“You’ve lost a good opportunity to shut up.” So said French president Nicolas Sarkozy to UK prime minister David Cameron as an instance of what BusinessWeek has dubbed “Europe’s Insult Diplomacy.” But it’s a retort that strikes me as equally relevant for the pontifications that pour forth from ecumenical officials in Geneva on almost every topic under the sun.
The latest instance of imprudence in the cause of desperately seeking relevance is the claim from Rev. Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), that the reformer John Calvin “would have been in the streets of New York or London with a placard,” joining the Occupy Wall Street movement.
I explore the dynamics of what I call the “ecumenical-industrial complex” in my book released last year, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. One of the points I make in the book is that ecumenical officials like Nyomi cannot seem to resist the opportunity to weigh in on contemporary political and economic issues as if there is a single, univocal, and absolute Christian position.
The claim that Calvin and OWS are kindred is precisely the kind of obfuscatory rhetoric that we don’t need from ecclesiastical representatives, whether at the congregational, denominational, or ecumenical level. On the constructive side, in Ecumenical Babel I make the case that the ecumenical movement, rather than making absurd claims akin to that of Calvin and OWS, might “decline to issue doctrinaire and casuistical proclamations about this or that particular policy. Instead, the ecumenical movement would understand its role in this sphere to provide broad guidance rather than particular judgments.”
The upshot of such a change would be that “the ecumenical movement’s social witness would place correspondingly less emphasis on direct political engagement and advice…and correspondingly greater emphasis on providing moral guidance to the church.” As opposed to saying that JC (whether John Calvin or Jesus Christ) “would have been in the streets of New York or London,” as Nyomi claims, instead “the character of ecumenical statements on social issues…would be far more restrained and chastened than we find today.”
The Center for American Progress (CAP) has boldly rebutted the arguments of our own Kishore Jayabalan, director of Istituto Acton, concerning the Vatican’s note on a “central world bank.” It has done so by showing him to be lacking in “respect for the inherent dignity of human life.” … Yes, we are talking about that Center for American Progress.
In a feature on their website that purports to tie last month’s Vatican note to the Occupy Wall Street movement, CAP offers this smarmy response to the analysis Jayabalan gave.
Some conservative Catholic commentators are not as supportive, however….
Kishore Jayabalan of the conservative Catholic Acton Institute said that the note’s appeal to an international authority contradicts the church’s teaching that problems are best solved starting at local levels of authority, also known as the doctrine of subsidiarity.
What these conservatives are missing is that the note draws heavily from the tradition of Catholic social teachings on justice and respect for the inherent dignity of human life. This is where the Occupy movement finds an ally.
CAP has one-upped us doctrinally: where Jayabalan is concerned with minor theological nuances like the doctrine of subsidiarity, their minds are fixed on higher principles like respect for human dignity, the most immediate threat to which is the great and terrible free market.
“At heart, it is a moral enterprise,” say CAP’s Jake Paysour about Occupy Wall Street. Yes, except at the hearts of its camps, where women dare not go because their human dignity is respected only as much as strong men find it convenient.
CAP’s record on human dignity speaks for itself. Its position on the lives of unborn children, for example, could not be any more out of line with Catholic teaching on “justice and respect for the inherent dignity of human life.” It is shocking that CAP even uses those words: the suggestion that they give one hoot about Church teaching on human dignity is nonsense.
I will resist the temptation of a GetReligion-style dismantling of the feature, since it would sail right over their heads at CAP, but I must point out that the Church’s principles of social justice were not “set forth 80 years ago” in Quadrogesimo Anno, as the author claims, but rather 40 years before in Rerum Novarum (hence the second encyclical’s name — not that we should expect anyone there to have any Latin). I don’t mean to make an ad hominem argument, but if you can’t get that right, what are you doing trying to explain the relative weights of principles first explicated in Rerum Novarum?
In the future: If you’re going to use the words of an Acton Institute expert, it is expected that you will avoid the shameless contortion of facts and logic that CAP indulged in today.
