Posts tagged with: religion

Despite the rise of globalization and democracy, violent persecution of Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities is still shockingly common in many parts of the world. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has released its latest survey of religious freedom and as Doug Bandow reports, it makes for grim reading:

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I saw the fine film Act of Valor last month, and I was struck by the level of sacrifice displayed in the lives of the service members featured. I have wondered in the meantime whether the scale of the sacrifice that’s been required of American service persons over the last two decades is sustainable.

One of the film’s characters leaves behind a pregnant wife, and beyond all of the usual and somewhat abstract “faith and freedom” reasons for serving in the armed forces, it becomes clear that service members are making the sacrifices of their time, talents, and lives to protect and defend their loved ones.

One of the things we struggle with in our church culture is the idea that “ministry” can only refer to the work of ordained ministers of the church. In the same way, though, the use of the language of ministry in common parlance illustrates something about how important that work is. It’s the same with how “serving your country” used to be understood. “Service” used to be shorthand for “serving in the armed forces.” Now it’s certainly true that this isn’t the only important way to serve your fellow citizen. But this use of language does show something about the value placed on the sacrifices undertaken by those who do serve in the military.

Roger Sterling CO

I wondered after seeing Act of Valor how long people would continue to be willing go abroad to fight and protect their nation, their friends, and their families when their own families, churches, and charitable organizations are under attack, not just from enemies abroad, but domestically, from policy decisions, legislative invention, and judicial activism.

A report released this week by the Council on Foreign Relations found that educational shortfalls at the K-12 level have significant domestic and national interest implications. As Joel Klein, co-chair of the task force report, said,

One statistic that blew members of this task force away is that three out of four kids today in America are simply ineligible for military service. It’s unbelievable. We’re drawing our national security forces from a very small segment of the population. And a lot of the problem is they simply don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to serve in the military.

One of the proposed solutions and needs identified to correct this problem was to introduce greater innovation into secondary education, especially through expansion of school choice initiatives. As Klein says, “We need to generate an environment that leads to innovation, and that empowers parents to really look over the next decade or so. We need to look at how we can transition from a monopoly on public school systems to one that gives parents and their children meaningful choices that stimulate innovation and differentiation.”

It seems to me, though, that the drift in this country is not toward empowering parents, families, charities, and churches. And so I wonder (and worry) what the future of America’s armed forces look like if we have the combination of increasing unwillingness and inability to effectively serve. The segment of the population that is both willing and able to serve might well become increasingly small, and no presidential fiat or campaign plank about increasing the size of the military could make it otherwise.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Today marks the feast day of St. Benedict of Nursia, one of the fathers of Western monasticism. One of his most famous dictums was ora et labora: “pray and work.” His Rule served as the standard community rule for monasteries in the West for hundreds of years.

Consistent with his dictum, the Rule of St. Benedict contains some wonderful passages about the value of work in addition to other pious practices. For example, Benedict writes,

Idleness is inimical to the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be occupied, at
fixed seasons, with manual work and again at fixed seasons with spiritual reading….

Knowing the spiritual dangers of idleness (such as boredom, depression, and gossip), Benedict prescribed regular daily work for the monks of any monastery that followed his rule. However, he did not absolutize the value of work, recommending time for rest and “spiritual reading.”

Furthermore, he offered consolation for those who labor in poverty:

And let them not be distressed if poverty or the needs of the place should require that they busy themselves about gathering in the crops with their own hands; for then are they truly monks, when they live by the work of their own hands, as did our fathers and the apostles.

Yet, he tempered even this by adding: “Let everything be done in moderation however on account of the faint-hearted.”

Indeed, we can see in St. Benedict’s Rule an excellent expression of the basic Christian view of the merits of work as well as its limitation for the sake of the worker:

To weak and delicate brethren let there be assigned such suitable occupation and duties that they be neither overcome of idleness nor so oppressed by exhaustion through work that they be driven to flight [from the monastery].

Due to the current economic condition of our country, many have had to settle for less than ideal work in order to make ends meet. St. Benedict provides a wonderful reminder about the honor inherent in all honest work, especially when enlivened with prayer.

I for one have worked at plenty of restaurants and factories and cleaned my fair share of toilets. Looking back, the best jobs (until I got my job here, of course) were not necessarily those at which I was the most comfortable but those in which I embraced St. Benedict’s dictum and united my labor with prayer. On this, his feast day, I hope others too, through him, can find satisfaction even in less-than-ideal jobs, embracing the vocation of prayer even if their desired vocation of work remains out of grasp.

All quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict are taken from The Rule of St. Benedict, translated into English. A Pax Book, preface by W.K. Lowther Clarke (London: S.P.C.K., 1931), which can be found online here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

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.

