30 September 2003

Magna Carta after 1215

Everyone in the English-speaking world knows of the barons defeating King John at Runnymede and forcing him to sign Magna Carta, which granted them certain rights against the monarch and made him subject to the law. What is less known is the history of the interpretation of the Great Charter in the succeeding centuries. By the 19th century it had become a secure part -- indeed the basis -- of the English constitution, even while legal reformers were whittling away at its less relevant provisions. Here is an article on the subject in History Today: "The Meaning of Magna Carta since 1215" (which requires registration and payment to read), written by Ralph V. Turner.

What is especially noteworthy is that Magna Carta has taken an even firmer hold in the American imagination, as it has been cited more than a hundred times by the United States Supreme Court, most recently in its 1994 decision in Paula Jones' sexual harrassment suit against President Bill Clinton. Though not an official part of the US Constitution, Magna Carta might well be said to be part of the unwritten American constitution, the existence of which most Americans seem unaware.

What about Canada? Do we similarly revere Magna Carta? It would be interesting to study Canadian attitudes to the Great Charter, but it seems increasingly to have been eclipsed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the popular imagination.
The Soviet Union lives on . . . here at least

Back in the summer of 1991, while the Soviet Union was in the process of dissolution, some family members and I attended an exhibition baseball game played between a visiting Soviet team from Tiraspol and a local team from Geneva, Illinois. Outside the small stadium there were tables set up where team members and tag-alongs were selling ageing Soviet paraphernalia, including old military uniforms, samovars, pins and a variety of items of dubious monetary value. Only months later, I would come to see this as the Soviet Union's going-out-of-business sale.

Indeed with the breakup of the Union, the city of Tiraspol became nominally part of the independent Romanian-speaking state of Moldova. However, it is effectively the capital city of something called the Transdniestr Republic, a tiny sliver of territory wedged between Moldova proper and Ukraine. This break-away republic is not only internationally unrecognized; it is also a place where Soviet communism, in all its oppressiveness, lives on. This is from an article by Mark McKinnon, writing for The Globe and Mail in "No sign of Iron Curtain falling here":

Founded by Communist Party loyalists who feared the area's Russian-speaking majority would suffer in an independent and ethnic Romanian-dominated Moldova, Transdniestr is run with an iron fist by Igor Smirnov, the only "president" it has ever had, and a man increasingly detested by his own populace.

There are pronounced similarities between the current situation in Transdniestr and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Even those who were once among Smirnov's staunchest allies are now looking for a way to end the independence experiment.

Life in Transdniestr is getting worse and worse all the time. It's like living on a reservation, said Alexander Radichenko, leader of the Communist faction in the Supreme Soviet. He pointed to retirees' pensions that have fallen from a value of $50 to less than $12 in real terms.

The only possible way the economic situation could improve, he said, is if Transdniestr reunited with Moldova, ending the enclave's self-imposed isolation. Few expect that to happen as long as Smirnov and his cadre remain in power.

Perhaps Smirnov and Rauf Danktash could go into exile together. Surely someone could be persuaded to rent them an apartment in, say, Iqaluit, where they would no longer bother anyone. . . except possibly each other.

29 September 2003

Atlantis and the biblical deluge

Here is another article from the Daily Telegraph on the Atlantis-Cyprus connection: "The search for Atlantis 'ends at Ayia Napa'." This one has a map of the region, showing what the so-called lost continent might have looked like. If it's at all close to the truth, then my father was born not 30 miles away from metropolitan Atlantis -- a suburbanite, if you will!

There appears to be some similarity between Robert Sarmast's hypothesis and that published several years ago by William Ryan and Walter Pitman concerning the origin of the story of Noah's flood. The assumption of both appears to be that sea levels rose dramatically -- and quickly -- as the glaciers melted after the last ice age. Ryan and Pitman's theory is not without its difficulties, and there are likely to be challenges to Sarmast as well.

All the same, virtually every ancient culture has a flood story of some sort, including the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. It is not unreasonable to assume that an actual occurrence underlies all of these.
Confessional pluralism: two interpretations

Recently I have been recommending people to read an exchange between my friends Fred Van Geest and Jim Skillen in the pages of Perspectives (which replaced the old Reformed Journal a dozen or so years ago and seems not to have a website). Van Geest's original article, "Homosexuality and Public Policy: A Challenge for Sphere Sovereignty," appeared in the December 2002 issue. Skillen's excellent response, "Abraham Kuyper and Gay Rights," appeared in the April 2003 issue, along with a rejoinder by Van Geest.

The exchange has implications beyond the issue of homosexual rights as such, and it illuminates what seems to me to be two rather different ways of articulating the relationship between sphere sovereignty -- or differentiated responsibility, as I much prefer -- and confessional pluralism. Indeed there is a tendency in some circles to jump into an affirmation of confessional pluralism (or religious freedom, as some would style it) without adequately addressing the structural issues first. Here such pluralism comes to resemble nothing more than a rights-oriented libertarianism, or what I label an affirmation of the choice-enhancement state, which has arisen in the 5th historic stage of liberalism's development.

But of course the state's divinely appointed task of doing justice means that it has to make all sorts of distinctions and to determine the varying structural characters of the things in God's world. Apart from this it cannot adequately do justice to them.

28 September 2003

No exemptions from the inevitable

From the AOL web portal: "Predicting your risk of death." Calculating this shouldn't require too much of our energy. It's 100 percent.
Ravenscroft's Psalter

In 1621 an English-language metrical psalter was published by Thomas Ravenscroft. It included, not only the 150 Psalms, but also various biblical and extrabiblical canticles, such as the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis, the Song of the Three Holy Children and the Te Deum.

Here is a website devoted to The Whole Booke of Psalmes: With The Humnes Evangelicall, and Songs Spiritual; Composed into 4 parts by sundry Authors, &c. The entire original volume has been scanned, page by page and posted on the site. Unfortunately, the titles on the initial page do not always correspond to the scanned pages to which they are linked. Moreover, the scanned pages are not always easy to read either. But this is a notable achievement all the same.

Ralph Vaughan Williams drew on Ravenscroft's Psalter when he composed his Fantasia on the Old 104th Psalm Tune, of which I have a vinyl recording in my collection. Some years ago I wrote a Pentecost hymn set to the same tune.
Atlantis discovered near Cyprus?

Could the ancient mystery of the lost continent of Atlantis be on the verge of solution? Robert Sarmast thinks so, and he further believes my ancestral island of Cyprus has something to do with it:

After nearly a decade of rummaging through libraries, studying maps, reading ancient works and pouring over oceanographic data, an American researcher believes he has discovered the site of the lost civilisation on the sea floor between Cyprus and Syria, not far from Greece and Egypt, from where the legend of Atlantis originated.

'This is an area that has not been charted before,' Robert Sarmast told The Observer from his Los Angeles office. 'The submerged land mass we have located off Cyprus's coast matches Plato's famed description of Atlantis nearly perfectly.'

The Athenian philosopher described the mythological empire - 'sunk under the water after an earthquake' - in two of his famous dialogues, Timaeus and Critias .

This could spark a new chapter in my on-going genealogical research. Imagine: me an Atlantian-Canadian! This should qualify me to receive some sort of federal government subsidy to help extend the scope of our multicultural awareness.
Where is Gideon?

Gideon Strauss needs to switch servers again. I have been unable to access his weblog for a few days now without getting an error message.

27 September 2003

A misunderstood allusion?

This was from my address last evening:

Most of the power we encounter on a day-to-day basis is scarcely identifiable as such – at least at first glance. A favourite teacher or pastor may have a certain influence over us. A friend persuades us to accompany her to a baseball game or a concert. Or, in a more sinister manifestation, a president selectively submits, or even fabricates, information to the Congress so that it will vote in favour of an unwise military action.

