Posts tagged with: christianity

In a new analysis in Crisis Magazine, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg examines “the shifting critiques” of the pontificate of Benedict XVI including the latest appraisal that the world is losing interest in the Catholic Church particularly because of its declining geopolitical “relevance.” But how do some of these critiques understand relevance?

On one reading, it involves comparisons with Benedict’s heroic predecessor, who played an indispensible role in demolishing the Communist thug-ocracies that once brutalized much of Europe. But it’s also a fair bet that “relevance” is understood here in terms of the Church’s capacity to shape immediate policy-debates or exert political influence in various spheres.

Such things have their own importance. Indeed, many of Benedict’s writings are charged with content which shatters the post-Enlightenment half-truths about the nature of freedom, equality, and progress that sharply constrict modern Western political thinking. But Benedict’s entire life as a priest, theologian, bishop, senior curial official and pope also reflects his core conviction that the Church’s primary focus is not first-and-foremost “the world,” let alone politics.

Read “Benedict XVI and the Irrelevance of ‘Relevance’” on the website of Crisis Magazine.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
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Galatians 2:10 reads, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” This is the conclusion to the Jerusalem Council, in which Paul and the leaders in Jerusalem are reconciled and unified, and where is decided that Paul and Barnabas “should go to the Gentiles, and they [James, Peter, and John] to the circumcised” (v. 9).

The concluding point that both groups are to keep in mind in their respective ventures is that they “remember the poor.” This will have some important significance for Paul and the Jerusalem Christians later on, as Paul brings the gifts of support from the Gentile churches to relieve the suffering of the church in Jerusalem (see Acts 24:17).

The first volume of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series includes Galatians, and includes some interesting considerations from various reformers on this text. Luther observes that “it is the task of a good pastor to be mindful of the poor. Wherever the church is there will be poor people, and more often than not they are the only true disciples of the gospel.” Wealth can be a powerful temptation.

WolfgangMusculusBut in the account of Wolfgang Musculus (a little-known reformer with whom I am well familiar) on this text, we find too that poverty has its own temptations. Musculus writes, “There was a great need of this advice concerning both the earthly life of the faithful poor and the nature of religion itself. There was a real danger that not only would their bodies succumb to hunger but also that their souls would succumb to the temptation to defect and revert to Judaism. Hunger is a dangerous persuader and the one most closely linked to poverty” (emphasis added).

This recognition of the relationship between bodily needs and spiritual goods reminds me also of the following from the Puritan Richard Baxter, in a treatise on Galatians 6:10:

Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies, in order to the greater good of souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul.

Today marks the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church. Not simply a fast, it is a time for that true asceticism which, according to Fr. Georges Florovsky, “is inspired not by contempt, but by the urge of transformation.”

There is something of this true asceticism, even if imperfect and incomplete, at the basis of all human society. One must, even to only a small extent, renounce self-will to be a member of a family, a clan, or a tribe, not to mention a city, state, or nation. No community can exist or has existed without some semblance of this asceticism. Every member must deny some part of his or her self for a perceived common good in order to form any community, in order for society itself to exist.

Thus, asceticism is not and never has been reserved for monks in the history of the Church. As Florovsky notes, “Ascetical virtues can be practiced by laymen also, and by those who stay in the world.” Interestingly, Vladimir Solovyov even goes so far as to identify marriage as one of the first ascetic practices inasmuch as it constitutes a “limitation of sensuality” that results in increased “control of carnal passions.”

In a healthy marriage, the husband and wife likely find that the level of self-renunciation necessary to maintain family life extends far beyond the sensual as well. Indeed, during his address at Acton University this summer, Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America remarked,

Is there any greater ascetic than a young mother, a new mother, who has to get up at all hours, night or day, to feed the child, to change the diapers? That’s the image, that’s asceticism—it’s total self-giving in love. All real asceticism is self-giving in love.

On a personal note, my wife and I are currently celebrating the birth of our first child, and (to my wife’s credit) I can confirm the truth of His Beatitude’s statement. (Don’t worry, I change diapers too, but my wife deserves far more credit for “get[ing] up at all hours.”) According to Florovsky, through asceticism “a new hierarchy of values and aims is revealed.” Certainly, any other new parents would agree with me that having a baby literally changes one’s whole world. Suddenly things I used to value seem so insignificant.

