25 December 2008

The incarnation: a stumbling block

The following piece appeared in the 8 December issue of Christian Courier, as part of my monthly column, titled Principalities & Powers:

In the liturgies of some churches, the congregation stands at the reading of the gospel lesson. There may even be a gospel procession in which the celebrant walks down the aisle accompanied by two people, one bearing a candle held aloft to provide the symbolic light and another carrying the book from which the lesson will be read. This is a sign of respect for the gospels, which, uniquely in Scripture, tell the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

It is striking, however, that only two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke, contain infancy narratives. Each provides a different, albeit complementary, account of Jesus’ birth, but both agree that he was born in Bethlehem, the city of his remote ancestor David. Mark, whose gospel is much shorter than the other four and is devoted largely to Jesus’ deeds rather than his words, does not mention the birth at all, focussing instead on the beginning of his ministry and the inaugural role of John the Baptist.

The fourth gospel is different from the three synoptics. If John passes over Jesus’ infancy, he nevertheless bears clear testimony to the incarnation:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (1:1-5 RSV).

God became man in Jesus Christ. This is what we confess weekly in our churches and it’s what separates Christians from the followers of the other Abrahamic religions.

A decade ago a former moderator of the United Church of Canada revealed in an interview that he did not believe that Jesus was divine or that he had literally risen from the dead. Naturally this created controversy in his own church and elsewhere, but his doubts are shared by many. After all, if Jesus was a mere human being, even a very good one, and we nevertheless worship him, we are guilty of nothing less than idolatry. This is precisely what Jews and Muslims believe about Christians.

Yet if God did not become man, we are still in our sins and there is no salvation for us. For no mere human being could bear the weight of God’s anger at our sin and thereby release us from it, as the Heidelberg Catechism affirms (Question 14). Only the One who is true God and true Man can work our salvation from the debt of sin (Questions 15-18). This is the message of the gospels and there can be no doubt that it is a stumbling block to many, as Paul puts it (1 Corinthians 1:23), even to some who would otherwise claim the label Christian.

Nevertheless, the church has always taught that, read together, the four gospels give us a full understanding of who Christ is. John affirms that God become man in the incarnate Word, while Matthew and Luke relate that the Word-made-flesh was born of an ordinary woman in humble circumstances, far from the centres of political power yet threatening enough to be hunted by an apprehensive local ruler.

God became man in Jesus Christ, a momentous event that is still foolishness to the nations two thousand years later.

20 December 2008

Thoughts on friendship

Friendship is one of those things that we tend to take for granted. When we do think about it, we may be tempted to follow the greeting card companies and sentimentalize it, which effectively cheapens it. Nevertheless, friendship is something we are created for. Indeed we could hardly live without it. Friends are not an add-on to life; they are central to what it means to live as fully human creatures, communing with our fellow image-bearers of God.

Over the coming weeks I will be posting a series on friendship, possibly as a precursor to writing something more lengthy and in depth on the subject. At present I envision an outline of my thoughts running something along these lines:

  • The stages of friendship, including: childhood, youth and adulthood. Each successive stage may represent a deepening of friendship, though this is not necessarily the case. In a highly mobile society, such as exists in North America and much of the western world, the nurturing of friendships is not necessarily for life.

  • Forms of friendship, according to the pluriformity of society, including: marital, collegial, mentor/protégé, familial and political/civic. Friendship in each of these settings appropriately takes different forms.

  • Levels of friendship. The typical North American claims to have numerous friends — far more than any ordinary person could reasonably be expected to cultivate in a limited lifespan within a geographically circumscribed homeland. This raises the issue of degrees of friendship. Some of our friends are simply closer to us than others. There is nothing amiss in this, given our created limitations.

  • Friendship with God. Is friendship with God possible? If so, is our friendship with him different in kind or in degree from our human friendships? I hope to address these questions in this last section.

  • As I proceed to write, it is possible that I will alter this outline, perhaps adding categories or addressing different issues than I have here. If any of my readers thinks of a topic I should explore, I am certainly open to suggestions. My next posting on this topic will come shortly after the beginning of the new year.

    16 December 2008

    The 'O Antiphons'

    In many churches of the western tradition, tomorrow marks the beginning of the "O Antiphons" in the Liturgy of the Hours. For those unfamiliar with these, here is Father William Saunders' fascinating explanation: What are the "O Antiphons"? In the 19th century John Mason Neale translated and adapted them as the beloved Advent hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel. (Hat tip: Mere Comments)

    15 December 2008

    December snippets

  • Given that Stephen Harper's Conservatives do not have a majority government, this is almost certainly the most sensible thing I've read in a while: Flaherty to consult with Liberals on budget plans. Whether it will enable him to avoid a no confidence vote next month remains to be seen. In the meantime, Lorne Gunter traces Harper's gradual transformation, despite his intentions otherwise, from new school to old school politician. It seems senate reform will have to wait.