My students thought that last sentence was referring to George W. Bush's efforts to persuade Congress of the propriety of attacking Iraq half a year ago. In fact, this passage comes straight from my book and was meant originally to refer to President Lyndon Johnson's use of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 to escalate the American military presence in Vietnam. But it could have more than one application.
Inaugural ceremony: a retrospective

Last evening was a suitably celebrative occasion, with friends, family, colleagues, students and former students present. It was a fairly small gathering, but a number of people had come from greater and lesser distances to be there. Aside from my parents, the person I've known the longest is a woman who, along with her late husband, knew my parents before I was born. She was driven down from Orillia by a friend for the occasion. The editor and former editor of Christian Courier were there. (I have written a monthly column for Christian Courier since 1990.) I was pleased that the Center for Public Justice had sent a delegation of three persons, including the Center's estimable president James W. Skillen, whom I count as having had a rather considerable influence on me, mostly through his writings. The Christian Labour Association of Canada was represented by, I believe, four current employees and one former staff member, now retired.

Two of my current students served as ushers (or "bouncers," as I suggested to them with tongue firmly planted in cheek), and several of my former students showed up as well, driving from as far as Chatham and Ottawa. Two of these work for the CLAC, another for the Christian Reformed Church, another teaches school, and another works as a research assistant for a member of Parliament. (I'm probably forgetting to mention someone here.) A former colleague, now teaching at York University, and her husband came from Waterloo. I could keep going, but I'll stop here.

As someone who is devoted to teaching, there is something deeply satisfying in seeing former students of whom I grew so fond during their time at Redeemer. Their presence last evening meant all the world to me.

I suppose the next time there will be a gathering like this will be at my funeral. I hope to see all these people again well before that time. If not together, then certainly as individuals.

Here is the recessional hymn played last evening: "Credo in Septuple Metre" (© David T. Koyzis, 2001. All rights reserved.).

26 September 2003

Low voter turnout in Ontario

Last week wednesday I was interviewed by Liz Payne of the Ottawa Citizen. Her article appeared the following day (thursday, 18 September) in the print edition, but not on the paper's website. Here are some highlights:

More than three million Canadians may have clogged phone lines to vote for the new Canadian Idol this week, but political analysts say it is unlikely even 60 per cent of Ontario residents will cast votes in the provincial election next month. And the turnout could be much lower.

Ontario's voter turnout -- just 58.3 per cent in the last provincial election -- is among the lowest in Canada, and it has been declining steadily for decades. . . .

Political science professor David Kayzis [sic] of Redeemer University College in Ancaster said Ontario and other Canadian jurisdictions should adopt some form of proportional representation so the number of seats a party wins in an election better represents the amount of popular vote it received. Under the first-past-the-post system, a candidate can win a seat with far less than half the vote, leaving many voters feeling that their votes have been wasted.

"I really believe a change in the voting system would make an enormous difference in terms of the voter turnout."

I am happy to say that I was correctly quoted, even if my surname was misspelt. Let's hope our political leaders read the article and decide to take action at last.
A preview of this evening's lecture

For at least the past two centuries authority has had something of an unsavoury reputation. To be sure, there are and always have been those who would abuse authority for their own diabolical purposes. But, far from being an argument against authority as such, its abuse ought to alert us to the reality of properly exercised authority in virtually every facet of life. Those who believe it possible to dispense with authority altogether, and replace it with some form of egalitarian mutuality, in which no one would have authority over anyone else, can do so only by misunderstanding the nature of authority and its full complexity and at the risk of social chaos.

Indeed there are three tendencies present in the modern and post-modern misconceptions of authority: (1) There is a propensity among many observers to reduce authority to the mere empirical exercise of an undifferentiated power. Here authority is seen as so much ideological window dressing on a brutal reality of self-interested domination of some over others. (2) Many people tend to assume that autonomy in some form is the opposite of authority. This assumption often accompanies a Kantian predilection to view as progressive a continual advancement of autonomy at the expense of authority, the very existence of which is deemed a sign of immaturity in the person and the human species. (3) Finally, there is a tendency, even among those acknowledging the propriety of authority, to assume that it takes the same form in whichever communal or institutional context it appears. My own remarks this evening will attempt to address each of these misconceptions in turn.

25 September 2003

An anti-creedal church

Last month I spoke at a conference in rural Alberta. It took place at a campground operated by the Church of God in Western Canada. While there I found a copy of the Hymnal of the Church of God, which I found time to look through. Perusing a church's hymn book reveals much about its confessional basis. Indeed I found two interesting hymns, one of which was entirely unfamiliar and the other of which was a reworking of a more widely known hymn.

The first was called, "Back to the Blessed Old Bible," written by D. Otis Teasley (1876-1942). One verse runs as follows:

Back from the land of confusion,
Free from the bondage of creeds;
Back to the light of the morning,
Jesus our Captain leads.

The second hymn was apparently a denominational revision of Samuel J. Stone's "The Church's One Foundation," retitled, "The Church Has One Foundation." In one of the additional verses, written by Charles W. Naylor (1874-1950), we find the following lines:

The voice of God is calling
To unity again;
Division walls are falling,
With all the creeds of men.

From these songs it seems evident that the Church of God does not like written creedal statements. One might gather from this that it is a fairly liberal denomination, leaving rather a lot to private conscience. However, that judgement would be inaccurate. Instead the denomination embraces the "blessed old Bible" alone, regarding human creeds as mere inventions.

As there are a number of denominations with the "Church of God" label, my assumption is that the parent body must be the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), which looks to be one of a very few without a website. I cannot help wondering whether they have a statement of faith prohibiting their members from accepting mere human creeds.
Inaugural address tomorrow

This is a reminder to all interested of my inaugural address, which I will be delivering tomorrow evening. It is titled, "We Answer to Another: A defence of authority against its recent discontents." The ceremony begins at 8 pm at Redeemer University College.

24 September 2003

More on fetal smiles

And here is yet another article: "A Smile at 26 weeks." Our Theresa was born at 26 weeks. And, yes, she was smiling. It's a bit bemusing to see so many people, including the medical community and the media, making a fuss over something Nancy and I have known for quite some time now.
Smiles in the womb again

Here are two more articles on the subject: "Smiling from the womb" and "Womb 'smile' fires abortion row." This is from the former: "Up to now, doctors did not think infants made such expressions until after birth and believed they learned to smile by copying their mother." Sometimes parents of preemies already know things that researchers discover only later.
Teaching undergraduate students

In my seventeen years of teaching undergraduates I've learnt that there is more than one kind of university student. As especially my introductory-level classes tend to be populated by all types, I have to try to reach out and grab as many as I can. That's not always easy to do. Among the varieties of students are numbered the following:

(1) Some students are at university simply to kill time. They have no real intellectual interests and lack even a rudimentary sense of personal direction. They are basically wasting their parents' (less likely their own) hard-earned money. They generally do not last beyond the first (or, at the very latest, second) year.

(2) Some students attend university for the social whirl. They get involved in everything, from sport to student government, while their studies take second place. They do not do badly on the academic side, but time spent with friends is definitely their priority.

(3) There are some students who go to university with all their opinions fully formed from, say, age 14 and intend to graduate with them completely intact. They may or may not do adequately in their studies, but clearly they would prefer not to learn anything that might challenge their pre-existing assumptions. They hear what they wish to hear and ignore the rest.

(4) Then there are the students who attend their classes, do well on their assignments, learn a lot of discrete pieces of information about a lot of things, and make it to graduation, ready to enter the job market. They have good reason to be satisfied with their performance, will get good recommendations from their instructors and will likely achieve a measure of success in whatever they put their minds to.

(5) Finally, there are those students whose undergraduate education turns out to be a watershed experience. They do not simply absorb a lot of information; rather their entire worldview is shaken up by the things they are learning inside and outside the classroom. They are seeing things they hadn't seen before and thinking in ways they had never imagined possible beforehand. Their lives are never quite the same afterwards.

This shaking up experience can, of course, be either good or bad. Some weeks ago, I wrote of Philip Wentworth, who lost his faith at Harvard in the 1920s, due to a similar shaking of his spiritual foundations. Professors have a lot of power at their disposal, and this undergirds the huge responsibility they have to use it wisely, and perhaps even with a measure of healthy fear. (Read James 3:1.)

This is one of the reasons why I've come to believe so strongly in christian education in general and christian university education in particular. I myself was one of the category five students nearly three decades ago. My worldview was shaken up when I became aware of the cosmic implications of redemption in Jesus Christ, something that was not really emphasized in the church where I had spent my youth. After this nothing was ever quite the same.

