Sunday, June 30, 2013

The 18th Century Minister

In a blog post I wrote back in 2010 about the First Great Awakening, I explored some of the ways in which the revival movement, for all its blessings, did destabilize the parish system and the ecclesial communities that had previously tethered colonial religion to the land and to the wider social infrastructure. (See The Problem of Mediation in the First Great Awakening). Donald Scot's fascinating study, From Office to Profession: The New England Ministry 1750-1850 seems to confirm many of my observations. In the following quote, Scott describes the nature of the 18th century clergyman in the older paradigm, prior to the individualizing influence of the revival:

“The most distinctive feature of eighteenth-century New England society and culture was its communalism, a social structure and ideology in which order, harmony, and obedience to all authority were the highest public and social values. This communalism, moreover, can be said to have centered as much in the figure of a settled minister as it did in any other figure or institution, for the clergyman was both the keeper and purveyor of the public culture, the body of fundamental precepts and values that defined the social community, and an enforcer of the personal values and decorum that sustained it.”

…the minister was a ‘watchman on the walls of Zion’ with explicit, ordained responsibilities for the preservation of social order. As an ‘ambassador of God’ and the ‘faithful shepherd’ of a particular flock, he presided over the faith and knowledge which at once sustained one’s personal relationship to God and defined one’s position and duties within the community. … The ministerial office in eighteenth-century New England, then, was inseparable from the fabric of the New England towns that contained it. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Supreme Court Becomes Totalitarian

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision (which I discuss here), one important point has been overlooked by nearly everyone. I refer to the fact that the Supreme Court has made clear that without the intervention of government (in this case, the government of each state), there is no pre-political, existential state of affairs that mark certain types of same-sex relationships out as being marriage within a state of nature.

Although there are over a thousand references to marriage in federal laws and programs, the Supreme Court has now declared that the federal government cannot actually say what marriage means. The God-like authority to determine what makes a marriage a marriage, and by extension what makes a family a family, is now up to each individual state. But by declaring that each state can determine for itself which collections of individuals constitute a ‘family’, the Court has implied that both marriage and family are little more than legal constructs at best, and gifts from government at worst. In the former case, marriage and family lose their objective fixity; in the latter case, we all become wards of the state.

For consider, if the meaning of marriage did have an objective fixity prior to positive law, then it would make no more sense to let the states define it than it would to let them define what is meant by the colour red in the traffic code.

Properly understood, heterosexual marriage exists in nature and is then recognized by the state on the basis of intrinsic goods attached to it; by contrast, homosexual marriage is an abstract legal entity with no natural or existential existence. Since neither consummation nor biologically-derived intrinsic goods are viable concepts among same-sex couples, it follows that the only way a consensual relationship between two people of the same sex can be upgraded into marriage is if the state steps in and declares that relationship to be a marriage, in much the same way as the state might declare something to be a corporation or some other legal entity.

Once we appreciate this fact, we see that same-sex ‘marriage’ is actually the totalitarian option. Once gay ‘marriage’ is introduced into a state, it undermines the integrity of every family and every marriage in the nation by rearranging the family’s relationship to government. Same-sex marriage would rearrange the relationship between family and state by making our most vital connections merely the result of positive law. For without the mechanisms of the state to confer the status of marriage upon two members of the same sex, there are no acts that organically mark their union out as being a specifically marital one. The existential reality of the relationship, which is usually explained in terms of a commitment of love between two consenting adults, does not itself distinguish that relationship from numerous other sorts of loving relationships that exist in this world. So what is it that sets this type of relationship apart to make it ‘marital’? Again, the answer is that it can only be the state.

But here’s the rub: once we concede that same-sex ‘marriage’ is purely the creation of positive law, then for these ‘marriages’ to be truly equal to heterosexual ones, we would have to acknowledge that EVERY marriage and family is post-political institutions rather than pre-political institutions. This concedes to the state the power to determine what collections of individuals are a marriage or a family, rather than acknowledging that the state merely recognizes a reality that precedes itself and exists within a state of nature.

