkish citizens, it seems that American and British interests in the island were at odds after all despite the assumptions of many Greek Cypriots: Kissinger and Callaghan’s unknown tug-of-war over the Cyprus crisis.

  • Coincidentally, the last of the Greek military dictators has passed from the scene: Dimitrios Ioannidis, Greek Coup Leader, Dies at 87. The military régime in Athens fell as a consequence of the Cyprus crisis of '74.

  • This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci, who in 1878 became Pope Leo XIII. To celebrate the occasion, Pope Benedict XVI will be visiting his birthplace early next month. Leo XIII had a huge impact on the development of Catholic philosophy and social teachings during the 20th century, drawing on the writings of Thomas Aquinas and articulating a principle that would come to be known as subsidiarity.

  • Speaking of which, the following definition appeared in a recent student paper: "Subsidiarity . . . teaches that tasks should be performed by the slowest community possible." That explains a few things, doesn't it?

  • Should Muslims be allowed to build a mosque near ground zero? If they own the property and have not violated any city zoning ordinances, there is no legal reason to prevent them doing so. In this Barack Obama is correct. However, given the furor this proposal has aroused and given the sponsor's claimed goal of facilitating understanding between Muslims and nonmuslims, the Cordoba Initiative would be unwise to go forward with its plans, which are almost certain to obstruct this goal.

  • Does scotch whisky still taste good after more than a century? Apparently we'll never know: Historic Scotch trapped in Antarctic ice opened - but tasting not on menu. Too bad.

  • Some years ago my father showed me some old bottles of Commandaria dating back to the 1940s and the 1890s. Whether or not he still has them I don't know. After examining them at the time, my educated guess was that they were no longer drinkable. A Cypriot dessert wine, Commandaria is the oldest, continuously existing named wine in the world.

  • My genealogical research nearly a decade ago revealed that I am plausibly descended on my mother's side from Hugh VIII de Lusignan, the ancestor of the Latin kings of Cyprus, who were likely well acquainted with the sweet taste of Commandaria.
  • 11 August 2010

    Dief the Chief's Bill of Rights

    Yesterday's 50th anniversary seems to have passed unnoticed by most Canadians, except the editors of the Toronto Star: Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights an act worth remembering. The nonentrenched Canadian Bill of Rights is still in effect, but its place in the consciousness of the nation has largely been supplanted by the entrenched Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982).

    26 July 2010

    Chaput on creation, fall and redemption

    Permit me to direct your attention to a wonderful article by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, which, but for a few sentences here and there, could easily have been written by an evangelical Christian of the Reformed persuasion: Fire On The Earth: God’s New Creation and the Meaning of Our Lives. I am struck by his redemptive-historical reading of scripture, which many of us may tend to think is the exclusive preserve of the Reformed tradition. Archbishop Chaput is to be commended for disabusing us of this misconception. Here’s an excerpt:

    There’s nothing tepid or routine about a real encounter with Sacred Scripture. In his Narnia tales, C.S. Lewis warned that Aslan is a good lion, but he is not a “tame” lion. Likewise, God’s Word is profoundly good, but it is never “tame.” Augustine thought Christian Scripture was vulgar, inelegant, and shallow—until he heard it preached by St. Ambrose; then it grabbed him by the soul, and turned his world and his life inside out. When Jesus said “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled” (Lk 12:49) he spoke not as an interesting moral counselor, but as the restless, incarnate Word of God, the Scriptures in flesh and blood, on fire with his Father’s mission of salvation.

    Scripture is passionate; it’s a love story, and it can only be absorbed by giving it everything we have: our mind, our heart and our will. It’s the one story that really matters; the story of God’s love for humanity. And like every great story, it has a structure. Talking about that structure and its meaning is my purpose here today.

    A simple way of understanding God’s Word is to see that the beginning, middle and end of Scripture correspond to man’s creation, fall, and redemption. Creation opens Scripture, followed by the sin of Adam and the infidelity of Israel. This drama takes up the bulk of the biblical story until we reach a climax in the birth of Jesus and the redemption he brings. Thus, creation, fall, and redemption make up the three key acts of Scripture’s story, and they embody God’s plan for each of us.