Acton’s prolific director of research Samuel Gregg writes at Crisis Magazine about those who would modernize the Catholic Church (theologically): “Dissenting Catholics’ Modernity Problem.” His reflection centers on the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, whose recent visit toGermany brought the modernizers out of the woodwork, and whose speeches and writings have placed the faithful in their proper context.
Judging from the hundreds of thousands of Germans who attended and watched Pope Benedict XVI’s September trip to his homeland (not to mention the tsunami of commentaries sparked by his Bundestag address), the pope’s visit was — once again — a success. And, once again, it was also an occasion for self-identified dissenting Catholics to inform the rest of us what the Church must do if it wants to remain “relevant.” To no-one’s surprise, their bottom-line remains the same. The Church is “out of touch.” Why? Because it’s insufficiently “modern.”
The “we-must-be-more-modern” argument reflects the workings of a logic that privileges whatever is considered “contemporary” (an ever-moving target) over the knowledge imparted by Christ to His Church from its very beginning.
Such reasoning often runs along the following lines. In modernity, X is considered not good; ergo, the Church must accept X is not good. Or, modern people regard X as good or licit; ergo, the Church should teach X is good or licit.
You don’t need to be a professional philosopher to recognize that these are what logicians call non sequiturs: arguments in which the conclusions don’t follow from the premises. The fact that something is considered modern tells us nothing about its goodness or evil, let alone whether it conforms to the truth found in Divine Revelation. It also produces very strange arguments such as the claim made in 1968 (of course) by the ex-Jesuit theologian John Giles Milhaven, that “modern people” (whoever they are) by virtue of their “modernity of spirit” (whatever that means) enjoyed a type of “standing dispensation” from God to pursue what they “feel” to be good.
Gregg sets this post-Enlightenment ethic of feelings against the Church’s foundation in reason, which makes it truly catholic. Those who would re-orient the Church,
marginalize the conviction that the fullness of Christian truth is to be found in the reasonable faith entrusted to and proclaimed by the Church. And the faith of that Church goes beyond the particular views held by us today to embrace the right belief (orthos-doxa) of the whole communio of believers, the living and the dead, from the apostles onward — the truth of which is confirmed by the consensus of the Church Fathers, the lives of the saints, the witness of the martyrs, and the teaching authority of the successors of Peter and the other apostles.
Of course, Catholicism doesn’t have an in-principle opposition to the post-Enlightenment world per se, any more than it allegedly locates everything that is good and true in the 13th century. Any effort to associate the fullness of Catholic faith with any one historical period risks relativizing those truths knowable by faith and reason that transcend time and bind Catholics across the ages.
Perhaps such a relativizing is what many dissenting Catholic activists want. If so, they should concede that this would mean making the Church in their own image rather than that of Christ the Logos. And there is no surer way of making the Church truly irrelevant in a modern world that desperately needs more reason and light than emotivism and darkness.
Frank Schaeffer: Bachmann, Palin, Perry Use Religion Like Snake Oil Salesmen (2011)
Remaining Orthodox in a Secular World : A Sermon by Frank Schaeffer (2002)
Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), has a story on FrontPageMag.com about Frank Schaeffer’s call for the Occupy Wall Street protesters to go after evangelical Christians. Schaeffer is the son of evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). Tooley:
A blogger for The Huffington Post, young Schaeffer is now faulting religious conservatives for facilitating Wall Street greed. He’s imploring the Wall Street Occupiers to “protest the root source of America’s tilt to the far unregulated corporate right.” For Schaeffer, the next logical step is to demonstrate “outside mega churches, Evangelical publishing houses, [and] religious organizations that lead the ‘moral’ crusades against women and gays and all the rest.”
The article, titled “Wall Street Occupiers Urged to Target Churches,” also describes Schaeffer attacking Roman Catholics as “likewise ‘fundamentalists’ who have ‘delegitimized the US Government and thus undercut its ability to tax, spend and regulate.’ So Catholic bishops, like evangelical mega churches, have also tricked their followers into voting against their ‘own class and self-interest.'” See the top video in this post for a sample of Schaeffer spleen.
