28 March 2014

Solzhenitsyn on Russia and Ukraine

The late novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn comes as close as anyone to being one of my heroes. In the midst of the darkest days of the Soviet regime, he stood fast for his convictions, explicitly rejecting Marxism-Leninism and embracing the Christian gospel. Yet he was also very much the Russian nationalist, which prompts me to wonder how, if he had lived a little longer, he would have responded to the recent crisis in Ukraine and Crimea, which came to a head earlier this month.

We cannot know this for certain, of course, but based on his writings, I rather think he would not have taken the side of the West in arguing for the inviolability of interstate boundaries. This is from his book, The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century:
Russia has truly fallen into a torn state: 24 million have found themselves “abroad” without moving anywhere, by staying on the lands of their fathers and grandfathers. Twenty-five million – the largest diaspora in the world by far; how dare we turn our back to it?? – especially since local nationalisms (which we have grown accustomed to view as quite understandable, forgivable, and “progressive”) are everywhere suppressing and maltreating our severed compatriots.

Along with this awareness of the ethnic Russian diaspora in the so-called Near Abroad, Solzhenitsyn had already expressly favored a political union of the three Slavic republics in his Rebuilding Russia. Ukrainians, he opined there, should not be forced into such a “Russian Union,” but separation of Ukraine from Russia, if it were to come to that, should be settled only on the local, rather than the republican, level. One assumes this would entail allowing those parts of Ukraine, including Crimea, that feel themselves to be more Russian than Western, to stay with the larger Russian Union, if they so desire, while permitting the more nationalistic oblasts in the west to go their own way.

Solzhenitsyn explicitly addresses the plight of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, calling attention to what he sees as their mistreatment at the hands of those who would proclaim: “Ukraine for the Ukrainians!”
A sizeable portion of the ethnic Ukrainian population itself does not even use or have command of the Ukrainian language. (The native language for 63 percent of the population is Russian, while ethnic Russians make up only 22 percent of the population; i.e., in Ukraine, for every Russian there are two “non-Russians” who nonetheless consider Russian to be their mother tongue!) (Russian Question, 91)

Add to this his reference to “the false Leninist borders of Ukraine (including even the Crimean dowry of the petty tyrant Khrushchov)” (90), and we can be reasonably confident that the famed Russian author would be squarely on the side of Vladimir Putin.

I am reluctant to conclude too quickly that Solzhenitsyn would be guilty of the sin to which his colleague Evgeny Barabanov pointed decades ago when he stated that “we shall be obliged to acknowledge that in Byzantium and Russia ideas about the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar too often merged and became interchangeable.” But Solzhenitsyn’s nationalism was his great blind spot.

The late Orthodox theologian, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, had wide-ranging discussions with the novelist in the mid-1970s and made some revealing observations on this encounter in his personal journals. Among other things Schmemann wrote of
Solzhenitsyn’s “idolizing obsession with Russia” (p. 65). “For [Solzhenitsyn] there is only Russia. For me, Russia could disappear, die, and nothing would change in my fundamental vision of the world. ‘The image of the world is passing.’ This tonality of Christianity is quite foreign to him” (p. 61).

While one can understand Solzhenitsyn’s concern for ethnic Russian minorities, his nationalism is off-putting. Changing interstate boundaries at the whim of the powerful, however strong the justification might be for territorial adjustments, is a recipe for the sort of irredentist bloodletting that marred the first half of the twentieth century, in which Solzhenitsyn himself was caught up.

Yet even our greatest heroes usually distinguish themselves in one area for which they properly earn recognition. Much as we do not look to the great scientists and inventors to produce great poetry or art, so we read Solzhenitsyn, not for his expertise in international relations, but for his considerable insight into the human condition and into a world that has largely forgotten its dependence on God.

27 March 2014

Sweetness and power: reflections on nationalism

Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism

Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism 
by Doug Gay. SCM Press, 2013. 192 pp.

