Blog author: jballor
Thursday, December 18, 2008
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The blogosphere is atwitter over the news that Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, will give the invocation at President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration. The decision on Warren’s part to accept is getting criticism from the right, while Obama’s offer of the opportunity is getting criticized from the left.

At Redstate Erick Erickson views Warren’s participation as evidence of his desire to be the next “Protestant Pope” after the decline of Billy Graham. Erickson writes that Warren “wants to be the moral voice of the moral majority the way Graham used to be and he has a bigger ego to boot. So he’s happy to lay his hands on the new President and have the media give him the legitimacy the media once gave Billy Graham.”

And from the other side of the spectrum, Peter Daou’s entry at the Huffington Post does a good job summarizing the massive criticism Obama has gotten from the more radical strands of his party. In Daou’s words “the progressive community is outraged.”

Of course, they were also outraged when Obama participated in Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency. And so too were many religious conservatives doubtful about Warren’s commitment to the two rails of the Religious Right, marriage and abortion. Many conservatives were pleasantly surprised when Warren (politely) pressed Obama on his views about abortion, which spawned the now-infamous “above my paygrade” response from the now President-elect. Quite frankly, Warren doesn’t need the media to “give” him legitimacy…his popularity, his pulpit, and his ability to bring together politicians in a public forum do that well enough.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Warren again surprises his conservative critics, even though an inauguration invocation is hardly the place for political grandstanding or pontificating. My opinion about Warren remains unchanged. At the time he organized the Saddleback forum, I thought it was a mark in his favor that he could act as a fair dealing arbiter and get the two major presidential candidates to appear. Only someone who had garnered a level of trust from both sides could achieve that kind of thing, and that’s where the comparisons to Billy Graham are most accurate and complimentary to Warren: “Perhaps Warren has had to upset the margins on both sides of the political aisle to get himself into a position that could command the kind of respect from both candidates that would get them to this platform.” He seems to be doing the same thing here.

Gina Dalfonzo over at the Point says that “a Christian leader given the opportunity to stand up and pray for the nation in public on an important occasion should generally take it, I think, no matter who’s doing the asking.” I do think pastors should avoid partisanship, as best they can, and I think Warren has done so rather admirably.

On this point there’s an interesting comparison to be made between Warren’s appearance at a presidential inauguration and the offer to Joel Hunter and Cameron Strang to pray at the Democratic National Convention. Strang, who is the founder and CEO of Relevant magazine, initially accepted the invitation, and then declined under criticism that his appearance would lend partisan credibility to Obama. Strang explained his choice to withdraw, saying, “If my praying at the DNC was perceived as showing favoritism and incorrectly labeling me as endorsing one candidate over the other, then I needed to have pause.”

So here’s the question: is praying at an inauguration more or less partisan than praying at a party’s convention? Or are the two equally partisan? I’m inclined to think that praying at the inauguration isn’t nearly so easily identifiable with “endorsing one candidate over the other” or “showing favoritism.” Once the election is over, the President is everybody’s President. Before the election, that’s a different story.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Milton, best known for his masterpiece, Paradise Lost. An essay by Theo Hobson, author of the newly-released Milton’s Vision: The Birth of Christian Liberty (Continuum, 2008), well summarizes Milton’s integrated theological, political, and social vision (HT: Arts & Letters Daily).

John Milton (1608-1674): “None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license.”

Instead of secularizing a figure that has been deemed important in the history of political philosophy by some sort of post-Enlightenment textual deconstruction, Hobson attempts to show how Milton’s Christian convictions positively informed his perspective on the responsibilities of both state and church. For Milton faith was no vestigial appendage that contemporary observers might feel at liberty to amputate with warranted zeal.

At the same time, notes Hobson, Milton “started working out a coherent account of England’s religious situation. It wasn’t enough to insist that the church should be more ‘Protestant’, for that term was vague. He realised that the Reformation had evaded the whole issue of church-state relations; it allowed for an authoritarian state church. Real religious reform entailed going right back to the time of Constantine, and questioning the idea of a politically empowered church.” Hobson works out this thesis regarding Milton’s contribution to judge that Milton’s influence has been much more positively felt on the American side of the Atlantic rather than in his native land.

