21 December 2013

'Orange States' and 'Tricolor States' in Post-Soviet Ukraine

The last several national elections have revealed the United States to be nearly permanently divided into “red” and “blue” states, labels originating in the electoral maps posted by television networks as they cover presidential campaigns. But few Americans are aware that Ukraine is similarly, and more intractably, divided along political lines.

In the United States, the red states tend to support the Republican Party while the blue states support the Democratic Party. But, as more than one observer has pointed out, every state is actually a slightly different shade of purple, with blue counties concentrated in the metropolitan areas and red outside these regions. In other words, red and blue appear to represent not so much separate cultures and ideological commitments, but rather a traditional rural-urban split, exacerbated by considerable partisan petulance. While antagonism between Republicans and Democrats has engendered stalemate in Congress, the difference is actually not one of deep principle, opinions to the contrary notwithstanding. Rather, the difference is a contest over who better represents the larger liberal tradition on which America was founded over two centuries ago.

The divisions in Ukraine are even more stubborn. Unlike the United Sates, Ukraine does not have a revered common heritage of founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution. There is no founding generation to be mythologized along the lines of George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. There is no sense of national mission to hold the country together.

Read the entire article.

20 December 2013

'To you belong all the nations'

Although the biblical Psalms are a product of the old covenant, for centuries the Christian Church has sought and found Jesus Christ in its historic song book. A number of Psalms have been designated messianic in character, including Psalms 2, 22, 30, 69, 72, 110 and 118. This is due either to their explicit reference to the LORD’s Anointed (Messiah) or to their anticipation of an event related to Jesus’ life, suffering or death.

Psalm 82 is not always placed in this category, although it does anticipate God’s judgement over the nations of earth in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Revised Standard Version, the Psalm begins, “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” The footnote to this verse in the New Oxford Annotated Bible tells the reader: “Making use of a conception, common to the ancient Near East, that the world is ruled by a council of gods, the poet (presumably a priest or temple prophet) sees, in a vision, the God of Israel standing up in the midst of the council and pronouncing judgment upon all other members.”

Such an interpretation owes much to an evolutionary worldview which treats religion as merely an artifact subject, like all other products of human culture, to growth and development. Within this worldview, the ancient Israelites’ primitive polytheism developed under various influences into henotheism (in which YHWH is chief among the gods) and finally into monotheism (no God but YHWH) around the time of the Babylonian exile. By contrast, the biblical narrative itself portrays the Israelites repeatedly abandoning fidelity to the one true God and worshipping false gods for which they were punished throughout their history.

There is another interpretation of Psalm 82 less beholden to this evolutionary worldview. The translators of the New International Version place “gods” in inverted commas, as if to indicate the improper assumption of divine status by these beings. But who are these beings? I believe a good case can be made for their identity as earthly rulers who have come to esteem themselves as gods.

The key to this can be found in verses 2-4: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” All of these imperatives are ordinary tasks undertaken in the course of political rule. The setting is not a mythological council of gods, but the one true God calling those to whom he has given political authority to do justice as they discharge the weighty responsibilities of office.

A decade and a half ago, I set Psalm 82 to verse to be sung to the proper Genevan melody. My own versification draws on the interpretation set forth above:

Judging among divine pretenders,
in council God his verdict renders:
“How long,” says he, “shall wickedness
be favoured over righteousness?
Give justice to the poor and needy,
rescue the helpless from the greedy.
Treat widows as is right and fair,
defend all orphans in your care.

“Blindly you grope about and stumble,
while earth's foundations start to crumble.
Gods you may think yourselves to be,
yet you shall taste mortality.
Like earthly kings whose days are numbered,
death's claim on you will not be cumbered.”
Rise up, O God, and judge the earth,
to you the nations owe their birth.

During Advent and Christmas we do well to pray Psalm 82 acknowledging that its ultimate fulfilment is in the person of Jesus Christ, who, in the words of Isaiah 9:7, will sit upon the throne of David and establish his kingdom of righteousness and justice for ever.

David T. Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College. His next book, We Answer to Another: Authority, Office and the Image of God, is forthcoming from Pickwick Publications.

04 December 2013

Bob Goudzwaard

Readers of my first book, Political Visions and Illusions (the second should be out early in the new year), will recall my mentioning three mentors who have shaped me in my journey, especially with respect to grasping the spiritual nature of political ideologies. One of these is Dr. Bob Goudzwaard, emeritus professor of economics at the Free University of Amsterdam and former member of the Dutch Parliament. His argument in Idols of Our Time provided the central thesis for my own book. I owe a debt of gratitude to this wise servant of God's kingdom.

02 December 2013

Keep calm . . .

Good advice at any time:

01 November 2013

Justice versus justice

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ conversation with his friends over the nature of justice takes a startling turn when Thrasymachus drops a bombshell. It is more profitable, he argues, for people to be unjust than just, if they can manage to get away with it without incurring a bad reputation. Of course, no society could function on this principle for very long, as individuals would seek to exempt themselves from the rule of law and to gain at others’ expense. Criminal activity is universally condemned as an obvious violation of justice. Here justice is evidently set against injustice of the worst kind.

However, most political issues do not have such a simple dichotomy between justice and injustice. In the real world, conflict is likely to lie not between just and unjust, but between different visions of justice. Partisans everywhere often have difficulty understanding this.

A good example of this is the debate over the closed union shop, an issue that goes back to the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 which legalized collective bargaining in the workplace. Those of a more conservative mindset argue for so-called right to work laws, which would free prospective employees from the obligation to join a union if they prefer not to do so. After all, the Constitution guarantees freedom of association, which the closed union shop appears to violate unjustly.

On the other hand, those of a more liberal bent argue that the closed union shop is necessary to enhance the power of potentially disadvantaged workers against management, who would otherwise unilaterally dictate the terms of their employment. Justice in the workplace requires worker solidarity, which the union guarantees. Requiring employees to join and pay dues to the union is thus very much in accordance with justice.

Read the entire article.

22 October 2013

The fate of two ghost cities

Over the decades, my extended family's experience has been shaped by the sorry fate of two ghost cities nearly 10,000 kilometres apart.

In July 1974 the military government in Athens engineered a coup d'état in Cyprus and installed a puppet dictator expected to annex the 14-year-old island republic to Greece. This reckless escapade came crashing down when Turkey sent a military flotilla to the north coast of Cyprus on the pretext of protecting the country's ethnic Turkish minority. Greece's military régime went down with it, along with relentless aspirations in some quarters to unite the two countries in a greater Greece.

In August, while the United States' attention was focussed on the transition from a discredited president to his inexperienced successor, Ankara took advantage of its presence in Cyprus, expanding its foothold and occupying 37 percent of the island. One of the casualties of this venture was the prosperous Varosha district of Famagusta on the island's east coast. Varosha is located just south of the old walled city of Famagusta, built by the Venetians in the 16th century and the setting for much of Shakespeare's Othello. Varosha was largely inhabited by Greek Cypriots and became the centre of the island's tourist industry in the 1960s. Boasting the best beaches in Cyprus, high-rise hotels were built there to accommodate the influx of foreign visitors on holiday. My father had spent his youth there, and by 1974 most of my relatives on his side were still residents, including my elderly grandparents.

This all changed during that terrible summer. As Turkey moved to take the northern part of Cyprus, Varosha's residents fled hurriedly, leaving dishes on the table and laundry on the lines, assuming they would soon be returning after the crisis had passed. But this never happened, and my relatives and so many others became refugees in their own country. I was a young man at the time, and this traumatic event was one of the precipitating factors in pushing me towards the study of political science.

Twenty-one years later I finally got to Cyprus and was able to gaze from a distance on the eerie sight of an abandoned city, caught in a United Nations-monitored buffer zone, with homes, cafés and hotels crumbling into disrepair (see photograph above left).

Now to this side of the pond.

For just over a quarter century I have regularly driven the stretch of road between Hamilton and Chicago to visit family. This usually requires a drive through Detroit, once a thriving metropolis but now a dilapidated city with large tracts of land simply abandoned by its one-time residents. Crossing the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor into the Motor City brings into view a tall, eerily empty building that used to be a transportation hub for the region. The historic Michigan Central Station (above right) saw hundreds of trains arriving and departing daily during the railways’ heyday in the first half of the 20th century. Last used in 1988, this formerly magnificent building has fallen into an advanced state of decay, along with so many other landmarks of a once great city.