Because my own undergraduate experience was such a seminal and profoundly unsettling one, I quickly discovered a rather clear call to teach undergraduate students. This call has been confirmed time and again over the years, by circumstances, by peers and, yes, by my students themselves. Indeed, now it's difficult for me to imagine doing anything else.
Smiles in the womb, once more

Michelle Malkin writes of "The Most Powerful Smiles in the World":

All of Britain was buzzing last week after a tabloid published highly controversial photos -- not of a topless supermodel or two female pop singers kissing or Prince William in a grass skirt but of angelic babies smiling in the womb.

The ultrasound images, taken between 26 and 34 weeks after conception, were released by Professor Stuart Campbell and widely circulated on the Internet via the Drudge Report. Campbell's an obstetrician at the privately run Create Health Centre in London. For the past two years, the medical facility has offered state-of-the-art 3-D/4-D scanning equipment services to expectant parents. Campbell performs an average of 30 scans a week. His outspoken enthusiasm for this blessed technology is refreshing. "Parents love them," he told the Mirror. "I hear so many couples laughing when they see the pictures -- it's wonderful."

Babies smiling in the womb? It may be news to everyone else, but Nancy and I have known this already for just short of five years.

23 September 2003

The Russian bias against parties

After the end of the communist régime in the former Soviet Union, there was at first a pronounced bias against political parties. In fact, many of the early proto-democratic partisan formations assiduously avoided the term, instead styling themselves movements. This anti-party bias could not, of course, prevent the formation of political parties, but the post-Soviet Russian presidents, Boris Yelstin and Vladimir Putin, attempted to remain aloof from the parties. Until now.

Back in 1990, just before the end of the Union, the famed Russian novellist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, published from his exile in Vermont a tract proposing the shape of a future "Russian Union." This was subsequently translated into English and published as Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals. Here is a particularly intriguing passage from this book:

Parties, together with any other independent groups, have the right to nominate candidates for election to public office and to campaign on their behalf, but without drawing up party tickets: the vote must be for specific individuals, not parties. And an elected candidate must suspend any party membership for the duration of his term in office, assuming personal responsibility for his acts before his constituents. Power is a call to service, and it cannot be the subject of interparty competition.

Consequently, the formation of party groups is prohibited at all levels of government. And it goes without saying that the concept of a "ruling party" then ceases to exist (pp. 81-82).

One could, of course, dismiss this as the reflections of someone who does not understand very well how real-world democracy functions. Indeed it is difficult for us to imagine how government as we have come to know it would function without organized political parties.

In many respects Solzhenitsyn's fear of parties echoes James Madison's fear of factions as expressed in his famous Federalist number 10. However, Madison appeared more realistic in acknowledging the inevitability of factions and sought simply for a way to dilute their influence. The notion that parties can be excluded from the corridors of political power seems tantamount to demanding that alternative visions of political life be banished from government, which is clearly impossible.

Yet, given the experience of three generations of Russians with a monopolistic Communist Party, it is understandable that some would shrink from permitting parties in general to become too close to power. Nevertheless, what Russia needs now is, not a political process free from parties, but a small number of stable, responsible parties able to represent the diverse visions of ordinary Russian citizens and willing to co-operate in exercising political authority.
Protest backfires in Cyprus, ends in arrest

ABC Australia carries a report of a protest gone awry against passport checks along the green line separating Greek and Turkish zones in Cyprus: "Man makes an ass of Cyprus passport checks." Pensioner Savvas Christodoulou was arrested in Nicosia after trying to get his donkey Shelidona through the checkpoint on a false passport. "The protest plan recalled an off-the-cuff comment made some years ago by the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, who said donkeys were the only species which was indigenous to Cyprus."

22 September 2003

Liberal "tolerance" and local particularities

This item is from Mark Cameron by way of Gregory Daly:

[The] European Parliament wants to remove Mount Athos' special religious status to force the monks to allow women onto their island enclave. This reminds me of a piece some time back in the Telegraph about the European Court of Human Rights forcing the staunchly Calvinistic Outer Hebrides to accept Sunday shopping. Why is it that despite the liberal credo of tolerance and diversity, they can't accept even a few remote island enclaves that want to preserve a lifestyle different from that of London or Brussels? The Greek monks surely will be familiar with the story of their countryman Procrustes, the original Eurocrat.

I find this of interest because Cyprus, which will join the European Union next May, has a monastery, Stavrovouni, with a similar policy of prohibiting female visitors. Will Brussels be after the Cypriots to end what it seems to consider a sexist policy? Will more than a millennium of tradition fall victim to 21st-century Eurocrats?

It seems that Europeans, just as surely as North Americans, have bought into what Mary Ann Glendon has called "rights talk." Indeed, if individual rights are held to trump every other consideration, then perhaps it makes sense that government should step in to put a stop to whatever atavistic customs happen to stand in their way. If, for example, I were to hold that maintaining a celibate clergy is not a good idea or were to favour the ordination of women to all church offices, would I then favour a law mandating the Catholic Church to allow its priests to marry? Might I support an act of parliament requiring all church denominations to open their offices to everyone irrespective of gender?

Absolutely not. These issues properly belong to the churches themselves to sort out. Last year a court in Ontario handed down an injunction which went considerably beyond its own legitimate jurisdiction by claiming to determine what is and is not Catholic moral doctrine. This is a worrisome development, as it could, if allowed to stand, find government bodies interfering in the freedom of religious communities to set their own standards of membership. Perhaps a synagogue would no longer be allowed to "discriminate" against Presbyterians and Sufis when seeking to hire its next rabbi. Maybe the local Lutheran congregation would have to consider Methodists and Theosophists in calling a new pastor. This would seem to be the direction we are heading under the current rights régime. Now the Europeans are getting on board this agenda as well.

Canada's George Parkin Grant argued that liberalism tends to homogenize local cultures, particularly those based on traditions that cannot be justified in liberal terms. Grant believed technology to be intimately connected with this homogenizing force. But this overstates the power of a human formation. The real homogenizing force of liberalism lies in its assumption that every human community must ultimately be reduced to a voluntary association placing no obligations on its members beyond that to which they freely consent. And if that means dispensing with thousand-year-old traditions with deep religious roots, then so be it.

So much for tolerance.
A children's sunday school song and christian education

Theresa has a book of children's sunday school songs from which she enjoys singing while I accompany her on the guitar. There is, however, one song that Nancy and I have difficulties with, as we discovered while talking over the weekend. It's called "Oh, Be Careful," and it runs like this:

Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.
Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.
For the Father up above
Is looking down in love.
Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.

Oh, be careful little ears what you hear.
Oh, be careful little ears what you hear.
For the Father up above
Is looking down in love.
Oh, be careful little ears what you hear.

Oh, be careful little hands what you do. . . .

Oh, be careful little feet where you go. . . .

Oh, be careful little mouth what you say. . . .

Oh, be careful little mind what you think. . . .

Oh, be careful little heart what you love. . . .

The overall message of the song is, of course, well intended: we should be careful how we live our lives so as to do everything to the glory of God. We should avoid sin and, when we inevitably fall into sin, ask God's forgiveness and the Holy Spirit's help in living an obedient life in his service.

However, I can rather imagine that the verses having to do with the eyes, ears and mind might be taken in a less constructive, and indeed anti-intellectual, direction. If we take their logic seriously, then perhaps my students should not be reading, say, Marx and Engels' Manifesto of the Communist Party, since that classic statement is far from being honouring to God. Or perhaps my wife should not have the students in her Bible and Film class viewing The Last Temptation of Christ, since it springs from an unorthodox christology.

There are, of course, varieties of Christianity that would do precisely this, going so far as to prohibit Christians from coming into contact with all sorts of ideas deemed beyond the pale. But it would be difficult to carry off any form of educational enterprise on this basis. Try to imagine developing a christian university based on this song. It couldn't be done.

This is one of the reasons I have long been an enthusiast for Reformed Christianity and its educational philosophy, which undergirds what we're doing here at Redeemer University College. Cultivating a christian worldview does not mean avoiding the unpleasant, the unlikable or the unorthodox. To close oneself off from the surrounding culture is not a responsible way of living the christian life. In order to understand the huge influence of, say, Marxist ideas over the past century or so, one simply must read Marx and his followers, not set them aside for fear of personal contamination.

