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Skillen on Newbigin (and the Benedict Option)

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Internet chatter on the Benedict Option – conceived as creating new “monastic communities” plodding on as a counter-cultural force in a post-secular society – is rife these days. There is a palpable sense that given recent governmental moves in Western societies that severely restrict religious freedom in general and Orthodox Christianity in particular, the only option is to opt out of the public sphere and build new communities where Christian virtues may be freely practiced. Read here here, here and here. In this blog, it was discussed here.

But here’s why the Benedict Option may be missing the point about what it means to have effective Christian witness even under such challenging times:

Dr. James Skillen, writing in response to Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s view that to develop a Christian society, “lay men and women” need to develop a “lay theology” for various fields of public life, says thus:

Then the apostle Paul writes to various churches and challenges them to live wholly in Christ, he frequently addresses believers in their capacities as husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, and citizens (or subjects) in the political realm. But in those capacities Paul does not address them as lay men and women, implying that their identity in those roles is as ecclesiastical nonprofessionals. A “husband” is not a church lay person needing a theology for being a husband; he is a member of the body of Christ who has, among many different Christian responsibilities, that of being a husband. In this capacity, it is not as a church lay person that he needs a theology for loving his wife, but rather that he needs to understand God’s will for his role in marriage.

Precisely here, it seems to me, we should think not of applying some ecclesiastical truths to non-ecclesiastical areas of life, but rather, of taking seriously the way the gospel restores and illumines the meaning of God’s good creation. John’s gospel, Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and the letter to the Hebrews, for example, all begin by stating that the incarnate Son of God is the one in whom, for whom, and through whom all things were created. The creation is revelatory of God and connected to the Son of God prior to the incarnation and the organizing of the church. The good news of the Jesus Christ is, among other things, that creation has been recovered and is being restored so that it will finally come to fulfillment in the City of God.

The body of Christ is a communion of reborn creatures – of the renewed image of God. Marriage, family life, farming, commerce, music, civic responsibility, and everything else in creation have genuine revelatory meaning that is disclosed in the exercise of human responsibility in each area of life. In each of these capacities the Christian person’s identity is not that of a lay Church person but that of family member, farmer, trader, musician, or whatever. The exercise of proper and righteous responsibility in contrast to misdirected responsibility in each of these areas will come as a result of the renewal of life in Christ. Consequently, the words clay persons should be a designation applied to Church members who do not hold ecclesiastical office, and should not be used to describe the roles people have in non-ecclesiastical areas of life.

The development of a Christian society, I am suggesting, comes not from a theology for Church lay persons but from obedience of the whole body of Christ in all areas of creaturely life where its members bear responsibility as they learn to live completely unto Christ. Of course the whole creation holds together in Christ, so the meaning of marital love, of economic stewardship, of public Justice, of medical healing, and of so much more hangs together in one meaningful creation, which has been distorted by sin but Judged and redeemed in Christ. The redeeming work of Christ redirects hearts and lives in all areas of life. Along with sound Christian theology, then, there should emerge sound Christian philosophy, obedient Christian political practice, healing Christian medical practice, and so forth. The adjective “Christian” in each instance refers not to theology as something added to an otherwise indistinguishable mode of worldly life, but indicates the genuine redirection, recovery, renewal of life among those led by faith in Christ. The Christian “way of life” should, in other words, appear different from the secularist way of life, the Muslim way of life, and so forth.

What will often be necessary as Christians seek to fulfill their earthly responsibilities in all areas of life are Christian organizations of parents, of farmers, of laborers, of academics, of citizens, and so forth. The purpose of such organizing should not be so Christians can isolate themselves or try to create a perfect community on the edge of civilization, but rather to develop consistent Christian practices in each area of life as they live side by side with people whose ways of life are directed by faith in other gods. The body of Christ is the people of God, lifting up all of creation’s treasures in every realm of existence in praise to God, looking and pointing ahead to the Christian society that will finally be revealed in its fullness when the Lord returns[emphasis supplied].[1]

What Skillen is saying here is that Christians are called to witness to the world in the context of their many differentiated responsibilities: as husbands and wives, as professionals in various fields, as members of a church, as members of a Christian NGO, as citizens of a particular country, as members of a Christian labor union or a political party. Christians take part in and help shape a creational order that Christ has renewed and is renewing – an order that is revelatory of God’s will and purposes. Thus, in the context of the redemptive work of the Gospel, the body of Christ is a communion of re-born creatures – of the renewed image of God – for whom “marriage, family life, farming, commerce, music, civic responsibility, and everything else in creation have genuine revelatory meaning that is disclosed in the exercise of human responsibility in each area of life.”

