31 March 2005

PR for BC?

On 17 May voters in British Columbia will go to the polls to elect a provincial government. They will also have the opportunity to vote on whether to adopt a form of proportional representation known as the single transferable vote (STV). The holding of a referendum on this issue was recommended by a Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. The work of the Assembly and its recommendation is recounted in Jack MacDonald, Randomocracy: A Citizen's Guide to Electoral Reform in British Columbia, which can be read here in its entirety in pdf format. If BC voters approve this variety of PR, momentum will likely build for electoral reform elsewhere in Canada.

Incidentally, if STV succeeds, it will be largely due to the efforts of Nick Loenen, a Reformed Christian who once spoke at Redeemer about his recently published book, Citizens and Democracy: the Case for Proportional Representation.
'Sergyanism' in the Russian Church

Lawrence Uzzell is an Orthodox Christian who has long been active in promoting religious freedom in Russia and the post-communist world. Although the Patriarch of Moscow is currently trying to bring back into the fold the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), formed some eight decades ago as a temporary measure to prevent Soviet control over Russian émigré churches, the legacy of "Sergyanism", or collaborationism, is still very much alive and thriving in places, as indicated in this Moscow Times article by Uzzell: "Reaching for Religious Reunion." It seems that the Church of Greece is not the only Orthodox jurisdiction in need of reform.

30 March 2005

Today's medical news

"Brain Cells Built from Hair Stem Cells: Follicles appear as potent source for regenerating tissues." If I had known that earlier, I might have thought twice before getting my hair cut yesterday.
Martin defends Martin

Tony Martin, MP for Sault Ste. Marie, defends the Prime Minister's proposed Civil Marriage Act, not despite but because of his Catholic faith, especially what he calls "the spirit of Vatican Two." Presumably this speech did not have the imprimatur of his bishop.
A milestone birthday

All right, already! You don't need to rub it in. But, yes, it is true. I have now reached the half century mark. I should have some profound observations to make, now that I have acquired a measure of antiquity and sagacity. But perhaps I'll save them for my hundredth. Check back here in 2055.

By the way, birthday greetings are also due to Mr. Eric Theodore Hogeterp, one of my esteemed protégés, with whom I share not only this day but a middle name as well.

29 March 2005

Orthodoxy and political culture

Why is it that one never hears of military coups d'état in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain or the United States? Why does federalism work in Germany and India but not consistently in Nigeria or Russia? Why does constitutional government function so smoothly in most of Europe, and more recently east Asia, but scarcely at all in subsaharan Africa or the Middle East? The answer is to be found in that all-important concept of political culture, which can be defined as the total complex of political institutions and supportive traditions characterizing a given people, including attitudes towards political authority, participation, political rhetoric, styles of leadership, expectations of government, limitations on government action, and so forth. The word constitution, used in its older unwritten sense, might in some respects be deemed synonymous with political culture.

There have been efforts at quantifying or measuring political cultures, the most famous of which was undoubtedly that of Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba nearly half a century ago, whose results were documented in The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. A more recent and fascinating study of regional political cultures within a single country was published by Robert Putnam a dozen years ago, titled Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. A decade and a half ago Seymour Martin Lipset came out with a book, Continental Divide, comparing the political cultures of Canada and the United States.

Since the end of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, much work still needs to be done in studying the unique Russian political culture. Samuel Huntington sees Russia as the pivotal state in what he describes as a distinct Orthodox Christian civilization, whose values clash with those of the west. By contrast, Nikolai Petro views Russia and the Orthodox countries of Eurasia as sharing a common civilization with the west. In The Rebirth of Russian Democracy: An Interpretation of Political Culture, Petro argues that Russia's political culture, which appears to outsiders to foster little other than dictatorial régimes, is more complex than this stereotype would have it. In fact, there has long existed, side by side with authoritarian and totalitarian rule, an alternative political culture, often found amongst domestic dissidents and émigrés. This political culture is one which Petro calls "constrained autocracy," focussing on the complex of independent social initiatives which, since the late 1980s, has come in the west to be called civil society. Here the emphasis is not so much on the formal mechanisms of democracy and popular rule as on those institutions serving to limit the power of the autocrat.

Petro has recently weighed in on the subject with the following article: "The Orthodox Are Coming," in which he explores the implications of increasing Orthodox Christian influence within the European Union as its outer boundaries move continually eastward. Indeed, Petro sees the Russian Orthodox Church itself as one of the more crucial institutions supportive of civil society, if not always of political democracy in its western forms. Writes Petro:

A new generation of Western scholars on religion (Zoe Knox, Christopher Marsh, Elizabeth Prodromou, Nikolas Gvosdev) have even applied Western literature on civil society to contemporary Orthodoxy. By looking at the Church’s highly delegative, almost “confederative” system of administration, and focusing on its community-centered initiatives, they argue that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is playing an important role as the country’s largest civic organization.

Petro believes it is time to rediscover what unites east and west rather than what divides us:

We, in the Catholic-Protestant West, should prepare for the coming of the “Orthodox Century" by appreciating all that unites us. If the dividing line between East and West continues to exist in our hearts and minds, removing it from the political map of Europe will accomplish very little. In the long run Europeans must become much better educated about their common Byzantine and Eastern Christian heritage. Even in the short run, however, the essential elements of this common inheritance can be used to shore up pan-European democratic institutions. Recent scholarship by Silvia Ronchey, Helene Ahrweiler, and Antonio Carile, provide a conceptual link between Byzantine political thought and the modern age, and highlight how much current European aspirations to pluri-culturalism and subsidiarity (the idea that matters should be handled by the lowest competent authority), have in common with the Byzantine political model.

To be sure, there is something to be said for Petro's approach, which is a worthwhile corrective to those who would paint the Russian and Balkan political cultures in a single monochromatic hue. Yet there are two difficulties with his interpretation which ought not to be overlooked.

First, far from being a western construct, the notion of a fundamental east-west divide finds longstanding support within Russia itself, where there is a rather substantial subculture fearful of the decadent, apostate west. This is the side of the Russian soul which is insular and xenophobic, claiming a unique role for "Holy Russia" in upholding true belief against the heresies of Catholicism, of the various forms of protestantism and of modern secularism. Eurasianists, as they have sometimes been labelled, place little if any value on democracy and constitutional government, which they view as alien imports.

Second, even if Petro is correct in identifying an alternative political culture championing the independent initiatives of civil society, it is by no means inevitable that its adherents would govern in significantly different fashion from their opponents if they were to inherit the reins of power. Good intentions do not by themselves translate into representative constitutional rule, especially if there is no past experience with this in the political culture as a whole.

Of course, this should not be taken as an argument for cultural determinism. Yet cultures do not generally change quickly and abruptly. The habits of centuries are not easily shaken off, as Putnam discovered in his study of the Italian regions. This is where Huntington is almost certainly closer to the mark than Petro in isolating the apparently ineradicable boundaries separating the world's religiously based civilizations. It also suggests that the outer boundaries of the European Union may one day prove to be narrower than is generally supposed, despite the formal presence within Europe of Greece and Cyprus -- for now at least -- and soon-to-be members Romania and Bulgaria. Might Dimitri Obolensky's "Byzantine Commonwealth" be recreated as a counterpart to a western-oriented European Union? I doubt this is to be wished for, but we shouldn't be surprised if something like this does eventually occur.