To say that the Reformers “evaded” the issue of church and state is perhaps misrepresenting Milton’s criticism a bit (or if it isn’t then Milton’s criticism ill-stated). It’s one thing to say that the Reformers didn’t address the question in the right way, or came up with the right solution, or didn’t go quite far enough in “reforming” the relationship between church and state. But it’s quite another thing (and a patently false one at that) to say that they didn’t directly and rather thoroughly discuss the issue.

What Milton was really concerned to fight, which Hobson accurately articulates, was the influence of a sort of Constantinian Protestantism, communicated to Britain via figures like Martin Bucer (whose De Regno Christi appeared in 1550) and Wolfgang Musculus (whose Common places were published in translation in 1563 and 1578 in Britain). And while there were important varieties of this Constantinian or magisterial Protestantism in the sixteenth century, there was near unanimity among the major first and second generation Reformers on the question of civil enforcement of both tables of the Law.

Both Bucer and Calvin preferred the hypocrite, who only endangered his own salvation, to the open apostate, who could lead many astray.

The distinction between “religious” obligations in the first table and “civil” obligations in the second table is not identical to a distinction between internal motives and external works. The conflation of these two distinctions is what paves the way for a corrosive kind of secularism, the kind that privatizes or internalizes religion and faith. And as Milton clearly saw, the institutional separation between state and church in no way entails the withdrawal of faith from public life. Indeed, since his own religious convictions so profoundly influenced his political views, to say otherwise would have been to render Milton’s own position untenable.

Here is quite the unique story from 13WMAZ in Macon, Georgia. The clip highlights what Army Staff Sergeant Jeremy Snow is doing to help those in need during the Christmas season. While serving in Iraq, Staff Sergeant Snow and friends from his unit have been shopping online and sending food, new clothes, and even mp3 players back to his mother, who is retired military. Margie Snow then unpacks and hands the gifts over to the local Loaves and Fishes ministry for distribution. “Everyday he calls about a different box on its way,” she says.

While the story is unique, in light of all the care packages that leave the U.S. for Iraq, it is not surprising when you consider the character of so many who serve in our Armed Forces. One of my first reactions after reading the story and watching the news video is that there is little excuse not to give after learning about Staff Sergeant Snow’s first class generosity. It is of course common knowledge that those who serve in the military do so with a modest salary, especially among the enlisted ranks.

In life, I think it’s always helpful to think about how you want to define yourself, how would you like other people to perceive you, and who would you like to emulate? Giving is one of the clearest examples I can think of that reflects your inner and outward character.

Also always deserving a mention is the United States Marine Corps Reserve and their 61 year program of bringing the joy of Christmas to needy children nationwide through their Toys for Tots Foundation. Below is a great commercial promoting their charity.

Blog author: brittany.hunter
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
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With the approach of Christmas, we again hear calls to shun gift buying as somehow sinful and materialistic. In this week’s Acton Commentary, Rev. Robert A. Sirico explains the real reason we give so generously at this time of year and how in giving, we receive.

If you haven’t yet read Rev. Sirico’s commentary, you can do so by visiting the Acton website and then come back and join the discussion over here at the PowerBlog.

We’re a fortnight away from the new year, and that means that you are probably getting a spate of letters, postcards, and packages appealing for your donations in this critical giving season. I want to point out a number of opportunities to help you decide where your charitable dollars ought to go.

Your first stop should always be the Acton Institute’s Samaritan Guide, a project that goes beyond the information available from the standard IRS forms that power other charity rating sites. The Samaritan Guide focuses on charities that take little or no government money and attempt to integrate faith into their works of love. You can use the Guide to focus on charities by location, type of service provided, and a variety of other factors to find one that suits the kind of work you feel called to support.

