The Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck has some wise words for reform of cultural institutions, notably marriage and family, in his exploration of The Christian Family:
All good, enduring reformation begins with ourselves and takes its starting point in one’s own heart and life. If family life is indeed being threatened from all sides today, then there is nothing better for each person to be doing than immediately to begin reforming within one’s own circle and begin to rebuff with the facts themselves the sharp criticisms that are being registered nowadays against marriage and family. Such a reformation immediately has this in its favor, that it would lose no time and would not need to wait for anything. Anyone seeking deliverance from the state must travel the lengthy route of forming a political party, having meetings, referendums, parliamentary debates, and civil legislation, and it is still unknown whether with all that activity he will achieve any success. But reforming from within can be undertaken by each person at every moment, and be advanced without impediment.
We often take the liberty necessary for such reformation for granted. Will the world continue to be open for such reformation? Will there still be circles of Christian influence that will allow us to live out the realities of the gospel everyday?
Last Friday at Acton University, Fr. Gregory Jensen gave an engaging lecture on the dual subject of asceticism and consumerism. The “East Meets West” part might not be what many would expect. Rather than contrast a consumerist West with an ascetic East, Fr. Gregory insists that both consumerism and asceticism transcend cultures and traditions. Inasmuch as all people take part in consumption, an ascetic answer to the challenge of consumerism is (or ought to be) where East meets West. The audio of Fr. Gregory’s lecture will be available on Ancient Faith Radio in the near future, but as a teaser I would like to explore some of the themes briefly here. (more…)
Today at Acton University, Fr. Michael Butler gave an engaging lecture on the subject of Orthodoxy and natural law. Despite the contemporary ambivalence among many Orthodox (if not hostility) toward natural law, Fr. Michael argues that it is present in the Eastern Tradition from the ancient to the medieval and modern periods, focusing especially on the thought of the seventh century Byzantine Saint Maximus the Confessor.
While it may be that there are important differences between a Thomist understanding of natural law and an Orthodox understanding of natural law, the historic difference is most assuredly not that Thomists accept it while the Orthodox do not.
Fr. Michael’s research further strengthens this statement and helpfully highlighted some of the similarities and differences between natural law in St. Maximus and that in Aquinas. The audio of his lecture will be available on Ancient Faith Radio in the coming weeks, but in the meantime I will briefly share some of Fr. Michael’s insights here. It’s a little heady, but worth consideration. (more…)
The double-headed eagle is a historical symbol of symphonia.
Today at Acton University, Fr. Michael Butler examined the history of Church-State relations in the Orthodox Tradition with special reference to the modern, Russian context in his lecture “Orthodoxy, Church, and State.” The audio of his lecture will be available via Ancient Faith Radio sometime in the coming weeks. As a teaser, I would like to briefly examine two concepts of Orthodox political theory to which Fr. Butler devoted specific attention: symphonia and sobornost.
Due to the influence of Max Weber, symphonia is often mischaracterized as caesaropapism (a term he coined), the state in which a nation’s sovereign is supreme in all ecclesiastical matters as well as those of state. It would be, then, a complete absorption of the Church by the state. Actual historical instances of this would include (to varying degrees) the Church of England where the monarch is the head and Imperial Russia from Tsar Peter the Great’s Westernizing reforms to the Bolshevik revolution. In the latter case, as Fr. Michael noted, one can see a distortion of symphonia for the elevation of state power, but not its essence or, by far, the complete historical picture. (more…)
At Aletetia, John Zmirak gives an interesting treatment of “solidarity”, a word we don’t talk about too much, either in government, philosophy or theology. However, as Zmirak points out, without solidarity, “tyranny creeps in.”
The central principle of solidarity in practice is simple and timeless – the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This ethical maxim, which Jesus quoted from the Old Testament, exists in some form in every culture on earth – as C. S. Lewis documented in The Abolition of Man, where he called it the Tao. It is so ubiquitous that it’s easy for us to assume that it’s universally accepted – at least in theory – while far too rarely practiced.
But in fact, things are darker than that. We have another maxim, which crept into Western souls via “worldly philosophers” such as Machiavelli and Hobbes – the principle of the “consenting adult.” Any time someone uses this phrase, he is saying (under his breath) that none of us is the least bit responsible for each other. If folks make stupid choices, that’s not our problem. Even if we are the ones who tempted them to make such a choice – if we have exploited them personally, economically, or sexually – we are still scot-free: “She was a consenting adult;” “That schmuck should have known better,” we tell ourselves, and smirk.
Instead of an ethic that rests on reciprocity, on admitting the unique value of every person because he’s a fellow human, we treasure a heartless, pragmatic ethos that shrugs at suffering and confusion, a Darwinian willingness to pounce on our neighbor’s mistakes. So “consenting adults” work in sweatshops overseas making our iPads, or sweat before cameras enacting our porn, or wake up alone in the bed where we’ve left them when we were finished with our desires. No individual rights were violated, no crime was committed or contract broken – so the modern secular conscience has nothing meaningful to say.
Solidarity is not a power relationship, but one based on justice and love, Zmirak says. It is certainly not socialism, either; it is, rather, a term borrowed from Catholic Social Teaching that allows a community of people to bond, to live together with concern for each other’s needs, regardless of what the government is up to.
In the Federalist Papers James Madison claimed that, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But is that true? James R. Rogers, an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, explains why some form of government would be necessary even if man were still in a prelapsarian state of nature:
[E]ven without the Fall, there would be a role for civil government for the duly recognized person who exercises civil authority. Even in an unfallen society, there is need for civil authority to minimize the cost of informational asymmetries and to minimize decision costs.