Ironically, by their refusal to acknowledge that the federal government can actually recognize a specific meaning to the word ‘marriage’, the Supreme Court acted in the most totalitarian way conceivable, for once again it implies that our most vital connections are merely the result of positive law. At first the significance of this is purely symbolic and abstract, but it cannot remain so for long. Eventually, the ubiquitous effects of this rearrangement cannot but be felt at every level of family life.

Consider, when a family sits down at the table to eat together, there is a huge practical difference if they think they are only a family because of bonds created by the state vs. if they think they are a family because of bonds that are natural and pre-political. When a son says, “that’s my Dad” or a man says “that’s my wife”, the meaning is completely different if you think these relationships are purely legal constructs instead of natural, pre-political realities. Canadian Douglas Farrow gave further examples of these ubiquitous effects after your nation legalized same-sex ‘marriage.’ In his article ‘Why Fight Same-Sex Marriage?’ he commented: “Six years ago, when same-sex marriage became law in Canada, the new legislation quietly acknowledged this [that family is nothing more than a legal construct]. In its consequential amendments section, Bill C-38 struck out the language of ‘natural parent,’ ‘blood relationship,’ etc., from all Canadian laws. Wherever they were found, these expressions were replaced with ‘legal parent,’ ‘legal relationship,’ and so forth. That was strictly necessary. ‘Marriage’ was now a legal fiction, a tool of the state, not a natural and pre-political institution recognized and in certain respects (age, consanguinity, consent, exclusivity) regulated by the state.”

(To read more about the totalitarian implications of gay ‘marriage’, see John Milbank’s excellent article, ‘The impossibility of gay marriage and the threat of biopolitical control' John Milbank’ or my article ‘Why Gay Marriage is a Public Threat Part 1.’

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

More Heroes

In the Heroes of the Faith section of the Christian Voice website, I have published articles about heroes who are not featured in my book Saints and Scoundrels (with the exception of Perpetua who shares a chapter of my book with Saint Irenaeus) but are nevertheless just as important. Following are some links to the short biographies on the Christian Voice site.

Contending for the Faith: The Witness of Perpetua


The date is 202 and the Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, has just enacted a law prohibiting the spread of Christianity and Judaism throughout the Roman empire.

While persecution was nothing new to Christians in the early third century, this was the first time there was a universal decree forbidding conversion. If someone was discovered to have become a Christian, the choice offered by the emperor was simple: either curse Jesus and make an offering to the Roman gods, or be executed.

One woman who was offered that very choice was the young mother Perpetua. Keep reading...

 

Against the World: the Tenacity of St. Athanasius


It was the year 313, and the bishop of Alexandria stood at his window and looked out upon the city he was responsible for.
 
Beyond the line of houses, Bishop Alexander could see the city’s port bustling with the activity that had made Egypt such a rich trading centre during the height of the Roman Empire. Beyond that, stretching as far into the distance as the eye could see, the bishop looked upon the waters of the Mediterranean.
 
Just as Bishop Alexander was about to turn away from the window and prepare for some guests he was expecting for Sunday dinner, his gaze caught something he hadn’t seen before. Keep reading...

Fun Towards the Roar: The Courage of Boniface


In Wessex England, sometime in the late seventh century, a group of boys gathered on the grass after church. While the rest of the villagers enjoyed their church’s fellowship meal, the boys were being led by one young man in his favorite sport – throwing boulders at one another.
 
The young man would be known to history by the name he would later adopt: Boniface. As this young man grew, he quickly distinguished himself as the roughest, toughest boy in the village. Keep reading...

 

The Fellowship of His Sufferings: The Testimony of Amy Carmichael


Few would have expected David and Catherine Carmichael’s eldest daughter, Amy, to grow up to become one of the world’s most famous missionaries. Born in 1867 in the small village of Millisle, Northern Ireland, there was nothing particularly unusual about this girl, who was known for her wilfulness, tomboyish attitude and a propensity to get into mischievous pranks.
 
Little did the Carmichael parents realize that their daughter would be God’s tool for rescuing hundreds of children from a life worse than death in the darkness of the Indian jungles. Keep reading...