He adds:

In each of these capacities the Christian person’s identity is not that of a lay Church person but that of family member, farmer, trader, musician, or whatever. The exercise of proper and righteous responsibility in contrast to misdirected responsibility in each of these areas will come as a result of the renewal of life in Christ. Consequently, the words ‘lay persons’ should be a designation applied to Church members who do not hold ecclesiastical office, and should not be used to describe the roles people have in non-ecclesiastical areas of life.

Christians cannot live in isolation from the world if they are to give justice to their differentiated responsibilities that they exercise as part of the redemptive work of the Gospel – and such work requires faithful Christian practice and presence across their various endeavors and roles.

[1] Is there a place for Christian politics in America? notes from a lecture given by Dr. Skillen to a philosophy class at the University of the Orange Free State in South Africa (2012). The lecture is a response to the work of Bishop Leslie Newbigin, a path-breaking missiologist. I am grateful to Dr. D.F.M Strauss, at whose initiative the lecture was made, for making available the notes to me.

Written by Romel

January 12, 2016 at 3:43 am

Jonathan Chaplin and H. Dooyeweerd’s Theory of the State

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Those familiar with the political philosopher  Dr. Jonathan Chaplin’s writings on the theme of the State will note that the key concerns found in his first two major works as a scholar dealing with an important component of the corpus of the late Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd’s body of thought are for the most part echoed in his most recent book – specifically in the chapters that dealt with the various issues implicated in Dooyeweerd’s theory of the state. In fact, these, all taken together, consist of at least a third of the book’s main body of 317 pages.

Indeed, the two main questions raised by Chaplin on Dooyeweerd’s theory of the state are either restated or further clarified in Herman Dooyeweerd: Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society – without doubt, in the words of a noted American scholar of law and religion, “the go-to book on Dooyeweerd for many years to come.”

It is in this book where he foists what is yet his most radical  if not compelling  challenge to the Dooyeweerdian State – his thesis that while the State decidedly has a leading function,  it has no founding function.

I responded  to his critique of Dooyeweerd yesterday during a panel at the opening of the  2nd Kuyper Seminar at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, to which he graciously listened. In part, I said in my paper on The State in International Law: Reformational Insights:

Chaplin argues that if coercion is written into the structural principle, how can it be consistent with its supposed basis in a good creation? Dooyeweerd, he notes, holds that such coercive power has been incorporated into the world order on account of sin; the state thus is an institution of “common” or “preserving grace” established with a soteriological aim of preserving temporal society in its differentiated condition.

Chaplin suggests that there is an incoherence between Dooyeweerd’s notion that pre-fall, the state’s sword function has been incorporated into creational norms from the very beginning and the latter’s contention that the state was instituted post-fall, on account of sin.

Chaplin thinks coercion cannot be consistently built into structural principles since structural principles are conceived as grounded in the original order of creation that was yet unmarred by sin.

This inconsistency could only arise from Dooyeweerd’s misreading of the state’s positive form (the territorial monopoly of coercive power) into its invariant or in his own words, “enduring” structural principle.

So Chaplin asks,  given that the state needs power of many kinds in order to advance public justice, is historical power so evidently more important than the state’s other functions such as the maintenance of territory and the collection of taxes?

He understands that for Dooyeweerd coercive power is indispensable to giving the state its unique identity, to distinguishing it from other institutions in society. But this, according to him, seems a questionable approach, as that it can still be argued that while the state does have a leading function, it does not necessarily imply that this function is “uniquely related to the possession of historical power.”