Calvin Coolidge quipped shortly before his death, “I feel I no longer fit in with these times.” The words came not long before FDR’s ascendency to the presidency and not long after the upsurge of government activism that started in the Herbert Hoover administration. Coolidge, even for his time, was seen as old fashioned, a throw back to simpler values, ethics, and principles. Coolidge cut the name tags out of his suits when he asked his wife to resale them, so not to profit from his name and position. He was lampooned for his hands off approach to the presidency. Ronald Reagan was even teased by the Washington Press Corps for hanging up a portrait of Coolidge in the White House. By many academics today, Coolidge is chiefly mischaracterized as a simpleton largely from quotes like “The chief business of the American people is business.” In that speech in 1925 delivered to newspaper editors, Coolidge also went on to say, “Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence.”

I can’t help but feel that a new appreciation for Coolidge is long overdue. Why? Because almost everything Coolidge warned against is happening now. As the nation faces government mismanagement, rapid growth of centralized power, crippling debt, decline of purpose, and moral decay, the clarity of his ideas are magnified. Coolidge is also the subject of a new biography by Amity Shlaes due out in June. As a public servant, he is vastly underrated for his writing and speeches. He spoke in a manner that was easily understood and he popularized the message of thrift, limited government, religious principles, and conservatism. But there too was an intellectual depth to his remarks about conservatism not seen today by the popular dispensers of those ideas.

One wonders if there will be a major candidate in the general presidential election to offer a defense of the free economy. And in doing so, can defend the great need for morality and virtue within the free market.

Below is a speech Coolidge gave in 1916 as Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts on the issues of character, the commercial society, and materialism. The remarks were given to the Brockton, Mass. Chamber of Commerce. Coolidge’s remarks are printed in their entirety.

Man’s nature drives him ever onward. He is forever seeking development. At one time it may be by the chase, at another by warfare, and again by the quiet arts of peace and commerce, but something within is ever calling him on to “replenish the earth and subdue it.”

It may be of little importance to determine at any time just where we are, but it is of the utmost importance to determine whither we are
going. Set the course aright and time must bring mankind to the ultimate goal.

We are living in a commercial age. It is often designated as selfish and materialistic. We are told that everything has been commercialized. They say it has not been enough that this spirit should dominate the marts of trade, it has spread to every avenue of human endeavor, to our arts, our sciences and professions, our politics, our educational institutions and even into the pulpit; and because of this there are those who have gone so far in their criticism of commercialism as to advocate the destruction of all enterprise and the abolition of all property.

Destructive criticism is always easy because, despite some campaign oratory, some of us are not yet perfect. But constructive criticism is not so easy. The faults of commercialism, like many other faults, lie in the use we make of it. Before we decide upon a wholesale condemnation of the most noteworthy spirit of modern times it would be well to examine carefully what that spirit has done to advance the welfare of mankind.

Wherever we can read human history, the answer is always the same. Where commerce has flourished there civilization has increased. It has not sufficed that men should tend their flocks, and maintain themselves in comfort on their industry alone, however great. It is only when the exchange of products begins that development follows. This was the case in ancient Babylon, whose records of trade and banking we are just beginning to read. Their merchandise went by canal and caravan to the ends of the earth. It was not the war galleys, but the merchant vessel of Phoenicia, of Tyre, and Carthage that brought them civilization and power. To-day it is not the battle fleet, but the mercantile marine which in the end will determine the destiny of nations. The advance of our own land has been due to our trade, and the comfort and happiness of our people are dependent on our general business conditions. It is only a figure of poetry that “wealth accumulates and men decay.” Where wealth has accumulated, there the arts and sciences have flourished, there education has been diffused, and of contemplation liberty has been born. The progress of man has been measured by his commercial prosperity. I believe that these considerations are sufficient to justify our business enterprise and activity, but there are still deeper reasons.

I have intended to indicate not only that commerce is an instrument of great power, but that commercial development is necessary to all human progress. What, then, of the prevalent criticism? Men have mistaken the means for the end. It is not enough for the individual or the nation to acquire riches. Money will not purchase character or good government. We are under the injunction to “replenish the earth and subdue it,” not so much because of the help a new earth will be to us, as because by that process man is to find himself and thereby realize his highest destiny. Men must work for more than wages, factories must turn out more than merchandise, or there is naught but black despair ahead.

If material rewards be the only measure of success, there is no hope of a peaceful solution of our social questions, for they will never be large enough to satisfy. But such is not the case. Men struggle for material success because that is the path, the process, to the
development of character. We ought to demand economic justice, but most of all because it is justice. We must forever realize that material rewards are limited and in a sense they are only incidental, but the development of character is unlimited and is the only essential. The measure of success is not the quantity of merchandise, but the quality of manhood which is produced.

These, then, are the justifying conceptions of the spirit of our age; that commerce is the foundation of human progress and prosperity and the great artisan of human character. Let us dismiss the general indictment that has all too long hung over business enterprise. While we continue to condemn, unsparingly, selfishness and greed and all trafficking in the natural rights of man, let us not forget to respect thrift and industry and enterprise. Let us look to the service rather than to the reward. Then shall we see in our industrial army, from the most exalted captain to the humblest soldier in the ranks, a purpose worthy to minister to the highest needs of man and to fulfill the hope of a fairer day.

