Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Modernist Architecture: The Spirit of the Age as Rebellion Against God

This an incredibly interesting article linking 20th century modernist architecture to the will to power. It is by Nikos Salingaros and James Kalb and is at the Witherspoon Institute's Public Discourse blog. It entitled: "Against the Architects of Empire: Contemporary Architecture is Profoundly Anti-Natural." Here is the first section:

Architecture is the setting for how we live and the expression of how we think. It reflects our shaping of the world in order to inhabit it, and the geometry of what we build is far from neutral. The built environment, like the biological and other natural systems that it engages, needs to function reliably in complex and adaptive ways on many different levels. Such adaptive and sustainable systems have similar characteristics that, despite distinct origins, develop in a broadly similar manner.

The need to provide shelter from the elements and serve everyday needs led to the construction of roofs and walls that defined spaces adapted to human use. Traditional buildings and cities were assemblies of such basic components, put together in ways that had been found to promote particular and overall functioning. The New York row house, the New England village green, and the Mediterranean arcade and plaza all suit the setting and way of life in which they grew up.

More importantly, going beyond mere function, those structures combined ornament and other details that somehow seemed necessary. Even when structures were designed as a whole, their form and organization followed the evolved principles that had led to successful construction in the past. The results included the great historical styles of architecture, and the most-loved and most functional buildings and cities East and West.

Times change, and not always for the better. The advent of architectural modernism in the first decades of the twentieth century suppressed traditional styles and complex evolved forms in favor of simple concepts and striking images. The result was an approach to the built environment that lent itself to public relations and propaganda—it played well in manifestos and glossy architecture magazines—but was less functional, less adaptive, and less human and engaging.

What happened, why did it happen, and why do people stick with an approach to building and design that evidently does not work to engage our complex faculties? The answer goes to the nature of science and of freedom: whether they have to do with understanding reality and living in accordance with it, or with the imposition of arbitrary will.

Modernity is about imposing human will on nature in such a way that nature is regarded as mere "raw material" for the human will instead of being understood as reality and respected as our home, the world in which we play a part. The imposed utopian vision that characterized American Progressivism as much as European Fascism and Communism was essential to modernity.

Modernist architects just drew forms on paper that looked like machines and those in power built them.

The motivation was essentially political and oriented toward domination. The revolutionary movements that followed World War I wanted a break with the past, and especially the look of the past. The world revolution would rebuild humanity through industrialization, so these movements embraced buildings that looked like the machines of the time: sleek, white, and metallic. States, both on the left and on the right, loved this depersonalized approach to building, where the individual no longer matters and everything is sacrificed to an imposed utopian vision. Aspects of architectural modernism are prominent in Nazi and Soviet architecture, and the capitalist state also turned the machine into an icon. When Le Corbusier died both Lyndon Johnson and the Soviets expressed their sense of profound loss.

For years I have been calling the ugly, imposing, anti-human Robarts Research Library on the campus of the University of Toronto a good example of "Stalinist architecture." This article justifies and explains the truth of that judgment.

This modernism is not only anti-natural, it is also anti-God.

The outcome of these developments is something resembling a totalitarian system that unites immense financial and industrial interests with a pseudo-religious fanaticism. There are governments and corporations that wish to flaunt their power through monstrous and arrogant building schemes, industries that produce very expensive high-tech materials, developers who want to make their money work but have no moral constraints, and architects who are willing to do anything to obtain a commission. Politicians get pulled into supporting the ideology by the chance to gain media coverage and campaign contributions. And the gullible public naively believes all it reads in the conformist media.

There is something profoundly anti-natural about the results. By contradicting traditional evolved geometries, modernist and contemporary architecture and urban planning go against the natural order of things. When an architect or planner ignores the need for adaptation and imposes his or her will, the result is an absurd form—an act of defiance toward any higher sense of natural order. There is no room for God in totalitarian design. What religious believer is helped to greater devotion by a modernist Church? Who can love materials hostile to our touch and sight, surfaces and oppressive spaces that sometimes suggest violation and death? Architectural modernism implies a sort of cosmic rebellion against order and life.