27 March 2005


Ecumenical Patriarchate

Monastery of the Holy Saviour, Chora

Now the queen of seasons, bright with the day of splendour,
With the royal feast of feasts, comes its joy to render;
Comes to glad Jerusalem, who with true affection
Welcomes in unwearied strains Jesus’ resurrection.

- St. John of Damascus

26 March 2005


I have never been to Famagusta, the city on the east coast of Cyprus where my father grew up and where his family was living at the time of the Turkish invasion of 1974. However, ten years ago, during my only visit to the island, I stood in a building just south of the Green Line and saw what is now a ghost town through binoculars. I have just found some before-and-after photographs of the Varosha neighbourhood of Famagusta, which was a centre of Cyprus' tourist industry between 1960 and '74. The first was taken in 1973, the year before the invasion:

The second photo was taken much more recently and shows the extent to which what was once a thriving urban centre has now deteriorated:

These are found at the Return to Varosha, Famagusta, Cyprus website. Had the Annan Plan to reunify Cyprus been acceptable to both sides in the conflict, Varosha would have been returned to the legitimate government of the Cyprus Republic almost immediately. It is still being used as a pawn in the on-again-off-again negotiations. Assuming it is eventually returned, it would take a massive influx of capital to bring it back up to living standards. Such an effort to render habitable a ghost town would be very nearly unprecedented in history.
Terri Schiavo

If this story, told by Schiavo's lawyer, is true, then a massive injustice is being perpetrated in Florida. Thus far the courts are unmoved and the possibility is increasing that she will become a martyr to the prolife cause. Where does the truth lie in the case? It's not easy to know from this distance.

25 March 2005

24 March 2005

An unusual child?

In our house we have a 6-year-old daughter with some unconventional proclivities. She prefers to eat the white of an egg rather than the yolk (I think I was just the opposite), she loves to chew on the crusts of thick Italian-style bread rather than on the soft middle, and she takes the squid and octopus out of my specialty seafood pasta sauce -- because she likes them better than the pasta! In the recently rereleased 1957 television musical Cinderella, she loves comedienne Kaye Ballard's step-sister Portia -- seemingly more than Julie Andrews' Cinderella. She likes to make pretend prisons out of old shoe boxes. She tapes yarn to Leggo pieces and pretends they're mice. And, last but not least, she takes toy bats to bed with her at night. I suppose all children have their idiosyncracies.
NIV Apocrypha?

Three days ago I wrote a brief review of Today's New International Version of the Bible and commented, among other things, that the absence of the apocryphal books from this translation stands in the way of it becoming genuinely ecumenical. On second thought, I suspect that their absence would be implied by the larger cross-textual harmonizing approach of the NIV translation committee. If one comes to the task of translation with the conviction that any discrepancies among texts have to be ironed out to meet contemporary historiographic standards, then it would be difficult to find a place for some of the books which protestants tend to label Apocrypha.

For example, Judith is an obvious work of fiction and Tobit is very likely fictional as well. The author of the former book refers to Nebuchadnezzar as ruler of the Assyrians rather than the Babylonians (1:1). Yet the Babylonian exile is referred to as if it were past (4:3), which would presuppose that the Persians had already conquered Babylon. Judith's hometown of Bethulia defies geographical identification (4:6). There are a number of other clues in the story that its author was not intending to write literal history, or, if he was recounting an historical occurrence, may have disguised some of the names and ethnic references to protect himself and his people from reprisals. For example, "Nebuchadnezzar" could well have been Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the hellenistic ruler of Syria whose open persecution of the Jews led to the Maccabean revolt in the early 2nd century BC.

Similar discrepancies can be found in Tobit. For example, the hero's apparent personal experience of the defection of the northern tribes in the 10th century BC would make him several hundred years old by the time the story's action took place (1:4). In other words, it would be impossible to harmonize Judith and Tobit with the other books which are recognized as indisputably canonical. Furthermore there are discrepancies between the I and II Maccabees, including conflicting accounts of the death of Antiochus. The very inclusion of such books would seemingly necessitate a departure from a central tenet of the NIV/TNIV's translation philosophy. So there probably never will be an NIV/TNIV Apocrypha.

23 March 2005

Poetic justice

Prominent Chicago poet, antiwar activist and devout Unitarian revealed to be escaped convict and murderer from Massachusetts. One wonders why it took authorities so long to make the connection.
Befuddled geese

Today's weather for Hamilton: Cloudy with 70 percent chance of snow. High minus 1. I guess the geese are not infallible.
Upcoming event

James W. Skillen of the Center for Public Justice, Annapolis, Maryland, will be discussing his new book, With or Against the World? America's Role Among the Nations, on Thursday, 31 March 2005, 7:30 pm, at Redeemer University College, Rm. 111 in the Main Academic Building. Drinks and treats will be provided. It will be hosted by the student-led group, Kuyper's Café.
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

After Napoleon's defeat in 1812 Tsar Alexander I ordered that a new church be built in Moscow to commemorate the Russian victory over the French emperor's armies. The cornerstone was laid in 1839 and the completed building was dedicated in 1883, the year that Alexander III was crowned tsar. The story of the church is told at the webpages of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Valery Kiselev

The original cathedral

In 1931 the church was ordered demolished by Joseph Stalin. The site of the building was subsequently occupied by a heated outdoor municipal swimming pool. In my personal library I have a book, Moscow and Leningrad Observed, published in 1975, containing a photograph of this swimming pool and indicating that a church had once stood here.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communist rule, a decision was made to rebuild the church according to the original plans and on the original site. This was begun in 1995 and completed five years later in 2000. Judging from the following photograph, it is difficult to tell the difference between the two buildings:

Russian Orthodox Church

The rebuilt cathedral

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is the seat of the Patriarch of Moscow, who, quite appropriately, writes of the "miracle of the resurrection of the Cathedral."

22 March 2005

Undergraduates, II

They just keep coming. Another inspirational post from our resident Latin-Rite Calvinist, which very nearly makes Augustine's Confessions seem like dry prose by contrast. These young people make it exceedingly difficult not to love them!

21 March 2005


One of these days I will post something explaining why I've come to love our undergraduate students so fiercely. In the meantime, do read this inspirational post written by one of them. This is the sort of thing that makes what my colleagues and I are doing at Redeemer so immeasurably rewarding and significant. May God bless the young author of this post and others like her.
Queen Camilla

Britain's Department of Constitutional Affairs has confirmed that, as the consort of the future king, Camilla Parker Bowles will become queen, unless legislation is explicitly enacted to the contrary. The difficulty with such legislation is that it would have to be passed in all 17 countries which recognize Britain's monarch as head of state. This includes Canada, whose monarchy is entrenched behind an amending formula in the Constitution Act, 1982 (section 41) requiring unanimous provincial approval. Whether this covers the status of the consort of the reigning monarch is unclear. Could the objection of, say, Prince Edward Island derail the requisite constitutional amendment and leave Camilla the queen of Canada alone?


