24 February 2016

Electus interview

I was recently interviewed by Thiago Oliveira and Thomas Magnum de Almeida for the Electus blog in Brazil. The interview was published today in Portuguese. Here is the English version below:

ELECTUS: It seems that we have reached an “age of extremes.” Around the world conservatives and progressive are more and more tending to radicalism in their speeches. Social networks seem to feed this extremism. What do you think about this? Do you believe this age has arrived?

KOYZIS: It is true that a lot of political rhetoric sounds extreme, as exemplified in the current presidential election campaign taking place in the United States. And, yes, social media such as facebook encourage this sort of thing. On the other hand, if we take the longer view, the 1920s and '30s were considerably worse, with communism, fascism and national socialism (Nazism) in power over huge numbers of people in the Eurasian continent. Thank God, we have no Stalins, Hitlers or Mussolinis in the 21st century. Today the most powerful ideological visions are much more subtle, making their presence felt through the media, education and even the churches, which use their influence to persuade people to accept their accounts of reality, including political life.

ELECTUS: Brazil is still in its infancy with respect to conservative and liberal ideas, because for a long time, especially after the end of the military dictatorship, Marxist thinking has ruled our political life. By and large, and also among protestant Christians, Brazilians are getting to know such conservative authors as Roger Scruton, Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke. What is your assessment of a possible rapprochement between Christian political thought and conservatism—especially the British variety?

KOYZIS: There are definitely possibilities for some form of rapprochement, but Christians would do well to exercise caution. Many conservatives, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russell Kirk and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, were indeed serious Christians who, as far as we can tell, genuinely believed in the truth of the faith. But other conservatives embrace Christianity, not necessarily because it is true, but because it has a certain utilitarian value in upholding public morals. Conservatism at its best offers wise counsel in the face of transformational ideologies that would upend society on the pretext of starting over along more ostensibly rational lines. Writing in 1790, Burke foresaw with startling clarity the future of the French Revolution and its likely outcome at the hands of a tyrannical ruler. He understood that, despite superficial appearances that the French were finally replacing absolute monarchy with constitutional government, there was a destructive spirit at large that would bring the revolution to a bad end. He was right, of course, and this is why we still read Burke’s writings today.

On the other hand, flesh and blood conservatives are all over the map when it comes to specific political principles. Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827-1907), conservative tutor to the last two Russian tsars, defended monarchical absolutism, while North American conservatives could scarcely be expected to agree. Canadian conservatives defend constitutional monarchy and parliamentary government, while American conservatives defend the separation of powers instituted by their founders in the 1780s. Where they are likely to agree is in affirming that government cannot do everything. But that is insufficient to set forth a vision of just governance in a complex society. So, no, Christians cannot be content to be conservatives even as we might view them as allies on specific issues.

ELECTUS: Political ideas are the fruit of worldviews. Within our academic institutions students are being indoctrinated into political ideologies which are the fruit of a particular worldview. What advice would you give to Christian young people who have studied at the universities, especially the humanities, and have been bombarded by idolatrous ideologies?

KOYZIS: First of all, I would tell them to keep their eyes on Jesus Christ and the centrality of the cross and resurrection. It is easy to get sidetracked in the midst of the diverse responsibilities of a busy life. This does not mean we should forsake such responsibilities and devote ourselves exclusively to a life of prayer. It does mean that we live out our diverse callings (for example, as husbands, wives, citizens, employees, students, teachers and so forth) recognizing that our ultimate loyalty is to the God who has created, redeemed and empowered us to live according to his word.

What implications does this have for political ideologies? The followers of such ideological visions are in effect wearing blinders that enable them to see only a very few things and only from a certain vantage point. Liberals can see only individual freedom and tend to downplay the significance of other legitimate factors. Conservatives properly see the important place of tradition but have difficulty formulating criteria by which to assess the value of these traditions. Nationalists understand the importance of solidarity within particular groups of people sharing common characteristics and goals, but they tend to make an idol of the nation.

Students exposed to these ideologies need to be aware that the worldviews in which they are rooted give them a distorted picture of the real world, which is far more complex than they are led to believe. A Marxist would have them believing that simply removing economic barriers will unlock the innate virtues in human beings and lead to a flourishing classless society, ignoring, not only the reality of sin which cannot be eradicated short of the second coming of Christ, but the multiple motivating factors that condition life in a real society. Economics isn’t everything.