Still, for Chaplin it is not quite the case that we need to have an historical function to give the state its unique identity. It’s enough that we know it’s purpose is to ensure public justice. After all, while it can be said that the founding function is related to the leading function, but it is also related to other functions of the state; while it is true that coercive power seems to have been a feature of all known states, so has economic or other forms of power. Thus, Chaplin says that Dooyeweerd’s argument that coercive power is unique and so foundational does not compel and the attempt to single out one function as having a privileged link to the leading function seems artificial.  

Thus, he concludes that the state has no founding function.

Following this reformulation, there is a need therefore to transfer the coercive element into the variable side of human positivation. The better account, Chaplin says, is that the state’s coercive power is an historical development developed or positivized in response to sin, but is not part of its typical structure or its inner structural principle.

In this way then, he says, we can look at the state and the UN, or all bodies organized as public legal communities, as having the same typical structure, but with variegated positive forms.

From there it now becomes easy for Chaplin to suggest that based on Dooyeweerd’s notion of the “internal opening process” of societal structures,  the UN can perhaps be identified as an “international ‘state’ at the very early stage;” it is analogous to emerging nation-states prior to their development as an authority over a defined territory enforced by coercion, or an “ ‘immature’ international state” that needs further positivation so as to help realize the “pressing normative historical mission facing humankind in the sphere of public justice.”

This is an advantageous approach, he says, because it is more sensitive to the dynamics of the evolution of structures whose task is to establish public justice and avoids the danger of regarding the nation-state as sacrosanct, historically finalized structure

 The normative peculiarity of the state

…..the apparent contradiction between a good creation and the state’s monopoly of the sword written into its structural principle is Chaplin’s strongest argument for revising Dooyeweerd’s original conception.

Why should the state’s founding function based on a monopoly of coercion be inconsistent with an originally good creation? My argument is that it is good because God has put in place every possible support for human flourishing, whether in their obedience or disobedience. This is a necessary implication of the gift of free will to humanity – the capacity to choose between good and evil.

It also resonates with the idea, at least of human ways of living, of having been endowed with the capacity for good or for evil – the classic Kuyperian sense of the anti-thesis, where each human community or inter-relationship may either be directed towards God or towards some aspect of creation that it has turned into an idol.

Such a capacity cannot but clearly imply a divine anticipation of negative and positive consequences.  In Scripture, when God gave the first humans a choice between the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God also laid down what the consequences were of opting for one or the other (Gen. 2:8; 3:1-4) .

This also implies that God, at the very least, knew what the consequences were of human choosing between life and death. Certainly, God’s sovereignty is severely limited by a view that He only conceived of the state after humanity sinned, as an ex post facto imposition.  It can well be argued that God’s sovereignty has seen it best to institute creational ordinances that would address any possible negative consequences of human choosing.

Hence the state is not a divine afterthought; to say that it was instituted as a response to the fall is only to stress the historical nature of its establishment. This is the better way of understanding or re-reading Dooyeweerd’s suggestion that the state has been incorporated into the world-order after the fall.

A new, post-fall, structural principle did not appear and slide without friction into the original order, as Chaplin suggests. Rather, as a principle set in place to response to a contingency, it was activated when the condition for which it was devised arose.  

His proposal seemingly paints divine sovereignty into a rather awkward picture where having been caught unprepared, God finds himself instituting after the fact of human sin the state with a monopoly of sword power to curtail human capacity for abuse. In this way, Chaplin can argue that Dooyeweerd seems to have suggested a situation where new creational ordinance slide seamlessly into the created order after the fact of the fall, despite his own contention that no new such ordinances can arise in history. 

A sensible alternative to Chaplin’s view is that from before human history, from before creation itself, God had already set in place ordinances that would govern the unfolding of the state in whatever context there maybe, giving allowance for the consequences of human freedom.

The founding function of the state in the form that it has now is consistent with a good creation in the sense that even at the point of creation, a good Creator, knowing all the possible consequences of the gift of free will to humanity, has in his sovereign will, set in place creational ordinances adequate to address such consequences.

In a world without sin – a Christian account of the state can perhaps say that all that the state needs is public trust to sustain itself, as Chaplin himself has suggested in another context.

