Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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    10 July 2010

    Civil religion and national holidays, revisited

    Am I finally seeing the light? Darryl Hart thinks so.

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    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.

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    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.

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