I personally greeted the news that Detroit had filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy with considerable sadness. My mother grew up less than an hour away, and I still have relatives on her side living in the Detroit metropolitan area. Once the centre of North America’s now vastly diminished automobile industry, much of Detroit is now a ghost city, its former residents having long ago fled to the suburbs or to America’s Sun Belt. It might be a stretch to label them refugees, yet for those who were born and grew up there and can no longer safely return, the loss of their “homeland” must still be difficult to accept.

Of course, conquering armies did not literally expel Detroit’s inhabitants from their homes, as occurred in Varosha. Yet the fate of both cities is due in large measure to political authorities pursuing ill-considered and short-sighted policies at the expense of ordinary people.

Like individual persons, cities are born and die. But unlike persons, cities can be revived and become livable again. The last book of the Bible tells us that the redeemed creation will be centred in a city, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2). Whether Varosha and Detroit become signposts to this city, attaining their former prosperity and becoming home to new generations, depends on God’s will and timing. In the meantime, though some of us will continue to mourn these cities’ current sad circumstances, we do so as those expecting the ultimate fulfilment of urban life in Jesus Christ and his redeeming grace.

David T. Koyzis has taught politics at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, for just over a quarter of a century. This appeared in the 14 October issue of Christian Courier as the latest instalment of his "Principalities & Powers" column, which has been running monthly since 1990.

06 September 2013

The Perils of Taking Sides

In Malcolm Magee’s fascinating book on Woodrow Wilson’s “faith-based foreign policy,” What the World Should Be, the author notes that, in the two major conflicts during Wilson’s administration, the president took sides largely out of a desire to divide the world into obvious “good guys” and “bad guys.” In the Mexican civil war, Wilson intervened on behalf of the faction to which he ascribed the most righteousness, although the murky realities of that country’s politics should have elicited a more cautious response. Similarly, during the First World War, Wilson’s admiration for British political institutions and his instinctive distrust of “German theology” predisposed him to commit the United States to the cause of London and Paris against Berlin and Vienna.

A century later, we face similar complexities in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, a series of popular uprisings which began with high hopes of a smooth transition to democracy but whose tragic reality has been civil warfare. The rhetoric of the Arab Spring fits into a larger narrative with which Americans are familiar: Subjugated people living under tyranny finally tire of oppression, rise up, overthrow their despotic rulers, and claim liberty for themselves and their communities. Having overturned a self-serving oligarchy, they set up a government more responsive to their own needs and aspirations.

Yet this narrative does not entirely fit the current situation in a region where there are no obvious good guys and bad guys.

Read the full article here.

03 September 2013

Bad People and Private Schools

Allison Benedikt could perhaps stand to take a few lessons from Mark Twain or Will Rogers, because her obviously satirical article in Slate has elicited a number of angry responses from readers who have taken her seriously. Here's the article at issue: If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person. Why?

I went K–12 to a terrible public school. My high school didn’t offer AP [advanced placement] classes, and in four years, I only had to read one book. There wasn’t even soccer. This is not a humblebrag! I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. You know all those important novels that everyone’s read? I haven’t. I know nothing about poetry, very little about art, and please don’t quiz me on the dates of the Civil War. I’m not proud of my ignorance. But guess what the horrible result is? I’m doing fine. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that I got a lame education. I’m saying that I survived it, and so will your child, who must endure having no AP calculus so that in 25 years there will be AP calculus for all.

Conventional wisdom tells us that satire doesn't work if you have to explain it, but here goes. Anyone reading the article should quickly pick up that, if the author has to resort to such flimsy reasoning to denigrate parents desiring a better education for their children, then her own admittedly bad education obviously cannot have served her very well. A better education might have prepared her to mount a more effective argument and to avoid ad hominem attacks. It really is an exquisitely subtle jab at the public system, though perhaps a little too subtle for some.

It seems odd that so many readers have failed to pick up on this satirical element. Yet charity for the author does indeed require us to assume it's satire, because if it's not . . . well, it may be wise to allow readers to draw their own conclusions in that case.

25 August 2013

Rising at Midnight: Changing Sleep Patterns and Daily Prayer

Most western adults try to sleep between seven and eight hours a night, with some needing less and others more for proper functioning during the day. However, many of us suffer from insomnia, unwillingly lying awake for hours in the middle of the night. As it turns out, however, fretting about wakefulness seems to be a modern preoccupation. Our ancestors appear to have taken this as a normal state of affairs, as reported here: Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Like You.

Your ancestors slept in a way that modern sleepers would find bizarre – they slept twice. . . . The existence of our sleeping twice per night was first uncovered by Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech.

His research found that we didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.

References are scattered throughout literature, court documents, personal papers, and the ephemera of the past. What is surprising is not that people slept in two sessions, but that the concept was so incredibly common. Two-piece sleeping was the standard, accepted way to sleep.

Although unfamiliar to us today, a perusal of the Bible appears to support Ekirch's discovery. Here are a few telling references:

But Samson lay till midnight, and at midnight he arose and took hold of the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and pulled them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron (Judges 16:3).

At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! (Ruth 3:8)

At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules (Psalm 119:62).

Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning (Mark 13:35).

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25).

What did people do with these wakeful hours in the middle of the night? According to Stephanie Hegarty, writing for the BBC,

During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.

This answers a question that has puzzled many of us who have studied the ancient patterns of daily prayer practised by God's people of the old and new covenants. Nowadays we have difficulty imagining why anyone would willingly consent to be roused from a supposedly deep slumber by the summons to prayer at such an (if you'll pardon the expression) ungodly hour. Yet they may already have been awake. Both Roman and Orthodox monasteries prescribed a midnight office, with certain psalms assigned to be prayed at that hour. According to chapter VIII of the Rule of St. Benedict:

Making due allowance for circumstances, the brethren will rise during the winter season, that is, from the calends of November till Easter, at the eighth hour of the night [between 12 and 1 am]; so that, having rested till a little after midnight, they may rise refreshed.

Some of us who have suffered from insomnia in the past have already discovered the benefits of prayer during these periods of wakefulness. Perhaps it is time to change our attitude towards these times. Rather than see them as occasions for suffering, at least where obvious illness is not a factor, perhaps we might view them as opportunities to bring our praises, petitions and thanksgivings before a gracious and loving God, who, as the psalmist assures us, neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:4) and for whom night is as bright as day (Psalm 139:12).

19 August 2013

Christians and nationalism in the Middle East

At the start of the twentieth century the Middle East was largely ruled by the Ottoman Turks, with Great Britain administering certain territories in their behalf, such as Egypt and Cyprus. Although Muslims outnumbered Christians, there were still sizeable Christian minorities, including the Maronite Catholics of Lebanon, the Assyrian Christians of Mesopotamia and the Coptic Christians of Egypt.

Centuries ago followers of Jesus Christ were in the majority in the region, even after the Muslim Arab conquests and possibly as late as the fourteenth century when the tide turned in favour of Islam. The Ottoman authorities were tolerant of religious diversity, content to rule their nonmuslim subjects through their religious leaders, or ethnarchs. True, they persecuted Christian Armenians from the mid-1890s, but much of the prosperity of the Empire depended on the commercial activities of the nonmuslim communities. Such cities as Thessaloniki, Constantinople, Smyrna and Alexandria were polyglot, religiously-diverse urban centres in which Muslims, Greeks, Jews and Armenians rubbed shoulders constantly in pursuing their respective livelihoods.

This all changed with the coming of the Great War, when nationalist régimes replaced the old imperial orders in so much of Europe and the Middle East. Nationalists pursued a policy of ethnic homogeneity, reserving Turkey for the Turks and Arab countries for the Arabs. This forced Christians to embrace a different strategy for coexistence with Muslim majorities. Up until then they did not generally see themselves as Arabs, but as Copts, Assyrians and so forth, identifying with the pre-Arab populations that had once dominated the region. But Arab nationalism compelled them to embrace an Arab identity or risk being treated as outsiders.

This coincided with the departure of the European powers, especially Britain and France, which had protected the Christian minorities of the Middle East and North Africa. In 1933, after the end of British occupation in Iraq, more than a thousand Assyrian Christians were killed by their Arab neighbours in the Simele massacre. After unsuccessful efforts to secure autonomy before the League of Nations, Assyrians felt betrayed by Britain. Henceforth they would have either to emigrate elsewhere, which many did, or to find a new way to integrate into the newly independent states.