Our next queen?

My educated guess is that the federal government would choose to regard this as a mere statutory matter subject to an ordinary parliamentary majority and that the courts would probably agree.
The TNIV Bible

Some time ago I wrote a short piece on Bible translations and why I chose to use the Revised Standard Version as the default version in my book. This past week we received in the mail a handsome leather-bound edition of Today's New International Version of the Bible (TNIV), which was recently published by Zondervan and which my wife requested at last November's SBL/AAR meeting in San Antonio, Texas. The distinguishing feature of the TNIV is its use of gender-inclusive language where warranted in the biblical text and the avoidance, for the most part, of male generic pronouns. In this it is similar to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which is now 15 years old and is the preferred translation for liturgical use in many mainline protestant churches.

One can hardly make an exhaustive assessment of a new Bible translation in so short a time, of course, but I think it is worth communicating one's initial impression. To begin with, the TNIV reads very smoothly indeed, judging from our use of it in our family's evening prayers. Its language is elegant and easily comprehensible. However, the TNIV has the same major deficiency as the NIV itself, namely, harmonizing across texts without warrant in the existing ancient manuscripts. What I wrote nearly two years ago with respect to the NIV applies to the TNIV as well:

For example, the translators change the tense of the Hebrew verb in Genesis 12:1 to make it agree with Acts 7:2 on when Abraham received God’s call to the promised land. They similarly revocalize the Hebrew in Gen 47:31, so that the dying Jacob leans on his "staff" instead of his "bed," to make it agree with Heb 11:21. In attempting to smooth over the rough edges of the biblical text, it sometimes takes the reader in misleading directions from a textual perspective.

Like the NRSV, the translators of the TNIV have unwisely resurrected the archaic word mortals as a substitute for the generic masculine men, as, e.g., in Psalm 8:4, 9:19, &c. This is a questionable innovation at best, given that ordinary speakers of English generally do not use mortal in any context at all. However, the TNIV does not make the mistake of using it in Revelation 21:3, when mortality has obviously been conquered in the redeemed earth. Moreover, there are a number of passages, e.g., Psalm 54:3, in which people is the word of choice. This makes more sense.

The TNIV has avoided the anachronistic reference in the NRSV to "human rights" in Lamentations 3:35, which here reads: "to deny people their rights before the Most High". It has also eluded the inadvertent ascription of errors to the Law of God in the NRSV's translation of Psalm 19:12, which here reads: "But who can discern their own errors?" The insertion of own properly clarifies this. The TNIV maintains the male reference in Proverbs 10:5: "He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son." Here the NRSV unwisely substitutes child, with its implication of immaturity.

However, in Psalm 127 the TNIV replaces the references to sons with children, which does not seem to fit the context, especially in light of verse 5: "Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court." The RSV reads as follows: "Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate." The footnote to this verse in the New Oxford Annotated Bible says: "The gift of many stalwart sons makes a father feel secure." Given the highly gendered division of labour in ancient Israel, the shift to children masks this meaning. Even the NRSV recognizes this and retains the reference to sons.

Finally, as in the NRSV, the TNIV's translation of Psalm 8 alters the masculine pronoun to a generic plural, thereby making it unclear why the author of the letter to the Hebrews would cite it as a messianic reference to Jesus in Hebrews 2:5-9. For a translation that otherwise harmonizes across texts, this seems an odd thing to do. This is what I wrote of the NRSV two years ago:

But suffice it to say that, if one of the characteristics of an ideology is to follow rigidly the inexorable logic of a single abstract principle, e.g., the abolition of the division of labour or the freedom of the market, to the exclusion of other legitimate concerns, then the NRSV has by no means avoided this in its otherwise laudable use of inclusive language. To show that they affirm the equality of men and women, the translators have not only masked the highly gendered character of the original cultures -- itself problematic in the translation of an ancient text -- but, more seriously, have created difficulties of their own in the English text which would not have occurred had they been less single-minded.

At this point, while I think the TNIV has corrected some of the more egregious renderings in the NRSV in its use of inclusive language, it has not altogether escaped the ideological single-mindedness of which I speak above.

Two more comments are in order.

First, the translation of the Greek adelphoi as "brothers and sisters" in both the NRSV and TNIV New Testaments strikes me as correct. After all, in English the word brothers always refers to males. However, I wonder whether the word brethren might not have made for greater economy of expression. Although it is slightly archaic, it is much less so than mortals and it continues to be used and understood as a generic designation in the names of more than one protestant denomination, e.g., the Plymouth Brethren.

Second, like the NIV, the TNIV does not contain those books regarded by Catholics and Orthodox as deuterocanonical and by protestants as apocrypha. This marks both NIV and TNIV as bibles for evangelicals only. The fact that the majority of the world's Christians regard such books as Judith, Tobit and the books of the Maccabees as canonical scripture appears to have made no impression on the work of the NIV translation committee. Ironically this will keep the largest-selling version of the Bible in the English-speaking world from becoming genuinely ecumenical and that's unfortunate.

19 March 2005

The Democracy Dilemma

The Democracy Dilemma

The Bush administration is taking credit for an apparent trend towards democratic reform in the middle east. Are its controversial foreign and defence policies actually bearing fruit, contrary to the views of its detractors?

Not so fast, cautions Stephen E. Meyer of Washington's National Defence University in the latest Capital Commentary from the Center for Public Justice. Such optimism is almost certainly premature, and it is far from clear, even where elections have been held with some success, that democracy will prove to have staying power. Moreover, "because democracy is the Bush administration's new foreign policy centerpiece, the administration has a motive to trumpet democratic success in the Middle East even if there is relatively little to cheer about. In other words, if democracies are needed in the Middle East to lend credibility to our foreign policy, then democracies will be found."
No EU for North America

Canada's Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan confirms that her country and the US are not moving towards a North American counterpart to the European Union. On the other hand, it might well be argued that we're already there and that the Europeans are simply trying to replicate what occurred here in 1787 and 1867.
Church scandal

North American churches have seen their share of scandals in recent years, especially the Roman Catholic Church. But what is happening now in the Orthodox Church of Greece makes these look like mere missteps in comparison. If even half the allegations are true, then the church desperately needs thoroughgoing reform. And some very high ecclesiastics could wind up in jail.

Perhaps the solution would be to cancel the autocephaly of the Church of Greece and subordinate it once again to the Ecumenical Patriarch. National churches tend to become insular and thus unaccountable to the rest of the church. However, the Orthodox Church in Turkey, over which the Patriarch presides, is in difficult circumstances, as indicated in this Helsinki Commission briefing which took place three days ago. Perhaps Turkey's efforts to enter the European Union will prompt it to clean up its act and protect the religious freedom of its citizens.