Later this year, citizens of Scotland will vote in a referendum whether to continue their country's 300-year-old union with England or to go it alone. For author Doug Gay, the possibility of Scottish independence provides an occasion for reflecting on the larger issues surrounding nationalism. Is nationalism a good thing? Or is it, as many Christians have historically believed, an idolatrous overestimation of one's nation at the expense of other image-bearers of God elsewhere? Gay's project here is to defend nationalism based on his Reformed tradition of Christianity, an admittedly tall order, given nationalism's dark history.

The title comes from the Samson cycle of stories in the biblical book of Judges, in which the flawed Israelite hero scoops honey from the carcass of a lion he has earlier killed (Judges 14:5-9), and from the Tate & Lyle syrup cans familiar to Scottish households from the late nineteenth century. "The relationship between lions and honey I read (freely) as a metaphor for the central question of political theology and political ethics—the relationship between power and virtue." Although nationalism has indeed led to grave injustices and oppressive polities, it need not do so. Accordingly, Gay undertakes to defend a modest and "sweet" vision of nationalism that is more compatible with the Christian faith than, say, the version in Quebec, which aims to snuff faith from the public square.

Gay defines nationalism as "the making of combined claims, on behalf of a population, to identity, to jurisdiction and to territory." His use of the word claim is significant in that it points to the need to weigh and assess something, particularly against contrary claims in a public forum. What I read him to say here is that there is nothing automatically right and salutary in Scottish independence. Whether or not Scotland should be a sovereign nation-state is ultimately a prudential judgement about whether justice for its people would be better served in a United Kingdom or in a separate country. After weighing the relevant factors, he believes a separate Scotland is a defensible goal for the serious Christian.

Read the entire review here.

26 March 2014

We Answer to Another: latest news

My fellow Canadians may be interested to know that my book is now posted on amazon.ca, although actual copies are not yet in stock. Be patient.

The Court has spoken: the Nadon decision

The Supreme Court of Canada has handed the Harper government a setback over his attempt to have Marc Nadon appointed to that same court: Supreme Court says non to Nadon; federal government 'genuinely surprised'.

By rejecting Justice Marc Nadon, Harper's sixth and most recent pick for the nine-member bench, the remaining Supremes laid down constitutional markers that could proscribe the government's future plans for Senate reform, electoral changes and the appointment of judges.

Not only was Nadon, a semi-retired Federal Court of Appeal justice, found to not have the proper qualifications laid out in the Supreme Court Act for a Quebec nominee to the top bench, but the government's efforts to rewrite the rules were thwarted.

The government does not have the authority to amend the Act, wrote six of seven judges, saying "the unanimous consent of Parliament and all provincial legislatures is required for amendments to the Constitution relating to the 'composition of the Supreme Court.'"

Unlike its American counterpart, the Constitution Act, 1867, originally titled the British North America Act, did not establish a supreme court for Canada. Section 101 of that act went only so far as to authorize the federal government to establish a "General Court of Appeal for Canada." Even when a Supreme Court was established eight years later, it was not technically supreme at all, since it was still possible to appeal its decisions to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, in effect the highest court of appeal in the British Empire. It became supreme in reality only in 1949, when all appeals to the JCPC were abolished, under the authority granted to Parliament by the Statute of Westminster of 1931. Even then the last JCPC decision relevant to Canada was handed down as late as 1959, because the appeal at issue was initiated more than ten years earlier.

Andrew Coyne believes the Nadon decision was a bad one based on a strained reading of the Supreme Court Act, which requires that three of the nine justices be appointed from the bar of Québec, because of that province's unique civil code which is based on the Roman law rather than the English common law. I will not comment on that particular angle, as I am more interested in what the court's decision does to the Supreme Court Act itself. According to the text of the decision:

The Supreme Court Act was enacted in 1875 as an ordinary statute under the authority of s. 101 of the Constitution Act, 1867 (S.C. 1875, c.11). However, as we explain below, Parliament’s authority to amend the Act is now limited by the Constitution. Sections 5 and 6 of the Supreme Court Act reflect an essential feature of the Supreme Court of Canada — its composition — which is constitutionally protected under Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982.