As a consequence many Christians threw themselves into the Arab nationalist movements, which were anti-imperial and antiwestern in flavour. This necessitated a shift from their previous status as pre-Arab indigenous peoples to that of Christian Arabs fighting alongside their fellow Arabs in the struggle for independent nationhood. In the decades after the Second World War, Christians were disproportionately prominent in the Arab nationalist movements. For example, Michel Aflaq, who was born into an Orthodox Christian family in Syria, eventually became a communist and led the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, a movement that would be dominated by the Assads in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Arab nationalism played down religious distinctives, focussing instead on a pan-Arab identity. As such it seemed an ideal vehicle for the aspirations of Christian minorities who were now part of an Arab majority.

By the 1980s, however, the old Arab nationalism had run out of steam, while Islamism was moving into the ascendancy. Because local Christians had tied their fortunes to such nationalist autocrats as Mubarak, Saddam Hussein and the Assads, they increasingly became targets of the Islamists, who associated them with the discredited old guard. This has made Christians increasingly vulnerable in countries affected by the Arab Spring. In recent months reports have reached us of the anti-Assad rebels in Syria targeting Christian villages. Despite such attacks, western governments, including that of the United States, are supporting the rebel Free Syrian Army against President Bashar al-Assad’s government, apparently judging that the tide of history is on their side.

It would be easy for us, as outsiders, to judge that Middle Eastern Christians severely miscalculated by throwing their lot with Arab nationalism. Yet because Islamism by definition makes no place for religious minorities, local Christians understandably prefer the least bad alternative, which might enable them to continue to live in their ancestral homelands with at least some hope of security.

The long-term prospects for Christians in the Middle East are not encouraging. Unless western countries change their policies towards the region, we will continue to see increasing numbers leaving the very places that saw the birth of Christianity two millennia ago.

David T. Koyzis has taught politics at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, for just over a quarter of a century. This appeared in the 12 August issue of Christian Courier as the latest instalment of his "Principalities & Powers" column, which has been running monthly since 1990.

07 August 2013

Visões políticas e Ilusões

I am pleased to report that InterVarsity Press has contracted with Brazilian publisher Edições Vida Nova to produce a Portuguese-language edition of Political Visions and Illusions. Graças a Deus! Thanks be to God!

30 July 2013

Millennial religion and the sovereign self

Claiming to speak for an entire generation to which she admittedly does not entirely belong, Rachel Held Evans tells us Why millennials are leaving the church. A sample of the reasons she cites:

Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. . . .

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

Let's for the moment leave aside the Episcopal Church. Held Evans appears to see Rome and Constantinople as little more than exotic ports of call for a disaffected generation whose members nevertheless retain their own spiritual autonomy. In all things, including spiritual, they jealously guard their right to choose, and their criteria for doing so tend to be idiosyncratic at best. Some people simply like smells and bells, so go for it!

Yet that is definitely not how these two communions understand themselves. To become Roman Catholic is to accept the authority of the Bishop of Rome, the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the decisions of Vatican II, the Bible, etc. To become Orthodox entails accepting the authority of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Bible, the patriarchs and bishops, etc. Both of these communions set forth teachings on sexuality, ordination, contraception and other issues with which it is difficult to imagine Held Evans agreeing.

During Great Lent and other seasons throughout the year, the Orthodox Churches impose a far stricter fasting regimen than most westerners are willing to tolerate. Rome obliges members to attend mass, say confession, follow its own teachings, fast on designated days, and so forth. Ex-Catholics regularly excoriate their former communion on grounds of legalism, if not worse. Indeed, attending mass and living as a Catholic is a matter of obedience, not merely of soaking up a "high-church" atmosphere with ancient roots while continuing to live as one wishes and following whatever agenda seems most congenial to the sovereign self.

Ultimately, the same can be said, not only of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but of any church communion taking seriously the normative character of the Christian faith. The way of the cross is always one of obedience. To come to the church with an idiosyncratic checklist of demands is to take the church as church less than fully seriously.

22 July 2013

Bridging the Political Gap: Haidt’s Righteous Mind

It is axiomatic that contemporary Americans are divided into two political camps: liberals and conservatives, or leftists and rightists. In recent decades, these tendencies have become more polarized, with each side claiming near redemptive status for itself and demonizing the other as an obvious danger to the republic and its ideals. Each is increasingly eschewing compromise, threatening to paralyze the political process in the midst of continuing economic and other crises.

Enter New York University’s Jonathan Haidt, whose book, The Righteous Mind, shows promise in helping to bridge this yawning chasm, persuasively explaining “why good people are divided by politics and religion,” as the subtitle puts it. Haidt pulls off this seemingly impossible feat by studying the responses to hypothetical moral dilemmas by ordinary people, which yielded unexpected results. In contrast to rationalists of the Kantian variety, who assume that moral judgment follows careful consideration of motives and consequences, Haidt has discovered that people decide right and wrong intuitively. Such decisions are not “a purely cerebral affair in which we weigh concerns about harm, rights, and justice. It’s a kind of rapid, automatic process more akin to the judgments animals make as they move through the world,” responding almost instinctively to aversions and attractions (61).

Read the full article here.

07 July 2013

Lumen Fidei: the popes on faith

Two popes, Benedict XVI and Francis, have collaborated on this new encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), which completes the series of encyclicals on the three so-called theological virtues begun under Benedict. Here is a sample of the wisdom found therein:

Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth. Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: "Put your trust in me!" Faith, tied as it is to conversion, is the opposite of idolatry; it breaks with idols to turn to the living God in a personal encounter. Believing means entrusting oneself to a merciful love which always accepts and pardons, which sustains and directs our lives, and which shows its power by its ability to make straight the crooked lines of our history. Faith consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God’s call. Herein lies the paradox: by constantly turning towards the Lord, we discover a sure path which liberates us from the dissolution imposed upon us by idols.

02 July 2013

Religious freedom: for individuals and communities

Is religious freedom only for individuals or does it also have a communal dimension? Timothy George writes:

The Southern Baptist Convention was right to pass a resolution at its annual meeting in Houston this month defining religious liberty as “the freedom of the individual to live in accordance with his or her religiously informed values and beliefs,” and citing in support Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”

To be sure, this is considerably better than the rather narrowly construed freedom of worship championed by the current administration. If religion consists only of what we do within the four walls of the church, synagogue or mosque, then safeguarding religious freedom need not accord the adherent much latitude to practise his or her faith, which now becomes a mere private matter with no public import. The Southern Baptist Convention correctly recognizes religion as a genuine way of life.

However, the SBC would do even better to acknowledge the communal dimension of religious observance. A religion is not a designer-label consumer item that individuals can tailor to their own tastes and predilections. Even if we manage to acknowledge the authority of a norm for faith outside of ourselves, many of us continue to assume that it is up to each of us to decide what that norm is, an approach that does nothing to challenge the hegemony of the dominant North American liberal worldview.

By contrast, Christians and other adherents of the major religious traditions live out their respective faiths in community. These communities inevitably set standards for membership, including expectations for faith and standards for life and conduct within the community. A robust public recognition of religious freedom must account for this communal dimension of faith.

To this end the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance is engaging in an important work. Under the leadership of Stanley Carlson-Thies, IRFA aims to safeguard “the religious identity and faith-shaped standards and services of faith-based organizations, enabling them to make their distinctive and best contributions to the common good.” In a society so heavily influenced by individualism, IRFA’s efforts deserve our support as it strives to deepen recognition of the communal character of religious freedom.

10 June 2013

Homeland security

According to the great American poet Robert Frost, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” In our highly mobile society, home has a multi-layered meaning. If we have just been to the corner store, going home means to return to our permanent address – to the place we are living now, identified by street number and postal code. If we are travelling to visit relatives, going home may mean a journey to revisit the region where we were born or grew up. It could even imply a visit to an ancestral homeland – a country we may never have been to but whose contours we know thoroughly from stories told us by our immigrant parents or grandparents.

For me home has all of these connotations and more. Hamilton, Ontario, has been my home for 26 years. I have lived here longer than anywhere else, and in that time I’ve grown to love it and everything about it. Though constantly overshadowed by Toronto in the popular imagination, it boasts a lovely natural setting along the Niagara Escarpment. The Bruce Trail is a short walk from our house, as is a magnificent view of Lake Ontario. We are never more than a few minutes from a waterfall. Hamilton is a favourite of film producers because of the sheer diversity of landscapes found within a fairly small area.