In August, New York Times reporter Mark Oppenheimer interviewed Schaeffer about his new book Sex, Mom and God and said that that the author’s “break with conservatism, and with evangelicalism, came in the late 1980s.” But, as Oppenheimer described it in “Son of Evangelical Royalty Turns His Back, and Tells the Tale,” Schaeffer:
… had long been skeptical of many of his bedfellows. He found the television pastor Pat Robertson and some of his colleagues to be ‘idiots,’ he told me last week, when we met for coffee in western Massachusetts. Looking back, Mr. Schaeffer says that once he became disillusioned he ‘faked it the whole way.’
Schaeffer might be telling the truth, but remember he’s a self-confessed faker. One thing’s for sure — Oppenheimer didn’t do his homework.
The second, grainy video at the top of this post, shot in a Greek Orthodox church about six months after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, shows Schaeffer in his post-evangelical, pre-HuffPo culture wars mode — more than a decade after his purported “break” from the right. You hear him warning those in the pews about the threat from “the Islamic horde that now pours toward our frontiers” and hear him berating Protestants and Catholics for their soft “feminized” Christianity that won’t stand up to secularism, hedonism and a whole catalog of evils that might have been formulated by, say, Pat Robertson. Schaeffer wants a Christianity that isn’t wishy-washy, therapeutic and “sentimental” but has a “my way or the highway” ethic — a lot like the U.S. Marine Corps. In fact, he has found the alternative to America’s flabby faith: the Orthodox Church.
A tireless book promoter (see also the first five minutes of this longer video), Schaeffer spent a good part of the 1990s and beyond attacking Western Christianity for its many failures and novelties over and against the “pure and clean and perfect” Orthodox Church, into which he was received as a convert. The launching pad for much of this vitriol was his 1995 book, Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religions, which combined Orthodox triumphalism and cold-hearted sectarian vituperation and took it to new heights.
My Greek Orthodox parish was instrumental in bringing Schaeffer to Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1995 for a speaking engagement at a local high school that drew more than 1,000 people. The crowd included many curious Protestants who wanted to hear the son of the famous evangelical theologian explain why he had left the fold and converted to Orthodoxy. While in town, Schaeffer was interviewed on Calvin Forum, a public affairs program on the Calvin College educational TV channel. Indeed, the Reformed minister who interviewed him later was received into the Orthodox Church. Listen to Kevin Allen of Ancient Faith Radio interview former moderator of Calvin Forum, Robert Meyering, about the role Schaeffer played in his journey East.
What is Orthodoxy? According to Schaeffer, “it is the church that has maintained the worship, the sacrament, the truth, in its only pure form that can be found in the world today.” Problem is, in his current incarnation as scourge of the Religious Right, Schaeffer doesn’t say much about the Orthodox Church and his many years of (faking it again?) traveling the country as a Neo-Byzantine circuit rider. You see no evidence on his personal web page of any of those rants against the Catholic and Protestant enemies of Orthodoxy, nor access to a digital version of his tabloid Christian Activist newspaper that was frequently the vehicle for these attacks.
In Dancing Alone, Schaeffer decried the “Protestant debacle [embodied in the ecumenical movement] which has resulted in the disintegration of Western civilization, the acceptance of abortion on demand, the ordination of women, homosexuals and lesbians, the apostasy and heresy inherent in ‘liberal’ Protestant theology.” This was years after he “broke” with the conservatives and Religious Right? Here’s the contents page for the book on Regina Orthodox Press, the publishing house Schaeffer founded and which continues to sell titles like From Baptist to Byzantium and The Virtue of War.
Schaeffer’s Orthodox history might be inconvenient to him today because based on the Church’s teachings — sanctity of life, sexuality, marriage, a hyper-patriarchal priesthood — it looks a lot like the dimwitted “Taliban” Christians and “fundamentalists” that Schaeffer spends so much time denouncing of late. Then again, you can hardly go around advertising the fact that you spent years proselytizing on behalf of traditional morality if, today, you want to maximize your page views on HuffPo and get MSNBC producers to call you back.