There is much more to be said concerning a Reformed Christian approach to education, and I will undoubtedly be returning to this theme again. At this point I will only say that perhaps we should change the words of the song to: "Be careful, curious mind, how you think."

21 September 2003

Putin breaks old Russian tradition

Elsewhere this sort of thing wouldn't be news, but in Russia it is: "Putin enters party political fray." The news is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to throw his support behind United Russia ahead of December's parliamentary elections. In the past Russian presidents, including Yeltsin and Putin, have made a grand pretence of being above partisan politics, apparently seeing themselves as the heirs of the tsars. They have thus left the various parties, which tend to merge, divide and mutate between elections, to battle it out among themselves. As a result, the partisan field has remained cluttered with numerous small parties, which find it difficult to co-operate for political purposes within the State Duma.

United Russia and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, despite their frontrunner status, both enjoy only 20 percent popular support each. Perhaps United Russia will gain momentum now that Putin has dropped the pretence of neutrality.
All right, I admit it: I like Dooyeweerd

I freely admit that I find Dooyeweerd's philosophical paradigm useful for a normative understanding of God's world, and especially of the place of politics within it. As I see it, Dooyeweerd has made at least two unique contributions.

To begin with, he has developed a systematic philosophy rooted in the conviction that all theoretical thought has pre-theoretical and nonfalsifiable religious underpinnings. Any theory making a pretence to religious neutrality, whether on the grounds of a universal rational faculty within the person or on the basis of the objective nature of so-called facts in the surrounding world, must be seen for what it is: epistemologically naïve and unaware of its own dogmatic starting point. It is further rooted in a deficient anthropology that elevates one aspect of the total person and makes this the unifying factor of the human self.

Yet far from being an apparently neutral faculty, reason can be understood, according to Dooyeweerd, only as the logical aspect of our total experience. In this respect, faith and reason are not the dialectical polarities that much of the western intellectual tradition, from Averroës and Thomas Aquinas to Hobbes and Marx, has come to think of them. Rather they are two aspects of a much richer and fuller human experience. Any effort to account theoretically for this experience is necessarily dependent on an ultimate religious commitment lying outside of and preceding the theoretical enterprise.

Even the behavioural political scientist anchors her endeavour in religious convictions concerning the nature of humanity, of the world we inhabit, and of the place of politics in that world.

In the second place, Dooyeweerd’s philosophy eschews all reductionisms. Although this principled antireductionism is by no means peculiar to Dooyeweerd, his own contribution consists in (1) his placing this insight within the larger understanding that God’s creation is not a haphazard product of chance, but an orderly cosmos subject to laws and norms given by his grace; and (2) his effort to spell out those aspects of reality that are themselves irreducible but, if placed in an apostate religious context, nevertheless lend a certain plausibility to the reductionist project.

These irreducible aspects of reality are called modes, and the mature Dooyeweerd posits fifteen of these, listed here in ascending order: arithmetic (number), spatial, kinematic (extensive movement), physical (energy), biotic (organic life), psychic (feeling, sensation), logical, historical (cultural, formative), lingual (symbolic), social, economic, aesthetic, juridical (justice, retribution), ethical (temporal love, loyalty) and pistical (faith). The persistent tendency of nonchristian -- or perhaps nontheistic -- theoretical thought is, not only to fasten onto one or more of these modal aspects and to read the rest of creation through them, but to assume that doing so provides the key to understanding the world in its totality.

The difficulty with engaging one of these reductionisms in dialogue is due, not to the supposed irrationality of the reductionist, but to the fact that her enterprise accounts for all the evidence in a way that seems to be complete but is nevertheless missing something rather crucial. The convinced materialist can easily explain such complex phenomena as anger or even romantic affection by pointing to the movement of electrical impulses through the brain. And it is difficult to argue with such a person on her own ground.

I've always rather liked Ernst Lubitsch’s classic 1939 film, Ninotchka, which humorously illustrates the absurdity of Marxist-style materialism. To Melvyn Douglas’ amorous gestures, Greta Garbo’s Soviet functionary replies: "Why must you bring in the wrong values? Love is a romantic designation for a most ordinary biological -- or, shall we say, chemical? -- process. A lot of nonsense is written about it." In Dooyeweerd’s language, she has effectively reduced a complex phenomenon, in which the psychical and ethical aspects are especially prominent, to the biotic or even the physical modalities.

In this respect, the materialist is similar to G.K. Chesterton’s "madman," who reasons in a way that combines logical completeness with spiritual contraction. If the madman argues that there is a universal conspiracy against him, and if you point out that everyone denies it, he is likely to reply that denial is exactly what one can expect from conspirators. "His explanation covers the facts as much as yours." As Chesterton memorably concludes, the madman is not the one who has lost his reason, but the one "who has lost everything except his reason."

Dooyeweerd would put the matter less colourfully perhaps, but he would agree that the materialist, who sees the entire cosmos through the narrow lenses of only one or two modal aspects, has missed the fulness of human life, if not experientially, at least theoretically.

One of the things I try to do in my book is to illustrate how the various political ideologies demand that we in effect suppress the fulness of our experience of the irreducible complexity of God's world. The answer to these ideologies is, not to come up with our own ideology -- with our own falsification of reality -- but simply to point people to the cosmos itself, and ultimately to the God who has created, redeemed and sustained it. Dooyeweerd's philosophy is not a substitute for this fulness of experience. One can live a perfectly fulfilling life without having read a sentence of Dooyeweerd's writings. But I find that they do help to illuminate our experience and to steer us away from those ideological approaches in which, as Vaclav Havel puts it, lies (or at least partial truths) masquerade as the (full) truth.
EU membership wins in Latvia

Yesterday's referendum in Latvia on membership in the European Union found a substantial majority voting to join the expanding proto-federation next May. According to this Reuters report, "With all votes counted in the ex-Soviet republic, supporters led nay-sayers by 67 percent to 32.3, with 0.7 percent of ballots invalid. Turnout was 72.5 percent, way over the 35 percent to make Saturday's vote binding." Latvia becomes the ninth of ten prospective EU members to vote in favour of accession, while Cyprus, the tenth, will not be holding a referendum.

There are some Latvians, however, who are less than enthusiastic about giving up some of their country's sovereignty to Brussels only a dozen years after they finally succeeded in reclaiming it from Moscow. At the end of the day, these Eurosceptics could not counter the undoubted appeal of a "return to Europe."

20 September 2003

McGuinty for PR?

With Dalton McGuinty moving his Liberal Party into the lead in Ontario's election campaign, he is now making some rather specific promises of political reform, including the holding of a referendum on whether to scrap our antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system and adopt some form of proportional representation. This is according to Chris Cobb, writing in yesterday's Ottawa Citizen, in an article located by sporadic blogger Brian Dijkema. Dijkema comments:

If [McGuinty] were to promise PR rather than a referendum, it would likely help him win some votes from Ontario Calvinists who right now are being wooed by the Eves team with the promise of tax rebates for parents sending their children to Christian schools.

That would leave only Howard Hampton's New Democratic Party to think up something new to appeal to this voting bloc.
Isabel's impact on Virginia

John Bell's beautiful sheep farm in the hills of Virginia suffered some damage in the hurricane, but no sheep were lost, we are happy to learn.
A victorious South and a fragmented North America

Jake Belder quotes from the League of the South's position statement: "If the South were its own nation, its GNP would rank it in the top five nations of the world." It is always a tricky business to second-guess historical events -- to judge what might have happened if things had worked out differently. This is certainly true of the American Civil War of 1861-1865, or what southerners tend to call the War Between the States or even the War for Southern Independence.

However, I rather think that, given the centrifugal tendencies besetting the United States at that time, if the South had won, the Confederate States of America eventually would themselves have broken up either into two or more confederacies or into the component states. The same thing would likely have happened to the so-called Union states. And if there were several independent federations in the territory of what is now the US, there would have been less incentive for the British North American colonies to form the Dominion of Canada, simply because the threat from the other side of the Great Lakes would have been that much less.

