31 October 2014

Kindle edition

This is to let everyone know that We Answer to Another is now available in a Kindle edition.

27 October 2014

Freedom as authority

More than half a century ago, Roman Catholic philosopher Yves René Simon observed that authority has come to have a bad reputation in the modern world. Our western societies value personal freedom so highly that any intervention by an authority outside our own wills is deemed an imposition at best and outright oppression at worst. The French Revolution of 1789, perhaps more than any other event in recent history, has implanted in western consciousness the myth of the heroic popular revolt against oppressive authority. So thoroughly did the Revolution succeed in this that the default position for many of us today is to be suspicious of authority’s claims from the outset, whatever their content.

The cultural shifts of the 1960s further exacerbated this prejudice against authority when the larger liberal tradition took the form of what I have elsewhere called the “choice-enhancement state.” By the turn of the last century, the state had expanded to check the private economic power of trusts and monopolies and to preserve market competition. By the 1930s, the state had expanded further to secure equality of opportunity for everyone, which necessitated the development of the welfare state. During the 1960s, however, professed progressives concluded that the principal threat to individual freedom was not the state, big business, or economic privation, but traditional customs and social mores that claimed authority over people’s lives and actions. Only if we can manage to liberate individuals from the authority of the past, they reasoned, will they truly be free. This movement from authority to autonomy called for a new ethic based on John Stuart Mill’s harm principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

The problem was, and is, that there has never been a society for which this harm principle forms the primary, much less the sole, basis of freedom. In a mature differentiated society, there is a multiplicity of non-state communities, each of which has its own identity and its own standards for membership. These standards are intrinsically related to the mission and task of the communities and necessarily impose constraints on those subject to them. But because the homogenizing worldview of liberal individualism exalts individual autonomy over all standards outside the will, adherents regard with suspicion all communities based on non-individualist assumptions, especially those such as marriage, family, and even the gathered church which are not obviously reducible to private contract.

All of these factors together have tended to reinforce the notion that authority and freedom are at least in tension with each other, if not altogether opposed. If freedom expands, then we assume that authority must proportionately diminish. If we seek to advance freedom, we must concomitantly try to decrease the role of authority.

But what if it turns out that personal freedom, far from being opposed to authority, is simply another manifestation of authority? If this is true, and I believe it is, we must change the way we view our society. When a child is small, she is directly subject to her parents’ authority in the minutest areas of life. They keep a close eye on her, feed her, clothe her, house her, and generally take care of her. But as she grows to maturity, her parents increasingly pull back, allowing her to take on more and more responsibility for the direction of her own life. And that is as it should be. As Simon observes, parental authority properly aims at its own disappearance. Yet as parental authority continually recedes, the adolescent, who is now free to set her own life goals, is simply assuming more authority for the direction of her life.

More than a century ago, Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper coined the term “sphere sovereignty” to account for the diverse forms of community found in the mature society. Families, business enterprises, states, labor unions, and schools each have their own proper sphere of authority, as ordained by God. But so does the individual as individual. The freedom that individuals legitimately claim for themselves is another manifestation of authority which other authorities are bound to respect. Although it may seem counterintuitive in our post-1789 world, I strongly believe that respect for the human person and his status as image of God is dependent on a general respect for authority in all of its pluriform manifestations.

Cross-listed at Capital Commentary and First Thoughts.

23 October 2014

Seeking self or costly discipleship? Standing with the persecuted

The world is definitely smaller than it was even a decade ago, and, through the Internet and Facebook (which is very nearly a distinct medium of communication in its own right), we are in continual and unprecedented contact with distant friends, family, and many others around the globe. So why is it that the Christian faith, with its increasingly global reach, can differ so radically from one part of the earth to another? I do not primarily have in mind the various customs, rituals and cultural mores that differentiate one people from another. I am referring to something much more basic.

On this side of the pond, for example, we were recently treated to this bit of purported wisdom from one of the more prominent purveyors of the prosperity gospel: “Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy.” Don’t get me wrong; there is much to be said for happiness. Few of us would deliberately court unhappiness. Moreover, there is definitely a theme in the Bible connecting human flourishing with keeping God’s word (e.g., Psalm 128). Yet the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and a huge number of the Psalms should keep us from drawing too facile a connection here. In fact, the life in Christ is typically difficult and its undoubted rewards far from immediate.

Two of the more memorable chapters in Ross Douthat’s perceptive book, Bad Religion, are devoted to the prosperity gospel and the “god within.” In reading them one is particularly struck by the similarities between the two heresies in that both are focused on the self and its aspirations rather than on the path of obedience as set forth by the historic faith. Happiness can be found in the accumulation of material wealth, despite the contrary testimony of Matthew 6:24, or salvation can be found through improving one’s emotional well-being, again contrary to the witness of a host of scriptural texts which counsel, not feeling better about oneself, but repentance from sin and trust in Christ as Savior. Our North American heresies tend to reflect the priorities of liberal individualism: expanding the self and its claims with the assumed blessing of a god whose highest priority is our personal felicity. This god makes no demands on us that might conflict with our own chosen goals. Or, as Douthat puts it, he is “less like a savior than like a college buddy with really good stock tips” (189).