Canada's constitution is not embodied in a single document, as in the United States. In general, there can be said to be four sources of our constitution. First and most obvious are our Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982, which are entrenched documents protected by more than one amending formula necessitating a qualified majority or, in some cases, unanimity to change. Second are so-called organic statutes, ordinary acts of Parliament whose subject matter is of a constitutional nature. These would include the Supreme Court Act, the Canadian Bill of Rights and the Canada Elections Act. The third source can be found in court decisions made under these acts, and the fourth in the unwritten conventions crucial to the functioning of parliamentary government in a Westminster-style political system.

As mentioned above, the Constitution Act, 1982, makes provision for amending our Constitution Acts. In general, amendment requires the approval of both chambers of Parliament and the provincial legislatures of at least seven provinces containing at least 50 percent of Canada's population. However, some matters, including "the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada" (41[d]), require unanimous approval by the two federal parliamentary chambers and all ten provincial legislatures.

Not knowing the history of judicial interpretation of this section, I cannot say whether this current reference decision represents something new, but what stands out for me is that it appears to elevate the Supreme Court Act to the status of an entrenched constitution act rather than a mere organic statute on a par with other statutes. On the other hand, if the unanimity requirement applies only to "the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada," then perhaps only that part of the Supreme Court Act that touches on that issue can be said to have entrenched status.

Better legal minds than mine may already have weighed in on this issue. I've not researched it myself, and I probably will not be doing so in the near future, but I thought I would at least raise it here to see what sort of response, if any, it might elicit.

24 March 2014

Interview posted

On his Accidental Blog, Steve Bishop has posted an interview he conducted with me on the occasion of the publication of my new book. Here's an excerpt:

So, why should we read it?

Because it treats a phenomenon that is absolutely central to human life in God's world. Even when we think we are evading authority, we really do nothing of the sort. Each chapter begins with a story relevant to its subject matter. The introductory chapter starts with a day in the life of Michael, a university undergraduate who is engaged in all of the typical activities of the student. I've read this story to classrooms and audiences and asked them to describe each encounter Michael has with some manifestation of authority. It quickly becomes apparent that authority is ubiquitous. It is apparent at every turn, for example, in the calendar that governs his life, the professor's teaching authority and even in his own authority as student.

In our contemporary society, it is almost automatically assumed, primarily under Immanuel Kant's influence, that the mature adult must attain moral autonomy and question critically every directive that authority makes. When I was much younger, I think I would have found this a persuasive position, especially in the wake of the civil rights revolution, the Vietnam War and, of course, Watergate. Yet in the real world this is impossible. It is impossible to question authority in general. If we see fit to question specific manifestations of authority – as indeed we must – then we necessarily do so based on some other authority which we accord priority. This is what the apostles did in the book of Acts when they claimed to be obeying God rather than mere human beings (e.g., Acts 5:27-29).

Sometimes I'll ask my students who they think has authority in the classroom. Invariably they will point to me. Yes, I tell them, but I'm not the only one; you have authority too! Not the same authority, but authority no less. Everyone has an authoritative office within the classroom. Koyzis has the office of professor, while those responding to my question possess the office of student. Each office bears authority and is worthy of respect accordingly.

23 March 2014

Too much democracy?

A century ago, during the Progressive Era in the United States, would-be reformers went about trying to democratize more thoroughly an already democratic political system. In 1913 the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution provided for direct election of Senators, who had previously been appointed by the several state legislatures. Even the method of selecting a presidential candidate was reformed to bring more popular participation to the nomination process.

In 1933 one-time presidential aspirant Al Smith observed that the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. But might it be possible to over-democratize a political system to its detriment?

Here in Canada our head of state inherits her office. The Queen has been an exemplary public servant during her lengthy reign, but no one can pretend she was chosen according to the merit principle or by popular acclamation. Our Senate is similarly filled by appointment, despite abortive efforts at reforming the upper chamber of Parliament. Yet we too were influenced by Progressive Era reforms of a hundred years ago.