    To those intrigued by this article, I recommend a reading of Chaput’s Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life.

    21 July 2010

    Joustra on fast or slow justice

    My esteemed Redeemer University colleague, Robert Joustra, offers insight after his recent attendance at an event sponsored by the Center for Public Justice in Washington, DC. His thoughts are worth sharing here:

    I spent last week with the good people at Civitas, talking about graceful politics. It’s an ironic theme. Politics is many things, but it is almost never graceful. Sharp, witty, bombastic, sure. Graceful? Not really. Grace is for figure skaters and pianists, not politicians. No one can be graceful after that much scotch.

    It was, after all, the grace of the thing that touched me. I had my first hint of it when Derek and Sandra talked about their different approaches to song writing. Derek radiated a passion for justice in song, for naming the hurt and calling to account. He admitted it turns out to be a liability sometimes, rushing in without careful consideration. The call to social justice is strong; the need is real and immediate. Action is justified. It was an attitude I’ve found, and fallen in love with, in my classrooms. An almost beseeching tone: Professor, point me. I will go. Derek felt the pain, the need for fast justice.

    Sandra was subtler. I knew straight away my political sensibilities resonated more with her. She spoke less about specific action, and more about principle. Her conservative caution was borne from deep thought and considered opinion. But also, she said, from fear. Sometimes, she admitted, slow justice is safe justice. Sometimes considered approaches are stalling human hearts.

    I’m trained to do slow justice. I do what Mike Gerson calls the banality of goodness. Slow, methodical, plodding, articulate and planned justice. Architectonic justice that (supposedly) lasts. Paul Wells said this week in Macleans of [Canada's] Prime Minister, “Other people are moved by a sonnet or a perfect game. Stephen Harper mists up at the thought of long-term planning.” That’s me. I don’t sign petitions or march on capital hill(s). I grab drinks, take lunch meetings, ploddingly offer stats and case studies, voraciously track cultural and political conditions. I get more than 30 journals.

    Those of us who do slow justice seem to be more conservative. Those who do fast justice, more radical, more alternative; less impressed with the systems that provide justice. Slow justice gets PhD’s, writes in journals, runs for office. Fast justice petitions, marches, mobilizes. Slow justice can resent fast justice. I’ve resented fast justice. It’s messy, annoying and – at times – hopelessly ignorant. It hasn’t done the work to get to the table.

    But what it’s not is complacent. Our thirst for justice hinges on our need for it; on our felt experience of injustice. I recall the civil rights movement, where slow justice politicals, like me, said to wait. Or apartheid, where slow justice bureaucrats stalled. Or when we are confronted with stories about the crush of violence and terror that seizes parts of our world. Who will say to them, “Wait. We have diligence to do. I believe some numbers have yet to be crunched.”

    I learned to be more graceful last week at Civitas, if a man of my girth could ever be called such. At least I learned to be more charitable. I remembered when I listened to these husband and wife song makers that justice is a marriage of just those things. I learned to listen a little better when left-of center activists rail on our Parliament Hill for big government solutions. I may not like their programs or their methods, but what I can love is their agenda. Fast justice never forgets, and slow justice can have a bad memory. After a long time the banality of goodness can just turn banal.

    So fast justice should probably keep marching, keep song writing, keep petitioning. Slow justice needs help to keep it honest. And thank-you, Derek and Sandra.

    20 July 2010

    Parliamentary reform

    A fixture on CBC News for decades, Don Newman has put forth a sensible proposal for parliamentary reform: If we want real parliamentary reform, follow the Brits.
    To recap, here's my idea. It is based on the premise that a fixed-date election law should mean something. And that, if such a law is enacted, it should be the responsibility of the Governor General to ensure that there is a government in place between the fixed dates.

    To do this in a minority parliament, I proposed that any government that was defeated on a confidence vote, which would ordinarily trigger an election, should have the opportunity to face the House again on a straight vote of confidence, 36 hours after its initial defeat. That would allow a prime minister the opportunity to look around for an arrangement with one of the opposition parties, as Joe Clark might have done in 1979 when he was defeated by a handful of Créditistes.