This is just another way of saying that public trust may well be  the structural principle God has designed for a state unveiled in a pre-fall context. The other side of the coin is that the same divine providence has, at the point of creation, established an ordinance – a structural principle – that would apply in the event of human disobedience. Hence we have two sides of the same coin of creation that, in the beginning, was in fact “very good.”

The simultaneous realization of norms as a task of the state

To recall, Chaplin finds to be questionable Dooyeweerd’s view connecting the leading function specifically to the possession of historical power as the state’s founding function. Indeed he wonders why – given that the state needs power of many kinds in order to advance public justice – historical power is so evidently more important than the state’s other functions such as the maintenance of territory and the collection of taxes.

The question, I believe, can be properly answered by a careful analysis of the Dooyeweerd’s theory of modal aspects, in which in the process of disclosure, anticipatory and retrocipatory aspects interact, where the lower aspects serve as substratum to the higher aspects, and where the higher aspects reach back to deepen the workings of the lower aspects.

In the counter-examples given by Chaplin, from the point of view of disclosure, the maintenance of the territory and the collection of taxes are not even possible without the priority of the state being able to establish itself with the exclusive display of sovereign powers within its territory.

The fundamental and definitive nature of the founding function of the state will require the historical opening up of the substratum supporting it  (retrocipatory aspects) as well as the disclosure of the complex of its superstructure — the anticipatory aspects — that contribute to the disclosure and deepening of the meaning of the state’s task as an institution.

Bob Goudzwaard has underscored this as the task of the state to ensure the “simultaneous realization of norms.” Yet it must be stressed that the simultaneous realization of norms is not possible without the undergirding of the state’s historical power.

The reverse of a positive simultaneous realization of norms is a situation where a state experiences a simultaneous breakdown in key functions as seen in several contemporary examples of the so-called “failed states.”; all too often, this does not happen all at once but is a gradual process that eventually leads to a severe stress to the state in many fronts; It takes a complex of factors –and not just the loss of public trust – for the state to fall apart.

The state’s founding function is at the heart of the state-formation project; it is what grants the state its “normative peculiarity” –to borrow a phrase from political philosopher Matthias Risse – or what distinguishes states from other institutions in society.

Risse argues that this normative peculiarity is characterized by an “immediacy” in the state’s coercive function not otherwise displayed by other institutions in the international legal order.  There are two dimensions in which such immediacy is expressed: in law enforcement and in politics, according to Rise.  The first pertains to the fact that “living in a state means living in an environment where enforcement agencies pervasively have such access, and where it is up to internal political processes to regulate what specific shape such access takes and what constraints it is subject to.”

The second deals with the fact that “ it is the state that provides the environment in which individuals’ basic rights are, or fail to be, realized.”

While international organizations may be interested as well in both questions – in the proper enforcement of rules and in the protection and the promotion of the basic rights of citizens and other entities within a state’s territory– at the most basic level, it is the state that provides both the environment and the structures that make these twin concerns possible:

Legal and political immediacy, then, characterize what is peculiar about the state’s coerciveness. Citizenship is membership in an association for which these two features are distinctive, and those two aspects of the immediacy of the relationship between the states and its citizens provide reasons for associative duties restricted to people who share a citizenship.

Questions of ontology aside, the immediacy of the state’s legal and political structures to citizens within its territory  also undercuts  the practicability of Chaplin’s  argument – a necessary implication of his assertion that the state has no founding function – that we may treat the UN as an  immature “international ‘state’ at the very early stage” that needs further positivization so as to help realize the “pressing normative historical mission facing humankind in the sphere of public justice.”

Quite the contrary, the state is a necessary, though not necessarily sufficient, normatively peculiar institution performing such an historical mission.  Stated another way, the task of public justice still rests primarily on the shoulders of the state.

Indeed, as Skillen has noted a long time ago, human rights “are tied in with the very meaning of justice and injustice in states and thus cannot be protected or enhanced in abstraction from actual state and interstate structures.”  In other words, if the very character of the sovereign state is part of the problem, every effort to advance human rights without changing the function and identity of states will lead to failure.