Prior to 1919 a party leader in the House of Commons was chosen by the party’s parliamentary caucus. However, that year saw the death of long-time Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier just prior to the beginning of a convention to restore unity to a fragmented party after the divisive conscription crisis of 1917. Because delegates from across Canada were already scheduled to meet later that year, Laurier’s unexpected passing provided an opportunity to hold an American-style leader selection convention, which chose William Lyon Mackenzie King as his successor. The opposition Conservatives followed suit a few years later.

Since then the selection of party leaders has been even more thoroughly democratized, with ordinary party members and supporters playing an increasing role in the process. This is a good thing, right?

Well, perhaps not. In 1990, after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher foolishly imposed a poll tax in Scotland, where she was least popular, her Conservative caucus were able to unseat her precisely because they had put her there in the first place. When she was no longer able to govern effectively, it was a simple matter to remove her and replace her with someone else. Even Tony Blair had to fend off revolts in his own Labour Party back benches.

By contrast, here in Canada such revolts are almost impossible to carry off, thereby preventing a potentially effective check on the Prime Minister’s insufficiently accountable power. In their award-winning book, Democratizing the Constitution, authors Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull point out that making the party’s leader dependent on its rank and file has inadvertently strengthened the hand of that leader over his own parliamentary caucus. Because the party faithful are too diffuse a body to exercise effective control over their leader and because the parliamentary caucus cannot go against the rank and file, the leader’s – and, if the party forms the government, Prime Minister’s – position is enhanced within the system as a whole. The former Canadian Alliance discovered this problem just over a decade ago when their leader, Stockwell Day, proved unable to command the loyalty of his party caucus despite having won the support of the grassroots.

Philosopher Yves R. Simon once wrote that, for a democracy to function properly, it needs healthy nondemocratic institutions. Indeed there is a small but growing movement south of the border to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment to restore what they see as the integrity of the American federal system against an overly intrusive central government in Washington. In fact, for much of the past two and a half millennia in the west, the most thoughtful political philosophers favoured something they called a mixed constitution – one that would combine the best features of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy in a single composite constitutional framework.

Here in Canada it may be that we have the worst features of monarchy in its pure form. The office at issue, however, is not that of the Queen, but of her Prime Minister, whom Parliament, under most circumstances, seems incapable of reining in. Perhaps it’s time to reverse the reform of 1919 and allow the party’s parliamentary caucus to choose its leader. Yes, it may sound undemocratic, but over the long term it may serve to make the Prime Minister more accountable and to restore a badly-needed balance to our own otherwise resilient constitutional framework.

David Koyzis is the author, most recently, of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. This appeared as his monthly "Principalities and Powers" column in Canadian periodical Christian Courier.

19 March 2014

Book now available: We Answer to Another

My new book is finally out. We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God is now available from Pickwick Publications. It is also available from amazon.com, although it is listed as temporarily out of stock, undoubtedly because they have not yet received copies of the book. Thus far it is not listed on amazon.ca, but I will let Canadian readers know when it appears there. In the meantime, your best bet would be to phone the publisher at 541-344-1528 or email them at orders[at]wipfandstock[dot]com.

Here is the description of the book from the back cover:

The quest to escape authority has been a persistent feature of the modern world, animating liberals and Marxists, Westerners and non-Westerners alike. Yet what if it turns out that authority is intrinsic to humanity? What if authority is characteristic of everything we are and do as those created in God's image, even when we claim to be free of it? What if kings and commoners, teachers and students, employers and employees all possess authority?

This book argues that authority cannot be identified with mere power, is not to be played off against freedom, and is not a mere social construction. Rather it is resident in an office given us by God himself at creation. This central office is in turn dispersed into a variety of offices relevant to our different life activities in a wide array of communal settings. Far from being a conservative bromide, the call to respect authority is foundational to respect for humanity itself.