You should also keep your eye out for non-traditional ways of giving, which may make your dollar stretch further than usual. One way to integrate giving into your daily activity is by using a service like GoodSearch, which gives money to a charity of your choice every time you use their Yahoo-powered search engine. And of special note during the gift-giving season is the related GoodShop service, which partners with online merchants to shift a portion of the money you spend online to your selected charity. You can assign the Acton Institute to be your GoodSearch and GoodShop recipient by clicking here.

Other ways you can get more bang for your charitable buck is by looking for matching grant opportunities, and the Acton Institute has an incredible chance for you to double or even triple the amount of your contribution. Thanks to the generosity of a stalwart supporter, the Acton Institute has the opportunity to triple donations received from now until January 15, 2009 through a very generous 2-to-1 matching grant (for renewing supporters, the grant will match the increase from last years giving).

Please act quickly to help us leverage your contributions to the Acton Institute. To donate now via our secure online form, please click here. With your involvement, and the help of others, we can realize the full potential of this matching grant opportunity. As always, your gift will help us continue to promote a free and virtuous society. If you have any questions related to this extraordinary giving opportunity, please contact us at (616) 454-3080.

If the recent financial crisis teaches us anything, it should be the value of the institutions of civil society that depend on the charity of the people. With tools like the Samaritan Guide, you can give smarter and more effectively. But this Christmas season, be sure to give as you have been given.

Avery Cardinal Dulles lecturing at the Acton Institute.

I knew the reputation of Avery Dulles, SJ, long before I entered that classroom at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., back in the early 1980s when I was in seminary. I knew he was considered, even then, the dean of Catholic theologians in the United States, author of scholarly essays and books too numerous to name, peritus (theological expert) at the Second Vatican Council and the son of a prominent New York Presbyterian family whose father was John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under President Eisenhower and whose uncle was Allen Dulles, director of the CIA. I knew he had been a convert to Catholicism during his years at Harvard University after having declared himself an agnostic in his first year there.

The intellectual stature of the man was intimidating, but once someone encountered him personally, one found the gentle, humble soul of a sincere Christian. He had a mischievous sense of humor which was evident to anyone who noticed him driving a beat up old car around campus with a small bumper sticker promoting the local airport, “Fly Dulles” (named after his father). Once, while a passenger in that car, we were speaking about liberation theology and he said:

“Sitting in that very seat you are in right now was (mentioning the name of a prominent liberation theologian). When he asked why I drove such an old clunker, he became rather uncomfortable when I told him it was a gift from my uncle Allen. He looked for wiretaps the rest of the trip.”

Even though some referred to him as “Dull Dulles,” I found that being in class with him was an exhilarating experience. It was akin to witnessing a train slowly leaving the station. Initially the student (this student!) would feel satisfied that the material was clear and comprehensible. Point would begin to build upon point, stretching the mind. And just at that precise moment when it all became too complex and difficult to follow, Fr. Dulles would take it up just one more notch, and then … the class bell would ring.

Avery Cardinal Dulles (center) and Rev. Robert A. Sirico (right) at the 1998 Kuyper Leo XIII conference in Grand Rapids, Mich.

In 2001, I was honored to attend the consistory in Rome at which Fr. Dulles was elevated by Pope John Paul II to being a Prince of the Church, Avery Cardinal Dulles. He was the first American theologian to be given that title without being made a bishop first. I could not help but think, on that brilliant day, that the mischievous aspect of his personality came out as the pope went to place the red hat on his head. Always an awkward man, tall and lanky, the hat immediately fell off the new cardinal’s head back into the lap of the pope. I am sure I could hear a knowing laugh go up from the crowd gathered in the Piazza from his students who know him well.

Avery Dulles was a mentor who first introduced me to the work of philosopher Michael Polyani and deepened my appreciation for John Henry Cardinal Newman, that great 19th figure who struck me as very much like Dulles himself. Fr. Dulles was tall, a theologian, a convert to Catholicism, was not a bishop before he became a Cardinal, and he even resembled Newman in a way.