Anglo-North America might today look more like Latin America: a large continental land mass with several countries all speaking the same language.
The Apocrypha

Since I was in my early teens I have occasionally wondered about those many writings from two or more millennia ago that are not part of the Bible as recognized by the Christian Church. I was especially fascinated by that collection of "borderline" books known by protestants as the Apocrypha and by Catholics as the deuterocanonical books. Why, I wondered, were these accepted by Catholics as part of the Old Testament and not by protestants? What criteria were used by the Reformers to reject and by their opponents to accept them? After reading them through, it was not immediately obvious to me that the canonical books of, say, Esther or Song of Songs were superior to the apocryphal books of I Maccabees or Ecclesiasticus. In fact, as I've written before, I rather like the Canticle of the Three Holy Children in chapter 3 of the long version of Daniel, which is often sung in the service of Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. Moreover, while the shorter Hebrew version of Esther deliberately avoids any reference to God, the extended Greek version not only adds such references but even includes some prayers, most notably Esther's prayer before entering the king's presence to request his protection of her people.

Augustine quotes from these books, along with the undisputed books of the Old Testament, without making a distinction between them. But Jerome, who translated the Latin Vulgate, distinguished between the narrower Hebrew canon and the additional books found in the Septuagint, preferring the former to the latter.

Of course, in effect, every ecclesiastical communion has defined the extent of the canon of Scripture, and fortunately the areas of agreement are much larger than the areas of disagreement. All agree on the books of the New Testament. And all agree on the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Old Testament. But the Roman Church includes the so-called deuterocanonicals, while the Orthodox Churches recognize even more books such as III and IV Esdras, the so-called supernumerary Psalm (sometimes called Psalm 151 in some English translations), the Prayer of Manasseh and III Maccabees. Moreover, the Russians and Greeks are not even in precise agreement with each other on which of these to include. The Russians seem to prefer the narrower Hebrew canon, judging from a Russian Bible in my personal library published by the Patriarchate of Moscow. (The additional books are included, but they are clearly marked as "noncanonical.")

So who is right? Who decides who is right and on what basis? Here the traditional protestant sola scriptura is no help to us. Do we Reformed Christians accept the narrower Hebrew canon because the Belgic Confession tells us to? I doubt it, because the Reformed confessions themselves admit that the church can err. Yet in so defining the canon we are at least ratifying an earlier decision of the church made prior to the schisms of the past millennium. How indeed do we know that the church was not in error at that time?

The Belgic Confession has this to say concerning the canonical books of the Bible:

And we believe without a doubt all things contained in them -- not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they prove themselves to be from God (Article 5).

This seems to me rather neatly to sidestep the question of how we know the limits of the canon. The Spirit may indeed testify in our hearts, but as individuals or as a body? And if the latter, then are we not back to church authority? And if the former, then how do we account for disagreements? And how do we know that we, whether as individuals or as a body, are accurately (infallibly?) discerning the testimony of the Spirit in our hearts?

After all is said and done, however, I am not inclined to advocate wholesale acceptance of the Apocrypha as canonical, so I am probably closer to the Reformed tradition anyway, for whatever reason. Many of these books are much too hellenistic in their worldviews. The Book of Wisdom is distressingly platonic when it says: "a perishable body weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind" (Wisdom 9:15). And 8:19-20 seems to presuppose the pre-existence of the soul before birth -- something obviously fitting in with a more platonic anthropology.

I suppose I take comfort in the fact that the various churches agree more than they disagree on the canon. Everyone reads Isaiah, whose divinely inspired status is evident to all. We all read and sing the 150 Psalms, something that unites church and synagogue in praising God, reciting his great deeds, and lamenting adversity. When all is said and done, I tend to take the approach of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, which state:

And the other books (as Hierome [Jerome] saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.

19 September 2003

Hurricane Isabel, at last

The tail end of Isabel passed through southern Ontario this morning around 8 o'clock. We received quite a bit of rain. There's standing water everywhere. It was also pretty windy at one point. But by late morning the worst of it was over, and really it was not all that bad, considering what our neighbours to the south received. I look forward to hearing from friends and family in Virginia, Washington and southern Pennsylvania to see how they (unmetaphorically-speaking) weathered the storm.
So who's right on Iraq?

Although no one accuses Chicago's Fr. Andrew Greeley of being an expert on middle eastern affairs, he claims to know enough to judge that President Bush is lying about Iraq's significance in the war on terrorism. Writes Greeley in a Chicago Sun-Times opinion piece:

There is not and never has been any evidence that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attack. None. The implication of such involvement was an attempt to deceive, a successful attempt at the big lie.

I'm not sure that the president knows it is a lie, however.

Also, the weapons of mass destruction story was never true. It now appears that Saddam panicked in 1995 when his sons-in-law defected to Jordan and revealed the truth about his weapons development. He immediately ordered the destruction of all the evidence. The U.N. team before the war would have no more found any weapons than the Americans after the war.

One wishes that Greeley and Stephen Hayes could be brought together in the same room to hash out what the truth of the matter is. Either the evidence is there or it's not. The rest of us would like to know for sure.

18 September 2003

Latinized surnames

Centuries ago, when Latin was the lingua franca of Europe, educated people used to adopt latinized forms of their own surnames. Thus the Dutchman Huig de Groot became Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), author of On the Law of War and Peace and father of international law. Similarly Johann Althaus, became Johannes Althusius (1557-1638), the father of modern federalism and a precursor to neocalvinism. Moreover, the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Baer (or Bär) and Caspar Olewig, became Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus respectively. In Sweden and Finland members of the clergy often had latinized names, like Lars Laestadius, who brought revival to northern Scandinavia in the 19th century.

I wonder what sorts of names we would choose if we were to latinize our own surnames?
Hurricane Isabel

It is still looking very likely that the remnants of Hurricane Isabel will be passing through the region tomorrow, carrying heavy rains and high winds. We had planned to go to the Ancaster Fair on saturday, but this may alter our plans.
Dawson, liberalism and Christianity

The Catholic news service Zenit carries an interview with Gerald Russello on the place of Christianity in the old and new Europe. Here he suggests, following historian Christopher Dawson, that liberalism has effectively dechristianized Europe more easily than communism was able to do. Asked to compare the thought of the current pope with Dawson, Russello answers as follows:

Dawson shares with John Paul II an appreciation of some achievements of modernity, as well as its limitations. Dawson wrote: "The liberal movement in the wider sense transformed the world by an immense liberation of human energies, but liberalism in the narrower sense proved incapable of guiding the forces it had released."

Dawson devoted much of his work to trying to reintegrate the achievements of modern society with its religious and spiritual foundations, in an effort to protect and further the spiritual dimension of human life. I believe Pope John Paul II, in encyclicals such as "Centesimus Annus," expresses a similar point.

Both saw in the rise of the consumer culture a strong challenge to traditional Christian morals. What John Paul II has called "the culture of death" was very much in Dawson's mind as he wrote in the 1950s and 1960s when the totalitarian threat of Nazi Germany had passed.

Although Communism remained a threat, Dawson was convinced that the internal dissolution of Christian culture from the pressures of economic and moral liberalism was a graver threat. Because liberalism dispenses with acknowledging spiritual values, it becomes vulnerable to appeals to economic utility or political power.

Both Dawson and Pope John Paul would agree, I think, that these cannot substitute for a religious faith that expresses eternal truths and a rich spiritual life.

Perhaps this goes some way in explaining why post-communist Poland is still a more Catholic country than either France or Italy.

17 September 2003

Radio interviews

On monday morning I had the most recent in a series of radio interviews arranged by my publisher. Most of these have been with christian stations of some sort in the US. But this one was for a programme on a secular network, albeit with a christian host. More such interviews are being scheduled, especially for next year, which will see a presidential election south of the border.

By now I am getting a pretty good sense of what makes a good interview and, indeed, a good interviewer. One can expect, of course, that guests on such shows will have varying public speaking skills. Thus a good interviewer will try to make his guest feel as comfortable as possible and to draw out the best from him. Much as a good choral conductor can get a wonderful sound out of mediocre voices, a good interviewer can make a guest who is a relative neophyte sound like an experienced radio personality. This he does simply by asking the right questions -- questions that do not have monosyllabic yes or no answers but lead to further reflection and conversation of interest to the listening audience. He will not shy away from humour and will refrain from taking himself too seriously. And, needless to say, it helps enormously if he has actually read the book the guest has written.

