Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

30 November 2011

What the cultural mandate is not

Reformed Christians often refer to Genesis 1:28 as the Cultural Mandate:
And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

There is nothing especially earth-shaking in this; it is simply affirming that, as God's image-bearers, we shape the world around us and adapt it to a diversity of uses. In recent years a number of books have been published by Christians on precisely this topic. One of the best is Andy Crouch's Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling.

However, there is a persistent tendency amongst some to misidentify the Cultural Mandate as a command to redeem the larger culture from the distorting effects of sin. Chuck Colson's recent Breakpoint commentary is typical in this respect: Dual Commissions. Colson properly understands that the Cultural Mandate — or Commission — and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) are not antithetical but, properly conceived, are complementary. Nevertheless, his understanding of the former is not entirely spot-on:
If Christians do not seize the moment and act on the cultural commission, there soon won’t be any culture left to save. But when we do our duty, we can change the world. Look at Christians like William Wilberforce, who spent most of his life fighting — and winning — the war against slavery in Britain, and bringing about a great cultural renewal in that country.

I will not deny that there are battles to be fought over significant issues, but that's not really what the Cultural Mandate is about. As Crouch puts it, "Culture is, first of all, the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it's given to us and make something else" (p. 23). We have a God-given propensity "to make something more than we were given." This is fairly basic stuff. We fashion "paintings (whether finger paintings or the Sistine Chapel), omelets, chairs, snow angels." Those who believe the cultural mandate was superseded by the Great Commission have only to look around: we human beings make culture willy nilly, and we always will, because God created us to do so. You don't have to be a culture warrior to recognize this reality of life.

Of course, one cannot escape the fact that our culture-making activities are affected by our sinful natures. This is the implication of Genesis 4:19-22. To be sure, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with fashioning culture. Yet neither can we escape the taint of sin in all our undertakings. Moreover, a distinction must be made between obedient culture-making and disobedient culture-making, which corresponds to St. Augustine's distinction between the City of God and the City of this World. Rightly-oriented culture-making obeys the norms God has given us for life in his world: social, economic, aesthetic, ethical, political and other norms.

A good portion of what Colson calls the "Cultural Commission" must rather be understood to be the last part of the "Great Commission": "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Evangelization requires that we proclaim, not only God's saving grace, but the norms by which he intends those who are in Christ to live. In no way do mere human beings redeem culture by engaging in creative activity. This is presumptuous. Only God in Christ redeems his fallen creation. We are at most agents of his kingdom, manifesting his saving grace in everything we do — including the shaping of culture.

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28 November 2011

'And with your spirit'

Yesterday, the first sunday in Advent, our English-speaking Roman Catholic brethren began using a newly revised liturgy that is closer to the Latin texts than the previous 1973 version in use for nearly four decades. Liturgy Training Publications has posted a comparison of the two texts for those wishing to see the differences side by side. Perhaps the most immediately noticeable change comes with the greeting at the beginning of the eucharistic prayer, which runs as follows in the old version:
"The Lord be with you"
"And also with you."

This now reads:
"The Lord be with you."
"And with your spirit."

This brings the English liturgy into closer conformity, not only with the Latin of the Novus Ordo mass, but with its translation into other languages as well, for example, French and Spanish. This month's issue of First Things carries Anthony Esolen's fascinating discussion of the new English texts: Restoring the Words.

Many other church bodies followed the Roman example during the 1970s, adopting the texts of the ordinary of the mass for their own use in, for example, the Episcopal Church's 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Anglican Church of Canada's Book of Alternative Services and the Lutheran Book of Worship. Our own congregation yesterday celebrated the Lord's Supper with the now familiar greeting: "The Lord be with you." To which we responded: "And also with you." This new disparity in our liturgies prompts me to wonder whether other denominations will eventually follow the Roman lead once again and bring their own liturgies into closer conformity with the new, more accurate, texts.

At this point I am reluctant to speculate on this question. Official ecumenism has fallen on hard times in recent decades, as various denominations have gone their own way on a variety of divisive issues, seemingly unconcerned with the impact on their sister churches, and sometimes even on their own communions. A more practical consideration is that composers have used the 1973 texts for their own mass settings, which are in use in countless congregations throughout the English-speaking world. Without a Vatican-style authority to impose a different translation on them, force of habit will likely incline them to stick with what they have. In the meantime, as of yesterday we are all just a little further apart, liturgically speaking.

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22 November 2011

Whither the GOP?

David Frum is a conservative commentator south of the border who appears to have been anathematized by other American conservatives enthralled with the Tea Party. He poses a question: When Did the GOP [i.e., Republican Party] Lose Touch With Reality?
I’ve been a Republican all my adult life. I have worked on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, at Forbes magazine, at the Manhattan and American Enterprise Institutes, as a speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration. I believe in free markets, low taxes, reasonable regulation, and limited government. I voted for John ­McCain in 2008, and I have strongly criticized the major policy decisions of the Obama administration. But as I contemplate my party and my movement in 2011, I see things I simply cannot support.

America desperately needs a responsible and compassionate alternative to the Obama administration’s path of bigger government at higher cost. And yet: This past summer, the GOP nearly forced America to the verge of default just to score a point in a budget debate. In the throes of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, Republican politicians demand massive budget cuts and shrug off the concerns of the unemployed. In the face of evidence of dwindling upward mobility and long-stagnating middle-class wages, my party’s economic ideas sometimes seem to have shrunk to just one: more tax cuts for the very highest earners. When I entered Republican politics, during an earlier period of malaise, in the late seventies and early eighties, the movement got most of the big questions—crime, inflation, the Cold War—right. This time, the party is getting the big questions disastrously wrong.

