Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Does Freedom of Religion Require the Separation of Church and State?

We assume that the only way to have religious freedom is to separate church and state, but we've had very mixed results. See a recent example here in St. Louis.

Peter Leithart, in his Defending Constantine, argues that Constantine achieved true religious freedom for pagans and Christians. He did this while cooperating with the Christian church to produce a Roman republic with ethical standards and moral development.

Constantine outlawed an ancient version of "no fault divorce," which led to the abandonment of women, gladiatorial games, which littered arenas with bodies, and the exposure of children, which usually resulted in infanticide. He also passed laws that would provide welfare for poor people who couldn't afford to raise a new baby. He reformed the justice system by eliminating they buying and selling of judgeships, and allowed those who couldn't afford an attorney to appeal to an ecclesiastical court.

It appears that the true pax Romana did not occur under Caesar Augustus but under Constantine, and that we often look positively barbaric next to the first Christian Emperor.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

No Purpose for Plato's World

One of my students recently pointed out that the debate between Plato and Aristotle was over whether reality is essentially one or many. Plato argued that it is essentially one because all of the particulars of the created world come from the One and the Forms in His mind. Thus reality exists ante rem or before the things of the created realm. Aristotle argued that reality exists in re or in the things of the created realm. Thus ultimate reality isn't one thing but has many expressions in the things of the physical world. In other words, "treeness" doesn't exist before the oak, ash, and elm, as in Plato's understanding, but in them. In fact, according to Aristotle, the Form or ultimate reality is the cause of the particulars of this realm. It is what makes an oak a tree, an ash a tree, and an elm a tree.

Aristotle pointed out that there is no cause and effect relationship between Plato's concept of God, the One, and the created world (Metaphysics, 1.988.a-b; 1.991a-b). He overlooked Plato's Demiurge from the Timaeus who fashions the created particulars based on the Forms in the mind of the One. But Aristotle points out a problem with Plato's thought nonetheless.

The Demiurge is an independent contractor. Plato invented him for his "likely story" in order to keep the One from getting his hands dirty with physical matter. For Plato, the material realm is the lowest order of reality and unworthy of the pure spirit of the One.

The problem with this, from a Christian perspective, is that there is no purposeful link between this world and the One. People may correspond to the Form of the Human, but this is a far cry from being created by God, in his image, in order "to glorify him by enjoying him forever," to use John Piper's phrase.

Charles Murray in his Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950,  points out that in the ancient world, only Christianity gave people a divine purpose for their lives. The image of God lends dignity and his will gives purpose. But the One in Plato's philosophy lends no purpose to mankind except to give him something to contemplate, and only the philosophers were capable of doing this in a purpose driven way. Murray argues that it was Christianity that inspired the Western world with a sense of purpose that led to experimentation with the God given creation and the development of science and critical thinking.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Praying and Paying

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great DepressionThe Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Shlaes uses William Graham Sumner's "forgotten man" to expose the problems with FDR's New Deal. To paraphrase Sumner, A sees the plight of X and says to B, "Let's pass some legislation to help X," and C gets the bill. Sumner wrote about C: "He works, he votes, generally he prays - but he always pays - yes, above all, he pays." The identity of A is the progressives and B is Congress. It is laudable that A wants to help X but tinkering with the economy at the expense of C only exacerbates the problem. Shlaes is not a shrill conservative on the rampage but a classic liberal.

Shlaes argues that FDR's intervention in the private sphere made the Depression worse, encouraged the government to bully and harass its citizens (see the Schecter case!), and introduced special interest politics. This messianic view of government is still with us and has come home to roost with Obama.

Ancient peoples established governments to stop people from taking too much land and gobbling up resources at the expense of others. Regulation is one thing, intervention is another, and the private sphere has got to be put into the hands of as many private citizens as possible, if we are going to be great again.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Did Peace in 1919 Lead to War in 1939?

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the WorldParis 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good read about the wrap up of WWI. MacMillan tries to revise the accepted wisdom that the Allies botched the peace, which lead directly to the second world war. It's true that Hitler would play to the German people's wounded pride and resentment after the war. It came to be known as the "Dictat" or "dictated peace." The Germans especially hated the "war guilt clause" of article 231, which laid all responsibility for the war at the doorstep of German "aggression."  Ulrich Brockdorff-Rantzau blew up and refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles. When the allies rearmed, the Germans sent two representatives to pen their names to the treaty. Did this lead directly to WWII? MacMillan says this is too simplistic.

MacMillian argues that the Germans deceived themselves into thinking that they hadn't lost the war. MacMillan points out that it wasn't a mere armistice or cease fire. The Germans gave up all occupied lands and surrendered their navy. The Germans also allowed themselves to believe that Woodrow Wilson could deliver a non-punitive peace. Germany had taken Wilson's advice and become a republic. But Wilson was one of four on the supreme council, and he had to compromise to get anywhere. David Lloyd George, prime-minister of England, and Georges Clemanceau, prime-minister of France, were out for reparations, revenge, and security. Their people had lost more than America, and they stood to lose more in future elections. They convinced Wilson to shrink Germany and give the rhineland to France as a neutral zone. Wilson would compromise as long as he could get the League of Nations. Meanwhile the league was loosing ground in the US, and Wilson's own country would never join.

Lloyd George did change his mind about some of the reparations. "Treat them like the enemy and they won't disappoint." But Wilson had already reached his compromise limit. The treaty would have to stand as is. John Maynard Keynes famously said, "It was harder to de-bamboozle this old Presbyterian than it had been to bamboozle him.” Keynes wanted to rehabilitate Germany economically. A prosperous Germany would be a peaceful Germany.