George Whitefield: Awakening the Nations to Repentance

 

If you had been at the Bell Inn, in Gloucester England in the 1720’s, you would have witnessed an unusual site. A small boy was acting out a sermon for the entertainment of the guests. It was not uncommon for this boy, the youngest among widow Elizabeth Whitfield’s seven children, to engage in theatrical re-enactments of sermons and Bible stories for the guests at his mother’s inn. But this time, something was different. Reciting the sermon he had heard on Sunday as a type of game, young George Whitfield was quite unprepared for the response he received as some of the onlookers began to weep.
 
It was a portent of things to come. When George grew up and became a famous preacher, he found that his words had a strange affect on people, provoking emotions for which he was often unprepared. Keep reading...


---------

Read my columns at the Charles Colson Center

Read my writings at Alfred the Great Society

To join my mailing list, send a blank email to robin (at sign) atgsociety.com with “Blog Me” in the subject heading. 

Click Here to friend-request me on Facebook and get news feeds every time new articles are added to this blog. 
 
Click Here to follow me on Twitter.



Sunday, June 23, 2013

Explaining Postmodernism

Postmodernity refers to a time period (roughly the mid to late 20th century to the present day), whereas Postmodernism refers to a way of thinking characteristic during that time period.

Postmodernism is an umbrella term to describe a number of different orientations, sub-movements and ways of thinking characterized by a self-conscious reaction to Modernism. It is the ripening of trends set in motion by the romantics and existentialists, particularly as regards the rejection of objective truth.
 


Key Points of Postmodernism
 
Postmodernism normally includes the following key elements:

Keep reading...

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Where William of Ockham and Gay Marriage Meet

Do things in our world have an inherent purpose according to their nature, or is purpose purely the function of external will?

Do universals have a real existence independent of human perception, or is the world simply a jumble of particulars that achieve significance only as human beings arbitrarily define the raw materials of the world?

William of Ockham (1288-1347)
Did God create the world with built-in patterns that are consonant with His character, or is God’s ordering of the world purely nominal, deliberate and arbitrary?

These are some of the questions I have been exploring in my ongoing series of articles on nominalism. In these articles I have tried to show that an extreme nominalist approach to the world expels inherent teleology and purpose from the universe, relocating these categories in consciousness.

Throughout my articles I have tried to draw attention to some ways that nominalism has adversely influenced Christian thinking throughout the ages, including how we conceive God’s omnipotence, how we think about sex, and Christian approaches to food.

For the nominalist, in order for God to be truly free and all-powerful, the categories by which our moral and material lives are ordered must be the result of God’s disposing will and not rooted in structures antecedent to His will (i.e., the fixities of God’s nature or the inherent patterns of creation). The nominalist will thus find it difficult to speak of things being “fitting” or “rightly ordered” in any sense more general than, or prior to, God’s pedestrian commands.

By contrast, within the realist model that I have been defending, God’s commands flow out of the teleological directedness intrinsic to creation itself.

My latest article about nominalism, published by the Colson Center earlier this month, looks at how these same questions come to a head in different approaches taken by Christians to the gay marriage debate.

I argue that if the Christian understanding of marriage arises from the raw command of an omnipotent God arbitrarily constituting the world in a certain way that might just of easily have been otherwise, then there is little we can say about the moral constitution of the world to those who do not share our theocentric worldview. (Which is exactly what Peter Leithart seems to have concluded, revealing a latent nominalism.) On the other hand, if we are realists then we believe that God’s commands about sexual ethics flow out of the teleological directedness intrinsic to creation itself (a point I have developed in more detail in my article ‘Sex and the Ockhamist Revolution.’) Under the realist scheme of things, it becomes possible to appeal to unbelievers on the basis of that ordering without needing to invoke explicitly Biblical arguments.



Wednesday, June 19, 2013

All of Life for Christ

The Biblical worldview does not just apply to the 'spiritual realm' but to ALL departments of life. (See the wonderful quotation about this from Kuyper here.) Jesus Himself claimed to have authority over absolutely everything. (Matthew 28:18) All of life is claimed for Christ.