    True, it could mean wheeling and dealing and trade-offs, but that is what a minority parliament is meant to be about. If the sitting government doesn't win that second confidence vote (and to ensure it tries), the Governor General would be obliged to ask another party leader to try to form a government. Again, more wheeling and dealing, but again that is what minority parliaments are supposed to do.

    If this new attempt by a different party or coalition cannot win a confidence vote, only then would the GG order an election, to be held in the briefest period allowed by law. The effect of this proposal is that a party forming the government after an election would go out of its way to make sure it didn't lose a confidence vote, and certainly that it didn't lose two in a row. But if somehow it did, then an alternative government would be possible until the next official election date.

    Where does Britain come in? Newman explains:
    There the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition headed by David Cameron is introducing legislation that will fix the date of the next British election in May of 2015, five years after the election this year that created the current minority situation.

    A key element is that the legislation will require a two-week cooling-off period should the government be defeated in a confidence vote in the Commons, before a general election can be called. The reason for the cooling-off period is to allow for a new governing arrangement to be formed, which would prevent the necessity of an election. The new government could have many or at least some of the participants from the group that was just defeated. If, after two weeks, no new government had been formed, then off to the polls the British would go.

    Perhaps it's time to scrap our minority governments and encourage at least some of the parties to work together instead. If the Brits can do it, why can't we?

    17 July 2010

    Totalitarianisme au Québec, encore une fois

    Two days ago I wrote that Québec, Canada’s province pas comme les autres, has always had an established religion. At one time it was Roman Catholicism; now it’s official secularism. Justice Gérard Dugré had the courage to label truthfully the provincial government’s current educational policy, for which he has been roundly criticized by no less than Premier Jean Charest. Canada is fortunate to have Fr. Raymond de Souza to size up such matters truthfully: Standing up to Quebec’s totalitarian impulses.

    Loyola is a private Catholic high school in Montreal which has existed for twice as long as Quebec’s Ministry of Education. When the Ministry unveiled the ERC [ethics and religious culture] course as its replacement for religious education in Quebec, Loyola asked if it could teach the course from a Catholic perspective. As Barbara Kay pointed out here yesterday, ERC is a parody of relativism in the name of neutrality. Wiccan, Buddhist, Muslim, Catholic — no one view was to be taught as superior to another, let alone as true. Loyola simply wanted to teach respect and tolerance in a manner consistent with a Catholic school, holding that, well, the Catholic faith is true. The Ministry refused, essentially ordering a Catholic school to teach its students things that it believed to be false.

    It was a gross violation of religious liberty and parental rights in education, not to mention lacking completely in pedagogical common sense. What happens to the credibility of teachers when they are forced to teach their students that their Catholic faith — presumably why they choose in teach in a Catholic school in the first place — is no more valid a path to salvation than witchcraft or atheism?

    The “neutrality” demanded by the state was recognized by the judge for what it was — a secularism which gives its own answer to religious questions, namely that all religious truths are relative and none are true. Forcing this upon children against the wishes of their parents and teachers is a dictatorial act — what in fact Benedict XVI famously called the “dictatorship of relativism”. . . .

    Quebec’s position is that no one, no school, no parent, no child, anywhere for any reason, can be exempt from the government’s course — even if, or especially if, it violates their religious faith. In the name of tolerance for all faiths, all faith must be taught to be false from a secular point of view. The zealous mandating of ERC is Orwellian in its language, dictatorial in its methods, intolerant in its attitude and without limits in its application. There is a word for this, and Dugré was not shy about using it: totalitarian.

    15 July 2010

    Victory for religious freedom in Québec

    It is difficult to recall that, prior to half a century ago, Québec’s French-speaking population was almost entirely Roman Catholic, with high rates of church attendance and a high birth rate. Its intellectual élite, typified by Fr. Lionel Groulx, saw Québec as having a mission to advance the cause of true Christianity in a largely anglophone and protestant North America. All of this changed with startling swiftness beginning in 1960 with the onset of the province’s Révolution tranquille, or Quiet Revolution. Within a very few years church attendance and birthrate alike plummeted, leaving a radically secularized society in its wake. Today Roman Catholicism is a marginalized minority viewpoint.