It is anti-nature, anti-human and anti-God. To fight geometry is to fight God. If there is a class of professionals in the contemporary world whose work causes them to rank lower than lawyers, it must be architects. But what does it say about the spirituality of a society that would accept these ugly monstrosities? What does it say about the morality of such a society? What does it say about the politics of our society?

Whatever it says, it is shameful.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

From Conception to Birth: An Amazing Video!

Here is an amazing video that everyone should take time to watch. Modern technology allows us to see the development of a person from insemination to birth.

"I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made:
marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well."
(Ps. 139:14)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Bayview Review

I'm two weeks late getting in this plug for a new venture that three of my faculty colleagues from Tyndale and I have started. It is a group blog called "The Bayview Review" and the purpose is stated on the blog as follows:
"The Bayview Review is an online magazine that attempts to be a resource for historic Chrisitan thought in relation to culture, government, philosophy, politics, and theology. While the authors of The Bayview Review agree on many things it would be a mistake to think we agree on them all and even when there is an agreement that some particular conclusion is correct it is very likely there will be widespread disagreement as to why that conclusion is correct. At The Bayview Review one should expect to see a broad diversity of views that all remain within the boundaries of historically orthodox Christianity.

In sum, the aim of The Bayview Review is to demonstrate that the conservative mindset is not only intellectually defendable against attacks from the Left (whether Secular, Liberal-Protestant, or Evangelical) but it is actually intellectually preferable to those alternatives."

Contemporary Evangelicalism arose out of the Fundamentalist movement in the 1940s and at first all Evangelicalism was Conservative Evangelicalism. Over the past few decades, however, as Evangelicalism has experienced numerical, financial, intellectual and institutional success, it has also become very diverse. Today there are many kinds of Evangelicals on a left-center-right spectrum plus many diverse sub-cultures within the overall movement.

Theological diversity within Evangelicalism is of two kinds. On the one hand, there is diversity in denominational traditions such as Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal and other traditions but with all of these being rooted in historic Christian orthodoxy. On the other hand, there is also a developing Evangelical Left which crosses denominational lines and consists of those who are on a journey similar to that taken by the mainline denominations a century ago.

So, Conservative Evangelicalism is not a particular denominational or regional branch of Evangelicalism, but simply a continuing movement that believes what the Fundamentalists and the later Evangelicals have believed from the beginning of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy in the 19th century. The Bayview Review is designed to promote an intellectual version of a Conservative Evangelicalism that desires not to live in the 1940s so much as it desires to be in communion with the 1500s and the 400s. What others may consider to be "out-of-date" we consider to be "grounded in historic orthodoxy." That which some may see as "progressive" we see as "lame cultural captivity". We want to be both Evangelical and Catholic because we believe this is the only way to be Biblical and because we believe that this is the future of Christianity.

In the future, I'll be cross-posting some of my posts there as well as here. Also, I'll be posting some of the best of my posts here at The Politics of the Cross Resurrected over there from time to time. The first of these is available now and is called "In Praise of the Lecture."

I hope you take time to visit The Bayview Review.

What We Evil Capitalists Actually Believe

Daniel Hannan (who is always delightful to read for his wit, clarity, incisiveness and unapologetic conservative convictions) has a very helpful post up called: "Memo to the Occupy protesters: here are ten things we evil capitalists really think."

I think he is right that the Occupy Wall Street folks really don't understand the capitalist position; heaven knows they caricature us continuously. So, in the interest of actual communication and dialogue, let me list his ten points. I'll just give the first sentence of each paragraph; if you are intrigued you can go to his post here and read the whole paragraph or two he gives on each point.

If the Left-leaning folks could ever bracket their massive self-righteousness and self-assurance long enough actually to listen to what we conservatives have to say, they might find fewer straw men to knock down and more moral complexity than can fit into slogans designed to be chanted by mobs. I know, it is probably a vain hope . . . sigh. But in case any open-minded people read this post, here goes:

1. Free-marketeers resent the bank bailouts.
2. What has happened since 2008 is not capitalism.
3. If you want the rich to pay more, create a flatter and simpler tax system.
4. Those of us who believe in small government are not motivated by the desire to make the rich richer.
5. We are not against equality. . . Our objection is not that egalitarianism is undesirable in itself, but that the policies required to enforce in involve a disproportionate loss of liberty and prosperity.
6. Nor, by the way, does state intervention seem to be an effective way to promote equality.
8. Capitalism, with all its imperfections, is the fairest scheme yet tried.
9. Talking of fairness, let’s remember that the word doesn’t belong to any faction.
10. Let’s not forget ethics, either. There is virtue in deciding to do the right thing, but there is no virtue in being compelled.