Yet for me Hamilton is home because of the people who have become dear to me over the years, including Redeemer University colleagues, former students who have settled here and, of course, my wife and my daughter, who was born here. Our church community, now 175 years old, has become our home church.

Our family usually makes an annual pilgrimage to the Chicago area, where I was born and grew up. Topographically, that region is not especially interesting and lies in a flood plain. The farmlands that were never too far from our home when I was younger have mostly disappeared and been swallowed up by the sprawling suburbs. Nevertheless, it means a lot to me to be able to visit the elementary school where I was educated, to see the two houses our family lived in and to look for remnants of the electric railway that once passed through my hometown. Most of all, the presence there of four generations of family means everything to me.

Then there’s the state of Michigan, where my mother was born and where I spent so much of my childhood visiting relatives. I have deep roots there going back to 1882, when my great-great-grandparents, Niilo and Anna Juntunen, brought their infant daughter (my great-grandmother) from Russian-controlled Finland to settle in the Upper Peninsula near the shores of Lake Superior, very likely arriving by way of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Three sets of great-great grandparents, two sets of great-grandparents and a grandmother lie at rest in the Great Lakes State. Though I never had a permanent address there, Michigan still has a homelike feel to me.

The term homeland sometimes has political significance, but not always. Early twentieth-century Germans spoke of das Vaterland, the fatherland. Russians call the Second World War the Great Fatherland War, because it was fought on Russian soil, even as they continue to speak of “Mother Russia.” After the 9/11 attacks the United States established the Department of Homeland Security, a seeming redundancy that the Department of Defence should have made unnecessary. The flag and arms of the Swiss canton of Vaud carry the motto: “Liberté et Patrie” – Liberty and Fatherland. Here fatherland refers, not to Switzerland, but to Vaud itself, suggesting that, even a country as geographically compact as Switzerland may be too large to feel like a real home to many people.

So where is my homeland? I am a citizen of two countries, with an apparent right to claim two more citizenships through my father’s birth as a British subject in Cyprus. I should be the stereotypical cosmopolitan, but I really am not. My earthly homeland is the Great Lakes Region. Yet, from my reading of St. Augustine and from my Cypriot relatives’ painful experience of exile, I know that our earthly homes are never completely secure. Given the multi-layered meaning of home, I can accept more than one earthly home while recognizing that our ultimate loyalty is to the city of God, the only place that can genuinely offer homeland security over the long term.

David T. Koyzis has taught politics at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, for just over a quarter of a century. His next book on authority, office and the image of God is forthcoming from Pickwick Publications, a division of Wipf & Stock. This appeared in the 10 June issue of Christian Courier as the latest instalment of his "Principalities & Powers" column, which has been running monthly since 1990.

01 June 2013

Calvinist Baptists, But No ‘Lutheran’ Baptists?

As a Reformed Christian who is in some fashion heir to Calvin’s legacy, I find myself puzzled when I see a title such as this: Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention. What does it mean to be a Calvinist in a Baptist denomination? It cannot imply an acceptance of Calvin’s view of the sacraments, which take up considerable space in his Institutes of the Christian Religion and are more than incidental to his theology as a whole. It does not seem to imply recognition of a real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, or of baptism as a sign and seal of God’s grace. Nor does it seem to imply an acceptance of Calvin’s ecclesiology, which takes up volume IV of the Institutes and is generally followed by those churches calling themselves Presbyterian or Reformed.

Although John Calvin and Martin Luther are generally recognized to be the two principal reformers of the 16th century, there is a certain asymmetry in their respective legacies, as seen in the fact that no one ever complains of creeping Lutheranism in the Southern Baptist Convention. As far as I know, there is no pro-Luther party in America’s largest Protestant denomination. Why not? If one becomes a Lutheran, it almost always means that one has joined an explicitly Lutheran Church, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (or Canada) or the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. By contrast, if one becomes a Calvinist, it usually means that one has embraced Calvin’s theology — generally his soteriology — while possibly staying put with respect to ecclesiastical loyalties. This is clearly the case with respect to Calvinist Baptists.

From an historical vantage point, the reason for this difference between the Lutheran and Calvinist labels is far from obvious. After all, Calvin was much more explicit in setting forth a reformed ecclesiology than was Luther, who was more willing than his Genevan counterpart to tolerate different ecclesiastical polities in different geographical contexts. The Churches of Sweden and Finland, for example, maintained an episcopal polity with bishops in apostolic succession. Nevertheless, when Swedes and Finns migrated to North America, their respective transplanted church bodies, the Augustana and Suomi Synods, were generally less hierarchical and more congregational in nature, without in any way impairing their continued communion with the mother churches. Their common adherence to the Augsburg Confession was more important than their polities.

On the other hand, when Reformed Christians established their churches in the New World, they usually brought their polity with them to this side of the Atlantic. Thus if Lutheranism has been historically more flexible than Calvinism with respect to ecclesiology, it is not immediately evident to some of us why becoming a Calvinist is usually thought to be a soteriological statement while becoming a Lutheran is an ecclesiastical one. But it may be that I’m missing something that others have picked up on.

24 May 2013

Urban visions at odds: Haussmann, Kuyper, and the Chicago Housing Authority

As a child I had aspirations to become an architect and perhaps even an urban planner. I was especially captivated by an article in the May, 1960, issue of National Geographic titled, Brasilia: Metropolis Made to Order, about the newly inaugurated capital city of Brazil, the brainchild of President Juscelino Kubitschek, who sought to move his country's population away from the thickly settled coastal region. I admired the illustrations of the modern-looking buildings set amid the spacious plains of Brazil's interior. Designed by urban planner Lúcio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer (who died last year at the age of 104), the new capital's public buildings were impressive, giving an aura of a vigorous adolescent finally coming of age as a great nation. I imagined that Brazilians were experiencing something of the pioneer spirit that had motivated Americans to settle their own interior a century earlier, and I found it inspiring. Brazil was the land of the future, and it now had a seat of government to match its larger-than-life ambitions.

There was just one problem: Brasilia is a walker's nightmare, boasting one of the highest rates in the world of traffic accidents involving pedestrians. It is virtually impossible to get anywhere on foot, as the distances between destinations are too great, and so are the dangers to life and limb of trying to get there. Having admired Costa's and Niemeyer's handiwork for so long, I eventually came to understand the drawbacks of planning an urban centre from the top-down, with its flashy expressions of artistic modernism but with little sense of what it takes to build a genuine human community.

Read the full article here.

17 May 2013

Viktor Orbán and Hungary’s Constitution

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is no stranger to controversy. Still in his 20s when the communist régime was phased out in his native Hungary, he organized the Alliance of Young Democrats, known in its abbreviated form as Fidesz, now the ruling party in that country. Originally libertarian, Fidesz changed its orientation in the mid-1990s in a conservative direction, leading to its eventual expulsion from the Liberal International (the world federation of liberal and progressive political parties). Fidesz now allies itself with the European People’s Party in the larger European context, and currently enjoys a two-thirds majority in Parliament along with its coalition partner, the Christian Democratic People’s Party.

This parliamentary supermajority has invited much of the criticism leveled at Orbán’s government. Critics, including the European Union, the Council of Europe, and even the United States, have charged him with using this overwhelming power to cripple the opposition and thereby subvert Hungarian democracy.

What has Orbán done? His most significant act has been the adoption of a new constitution, the Fundamental Law. While the other former communist states of eastern Europe adopted new constitutions shortly after the old regimes collapsed, Hungary continued for two more decades under its 1949 constitution. Once Fidesz returned to power with such overwhelming popular support, Orbán adopted a fresh constitution, which took effect at the beginning of last year.

Read the full article here.

14 May 2013

An untimely death: 'Why, O Lord?'

The past week has been a difficult one for the Christian community of which we are part here in Hamilton, Ontario. A 32-year-old husband and father disappeared on Monday of last week in nearby Ancaster. He was a member of the Ancaster Christian Reformed Church and beloved by many. Now the worst news imaginable has been reported: Missing father Tim Bosma found dead, Hamilton police say. Although I did not know Bosma personally, I know many people who did. In the midst of such a senseless tragedy one can only say, "Why, O Lord?" The words of Psalm 6 come to mind:

Turn, O Lord, deliver my life;
save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who will give you praise?
I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
it grows weak because of all my foes.

As Christians we live in the sure hope of the resurrection and know that death will not have the final word. But in the meantime we grieve. And pray.