Across the pond, on the other hand, we are seeing daily reports from the Middle East and elsewhere of Christians, some as young as children, being put to death for refusing to abandon their faith in the face of the worst persecution imaginable. As ISIS/ISIL steamrolls its way across northern Mesopotamia, ancient communities of Christians are being uprooted or obliterated in its path. Those of us outside the region are horrified and sense that our governments are incapable of acting to stop these atrocities. Amidst this sudden upsurge in persecution, some of us find ourselves wondering what we would do in similar circumstances. If something like ISIS/ISIL were to overrun much of North America, would we follow the path of obedience even if it meant joining the “noble army of martyrs” from ancient times? If the heresies Douthat describes should, God forbid, end up dominating the spiritual landscape of North America, would we be willing to give up our lives for the sake of a gospel so fixated on the self and its needs? This question hardly requires an answer.

It is, of course, unwise to romanticize unduly the Christians of the global south. Like us, they too share in the human reality of sin and are in need of redemption in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, at the moment they also need us to stand in solidarity with them, and we will not do so credibly if we have accepted a faith that downplays the path of obedience to a God who claims the totality of our lives as his own. It is just possible that the best antidote to a peculiarly western religion focused on the self is to open our eyes and ears to our persecuted brothers and sisters overseas.

22 October 2014

The death of the parish: a motor-driven ecclesiology

For most of the last two millennia the gathered or institutional church was organized on a territorial basis, beginning already in New Testament times when Paul's letters and John's Revelation were addressed to the churches in specific cities of the Roman Empire, such as Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. By the sixteenth century, when Christians were quarrelling over ecclesiology among other things, no one thought to question the traditional parish church model. The parish church serves a local community, and its membership is as diverse as the people of that community. Young and old, rich and poor, men and women worship together. According to this model, people who work together or buy from and sell to each other during the week gather on Sunday in their neighbourhood church to worship the God who has redeemed them in Jesus Christ.

Beginning just over a century ago, all this changed. Catholics and Protestants alike have now embraced a new ecclesiology based on the consumer model. Adam Graber tells us that this huge shift was sparked by the invention of the automobile: How Cars Created the Megachurch and put churchgoers in the driver's seat. As recently as the turn of the last century my great-grandparents, who lived in rural southeast Michigan, attended a Friends Church. Not because they were Quakers, but because it was nearest their farm and thus easily accessible. In their world a megachurch would have been an impossibility. If you couldn't walk or ride a horse or horse-drawn vehicle over unpaved country roads, you simply couldn't get there at all.

Now virtually every family has at least one automobile, and this reality has transformed, not only our cities, but also our churches. Here's Graber:

Cars have made distance less of a factor in our lives. For this reason, church goers can choose from a marketplace of churches. But in order to decide, they have to narrow down the options, and when they do, they (naturally) consider their personal preferences first. They’ll try on different churches and see what “fits.”

Pastors, in reaction, are today forced to account for these new dynamics of affinity. Because church shoppers are exploring their options, area pastors often respond by targeting “felt needs.” For pastors, attracting and retaining church goers often means preaching on the topics people are looking for.

The most important consequence of this trend is that the gathered church – as distinct from the church as corpus Christi, which is all-encompassing – has been reduced to a mere voluntary association of like-minded individuals who can join and quit, or come and go at their discretion. The church, like any other commodity in the marketplace, exists only to serve the needs of its individual members. In this respect John Locke's definition, scarcely deemed orthodox in seventeenth-century England, seems uncontroversial today: “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls” (emphases mine). Note the contrast to the scriptural definition of church as the covenant community of those called by God into a living relationship with him.

The territorial parish cannot easily withstand this new ecclesiology. Near universal automobile ownership has made Christians in virtually every tradition into consumers of perceived spiritual goods. It is de rigueur these days to claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” because religion implies binding obligation within a larger authoritative community, while spirituality leaves the individual in control and need not entail a transformed life and redirected affections. Everyone becomes a seeker and churches are compelled to attract potential members by whatever means necessary. Why? Because no one has to show up, after all. They can easily drive past the nearest church building and find another congregation that better meets their subjective needs. Or they can simply stay home and sleep late. The net effect is that the institutional church has no more authority than its members are willing to grant it. In other words, it is one more voluntary association not essentially different from the local birdwatching society.

Now it is not quite right to blame the automobile as such for this defective ecclesiology. After all, it is our use of the automobile that lies ultimately at its origin. Yet no technology is neutral. The automobile has exacerbated the individualistic tendencies already at work in our culture, empowering individuals to treat even so central a community as the church as a mere extension of their personal tastes.

We cannot, of course, return to a pre-automotive past. That option is closed to us. However, what if every new church building were to forgo the ubiquitous parking lot in the interest of restoring a normative ecclesiology? Might it force the churches to reach out to their own neighbourhoods? Might it compel people to re-embrace the parish model, attending the church to which they can most easily walk? Or have the corroding powers of consumerism eliminated this as a viable possibility once and for all? Giving up our motorized vehicles will not happen any time soon, short of our oil wells finally running dry. In the meantime, we should do what we can to advance and support an ecclesiology less obviously dependent on the consumer model and more dependent on the grace of God in Christ.

David T. Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada and is the author of Visões e Ilusões Politicas, the recently-published Brazilian edition of his award-winning Political Visions and Illusions.

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can be contacted at: dkoyzis@redeemer.ca