Fr. Dulles was was a model of authentic ecumenical encounter, and was an enthusiastic participant in the Kuyper Leo XIII conference that Acton co-sponsored in Grand Rapids with Calvin Theological Seminary College in 1998. He also spoke at a number of Acton Institute conferences and seminars over the years. On a more personal note, I shall never forget how Fr. Dulles honored me by concelebrating my First Mass in Brooklyn.

I shall miss his wise council and sense of humor. Although the Church on earth has lost a loyal and humble son, it is my hope that the Church in heaven has gained a true prince indeed.

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Some links to Fr. Dulles’ work at Acton:

Truth as the Ground of Freedom: A Theme from John Paul II. Acton monograph available from the Acton Bookshoppe

Acton Audio: Truth as the Ground of Freedom

Centesimus Annus and the Renewal of Culture. Journal of Markets & Morality

Religious Freedom and Pluralism. Journal of Markets & Morality

The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II. Review by Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D. Journal of Markets & Morality

Enjoying and Making Use of a Responsible Freedom. Religion & Liberty

God’s Gift of Freedom Must be Used to Choose the Good. Religion & Liberty

Zenit news service provides extensive coverage of two recent Acton-sponsored conferences in Rome. The first of half of Edward Pentin’s report focuses on Arthur Brooks‘ address at the “Philanthropy and Human Rights” gathering. A sample:

His friend had found that when people gave, they became happier, and when they were happier they became richer. Brooks was subsequently converted, and the discovery changed his life. Moreover, now he realizes that people have as much need to give as they have to receive, he believes those institutions that act as a conduit between the giver and the receiver, such as the Church, must be helped and encouraged.

The second half treats Carlos Hoevel‘s presentation on Antonio Rosmini, part of a symposium on “Finance, Globalization, and Morality.” Pentin writes,

So what would be Rosimini’s solution to the current crisis? Hoevel said that, according to the philosopher’s vision, what we most need now is not so much “the endless injection of billions of dollars and euros” into the economy and heavy government interference, but “the urgent recovery of moral balance and moral content.”

Vladimir Berezansky, Jr., a U.S. lawyer with experience in Russia and former Soviet republics, recalls an interview with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II in 1991. Like many Russians at the time, the Patriarch was coping with a “disorienting change” following the fall of the Soviet Emprie, Berezansky writes.

At the time, he seemed overcome by the changes taking place around him, and he did not know where to begin.

“For our entire lives, we [clerics] were pariahs, and now we are being called on to do everything: chaplains for the military, ministries to hospitals, orphanages, prisons,” he said.

He even voiced regret about taking the time to travel to the United States. But he had gambled — correctly, as it turned out — that he could do more for his flock by seeking foreign assistance than by staying home to manage the Russian Orthodox Church’s destitution. His plate was full and overflowing, and he seemed keenly aware of the ironies of his situation. The Russian state was returning desecrated, gutted, largely useless ecclesiastical structures to the Orthodox church — a gesture at once desperate, empty and to some degree remorseful.

Berezansky then points to the Patriarch’s rapid rise through the Church hierarchy:

During and after the chaos of World War II, he probably could have emigrated and been numbered among the millions of so-called “Second Wave” exiles from Soviet Russia. But he chose to remain and to serve his church and people in circumstances that could not fail to compromise his own reputation.

“Our choices were cooperation or annihilation,” he told me in 1991.

And like so many other religious and cultural leaders of his generation, he repeatedly expressed regret and remorse for having accepted that Faustian bargain. Even today we continue to learn of the choices of conscience made by the famous names of that generation, including Nobel-winning German writer Günter Grass and Czech novelist Milan Kundera.

Patriarch Alexy’s legacy will undoubtedly include two elements that have been assessed negatively, and one major — indeed, overarching — achievement. In inter-church relations, his refusal to meet Pope John Paul II or his successor, Benedict XVI, was seen as churlish. Whether welcome or not, the patriarch’s position was that specific issues of contention between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches needed to be ameliorated before any “photo op” could take place. But he consistently referred to Roman Catholicism as a “sister” church.