Through marriage I was transformed into a husband. Through the birth of my son, I am now also a father. As Christians, both of the East and the West, embark on the ascetic, spiritual journey of Great Lent that culminates in the joy of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, I hope that all of us will also be spiritually transformed according to the likeness of Christ’s self-giving love.

My wife Kelly and our new little son Brendan.

Blog author: dpahman
Friday, February 24, 2012
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Beroud, Louis (1852–1930) Central Dome of the World Fair in Paris 1889

The newest edition of the Journal of Markets & Morality is now available online to subscribers.

This issue of the journal (14.2) is actually a theme issue on Modern Christian Social Thought. Accordingly, all ten articles engage the history and substance of various approaches to Modern Christian Social Thought, with special emphasis on the Reformed and Roman Catholic traditions.

There is also another installment of our Controversy section, featuring a three-way debate over the question, “Does Libertarianism Tempt Some Catholics to Stray from Catholic Social Thought?”

As always we have another thorough collection of first-rate book reviews from top scholars and experts in the fields of theology, ethics, and economics.

Lastly, our Status Quaestionis section includes two works from the nineteenth century which have never before been translated into English: “Critical Analysis of the First Concepts of Social Economy” (1857) by Luigi Taparelli, SJ and “Christ and the Needy” (1895) by Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper. All in all, it may possibly be our largest issue yet.
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Beginning in 1908 as the “Octave of Christian Unity,” the eight days from January 18 to January 25 are designated as the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” and observed by many major Christian traditions and denominations.

All around the world, Christians who sometimes do not always get along so well (to put it lightly) put aside their discord to pray for renewed harmony and reconciliation. For example, in Bucharest, Romania, ecumenical prayer services are being held on nearly every day of this week rotating between Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Evangelical (Lutheran), Anglican, Armenian, and Romanian Orthodox churches.

In his recent book The Unity Factor, published by Christian’s Library Press, John Armstrong outlines his vision for a deeper unity between Christians of various traditions. “Christians are called to unity in love and to unity in truth,” writes Armstrong, emphasizing the need for Christians to once again share one faith, one church, and one mission.

Furthermore, Armstrong urges that

comprehensive biblical love is the defining identity and hallmark of all true followers of Jesus. I believe this is the central truth we must recover if we want the world to take notice of our witness. Today, the world mocks much of what we say and do. A great deal of this is deserved. This, however, was not the case in the earliest centuries of the church. Christians’ deep sense of shared, familial love led them to love even more deeply. As our present world polarizes politically and socially, the church must refuse to follow the ways of the world, returning instead to this unity factor.

I hope that all Christians will take some time this week to join millions of others who pray for that “comprehensive biblical love” and “unity in truth” that characterized Christians of the ancient, united Church.

The Unity Factor can be purchased through our bookstore.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
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I had the pleasure of being a guest on today’s installment of Coffee & Markets, the fine podcast hosted by Kevin Holtsberry and Pejman Yousefzadeh. I got to talk about Abraham Kuyper and his essays on common grace, particularly in the areas of science and art.

These essays are available in translation in Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art, the first selection from the broader three-volume Common Grace translation project.

Check out the podcast and some related links over at the Coffee & Markets website.

Blog author: kmarotte
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
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One month ago today, the people of North Korea learned that their Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, had died. While the news triggered hysterical shock in Pyongyang, the event brought new hope to those who work hard to penetrate North Korea’s hermetic society. One after another, many of these NGOs and ministries released statements postulating that maybe, just maybe, Kim’s youngest son and anointed heir—Jong-un—would break with family tradition by promoting genuine liberty for his people.

Such hopes are certainly understandable. Due in large part to the regime’s aversion to private markets, extreme poverty is a fact of life for large swaths of the population. The World Food Programme, North Korea’s largest distributor of multilateral food aid, estimated in 2011 that six million people needed food assistance, while one in three children were chronically malnourished. Such issues have been endemic since the mid-1990s, when an extraordinarily bad famine claimed millions of lives.

North Korea’s record on religious freedom is no better. Once dubbed the “Jerusalem of the East” for its large Christian population and deployment of missionaries, all manifestations of Christianity were eradicated as Kim Il-sung consolidated his power in the early 1950s. Understanding the dissonance between Christianity and utopian government schemes (such as communism), Kim reportedly commented: “We came to understand that religious persons can only be broken of a bad habit if they are killed.” Today’s North Korea has sustained this policy, throwing Christians into labor camps (a death sentence for many), executing them for Bible ownership, and punishing families to the third generation for any sign of Christian influence.

Optimists who see promise in the leadership transition contend that Kim Jong-un’s time attending school in Bern, Switzerland exposed him to the fruits of a free society. Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping, they remind us, likewise benefited from his time in Paris. But the rule is not a hard-and-fast one; both Mussolini and Marx spent a good deal of time in relatively freedom-oriented countries (Switzerland and England, respectively), but still settled on philosophies and policies incongruent with freedom and individual dignity. Optimists respond that Jong-un seems to have taken to Western culture, as he is a big fan of NBA basketball and Michael Jordan. His father’s penchant for Elvis Presley and Rambo, however, never did translate into wholesale adoption of Western-style democracy.

Whatever our hopes, change in the near term is highly unlikely. While Kim Jong-il had some 15 years to prepare for leadership under his father’s tutelage, Kim Jong-un had one-fifth that, having been seemingly tapped after his father’s stroke in 2008. On the fly, he will be forced to learn the delicate balance of political power in that country. His first priority will be to consolidate power, proving his legitimacy to the political establishment as well as the highly influential military apparatus (to this end, expect more saber-rattling toward South Korea). Intent to retain their current clout and influence, the powers-that-be are not particularly enthused about the prospect of an economically free and spiritually rich North Korea; Kim Jong-un will thus have strong incentive to squelch dissent wherever it appears.

The foundations have already been laid for heightened vigilance. After Kim Jong-il’s death, North Korean and Chinese border patrols were beefed up, new roadblocks and checkpoints were added, new barb-wire fencing was installed, and journalists were prevented from entering the border area. Small, tightly controlled markets were shut down (some of which have since reopened), and religious restrictions were tightened. Kim Jong-il would not have selected a reformist softy as his successor—and in Jong-un, he did not.

But what of a coup? Any sort of organized, successful upheaval would likely not come from the citizenry. After all, those reduced to boiling tree bark for dinner hardly have the wherewithal to overturn a highly consolidated and centralized system like North Korea’s. If anything happens—and at this point, the likelihood is small—it would likely emanate from the officer corps. There is said to be discontent among mid-level military professionals, many of whom have dedicated their lives to the regime and received little in return. Others may be bitter about the high military honors conferred upon Kim Jong-un and his uncle and close confidante, Chang Sung-taek—neither of whom was required to earn his way through the ranks. If an uprising along these lines did occur, the consequences would be far from clear, with liberty not necessarily an automatic result. “Revolution,” quipped a ruthless but clever Mao, “is not a dinner party.”

I pray that my skepticism is proven wrong. But until more promising evidence comes to light, new leadership in the halls of Pyongyang sadly signifies only a continuation of the brutal and miserable status quo.

Should the President of the United States be seen as theologian-in-chief? That might be one way to understand Bryan Fischer’s claim that “we are in fact choosing a minister when we select a president.”

I explore some of the dimensions of understanding politicians as “ministers of God” in this week’s Acton Commentary, “Ministers of Common Grace.” It strikes me that those who seek salvation from politicians are making a significant category mistake. Politicians cannot save because politics cannot save. Politics cannot save because it is an arena of common or preserving rather than special or saving grace.

So it’s important to see politicians, as well as businesspersons, artists, scientists, teachers, and line workers as “ministers” in a broad sense: in their work they are means or channels of God’s common grace, his blessings on all people. This is an important insight into how God’s purpose for our lives finds expression in our daily lives. (A great source for exploring common grace in the areas of science and art is the recently-released Wisdom & Wonder by Abraham Kuyper.)

But it’s equally important to distinguish between common and special grace and see how the two relate. And this is one of the things that makes the institutional church and its ministers unique. The church is where we hear, see, touch, and taste Christ, proclaimed in the Word and sacraments. That’s why the Belgic Confession contends, for instance, that “every one ought to esteem the ministers of God’s Word and the elders of the Church very highly for their work’s sake.”