18 March 2005

The Christian left

On the face of it, Giles Fraser and William Whyte would appear to be Britain's answer to America's Jim Wallis, as evidenced here: "Don't hand religion to the right: The secular left must stop sniping and realise it has Christian allies." Yet even the subtitle of this opinion piece tells a different story. Although there are certainly flaws in Wallis' "seamless garment" approach, I do believe he is genuinely concerned with the integrity of the church's witness in the larger society. By contrast, Fraser and Whyte seem more motivated to ally the christian and secular lefts against the real villain, the christian right. The gospel would thus become harnessed to an obviously ideological agenda and any distinctive christian witness would be eclipsed. No thanks.
'Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match'

Marriages are being made over the internet these days. Here is a website, CopticMatch.com, which brings together single Coptic Christians interested in matrimony. I wonder whether there is such a service for "neo-calves"? If not, perhaps it's time to start one.

17 March 2005

Church growth in France

Agnieszka Tennant has written a most encouraging article on the unexpected revival of Christianity in an unlikely place: "The French Reconnection: Europe's most secular country rediscovers its Christian roots." This is cause for thanksgiving and for continued prayer.
Quality of life survey

Let's all move to Luxembourg. But stay out of Baghdad.
Self-determination for Croatian Serbs?

Do the half-million ethnic Serbs ejected from Croatia a decade ago have the right to establish something like a mini-state within the boundaries of Croatia, complete with their own parliament and government institutions? The principle of national self-determination could be taken to imply this. After all, the boundaries separating the republics of the former Yugoslavia represent nothing more significant than the shifting borders between the expanding Habsburg and contracting Ottoman empires in the 19th century. Why not revise the boundaries so that the members of various ethnic groups might live together and govern themselves relatively free from "foreign" rule?

The issue is not as simple as that. After all, there is a case to be made that most of the world's international boundaries are artificial and inevitably bisect existing communities of history, culture and sentiment. Witness the lengthy 49th parallel between Canada and the United States, the boundary between Greece and Turkey in eastern Thrace, the European colonial borders imposed on Africa, and the ridiculously straight lines running through the deserts of the middle east. Yet despite their evident artificiality, any general revision of such borders is likely to unleash a chaos destructive of the political stability which is basic to the doing of justice.

It is worth reminding ourselves that political communities, with their territorial limits, exist primarily to do public justice to all people within their boundaries, whatever their ethnicity, and not to fulfil the aspirations of a pre-existing national community.

16 March 2005

Christian institutions: unrealistic demands?

For those of us working at christian institutions, there can be an implicit demand made on us to translate our total commitment to the cause of Jesus Christ into a similarly total commitment to that institution. Stuart Fowler offers a needed corrective:

The differentiation of communal life -- that is, the fact that human community is expressed in a diversity of communal relationships, each having its own distinctive character -- raises the important question: How do we balance the demands of the various communities to which we belong? It can be a serious weakness of the Christian shool that, because it is a Christian school, it demands so much of the time and energies of its members that other communal relationships suffer. This is simply not good enough. It is, in fact, an abuse of Christian community. Every community to which God calls us requires our equal commitment. We cannot measure this by the amount of time given to each, for each has its own particular character. What we can do, and must do if we are to experience the fullness of life to which Christ has called us, is ensure that each has the full commitment that it needs in order to flourish. This is not an easy matter, and requires a constant review to keep the balance right.

Fowler writes this in his essay, "Experiencing Community in the School," published in Jill Ireland, Richard Edlin and Ken Dickens, ed., Pointing the Way: Directions for Christian education in a new millennium (Blacktown, NSW, Australia: National Institute for Christian Education, 2004), p. 129.
Suspects apprehended in Jersey murders

Two suspects are in custody in the multiple slayings of the Armanious family, a Coptic Christian family in Jersey City. We can perhaps be thankful that the killings were apparently not religiously motivated, but this is scant comfort to the loved ones left behind. They definitely need our prayers.

15 March 2005

Colson versus Wallis

Are life issues a seamless garment, as Sojourners' Jim Wallis would have it, or is there a hierarchy of values, among which pro-life people must choose, as Chuck Colson argues? Here's Colson in his 21 February Breakpoint commentary, "Moral Equivalency":

Why help the poor if we don’t believe all lives are equal in God’s sight? If you support ending the life of a child because it will be born into poverty, how can you logically call yourself an advocate for the poor? The religious left is trying to tell us that you can take away the reason for doing something and still expect people to do it. Nobody’s going to win the allegiance of serious evangelical or Catholic voters by offering handouts to the poor with one hand while taking away their human dignity with the other. Sorry, Jim Wallis, all issues are not morally equivalent. The first one, the right to life, is non-negotiable. It undergirds all others: Take it away, and the whole house of cards collapses.

This is from Wallis' response:

As I told Christianity Today: "Christians can't say, 'All we care about is someone's stance on abortion. I don't care what they do to the economy, to the poor, I don't care what wars they fight, I don't care what they do on human rights.' It's almost like we care about children until they're born and then after that, they're on their own. We're cutting child health care, cutting child care for moms moving out of welfare. No, you can't just care about a child until they're born." My message to both parties - to both liberals and conservatives - is that protecting life is indeed a seamless garment. Protecting unborn life is important. Opposing unjust wars that take human life is important. And supporting anti-poverty programs that provide adequate support for mothers and children in poverty is important. Neither party gets it right; each has perhaps half of the answer. My message and my challenge are to bring them together.

Finally, Colson again:

The difference between us Jim, when it comes to politics, is that I don’t think we can evaluate a political agenda and say that a candidate is 80 percent correct on a biblical scorecard if he wants to help the poor, reform the prisons, defend everyone’s human rights, care for the widows and orphans, but is pro-choice. My belief is that his pro-choice position undercuts all of his professed concerns in other areas of life because it is simply inconsistent. If I’m mischaracterizing your position, I apologize; we’ll have to blame the New York Times and others, because this is the way your position has been characterized. I must say that in your open letter to me quoting your interview in Christianity Today that you suggest this when you say “It’s important for the Democrats to change the way they talk about a moral issue like abortion.” And then acknowledge in the same sentence that they will, however, “retain the legal option of abortion which Democrats are going to do because that’s part of their plank.” That is not giving the same biblical validity to the pro-life position as it is to helping the poor, let alone giving it the prime position. So if that is what you’re advising the Democrats to do, I think you’re off base. I could not advise any politician to take that position because I think it’s contrary to the clear thrust of the Scripture. There is a hierarchy of values, which is the point I tried to make in my piece.

So who's in the right and who's wrong? It probably depends on what is at issue: how to vote at election time or how Christians ought to be mobilized for political purposes. My sense of the matter is that Wallis is focussed very largely on the latter while Colson is more concerned with the former. And this in part is what brings them to different conclusions.

Chuck Colson

That said, I believe the approaches of both Colson and Wallis are seriously flawed, though not always in the same ways. A few observations are in order here:

(1) More pro-life than thou. I myself would certainly wish to claim the pro-life label, as I've repeatedly indicated before. However, I don't believe this is the proper place to begin in articulating a biblical understanding of the role of government. Thomas Hobbes believed in the right to life so strongly that he saw the desire for self-preservation as the defining feature of the human being and its protection as virtually the only reason for government. Yet few would wish to follow Hobbes in freeing the governing authorities from moral and legal constraints to enable it better to fulfil this role. A focus on the protection of life, while in itself proper, can become lopsided if allowed to trump all other considerations, especially a proper understanding of the distinctive calling of government and its place within human society. After all, a tyrannical régime is fully capable of proscribing abortion and euthanasia -- that is, doing all the right pro-life things -- while otherwise arrogating to itself arbitrary powers. One is tempted to point out the numbers of Christians in Europe in the 1930s who embraced national socialism and fascism because their proponents opposed godless communism, which they rightly took to be an obvious evil. We all know the consequences of that choice.

This is not to say the protection of human life is not important. It surely is. At the very least a just government must protect the lives of its subjects. But a pro-life stance ought not to be used as a way of avoiding the process of thinking through the normative task of government in God's world.

(2) Wallis' consistent life ethic. Much as I would like to follow Wallis here, I don't find him altogether persuasive on this point. He is right to try to find common ground between opponents in the abortion controversy. His acknowledgement that the Democratic Party in the US is unlikely to change its position on abortion is simple realism. Given this state of affairs, it makes sense to see whether pro-choicers can be persuaded to come on side of efforts to decrease the actual number of abortions being performed. I don't think Colson can fairly fault Wallis for seeking some sort of common ground here.

At the same time, lumping together such issues as abortion and capital punishment is exceedingly unhelpful. Although I would not favour the reinstatement of capital punishment here in Canada and other jurisdictions where it has been abolished, I am far from denying the justice of capital punishment, if it can be fairly administered, which I have come to doubt. The fact that abortion unfairly extinguishes an innocent life while capital punishment repays a capital crime can hardly be overlooked. Efforts to seek justice which are unable to make basic distinctions along these lines are likely to go awry.

Jim Wallis

(3) Unhelpful rhetoric. Here's Wallis in an interview with SFGate.com:

I often ask people, "What do you think God is most preoccupied with, those 30,000 children dying every day or whether we call it civil unions or gay civil marriage? Which do you think God spends the most time worrying about?"

This sort of rhetoric is of no more use to us than those who would throw WWJD ("What would Jesus do?") at every dilemma. It offers nothing in the way of helping us to think through the normative task of government. For someone who pleads for consistency in pursuing a life ethic, Wallis here seems unable to grasp the genuine interconnectedness of such issues. Although he elsewhere claims to believe that healthy marriages and families are important to the doing of social justice, he appears to believe that securing a legal definition of these institutions is not particularly important and can be bypassed with impunity for purposes of achieving practical common ground. As I've written before, I think this is naïve, at very best.

By contrast, a coherent political philosophy must account for the genuine pluriformity of society, including the role of government in protecting this pluriformity. This requires us to gain a solid, historically-informed, empirical grasp of these social forms, as clarified in the light of scripture. Based on this grasp, we must then ask: What is the role of political authority in justly interrelating these forms? What role should it play in protecting, not only human lives (though this is certainly a basic precondition for the doing of justice), but the full array of human callings as experienced within the context of a complex, differentiated society? Inevitably, given the jural side of reality, government must of necessity define legally the communities found within its territory, and it must do so justly. Mistaking a business enterprise for a family or a friendship for a marriage will inevitably have deleterious consequences for all four entities, as well as for the larger society. Wallis appears unable to comprehend this.

(4) A hierarchy of values. Colson's ranking of political issues in a hierarchy is not altogether unproblematic either, even if he sees some things that Wallis does not. It is certainly true that judgements over matters of war and peace are prudential in character and subject to legitimate differences of opinion, as Colson admits. However, if a government mishandles its foreign and defence policies to such an extent that they threaten to destabilize large swaths of the globe, then one can hardly blame citizens for voting against such a government, even if it makes all the right noises with respect to abortion and euthanasia. Here, of course, the focus is not so much on mobilizing Christians to live out their citizenship in a more redemptive way, as on guiding their votes as they are called to choose between two or more existing but seriously flawed options. Colson has obviously taken a partisan line, throwing his support behind the Bush re-election effort last year. In so doing, however, he had to ignore some rather basic flaws in the current presidency, including a dangerously destabilizing defence policy and a claim to be above both domestic and international law. Wallis is correct to be concerned about these; they are not small matters. Colson does not take them seriously enough, if he acknowledges them at all.

(5) Lack of discernment re: ideologies. One of the reasons I wrote my Political Visions and Illusions was to try to get Christians to exercise spiritual discernment with respect to the underlying influence of the several secular ideologies within the political realm. This entails digging rather more deeply than most people are wont to do when confronted with political alternatives. Most of us are, in fact, likely to focus solely on issues, as if adding up so many right answers on the issues of the day will automatically make for a good agenda worthy of support. Thus Colson can extol Bush in his Breakpoint commentaries and talk glowingly about the impact of a christian worldview in his country, while entirely ignoring the spiritual roots of the predominant form of liberal individualism conditioning the agendas of both Bush and Kerry. Wallis is not much better in trying to stitch together a "seamless garment" of life issues which ends up being little more than an eclectic amalgam of good intentions, but lacking altogether a coherent, undergirding political philosophy. If Colson and Wallis could manage to delve beneath the surface and hash out the more basic issues, they might be able to achieve a breakthrough in working out their own disagreements.

So how about it, gentlemen? Shall we give it another go?

14 March 2005

Preaching from the pulpit

Given that I have been in academia for more than two decades now, I am thoroughly accustomed to speaking in educational settings. On the other hand, I rarely preach from the pulpit in the course of a church's worship service. To be sure, I once led an Ash Wednesday service at South Bend Christian Reformed Church twenty years ago. I may have preached once or twice elsewhere since then, but that's it.

Last evening was one of those rare occasions. I preached at the evening service at First Christian Reformed Church downtown Hamilton. In the Reformed churches the second service is usually a teaching service based on the questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism or another confessional document. At First Church the congregation is currently being led through the Contemporary Testimony, a quasi-confessional document put together more than two decades ago by the CRC. The general title is Our World Belongs to God and it represents an effort to bring to bear the riches of the Reformed tradition on the whole of life.

When the congregation got to the paragraphs dealing with civil government -- something which, incidentally, all the Reformed confessions treat -- the pastor asked me to preach. I was quite happy to do so. I preached on Romans 13:1-7, with a number of references to Psalm 82, a metrical version of which was sung after the sermon.

It was an enjoyable experience, but I was glad that my wife, who was unable to be present, had read my sermon first. She has a seminary education and was thus able to offer a number of helpful suggestions for improvement. Without her valuable input, it probably would have read as more of a scholarly paper than a sermon. Thanks, Nancy.
Great Lent

Today marks the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox ecclesiastical calendar.

13 March 2005

An elusive hymn

So is there really a hymn titled, Gladly the Cross I'd Bear, which generations of children have mistaken to be Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear? It's nowhere to be found in my personal hymnal collection and it's not at the Cyberhymnal website either. A Google search turns up little of consequence, except for the purported confusion of the two titles.
Rushdie on religion

Writing in sunday's Toronto Star, novellist Salman Rushdie urges the west to "Keep religion out of public life." Translated into plain language, this means: "Keep all religions except my own enlightened secularism out of public life." Argues Rushdie: "For those of us who grew up in India in the aftermath of the Partition riots of 1946-1947, following the creation of the independent states of India and Pakistan, the shadow of that slaughter has remained as a dreadful warning of what men will do in the name of God." The human tendency towards violence is indeed a tragic reality. However, someone ought to alert Rushdie to the huge numbers of deaths -- close to 100 million -- inflicted by an atheistic régime in the grip of a secular ideology and hostile to traditional religion. That might help him to put things in perspective.

11 March 2005

3/11: one year later

Condolences to the people of Spain on the first anniversary of the Madrid attack.
The future of liberalism

John Leo asks whether liberalism can survive? He argues that contemporary liberals have adopted the moral relativism of what I would call the choice-enhancement state while appealing to the legacy of the equal-opportunity state associated with Roosevelt's New Deal. Yet one wonders whether Leo's argument is with liberalism per se or only with its latest incarnation. Most American critics of liberalism cannot manage to mount a truly radical critique, assuming that turning the clock back to liberalism's earlier stages will somehow heal the disease. It won't.

10 March 2005

Where is The Scream?

Several months after it was stolen, authorities are still searching for The Scream, the famous painting by Edvard Munch -- no relation, one assumes, to Canadian children's author Robert Munsch. . .

. . . or is he?

Official Robert Munsch Website
OSSL link added

I have added yet another link to the sidebar: the Ontario Student Solidarity Local, based at Redeemer University College and affiliated with the Christian Labour Association of Canada.
Liberal eschatology?

For some political leaders it is apparently not enough to defend the wisdom of a particular policy agenda; it must be plugged into a grand eschatological vision with an obvious spiritual provenance: "Those who place their hope in freedom may be attacked and challenged, but they will not ultimately be disappointed, because freedom is the design of humanity and freedom is the direction of history." It seems Hegel and Marx have some competition from south of the border.

08 March 2005

New addition to sidebar

Once there were radio and television interview programmes. Now there are internet programmes following a similar format. One of these is Pensees: Faith Seeking Understanding, a link to which I have added to my sidebar. What exactly is Pensees? "Pensees is a group to help bridge the gaps between the intellect and the affections, evangelical scholarship and the local church, and the church and contemporary culture."

This past thursday evening I was privileged to be interviewed by Pensees host Keith Plummer on the subject of political ideologies, with a special focus on conservatism. I will alert readers when my interview is posted at the Pensees website.
Colson-Wallis debate

Chuck Colson's recent Breakpoint commentary, "Moral Equivalency: The Religious Left Gets It Wrong," prompted this response from Jim Wallis, "An open letter to Chuck Colson," to which Colson has now replied in "An Open Letter to Jim Wallis." Perhaps Wallis will offer a rejoinder. In any event, I will at some point weigh in on this debate.
Urbanists and agrarians together: time for dialogue?

A few weeks ago my tonge-in-cheek reference to young neocalvinists as "neo-calves" prompted a comment that, since neocalvinists tend to be urbanists, a bovine metaphor might not be appreciated. But is this a fair characterization of the neocalvinist position? Do neocalvinists invariably fall into the urbanist camp in opposition to agrarians? My part-time colleague and co-conspirator, Gideon Strauss, has repeatedly advocated a new urbanism focussing on the health and well-being of our urban centres. Yet it might be more accurate to observe that the neocalvinist vision, with which I have been associated for thirty years, is one which celebrates the balanced and proportionate development of society, including its urban and rural communities. I myself understand the pull of the large city, having lived for two years in Toronto in the late 1970s and having grown up near the fabled "windy city" of Chicago, with its magnificent waterfront, famed architecture and world-class museums.

At the same time it would hardly be right to downplay the significant role played by our small towns and farming communities, without which no society could survive. Two organizations here in Canada, rooted in the neocalvinist vision, have taken up the responsibility for caring for the earth and cultivating an awareness of the farmer's calling to fulfil that part of the cultural mandate known as agriculture. The first of these is the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, led by Elbert van Donkersgoed. The second of these used to be known as the Christian Farmers Federation of Alberta, but in 1992 changed its name to Earthkeeping: Food and Agriculture in Christian Perspective. (I was unable to locate a website for this group.) Both have their origins in the neocalvinist movement, as indicated in this historical essay by John L. Paterson, "Institutional Organization, Stewardship, and Religious Resistance to Modern Agricultural Trends: The Christian Farmers’ Movement in the Netherlands and in Canada."

A disporportionate emphasis on either urbanism or agrarianism at the other's expense does so at the risk of failing to recognize the normative complementarity between urban and agrarian communities. The principal issue, as I see it, is how to achieve the proper balance. Over the past century the proportion of the population engaged in agriculture as a livelihood has steadily diminished in most western countries. Is this a good or bad thing? Is it a consequence of normative differentiation or has it dangerously deprived us of the human virtues that accompany hard physical labour and a life close to the soil? What of the steady encroachment of the city on the countryside, poignantly illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton in her classic children's book, The Little House? Is this an inevitable development or ought there to be efforts to guarantee green spaces in perpetuity for the benefit of future generations?

These are the issues we need to grapple with. Too easily identifying ourselves as either urbanists or agrarians would seem to prejudice the discussion before it has even started.

07 March 2005

King of Canada?

From the Sofia News Agency: "Bulgarian Church Recognises PM's Kingship." I suppose we should be glad none of Canada's churches claims to recognize Paul Martin as king.
Rogers' critique: a response

As promised, here is my response to James R. Rogers' brief review of my book. Three of his points would appear to call for some reply, which I shall try to keep as brief as the review itself.

First, liberalism is too diverse a phenomenon to be placed in what might be called a single worldview category, particularly one tarred with the label of idolatry.

To be sure, not every use of the adjective liberal necessarily implies an adherence to liberalism as an ideology. Even amongst ideological liberals, there can be no doubt that adherents claim to believe different things, especially with respect to practical policies. It is also true, finally, that real flesh and blood persons tend to mix and match from among the different ideologies somewhat eclectically. Yet for analytical purposes there is something to be said for treating ideologies in their "pure" forms. If I were writing the book again, I might emphasize the narrative structure of the worldviews underlying the ideologies, much as I did in my recent posts on John Locke's political philosophy. Such an approach might better illustrate the hazards of philosophical (and ultimately spiritual) eclecticism with respect to the ideologies.

There is much more that I could say on this point, of course, but I suspect that Rogers is simply averse to the notion that liberalism, which many Americans are inclined to identify indiscriminately with freedom per se, has deeper spiritual underpinnings and an internal logic which tends to move it in the direction of the leviathan state. But without a more detailed critique, I cannot say for certain whether this is the case.

Second, there is too little of Jesus Christ in my treatment.

My suspicion is that Rogers has been influenced in some fashion by Karl Barth. Barth was famously averse to the idea of a normative creation order and preferred to filter ethics -- and politics as well -- through christology. I did not see fit to spend a lot of time in a book about politics interacting with the great Swiss theologian, but as I was reading the relevant sections of his massive Church Dogmatics several years ago it struck me that Barth's ethics presupposed a normative understanding of creation even as he denied it. One could simply not come to the conclusions Barth came to on the basis of christology alone. Moreover, an emphasis on redemption without a solid grounding in creational limits and possibilities is likely to lead in an antinomian direction.