By contrast, a biblical worldview has the decided advantage of recognizing that our world belongs to God and finds its ultimate meaning in him. If we are Christians, we do not have to look for a principle of unity within creation, where it can never be found. Rather, we recognize the genuine diversity of God’s creation whose unity comes from him alone.

ELECTUS: The Catholic Theology of Liberation (TL) is known to combine Christianity with Marxist ideas. But there is also an evangelical version that resembles this approach. It normally uses the term integral mission, which was coined in Lausanne, but does not condemn Marxism, as did the Pattaya Report (1980). Such authors as Francis Schaeffer have labelled Marxism a Christian heresy because of its soteriological orientation. Do you share this view? And what are the dangers of synthesizing theology with political ideology?

KOYZIS: Yes, definitely. Marxism is indeed a Christian heresy, but it is not alone in this. All of the ideological visions that have influenced the modern world are in effect Christian heresies. Each posits a false redemptive narrative that begins with a central problem capable of being resolved only by an earthly redeemer of some sort. For Marxists, the proletariat (that is, the industrial working class) is the messiah who ushers in the classless society, a secularized form of the kingdom of God. For nationalists, redemption comes with the liberation of the nation from foreign rule. For liberals the maximization of individual freedom brings in the kingdom. Indeed at the present time it may be argued that the established religion in much of the world today is the religion of human rights, such rights being ascribed to the expansive self and its desires, often at the expense of other legitimate considerations, including the good of the larger communities of which we are part.

As for the dangers of “synthesizing theology with political ideology,” I would express it differently. The danger is of having divided loyalties. “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). If we claim to serve God, we must serve him wholly and not keep anything back. We must allow him to transform our desires and aspirations so that they conform to his will for our lives. If we settle for anything less, we in effect settle for another gospel.

ELECTUS: Reformed theology contemplates every field of human activity, as we see taught in the principle of sphere sovereignty (Abraham Kuyper). How important is a good theological foundation for articulating and living out a solid Christian worldview? Which authors would you recommend for readers wishing to deepen their understanding of politics?

KOYZIS: We must begin with the recognition, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), that we are not our own but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. Our world belongs to God and not to us. We cannot do whatever we wish with God’s world, and that has profound implications for the way we do politics. If we fail to recognize this reality, we are likely to fall prey to any number of illusory promises that no government anywhere is in a position to fulfil.

But it’s not merely a matter of correct theology, which could be taken to imply that we are saved by correct theorizing. As Christians we are shaped by the liturgical practices of the church, to which we are called as members of the body of Christ. We must read the scriptures and, as Lesslie Newbigin puts it, find our own place within the biblical redemptive narrative. We need to follow our ancient forebears in the faith and pray through the Psalter on a regular basis. (Reading Psalm 88 every month should be sufficient to immunize people against the enticements of a false prosperity gospel!) The gospel must live in our hearts and not only in our heads.

Which authors would I recommend? More of Abraham Kuyper’s writings are being translated from Dutch into English every year, and I hope they will one day be translated into Portuguese as well. I am gratified by the tremendous reception that my Visões e Ilusões Politicas has received in Brazil. For those who know English, I would recommend anything written by James W. Skillen, Paul Marshall, Jonathan Chaplin, and the online publications of the Center for Public Justice and Cardus here in Canada. And, of course, I would be happy to offer my own writings to anyone interested.

15 February 2016

G. William Carlson

One of my undergraduate mentors, G. William Carlson, has died at age 72. Here is his obituary in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He taught history and political science at Bethel University for an unprecedented 46 years, and he was one of my instructors in the mid-1970s, when he was still in his early thirties and had not yet earned his PhD. He was not particularly flashy or a dynamic speaker. But the content of his instruction was always worthwhile, and for this reason he had a great impact on his students, whom he was always encouraging to think critically about the things they were reading and experiencing. Among other things I acquired from him a longstanding interest in Russian history and politics, which I myself would eventually teach. I also briefly took on his pacifist convictions and thought I might even be an anabaptist, though I abandoned this path fairly quickly thereafter. What I most remember about him, however – aside from his illegible handwriting! – was the deep care he had for us as students and the way he challenged us to think through the practical implications of our Christian faith. These are qualities that I hope I have carried into my own teaching.

