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: jcarter
Monday, February 27, 2012
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What are the best ways to help the poor in developing countries?

Answering that question is not as straightforward as you might assume, says development economist Bruce Wydick in Christianity Today. As Wydick notes, most relief and development organizations carry out self-assessments and measure impact based on self-studies, methods that are neither unbiased nor empirically rigorous.
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I have been highlighting James Madison’s words on religious conscience on the PowerBlog over the past several weeks. The HHS Mandate is not simply an issue that can be wished, compromised, or willed away. Rick Warren’s statement, “I’d go to jail rather than cave in to a government mandate that violates what God commands us to do” is tied to Madison’s thoughts below. Madison has an understanding here that a citizen must be faithful to his religious conscience above and beyond any whims of the state. In fact, a citizen that is loyal to the higher order first can be compelled to act in good faith concerning the civil law. Thus to Madison, the highest law is the “Universal Sovereign” and man’s duty to his Creator trumps any civil pronouncement. Virginia’s advancement on the issue of religious liberty specifically found its way into the Bill of Rights.

The text below comes from “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” written by Madison in 1785 as an argument against a bill in the General Assembly of Virginia that sought to levy a general assessment for the support of teachers of religions:

We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considerd as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.

Rev. Sirico on why we shouldn’t have a bleak outlook on the future:

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Blog author: crobertson
Friday, February 24, 2012
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From websites promoting help with Monday morning atheism, to an ever present ‘TGIF,’ a place of honor toward work seems to do nothing but diminish within our culture. The mere suggestion that work is not a curse of the fall is unfortunately quite foreign in many circles. Joseph Sunde at Remnant Culture has written a blog based on his reading of Booker T. Washington’s biography entitled Up From Slavery in which he highlights the high ethic and dignity Washington placed on work.

I can only imagine the impact that would be realized in our culture, if the majority of people embraced the principles of Washington’s work ethic and practiced them on a daily basis. If you are looking for further reading on this topic, beyond Washington’s biography I would recommend Work: The Meaning Of Your Life by Lester DeKoster.

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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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Blog author: jcarter
Friday, February 24, 2012
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How much is a homemaker worth? Financial service company Investopedia recently added up what it would cost to hire someone to do cooking, cleaning, child care, driving, laundry, and lawn service equivalent to a full-time homemaker. The equivalent compensation would total $96,261.

Studies like this one are perennial, as Greg Forster notes, and have been around since at least the 1950s. But while the intentions are well-meaning, such studies have a tendency to reinforce materialistic assumptions about the nature of human relationships in both the family and the economy:

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Blog author: jcarter
Thursday, February 23, 2012
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On Thursday, March 1 at 7pm, Acton Institute president Rev. Robert Sirico will speak about the implications of the recent mandate for religious organizations handed down by the Health and Human Services Department of the federal government under the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

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Indivisible, a new book co-written by former Acton research fellow Jay Richards, has become a best-seller. From the book’s description:
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Matthew Schmitz over on First Thoughts posted a great article by Peter Berger sharing Peter’s thoughts on the recent HHS controversy. Peter gets at what is really the heart issue here. Though there is fierce debate ensuing about contraception, religious freedom is at the heart of the matter.

Peter Berger, the eminent sociologist of religion at Boston University and longtime friend of First Things, offers his readers at the American Interest some background on the HHS controversy, the cobelligerence of Catholics and Evangelicals, and then comes out swinging against the White House:

[L]et me offer a disclosure: I find the Catholic position on contraception thunderously unpersuasive. As to the two major religious communities involved, I am neither Catholic nor Evangelical—thus, as we say in Texas, I have no dog in this fight. (As I have avowed on this blog before, I am incurably Lutheran.) But I do agree very much with the protesters’ view that the Obama administration was about to violate constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom in a serious way. That is the issue here, and not women’s health—contraceptive devices are easily and inexpensively available in places other than Catholic hospitals. I also agree (though I am not a lawyer) that the administration’s action goes against a long tradition in American law of solicitude for the demands of conscience (religious or non-religious). The courts have protected the right of Quakers not to go to war, of Jehovah’s Witnesses not to take the oath of allegiance, of anyone who has reasons of conscience for affirming rather than swearing as a witness—or, for that matter, even burning the American flag. It seems to me that the same protection should cover a hospital run by Franciscans who don’t want to hand out condoms (never mind whether one agrees with their rather tortured reasoning on this matter).

What is to be learned from this episode? A number of things: The large expansion of federal power hidden in the innumerable pages of the legislation which established “Obamacare”. Obama’s captivity to his much-vaunted “base”, with its strongly secularist contingent (I have called it an American version of the Turkish ideology of Kemalism—religion is a virus to be kept out of public space, quarantined in religious reservations). The continuing political clout of religion in the United States (Kemalists are always surprised when they come across this—perhaps because they mostly talk to each other). And, contrary to a widespread opinion, the fact that the “culture war” between conservatives and progressives is by no means over—and continues to be politically significant.

Click here to read Peter Berger’s entire article.