Read elaborations of each point here.

My guess is that most of those led astray by Marxist Utopianism either do not understand capitalism or do not wish to understand it. But simple-mindedness is no virtue in matters of morality. There is a vast difference between child-like faith, (which Jesus commended) and a childish refusal to apply one's mind to difficult problems out of a sense that solutions to the most complex of life's problems ought to be simple and obvious.

One last point: it cannot be stressed enough that the defense of capitalism is, for me and most conservatives, based in moral principles rather than a counsel of despair that simply gives up and says that the world is bad and nothing can be done to improve it. For Hannan, and most of us conservatives, the issue is which economic system leads to the most wealth for the most people, the most social equality, the most opportunities for the poor and the best standard of living for the most people. History shows that capitalism is best according to these deeply moral measures by a wide margin.

Conservatives believe that it works because it accommodates itself best to actual reality. As in experimental science, when predicted results occur as a result of an experiment that constitutes confirmation of the theory. Capitalism can be thought of as an economic theory that has be tested in the laboratory of history with excellent confirming results compared to other theories. So it works best because it is truer than the rival theories. That is what conservatives claim regardless of how viciously the propagandists impugn our motives.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What Socialism, Pacifism and Sex Have in Common

What do these three things have in common? It is a very simple principle:

"each can be very good in its proper place, but highly destructive when
allowed to flow into contexts for which it was not designed."

Let's take them one at a time.

First, sex is easy. Natural reason tells us that sexual activity is oriented to and leads to procreation and that marriage naturally is the best context for procreation to occur. A child is best off with its biological parents. So it is hardly surprising that every culture has some form of marriage based on the mother-father-child triangle. Sex belongs in marriage and every serious form of natural law or religious morality affirms this conclusion. But sex outside marriage is destructive of personal communion, social stability and children.

So we have in human sexuality a very good thing as long as it remains in its proper context. Yet that very good thing can become perverted, twisted and destructive as soon as it bursts its channels and floods into promiscuity or adultery.

Second, socialism is in many ways a high and noble ideal. As practiced by small, disciplined, voluntary communities, for example, monastic ones, it can be a good way of life. Socialism is not bad except when it bursts its natural bonds and becomes an ideology which is imposed by coercion on society as a whole. I would go so far as to say that coercive socialism is as bad as coercive sex.

Socialism is utopian in the sense that it is incompatible with the fact of original sin. The reason that socialism always leads to tyranny, poverty and atheism in this world is because of the tragic flaw in human nature - not because of the idea of socialism itself. As an idea, it is wonderful. But when implemented in a society of fallen sinners, it becomes horribly destructive.

Third, pacifism is also in many ways a high and noble ideal. As practiced by small, disciplined, voluntary communities, for example, the Amish or monastic orders, it can be a good way of life. Pacifism is not bad except when it bursts its natural bonds and becomes an ideology which is imposed by coercion on society as a whole. I would go so far as to say that coercive pacifism (i.e. the government adopting a pacifist stance on behalf of a population containing both pacifists and non-pacifists) is as bad as coercive sex or coercive socialism.

I call pacifism for modern nation states "liberal pacifism" to distinguish it from the vocational pacifism which has taken various forms in the history of the church. Twentieth century liberal pacifism is rooted in liberal Protestant theology, which is to say that it is Pelagian and Progressive in its character. This kind of pacifism makes war more likely because it encourages Christian countries to disarm and not practice deterrence and it corrupts theology by highlighting the worst features of heretical understandings of human nature and history. It even reconstitutes the doctrine of God by denying Divine wrath and judgment in the name of defining God by means of the abstract principle of non-violence supposedly derived from Jesus.

One other feature that all three of these things have in common is that they are all highly attractive to sentimentalists. All have an enticing, naivety about them that draws us to them as ideals. We see the pull of the passions at work in sex and often tragic results flow from naive young girls mistaking aggressive lust for romantic commitment in their boyfriends. Yet, I for one, would not want completely to reject or condemn romance.