Acton On The AirJordan Ballor is a busy man. He serves as a research fellow here at Acton, as well as being the executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. As if those duties don’t keep him busy enough, he also finds time to do the occasional radio interview, in this case on 101.5 WORD FM in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, discussing how Christians should react to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

For some additional perspectives on the issue, check out this Think Christian piece arguing that OWS is the appropriate Christian response to income inequality, and Dylan Pahman’s PowerBlog response to a Sojurner’s post arguing that OWS represents a “new Pentecost.”

To listen to the interview, use the audio player below:

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Jordan’s original article, “How Christians Ought to ‘Occupy’ Wall Street (and All Streets),” is over at the Evangelical Portal at Patheos.

Last Friday, January 6, marked the Orthodox Christian feast of Theophany (Epiphany in the West). It commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ by John in the Jordan river, the manifestation of the Trinity to those present, and the sanctification of the waters through their contact with God incarnate.

Every year this last aspect of the feast stands as a reminder of the Christian viewpoint of God’s concern for the world he created. Indeed, according to a hymn from the Great Blessing of the Waters by St. Sophronios of Jerusalem, “Today the nature of the waters is sanctified.”

In the Orthodox tradition, there is a sense in which, while all of nature was made for the use and care of humankind, the ultimate purpose of the material world is sacramental. As the Russian Orthodox moral philosopher Vladamir Solovyov wrote, [M]atter has a right to be spiritualised.

This view contrasts with two rival views of ecology. One view, which continually crops up in popular culture, is that humans ultimately are doing more harm than good. Our efforts to master nature and use it for humanity’s benefit will cause its (and our) destruction someday. The second is the view against which the first is reacting. It is the modern view of a limitless use of natural resources with little concern for their preservation.

The vision given to us in Theophany is something else entirely. Through his baptism, Christ sanctifies the waters so that we might be sanctified by the waters of baptism. Water becomes a means by which humanity is perfected and the world as a whole reflects the glory of God to a greater degree.

In the Orthodox Church, this is not only true of the water, either. Bread and wine are used in the Eucharist, oil in Holy Unction and Chrismation (Confirmation), wood and gold and egg tempera paint in the making of holy icons, etc. The list goes on and on. The world is not meant to be left as is, nor is it meant to be carelessly depleted of its resources; it is meant to be spiritualized. It is a means and manifestation of divine grace and beauty.

How does this relate to economics? Economically, natural resources are material capital, and according to Vladimir Solovyov, we err if we seek to divorce them from their spiritual and moral purpose and make them independent, existing in and for themselves. He writes,

Alienation from the higher spiritual interests becomes inevitable as soon as the material side of human life is recognized to have an independent and unconditional value. One cannot serve two masters; and socialism naturally gives predominance to the principle under the banner of which the whole movement had originated, i.e. to the material principle. The domain of economic relations is entirely subordinated to it, and is recognised as the chief, the fundamental, the only real and decisive factor in the life of humanity. At this point the inner opposition between socialism and the bourgeois political economy disappears.

To misunderstand the material world, to fail to view it as the good creation of God with its own spiritual and moral purpose and, instead, to give it absolute value, ultimately leads to its degradation. It is, in fact, the definition of greed to value material things as something to be desired in and of themselves, apart from morality. The bourgeois that Solovyov criticizes are the type of people who act out of greed through manipulation of the market. The socialists, on the other hand, act out of greed through a call for revolution. Both, ultimately, make the same ecological error.

As Solovyov writes,

Socialism really stands on the same ground as the bourgeois régime hostile to it, namely, the supremacy of the material interest. Both have the same motto: “man liveth by bread alone.”

The Feast of Theophany, by contrast, calls Christians to adopt a higher, spiritual view of themselves and the world in which they live. And it is my contention that such a view is a far superior starting point for a Christian understanding of material capital. Anything less tends to degrade the world or ourselves.

For more on Vladimir Solovyov, check out the newest issue of Religion & Liberty.

Additionally, the Journal of Markets & Morality recently issued a Call for Publications on Orthodox Christian economic thought. Scholarly submissions on Vladimir Solovyov or Orthodox views of ecology would be welcome. View the full Call for Publications here.

For more on Orthodox Christianity and environmentalism, check out my post from last summer “Cosmos as Society.”