06 May 2013

The tyranny of the choice-enhancement state

In chapter 2 of my own Political Visions and Illusions, I trace the development of liberalism in five stages: (1) the Hobbesian commonwealth, (2) the night watchman state, (3) the regulatory state, (4) the equal-opportunity state, and (5) the choice-enhancement state. The movement from each stage to the next requires an expansion of the state beyond its normative sphere of competence into the minutest corners of life—all in the name of expanding personal freedom. I have summarized this development here: Tracing the Logic of Liberalism.

Not everyone will agree with my analysis, especially those who persist in thinking early liberalism to have been solidly grounded and its later decadent manifestation a betrayal of the original vision. Yet I am by no means alone in noting the spiritual continuities among the stages of liberalism. To take just two of many recent articles on the subject: Douglas Farrow's The Audacity of the State is one of the more trenchant analyses, and this past Friday Wesley J. Smith's The Coercive Freedom of Choice probed what I call the choice-enhancement state, roughly encompassing the period since 1960. According to Smith, "We have now reached the point that others are expected to pay for individuals’ 'choices' and maximizing others’ self-identity—even when it violates the payer’s own beliefs. . . . Not too long ago, Americans mostly believed in 'live and let live.' The ironic motto for the current day: 'You do it my way.'"

Is this paradoxical quality in the unending expansion of individual autonomy implicit in the logic of liberalism? I don't know what Smith would say, but I would say: Yes, most definitely. If liberalism is based on the tendency to reduce all manner of communities to mere voluntary associations, as we see in the contractarian approach of Hobbes and Locke, then we should not be surprised if the effort to mitigate this tendency by, say, an appeal to natural law in the more conservative English-speaking liberals is unsuccessful over the long term, and in the name of freedom tyranny ends up extinguishing freedom.

19 April 2013

Redefining reality to accord with our desires

The late Czech President Václav Havel was better positioned than most people to penetrate the ideological illusions that so marred the 20th century. Living in a communist country that claimed to be a workers' paradise made him aware of the dangers of any worldview built on a false construct that not only claims to be reality but attempts to suppress those who persist in telling the truth. According to Havel,
Ideology, in creating a bridge of excuses between the system and the individual, spans the abyss between the aims of the system and the aims of life. It pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life. It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.

11 April 2013

Rival leaders blood relatives

This rather insignificant story appears in today's National Post: Family feud? Genealogy site claims Trudeau, Mulcair are cousins after digging into lawmakers’ backgrounds.

Canada’s political spectrum could include a family feud, according to Ancestry.ca. The popular Canadian genealogy website says Liberal leadership frontrunner Justin Trudeau, and NDP leader Tom Mulcair are distant relatives – ninth cousins, to be exact. The two prominent politicians share a set of eighth-great-grandparents: Mathieu Amiot and Marie Miville, who were married in Quebec in 1650, the website says. Amiot and Miville were among the first Quebec settlers, and apparently had quite an impact on the political future of a country that, at the time, didn’t yet exist.

This is hardly news. Given that the two political leaders have roots in 17th-century Québec, and given the small number of French families living there at the time, it would be more surprising if they were not related to each other.

According to my own genealogical research, the Queen is my 13th cousin once removed, as is my own wife. Once you go back far enough, it turns out that virtually everyone is related to everyone else.

By the way, this month marks the tenth anniversary of this blog. Cause for celebration? Depends on your perspective, I suppose.

08 April 2013

The PM and the 'bubble'

Unlike America's Constitution, which was deliberately planned by late 18th-century constitutional architects, the Westminster parliamentary system developed almost by accident through a series of fortuitous events that effectively empowered the people's representatives and curtailed the power of the king. Carolyn Harris presents a fascinating account of How the South Sea Bubble Created U.K.'s Modern Monarchy. At issue were the economic crash of 1720, King George I's mistress and his half-sister, and a financial scandal which incapacitated the King, whose power was already weakening due to his lack of facility in English.

In the inquiry that followed the South Sea Bubble, the payments received by Sophia Charlotte [the half-sister] and Melusine [von Schulenberg, the mistress] became public. George I blocked the extradition of South Sea Company Treasurer Robert Knight, who fled England in January 1721 after alluding to immense bribes paid to the most prominent people at court. John Blunt, one of the company’s founders, was arrested and provided the list of payments. In March, Melusine and Sophia Charlotte were accused in a House of Lords debate of accepting bribes.

Because members of his court were implicated, George I couldn’t claim the authority to resolve the situation alone. Instead, Robert Walpole, the newly created first lord of the Treasury, took charge. The assets of South Sea Company directors were confiscated and distributed to bankrupt shareholders, and the stock was divided between the East India Company and the Bank of England. Walpole also fought to protect the king, shielding Melusine and Sophia Charlotte from prosecution.

Although Walpole never formally received the title of prime minister in his lifetime, his authority after the South Sea Bubble was unprecedented and set the tone for the future of the constitutional monarchy. The monarch would retain some control over foreign affairs but the prime minister would assume the role of head of government in the domestic realm as “the King’s Servant.” Walpole conducted state business in the House of Commons and united the Cabinet as an executive authority. The monarch’s direct influence over subsequent prime ministers varied over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, but Walpole’s example set the tone for the office.

The monarch's power is by now almost completely dependent on that of the prime minister. Now if we could only find a way to curtail the PM's power. For this we would do well to look to Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull in Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, which I assigned to my Canadian Government students this term.

26 March 2013

Democrats, Republicans and Pope Francis

Writing in The Washington Post, Charles Camosy draws a seemingly unlikely connection between the two major American political parties and the newly minted Pope: Republicans have a Pope Francis problem. Here's Camosy:
And the election of Pope Francis, if understood correctly by the Democrats, could push them over it.

Consider that this pope from Latin America has views about strong state and international government energetically standing for the poor and vulnerable, ecological protection, and nonviolence that are to the left of Nancy Pelosi. He would likely be considered too liberal for a prime time speaking slot at the 2016 DNC convention. The pope is radically suspicious of the libertarian approach to “autonomy” and “choice”—especially when it ends up hurting the vulnerable and opening the way for violence.

For Pope Francis, to no one’s surprise, this includes suspicion of the right to choose abortion. His anti-abortion views might make his pontificate seem unfriendly to Democrats, but in reality our peculiarly American obsession with autonomy and individual choice—whether it is about our guns, our pelvises, or our money—is more at home in the Republican party. If Democrats could embrace Pope Francis’ connection between social justice for the poor and equal protection of the laws for our prenatal children, they could finish the GOP for a generation.

It would be nice to think that Camosy is right, but, especially in matters of life and sexuality, the Democratic leadership, along with many of their candidates, are dogmatically wedded to this autonomy and individual choice and show no signs even of flexibility, much less of backing down. Those Democrats who have chosen the lonely path of dissent from this secular orthodoxy have been put under enormous pressure to conform. Such groups as Democrats for Life are swimming against the strongest current imaginable, and thus far without making so much as a dent in their party's monolithic public stance.

This should present an opportunity for the Republicans, but thus far they have chosen to squander it and indeed are difficult to take seriously. I do not envy ordinary Americans, whose political choices range from the preposterous to the unpalatable.

25 March 2013

A commuter's communion with God

A few weeks ago I was on the GO train to Toronto filled with morning commuters. I would shortly be arriving at Union Station where I would then transfer to a VIA Rail train to Montréal. Although my mind was initially on the lecture I would be delivering at the end of my journey the following day, I became aware, sitting across the aisle from me, of a middle-aged woman who looked to be Filipino. She was reading from a very small tattered booklet that appeared to lack a cover. After reading she would close her eyes for a time and then resume reading again. She was obviously not dozing. As I myself had prayed the daily office using my e-reader back at the Hamilton GO station, I knew exactly what she must be doing. I had to resist the inclination to ask to see her well-worn booklet. Instead I silently prayed that God would answer her prayer.

Because I am not a regular commuter into Toronto, I will likely never see this woman again. I may have been the only person on the train who knew that she was praying, but because of this, I felt as if the two of us have something — or rather Someone — very precious in common. Someone whose sacrifice on the cross we observe with gratitude during this Holy Week.