——————————————-

Later over dinner at De Latie, we had a most pleasant conversation, discussing in detail our respective interpretations of the problem of the state.  He said my position echoes in some ways Dr. Jim Skillen‘s response to his theory; having listened to my talk on the connection or the lack of it between the state’s coercive powers and creation, he said he could see it’s plausibility and is in fact convinced by it, adding that it may constitute a “third interpretation” because according to him, Dooyeweerd actually said that the state is a post-fall institution established by God through a special ordinance. On the other hand, my view holds that the state’s sword power was a potentiality in the creation ordinance established by God to respond to human contingency.

He also said he might have used the rather infelicitous phrase “immature state” to describe the UN but maintained his critique of Dooyeweerd’s formulation of the state as if it were a final and fixed structural principle. He still doesn’t see why its historical founding function should be a defining element of the state.  I said that Dooyeweerd’s “transcendental empirical” method actually will show that what international law calls “effectiveness” is a well-established historical fact as far as the formation of states is concerned.

We also talked about Dooyeweerd’s reading of Aquinas and according to him, through Robert Sweetman’s work, he became convinced that Dooyeweerd has gotten Aquinas wrong in some ways.  According to him, it appears that Dooyeweerd, while he read Aquinas, was influenced a great deal by commentaries from the 19th century that carried the dualist line identified with  the Spanish Suarez school. Today, he said, there has been a recovery of Aquinas as a more integral thinker, and cited the works of Jean Porter as an important  influence in the rethinking of Thomism as a movement of thought. “Jim Skilen, however, does not agree with me,” he said with a wink, motioning to the direction of Dr. Skillen, who was seated at the next table with an American  friend of mine, Courtney Kane, who is doing her master’s on Dooyeweerd’s philosophy, also at the Vrije Universiteit.

His attitude, according to him, is to work with Thomists on common grounds. “The opposition to the Christian tradition is very strong,” he said. “I’d rather that I get as much help as I can from people who, while I may disagree with them on other points, share the same  moral convictions as I have.” He noted that in the context of where he is right now– the UK– most evangelicals hardly care about intellectual dialogue with other Christian traditions while among Catholics, the intellectuals read Catholic social teaching from standard social democratic lens. “I often have to tell them that they need to look faithfully and closely at the deep resources found in their own tradition.”

An Advent Poem

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One of my favorite poets — Luci N. Shaw — writes from the perspective of faith.   Here’s one poem of hers — Made flesh — which speaks of
the wonder of the Incarnation:

After
the white-hot beam of annunciation
fused heaven with dark earth,
his searing, sharply focused light
went out for a while,
eclipsed in amniotic gloom:
his cool immensity of splendor,
his universal grace,
small-folded in a warm, dim
female space—
the Word stern-sentenced to be
nine months’ dumb—
infinity walled in a womb,
until the next enormity—
the Mighty One, after submission
to a woman’s pains,
helpless on a barn’s bare floor,
first-tasting bitter earth.

Now
I in him surrender
to the crush and cry of birth.
Because eternity
was closeted in time,
he is my open door to forever.
From his imprisonment
my freedoms grow,
find wings. Part of this body,
I transcend this flesh.
From his sweet silence my mouth sings.
Out of his dark I glow.
My life, as his,
slips through death’s mesh,
time’s bars,
joins hands with heaven,
speaks with stars.

“Made flesh,” in Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation by Luci Shaw (Eerdmans, 2006).

I made a  translation to Filipino  of this poem, for use during our church’s Advent Service in Lessons and Carols this coming Sunday, 5:30 p.m., at the F.  Benitez Memorial Hall, Magsaysay Avenue cor. Ylanan Road, UP Diliman, Quezon City.  If you want to hear the recitation of the Filipino translation of this poem, or if you want to experience what a Service and Lessons and Carols is all about,  please do join us at this Advent celebration, with  the theme “Let Heaven and Nature Sing!”

And yes, you may even bring your friends! For directions, you may refer to the campus map below (click on the map to enlarge):

Written by Romel

December 1, 2011 at 5:24 pm

GMA Arrested: Problem, Promise, Prognosis

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I spoke tonight at a forum organized by theology students at the Asian Theological Seminary (ATS) on the current political situation in the Philippines. In particular, I discussed the topic, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo Arrested: Problem, Promise and Prognosis.