When making this point, namely that we have an obligation to interpret every facet of experience through the lens of the Bible, I have sometimes received a retort that goes something like this: “How can the Biblical worldview apply to all of life when there are many departments that the Bible just never addresses?” 

This question is best answered by sharing an analogy that I got from Ranald Macaulay. Mr. Macaulay was once speaking in a cathedral which didn’t have any electric lights but was lit up by shafts of light coming through the windows. The shafts of light came down in spotlights, directly lighting up certain areas but indirectly lighting up the entire building. He then suggested that Biblical authority functions like that.
 
The Bible does not address every area of life, just as the shafts of light did not spotlight every inch of the cathedral’s interior. In order to do that the Bible would have to be not only true, but exhaustive. Although the Bible is not exhaustive, what it does do is to spotlight certain areas of life, and in doing so the light of God’s truth diffuses to every other area of life. The areas of life that the Bible does directly address create principles that we can then apply (in wisdom and in conjunction with other principles) to every other area of existence, just as the light coming down in shafts through the windows of the cathedral shed light into other areas not directly covered by those shafts.
 
While there is no department of life that the Bible does not address, it only directly addresses certain areas. To be a Biblical thinker (or what I sometimes call a “worldview” thinker) means that one will seek to learn how the Bible applies either directly or indirectly to every area of life. This is in contrast both to the error of Biblicism, which erroneously believes that the Bible directly lights up every area of life (for a potent example of this, read my article on Jay Adams), or as well as the error of certain strands of liberalism, which asserts that because the Bible only addresses certain “religious” issues, we are left to make up our own mind on everything else.

----------------------

Read my columns at the Charles Colson Center

Read my writings at Alfred the Great Society

To join my mailing list, send a blank email to robin (at sign) atgsociety.com with “Blog Me” in the subject heading. 

Click Here to friend-request me on Facebook and get news feeds every time new articles are added to this blog. 
 
Click Here to follow me on Twitter.



Monday, June 17, 2013

Discussion Question on Determinism


In the newly released Philosophy Adventures (a program designed to Christian students from 6th-12th grade think critically as they explore the history of ideas), we read that 
"In his defence of Helen, Gorgias argued that, if Paris used the power of persuasion to seduce Helen, she was helpless to resist him. Essentially, he argued that Helen was not responsible for her actions. (p. 62)
The notion that a person is not responsible for his or her actions because they are controlled by the whims of fickle gods may seem archaic in our enlightened era, but are we really that different? Stacy Farrell, the author of Philosophy Adventures, suggests that modern materialism may have some affinity with Gorgias' idea of fate. She writes,
This abdicating of personal responsibility was consistent with the materialist's belief that we are merely impulse-driven creatures with no free will, no divine imprint nor access to divine power to refrain from immorality." (p. 64)
On the surface, the ancient pagan idea that our fate is controlled by spiritual forces may seem to have little in common with modern materialism, which recognizes no spiritual dimension. Yet when it comes to the abdication of personal responsibility, I think Farrell is correct to note this important connection.

In his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, Julian Baggini wrote, “What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values—in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.” To many thinkers, this type of materialist reductionism can only mean that we have no ultimate freedom or responsibility since everything about us is the result of forces outside out control. Like Helen, all we can do is give in to our impulses, including our inclinations towards immorality. We may no longer think of ourselves as being controlled by the gods, but we are controlled by something just as powerful and just as much outside our control: matter itself.

Discussion Question: What are some ways that we see this type of materialism operative in the modern world?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"beauty is very strong"

And though the good is weak, beauty is very strong.
Nonbeing sprawls, everywhere it turns into ash whole expanses of being,
It masquerades in shapes and colors that imitate existence
And no one would know it, if they did not know that it was ugly.
And when people cease to believe that there is good and evil
Only beauty will call to them and save them
So that they will still know how to say: this is true and that is false.
Czeslaw Milosz

Thus finishes the poem “One More Day”, written by 20th-century Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004). Milosz, like Dostoevsky before him, realized the important role that beauty can play in helping us to discern between good and evil, truth and falsehood. 