At the same time, although I am far from being a Barthian, my focus on the central biblical narrative of creation, fall and redemption in chapter 7 can only be understood within the context of the saving work of Jesus Christ. It is possible that Rogers' objection is not so much to a supposed lack of reference to Jesus Christ as to the notion that redemption in Jesus Christ is cosmic in scope and has concrete creational implications. But again I can only guess at this based on such brief comments.

Third, I have failed to flesh out the practical implications of my proposed christian democratic approach.

Although my initial instinct is to be charitable even to a critic, this third point is difficult to take seriously and would appear to come from either a fairly young scholar or someone in a more practically-oriented field or subfield. It is scarcely newsworthy that every book works within limits. The lack of a detailed legislative agenda flowing out of my proposed christian democratic approach simply means that the book represents an effort to lay theoretical foundations, which others may then proceed to flesh out. An author can hardly be faulted for not writing the book the reviewer wishes he had written.

However, as a matter of fact, much of this fleshing out has already been done and is currently being done by others, as Rogers himself could easily have discovered with a little more effort on his part. He would have done well to read some of the works listed in my bibliography to see how others in the neocalvinst tradition have drawn out policy implications. He might also have perused the website of the Center for Public Justice, whose on-going work my book is intended to support. Political Visions and Illusions was never intended to stand alone; it is rather part of a particular christian tradition of theory and practice. It is thus designed to complement the work of a number of people and organizations standing within this tradition.

More could be said, I suppose, but I think this is probably sufficient for now.

06 March 2005


I didn't feel this one: "Quebec Quake Rattles Ottawa." Did you? "Quakes are common in the Charlevoix area." But no volcanic activity, one assumes.
The kid sister on the Grammys

"‘A good year for songwriting,’ So says Grammy-winning opera singer from Stewartstown."

05 March 2005

How I stopped being a wine snob

Some people take wine very seriously. The two television characters, Frasier Crane and his brother Niles, are stereotypical wine snobs, instinctively and immediately knowing the difference between a merlot and a shiraz upon entering a room with an uncorked bottle. I myself never went that far, partly because I hadn't the financial means to do so, but mostly because it seemed faintly ridiculous to put so much of one's energies into a mere beverage.

My first taste of wine came from a bottle of Mavrodaphne, a Greek red wine which my father would drink very occasionally when I was growing up. I hated it and vowed that, if all wine tasted like this, I would never drink it again. Mavrodaphne is an extremely sweet dessert wine which, to my young palate, resembled nothing other than Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup. Much later I would discover that Greek tastes in wine tend towards excessive sweetness and that not all wine is like this.

While travelling in Europe thirty years ago, I quickly discovered, especially in France, that wine is actually less expensive than the carbonated beverages I used to drink at the time in North America. Thus began my wine-bibbing days. I quickly learned that there were certain rules that went along with the enjoyment of wine. For example, white wine goes with seafood and poultry, and red wine with red meats. Since my earliest days I have loved seafood and chicken while merely tolerating beef and lamb and positively reviling pork. So white wine it would apparently have to be. For most of my subsequent adult life I would tell people, when asked, that I preferred white to red wine.

Then a few years ago it finally dawned on me that I actually like red wine better than white. Perhaps it had something to do with the discovery of the health benefits of red wine. Or it may have been related to my own idiosyncratic tastes. Whatever it was, I determined that, wine snobbery or no, I would go ahead and drink a Cabernet Sauvignon with salmon or chicken. Thus far no one has bothered to correct this incredible faux pas on my part. My conscience remains quite clear and I have no trouble sleeping at night despite this grave violation of social convention. I have yet to be ostracized by polite company. So pour me another glass. . . .

Templer's Mill

Where's the beef?

04 March 2005

Just Peacemaking: a third way?

The other day I borrowed our library's copy of Glen H. Stassen's Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace. A part-time colleague is using the 2nd edition of this book in the course he's teaching this semester at Redeemer, and I was interested to know something of its author's thesis. Stassen argues that just peacemaking constitutes an alternative to the just war and pacifist positions held by most Christians. Here are his seven steps of just peacemaking:

1. Affirm common security: "affirm our common security partnership with our adversaries and build an order of peace and justice that affirms their and our valid interests" (p. 94).

2. Take independent initiatives. "The point of independent initiatives is to build mutual credibility, decrease the sense of insecurity, and provide incentives so our adversary can begin to consider rational alternatives" (p. 101).

3. Talk with your enemy. "Seek negotiations, using methods of conflict resolution" (p. 102).

4. "Seek human rights and justice for all, especially the powerless, without double standards" (p.103).

5. Acknowledge vicious cycles: participate in peacemaking process.

6. End judgemental propaganda, make amends: "Instead of judgmental propaganda, we can acknowledge to others that we have caused hurt and want to take actions to do better" (p. 107).

7. Work with citizens' groups for the truth: "participate in groups with accurate information and a voice in policy-making" (p. 109).

Stassen's favoured model, to which he continually refers, is the ultimately successful effort of East German Christians to change the oppressive régime under which they were living prior to 1989. All of this sounds good, of course, and it is difficult to dispute the conviction that it is better to seek peaceful reconciliation than to wage even a just war. Yet there are two difficulties with Stassen's approach which call into question its claimed general validity.

First, Stassen himself argues that "just peacemaking theory focuses on preventive and conflict-resolution measures early in a conflict, while there is still time to divert the forces that lead to war" (pp. 233-4). Furthermore, "to raise issues of pacifism or just war theory as we approach the brink of war is almost always too late" (p. 233). Perhaps. Yet it is not clear that just peacemaking has any advantage over these two positions when a country is staring down the barrel of a gun and attack is imminent.

Just peacemaking appears to be a strategy -- or composite of strategies -- intended to prevent war from arising in the first place. Yet even if we assume for the sake of argument that it can in large measure meet with success, there will inevitably be times when it fails. What happens then? Any theory incapable of dealing with the hard situations -- with extreme circumstances -- will have limited usefulness at best. When the Ottoman armies are at the walls of Constantinople or the gates of Vienna, just peacemaking would appear to have few, if any, resources for addressing the life and death dilemma faced by the would-be defenders, particularly if the sultan himself steadfastly refuses to negotiate. This suggests that just peacemaking cannot really be seen as a distinct alternative to just war and pacifism, because at that point the possible courses of action have been narrowed to only two: fight or don't fight.

Second, just peacemaking theory appears not to address the issue of who is responsible for implementing its proposals. In short, it neglects the issue of authoritative office. One of the advantages of just war theory is that it is careful to indicate that the responsibility for waging war belongs to a duly constituted political authority. Even the classical anabaptism of the Schleitheim Confession appears to recognize this. At this point I can do no better than to quote Brian Dijkema, who himself has been reading in the field of just peacemaking recently:

For example, the second step of taking independent initiatives to reduce threat might take on a whole number of different skins depending on who the independent initiator is. Might the sword rattling of the United States that some suggest led to Libya's transformation and Syria's pullout of Lebanon be considered an independent initiative? How might an independent initiative of a trade union, a group of businesses, the Christian Reformed Church, the Roman Catholic Church, or a council of churches differ from the Canadian government's independent initiative? Who is responsible for encouraging peacemaking groups? The church? The state? I might go on. To me, it seems that any necessary steps towards peacemaking must include an understanding of the differentiated competence of different organizations. Accepting these ten[*] steps without a clear understanding of the different jurisdictions of different institutions might lead to greater problems than already exist.