  • The embattled Illinois governor, Rod Blagoyevich, grew up in the Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Resurrection in the Logan Square neighbourhood of Chicago. Parishioners believe that his parents "taught him better than this," that God's forgiveness awaits him if he truly repents, but that he must still pay for his deeds, beginning with his resignation from office. Writing for US News & World Report, Jennifer O'Shea tells us 10 Things You Didn't Know About Rod Blagojevich.

  • Might Barack Obama get caught up in the scandal over his vacated Senate seat? Writers for The Telegraph are certainly open to the possibility. Here's Toby Harnden: Barack Obama has to come clean about Rod Blagojevich – and fast. And Iain Martin: Barack Obama, Rod Blagojevich, Jesse Jackson Jnr: what a fabulous scandal.

  • Avery Cardinal Dulles has died at age 90. Joseph Bottum has written an obituary for the well-known Catholic theologian. I had the privilege of meeting Dulles once at a conference at Calvin Seminary just over a decade ago. I was a respondent to a paper he had written on Religious Freedom and Pluralism. My response was titled, Differentiated Responsibility and the Challenge of Religious Diversity. In conversation with him, I asked whether he preferred to be addressed as Prof. Dulles or Fr. Dulles. (This was before his appointment to the rank of cardinal.) He replied that he preferred Fr. Dulles, because his priesthood for him was of greater importance than his academic position. May he rest in peace until the resurrection.

  • The Vatican has just released an "instruction" on bioethics, titled Dignitas Personae. It is addressed "to the Catholic faithful and to all who seek the truth."

  • And now to Cyprus, where the recently retired president, Tassos Papadopoulos, has died at age 74. As he is generally thought to have been an obstacle to the reunification of the island, his departure from office was unlamented by many. His early associations with EOKA did not exactly endear him to Turkish Cypriots. May God grant his family comfort in their time of loss and the people of Cyprus better governance under his successor.
  • 12 December 2008

    Yet another constitutional crisis

    And now to tiny Luxembourg, where controversy over a law permitting euthanasia and assisted suicide has led to the trimming of the powers of the head of state, Grand Duke Henri: Luxembourg monarch muzzled over euthanasia. Not surprisingly, pro-life websites are picking up this story. In 1990 the late Belgian King Baudouin abdicated for a day to avoid having to withhold assent to a liberalized abortion law and possibly touch off a constitutional crisis in that country. Henri chose another path for himself and his heirs.

    10 December 2008

    Crises in Canada and Illinois, continued

    Canada — This story is changing by the hour, but here is what the CBC reports as I write: Ignatieff prepared to form coalition. Michael Ignatieff has his wish: he is now leader of the federal Liberal Party and only three years after returning to this country after his decades of residence in the United Kingdom and the United States. Or to put it another way: he is returning to the cave after seeing what eludes the rest of us unenlightened ones: the bright ray (definitely not Rae!) of the sun.

    I will be reposting something I wrote a few years ago about Ignatieff's liberal individualism, but a colleague has pointed out to me that he may not be that different from his immediate predecessor, as indicated here: Stéphane Dion, inconspicuous achiever. This quotation is telling:

    Dion's academic work has mostly been as a cold-eyed analyst of bureaucracies and public administration and he is not a particular fan of institutions, religious or otherwise. As his wife, Janine, told an interviewer, for her husband "all that exists is the individual. Everything else is a social construction, hence does not exist."

    Illinois — Meanwhile, at the other end of the Great Lakes, Illinois is still reeling from yesterday's dramatic arrest of Governor Blagojevich. Writing for the BBC, Matt Frei asks: "When will the Illinois prison authorities finally grasp the nettle and open a governors' wing in Chicago's premier jail?" He recites a litany of gubernatorial names familiar to me from my early years:

    If convicted, Governor Rod Blagojevich will follow in a long and established line of former governors who have served time in both office and jail.

    Governor Otto Kerner was governor from 1961 to 1968 and served slightly less than a year in 1973 for bribery and fraud.

    Governor Dan Walker served in office from 1973 to 1977 and in jail for 18 months on charges of bank fraud and perjury.

    Governor William Stratton ran Illinois from 1953 to 1961 and was later indicted but acquitted for tax evasion.