I built the talk around the thesis that what we are witnessing is an opportunity for the country’s political system to decisively defeat the forces of traditional  and patronage politics and set in place a public legal community founded on the norms of public justice.

Click here for  link to the outline of my presentation.

 

 

Written by Romel

November 25, 2011 at 3:09 pm

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Religion in small doses?

Filipino evangelicals have concert-like worship services and “purpose-driven life seminars” to attract new members; Polish Catholics do it with even better style, as can be gleaned from this wire service story:

LUBLIN, Poland–A striking brunette sashayed down the catwalk, showing off her simple yet elegant white robe and black headgear to the enraptured audience.

Sister Lucja of the Order of the Sacred Heart of Jesus smiled as the crowd burst into applause.

Faced with a slump in the number of nuns, monks and seminarians in Europe’s Roman Catholic heartland, the Church in Poland is trying to dust down its image.

The recent, somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion show in this city in southeast Poland was just the latest sign.

“The name ‘fashion show’ is provocative. We want to show that we live simply, and that even if we sometimes dress in an old-fashioned way, our clothes are a reflection of our lifestyle,” organiser Father Andrzej Batorski, a Jesuit, told AFP.

After Sister Lucja, other nuns, then Jesuits and Capuchin friars hit the red carpet to show off their cassocks in the main hall of the Catholic University of Lublin.

The 90-year-old university is a renowned center of religious and secular teaching and research in Poland, where more than 90 percent of the 38-million-strong population professes to be Roman Catholic.

Some two dozen orders took part in Batorski’s fair, setting up their stalls to try to spread the word that taking religious vows isn’t a thing of the past.

The stands boasted multimedia displays, leaflets, giveaway calendars and — at the missionary orders’ booths — souvenirs from Africa and Asia.

Meanwhile, religious chants echoed from loudspeakers.

Under Poland’s post-World War II communist regime, the Church played a dual role as both a religious institution and as a bulwark against the authorities.

While its clout has remained significant since the regime’s demise in 1989, and is certainly far stronger than in most other European countries, it has been a victim of its own success in helping bring about political change.

In a democratic country where the free market has brought previously unimaginable opportunities for a new generation of Poles, drawing new recruits is becoming a headache.

The mainstream Church’s image has also been tarnished by an ultra-Catholic fringe whose outbursts regularly grab headlines, turning off would-be recruits.

“Ten years ago, we had 25 novice nuns. Last year we only had six,” said Agnieszka Kranz of the Servant Sisters of Debica, a small Polish order.

Such figures are a worry for the Polish Church, and even for Roman Catholicism beyond the country’s borders.

Until recently, the Polish Church was training more than a quarter of Europe’s priests, monks and nuns, and supplied them worldwide to fill gaps in other countries.

Last year, the number of Poles taking vows fell by around 25 percent.

For the 2007-2008 academic year, Poland’s diocesan seminaries, which train priests, recruited 786 new students, down from 1,029 the year before.

The total number of trainee priests has fallen by 10 percent in one year, to 4,257.

The country’s monastic orders are also feeling the pinch.

The number of novice nuns slumped from 728 in 1998 to 468 last year. The number of new monks fell by half to 797.

“For the Polish Church, this is ringing alarm bells,” said Monsignor Wojciech Polak, who oversees recruitment.

Batorski said it is up to the Church to reach out to young people, speaking a language they understand.

“We wanted via the fair to enable people to meet those who have chosen a monastic life, to show that they are just regular individuals,” he said.

“At the same time, we wanted to give a voice to people who have taken vows, allowing them to explain their chosen path and their faith,” he added.

The Polish Church has also jumped headlong into cyberspace, and also turned to other planks of public relations.

Most orders have their own website — and the Jesuits have even posted a video on YouTube. Others have tried television advertisement and the Franciscans even give their monks public speaking training.

At the Lublin fair, however, the impact seemed limited.

“I’d miss men, and nuns don’t use make up or color their hair,” said Dominika Pietron, an 18-year-old school student.

However, she said she appreciated her hour-long discussion with a nun there.

“Religion helps you take a look at yourself, and builds confidence. But it should only be taken in small doses,” she said.

Written by Romel

April 29, 2008 at 1:56 am

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