Barack Obama has been president for just over twelve months and in his recent state of the union address he set out his priorities for his second year in office. It is no surprise that many observers are now questioning Obama’s overall effectiveness in the presidency as unemployment remains high and the effects of the recession continue to be felt by many. This points to a central difficulty in the organization of the executive branch: in effect, President Obama must function as both king and prime minister.
25 February 2010
24 February 2010
American foreign policy is handicapped by a narrow, ill-informed and "uncompromising Western secularism" that feeds religious extremism, threatens traditional cultures and fails to encourage religious groups that promote peace and human rights, according to a two-year study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The council's 32-member task force, which included former government officials and scholars representing all major faiths, delivered its report to the White House on Tuesday. The report warns of a serious "capabilities gap" and recommends that President Obama make religion "an integral part of our foreign policy."
The Council's report is available here.
A few days later Wheaton College announced its new president, Dr. Philip Graham Ryken, Pastor of historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. This brings to the 150-year-old evangelical university a leader who stands squarely in the Reformed tradition.
Finally, Reformed Theological Seminary's Orlando campus has just appointed a new president, Dr. Don Sweeting, senior pastor of Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in Englewood, Colorado. I keep up with the goings-on there through my friend, Jake Belder, who is currently an RTS student.
23 February 2010
It is evidently the season for institutions of higher learning to select new presidents. We have recently heard announcements from Baylor University and Wheaton College. Now my own employer, Redeemer University College, one of a very few Christian universities in Canada, has just announced the appointment of a new president, Dr. Hubert Krygsman. This is from Redeemer’s website:
“Dr. Hubert R. Krygsman, currently the Associate Provost and Director of the Andreas Center for Reformed Scholarship and Service at Dordt College in Iowa, has been appointed to become the third President of Redeemer University College. This five-year appointment will take effect on June 14, 2010 following the retirement of Dr. Justin Cooper, who has served as Redeemer’s President for sixteen years.
“Krysgman obtained a B.A. in History and Philosophy from Calvin College in 1984. He completed a M.A. in History from the University of Calgary with a thesis on the theology of George Grant. His Ph.D. is from Carleton University in Ottawa with a dissertation on “Freedom and Grace: Protestant Thought in Canada 1920-1960.” His research and publication record includes a focus on modern Protestant Canadian history, on academic structures and curricular design, and on the relationship between Islam and Christianity.”
Redeemer University College was established in 1982 and stands in the Reformed tradition of Christianity. I myself have been privileged to teach there for all but five years of its existence. On behalf of my colleagues, I wish Krygsman God’s richest blessings and assure him that we will uphold him in prayer as he takes up this important office.
12 February 2010
Read more at Comment’s website.
09 February 2010
Six decades ago the thomistic philosopher Yves René Simon observed that, since the French Revolution, authority has had something of a bad reputation. More than any other act of rebellion, the Revolution effectively solidified in western consciousness something of the mythology of heroic popular revolt against oppressive authority. Now many are inclined to identify authority per se with at least potential oppression, irrespective of what it actually does and how it functions.
At one time it was generally assumed that those defying authority were committing a grave sin imperiling their eternal salvation. They were acting so as to overturn a God-given social and political order, and were little better than common criminals.
Nowadays it is often, if not always, assumed that legitimate complaints undergird an insurrection, however violent its effects, and that governmental efforts to quell a rebellion are almost intrinsically repressive. During a church service near Toronto in early 1994, shortly after the Chiapas revolt broke out in southern Mexico, prayer requests were invited from the front. A parishioner stood up and asked that prayers be offered for the people of Chiapas, that they might receive justice and no longer find it necessary to rise up against the government to advance their cause. The request was duly noted and it was included in the subsequent prayer.
What is striking in this incident is that no one in the congregation found the request at all unusual or out of line. Of course, one would not wish to deny the likelihood of legitimate grievances underlying such an uprising, particularly as it follows upon centuries of oppression of the indigenous peoples of the region.
All the same, a few hundred years ago, if a popular revolt broke out against a sitting government, one might have heard a clergyman pray that God would bring down his righteous wrath on the rebels and that the governing authorities, whom he calls to defend justice and punish lawbreakers, might be instruments of that wrath. So thoroughly have attitudes changed that now, if someone were to stand up and request a prayer along these lines, she would likely raise eyebrows and cause discomfort in the pews.
Why have authority and its exercise acquired such a bad name? Simon gives four reasons. First, it would seem to stand in conflict with justice. If a government reflexively cracks down on malcontents, it may be guilty of overlooking the justice of their cause. Second, it appears to conflict with the spontaneity and vitality of human life by artificially inhibiting it. How many beneficial inventions might have been stillborn if a government had placed too many constraints on personal innovation?
Third, the imposition of authority is reputed to curtail the search for truth, a contention which John Stuart Mill advances in On Liberty. Fourth, authority seems often to be connected with human arbitrariness and thus opposed to the universality and stability of law. Indeed, whenever authority is abused, it inevitably reflects poorly on the authoritative office itself.
To Simon's reasons I add numbers five through seven. Fifth, there is a persistent tendency to play off authority against personal freedom. Forty years ago, secondary school dress codes in North America were largely abandoned on the grounds that they impaired the freedom of the adolescent students to dress as they pleased. Especially in the United States, where the attainment of freedom has a strong place in the national civil religious narrative, this argument resonated with many, and those few defending the codes lost ground nearly everywhere. In such a context, if freedom and authority are conceived as polar opposites, then, whenever they are seen to come into conflict, freedom must necessarily triumph over the long term.