A recent study by Millennial Branding reveals that

“Owner” is the fifth most popular job title [listed on Facebook] for Gen-Y [i.e., Millennials] because they are an entrepreneurial generation. Even though most of their companies won’t succeed, they are demonstrating an unprecedented entrepreneurial spirit.

The study does not speculate on the causes of this upsurge in enterprise and creativity among 18-29 year-olds, but no doubt “Mother Necessity” has her hand in it somewhere. Our country and world are facing serious financial crises and offering us little assurance of any positive resolution before we are handed the reins of the world. This last summer’s gridlock in Congress over our looming default was a case-in-point, and the Eurozone crisis continues to cast a gloomy shadow on our economic future.

That Millennials are becoming increasingly more entrepreneurial in light of this, however, is a glimmer of hope. While it will surely take key contributions from members of every generation in their various callings to steer clear of economic disaster (or recover from it), we can at least take comfort in the fact that with the increase of Millennial entrepreneurs (even if “most of their companies won’t succeed”), there is good reason to hope for future job and wealth creation so vital to economic stability and recovery.

In my post “The Church, Vocation, and Millennials,” I examined a recent Barna study’s analysis that one major reason that Millennials are leaving Christianity behind has been a neglect to link vocation and faith in much of their religious upbringing. This most recent Millennial Branding study highlights a specific vocation that ought not to be neglected: entrepreneurship. As Fr. Robert Sirico writes in The Entrepreneurial Vocation, the “chosen profession” of entrepreneurs “deserves to be legitimized by their faith.”

Christians once believed that their faith was a way of life (the Way, in fact). Assuming that this study is accurate, if Church leaders want their community to stop hemorrhaging Millennials, an increased focus on how that Way of Life, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, permeates their vocations—especially entrepreneurship—would be welcome.

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.”

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.”

Blog author: dpahman
posted by on Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Photography by shakko

Over at the Sojourners blog, Harry C. Kiely boldly considers whether the Occupy movement can be considered “the New Pentecost.” However, there are a myriad of problems with his comparison.

First and most importantly, from a Christian point of view, there already has been a “New Pentecost.” It is found in Acts 2. The Christian Pentecost was the fulfillment of the Jewish Pentecost. The giving of the Law (which the Jewish Pentecost commemorates) found its fulfillment in the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church to write the Law on the hearts of God’s people (see Jeremiah 31:33). Thus, for Kiely to proclaim the Occupy movement a New Pentecost is to already fail to understand what he is attempting to describe.

The theological flubs do not end there, unfortunately. He goes on to write,

In Acts, the emergence of new power occurred when the “gossip” about the Resurrection became a life-empowering message that transcended all lingual differences: “each heard in his own language.” Likewise in Occupy Wall Street: in the development of a new means of communication, people of diverse backgrounds both spoke and heard in a common language. It was, indeed, a New Pentecost.

Apparently the Holy Spirit of God was a “new power” that emerged from “the ‘gossip’ about the Resurrection” and is analogous to the iPhone.

He continues,

Deprived of loud speaker technology, for example, they invented a more human method of broadcast. Because they lacked appointed or elected leaders, the newly evolved community devised ways of organizing. In contrast to Wall Street methodology, the newly resurrected human community shared their food and goods with one another.

Actually, people in the ancient world did have “loud speaker technology”: they called them amphitheaters. As for the supposedly “more human method of broadcast” that “they invented,” I would love to hear how the disciples, in fact, “invented” the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, Kiely’s claim that “they lacked appointed or elected leaders” overlooks the fact that the Apostles were appointed by Christ himself (see Matthew 10:1-4), and, in fact, immediately before the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, the disciples had just deliberated over who would fill Judas Iscariot’s office in the Church and chose Matthias to be his replacement (see Acts 1:12-26).

In addition to misunderstanding the Christian Pentecost in Acts 2, Kiely also misunderstands the Occupy movement, which, despite some criticisms I may have for it, to its credit has never claimed to be a religious awakening of any sort. Indeed, no one in my generation would view it that way, whether they are for or against it. As one commentator (“Crazywulf”) wrote,

Please…please…please…… while whole heartedly supporting Occupy, I don’t believe anyone involved have actually been chosen by our saviour to be part of His inner circle… I know that wasn’t the intention of the author (or I hope it wasn’t)  but it could come off that way….

By contrast, after having completed his comparison, Kiely concludes with, perhaps, the most “Dominionist” statement I have ever read:

Emerging out of the New Pentecost [i.e. Occupy] is the promise of a New Creation that will transcend the endless, hollow, self-destructive promises of raging empires.

Yikes.