My two most recent contributions to the discussion phase focus on possible resources for the question that can be gleaned from Augustine and Aquinas.
Augustine inaugurated a tradition of Christian reflection on the saeculum, the age of this world in which the wheat and the tares grow up together, and the implications of this for common life together. On the relevance of Augustine for modern considerations of political order, I recommend a recent lecture from Eric Gregory of Princeton University.
Aquinas in many respects, and as Gregory points out, should be read as a constructive interlocutor with Augustine rather than in opposition with him. Indeed, Augustine wrote in his Enchiridion that “although every crime is a sin, not every sin is a crime.” Likewise in his treatise on free choice, he observed, “The law which is framed for the government of states, allows and leaves unpunished many things that are punished by Divine providence.”
In this vein, Aquinas treats in systematic fashion the question, “Whether it belongs to human law to repress all vices?” As I contend over at Cato Unbound, Aquinas follows Augustine in answering negatively, and his discussion has some serious implications for how both conservatives and libertarians ought to think about the limits of the law: “Conservatives and libertarians ought to recognize that positive law is not meant to repress all vices or to promote all virtues.”
Catholic Bishop Mario Toso, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace says “intolerance and discrimination against Christians have not diminished” but increased, despite more attention to the problem.
There are many areas where intolerance against Christians can clearly be seen, but two stand out as being particularly relevant at present.
The first is intolerance against Christian speech. In recent years there has been a significant increase in incidents involving Christians who have been arrested and even prosecuted, for speaking on Christian issues. Religious leaders are threatened with police action after preaching about sinful behavior and some are even sentenced to prison for preaching on the biblical teaching against sexual immorality. Even private conversations between citizens, including expression of opinions on social network, can become the grounds of a criminal complaint, or at least intolerance, in many European countries.
The second area where intolerance against Christians can clearly be seen is in regard to Christian conscience, particularly in the workplace. Throughout Europe there have been numerous instances of Christians being removed from the workplace simply for seeking to act according to their conscience. Some of them are well known since they have come even before the European Court of Human Rights.
Those who’ve attended Acton University in the past know that the Evening Speakers are memorable, uplifting and often the highlight of the day for many. This year, one speaker is Marina Nemat, currently teaching at the University of Toronto. Nemat is set to speak on her book, Prisoner of Tehran. The memoir details her imprisonment, with a life sentence, at age 16 in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran during the Khomeini Regime.
While the memoir, by its nature, is extremely personal, it touches on the themes of religious and intellectual liberty that are foundational to the learning at Acton University. In fact, Nemat was imprisoned for the “crime” of asking her calculus teacher to teach calculus, rather than spouting the politics of the regime. Her request led to her fellow students walking out of class, and Nemat found herself accused of communist and anti-revolutionary activities.
Part of the memoir focuses on Nemat’s Christian faith, a faith passed on to her from her Russian grandmother. While Nemat’s parents were distant emotionally, her grandmother was a source of strength for Nemat, especially as Nemat grew to learn that her grandparents had survived the Russian revolution. (more…)
Nearly every Christian tradition of social ethics encompasses two sorts of justice. The first is procedural justice: giving people what they deserve under contracts and the law. The second is distributive justice: meeting some needs just because human beings are human beings. This is not the same thing as egalitarianism; confiscation is not compassion. But distributive justice requires a decent provision for the vulnerable and destitute. And this is not just a matter of personal charity. Social justice is more than crumbs from the table; it depends on the existence of social and economic conditions that allow people to live, work and thrive.
Gerson should be applauded for grappling with such substantive doctrines as the common good and social justice. It is certainly brave to do so within the confines of a short opinion piece.
But his treatment of these in the context of this short op-ed illustrate the difficulty of doing so in a responsible fashion. For one thing, the common good is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts to get a handle on in the history of Christian moral reflection. In the end, Gerson summarizes it as “the set of social circumstances that allows everyone to flourish.” We might quibble with this description as not quite getting at the common good as a telos rather than a process, but given that he quotes John Paul II in the previous line, this isn’t that large of a quibble.
We might also note that even though it is commonly associated with modern Roman Catholic social thought, as Gerson notes, the idea of the common good is much more of a catholic legacy of Christianity shared by a variety of Christian traditions. See, for instance, Gerson’s claim that Wallis’ invocation of the common good is “further evidence of the intellectual advance of Catholic social teaching across Christian confessions.” I think this is probably true in the case of Wallis and many evangelicals, and in this Roman Catholic social thought has done a great service in preserving this inheritance and serving as a reminder and inspiration for those who have forgotten the place of the common good in their own tradition’s moral reflection. (more…)
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.”
While some environmentalists claim that Judaism and Christianity have been neglectful of environmental concerns, the history of these faith traditions shows otherwise. Matthea Brandenburg looks at the patristic witness, using the recent work of an Eastern Catholic scholar who argues that prayer and a healthy, every-day asceticism can keep relations between Creation and Creator on solid footing. What’s more, we should also be cautious about secularized views of nature offered by contemporary Gnostics—technocrats with “special” knowledge. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here. (more…)
Two Syrian Orthodox bishops have been abducted by terrorists in a suburb of Aleppo in Syria as they were returning from Antioch (Antakya, Turkey). While both clergymen are believed to be alive, their driver was killed during the attack:
Syriac Orthodox bishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo Paul, who also happens to be the brother of Patriarch John of Antioch and All The East were abducted en route to Aleppo from a town on the Turkish border where they were carrying out humanitarian work.
As they neared the city, they were met with an armed group in the village of Kfar who forced them out of the car. The driver, who was also a deacon was killed during the attack.
The bishops are believed to be alive and efforts are ongoing to secure their release, NNA reports.
The Greek Orthodox diocese of Aleppo declined to comment on the incident. The Russian orthodox church has condemned the act.
In May 2011, International Christian Concern said that the Christian minority—Christians make up less than 10 percent of the Syria’s 23 million people—are more afraid of the opposition forces than of the government, because under the Assad regime there has been tolerance towards religious minorities. Metropolitan Hilarion, the chairman of the Department of External Church Relations, noted that his close contact with the bishops of the Antiochian Orthodox Church made him believe that “in those places where the authorities are replaced by the rebel groups, Christianity is being exterminated to the last man: Christians are expelled, or physically destroyed.”
This past weekend, I had the privilege to attend and present a paper at the 2013 Kuyper Center for Public Theology conference at Princeton Seminary. The conference was on the subject of “Church and Academy” and focused not only on the relationship between the institutions of the Church and the university, but also on questions such as whether theology still has a place in the academy and what place that might be. The discussion raised a number of important questions that I would like to reflect on briefly here.
In the first place, I was impressed by Dr. Gordon Graham’s lecture on the idea of the Christian scholar. He began by exploring a distinction made by Abraham Kuyper in his work Wisdom & Wonder. Kuyper writes (in 1905), (more…)