Keep reading...

Friday, June 14, 2013

It Can't be Both Ways!

When advocates of same-sex “marriage” make statements about the importance of not denying a certain group access to the institution of marriage, they are being realists since they are implying (perhaps without realizing it) that marriage has a definite meaning that transcends the contingencies of culture and language. For if marriage did not have a fixed meaning that could in principle include certain classes of people, then there would be no way we could meaningfully speak of those classes being unjustly excluded, just as you could not meaningfully speak of tennis players being unjustly excluded from an athletic club unless you first knew that the category “athletic club” had a specific objective meaning that made possible the inclusion of tennis players in a way that it did not make possible the inclusion of, say, chess players or musicians.

In this respect, champions of same-sex “marriage” are realists. They think marriage has objective content that is fixed and specific, namely the union of two persons in some kind of love relationship. Because of this (so the argument goes) we should not exclude any person from such unions, whether that exclusion is based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or something else. The realism of this position coheres with the traditional view of marriage as a sexually complimentary union. The only difference is on the question of what marriage actually means: is it a union of sexually dimorphous persons or is it simply a union of persons?

In my experience, often the same champions of “gay marriage” who are realists when asserting that marriage is a union of persons will quickly switch to being nominalists when interacting with their opponents. That is, they will move from asserting that marriage has an objective meaning that is specific and fixed (namely the union of persons) to suggesting that the meaning of marriage depends entirely on arbitrary naming acts.

For example, in arguing against the notion that marriage involves an essential sexual dimorphism, defenders of gay marriage will frequently point to the fact that past cultures have sanctioned things like marriage to children or polygamy, as if this shows that marriage is entirely culturally relative, and entirely a matter of definition. In other words, marriage has no intrinsic meaning, but achieves its meaning through external will; therefore, the primary questions we should be looking at are questions about what social outcomes will result from defining marriage in a certain way.

The only problem is that if the champions of same-sex “marriage” were to be completely consistent with this nominalist turn, they would have to deny any objectivity to the claim that marriage is a union of persons in general (over and against a union specifically of a man and a woman), which mostly they are unwilling to do. This unwillingness is not surprising, because the entire argument about needing to “expand the pool of people eligible to marry” assumes that marriage has objective meaning and refers to a union of consenting adults who commit to romantic partnership and domestic life. But if marriage is an infinitely malleable social construct, then we cannot claim that its existence as the union of two persons is fixed and objective any more than we can claim that its existence as the union of a man and a woman is fixed and objective.

Keep Reading...

Monday, June 10, 2013

Don't "try and find Jesus on your own"

Last year I was at the doctor’s office when John Denver song ‘Blow up your TV’ came on the radio. The chorus of the song goes like this:

“Blow up your TV, throw away your paper;
Move to the country; build you a home.
Plant a little garden; eat a lot of peaches;
Try and find Jesus on your own.”

The singer of the song was given this advice by a topless woman who was willing to join him in giving her advice a try. In the last chorus we learn what the result was:

“We blew up our TV; threw away our paper;
Went to the country. Built us a home.
Had a lot of children. Fed ’em on peaches.
They all found Jesus on their own.”

I am interested in this song (which you can watch on Youtube here) because it gets to the heart of how many Americans feel about their faith.
 
For countless Americans, Jesus is essentially someone to connect with on your own. While church may be important, it is essentially an accessory. If the communion of the saints has any importance, it is to facilitate each of us finding Jesus on our own. And if something else (say, moving to the country) can get the job done with equal efficacy, then the larger community of Christians becomes unnecessary and can even be an encumbrance.

The freedom represented by moving to the country and eating home-grown produce functions in Denver’s song as the appropriate metaphor for a religious quest that is essentially an individualistic journey of self-discovery.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

'Gay Marriage' is a Public Threat

Frederica Mathewes-Green.
Is opposition to gay ‘marriage’ about warding off a public threat, or policing private morality? Is it about imposing religiously-derived categories onto a secular public, or protecting our way of life?