IRD covered a speech Schaeffer recently gave in which he cited the Orthodox tradition’s reverence for “holy mysteries” as grounds for rejecting “the frozen being of belief.” But the mysteries of the faith in Orthodox teaching (indeed, the Christian faith rests on profound mysteries) do not provide a basis for a faith that changes, as he puts it, “like the weather.” He should go back and re-read his history of the Ecumenical Councils if he thinks that “anything goes” is how the Church does theology.
Years ago, it was obvious to some Orthodox Christians that Schaeffer had anger management issues. In a 1995 review of Dancing Alone, the scholar and essayist Vigen Gurioan said the book “oozes with the same moralism, instrumentalism and pragmatism that have contributed to the secularization and loss of catholic Christian consciousness that he condemns.”
Schaeffer, Guroian wrote, is at heart an individualist who has taken it upon himself to single handedly interpret the Truth and right all wrongs:
Schaeffer seems to have become Orthodox because the rest of America has gone wrong, and Orthodoxy is the best religious remedy for cultural crisis and moral malaise. At work here is not the catholic mind of the church but the romantic self that takes upon itself the task of reconstructing and arbitrating theological truth. Schaeffer intones “Holy Tradition” repeatedly when he passes judgment on the falsehood in others and claims truth for his own statements (“Holy Tradition says…”). But at center stage as arbiter and mediator of this so-called Holy Tradition is the “I.”
Schaeffer is still arbitrating the truth, but now from the left. Fair enough. That’s his choice. Although, inciting mobs to attack churches and publishing houses does sound a tad intolerant.
But the New York Times claim that the years of “faking it” among Christian traditionalists ended in the late 1980s, doesn’t hold water. Actually, his right wing, sectarian hate speech phase extended deep into the 1990s and 2000s, albeit masquerading in the rich brocades of Orthodox triumphalism. You wonder: Because Frank Schaeffer is such a good faker, could he still be faking it today? Is he a double agent in the culture wars, secretly going among the liberals at HuffPo and MSNBC until the time is ripe to once again expose the evildoers with new books and fresh tirades? We’ll have to stay tuned.
Samuel Gregg is quoted in today’s New York Times story about the Vatican note calling for a central world bank — he gives the final word on the document. The “politically liberal Catholics” quoted before him reveal that they have missed a crucial distinction in the document produced by the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice. Gregg, of course has picked up on that distinction; he wrote yesterday:
Putting aside doctrinal questions, this text also makes claims of a more strictly economic nature…. The text makes a legitimate point about the effects of a disjunction between the financial sector and the rest of the economy.
Unfortunately, many of its authors’ ideas reflect an uncritical assimilation of the views of many of the very same individuals and institutions that helped generate the world’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The academics and activists who see in the document a way forward to socialism have missed the split between the note’s diagnosis of the world economy, and its proposed economic reforms. I cannot resist quoting G.K. Chesterton: “The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.”
To say that “the time has come to conceive of institutions with universal competence,” as PCPJ President Cardinal Turkson did yesterday, is all well and good, but the possibility of such institutions running effectively is another matter.
Indeed, Kishore Jayabalan, the director of Istituto Acton and a former staffer at the Council, asked the National Catholic Reporter, “What makes the [Council] think that ‘global’ leaders will succeed where so many national ones have failed? It is a shame this document is based more on sentimental political hopes for world government than on actual experience and expertise of financial markets.”
Jim Wallis, the author, public theologian, speaker, and international commentator behind the Christian Left’s Circle of Protection, was in Grand Rapids last night, and I went to hear him speak. Wallis was presented as the latest in a long line of progressive luminaries to speak (or play their guitars) at the Fountain Street Chruch: Eleanor Roosevelt, Clarence Darrow, Margaret Sanger, Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, U2, and the Ramones have all appeared on the same dais. He was introduced to speak about “where we are going together so that we can keep our eyes on the prize.”