Will the Republican Party listen to Frum, or will it sideline itself in next year's election and hand another presidential victory to the opposition? Stay tuned.

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17 November 2011

Choice in education?

An educational policy for the 21st century? Might be worth a try here as well.

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16 November 2011

PR and the courts

The leader of Canada's Green Party is seeking a laudable goal with dubious means: Elizabeth May backs Supreme Court challenge against first-past-the-post elections. From the National Post:
May noted that more than 80% of people vote in Scandinavian countries and some other European nations, but she said the lowest voter turnouts in the world occur in countries with first-past-the-post systems, such as Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, where governments can be elected with majorities despite having received less than 50% of the ballots cast in elections.

The Association for the Advancement of Democratic Rights has failed in a previous legal challenge of Quebec’s first-past-the-post system. Now it’s hoping an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada will be heard and could eventually overturn the previous court ruling, changing elections across the country.

I would be somewhat surprised if the Supreme Court decided to hear this case. Yes, I agree with May: our single-member-plurality electoral system wastes votes, unfairly handicaps smaller principled parties, produces artificial majorities, and depresses voter turnout. But I am most reluctant to see the courts take the matter out of the hands of Parliament, even if the latter is, in effect, stacked against what many of us are convinced is a long overdue reform. If a court imposes electoral reform, even in the interest of enhancing democracy, it will be difficult for Canadians to take ownership of it. Questions concerning its legitimacy will continue to haunt our political life thereafter. Let's not go that route, please.

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15 November 2011

Parental authority and children's rights

In 1989 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which was subsequently signed by representatives of 140 countries and ratified or accepted by 193, with the notable exceptions of Somalia and the United States. This was not the first time that obligations towards children had been expressed in terms of rights; an earlier Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child had been adopted by the League of Nations in 1924, although in its five brief points it never once used the word “rights,” speaking instead the language of duty: the child “must be fed,” “must be sheltered and succored,” “must be protected against every form of exploitation,” &c. The 1959 UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child is similarly spare in using the language of rights, mentioning them twice under Principle 1 and not at all in Principles 2 through 10. By contrast, the CRC consists of 54 articles in which “rights” are referred to 26 times and the obligations of “States Parties” mentioned 110 times.

These differences between the CRC and the two earlier documents are significant in that they represent an historic shift which Michael Ignatieff has described as the Rights Revolution, Francis Fukuyama as the Great Disruption, and what I have elsewhere referred to as the dawn of the choice-enhancement state.

It is worth noting that, especially in the US, the CRC is controversial because it would seem to bring the state too deeply into the legitimate sphere of family intimacy. Such reservations have thus far successfully prevented the US from ratifying the Convention. Even among the signatories, several states, including the Vatican, have explicitly qualified their acceptance for various reasons. Indeed it is not altogether clear that recasting parental or societal obligations towards children as rights represents genuine progress in ensuring the latter's well-being, especially if we do not curtail the tendency to view all rights as policed by the courts.

In one sense, of course, no one can doubt that children have the right to be loved and cared for by their parents. Yet the primary agents for fulfilling this responsibility are the parents themselves, and not the “states parties” which have signed the document, though the latter certainly have an obligation towards both parents and their children under their general mandate to do public justice. It is worth noting that the word authority appears only three times in the text of the 1989 Convention and each time refers to legal or judicial authority. When used in the plural form, authorities always denotes political authorities. Noticeably absent from all three documents is a recognition of the primacy of parental authority in nurturing the child towards maturity.

I have just completed the first draft of a manuscript on the subject of authority, office and the image of God. In the course of researching and writing this, I have become convinced that we need to reconfigure the ongoing conversation surrounding authority so as to recognize that it resides in an office – or, better, offices – given us by the God who has created us in his image. Accordingly we would be better served, in speaking of parental obligations towards their children, to focus on the authoritative offices borne by each, namely, father, mother, son and daughter.

What will a shift to the language of authority gain for us? I believe it will enable us better to account for the full complexity of the relationship between parents and minor children – necessarily an ever-changing relationship as the children grow to maturity. It will also help us to distinguish between the legitimate authoritative offices of parents and government, recognizing that, while both presumably intend the child's best interest, the secondary authority of government is necessarily limited by the primary authority of parents. It is thus not a matter of opposing freedom, say, of parents to the authority of the state but of recognizing that different agents possess authoritative offices whose demands are different yet, properly understood, mutually supportive and equally worthy of respect.

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10 November 2011

Convivium

Canada now has a counterpart to First Things, the 21-year-old journal founded by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. It's called Convivium, is edited by Peter Stockland and Fr. Raymond J. de Souza, and is published by the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal. The name comes from the homily Fr. de Souza preached at Fr. Neuhaus's funeral.


In each issue Fr. de Souza offers Small Talk, "an eclectic and ecumenical roundup of incidents, events and oddities that catch our editor's eye." Here's a sample:
What's the difference between Orthodox and Roman Catholics anyway? Not much, apparently. "The differences are slight," we are told by the Toronto Star. "They use the same liturgies, though Orthodox Christians don't consider the Pope a divine figure." So writes Murray Whyte. No one expects Whyte to know anything more about religion than anyone else at the Star, so it is sad but not surprising that he doesn't know that Catholics don't consider the Pope divine. But does he really consider a dispute about whether a man is or is not divine to be "slight"? Imagine if the Star had been covering the court of Constantine back in the fourth century. Breaking news from Nicaea: Arius and Athanasius quibble over slight differences.

The October 2011 preview issue is now out and subscriptions can be had here. Please subscribe today.

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