These questions recently came to mind when I stumbled across an article written thirteen years ago by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Mrs. Mathewes-Green is one of the most helpful and lucid thinkers of our era. Her writings and public speaking have been a source of much rich blessing for both my wife and me over the years. So I was naturally interested when I read some questions Frederica posed on her website about what she calls “anti-gay activism.”

I fall into the category of what would probably be considered an “anti-gay activist” since I have been very involved in both Britain and the United States campaigning against the promotion of homosexuality in the schools and, more recently, same-sex ‘marriage.’ But perhaps these efforts are misplaced. Does the gay agenda really threaten marriage? Is homosexuality really a political issue, or just a question of private morality? These were some of the questions that Frederica’s thought-provoking article raised. Since the time when she wrote that article, David Dunn has argued that gay marriage will definitely not affect traditional marriage in any way. I’d like to suggest that both Mathewes-Green and Dunn may be being too optimistic and that the evidence from Canada shows that legalizing same-sex ‘marriage’ can be considered a public threat.

To be fair, at the beginning of the 21st century when Mathewes-Green wrote the above article, it was still possible to assume that gay rights only affected the homosexual community, and that what happens in the secular realm need not affect what happens in the rest of the world. But things have rapidly changed since then, and it has become increasingly clear that the goals of the gay community, if realized, would affect everyone, not merely themselves. To put it simply, gay rights in general, and gay ‘marriage’ in particular, represents a significant public threat

At least, that is what I have argued in two articles I wrote for the Christian Voice website. In these articles I surveyed just a few of the many areas in which same-sex 'marriage' represents a threat to the public common good. To read these articles, click on the links below:



____________


Read my columns at the Charles Colson Center

Read my writings at Alfred the Great Society

To join my mailing list, send a blank email to robin (at sign) atgsociety.com with “Blog Me” in the subject heading.

Click Here to friend-request me on Facebook and get news feeds every time new articles are added to this blog.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Pro-Choice Inconsistencies

During one part of the trial for mass murderer Kermit Gosnell, the defence attorney thought he had scored a decisive point when one witness acknowledged that he could not say with “medical certainty” that a certain baby had not been killed while still in the womb. However, in a penetrating USA Today column, Kirsten Powers noted that “whether Gosnell was killing the infants one second after they left the womb instead of partially inside or completely inside the womb — as in a routine late-term abortion — is merely a matter of geography. That one is murder and the other is a legal procedure is morally irreconcilable.” 

Also, whether the baby was partially inside or completely outside the womb makes absolutely no difference in the amount of pain the child would have experienced. This may be obvious, but it is worth pointing out because during Gosnell’s trial one of the points brought up by the prosecution was the excruciating pain the babies went through as their necks were severed. It is hard to see how the issue of pain is even relevant outside a pro-life framework, for the babies would have died just as painfully inside the womb if they had been subject to conventional, and legally acceptable, forms of abortion. Last week I wrote a couple articles for Christian Voice where I pointed out similar inconsistencies in the public discussion serounding the Gosnell trial. They can be read at the following links:

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Hopkins' Realist Vision

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.


Gerard Manley Hopkin
The above poem is a masterful example of the way English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) was able to write poetry which sounds like the things he is describing. (This is especially true if the poem is read out loud and properly accented.). In the poem Hopkins explored how each thing behaves according the nature it was given by God. Dwelling “indoors” of each mortal thing is its essence that gives the thing an identity distinguished from other things.

Sex Between Consenting Adults is Expensive

You’ve probably heard it a dozen times: “sex between consenting adults is nobody else’s business.” You may (and should) object to this statement on moral grounds. But recent evidence suggests that you should also object to this statement on economic grounds.

Mr Brandon, author of the book Just Sex: is it Ever Just Sex?, used quantitative cost-analysis to disprove the mantra that “sex between consenting adults is no one else’s business.”

By using the category of ‘moral hazard’, he showed that British society has created a system that incentivizes promiscuity. Much of his research applies equally to American society.

Buy Essential Oils at Discounted Prices!