Read “A Transitional Patriarch” on the Moscow Times site.

Cross-posted from The Observer.

It is with a sense of great pride and joy that I join with thousands around the nation in congratulating Chuck Colson on his reception of the Presidential Citizen’s Medal presented to Chuck at the Oval Office today by President Bush.

It is important to remember that the ministry that Chuck founded some 35 years ago is noteworthy not only because it has assisted in countless men and women to transform their lives through the power of a right relationship with Christ, or that this ministry is staff by a veritable army of volunteers who visit prisons and in other ways help to mend broken families with God’s love.

What is most noteworthy is that all of this came from one man’s surrender to the call of Christ to turn from his sins and accept the Gospel of redemption. Through that encounter with grace, Chuck Colson’s life has been on ongoing testimony to grace which has inspired all of us to reflect more deeply on the invitation to forgiveness and restoration offered by the One who will shortly come to us as a babe in Bethlehem.

I salute my friend Chuck Colson on this and thank him for placing his life at the disposal of heaven.

Here’s some of what Chuck had to say on the Prison Fellowship site:

“Whatever good I may have done is because God saw fit to reach into the depths of Watergate and convert a broken sinner,” said Colson. “Everything that has been accomplished these past 35 years has been by God’s grace and sovereign design.”

In responding to the award, Colson directed the praise and accolades back toward the ministry of Prison Fellowship, the ministry he founded in 1976.

“I do not treat this medal as mine,” he said. “It is, like in the military, a unit citation. The staff of Prison Fellowship, the thousands of volunteers and the hundreds of thousands of donors have made this possible. So while I am overwhelmed in gratitude to God, I am grateful to all those associated in this movement called Prison Fellowship.”

Read the White House statement on Chuck and the other honorees.

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
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Patriarch Alexy II

The Moscow Times reports on the funeral of Russian Patriarch Alexy II:

Candles flickered and white-robed elders chanted prayers as the country bade farewell Tuesday to Patriarch Alexy II, who guided the country’s dominant Russian Orthodox Church through its remarkable recovery after decades of Communist-era repression.

Nuns, believers and government officials looked on as prayers filled the soaring Christ the Savior Cathedral at a six-hour funeral service for Alexy, who died Friday at age 79. He was buried later Tuesday at the Epiphany Cathedral across town in a ceremony closed to the public and media, the church said …

“We are burying a great man, a great son of our nation, a beautiful holy fruit grown by our Russian church,” Reverend Dmitry Smirnov, a Moscow archpriest, said in an address at the funeral, which was broadcast live on state-run television. “Our whole nation has been orphaned.”

The BBC has a clip from the very moving funeral service here.

I published an Acton commentary today on the Russian Church:

With the death last week of Patriarch Alexy II, Russian Orthodox Christians lost their first “post-Soviet” leader. The patriarch presided over the resurrection of the world’s largest Orthodox Church, a faith community that had been targeted for annihilation by communist regimes that would brook no rival to their own promises of salvation through “world revolution.”

While Alexy led the Church out of the rubble of the Soviet Union, his own history has been clouded with allegations that he worked with the secret police — was even decorated by them. In this, his career reflects the recent history of the Church, which after the first vicious period of persecution was openly criticized by many Russians for being too pliable, too accommodationist with its old adversaries in the Kremlin. In some cases, critics said, the Church had even assisted the authorities in the suppression of believers and their communities.

When its Holy Synod meets next month to choose a new patriarch, the Russian Church will have an opportunity to come to grips with this past, and with other questions: nationalism, the status of minority ethnic and religious groups, secularization and consumerist materialism. Will the new patriarch lead the Church into a future of growth and spiritual renewal, or will he strike another “Faustian bargain” with autocratic leaders?

Read “The Church and the Terror State.”