21 March 2013

Singing the Psalms through adversity: the Czechs

The following appeared in the 11 March issue of Christian Courier as part of my monthly "Principalities & Powers" column:

In November 1976 I was privileged to visit what was then called Czechoslovakia and its capital city, Prague. Although the communists were still in power and the weather was cold and gloomy during my stay, I fell in love with this beautiful 14th-century urban jewel, which managed to glitter despite the austere Stalin-era buildings at its periphery. As a child I had grown up hearing one of my mother’s favourite musical pieces, Bedřich Smetana’s Vltava, or Moldau, a tone poem dedicated to the river on which Prague is built. Thus I was thrilled finally to walk across the fabled Charles Bridge spanning the waterway that had inspired the 19th-century composer.

For an amateur musician Prague is a treat, as its residents glory in the music of Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček, Bohuslav Martinů and many others. Stepping into a church one Sunday I heard a soloist singing two of Dvořák’s Biblical Songs, which I had worked up in my undergraduate voice lessons and had come to love. Dvořák wrote these haunting songs based on the Psalms while in the United States, after learning of the death of his friend and conductor, Hans von Bülow, and of the imminent death of his own father back in Europe. Not surprisingly, the grieving composer turned to the Psalms for comfort.

While in Prague I visited more than one antiquarian book shop, purchasing an 1845 Czech New Testament and Psalms. (In retrospect I’ve come to recognize the irony in my taking a Bible out of a communist country when so many other Christians were taking risks to bring Bibles in.)

But it was another purchase at one of those stores that I keep returning to decades later. This was a small, thick volume called Malý Kancionál, or Little Hymnal, published in 1900 by the Unity of the Brethren, also variously known as the Bohemian Brethren, the Moravian Brethren and the Unitas Fratrum, founded by Jan Hus at the start of the 15th century. On the front cover is a stylized illustration of a chalice, a prominent Husite symbol, stemming from their championing the right of the laity to receive the Eucharistic cup along with the bread to which ordinary believers were at that time restricted. Inside the covers I found a complete metrical psalter, along with some 350 hymns – a psalter hymnal, in short. This sat on my shelf for nearly a decade before I discovered the significance of this book. The 150 Psalms are in fact set to the Genevan tunes, as used in the Swiss, Dutch, Hungarian and other Reformed churches. I had had no idea that Czechs had ever sung these, but obviously some did. Where did they come from?

A few years ago I learned the full story. Jiří Strejc (also known as Georg Vetter, 1536-1599), was a Brethren minister born in Zábřeh in Moravia. Strejc studied in Tübingen and Königsberg, where he came into contact with the Psalter of Ambrosius Lobwasser, a professor of jurisprudence at the university there. Strejc was so favourably impressed by Lobwasser’s German translation of the Genevan Psalter that he decided to model his own Czech versification on it, an undertaking he completed in 1587. Strejc is probably best known for his German-language hymn text, Mit Freuden Zart, familiar in English as Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above, the tune to which comes from the Bohemian Brethren’s Kirchengesänge (1566) and bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Genevan Psalm 138. Whether Strejc and Lobwasser ever met I have been unable to determine, but the latter’s psalter would come to influence the liturgical life of Czech protestants by way of Strejc.

The modern Czech Republic is a largely secular society with abysmally low rates of church attendance, a condition undoubtedly exacerbated by four decades of communist misrule. Nevertheless, possessing such a rich heritage in Dvořák’s Biblical Songs and Strejc’s metrical psalter, Czech Christians have a solid basis on which to reinvigorate their country’s tepid church life six centuries after Jan Hus’s abortive efforts at reformation. May God grant that Hus’s work finally come to fruition in the churches of the Czech Republic.

19 March 2013

Hamilton's 'New York Times'

In recent months the weekend edition of the Hamilton Spectator has included two sections from The New York Times for those willing to pay a modest amount on top of their regular subscription cost. Because the NYT adds more substance to the paper, The Spec has seen fit to drop its "Weekend Reader" section, the only part of the newspaper with any substance whatsoever. These developments raise two questions in my mind: (1) Has the NYT reciprocated by including sections of The Spec amongst its own sections? and (2) Why should readers not drop their subscription to The Spec and pick up the NYT instead?

18 March 2013

Reformed Christian Prayers for the Pope

I consider myself a Reformed Christian of strongly confessional bent. I love Scripture and recognize it to be God’s Word, the final authority for faith and life. I love the Heidelberg Catechism with its warm, evangelical flavour as it speaks to the heart of believers of our “only comfort in life and in death.” I love singing the Psalms, especially the sturdy melodies of the Genevan Psalter.

Given my unequivocal commitment to the Reformation, and especially to the branch stemming from John Calvin, some may find it surprising that I would pray for Pope Francis and the communion which he leads. Yet I do so, because all Christians in every tradition have a stake in the world’s largest ecclesiastical body. The sixteenth century Reformers themselves initially had no desire to break with the western church, doing so only when forced to. Instead they wished to reform an institution they loved—an institution they believed was corrupt and not living up to the demands of the gospel.

I take no pleasure in the scandals that have beset the Roman Catholic Church in recent decades. Some Protestants may experience a certain schadenfreude at the travails of the church with which their forebears broke so many centuries ago. But not everyone. I genuinely hope and pray that the new Pope, who took the name of another would-be reformer loved by Protestants and Catholics alike, will be able to clean up what needs to be cleaned up in his church. My prayer to God is that, where there is despair he may sow hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is corruption, holiness and unwavering fidelity to the cause of Christ.

11 March 2013

Whom to believe?

In the continuing controversy over climate change it is difficult to sort out the validity of conflicting reports. Here, for example, is a Financial Post column by Lawrence Solomon: Not easy being green. According to Solomon,
Arctic ice has made a comeback, advancing so rapidly that the previous decade saw less ice at this time of the year than exists today. And previously balmy Arctic temperatures just nose-dived, according to the Danish Meteorological Institute, which has tracked Arctic temperatures since 1958.

Alarmists shudder when looking south, too, at the stats from Antarctica. There the sea ice extent started growing early this year, and the ice cover remains stubbornly above average. All told, the global sea ice — including both polar caps — now exceeds the average recorded since 1979, when satellites began their measurements.

But then we read this from Emily E. Adams: Where Has All the Ice Gone? Here's Adams:

In September 2012, sea ice in the Arctic Ocean shrank to a record low extent and volume. The region has warmed 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1960s—twice as much as lower latitudes. With less snow and ice to reflect the sun’s rays and with more exposed ocean to absorb heat, a vicious cycle leads to even warmer temperatures. Thinner ice combined with rising temperatures makes it increasingly difficult for the sea ice to recover. The historically ever-present white cap at the top of the globe could disappear entirely during the summer within two decades. . . .

While Greenland’s ice loss is astonishing, on the other side of the globe, parts of Antarctica’s vast ice sheet may be even less stable. The continent is flanked by 54 major ice shelves, which act as brakes slowing the movement of ice in land-based glaciers out to sea. Twenty of them show signs of thinning and weakening, which translates into accelerated ice loss. After the 3,250-square-kilometer Larsen B Ice Shelf collapsed in 2002, for instance, the glaciers it was bracing flowed up to eight times faster than before. The most dramatic thinning is in West Antarctica.

Which is right? Obviously they cannot both be. The two reports are separated by only a week, yet their respective accounts as to what is happening to the polar ice caps could not be more divergent. As a complete layman in the field, I am incompetent to judge the veracity of the two reports, which I am certain is true of most other readers as well.

However, in the absence of certainty on the issue, our political leaders must still make policies while weighing in the balance the various conflicting considerations at stake. The balance will never be perfect, of course, but in general it seems to me that, even if anthropogenic global warming is not occurring, we still have an obligation to pursue policies to protect our physical environment, both for the sake of future generations and in recognition of our responsibility before God for his creation. We may not be able to settle the debate, but it seems wise to err on the side of caution and of minimizing the environmental risks to our descendants.

10 March 2013

Relevant religion and human desires

Sometimes it takes a nonbeliever to speak truth to believers. This time it comes from the "not even religious" George Jonas in Canada's National Post: Searching for one-size-fits-all religion. Amidst calls from some Roman Catholics that the new Pope toe their own line rather than lead them into truth, Jonas mentions the minor character Helene Bezuhov in Leo Tolstoy's famous novel, War and Peace.
Exquisitely drawn, like all of Tolstoy’s creations, once you make the Countess Bezuhov’s acquaintance, you can’t quite forget her. Helene is married to Pierre Bezuhov, one of the leading characters in the novel, but she doesn’t feel suited to him and hopes to contract a more agreeable marriage. Maybe even two marriages. She contemplates marrying an older prince first, and then, after he dies, perhaps saying yes to a much younger applicant.