    Given this history, the Québec Superior Court’s recent decision in favour of Montréal’s Loyola High School comes as a surprise, albeit an encouraging one. The provincial government had mandated all schools to teach a religion and ethics course which, the private school argues, conflicts with its own Catholic principles. Justice Gérard Dugré agreed with the school, charging that the law violates the freedom of religion guaranteed in Québec’s Charter of Rights. The National Post reports:

    “In these times of respect of fundamental rights, of tolerance, of reasonable accommodations and of multiculturalism, the attitude adopted by the [Education] Department in the current matter is surprising,” Judge Dugré wrote. He added that forcing Loyola to teach the course in a secular way “assumes a totalitarian quality essentially equivalent to the order given to Galileo by the Inquisition to renounce Copernican cosmology.” . . .

    Education Minister Michelle Courchesne yesterday called the ruling “excessive” and Premier Jean Charest said the need to appeal the decision is clear. . . . The course, Ethics and Religious Culture, is mandatory for all children in Grades 1 though 11. Its introduction followed a 1997 constitutional amendment replacing the province’s denominational school boards with linguistic ones and a 2005 law that removed parents’ right to choose a course in Catholic, Protestant or moral instruction.

    The course covers the full spectrum of world religions and belief systems, with an emphasis on Christianity, Judaism and aboriginal spirituality. Critics have said it promotes a moral relativism, in which all belief systems are of equal value. In its pleadings before the court, Loyola argued that this relativism trivializes the religious experience promoted in all facets of the school’s teachings.

    “Faith is omnipresent in this institution,” Loyola’s lawyer, Jacques Darche, said following a news conference at the school yesterday. “Before football games, they pray. Before a press conference, they pray. It’s quite bizarre that in the one course that you would expect to be a part of a Catholic Jesuit school, the religion program, you’re not allowed to talk about God, you’re not allowed to pray.”

    Unfortunately, the Quiet Revolution led, not to a recognition of the need to protect religious freedom, but to the establishment of a new religion of secularism, coupled with a barely disguised hostility to traditional Christianity. There is reason to hope that the current controversy will help to expose the true nature of this establishment, particularly in the all-important realm of education.

    12 July 2010

    July snippets

  • My esteemed friend and colleague, Jonathan Chaplin, is in Comment again with an interesting take on the current direction of the British Conservative Party under Prime Minister David Cameron: "From Big State to Big Society": Is British Conservatism becoming Christian Democratic? Here's the opening paragraph:
    They don't know it—or if they do, they're not saying—but the British Conservative Party has begun to adopt the language of the political vision characteristic of postwar European Christian Democracy (CD). The vision has many strands, but one of its signature ideas is that the point of the state isn't to manage or direct society's individual and institutional energies itself, but rather to guarantee public conditions in which those energies can both flourish independently and contribute to the common good.

  • Here's the latest culinary innovation for the discriminating palate: Sandwich in a Can: The Candwich. Bon appetit!

  • This just in from Garden Grove, California, home of the Crystal Cathedral: Retiring pastor, the Rev. Robert Schuller, will be replaced in the pulpit by his daughter, the Rev. Sheila Schuller Coleman. The Crystal Cathedral is apparently a congregation of the Reformed Church in America, although one searches its website in vain for some indication of this affiliation.

  • And now from the BBC comes this report: Russians convicted and fined over Forbidden Art show. Canada too has laws against inciting hatred, but it would be very surprising indeed if our courts were to issue a similar ruling under similar circumstances.

  • Meanwhile, Swiss authorities are refusing to extradite a convicted sex offender to the United States, which has sought him for more than three decades. I now regret having rooted, however quietly, for Switzerland in the recent World Cup match.

  • A century after his death, Mark Twain's autobiography is finally being published, including much material that may shock his fans. The New York Times reports:
    Twain’s opposition to incipient imperialism and American military intervention in Cuba and the Philippines, for example, were well known even in his own time. But the uncensored autobiography makes it clear that those feelings ran very deep and includes remarks that, if made today in the context of Iraq or Afghanistan, would probably lead the right wing to question the patriotism of this most American of American writers.