Sixth, there is a strong presumption on moral grounds against authority by the heirs of Immanual Kant, including the likes of Stanley Milgram, Lawrence Kohlberg and John Rawls. Kantians believe that being subject to authority is a sign of ethical immaturity and that progress towards full adult autonomy requires that a form of moral reasoning known as the categorical imperative be applied to every human action.
Seventh and finally, there is another school, including Marx and his heirs, as well as the more recent postmodern deconstructionists, which sees all authority as little more than self-interested (or, perhaps more accurately, class- or group-interested) domination by one set of people over another. Within this conception, any claim that an authoritative officeholder is acting in the interest of those under her authority cannot be believed. An hermeneutic of suspicion must therefore be applied to such claims in an effort to unmask the collective self-interested will behind what is essentially only an exercise of raw power. In this perspective, the classic writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are nothing more than the ruminations of those notorious dead, white European males attempting to protect their own material interests against everyone else.
For all these reasons and more young people sometimes wear t-shirts emblazoned with these powerful words: QUESTION AUTHORITY. However, it's never been entirely clear to me why, in so doing, they should defer to the authority of a clothing manufacturer, whose very ability to produce these shirts depends on an authoritative structure co-ordinating the process as a whole. Much as the statement, "All truth is relative," is self-referentially incoherent, so is the imperative statement, "Question authority"! Yet this will likely have little effect on those to whom such a slogan appears to give the moral high ground.
Yet what if that which we call freedom is just one more type of authority among many? If so, there is little reason to view freedom as consistently trumping these other kinds of authority where the two come into opposition. If freedom be defined as personal authority, then when it conflicts with another form of authority, the claims of both must be taken into account and adjudicated carefully and justly. In the case of the dress codes, the issue should have been conceived, not as authority against freedom, which prejudices the case in favour of the latter, but as one between the authority of the school and administration on the one hand and the authority of the adolescent student on the other. If it is framed in this way, its resolution becomes less obvious and its full complexity more so. Legitimate interests on both sides must be taken into account. A balanced approach, and hence justice, becomes more likely.
That such an approach would necessitate a break with historic liberalism, with its commitment to the primacy of the individual, is beyond doubt. Yet if we can bring ourselves to relinquish the hold of this tenacious political ideology, we will be better able to do justice to the legitimate pluriformity of authority in God's world.
08 February 2010
06 February 2010
In memory of the Greeks of Asia Minor, I link to the following folk song, Γιαννούλα Τσανακαλιώτισσα (Giannoula Tsanakaliotissa), whose title refers to a girl from what in Turkish is called Çanakkale (Τσανάκκαλε) and in Greek Δαρδανέλλια (Dardanellia). This town is located on the northwest coast of Asia Minor immediately across from the Gallipoli Peninsula. I had been looking for this song for ten years and finally found it a few days ago.
01 February 2010
The province of Québec is possibly the most secularized jurisdiction in North America, yet Montreal's McGill University boasts a dissident from the apparent post-christian consensus that took over that province during the Révolution tranquille of half a century ago. He is Douglas Farrow, Professor of Christian Thought in the Faculty of Religious Studies at one of Canada's premier universities.
The January-February issue of Touchstone carries an important article by Farrow, The Audacity of the State, whose title is an allusion to Barack Obama's book and his former pastor's similarly named sermon. Unlike many of today's opponents of the most recent stage of liberalism, which I have elsewhere labelled the "choice-enhancement state," Farrow is unwilling simply to fall back on an earlier, libertarian form of the ideology. This can be seen most clearly in his critique of John Stuart Mill's harm principle:
The power of On Liberty to overturn social and moral and religious conventions arises from Mill’s exciting and flattering suggestion that freedom will lead you into the truth. That iconoclastic gospel from the Romantic period still competes very successfully, tractable as it is to post-modern cynicism, with the older idol-smashing gospel of Jesus, that “the truth will set you free.”
Mill’s gospel takes no account of the creator/creature distinction, or of the fallenness of man. It takes no account of a freedom higher than freedom of choice, and gives no thought to how the truth of our own good will be recognized, or how that good will prove commensurate with the good of others. It is incurably romantic and naively optimistic. Most significantly, it fails to reckon with the fact that, in the absence of an overarching common good, based on a prior truth to which both the individual and the state are subject, the state must become the arbiter of all the competing goods of “free” individuals. It is not the individual who triumphs, then, in the appeal to a freedom that is prior to truth, but the state.
Behind Mill stands Rousseau, of course, whose rather more obvious statism Mill hoped to avoid. The basic premise of On Liberty is drawn from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, that “liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not injure another.” And that dictum is in turn drawn from Rousseau, who got it from the Marquis d’Argenson, to whom we actually owe the harm principle: “In the Republic each man is perfectly free in all things that do no harm to others.” Rousseau’s intention in popularizing it was to downplay the obligations imposed by civil society, which he regarded as a corrupting more than a civilizing influence, especially in the form of family and church [emphasis mine].
One’s primary obligations would hereafter be understood as obligations chiefly to oneself, on the one hand, and to the state on the other. That is what the harm principle is really all about—the elimination of the oppressive middle term between the individual and the state. This begs the question, however, as to what does or does not harm another, and who will decide that. Both Mill and Rousseau have ideas about that, and one gets glimpses of Mill’s ideas in the final chapters of On Liberty. Only glimpses, mind you, because Mill’s ideas aren’t really very libertarian after all.
Farrow's astute analysis should be taken to heart by libertarians who think they are critiquing late liberal statism but in reality are doing no more than to facilitate its agenda over the long term.
While we're on the subject, you might wish to read Farrow's analysis of the latest chilling action of the government of his home province: The Government of Québec Declares War.
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