Helene is beautiful. Her arms and shoulders are the marvel of Moscow. She doesn’t lack rich and socially prominent suitors, but she belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church. Divorce being unthinkable in that church at that time — during the Napoleonic wars — she converts to Roman Catholicism. Rome doesn’t permit divorce as such either, but the Pope can sometimes annul a marriage.

“According to her understanding,” writes Tolstoy, describing Helene, “the whole point of any religion was merely to provide recognized forms of propriety as a background for the satisfaction of human desires.” Then Tolstoy continues: “I imagine, (says Helene to her new Jesuit confessor) that having espoused the true faith I cannot be bound by any obligations laid upon me by a false religion.”

Helene would be reassured to know that her heritage lives on. Her standard is held up by men and women who, having acquired the liberty to do as they please, now demand religion to also applaud their moral choices. They want their churches, their priests, even the very Vicar of God, to approve and endorse what they do, or else they threaten him with irrelevance. God Himself becomes irrelevant unless he can be used to rubber stamp human desires – because, as Tolstoy points out, that’s what God is for, at least as far as Helene Bezuhov is concerned. That’s how it was in 1812 and that’s how it is in 2013.

If, on the other hand, genuine religion concerns the little matter of what is true and how we are to live in light of that truth, then whether that truth is relevant to and confirms our desires is beside the point. The martyrs of the church undoubtedly preferred to avoid suffering and preserve their lives, but they chose instead to accept their lot for the cause of Christ. Accordingly, we remember and celebrate their lives as signposts pointing to the coming kingdom.

In a world where so many of our brothers and sisters are still on the receiving end of persecution, martyrdom never loses its relevance, sad to say. Therefore, if we love God with all our hearts and glory in our salvation in Jesus Christ, we will do well to look to the likes of St. Stephen the Protomartyr and St. Polycarp of Smyrna rather than to the Helene Bezuhovs of this world.

09 March 2013

Publisher found

I am pleased to announce that my second book, provisionally titled, We Answer to Another: Authority, office and the image of God, will be published by Pickwick Publications, a division of Wipf & Stock in Eugene, Oregon. Here is a brief abstract of the book:

Many observers tend to conflate authority and power, even when they give lip service to the difference between these two, by identifying authority with one or more of the various capacities at our disposal. Similarly many are inclined to view authority and freedom as, if not outright polarities, then dialectically related. By contrast, my argument is that authority is co-extensive with responsible agency and is resident in an office given us at creation. Moreover, when we encounter authority, we encounter nothing less than the image of God, which always points beyond itself. This central authoritative office is in turn manifested in a variety of offices related to the communities of which we are part.

Here is the table of contents as currently projected:


These details, including the title, are, of course, subject to modification. I will keep readers posted on the progress of the book as it makes its way through the publication process. Stay tuned.

22 February 2013

The Hungarian Reformed Church

Many North American Christians are unaware that the Reformation had an impact in east central Europe. Hungary was one of the countries affected by it, and this influence has lasted to the present. The Reformed Church in Hungary has a number of unique characteristics setting it apart from other churches. Its confessional standards are the ecumenical Heidelberg Catechism and the Second Helvetic Confession. It is one of only two explicitly Reformed churches to have bishops, although these bishops are little more than district superintendents and make no claim to be in apostolic succession. In fact, as its website puts it, "the church exists in its congregations." It is a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. As the map indicates, the Reformed Church encompasses congregations scattered throughout the pre-1920 Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen, which extend from the Adriatic in the west to the Carpathian Mountains in the east, and from the borders of Poland in the north to those of Serbia in the south. In Hungary proper Reformed Christians make up the second largest church body after the Roman Catholic Church, while in Romanian Transylvania, they make up the largest Hungarian-speaking church denomination.

Why are Reformed Christians so concentrated in the east? These were the lands controlled by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century, whereas western Hungary was under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs. The Habsburgs imposed the Counter-Reformation within their territories, while the Ottoman authorities were rather more tolerant of religious diversity within their lands. (Recall that they had taken in the Jews expelled from Ferdinand and Isabella's Spain in 1492.) Thus the Reformation flourished in the latter but was suppressed in the former.

A dozen years ago I guest lectured at one of Redeemer's sister universities. There I encountered a student in one of the classes who had a Hungarian name but carried a Romanian passport. He was a Reformed Christian who lived in a region of Romania with an ethnic Hungarian majority. Despite his Romanian passport, he told me that he felt himself to be Hungarian, which, as I understand it, is not atypical of the Hungarian-speaking populations in Romania. Thus to be a Reformed Christian in that country brings with it a Hungarian identity as well.

The geographic distance between the Hungarian Reformed and other Reformed Christians is undoubtedly exacerbated by linguistic distance as well. Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language related to Finnish and Estonian but completely unrelated to the Indo-European languages surrounding it in central Europe. I have considerable admiration for such people as Frank and Aria Sawyer, who teach at the Sárospatak Reformed Theological Academy and long ago mastered this difficult language.

In North America the Hungarian Reformed are represented in two bodies: the Hungarian Reformed Church in America and the Calvin Synod, a confessional body within the United Church of Christ. Reformed Christians in Hungary still sing the Genevan Psalms in Albert Szenczi Molnár's 16th-century versifications. If their North American counterparts have given this up, they would certainly do well to re-appropriate a tradition that has served their brethren in the old country so well over the centuries. If they should ever look for a usable English translation, I would be happy to provide them with one, however partial it may be at present.

Incidentally, although I have no known close Hungarian family relationships, my genealogical records indicate that my wife, daughter and I are all lineal descendants of Kings Geza I through Istvan V of Hungary.

14 February 2013

Singing the Psalms through adversity: Hungary

The following appeared in the 11 February issue of Christian Courier as part of my monthly "Principalities & Powers" column:

I love the Hungarian people. Among their many national virtues, they boast some of the greatest musicians, such as Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), who did so much to shape 20th-century music by drawing on their country’s unique folk idioms. There is a substantial Reformed Christian minority in Hungary, and they are well known for their love of singing the Psalms. In fact, it can be justly argued that psalm-singing carried them through four decades of communist tyranny.

Last year saw the 450th anniversary of the completion of the Genevan Psalter. Although the Psalter’s texts were originally written in French verse, they were quickly thereafter translated into a number of other languages, including German, Dutch, Czech and Hungarian. The remarkable polymath, Albert Szenczi Molnár (1574-1634), was responsible for the Hungarian version. A pastor, linguist, poet, writer and translator, Molnár (whose surname means miller) was born in Senec (Szenc), near what is today the Slovak capital of Bratislava, and would come to exercise a formative influence on the development of the Hungarian language.

Molnár travelled widely during his life, visiting and studying in a number of European centres associated with the Reformation. His metrical translation of the Psalms was inspired by the German-language Psalter of Ambrosius Lobwasser and was published in Herborn in 1607. (The Reformed Christian legal theorist Johannes Althusius had published his Politics in Herborn a few years earlier but had moved to Emden before Molnár's arrival.) Molnár died in Kolozsvár in Hungarian Transylvania, now Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

Amazingly, Molnár is reputed to have completed his translation of the Genevan Psalms in less than 100 days, which must surely set a speed record, given that this would require him to translate at least a psalm-and-a-half per day. Molnár’s texts have stood the test of time and are still sung by Hungarians today. The extent to which they are sung can be judged by the increasing numbers of performances posted to such sites as youtube, the sheer number of which might lead the casual observer to assume that the entire Hungarian nation is organized into hundreds of thousands of choral groups.

One of the best-known of these is the Cantus choir of the Reformed College in Debrecen, a major centre of Reformed Christianity in eastern Hungary. The College was founded in 1538, and the Cantus in 1739. The Cantus has recorded choral performances of the Psalms, including Kodály’s arrangements of Psalms 33, 50, 114, 121, 124, 126 and 150, whose continuing popularity appears to be undimmed by the passing of the years.

Hungary suffered much in the 20th century. In 1920, following its loss in the Great War, it was deprived of nearly three-quarters of its territory, leaving nearly a third of Hungarian-speakers in the new states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, as well as in a newly enlarged Romania. During the Second World War it suffered under a pro-fascist government, followed by 40 years of communism, interrupted in 1956 by a failed effort at freedom quickly crushed by Soviet tanks. However, once Mikhail Gorbachev ended Moscow’s sphere of influence over its “allies,” Hungary was the first to move towards democracy and to begin dismantling the Iron Curtain.