People in a prelapsarian society are not omniscient, which means that even without the Fall, there would be a role for civil authority to coordinate individual interactions to avoid suboptimal outcomes. For example, there is no morally correct answer to the question “What side of the road should people drive on?” Hence, even in a society populated by people with all the good will toward one another and all the moral virtue in the world, there would be a need to provide a consistent answer to these folks when they pulled out of the driveway.
And the question “Which side of the road should I drive on?” is a properly civil question. Answering this question belongs neither to familial nor ecclesiastical leadership. Nonetheless, the government need not use the sword in a prelapsarian society. The government would only need to be what in game theory is called a “focal arbitrator.” Civil authority would need only to announce “drive on the right side of the road,” and unfallen folk would follow the direction.
So is Pope Francis a closet liberation theologian, or someone with strong sympathies for the school of thought? It’s a question that’s been raised many times since Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election to the papacy in March. Most recently, the New York Times weighed in on the subject. While discussing the tone adopted by Bergoglio since becoming pope, the NYT article claimed that Francis has “an affinity for liberation theology.” “Francis’s speeches,” the article argues, “draw clearly on the themes of liberation theology.” It also suggested that “Francis studied with an Argentine Jesuit priest who was a proponent of liberation theology.”
I’m afraid, however, that if one looks at Francis’s pre-pontifical writings, a rather different picture emerges. Certainly Bergoglio is a man who has always been concerned about those in genuine material need. But orthodox Christianity didn’t need to wait for liberation theology in order to articulate deep concern for the materially poor and to remind those with power and resources that they have concrete obligations to the less fortunate. From the very beginning, it was a message that pervaded the Gospels and the Church’s subsequent life.
Gregg goes on to point out that Pope Francis is no fan of “contemporary capitalism,” but that does not in turn make him a liberation theologian. Instead, it is likely that Pope Francis speaks to the Church rooted in “a teología del pueblo (theology of the people).”
I’ve heard it repeated in many times and in many places that for a gift to truly be a gift, there must be no responsibility of response on the part of the recipient. As I write in “Gift, Gratitude, and the Grace of Stewardship,” that view is precisely what Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against in his excoriation of “cheap” grace.
One of the most striking illustrations to me of this dynamic came as I watched the TV series Friday Night Lights. One of the main characters is Tim Riggins, a fan favorite who begins the series as a student and ends it as a man. Over the last two seasons Tim’s maturation really comes through, as he has graduated from high school and is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.
Tim’s got a troubled background that doesn’t need to be explained here, but suffice it to say that the only family he’s got is his older brother Billy. Despite his better judgment and discomfort with the idea, Billy convinces Tim to help him with his new garage, which by night becomes a chop shop operation. The brothers are eventually busted, but Tim generously and lovingly takes the rap for his brother, who has a new wife and child that he’s trying to support.
After some time, Tim is paroled and comes back to Dillon, Texas. As you might imagine, Tim isn’t the happiest guy around after his stint in jail. But what really angers him is his sense that his brother Billy hasn’t done enough with the gift of freedom he’s been given by his brother’s sacrifice. After the brothers fight, Billy asks, “How long are you going to hold it over my head, man?” Tim responds, “The rest of my life if I feel it needs to be.”
Tim has given Billy a great gift, and it’s clear that Billy feels a sense of responsibility. Tim recognizes it, too, which is why they both know that there is something, some obligation, to be “held over” Billy. That doesn’t make what Tim did any less of a gift. But it does illustrate that there is a deep connection between gift and gratitude, or what Bonhoeffer called “costly grace.”
Tim’s sacrifice, in this way, is an echo of the great sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, who showed the greatest love there is in laying down his life for us (John 15:13). The reality of this gift of costly grace ought to inspire in us a sense of gratitude and responsibility, to do something good with the freedom we’ve been given in Christ.
Citizens who believe in Christian end-times theology are less likely to see global warming as a policy problem that requires immediate government action, compared to citizens who do not hold end-times beliefs.
Initially, I thought by “Christian end-times theology” they might be referring to premillinial dispensationalism, a eschatological view held by many American Evangelicals, that was popularized in the Left Behind series of novels. But the authors make it clear that they are not just referring to dispensationalists but to all Christians who believe in the Second Coming. (more…)
Emperor Theodosius Forbidden by St Ambrose To Enter Milan Cathedral (Anthony van Dyck, 1620)
In the latest issue of Renewing Minds, a journal of Christian thought published by Union University, I examine two different visions of religious liberty. They are roughly analogous to the two versions of the “empty shrines” of secularism described by Michael Novak and George Weigel, respectively, as well as to the visions of the American and the French Revolution. One has to do with the freedom of the church from state control, and the other has to do with freeing the public square from religion.
After examining some of the premodern history of religious liberty, I pivot with a query about the relevance of Neuhaus’ law:
Given the developments since the sixteenth century, we might wonder if there is a secular corollary to that axiom from Richard John Neuhaus, “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” Neuhaus wrote this in 1997, and was talking specifically about orthodox doctrine within the context of the church. As he concluded, however, “Almost five hundred years after the sixteenth-century divisions, the realization grows that there is no via media. The realization grows that orthodoxy and catholicity can be underwritten only by Orthodoxy and Catholicism.”
As a devotee of neither Orthodoxy nor Catholicism but who is deeply concerned with orthodoxy and catholicity, I am inclined to wonder if Neuhaus’ Law, as it has come to be called, applies only to Protestantism. In fact, given the secularization that both Kuyper and Gregory point to in their own ways, it seems worthwhile to consider whether Neuhaus’ Law might be applicable outside the church, to the liberal political order as such. If so, the recognition that there is no via media might well apply to the purported neutrality of the secular state.
I conclude that these two visions of religious liberty are, in the end, irreconcilable: “We are faced then, with two competing and ultimately antithetical visions of religion and society. One is the way that leads to life and the other the way that leads to death.”