    Governor George Ryan, who was Governor Blagojevich's immediate predecessor is still IN jail, completing a six-and-a-half-year sentence on, yes you've guessed it, wire fraud and bribery.

    The closest Canada has to Illinois's brand of politics is British Columbia, the major difference being that BC has far more interesting scenery.
    Home state antics

    As an Illinois expat, this story comes as no surprise to me: Governor Accused in Scheme to Sell Obama’s Senate Seat. Among the allegations against Rod Blagojevich:

    The governor is accused of racing to solicit millions of dollars in donations from people with state business before an ethics law bars such behavior in January, and threatening to rescind state money this fall from businesses, including a Chicago hospital for children, whose executives refused to give him money. He is also accused of putting pressure on The Chicago Tribune to fire members of its editorial board who had criticized him or lose the governor’s help on the possible sale of Wrigley Field, which is owned by the Tribune Company and is home to the Chicago Cubs.

    What about Barack Obama himself, whose Senate vacancy was the occasion for Blagojevich's less than savoury fund-raising activities?

    Mr. Obama, who Mr. [Patrick J.] Fitzgerald said was not implicated in the case, sought to put distance between himself and the governor during brief remarks on Tuesday afternoon and later in an interview with The Chicago Tribune, saying he did not discuss his Senate seat with Mr. Blagojevich.

    “I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so we were not — I was not aware of what was happening,” Mr. Obama said. “And as I said, it’s a sad day for Illinois. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment.”

    It is just possible that our own Conrad Black will soon have a new cellmate. In the meantime, with Christmas just round the corner, Obama's Senate seat is up for sale on ebay, with a promise of free shipping. Gift-wrapping goes unmentioned.

    07 December 2008

    The Green Bible

    Though some Christians style themselves "Red Letter Christians," I myself have never liked red letter editions of the Bible. There are two reasons for this. First, when the words of Christ are printed in red, the publisher seems to be elevating them above the remainder of Scripture, which explicitly states that "all scripture is given by inspiration of God" (II Timothy 3:16-17, emphasis mine). This is unwarranted and amounts to making a canon within the canon. Second, as I get older I find it increasingly difficult to read red text on a white background. These two issues cause me to avoid such editions.

    Now we are being sold something called The Green Bible, which, as Brian McLaren tells us, "puts references to God’s creation in green." I've not yet seen this edition, but because Scripture is the story of creation, fall into sin and redemption of that creation in Jesus Christ, I should think that the entire Bible would have to be printed in green letters. Sorry, but I doubt that my eyes can handle that.

    06 December 2008

    Church news

    This report is just in from Moscow: Russian Orthodox Church Leader Dies. The Moscow Times assesses probable candidates to succeed the deceased Patriarch. The BBC recounts the Double life of Russia's patriarch.

    Alexii II (1929-2008)

    Turning to the fracturing Anglican communion, the GAFCON primates have welcomed the formation of the new Anglican Province in North America, whose first public liturgy, shown below, was held at the Evangelical Free Church in Wheaton, Illinois, whose spacious building I myself have been inside.

    05 December 2008

    Prorogation: the day after

    As the dust settles for now, Canadians are trying to come to grips with the events of the past few days. This sport story is clever, to be sure: Leafs Just Won The Cup, but it plays into the popular misconception that electoral politics is about winning and losing rather than representation. Fair Vote Canada tells us what a coalition government would look like if we had some form of proportional representation: The sound of one democratic hand clapping. As it turns out, not everyone in the back benches is happy with Dion and Layton's proposed coalition: Dissent in Liberal ranks appears after Parliament suspended.

    Stephen Harper has his reprieve, but he will have to face the Commons once again at the end of next month. Now it's home for Christmas. And the Governor General can resume her European tour.
    Lost history of Christianity

    It was almost by chance that I purchased Philip Jenkins' book, The Next Christendom, in Toronto back in 2002. I hadn't before heard of him, but the volume looked intriguing and my subsequent reading of its contents proved a thought-provoking experience. In it Jenkins chronicled the dramatic shift in recent decades of Christianity's centre of gravity from Europe and the west to the "global south," i.e., Africa, Asia and Latin America. As he told this story, he dropped some tantalizing hints that the historic demographics of Christianity might not have been what most people think they were.

    Six years later Jenkins fleshes out those hints for us in The Lost History of Christianity, subtitled: "The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — and How It Died." Most of his readers will be familiar with the two worlds of Latin and Greek Christianity, centred in Rome and Constantinople respectively. Few will be aware of the territorially vast christian world east of the Roman Empire extending from the Syriac-speaking Near East to the borders of China or to the south in Egypt and Ethiopia. These were more than just a few "schismatics" peripheral to the "mainstream" of Christianity. The numbers were large, at times exceeding those of the Latin west under papal jurisdiction, thereby constituting another christian "mainstream" — and one closer than the others to the semitic cultural world of the New Testament.

    To illustrate the size of this "Third Christian World", Jenkins focusses on Timothy I, Patriarch, or Catholicos, of the Church of the East around 800. His see was initially in the city of Seleucia and later moved to nearby Baghdad, but his ecclesiastical jurisdiction extended far beyond the land between the rivers:

    In terms of his prestige, and the geographical extent of his authority, Timothy was arguably the most significant Christian spiritual leader of his day, much more influential than the Western pope, in Rome, and on a par with the Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople. Perhaps a quarter of the world's Christians looked to Timothy as both spiritual and political head. . . .

    In England, to give a comparison, the medieval church had two metropolitans: respectively, at York and Canterbury. Timothy himself presided over nineteen metropolitans and eighty-five bishops. . . . Just in Timothy's lifetime, new metropolitan sees were created at Rai near Tehran, and in Syria, Turkestan, Armenia, and Dailumaye on the Caspian Sea (pp. 6, 10).

    So what happened to this now nearly defunct Christendom? It did not die out in the 4th century. Indeed it endured as a vital spiritual community into the 14th century, that is, up to the very cusp of the modern age. Through most of this time Christianity was in large measure a Syriac religion whose adherents breathed the very atmosphere of Yeshua and his apostles. And this at the supposed zenith of western Christendom.

    Of course, the muslim invasions of the 7th century put enormous pressure on the christian communities they conquered. Yet the latter continued to survive and thrive for centuries thereafter, even under foreign domination. However, in the 14th century a series of catastrophes led to the virtual collapse of Syriac Christianity and the far flung communities it had spawned. These included renewed persecution at the hands of muslim rulers, successive Mongol and Turkish invasions, a cooling global climate leading to failed harvests and conflict over scarce resources, and the Black Plague. The remaining christian communities were finally finished off in the 19th and 20th centuries, as nationalistic régimes sought to cleanse their territories of ethnic and religious minorities.

    This is a story that has not been fully told and understood until now. We are indebted to Jenkins for bringing it to our attention. How his book will be received probably depends on the audience. It is obviously not intended primarily for scholars and can better be described as a page-turner aimed at an educated audience. Some of Jenkins' fellow academics may fault him for his lack of knowledge of Syriac-language primary sources and his dependence on (mostly) English-language secondary sources. Yet others may applaud his effort to put before an English-speaking public a significant historical episode with which they are almost certainly unfamiliar.

    One facet of Jenkins' argument gives me pause as a political scientist: a key reason why so many christian minorities were able to survive into the 20th century is that they successfully hid themselves from central government authority within relatively inaccessible topography. One thinks of the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon or the Orthodox Montenegrins in the Ottoman-dominated Balkans. Until fairly recently few governments were able fully to exercise their authority over every square inch of territory nominally under their jurisdictions. This provided an opportunity for disliked minorities to continue to live their faith relatively free from harassment.

    By the 20th century, however, technical developments enabled governments to enforce their control in uniform fashion over all their territories. This monopoly over the power of the sword, to use Paul's expression (Romans 13), enabled governments to punish brigandage and other criminal activity more consistently than in the past. This represented a net gain for justice. My favourite christian philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd, has defined the normative internal structure of the state in terms of this monopoly, which has ensured an unprecedented uniformity in the administration of justice.

    On the other hand, it also brought to the modern state the means to oppress more consistently as well. It was only in the 20th century that Egypt and Turkey finally rid themselves of their minorities, either through death or exile. If justice becomes more certain in the modern state, so does injustice. In this respect, one might well lament the passing of the old polyglot empires whose relative tolerance was based, not on good will or respect for human rights, but on their incapacity to be fully intolerant.

    I will end with a quotation from Jenkins:

    Historically, Christians faced the issue of whether to speak and think in the language of their anti-Christian rulers. If they refused to accommodate, they were accepting utter marginality, and cutting themselves off from any participation in a thriving society. Yet accepting the dominant language and culture accelerated the already strong tendency to assimilate to the ruling culture, even if the process took generations. Although a comparable linguistic gulf does not separate modern Western churches from the secular world, Christians still face the dilemma of speaking the languages of power, of presenting their ideas in the conceptual framework of modern physics and biology, of social and behavioral science. To take one example, when churches view sin as dysfunction, an issue for therapy rather than prayer, Christians are indeed able to participate in national discourse, but they do not necessarily have anything to offer that is distinctive. Nor is there any obvious reason why believers should retain their attachment to a religious body that in its language and thought differs not at all from the secular mainstream. Too little adaptation means irrelevance; too much leads to assimilation and, often, disappearance (p. 245).

    04 December 2008

    And now back to the Anglican crisis . . .

    . . . where this development has occurred in my hometown of Wheaton, Illinois: North American Anglican Province Formed As Rival To The Episcopal Church. Canadians are part of this too. That this new Anglican Province overlaps with the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada shouldn't pose too much difficulty in light of this: New indigenous province proposed.
    Crisis in Ottawa, III

    As Stephen Harper heads for the Governor General's office, Canadians might wish to read up on the King-Byng constitutional crisis of 1926 and perhaps even the Whitlam Dismissal in Australia in 1975. Let's hope Michaëlle Jean has done so before she makes her decision.

    Update: Mme. Jean is obviously no Lord Byng: GG agrees to suspend Parliament: PMO. I commented on a similar crisis three years ago: Why Clarkson will not intervene.

    02 December 2008

    Crisis in Ottawa, continued

    Just when we thought that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative minority government was settling in for at least another two years in power, the events of the past several days have upset these expectations. Now we read that Her Majesty's representative, Governor General Michaëlle Jean, is cutting short her European state visit to deal with the current crisis. That two opposition political parties would conspire to topple the government and replace it with a coalition government is unprecedented in Canada's history. It would not be unusual in some European countries, but those of us living under Westminster-style systems have generally eschewed multiparty coalition governments as somehow undemocratic — as if party leaders collaborating to form a government thereby frustrate the will of the voters.

    On the other hand, there is something rather surreal in the spectacle of a single party taking power based on only 37.63 percent of the vote and fewer than half the seats, and then having the effrontery to claim a mandate from the Canadian people to govern. It is scarcely less absurd when such a government receives an absolute majority of seats though most citizens have voted against it. This, once again, points to the need for electoral reform in this country.

    Though I am not teaching Canadian politics this term, I have spent some time in each of my classes this week talking about the developments in the nation's capital, due to their historic nature. I have likened what is happening to pre-1992 Italian politics, when multiple parties would have to take great pains to form a government, with leaders deciding to elevate to the premiership, not one of themselves, but a comparative nonentity deemed least objectionable to them. I couldn't help thinking of this as we witnessed especially the Liberals haggling over who would become prime minister. Would it be Stéphane Dion, the current but outgoing leader? Or Michael Ignatieff? Or Bob Rae?

    What are Stephen Harper's options? Some are suggesting he could request the Governor General to prorogue Parliament, that is, to end the current session. But given that it began only two weeks ago, ending it this early would be a highly unusual move that would certainly stretch our constitutional conventions beyond what any previous prime minister has attempted. There can be little doubt that this would flirt with the edges of democracy itself. What would the Governor General do? She has the authority to refuse Harper's request, but since 1926 her predecessors have chosen not to confront their prime ministers, even when it might be advisable for them to do so to protect the constitution.

    A central question is, of course, whether the Liberals and New Democrats would actually be able to govern. Together they boast only 114 seats as compared to the 143 held by the Conservatives. One-hundred fifty-five are needed for a majority. This means that the separatist Bloc québécois holds the balance of power with 49 seats. This gives the BQ king-making power. They will not, of course, participate in a coalition government, because they have few aspirations beyond being a protest party. Though Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton claim that the BQ will support their proposed government, at least in the short term, it is not in its long term interest to continue to prop up two parties that are more centralizing in their federalism than the Conservatives. Yet it is difficult to imagine the BQ propping up the Conservatives either.

    My own solution? I don't claim this to be the definitive answer, but it might just be wise for Harper, whom 62.37 percent of Canadian voted against, to enter into negotiations with Dion towards forming a grand coalition government, rather like that between Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in Germany. To be sure, the business of government would not move quickly under such an arrangement, but the divided verdict of Canadians two months ago may have left our politicians with no real alternative. Harper might do well to cast a backward glance to consider what happened to Prime Minister Joe Clark back in December 1979, when he tried to govern as if he had a majority, but found his minority government quickly defeated on the budget. If, as Henry Milner believes, we are in for a protracted period of minority government, our political leaders will have to overcome their overwrought fears of co-operating with the other parties and sit down and actually talk with them rather than just shouting at them from across the floor of the Commons.

    01 December 2008

    Political crisis in Ottawa

    This is news indeed: Liberals, NDP one step closer to coalition deal. If this does occur, it will be nearly unprecedented in Canadian history. Stay tuned.


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