Socialism and pacifism are romantic notions that, like sex, make one feel good. That is the secret of their attractiveness. Affirming pacifism and socialism, especially in the exuberance of adolescence, is like a drug that makes one feel pure, innocent, superior and at one with all things. It is a substitute for genuine love for mankind, which is always tempered with a realistic assessment of human nature and the limits of human and social perfectibility in this fallen world.

Real love sometimes disciplines, sometimes challenges, sometimes rebukes and sometimes accepts despite the on-going flaws in the beloved. Sentimentalism wants everything to be perfect all the time and is devastated by failure to live up to the highest ideals one can imagine. For this reason, it tends to be destructive of personal relationships and social bonds.

All of this is to say that love is opposed to sex, socialism and pacifism whenever they overflow their banks and escape the boundaries meant to contain them.

Am I against socialism, pacifism and sex? No, as long as they remain in voluntary, limited, contexts and are not imposed on others without consent. I affirm them as goods but recognize that all evil is the perversion of and lack of the good.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Judas the Socialist

Peter Hitchens sums up what is wrong with socialism, starting with the phoney, envy-based relative method of measuring poverty, and identifies Judas as the prototypical socialist in a hard-hitting but clear blog post entitled "Judas the First Socialist and Other Issues:"

I’ll get on to Judas Iscariot in a moment. I am asked how I define poverty. I would define physical poverty as severe want – not enough food to eat, no access to clean water, absence of proper shelter either from great heat or from cold, inadequate clothing, untreated sickness and no possibility of medical help, conditions so squalid that cleanliness is impossible, severe overcrowding. These are the features of poverty that I have seen in various forms on my many travels into remote parts of the world.

I had an interesting discussion about this on Nicky Campbell’s Radio Five Live programme a few weeks ago, and was encouraged by a contributor from Africa who agreed with me that poverty of this kind does not really exist in this country. But he added that hardship undoubtedly does exist. Of course much of that hardship stems from not having things that others do have, and from a feeling of injustice and rejection. But this is not poverty, which in my view is an absolute condition of severe material want, not a comparative condition of being worse off than your neighbour. I would add, as I often do, that I suspect that there may be something very close to absolute poverty among the lonely old people of this country, trying to make ends meet on no more than their pensions, regarding any further appeal to the welfare state as a shameful (and therefore unthinkable) form of charity which they are too proud to accept.

Many of these live very pinched and deprived lives, though even they are materially rich beside the rural dwellers of North Korea or millions of the less fortunate in Africa and parts of India. But the measure of poverty as an arbitrary proportion of average income is just a device by which socialists justify their unending raid on the possessions of the wealthy and productive, to finance the unproductive and penniless state in its vote-buying projects. Some of these projects may incidentally do good. But their aim is not to do good, but to make their authors feel good about themselves, while increasing their power. It also incidentally shrinks the power of the productive middle-class to be charitable in their own right, as they have handed over a large part of their charitable duty to the state.

That is why I am so fond of Christ’s rebuke to Judas, and the account as a whole. The passage is as follows: The Gospel according to John, 12th Chapter, beginning at verse iv; Mary (not Mary Magdalene, but Mary, sister of Lazarus), has just taken a pound – or 454 grams in the Rocky Horror Bible - of very costly Spikenard ointment and wiped Jesus’s feet with her hair, ‘and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment’. ‘Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him : ‘Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?’ This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. Then said Jesus :’Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always’.

As so often, there’s a lot packed into this, notably the realistic recognition that there will always be poor people in the world , and those who wish to help them will always have the opportunity to do so. But it is the biting observation that Judas, like so many since, is pretending a concern for the poor to cover up other, less noble motives, that really goes home with a satisfying thud. There is no new thing under the sun.

[bolding is mine]
The only caveat I would add to Hitchens' remarkably concise analysis of the true nature of socialism is to stress that there is a difference between hard core socialist ideologues and the naive, idealistic, often young, fellow travelers drawn in by socialist rhetoric that seems to exude genuine concern for the poor. The latter group is motivated by a wooly-headed, but sincere, desire to "help people" that arises out of genuine human decency and a sense that the Biblical mandate to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God is fulfilled by some sort of welfare state program.

The ideologues deserve nothing but scorn and mockery coupled with determined opposition to their schemes and machinations. The naive fellow travelers can be reasoned with, confronted with arguments and sometimes rescued from the grip of socialist ideology. We should do all we can to ensure that young, evangelical Christians become followers of Christ on the model of Peter and Paul, rather than of Judas.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Why I'm Wearing a Poppy Today

It is the crazy time of term: marking to do and I'm away at ETS/AAR next week. So blogging has been slow. But I wanted to get this up for Remembrance Day.

For years I was conflicted about Remembrance Day and found it difficult, especially as a pastor. For as long as I can remember I have struggled with the issue of war and whether Christians should participate in it. For about 15 years, from the start of my doctoral work until about 5 years ago, I embraced pacifism, to which I had always been vaguely inclined. But after I completed 12 hectic years of academic administration in 2004 and had a chance to read, reflect and pray systematically about the theological implications of the pacifist position, I gradually changed my thinking.

Theologically, I have always been conservative, Reformed and Evangelical. On moral issues like sexuality, marriage, the family, abortion and euthanasia I have always held firmly to the traditional, biblical positions. But for a period of my life I departed from the conservative consensus on two points: war and economics. Over the past few years, having had time to reflect on these issues more thoroughly, I have come to reject liberal pacifism and socialism as incompatible with a biblical worldview. I have been deeply influenced by my reading of Augustine over the past few years, whose thought on matters relating to Christianity and culture I now regard as the most profound in the history of the Church.

I admire the Amish and their separatist way of life, just as I admire the venerable tradition of monasticism, even if neither pacifism or celibacy is my personal calling. Like celibacy in the monastic tradition, socialism can be a positive thing if it is voluntary and limited to a specific community like the Amish or the monastic orders. But to impose either socialism or pacifism on the modern nation state, which means imposing it in unregenerate people, is folly and the theology that teaches we ought to try is, in the end, heretical.

The reason for my change of mind is not practical but theological. I have no problem seeing that a moral position may be true and right even if highly impractical and hard. But it was when I began to think through the theological implications of the position that the Church should be calling the nation to adopt a pacifist stance that I lost my pacifist faith.

First, there is the Pelagian optimism about human nature that one must have if one seriously believes that a nation can become pacifist without causing a disaster. One must take seriously all that old social gospel rhetoric about abolishing war, disarmament and so on. Is human society susceptible to being reformed to that extent in this age? To the extent that war becomes a thing of the past? No it is not, I now believe, without a tyrannical, absolutely totalitarian, total world government - in which case the cure is much worse than the disease.

Second, the tendency toward pacifism involves an over-realized eschatology in which the kingdom of God becomes a human project achievable by human effort here and now. Since there is no evidence to suggest that this is an actual possibility, the determination to achieve it hovers precariously between triumphalism and nihilism. The anti-war stance can become a nihilistic, fatalistic, stubborn call to abandon the defenses of civilization, let the wave of evil roll over the culture, and give up the ambiguous work of fighting against barbarianism with all its shades of grey in favor of morally clear but grim determination to die heroically.

Third, where my pacifist faith really went off the rails was when I realized that the very nature and character of God is at stake. Non-violence becomes an absolute higher than good and evil themselves; in fact, for the liberal pacifist God is non-violence. All judgment must be then considered unworthy of him. God does not fight against or punish evil; he simply absorbs them until they stop. Why they should ever stop is never explained; it is just assumed. But in any case, God does not judge sin or conquer it except by suffering from its effects.

I came to realize that non-violence, while certainly a very important good, has been turned into an idol. In fact, it has become God. The old God of wrath who acted in history to reveal his wrath against sin and his mercy for sinners has been turned into an abstract principle of non-violence. Pacifism is the appropriate way to worship the God who is non-violence. There is no grace in such a God because there is no holiness. There is no love, because there is mere passivity. The passive tolerance of modern liberalism finds its ultimate sanction in the God who passively suffers but never acts to conquer.

To embrace liberal pacifism, that is, to advocate pacifism for Christians and non-Christians alike and for the nation state in this age is to embrace liberal Protestantism and its deformed, modern doctrine of God. To advocate liberal pacifism for the state is to become liberal. It is to have a Pelagian doctrine of human nature, an over-realized eschatology, a passive, suffering God who is no longer the righteous judge of all the earth and a view of salvation as essentially a human, social accomplishment.

I noted in my book, Rethinking Christ and Culture, that General Dwight D. Eisenhower entitled his memoirs of his experience of World War II as supreme allied commander, Crusade in Europe. I criticized World War II as a crusade on the grounds that it bore a resemblance to the Medieval crusades to liberate the holy land from Muslim invaders. If the Medieval crusades were wrong, so must the modern one be wrong. But it was my assumption about pacifism that was wrong: both the Medieval and so, logically, the modern crusades were justifiable, though tragic, wars. To fight against the neo-pagan death cult called Nazism and save civilization from its nihilism and terror was the right thing to do. Of course it involved great evils, but once Hitler started invading one country after another great evils were set in motion and would have continued regardless of how the West responded.

I wear a poppy today in honor of the brave men who gave their lives for freedom, civilization and peace in that war. War is always horrifying and always involves sin and evil. It is never a matter of absolute good and evil; both sides are made up of sinful people. But nevertheless, as Augustine recognized long ago, there is a need for good people to do their duty even when duty is compromising, morally ambiguous and tragic. And it always is and always will be until that great day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns in glory to end all opposition to his rule and bring peace once and for all.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Occupy Wall Street as an Heretical, Medieval Cult

If you check out the coverage of Occupy Wall Street from conservative sites like Big Government, America Spectator and The Weekly Standard, instead of relying strictly on the mainstream media, it becomes clear that there are three main groups of people involved in the uprising:

1. There are relatively ordinary people, especially idealistic young people, with cell phones, high student debts and often no job. They have been taught in university that capitalism is evil, socialism is benign and communism badly misunderstood. They don't have a clue what really is wrong or how to fix it. They are the focus of the mainstream media, however, because they seem like a group that a large number of independent voters can relate to.

2. There are street people, petty criminals, mentally disturbed people and sexual predators mixed in among the others and causing havoc. Here is a "rap-sheet" for OWS, a compilation of stories about various crimes committed or alledged against people involved in the anti-capitalist movement. No wonder the latest poll shows the growing unpopularity of OWS; its approval rating is not down to 30%.

3. There are ideologically aware, left-wing agitators who range from the Communist Party, the Democratic Socialists of America to union organizers, environmentalists, and anarchists. Here are their signs from the Occupy Oakland general strike march. See here, for example, and here, or just google "Democratic Socialists of America + Occupy". They are using the naive "dupes" for their own ideological purposes.

Absolutely nothing new has been said by the OWS movement. It is important to realize that it is just rehashing the same old anti-capitalist rhetoric the kids learned in university classes from tenured, aging hippies like Bill Ayers who have been predicting the imminent collapse of capitalism - any day now - since the 1840s.

If anything coherent is behind OWS it is Marxism in its most day-dreamy, extreme, religious form. Marxism is actually nothing new in Western culture. It is another expression of millenarian cults that have risen up periodically with a radical message that society is corrupt and the end of the present order is near since the 13th century.

Norman Cohn's book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, is not about Marxism. But it is essential for understanding Marxism. (I scored a copy of the 3rd edition for $4.00 at the Trinity College booksale a couple of weeks ago, thus enabling me to remove it from my Amazon cart.) Originally published in 1957, this remains the only book on its subject: "the tradition of revolutionary millenarianism and mystical anarchism, as it developed in western Europe between the 11th and 16th centuries." (p. 9)

Chapter 6 deals with "The Emperor Frederick as Messiah" and discusses the emergence of the heretical thought of Joachim of Fiore, which was a forerunner of Marxism. Cohn writes:
In the course of the 13th century yet another kind of eschatology appeared alongside the eschatologies derived from the Book of Revelation and the Sibylline Oracles - alongside them at first, but soon blending with them. The inventor of the new prophetic system, which was to be the most influential one known to Europe until the appearance of Marxism, was Joachim of Fiore (1145-1202). Ater many years spent in brooding over the Scriptures this Caliabrian abbot and hermit received, some time between 1190 and 1195, an inspiration which seemed to reveal in them a concealed meaning of unique predictive value. (p. 108)
Joachim forecast a new interpretation of history as consisting of three stages: the age of the Father (or Law), the age of the Son (or Gospel), and the age of the Spirit, which "would be to its predecessors as broad daylight compared with starlight and dawn, as high summer compared with winter and spring." (p. 108) Whereas the first age had been the age of fear and the second of faith and filial submission, the third would be an age of joy and freedom when all men would know God directly. The world would be a vast monastery in which all men would contemplate God mystically and ecstatically.