After the chains of oppression had fallen away, outsiders discovered that Hungarians were still singing from the Genfi zsoltár, their sturdy voices ringing out their complaints, petitions, thanksgivings and praises to God, despite the efforts of an officially atheistic régime at silencing them. Small wonder, then, that many of us admire the Hungarians, so many of whom have persisted in giving voice to God’s Psalms in the face of such adversity.

05 February 2013

Gerson on Obama

Yesterday's Washington Post carried this article by Michael Gerson: Obama’s new contraception rules try to fool Catholics. This is in response to President Obama's latest effort to soften the impact of the Health and Human Services mandate, which many see as a threat to religious freedom. Gerson's final paragraphs are worth reading:

But President Obama’s policy does not strike me as cynical. Disturbing, but not cynical. The administration has never shown a particularly high regard for institutional religious liberty. Obama’s Justice Department, in last year’s Hosanna-Tabor case, argued that there should be no “ministerial exception” at all — a contention the Supreme Court labeled “amazing.” In this case, the administration views access to contraception as an individual right to be guaranteed by the government, and institutional religious rights as an obstacle and inconvenience. But the First Amendment, it is worth remembering, was designed as an obstacle and inconvenience to the government.

All this is evidence of a deeper debate. Liberalism, back to John Locke, has understood religion to be a fundamentally private matter. It has a difficult time understanding the existence of loyalties outside the law, and often views them as dangerous (unless the demands of faith are harmless and picturesque, like the Amish). But this is not the way many religious people understand religion. They view it as the grounding for a vision of justice, and the source of standards for a community of believers.

It has been part of the American miracle to balance individual rights with institutional religious freedom — a difficult task for which the Obama administration shows little appetite. So now it falls to the courts.

What I find remarkable about this is that, unlike many Americans, Gerson clearly discerns the ambiguous influence on his country of John Locke, a conventionally religious 17th-century philosopher who nevertheless sought to recast state, church and marriage alike as voluntary associations, thereby emptying them of their distinctive institutional characters. Such refashioning called for the privatization of ultimate religious beliefs, ironically in the name of tolerance. One hopes that the Obama administration will come to recognize religious freedom, not as exceptional, but as basic to doing public justice. Thus far the prospects do not look especially promising.

Given this context, I commend strongly the work of my friend Stanley Carlson-Thies and the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, whose declared purpose is "safeguarding the faith of faith-based organizations." IRFA deserves our prayers and support.

Kuyper in caricature

Cartoonists have long loved to take on our political leaders, who have a tendency to take themselves entirely too seriously. From Thomas Nast more than a century ago to Herblock more recently, editorial cartoonists have delighted generations of readers with their biting visual commentary on our politicians and the issues they are elected to address. The great Abraham Kuyper, who served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands between 1901 and 1905, was lampooned as often as any other politician of his era, as indicated in this book, which I discovered today: Kuyper in de caricatuur. Enjoy!

01 February 2013

God's mysterious ways

Peter Leithart calls our attention to a rather remarkable phenomenon: Islam and Jesus, drawing on this article in Charisma Magazine: Why Revival is Exploding Among Muslims. Read the entire piece, which illustrates vividly that God works in powerful and unexpected ways to bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

28 January 2013

Authority and office: the witness of Dr. Sietsma

The following piece appeared in the 14 January issue of Christian Courier as the latest instalment of my "Principalities & Powers" column. The story related therein is based on Constantijn J. Sikke’s book, Een waarlijk vrije: levensschets van Dr Kornelis Sietsma (A Truly Free Man: A Sketch of the Life of Dr. Kornelis Sietsma) (Amsterdam: Kirchner, 1946).

On a Monday early in 1942, the Rev. Dr. Kornelis Sietsma was arrested by the German Sicherheitsdienst (SD) at his home in Amsterdam. The previous day he had preached a sermon on Luke 4:1-13, the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, in which he emphasized the temptations that come with power. This was at his own congregation, the Schinkelkerk, which worshipped in a 50-year-old building in the Dutch capital city. At the offering he announced that a collection would be taken for the denomination’s mission to the Jews, something that had come to the attention of the SD, whose agents had attended his church that day.

German troops had occupied the Netherlands for not quite two years. Queen Wilhelmina and her government had taken refuge in London and the occupiers set up a pro-nazi régime in its place. All of this occurred despite the Dutch declaration of neutrality at the beginning of the war in 1939. However, only months later Germany violated Dutch neutrality and invaded the country. Now German soldiers patrolled the streets, and the Jewish population was beginning to receive discriminatory treatment at their hands, with much worse to come.

The Schinkelkerk was part of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, a denomination that began as a merger of two Reformed denominations dissenting from the established church. This union was brought about in 1892 by Abraham Kuyper, who would go on to become Prime Minister of the Netherlands shortly after the turn of the 20th century. In his own political thought Kuyper had recovered an emphasis on something he called soevereiniteit in eigen kring, or sovereignty in its own sphere – a principle in sharp contrast to state absolutism and certainly to the pretensions of any totalitarian régime.

A week and a half earlier, Sietsma had presided over the meeting of the Schinkelkerk consistory, which was faced with two issues of political significance: the status of liturgical prayers for the exiled Royal Family, and the Arbeitsdienst, or the mandatory service imposed on young people by the Germans. These had been raised in a letter issued by the General Synod of the Reformed Churches which was communicated to the congregations, calling them to discourage their young men from participating in the Arbeitsdienst and to remember the Royal Family in worship services. Sietsma commended the courage of this synodical letter at that meeting.

Sunday, 1 February, would mark Sietsma’s final sermon. SD officials were in the congregation that day when the special collection was taken. During his prayers, Sietsma recalled the fourth birthday of Queen Wilhelmina’s little granddaughter, Princess Beatrix, which had occurred on Saturday, and asked God for the safe return of the Royal Family to the Netherlands. All of this was duly noted by the visitors, who took this incriminating information back to their superiors.

Following his arrest, Sietsma was put on trial for provoking resistance to the governing authorities, collecting funds for the Jews, and praying for the royal family’s return. During his trial he admitted, under questioning, that the lust for power, on which he had preached, was present also in national socialism. Sietsma was held in prison until July and then transferred to the concentration camp at Dachau. Two months later, at only 46 years of age, he was dead, having paid the ultimate price for his courage in the face of his persecutors.

Prior to the outbreak of war, Sietsma wrote a little book called, Ambtsgedachte, which was published posthumously and translated half a century later as The Idea of Office (Paideia Press, 1985). In this brief volume the author ties the exercise of authority to the possession of office, arguing that “office is the only justification and the proper limitation of any human exercise of power and authority.” Apart from office, there is no obligation to obey another person. There is no natural right for one person to rule over someone else. Whether the German SD ever saw this book is unknown, but if they had done so, they could not have failed to recognize the implications of Sietsma’s approach for the nazi claim to Aryan racial superiority over other peoples.

Only office, and not the mere possession of power, can confer authority. The principal office we exercise in God’s world is that of divine image-bearer (Genesis 1:26-27). All the other authoritative offices we hold find their ultimate point of origin in this central office given by God himself. Sietsma understood this and willingly accepted the consequences of living it out before the face of the God he loved and served.

25 January 2013

Roe Plus Forty: Where Now?

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade, which effectively invalidated the 50 states’ abortion laws, asserting for the first time a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. Although the court undoubtedly saw itself settling a contentious issue for a divided polity, we know now that Roe did nothing of the sort. Instead, it only increased the divisive nature of the issue, further polarizing a population into pro-choice and pro-life factions, each of which has taken apparently irreconcilable positions.
Earlier this month TIME Magazine carried a cover story whose author argues that, since the Roe ruling, the pro-choice side has been gradually losing the battle for abortion rights. Why? Physicians are less willing to perform abortions, and pro-lifers have succeeded in persuading their respective state legislatures to tighten up restrictions on the practice, which effectively places hurdles in the way of those who would procure the procedure. Some of these have a primarily psychological deterrent effect, such as requiring the mother to have an ultrasound of the child, thereby impressing on her the reality of the human life growing in the womb. There may also be something to the observation that, because pro-lifers have more children, their beliefs have a certain demographic advantage over those of pro-choicers. For these and other reasons, pro-lifers have reason to think that their long-term prospects are bright, even in the current absence of a sympathetic political climate in the highest places.


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