That’s a pretty hip list, and Wallis considers himself a pretty hip guy, so I was genuinely surprised to enter the nave and find a sea of grey heads. Even the handful of Occupy Grand Rapids protesters were in their forties and fifties. Well I’m here for his lecture, I reminded myself, not to draw conclusions from his demographics before he even speaks.
Wallis started off with baseball — a promising place to start — telling the audience, “Baseball, following teams like Detroit, it builds character.” (Detroit missed out on the World Series a few days ago when it ran up against the indomitable Texas Rangers.) I was hoping to hear him expound on this theme in the rest of the talk, but he moved on to his core message: that with respect to Christ’s words in Matthew 25:40, the budget is a moral document.
Then he addressed the handful of forty- and fifty-something Occupy Grand Rapids protesters, and spoke about hope. “Hope,” he said “is not a feeling. Hope is a choice we make based on faith.” His lesson for the protesters was the same, he said, was the same one he had learnt from Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa during apartheid: that “hope means believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.”
Both were very true statements on the nature of hope, and the secular, materialist world desperately needs to hear them. But hope is a theological virtue, and Wallis applied it only to the material world.
I understand that he was speaking to a wide audience in a Unitarian church, but the faith he spoke of — the faith that undergirds his hope in this world and the next — is a supernatural faith. Without talk of hope in the City of God, the lecture lacked a fundamental coherence that no anecdote about Desmond Tutu, Elizabeth Warren, or President Obama could supply. It lacked even a discussion of the character that the Tigers’ season might have instilled in the audience. (It is possible that part went right over my head, since I’m a Rangers fan and the experts have picked us to win in 6 games.)
The lack of any transcendent meaning in the talk may have been why the youth of today weren’t there. Times are hard, employment is scare, it’s a bad time to be graduating college and looking for a job. But young people don’t have time to go hear someone tell them that if they hope for more from this life, they’ll get it. Wallis should stay away from that message anyway, since Joel Osteen delivers it better.
Someone looking for a gathering of energized youth in Grand Rapids should come in June for Acton University. That’s a gathering based on true hope, and the attendees (with an average age probably 40 years lower than in Fountain Street Church crowd) gather from scores of countries to discuss economic growth motivated and guided by a transcendent faith. Until Wallis’s message goes a little deeper, he continue to expect audiences that just want to be told they’ve lived a benignant life.
Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg tackles the question of religious liberty in Islamic states this morning, over at The American Spectator. In a piece titled “The Arab Spring’s Forgotten Freedom,” Gregg describes the tensions between Christians seeking religious freedom in the Middle East and the Islamic states they inhabit, and then looks hopefully to the source of a resolution.
For at least one group of Middle-Easterners, the Arab Spring is turning out to be a decidedly wintery affair. And if confirmation was ever needed, just consider the escalation of naked violence against Christians throughout the region. The recent instance of Egyptian army vehicles crushing and killing Coptic Christians protesting against a church burning was merely one of numerous incidents that must make Middle-Eastern Christians wonder about their future under the emerging new regimes.
These trends appear to confirm that despite all the current freedom-and-democracy talk, much of the Islamic world continues to suffer from one particularly severe blind spot when it comes to human liberty. And that concerns the acceptance and protection of authentic religious freedom.
Gregg points out that the Christian population of the Middle East has plummeted since 1900 (when it was about 20 percent) for ethnic and for political reasons.
Islam confronts two specific dilemmas that raise questions about its ability to accept a robust conception of religious liberty.
First, from its very beginning, Islam was intimately associated with political power. That’s one reason why there is no church-state distinction in Islam that limits (at least theoretically) the state’s capacity to coerce religious belief or unreasonably inhibit religious-shaped choices.