Excellent. Of course, it is difficult to quarrel with the intent of those strategies collectively labelled just peacemaking. But as an alternative to just war theory and pacifism it is not particularly persuasive.

* The number of steps has apparently been expanded from 7 to 10.
This just in

Martha Stewart returns home from prison. But I'm sure the prison is now a more comfortable, homier place than it was 5 months ago.
Silence broken at last

Brian who?

03 March 2005

'Hobbits' again

Flores man is back in the news once more. It seems that brain size is less important for intelligence than previously thought. How the brain is wired would appear to be more significant.
Gates knighted

Sir Bill? It just doesn't sound right.
Christian labour

During my visit to Regent University, I had the opportunity to talk with a number of faculty from several christian universities in the United States, mostly over shared meals. In the course of our conversations we compared notes concerning the respective manifestations of christian witness in our two countries. When I mentioned the Christian Labour Association of Canada, for which a plurality of my own protégés now work, my American counterparts were intrigued and expressed interest. Among particularly evangelical Christians south of the border it seems that labour unions are generally not held in high esteem -- frequently for good reasons. Yet as I told them of the CLAC's distinctive approach to labour relations and its on-going efforts to bring reconciliation to the workplace, I found that it appeared to touch a chord. I know there is a very much smaller counterpart to the CLAC in the United States. I wonder whether now might be the time for it to expand its efforts. Perhaps a little push from Atlantic Avenue in Mississauga, Ontario, might be in order?
Virginia notes

  • Before last weekend I had last visited Virginia Beach in 1972. That was my first visit to an ocean. I don't recall much of that earlier visit, but it seems to me that the hotels were smaller back then and were largely independently-owned. Now they all seem to be part of the big chains.

  • My relatives tell me that this winter has been colder than normal in southeast Virginia. Any amount of snow shuts down the city, which lacks the equipment necessary to handle it. I might have been more impressed by this if I hadn't been so busy enjoying what seemed to me to be warm weather.

  • Regent University has a beautiful campus, containing such unusual (for southern Ontario) plants as holly trees. (Palm trees are found elsewhere in the city.) In the centre of the campus is a man-made lake inhabited by various species of waterfowl unfamiliar in Canada.

  • The Regent campus seemed curiously bereft of people, as I saw no students walking among the various buildings. I asked about this and was told that Regent is made up of several schools, each of which is fairly self-contained and has its own building. Thus it is not necessary to walk between buildings to move from one class to another. I suppose that's not all that different from Redeemer, where a single building houses all the classes.

  • In downtown Hamilton one sees signs for "mountain access routes." In Virginia Beach one sees signs for "hurricane evacuation routes." The latter sound somewhat more ominous than the former.

  • Perhaps the lack of people walking among the buildings had something to do with the "cold" temperatures. If our weather were that balmy, it would bring our students out into the open wearing short trousers and short sleeves.
  • 02 March 2005

    Bush's 'conservative' reformism

    It seems I am not the only person to puzzle at the popular media's use of red and blue to stand for the American public's support for Republican and Democratic Parties respectively. Here is Wilfred McClay, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre, speaking on "American Culture and the Presidency." McClay notes that, while the colour red was after 1848 associated with progressive reform movements, such as socialism, it has now come, at least in his country, to be attached to the party which is ostensibly the more conservative. Yet it may be that the current assignment of red to the Republicans is more appropriate, historically speaking, than might initially appear to be the case. After all, Bush's domestic and foreign policies are driven by "a commitment to the general cause of human freedom and human liberation." In this respect, Bush is closer to his evangelical protestant roots than to traditional conservatism. What are the differences? McClay writes:

    Although many secular observers seem not to understand this, evangelicalism, by its very nature, has an uneasy relationship with conservatism. To call someone both an evangelical and a conservative, then, while it is not to utter a contradiction, is to call him something slightly more problematic than one may think. Of course this is, or should be, true of all Christians, who have transcendental loyalties that must sometimes override their political commitments, even very fundamental ones. But it is especially true of evangelicalism. As a faith that revolves around the experience of individual transformation, it inevitably exists in tension with settled ways, established social hierarchies, customary usages, and entrenched institutional forms. Because evangelicalism places such powerful emphasis upon the individual act of conversion, and insists upon the individual's ability to have a personal and unmediated relationship to the Deity and to the Holy Scriptures, it fits well with the American tendency to treat all existing institutions, even the church itself, as if their existence and authority were provisional and subordinate, merely serving as a vehicle for the proclamation of the Gospel and the achievement of a richer and more vibrant individual faith. As such, then, evangelicalism, at least in its most high-octane form, may not always be very friendly to any settled institutional status quo. In the great revivals of earlier American history, it nearly always served to divide churches and undermine established hierarchies, a powerful force for what Nathan Hatch called "the democratization of American Christianity."

    It is not surprising, then, that Bush's proposed reforms are nearly always intended to empower individuals to control their own lives and fortunes within what he likes to call an "ownership society." A society of independent smallholders, as it would have been styled in our agrarian past, is something worth struggling for, as a community is deemed only as virtuous as its component individuals.

    Yet there is something lacking in the Bush vision, which McClay picks up on. It is a sense of limits -- a "constrained vision" -- which is found in an older European conservatism, but not in its upstart American version. McClay again:

    There is not much of [Reinhold] Niebuhr, or original sin, or any other form of Calvinist severity, in the current outlook of the Bush administration. That too is a reflection of the optimistic character of American evangelicalism, and therefore of evangelical conservatism. It certainly reflects the preference of the American electorate, which does not like to hear bad news, a fact that is surely one of the deep and eternal challenges to democratic statesmanship.

    I am reminded of the late Christopher Lasch's description of Ronald Reagan's "traditional values" -- "boosterism, rugged individualism, a willingness to resort to force (against weaker opponents) on the slightest provocation" -- as having little to do with tradition. Or Eugene Genovese's observation that Reagan's "optimistic view of human nature" was nearly enough to "warm the hearts of liberal theologians." Much of what could be said of Reagan a generation ago can now be said of Bush. What both share is a certain 19th-century brand of liberal individualism which is sometimes, albeit misleadingly, labelled conservative.

    Incidentally, I received word that James W. Skillen's With or Against the World?: America's Role among the Nations, has just been published by Rowman & Littlefield. This is a book I have alluded to more than once on this blog, and I think it may just prove to be the most important book Skillen has written. I will likely be commenting on it here at some point.

    01 March 2005

    From the red planet

    Good news: "Sea boosts hope of finding signs of life on Mars." Still, it's probably too soon for Redeemer to think of sending student recruitment personnel there.


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