The big four were more realistic than they've been given credit for. Lloyd George said: "The English public like the French public, thinks the Germans must above all acknowledge their obligation to compensate us for all the consequences of their aggression. When this is done we come to the question of Germany's capacity to pay; we all think she will be unable to pay more than this document requires of her."

MacMillan argues that the German sense of betrayal cannot account for the rise of Nazi Germany. Prior to the Great Depression, the German people wouldn't give the Hitler the time of day. He was too radical. Once they hit rock bottom, radical solutions were given a hearing and Hitler got his chance. MacMillan can write well and she shows how so much of modern history, including the formation of Iraq, goes back to Paris 1919.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Demise of Community, the Demise of Character

I recently listened again to a Mars Hill Audio interview with James Davison Hunter on his book The Death of Character: On the Moral Education of America's Children. He argues that the demise of character stems from the demise of moral communities like church and family. This has proceeded on the modern assumption that we are inherently good from childhood and Christianity is bad because it has taught us that we are sinners in need of redemption.

All we really need, it's dogmatically asserted, it a good self-esteem and an opportunity to define ourselves as children, teenagers, or adults. The rest will take care of itself. All parents and teachers need to do is facilitate this moral revelation by calling it out with psychological techniques like values clarification.  We think we can develop moral character in the young without wielding moral authority. We are reaping the whirlwind and shrugging our shoulders, "What can you do?"

On the adult level, radical individualism continues to sever ties between people and their God given authorities.
"Hey teacher! Leave us kids alone!" 
"Tell my mother, tell my father; I've done the best I can; to make them realize, this is my life; I'm not angry, I'm just saying; Sometimes goodbye is a second chance." 
It's true that some communities abuse their moral authority or exercise it hypocritically and ties must be cut. But this has become an excuse to define the self apart from Christ's moral order. Like Joshua, we must be "strong and courageous" again and again and again (Joshua 1). Children do not respect what they can kick around, even if we think we're being their friend. Parents are called to teach the word of God diligently to their children:
These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). 
This is part of loving God and loving our children and our neighbor as ourselves. Rule apart from relationship will breed hatred. Relationship without any rules will breed disrespect. Rules revealed by God and applied in a loving relationship will bring order. Love covers a multitude of sins.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sophocles Rex

The Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at ColonusThe Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oedipus Rex is both the best and the worst tragedy ever told. The plot and its execution show a master at work. It's also the worst in that it's the most tragic tragedy of all. But don't stop there. Read Oedipus at Colonus. Just when you thought it was impossible to help Oedipus, he has a redemption of sorts. You haven't understood Sophocles if you stop at Oedipus Rex. Antigone is not to be missed either. She is pro-family at a time when her uncle was trying to replace family and religion with the state. Sophocles is more relevant than ever.

Fagles translation is both accessible to the modern reader and compelling, which is no small feat. Bernard Knox's introduction to Oedipus Rex is worth the price of the book. Here's my take: The older generation represented by Herodotus still believed in the gods and prophecy, while the younger generation represented by Thucydides and Euripedes mocked it. Jocasta tells Oedipus that we make our own way in a world of chance. The chorus says: "If the prophecies don't come to pass ... the gods, the gods go down." No more trips to Delphi. We'll go back to homo mensura (man is the measure of all things) and Protagoras.  Well, guess whose side Sophocles is on? He gives the ancient secularists what they want: a play where the gods do not make an appearance. And yet he  frustrates them by vindicating prophecy. Who needs the Deus ex machina? Man knows the god who is there whether he's willing to admit it or not.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bottum's Up or the Forgotten Reformation

Joseph Bottum has reviewed Pascal Bruckner's Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy in the recent Books and Culture (March/April 2011). Here's Bruckner:
From existentialism to deconstructionsim, all of modern thought can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasizing the latter's hypcrysy, violence, and abomination.... The whole world hates us and we deserve it. That is what most Europeans think.
Bottum comments:
Much of Europe--much of America, as well--has simply lost its nerve, unable to maintain the delicate balance of self-critique and self-confidence that was the gift of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. 
The Middle Ages was not perfect and it knew it. The medievals knew enough however to accept the claims of Christ that all things hold together in him. The Renaissance was diverse, but every humanist agreed on going ad fontes (to the sources). The Enlightenment agreed on one thing--the church was out. They chanted aude sapere (dare to know) to each other, but it was Eden all over again: "Hath God said ... ? ... He knows that in the day that you eat, you will be like him knowing both good and evil."

Dare to know the difference between good and evil for yourself. Protagorus returned with a vengeance. The familiar homo mensura (man the measure) was shouted from the rooftops. Man is the measure of all things "visible and invisible." Dare to be your own god. That's confidence, but terribly misplaced. Where's the self-critique? What about semper reformanda (always reforming)? Who came up with that? Oh ya! That pesky little movement called the Reformation. Self confidence? Who spoke truth to power? Wasn't it Luther who told Charles V and the papal nuncio:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen
Always reforming? Why not? The Word of God must have its say no matter how imperfectly we read it.  How could Bottum have forgotten that? The Enlightenment idols of Darwinism and rationalism die hard and slow, but they are dying.

Bruckner's Perpetual Euphoria takes a shot at our happiness entitlement program. He thinks it's about the  right to pursue happiness rather than demanding to have it. That's not bad, and we should even give two cheers for Mr. Bottum. But there's so much more offered by the one who came so that we might have life, and "have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).