Carlson in 1975
He and I did not end up in exactly the same place either spiritually or intellectually, though we remained brothers in Christ, of course. He was an anabaptist, while I was in the process of returning to the Reformed Christianity of my childhood. But he did succeed in instilling in me a thirst for justice which contributed to shifting my studies from music to political science. Moreover, in recent years he had made the effort to send me his family's annual Christmas letter, along with the latest issue of the Baptist Pietist Clarion, of which he was editor. I am grateful to have known the man and to have benefited from his teaching during the formative years of my youth. May he rest in peace until we meet again at the resurrection.

12 February 2016

The kingdom of God in Brazil

In the 1991 film, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, an evangelical Christian missionary family go to Brazil to preach the gospel. All of their efforts to convert the natives to their faith go awry with tragic results for virtually everyone. The overarching message? Brazil is a huge and impenetrable country impervious to the efforts of well-meaning North Americans to change it.

Over the last quarter of a century, however, it has become evident that the message of this film is rather wide of the mark. A traditionally Roman Catholic country, Brazil’s evangelical population numbered only around five percent as recently as 1970. By contrast, evangelical Christians today account for some 22 percent of the population. That this proportionate increase has occurred during a period when the population of the country as a whole more than doubled means that in absolute terms the numbers of believers have increased nearly twelve-fold. By any measure this is extraordinary growth and strong evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in Brazil.

In Latin America, Brazil stands out for at least three reasons. First, it is the only Portuguese-speaking country in a continent dominated by the Spanish language. Second, it attained independence from Portugal, not by rebellion, but, like Canada, peacefully under a member of that country’s royal family, Pedro I, who subsequently became the first emperor of Brazil. The monarchy lasted until his long-reigning son, Emperor Pedro II, was toppled in 1889. Third, unlike its neighbours, which formed several countries out of Spain’s empire in the New World, Brazil managed to maintain its territorial integrity at independence.

Today Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, both in land mass and in population, with just over 200 million people. As the church continues to grow, Brazil is joining the ranks of countries in the global south that are quickly becoming centres of world Christianity. The landscape is diverse. Brazil still boasts the largest number of Catholics in the world, numbering some 123 million in 2010. Pentecostals rank second and have experienced the most dramatic growth of any denomination. A Pew survey 10 years ago revealed that nearly half their number were converted former Catholics, moving into the Assemblies of God, Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Maranatha Churches and the Foursquare Gospel Church.

Reformed Christianity is definitely playing a role within the larger evangelical landscape. The Igreja Presbiteriana do Brasil is the oldest of the Reformed churches, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Its membership numbers just over one million. A much smaller group, the Reformed Churches in Brazil, is a sister church to the Canadian Reformed Churches, consisting of 21 congregations located mostly in the tropical north of the country.

But ecclesiastical bodies tell only part of the story. Reformed Christianity appears to be a transdenominational phenomenon. Brazilian Baptists are just as active as those in the Reformed churches, showing an affinity, not just for the English and New England Puritans, but also for the great nineteenth-century “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon. Evangelical publishing houses continually churn out translations of popular and academic works well known to English-speaking Reformed Christians, including the writings of C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd and Tim Keller. L’Abri Brazil, counterpart to the Schaeffers’ famous ministry in the Swiss Alps, is located in the city of Belo Horizonte and led by Rodolfo Souza, and Guilherme and Alessandra de Carvalho, who also established and continue to lead the decade-old Kuyper Association.

Many North American Christians, especially those of a pietist bent, eschew politics. By contrast, Brazilian evangelicalism has a pronounced political emphasis, though its followers’ intuitions are still somewhat undeveloped and need further refining. As a consequence, many leaders are making an effort to translate books explicitly relating Christianity to politics. In 2014 the São Paulo publisher, Vida Nova (New Life), released a translation of my own Political Visions and Illusions, which has been received enthusiastically among Brazilian evangelicals.

Because observers are predicting that evangelical Christians could form a majority of the population by the middle of the century, current political leaders are already taking note. We are painfully aware, of course, that Christian involvement in politics can go wrong, as it has so often in the past. All the more reason to work and pray, along with our Brazilian brothers and sisters, that the Spirit would guide God’s people as they seek to live for his kingdom in every square inch of life.

Deus abençoe o povo do Brasil!

David T. Koyzis is author of Visões e Ilusões Politicas (São Paulo: Vida Nova, 2014). This article appeared in the 8 February issue of Christian Courier as part of the author's regular column, Principalities & Powers.

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can be contacted at: dkoyzis@redeemer.ca