I can tell you that being interviewed by such a person is a great experience. I hope to have more interviews like this in the coming year.

16 September 2003

Age's quest for puerility

Today's Breakpoint commentary by Chuck Colson is titled "My Own Private Neverland: A Culture of Lost Boys." It concerns the trend, especially amongst my own baby boomer generation, to cultivate deliberately juvenile tastes and to spurn adulthood. Writes Colson:

A surprisingly large part of the audience for children’s television shows like the Teletubbies are “young adults.” And more people between the ages of 18 and 49 watch the Cartoon Network than watch CNN. And I’m not making that up.

He doesn't say whether these "young adults" might themselves be parents of small children, which would explain their viewing habits. But let's assume he has picked up on a genuine trend. I personally believe he's on to something.

Could this grasping for childish things be one of the ripe fruits of the liberal emphasis on the self and on individual rights? The demand for rights without the countervailing recognition of responsibilities is, after all, exactly the sort of thing one expects from children, apart from the restraining influence of parental discipline. Now it increasingly receives the sanction of the courts, as well as of the larger popular culture.
Age's debt to youth

Many thanks to Rob Joustra for showing me how to put sidebar items in my blog template. He is a kind and beneficent person.
The limits of compassion in politics

Public appeals to compassion have become ubiquitous at the beginning of a new century. A few years ago one of Canada's major daily newspapers carried a photograph of quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed as a result of an accident in 1995. As is well known, Reeve has been working tirelessly in the cause of research into spinal cord injuries. The photo was captioned with the plea that fetal tissue research is the only hope for Reeve to regain the use of his limbs. Naturally the reader was expected to sympathize with Reeve’s predicament, the solution to which is blocked only by the apparently irrational – and uncompassionate – objections of anti-abortionists.

About a decade ago an opinion piece appeared in a christian periodical arguing that the legalization of abortion in the United States was a genuinely progressive development favourable to the well being of women everywhere. Those opposed to the abortion licence were guilty, in the author's estimation, of erecting barriers to compassion for women.

The electronic media often feature reports of someone adversely affected by some policy pursued by some government somewhere. Clearly we are expected to oppose such a policy, ignoring the fact that, if another policy had been pursued, someone else would have suffered from its consequences. Clearly, appeals to compassion are not enough to bring about justice.

There is no doubt, of course, that we are called to have compassion for others. Many of us were initially drawn to politics out of a concern for those suffering from unjust policies. The fact that so many of my relatives became refugees in Cyprus in 1974 was a strong motivation to understand the political process and the roots of such injustices. It also gave me compassion for others in a similar predicament, especially Palestinian refugees who are treated as strangers in their own land.

All the same, in recent years I’ve come to understand the limits of compassion in politics. I’ve grown suspicious of politicians who claim to be able to feel our pain.

To begin with, if compassion is the desire to alleviate people’s suffering, then this mere desire is not sufficient grounds for assessing the justice of a proposed action. An unmitigated compassion may prompt us to forego punishment because it inevitably causes suffering. But if the punishment is deserved, then to refrain from imposing it would be unjust.

Second, compassion by itself tends to lead, not to justice, but to favouritism and one-sided advocacy. Compassion is necessarily selective. Our ability to enter into the suffering of others cannot be stretched indefinitely. Parents naturally feel for their own children more than they do for others'. We suffer along with our friends in adversity more than with mere acquaintances, or with the faceless names we read about in the papers. There is nothing wrong in this; it is simply part and parcel of our created limitations.

Only God himself is capable of entering into the suffering of all, as he did in the person of Jesus Christ. I may be touched by the plight of the Palestinians, but my compassion for them may blind me to the legitimacy of claims made by Israelis – especially of "sabras" who were born, grew up there and know nothing else – to the same land and resources. In the politics of compassion one helps only those with whom one is able to feel suffering. The suffering of others further removed from oneself is somehow deemed less valid.

Thus Marxists are moved to action by compassion for the proletariat, but in attempting to emancipate oppressed workers, they are unmoved by the suffering they may cause those getting in the way of their agenda. The irony is that appeals to compassion can be a cover for acts of genuine cruelty, scores of millions of which were committed by the heirs of Marx and Lenin in the former Soviet Union and China.

Finally, arguments from compassion are often a way of shortcircuiting the deliberative process – of keeping some arguments from being heard. If politics necessarily entails conciliating diverse interests in accordance with public justice, then arguments need to be heard from all sides before a decision is made. Ruling an argument out of court too soon on the grounds that it is not compassionate is a recipe, not only for less than peaceful politics, but for outright injustice.
Praying the rosary

It seems that Anglicans are discovering the rosary, or prayer beads, as indicated here: "Anglican rosary changes the way some people pray." Given that prayer beads are used in a number of christian traditions, I cannot help but wonder whether there is anything comparable within the Reformed tradition.
Cyprus and Malta and the EU

On 1 September a meeting was held in Prague of representatives of the smaller states in or shortly to become part of the European Union. But Cyprus and Malta were not invited. Now the Czech government is claiming that this was due to an oversight. Czech foreign minister Cyril Svoboda has issued a formal apology and has promised that the mistake will not be repeated.

15 September 2003

Isabel headed this way?

Well, isn't this nice. The latest maps from the National Weather Service's Tropical Prediction Center show the centre of Hurricane Isabel heading straight for southern Ontario -- the Niagara Peninsula and Toronto, to be exact. Let's hope we don't see a repeat of Hurricane Hazel.
Student post boxes at Redeemer

For some odd reason, this year the student post boxes at Redeemer are alphabetized from right to left rather than from left to right, as they had always been in the past. Perhaps this is part of an effort on the part of our front office to recover Christianity's Hebraic roots.
Tallis' theme again

Yesterday morning at church the choir sang Horatius Bonar's familiar "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say," set to Thomas Tallis' haunting Third Mode Melody, made famous by Ralph Vaughan Williams in his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.
Metrical psalters and the Book of Common Prayer

Although it is not very well known today, for the first two centuries or so after the Reformation, Anglicans used to sing metrical psalms, along with their Scottish Presbyterian and continental Reformed fellow believers. In fact, the various editions of the Book of Common Prayer generally included, in addition to Miles Coverdale's magnificent translation of the 150 Psalms, a full metrical psalter, often that of Sternhold and Hopkins or, later, Tate and Brady's "New Version" within the same cover.

Many years ago I found an ancient copy of the BCP and metrical psalter in one volume at a used bookstore in Toronto. Alas it was too expensive.

Some thirty years ago there was a revival of metrical psalmody in the Church of England with the publication of Psalm Praise (London: Church Pastoral Aid Society, 1973). One of this collection, Psalm 30, made it into the latest edition of the Christian Reformed Church's Psalter Hymnal. This has to be one of the more moving renditions of this psalm in any collection.

14 September 2003

A new blog

One of my students, Rob Joustra, has just started his own weblog. The subject matter? "Reflections on history, mythology, politics... 'life, the universe, and everything'." Well, that narrows things down, doesn't it?

Welcome aboard, Rob!

The Hungarian Reformed

Here in North America we know little about the Reformed Church in Hungary. Although the Roman Catholic Church is the largest of the ecclesial bodies in that country, the Reformed have a substantial presence. The number of Hungarian Reformed Christians, including those in the diaspora, is some 3 1/2 million. In east central Europe they live primarily in five countries: Hungary itself, Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and western Ukraine.

The Reformed Church in Hungary adheres to two confessions, the Second Helvetic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. The church is distinctive in that it is the only one of the Reformed churches to have bishops, who are nevertheless little more than district superintendents. Its members sing from the Genevan Psalter, as translated by Albert Szenczi Molnár in the 16th century.

Throughout the centuries there were close relationships between the Hungarian Reformed and the Dutch Reformed. These were lost during the four decades of communist rule in Hungary, but they are being re-established in the years since 1989. The Christian Reformed Church conducts its own Hungarian Ministries in an effort to assist the witness of its sister church in that part of the world.
More ancestors: Vladimir I of Kiev

I am teaching Russian politics this semester, which necessarily involves acquainting my students with the highlights of Russian history. Indeed I have long had a fascination for Russian history, ever since taking an undergraduate course in the subject nearly three decades ago.