Second, since approximately the 13th century, the dominant theological understanding of God’s nature within Islam has been one of Voluntas (Divine Will) rather than Logos (Divine Reason). And this matters because if you believe in a God that can, on a mere whim, act unreasonably, then it isn’t so problematic for such a Divinity’s adherents to engage in plainly unreasonable practices such as killing apostates.
If, however, God is Logos, the case for religious liberty is much easier to make insofar as a reasonable God would never demand compulsion in religion. Why? Because as St. Augustine wrote long ago, “If there is no assent, there is no faith, for without assent one does not really believe.”
Gregg sees hope, however, in thinkers like Turkish journalist and devout Muslim Mustafa Akyol, whose recent book Islam Without Extremes makes the Islamic case for religious freedom. Though most Western religious thinkers do little to plead the cause of persecuted Middle Eastern Christians, Gregg thinks the central cause of the persecution, and thus the ultimate solution, is to be found in Islamic thought.
In the end, non-Muslims can’t resolve Islam’s religious liberty challenge. Only theologically educated, historically informed and believing Muslims can do that. In the meantime, those reading the Arab Spring as a uniformly-positive event might like to consider that it appears to be doing little to secure the freedom, if not the very existence, of ancient Christian churches, many of which were founded by people who in all likelihood knew Christ or his first disciples. The loss of such a civilizational and religious heritage would be immeasurable — and not just for Christianity, but for the future of liberty within the Islamic world itself.
Mustafa Akyol happens to be speaking today at a luncheon hosted by the Cato Institute. Acton’s executive director Kris Mauren will be providing commentary. If you are in Washington, D.C., you won’t want to miss it!
Religious liberty must be at the heart of any free society, because if it is not protected, all other defenses are sure to fall. The abuses of Christians in Afghanistan violate not only their rights of conscience, but also their rights of property and even of free movement — their churches are seized and they are imprisoned. Contracts with Christians are not enforced, converts to Christianity are openly persecuted, and Afghan politicians approve of all of this.
We should not expect that in ten years our diplomats could have effected a constitutional transformation of Afghanistan. Liberty “is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization,” as Lord Acton said, “from the sowing of the seed at Athens, two thousand four hundred and sixty years ago, until the ripened harvest was gathered” in Western Europe. (He delivered that address in 1877, so you’ll want to update the numbers.)
But a backslide is cause for concern. It suggests that there is something wrong with the conception of human freedom that is motivating our efforts.
“They were trying to blow me into heaven, but God wanted me on Earth.” – Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s courage, tenacity, and epic struggle for racial equality in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, is legendary. Birmingham, not so affectionately nicknamed “Bombingham” in the 1950s and 1960s for its propensity for racial acts of terror, named its airport after the famed American Civil Rights leader in 2008.
This account, which speaks to the madness in Birmingham during his pastorate at Bethel Baptist Church, is from his New York Timesobituary page:
In one instance, on Christmas night 1956, he survived an attack in which six sticks of dynamite were detonated outside his parsonage bedroom as he lay in bed. “The wall and the floor were blown out,” Ms. McWhorter wrote, “and the mattress heaved into the air, supporting Shuttlesworth like a magic carpet.”
When he tried to enroll his children in an all-white school in 1957, Klansmen attacked him with bicycle chains and brass knuckles. When a doctor treating his head wounds marveled that he had not suffered a concussion, Mr. Shuttlesworth famously replied, “Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head.”
I remember learning about Rev. Shuttlesworth during my studies of the American Civil Rights Movement at Ole Miss and you just had to deeply admire his stubborn, but principled courage.
One aspect of his life that may be overshadowed in the tributes paid to him in some forums is that Rev. Shuttlesworth was a conservative Baptist with a conservative theology. Christ was at the center of his preaching. He would want his death to be celebrated. Rev. Shuttlesworth lived a life with little fear because of the confidence he had in the power of Christ. He believed that he too would rise to be with his Savior.
Looking back on Birmingham and the famed movement for justice and equality there he simply said, “We knew that once the light shined into darkness that darkness couldn’t hold us back.” Below is a moving tribute to the former civil rights leader and pastor: