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March 28, 2010
Class with Oliver O’Donovan last week was unusually enlightening even by the high standards of that class.  Deep insights and great quotes poured from the sage professor in a sparkling effusion, and I couldn’t take notes fast enough (especially as I had to use pen and paper).  Some of the most interesting thoughts came on the question of how we should view technology from an ethical standpoint--is technology neutral?  (The texts for the class were two fantastic essays on technology by the Canadian philosopher George Grant).  
It is a standard platitude among--well, among most anybody in mainstream Western thought, but particularly among conservatives, including, more often than not, Christian conservatives--that “technology is a neutral tool; it isn’t good or evil in itself, it depends on how you use it.”  The problem with that seeming truism is that the two halves of the statement are not saying the same thing.

(Submitted for a school assignment, but something I'd been wanting to do anyway)

In his latest monograph, The Myth of Religious Violence, William Cavanaugh indulges once again in his favorite past-time of shattering cherished idols of liberal political thought, idols that serve as foundations for consensus within the current Western political order.  However, apparently zealous to avoid being marginalized by the academic establishment of the various fields he is engaging, Cavanaugh seems at pains to present his case with a scholarly rigour and thoroughness that marks a definite shift in style from his earlier, more essayistic works.  Valuable as this thoroughness may be, fans of Cavanaugh’s writing may find that it has the unfortunate side-effect of draining this work of some of the refreshing vigour, flair, and provocative edge that characterize his previous works.  

I have mentioned a couple times before, I think on this blog, but certainly elsewhere, Aquinas’s (in)famous teaching that it is just for a poor man in great need to “steal” what he and his family need for life from someone who has resources to spare (assuming, of course, that he has no other way to get them).  Although this teaching is a long tradition of the Church (and indeed, Aquinas is being rather conservative, compared to Basil and Chrysostom--see previous post), I always get remarkably violent reactions when I mention this.  
Why?  Somewhere along the way, conservatives picked up the idea (oddly enough, in direct contradiction to at least the first millenium of Christian teaching) that the Bible is especially concerned to safeguard the right of private property, indeed, that this particularly distinguishes Biblical ethics, over against surrounding pagan nations.  (This last part is particularly odd, given that both the pagan societies surrounding ancient Israel and the Roman society surrounding the early Church were noted for legal structures that favored unrestricted and absolute private property rights, against which the Bible seems to be directly aiming.)  Christian conservatives have gone even further, and, defining capitalism (again, in my mind, very oddly) as consisting fundamentally in an affirmation of private property rights (see, for example, here, and Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason), have concluded that the Bible is a blueprint for free-market capitalism.  

So it turns out that I had even less time on my travels than I expected, and there is no barrage of prefab blog posts about to be unleashed.  But I did read an article on Aquinas’s view of property rights, which, although rubbish in itself, contained some remarkable quotes from the Church Fathers on the subject of charity and property rights.  Very shocking stuff, and I can’t help but ask, with a bit of a sense of betrayal--why, all those times when I learned about the Church Fathers, was none of this mentioned?  
Here are two representative passages:

Travel Advisory

Please note: I will be off visiting cathedrals, abbeys, and the like for the next four days, so far as I know without internet.  So I won't be posting, but will probably still be writing up posts, which I will then disgorge onto this blog en masse next weekend.  Scary, I know.  Maybe I'll even put up pictures of cathedrals and abbeys...make this blog rather more colorful than it's used to being.
In the meantime, if you feel deprived (ha! don't worry, even I'm not that vain) you could listen to the recent Theopolitico this last one in particular, we achieved much more of the balance that I was hoping for, and we've been having some good ongoing discussion on the nature of coercion.  Still needs to have a lot of kinks ironed out, but hopefully it'll prove useful to some folks.  

March 11, 2010
Hilaire Belloc’s Essay on the Restoration of Property is a fantastic paradigm-rocker.  In it, he sets forth the shocking, but ultimately quite sensible claim that, far from being opposites, capitalism and socialism are essentially of the same genus; socialism just takes capitalism a bit further--to it’s logical conclusion.  How could this be?  Because both are the rejection of private property.  But wait, hold on a minute--I thought capitalism was all in favor of private property.  Well, not really.  With the rise of modern capitalism, the possession of real, productive property, which was once widely distributed among the majority of the population, was rapidly concentrated in the hands of a small minority of the population, leaving very few small proprietors and producers, and enslaving most of those that remained to the control of banks.  Socialism is simply taking the next step--if we’ve already dispossessed most people, and concentrated the means of production in the hands of a few, let’s just go ahead and concentrate them in the hands of one entity that is at least looking out for the welfare of everyone.  

March 11, 2010
One of the most fundamental problems in the political and economic theology is the relationship between charity and justice..  This is not just some academic quibble over terms, but has potentially huge practical significance.  Traditionally, justice has been designated as the responsibility of the state, and charity of the Church.  But if we’re going to divide things up so neatly, we’d better have a clear idea of the distinction.  On this issue of giving, the theft vs. stinginess issue I touched on in a recent post, the distinction looms very large.  For, if stinginess is always a failure of charity only, not of justice, then it is outside the reach of the law; states have no business taxing people in order to give their money to others, or penalizing people for greed, or any of that.  But if it's a failure of justice, then presumably (assuming we've rightly assigned the task of the "state," and assuming we've rightly figured out what the "state" is--ha!) we're permitting grave injustice when we don't have laws regulating the acquisition and distribution of wealth.  Unfortunately, the tradition does not give us as clear an answer as we would like on this crucial question.

March 9, 2010
I have huge problems with Melanchthon’s treatment of Romans 13, from which this passage is excerpted, but nevertheless, there may well be some interesting points of intersection with how I used Romans 13 in my recent post “The Power of Civil Obedience.”  I am increasingly wondering how constructive much of our obsession with griping against the government really is--I mean, I obviously think it’s important that we should understand the truth about the evils that we are facing in modern states, and confront these evils, but the obligations of charity and love of enemy don’t disappear.  Just something worth chewing on:

Lack of Charity=Theft?

March 8, 2010
It is axiomatic among Christian conservatives today that theft and stinginess are fundamentally different sins.  One way of describing the distinction is to say that theft is a sin against justice, while stinginess is a sin against charity (this justice/charity distinction will be the subject of a forthcoming post); another is to say that theft is a crime, prosecutable by civil authority, while stinginess is a sin, prosecutable only by God alone.  In the second case, the distinction may serve the purpose of trying to guard against government involvement in things like welfare programs, which, as it were, compel giving to the poor.  This concern may be a legitimate one, though in such cases, I’m more inclined to blame the people who only do their duty when compelled, than the government that has to come along and compel them--”for rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.” (Rom. 13:3)  
In either case, the distinction also serves the purpose of establishing that theft is a much worse sin than stinginess; indeed, some might even tend to think that giving is something of a work of supererogatory merit, and so the failure to give is perhaps not a sin at all.  Private property is conceived of as a sacred right, and so theft, by violating it, is a grave sin, whereas the failure to use one’s property (over which one has the freedom to do what one wants, after all) to help another is a fairly venial sin.  

"The Weightier Part Thereof"

March 7, 2010
Among the many daring, shocking, and disturbing moves that Marsilius makes in his Defensor Pacis, the most unconvincing is probably his carefully-hedged espousal of democracy.  Mindful of the fact that the classical and Christian political tradition since Aristotle has almost universally condemned democracy, and also that the rulers who are Marsilius’s patrons are likely to be none too friendly to it, but resting the chief pillar of his political theory on the concept that government derives from the will of the people, Marsilius does what perhaps anyone in such a position must do--he fudges.  With a little phrase, “or the weightier part thereof” he sidesteps all the vexing problems of the issue of representation, which have underlain all major political disputes through the whole modern period.  

The Power of Civil Obedience

March 6, 2010
In my recent post on law and morality, Donny had asked on what basis I claimed that modern societies are more coercive than pre-modern ones.  It turns out that O’Donovan and I had discussed that very point a bit, and I’ll share here what we came up with, before veering off down an exciting rabbit-trail that the discussion opened up in my mind.  
It is as law becomes more arbitrary that it becomes more coercive, and in modern societies, law is seen as more arbitrary.  As the complexity of modern life grows, and law-making authorities become increasingly centralized and removed from the sphere of everyday life and from our knowledge and any accountability to us, we find ourselves faced with an ever-increasing number of rules that, so far as we can tell, someone in an office somewhere just cooked up according to their own good pleasure. 