  • First Things' "other" blog, First Thoughts, has FT editors listing the ten worst hymns and the ten best hymns. Whether this is a useful exercise is up to readers to judge. What is lacking is a set of criteria by which to judge what constitutes good and bad hymns. I note that most of the worst hymns are of recent Catholic origin, while the best have been around for a long time and are mostly of Reformed or Lutheran provenance. Are we perhaps seeing creeping protestant influence in an otherwise Catholic-leaning journal? Or could it be that the protestant hymns are more catholic than the Catholic ones?

  • I am flattered to note that Darryl Hart, over at Old Life Reformed Faith and Practice, has a David Koyzis tag to attach to relevant posts. It's a good thing that our pastor last sunday preached on the deadly sin of pride; otherwise I might be tempted to allow the circumference of my noggin to expand by just a few centimetres. Incidentally, why "old" life? Isn't the christian faith about living the new life in Christ? Just a question.
  • 04 July 2010

    Civil religion and national holidays

    More than two decades ago I walked into the building of a megachurch near Chicago on the Sunday nearest the Independence Day holiday. I sat down prepared to worship the God who revealed himself uniquely in Jesus Christ, but I was disappointed by what I saw when I opened the bulletin. Every “hymn” was a national song of some sort, including the Star-Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful and My Country 'Tis of Thee. At one point in the service the congregation was expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, apparently substituting for the Creed, which was nowhere in sight. I chose not to remain for the service, got up and left, feeling somewhat cheated.


    I am not opposed to expressions of patriotic loyalty, which have their place and time. But I strenuously object to devoting an entire Sunday liturgy to what in effect is a glorification of nation. Nor am I keen on the presence of a national flag in the sanctuary and other symbols of nationhood.

    Here in Canada the civil religion associated with such days as Victoria Day (the Monday on or before 24 May), Canada Day (1 July) and Remembrance Day (11 November) is more muted and less conspicuous than that of its southern neighbour. Nevertheless, I still feel uncomfortable singing O Canada in a worship context, much less William Blake’s dubiously orthodox Jerusalem, set to Sir Charles Hubert Parry’s bombastic melody of the same name.

    Here is my proposal. Let’s turn such holidays into a celebration of and call to justice, both for ourselves in the exercise before God of our various authoritative offices and for our political leaders in the pursuit of public justice within the context of government. Given my conviction that weekly worship ought to be regulated by a lectionary or, better, a lectio continua, I would not wish to give over an entire service to the subject. But perhaps at least one hymn or psalm (e.g., Psalm 82) could be devoted to the theme of justice, and certainly prayers should be said for rulers and for those suffering under unjust rule as well. (Zimbabwe and Myanmar come to mind here.) In fact, such prayers ought to be part of our weekly intercessions, in conformity with scripture, e.g., 1 Timothy 2:1-2.

    I am quite happy to wish my friends and family, wherever they are, either a happy Independence Day or a happy Canada Day. But not in church, thank you.

    03 July 2010

    Electoral reform across the pond?

    Longtime readers know of my strong support for reforming our electoral system to make the results more proportional. Britain's third-place Liberal Democratic Party has long favoured electoral reform as well, and it seems LDP leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, has successfully exacted a price for his support of the Tory-LDP coalition government: a promised referendum on electoral reform set for 5 May 2011, to coincide with elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. The form to be voted on is the alternative vote system, in which voters rank candidates on the ballot.

    Conservative leader David Cameron is unenthusiastic about the proposal and promises to campaign against it. Could this shatter the coalition government almost before it has had the chance to govern? Some think so.

    26 June 2010

    Bartók's ethnomusicological efforts

    A century ago Béla Bartók, along with Zoltán Kodály, travelled the countryside recording and collecting the folk songs of the native populations of the old Habsburg lands. Here is the original recording and his own piano transcription of the Swineherd's Song:

    25 June 2010

    In the phrygian mode

    Not too long ago I was puzzled to hear my father tell me that a lot of Greek folk music is in the key of E. How could he know the precise key of a folk song with so many variations in so many parts of the Greek-speaking world? It quickly dawned on me that he meant that it was in what we now call the phrygian mode, which spans the octave between any two E's on the white keys of the piano. Here is an example from one of the Aegean islands:

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