Here are endorsements:

"In this timely and highly valuable book, Koyzis exposes the problems and points the way to solid, balanced answers. The subtitle of We Answer to Another sums it up: 'Authority, Office, and the Image of God.' Humans have been created in the image of God and called to serve the Creator—the One to whom we are ultimately accountable. To exercise a responsibility is to hold an office of real authority as servant-stewards of one another. We can thus participate in holding one another accountable to the responsibilities of those offices. Sound old-fashioned? It's the most contemporary word of wisdom we and our neighbors throughout the world need to hear today!"
—James W. Skillen, President Emeritus, Center for Public Justice

"Liberal societies, regarding themselves as premised on the generative moral autonomy of the individual, have a constitutive problem with authority—freedom needs no justification, only authority. In this highly illuminating, wide-ranging, and exceptionally clear book, David Koyzis shows how this view not only destabilizes authority but actually diminishes our humanity. Authority is not autonomy but 'responsible agency,' exercised individually and corporately in many diverse human settings—'offices'—that arise from our being created in God's image. Recovering authority as 'answering to another' makes us more, not less, human."
—Jonathan Chaplin, Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge

06 March 2014

Emotion and evangelicalism: knowing and loving

To be an evangelical is to profess that one’s highest allegiance is to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is to confess that salvation is in Christ alone and that we do not save ourselves, no matter how good we may be. It is to recognize that God’s grace is freely given and that we can do nothing, not even deciding to follow Jesus, to merit it. That is evangelicalism at its best.

All the same, there are many elements of the North American evangelical movement with which I find it difficult to identify. I am not keen on some of the subcultural distinctives, including the celebrity culture associated with the television preachers and Christian contemporary music. If the gospel becomes a marketable commodity, Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him, and even to suffer the consequences of so doing, loses its urgency and may be ignored altogether. No longer does the gospel shape our lives from the ground up and in their totality; it becomes a mere add-on to whatever lifestyle choices happen to appeal to us at the moment.

Many evangelical leaders are bemoaning what they see as the loss of Christian commitment in the millennial generation. But what if millennials are slackening in their church attendance and other markers of observance because they simply are not being challenged to take up their cross? Rod Dreher has posted something worth reading for those concerned for the future of the church. Dreher believes emotivism is at fault:

This dumbed-down emotivism is the way many, many churches — not just Evangelical churches — present the faith to its young people. It’s that “Jesus is my best friend” stuff that adults think will make the faith more palatable to young people, but which just sets them up for collapse when they step outside the bubble of church culture and find pushback. Specifically . . . if emotions are the foundation on which you build your faith, what happens when your emotions don’t line up with the teachings of your church? We Orthodox, Catholics, and Reformed Christians can look down our noses all we like at charismatics and Evangelicals for not having a strong and systematic theology, but what good does our theological depth do us if we don’t teach our young people how to think as Christians, and how to discipline their feelings with reason?

Dreher is quick to emphasize that he is not advocating a rationalism incapable of speaking to the heart. Nevertheless, an evangelicalism detached from solid confessional moorings and incapable of teaching its young people to think christianly about larger cultural trends will not survive over the long term. In short, it’s a matter of teaching truth, not just eliciting feelings.

To be sure, feelings cannot be ignored. I rather like Corey’s comment on Dreher’s post: “Yes, deeper theological and historical teaching might slow the Millennial egress, but, to speak like Augustine, the truth must be loved if the truth will be believed.” If love is not reducible to mere emotion, there is nevertheless a substantial emotional component to it. Where the emotional side is missing, love becomes pro forma, incapable of eliciting anything deeper than intellectual agreement. Similarly, if truth is a matter of head knowledge only, it will not carry the day, no matter how many reasons are adduced in its favour.

I think G. K. Chesterton is on to something in speaking of the romance of orthodoxy. Romance is something winsome, attractive and capable of drawing people into a narrative in which they come to see themselves playing a part. If sound teaching is viewed only as so many discrete dogmas to be imposed on the otherwise critical mind, it will fall flat. If, on the other hand, we affirm, with Lesslie Newbigin, that, as Christians, we indwell the biblical story, recognizing that the truths it conveys are really a single Truth, our highest love, demanding, not just intellectual assent, but heartfelt commitment, we might just be able to pass on something of inestimable worth to the next generation. If so, this will amount to evangelicalism at its very best.


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