A Winter for the Record Books

March 3, 2010
Now for something completely different....
Many of you may not know that, aside from theology and all things related, my main hobby is weather, in which I find that, more than almost anything else, the wonder, power, and goofiness of God's creation and governance are revealed.  The following is a little foray into popular meteorology/weather journalism, something I hope to do much more of in the future. 
The winter that has just ended was not a kind one to the organizers of the Copenhagen Climate Conference.  Indeed, it was not kind to anyone, not to the poor bedraggled souls responsible for preparing the Olympic ski slopes in Vancouver, nor to the citrus farmers in Florida, whose oranges took on the consistency of billiard balls, nor the new mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who was sworn into office just two days before her city was inundated by its largest snowstorm in recorded history, nor to the residents of Hoseda-Hard, Russia, who are probably still shivering from the February cold spell that brought their temperature to -70 F, the second lowest temperature ever recorded in Europe.

March 2, 2010
The modern dichotomy between law and morality, like so much else in the realm of political ethics, can be seen proleptically, remarkably clear and well-developed, in Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor Pacis.  He begins, like his good scholastic predecessors, by laying out the various senses of the word law.  The two relevant ones for our purposes are the third, moral law, and the fourth, civil law.  Let’s take a closer look.
“In a third sense ‘law‘ means the standard containing admonitions for voluntary human acts according as these are ordered toward glory or punishment in the future world....In its foruth and most familiar sense, this term ‘law‘ means the science or doctrine or universal judgment of matters of civil justice and benefit, and their opposites.”
So far, not bad, though we may be a bit suspicious about the way he pegs the word “voluntary” on the third, and seems to make it chiefly relevant for the future life. 

Announcing Theopolitico

March 2, 2010
In case you don’t get enough of my seditious sentiments over here, you can now listen to me bantering about them with my anarchist friend, Adam Naranjo, on Theopolitico, a political theology podcast.  Be advised that it has a lot of room for improvement, since this is my first time doing this sort of thing, and also that, if you think I say weird stuff here, at least here I know what I’m saying, whereas you never know what you’re going to hear when I’m thinking aloud.  And no one ever knows what they’re going to hear when Adam is talking. ;-)

A lot of my segments will contain some of the same content that you see here, sometimes before, sometimes after it's posted here.  But interesting new angles will often emerge in the course of conversation, so hopefully it won't seem redundant

Note: You can also find us on iTunes, of course.  Just type in "Theopolitico," and there we are.

March 1, 2010 
A recent blog post by Doug Wilson claimed that while he has recently written against American exceptionalism, this does not mean he is against American gratitude; indeed, we Americans should be grateful for living in a uniquely blessed nation.  While I appreciate his opposition to the idea of American exceptionalism, something many Christians unreflectively embrace, I must confess that I am still a bit skeptical.  One source of my skepticism is that saying you oppose the idea of American exceptionalism doesn’t mean you actually do.  I know plenty of people who would say, “Oh no, I don’t think America is better than everyone else...I just think that we aren’t involved in all those wicked things that other empires have done, and I think that we’re called to use our power to bring peace and justice throughout the world.”  Right...pardon me for being unconvinced.

Second, I’m a little leery of this idea of gratitude he has in mind. 

Master-builders of Utopia

March 1, 2010
While doing some political theology research, I came across this fantastic passage in Heinrich Bullinger's Sermonum Decades on church unity, vigorously endorsing the principle extra ecclesiam nulla salus.  We might well debate whether or not Bullinger and his colleagues's Protestant principles and the actions they took in the Reformation can be strictly reconciled with this viewpoint, but it is certainly worth appreciating that they still had this viewpoint, and set it forth in terms that roundly condemn their modern Protestant (and particularly Reformed) descendants: 
“The unity and united society of this church of God is so great, that out of her fellowship is there no people found acceptable unto God, any true salvation or safety, any light or truth; for without the pale of God’s church are no wholesome pastures found, all are infected with poison.  No religion pleaseth God out of the church of God.  If of old any man had sacrificed to God himself without the tabernacle or temple, in the high places, he was accounted to have sacrificed to devils, and esteemed to have shed innocent blood. 

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