Last year, during my genealogical researches, I discovered that among my direct ancestors is included Prince Vladimir I (also known as St. Vladimir, or, in Ukrainian, Volodymyr) of Kiev, who converted the people of Rus to Orthodox Christianity in 988.

He is variously my 30th through 37th great-grandfather, and I am descended from him in scores of ways, through two of my ancestors, David and Nancy Elkins Wells, my maternal 3rd great-grandparents. Of course, as I've written before, virtually anyone of European ancestry who might be reading this is similarly descended from him.

I have long admired the Russians. Is this descent enough to make of me a Russian? Can I truthfully call myself a Russian-Canadian? Perhaps, but then again so can virtually any reader of this blog. Furthermore, I might just as well call myself a Phoenician-Canadian, because Phoenicians settled my ancestral island of Cyprus close to three millennia ago. The farther back one is able to trace one's ancestry, the less statistically significant it is to claim to be descended from any one person living then. Scores of millions of others are similarly descended.

13 September 2003

Toronto versus Hamilton

Last evening I was in Toronto representing Redeemer University College at a banquet celebrating the 40th anniversary of Citizens for Public Justice. The event took place on the campus of the University of St. Michael's College.

I do not get to Toronto at all often these days, although I lived there for the two years I was studying at the Institute for Christian Studies. I loved living in Toronto, which is, as many Torontonians love to boast, a world class city. It is Canada's largest city and boasts a number of attractions, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, St. Lawrence Market, Kensington Market, Greektown, Chinatown, High Park, Queen's Park, and of course such popular tourist destinations as the Sky Dome and the CN Tower.

Toronto is filled with myriad ethnic neighbourhoods, along with the restaurants featuring their distinctive cuisines. There are lots of used book stores, and the University of Toronto Bookstore, right across the street from the ICS. And of course I love the public transportation system. At one time it could be said that Toronto was one of a very few North American urban centres featuring a more-or-less complete streetcar system. Now other cities have gotten back on the bandwagon with what they call light rail transit.

Then there's Hamilton, which is often thought to be Toronto's lesser, blue collar counterpart at the western end of Lake Ontario. I have lived in Hamilton for 16 years, and I do not believe this city has anything to feel inferior about. To begin with, Hamilton has more natural scenic beauty than Toronto. Most spectacularly we have the Royal Botanical Gardens, which I first visited way back in 1971. (I nearly lost my glasses at the Rock Garden!) Much of the scenery revolves around the Niagara Escarpment, a clifflike geological structure that cuts through the city on its journey from Niagara Falls to the Bruce Peninsula on Lake Huron. This makes for a large number of waterfalls located at various spots along the escarpment, including Websters Falls, Spencer Gorge and Sherman Falls.

Hamilton boasts a number of rail trails cutting through the Dundas Valley Conservation Area. These are ideal for walking and bicycling. Then there are the historic sites, such as Dundurn Castle and the Battlefield House Museum in Stoney Creek.

One can hardly beat the view from Highway 403 as one enters Hamilton from the direction of Toronto: Cootes Paradise is at the right, the escarpment is in the distance, and the neogothic spires of the Cathedral of Christ the King are at the left. Very impressive indeed.

Finally, Hamilton is a much more affordable place to live. Housing prices in Toronto are sky high, making it difficult for people from the outside to move in unless they have an exceedingly well-paying job. When all is said and done, Hamilton is a fine place to live.

12 September 2003

9/11 two years later: Modernity and its discontents

Prof. Mackubin Thomas Owens of the Naval War College in Newport, RI, undertakes to analyze the animosity between the west and the islamic world in "The End of the 'End of History'". He properly skewers the "end of history" crowd, that is, those, such as Francis Fukuyama, who believe that the spread of liberal democracy and free trade will make war obsolete. This was precisely the misconception of the naive optimists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their illusions were shattered in August 1914.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether his own prescription for international order is really all that different, except that for him democracy and capitalism do not spread peacefully, but are imposed by a global superpower. Drawing on an article by his colleague, Tom Barnett, Owen writes:

9/11 revealed an emerging geopolitical reality: that the world's most important fault line is not between the rich and the poor, but between those who accept modernity and those who reject it. In a controversial article for Esquire (entitled "The Pentagon's New Map") and a series of briefings, my colleague at the Naval War College, Tom Barnett, has described a world divided between a "Functioning Core" and a "Non-Integrating Gap." The former, where "globalization is thick with network connectivity, financial transactions, liberal media flows, and collective security," is characterized by "stable governments, rising standards of living, and more deaths by suicide than murder." The latter, where "globalization is thinning or just plain absent" is "plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty and disease, routine mass murder, and — most important — the chronic conflicts that incubate the next generation of global terrorists."

The assumption is that the acceptance of secular modernity, in its various manifestations, is the solution to the problems of the "Gap." Osama bin Laden and his ilk see their premodern worldview threatened by the liberal democracy and capitalism emanating from the United States. They must be confronted and, it seems, eliminated, not simply managed. Over the past two years American policy has had to change:

The post-9/11 strategy is based on the idea that the only way to effectively deal with the dangers arising from the Gap is for the countries of the Core to intervene in the Gap with the goal of reducing it. The president seems to accept [the] contention that ignoring the Gap or, at most, seeking to "manage" it merely reduces further what little connectivity the Gap has with the Core and renders it more dangerous to the Core over the long haul.

This is, of course, a variation of the secularization thesis and is not really all that different from the views of Fukuyama, Alexandre Kojève and even, paradoxically, Canada's own George Parkin Grant. It views modernization as a single unidirectional movement sweeping up in its homogenizing path all of the particular cultures of the world. But now it is backed by the coercive force of the state.

That the world might be moving in a desecularizing direction, as observed by Samuel Huntington, Philip Jenkins, Paul Marshall and many others, appears to have escaped Owens' notice. If, as Owens urges, the US turns towards the imposition of a global hegemony by the "Core" over the "Gap" to protect its own vision of modernity, it will be engaging in a fruitless effort to fill the spiritual vacuum in the nonwestern heart with something that will ultimately fail to satisfy.

"Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee." Augustine, The Confessions.
The importance of being Ernie

I decided to attend the rally at Hamilton District Christian High School last evening, which was graced by the presence of our premier, Ernie Eves. The Reformed Christian community turned out in good numbers, and I saw quite a few people I hadn't seen in a very long time.

The event was billed as a tax credit rally, referring to the tax credit for parents of students in independent schools enacted by the Conservatives under their previous leader, Mike Harris, which is opposed by the other two parties. It was carefully staged, with people urging us to get up out of the bleachers and crowd around the podium so that Eves would be surrounded by supporters on camera. And clearly there were many supporters there. I couldn't help but notice some sign-bearing high schoolers at the front who were eating up his every word.

However, more than one person present expressed to me the concern that we were all being co-opted into throwing our support behind the governing party over this single issue when we might have reason to approach the Eves government with more caution. I could not disagree with this assessment.

This is one of the ironies that I experience as an academic political scientist. I love the study of politics, but I find voting a deeply unsatisfying act. Inevitably one is forced to choose a candidate and party on the basis of a few issues close to the heart while swallowing a lot of other unpalatable stuff in the process. If I were to vote for the Progressive Conservatives this time around, I would be doing so in part because I am a strong supporter of parental choice in education. Yet I dislike the party's reflexive deregulating and privatizing economic policies which assume that there is no genuine public interest, but only the sum total of private interests.

This is one of the reasons why I support the adoption of proportional representation. It is much more likely than our current first-past-the-post system to bring to the fore principled parties based on a coherent view of the place of politics in the world. Short of this we are saddled with pragmatic parties that try to galvanize popular support over discrete issues with no clear basis in political principles. This makes for less than fully responsible politics.

11 September 2003

Evidence of al Qaeda-Iraq link?

Could Stephen Hayes be correct about "Saddam's al Qaeda Connection"? Hayes writes in The Weekly Standard of the growing evidence of such a connection, which, if fully publicized, would silence the critics of the US President. Yet if this is so, then it is difficult to understand why he would keep quiet about so much of this information.

The Bush administration has thus far chosen to keep the results of its postwar findings to itself; much of the information presented here comes from public sources. The administration, spooked by the media feeding frenzy surrounding yellowcake from Niger, is exercising extreme caution in rolling out the growing evidence of collaboration between al Qaeda and Baathist Iraq. As the critics continue their assault on a prewar "pattern of deception," the administration remains silent.

Why? If such evidence actually exists, then revealing it would get Bush off the hook with his partisan critics, as well as rescue the political career of his friend Tony Blair. And, most significant of all, it would put the attack on Iraq in an entirely different light, especially in those countries that were most sceptical about it to begin with.
The Russian cultural achievement

One of the ironies of history, which I am at a loss to explain, is that there frequently seems to be an inverse relationship between political stability on the one hand and literary and artistic achievement on the other. Take the Russians as just one example. I have long been an admirer of the Russian cultural achievement. It would be difficult for any people to surpass in greatness a civilization that has produced the calibre of music, novels, plays, and paintings created by the Russians. It is all the more remarkable that such accomplishments have taken root and grown in mostly hostile political soil.

For example, it was during the reactionary reign of Nicholas I that Russia entered what might be called its golden age of literary and artistic endeavour. Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) was certainly the greatest of the literary figures of this era, his works eventually to attain for Russians something of the status of Shakespeare's for the English-speaking peoples. In music Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) would have a similar stature. The brilliance of the Russian contribution in these fields can hardly be overestimated. The novels of Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) are justly celebrated, both inside and outside Russia. The music of Piotr I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Modest Musorgsky (1839-1881) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) has become familiar to everyone. Then there are the plays of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904).

Remarkably, the 20th century did not dim but only increased the Russian cultural achievement, even after the Bolsheviks came to power. Once more the tremendous creativity of the people seemed almost to thrive under adversity, both at home and in exile. Some of the key figures were: Sergei Rachmaninov (of whom I wrote the other day), Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Aram Khatchaturian (1903-1978), Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), Maksim Gorky (1868-1936), Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948), and many, many more. Again it would be difficult to overstate the sheer magnitude of the Russian cultural achievement.

This presents something of a dilemma for me, as both a political scientist and a lover of the arts. I would personally prefer to live in an Anglo-Saxon democracy, with its deeply rooted sense of fair play and attention to procedure. I admit to being an admirer of the ancient English constitution (albeit with important qualifications), as bequeathed in some form to such countries as Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. I would much rather live in a country where particular governments come and go peacefully but where the business of government goes on minus the threat of periodic coups d'état or political assassinations.

At the same time, I am inexplicably drawn to a people that manifests such creativity under what would seem to be the most inhospitable conditions. I myself have found that I am most creative when I am suffering from one of my periodic bouts of depression. I wonder whether there is something similar at work in the Russian people. For centuries their rulers have been corrupt, autocratic, sometimes even murderous, yet the Russians themselves have managed to contribute hugely to what might be called world civilization. This gives the rest of us a large number of fine works of art to enjoy while we are living under the benefits of a more stable constitution.

10 September 2003

Children and nightmares

Like most small children, Theresa occasionally wakes up crying from nightmares. We are told that these are perfectly normal between the ages of 2 and 6. Indeed when she was only two she woke up in the middle of the night and, to our surprise, was able to tell us what she had dreamt: that someone was putting her in too hot bath water. Since then she has recounted to us the content of other dreams. Initially they revolved around garbage trucks, of which she had a mild phobia. Recently they have involved being washed down the bathtub drain or being eaten by a shark.

I used to wonder at what age we should tell Theresa about the reality of death. To be sure, there will still come a time when we will have to answer her questions about it. But I now believe that a child old enough to experience the possibility of personal harm in a nightmare already has a pretty good sense of what death is about.

I recall the nightmares I myself had as a preschooler. The most vivid involved being a Jack-like person (of beanstalk fame) in the giant's castle and having my head dashed against the floor by the giant. This one isn't all that difficult to figure out. It is simply scary to be so small and vulnerable in an adult world, having your every decision made for you, and having so little control over yourself, much less over the world around you.

In later years I would still have unpleasant dreams, but they did not compare to the sheer terror I experienced in my dreams back then.

However, after Theresa's premature birth dreams approaching the status of nightmares returned in a new guise. While she was in hospital during those first ten weeks in 1998 and '99, Nancy was plagued by nightmares, while I was not. After Theresa came home from hospital, Nancy's nightmares stopped and mine began. One particularly distressing one had someone dangling a baby upside down by his feet out the window of an airborne plane. I've had other dreams that I am reluctant even to call to the surface of consciousness, much less to blog about.

What this all adds up to is that many, if not most, nightmares seem to revolve around childhood vulnerability. When you are a small child, you have nightmares. When you have a small child of your own, you have nightmares.

Almighty God and Father, protect the small children you have given us. Keep them in your loving embrace, that we, their parents, may be to them the vessels of your protection and care. Through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Unborn victims of violence

One of the characteristics of an ideology is that it attempts to reduce the fulness of our experience of reality to a single facet. In so doing it effectively falsifies reality. Moreover, when its followers gain control of the political realm, they attempt to force this reduced conception of reality on everyone else, pressuring them to deny the obvious. In the words of Vaclav Havel, an ideology "is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality." It forces people to "live within a lie."

In today's Breakpoint commentary, Chuck Colson addresses the opposition to the Unborn Victims of Violence Act being considered by the US Congress. Opponents are forced by their pro-choice ideology to deny that a violent crime committed against a pregnant woman has two victims. Writes Colson:

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act will allow prosecutors to go after those who injure or kill an unborn child while committing a violent federal crime. The bill would not affect abortion laws, and yet the abortion lobby is trying frantically to kill it. Why?

It’s because they know that a law protecting a Conner or Zachariah [two such unborn victims] changes the entire abortion debate.

Up until now, abortion zealots have successfully portrayed abortion as a hard choice women make only in desperate circumstances. They say the fetus is not really a “person,” that a woman’s “choice” is nobody else’s business.

But who could see pictures of Zachariah and still believe the fetus is less than a human person? Who could witness the agony of Conner Peterson’s grandparents and still believe that the death of an unborn child affects no one but the mother?

Most dangerous of all, for the abortion lobby, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act portrays the baby as a victim, which sets up an unpleasant conflict in the hearts and minds of Americans. If the fetus is a person, how can we take his life indiscriminately? And if it’s illegal for fathers to bludgeon unborn babies to death, why are we letting mothers hire an abortionist to do the same thing?

09 September 2003

Rooted in Christ

I've always rather liked the way the Jerusalem Bible renders Colossians 2:6-8:

You must live your whole life according to the Christ you have received -- Jesus the Lord; you must be rooted in Him and built on Him and held firm by the faith you have been taught, and full of thanksgiving. Make sure that no one traps you and deprives you of your freedom by some secondhand, empty, rational philosophy based on the principles of this world instead of on Christ.

This passage sums up rather nicely what I have sought to do in my book, Political Visions and Illusions. Perhaps I ought to have put it on a page between the table of contents and the preface. Maybe in the second edition.
Tax credit rallies in Ontario

I have just received the following from Herman Proper of the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools:

This Thursday, September 11, the Progressive Conservative Party will focus on the Tax Credit for parents who send their children to independent schools. Keeping the tax credit is an important issue for all Christian school supporters to communicate to the media and the public.

You can show your support by attending one or both of these events on Thursday, September 11 at which the Premier will speak about the Tax Credit.

11:15 a.m. Smithville Covenant and District Christian High. The Premier will address a large gathering. All are welcome to join. A light lunch will be provided following this event. Address is 6470 Smithville Road (formerly known as Regional Road 14).

7:00 p.m. Hamilton District Christian High School. The Premier will address a large crowd at 7:00 p.m. You are advised to come early. The school is at the corner of Garner Road (former Highway 53) and Glancaster Road (the boundary between Ancaster and Hamilton).

It is important to show support for the tax credit initiative and get the news of its support in the media. Come and show your support.

At present the Progressive Conservative Party, for all its deficiencies, is the only one of the three major provincial parties in favour of tax credits for students attending independent schools.


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