Cohn points out that the long-term influence of Joachim's vision can be traced right down to the present day, most clearly in the 19th century 'philosophies of history' of Schelling, Ficte, Lessing and Hegel, as well as in Auguste Compte's ideas and the Marxist scheme of primitive communism, class society and a final communism "which is to be the realm of freedom and in which the state will have withered away." (p. 109) Cohn also points out that the idea of the "Third Reich," first coined in 1923 by publicist Moeller van den Bruck, would not have had the emotional resonance it had in the European mind if it had not been for this "phantasy of a third and most glorious dispensation" which had "entered into the common stock of European social mythology." (p. 109)

Marxism stands in a long tradition of millenarian movements that range from the "children's crusades" to the Taborites to Thomas Muntzer and the millenarian cults in the English revolution like the Levelers and the Diggers. (I'm leaving out far more than I'm mentioning.) As such, Marxism is, for all its scientific pretensions, essentially an irrational, mystical, millenarian cult. It is eschatology for those who have lost their orthodox, Christian faith.

Occupy Wall Street is thus a dream come true for historians and anthropologists who want to study an actual contemporary example of one of these social movements in the form of living, breathing, 'true believers' rather than in dusty historical records.

In the 13th century the mainstream Church followed Thomas Aquinas in his orientation to Augustinian orthodoxy and rational (Aristotelian) science rather than Joachim and his mystical anarchism. The Church has been on the side of science and reason ever since, whereas Marxism stands in the tradition of the irrational, mystical, cultic, free-spirited, perfectionism and millenarianism stretching back centuries.

In the final analysis, it is not possible to reason with those who believe they have received a Divine revelation not accessible to most ordinary people and who believe they are on the cutting edge of history, which is about to be transformed into the kingdom of God. Like the Iranian mullahs and Adolf Hitler, the Marxists believe that no act of violence is unthinkable when the result is going to be the kingdom of God on earth!

Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that Divine revelation coheres with natural law and reason and therefore can be debated, discussed and understood by all who wish to engage in study and dialogue. Marxism, by way of contrast, like all heretical cults, requires the sacrifice of the intellect, the acceptance of secret revelation and irrational belief in the goodness of man, the imminence of the millennium and the need for purifying, revolutionary violence as the doorway to utopia.

It is little wonder that people who believe such things had to be suppressed by force by the public authorities in previous centuries and it is likely that free and rational societies will need to defend themselves against the forces of lawless disorder again in the future. We would do well to heed the warning from the OWS Oakland sign: "We came unarmed, this time."

Will a culture sunk deep into postmodern relativism, sexual promiscuity, hedonistic materialism, uncontrolled public debt and declining educational standards be able to muster the strength to resist the anarchistic cultists? And will it be able to do so without falling into tyrannical dictatorship? Do we have it in us to overcome another Nazi death cult without losing democracy?

These are the questions that should preoccupy all of us today.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Why Religious Leaders Who Endorse Left-wing Politics Look Ridiculous

Evangelicals used to have a strong suspicion of anyone who got mixed up with politics. Now they have a strong suspicion of anyone who gets mixed up with conservative, pro-capitalist politics. Lefties, though, get a free pass and are regarded as "compassionate" and "missional."

But the truth is that religious leaders who endorse left-wing politics, whether they come from the "Evangelical Left" or the older Liberal Protestant or Roman Catholic Left, just make themselves look ridiculous.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is the latest example. He has a piece in the Financial Times of London echoing the left-wing rhetoric of the protesters in front of St. Paul's. Here is a take-down of his intervention by Toby Young of the Daily Telegraph:
The Archbishop of Canterbury has an article in the Financial Times this morning in which he urges us to "take seriously the moral agenda of the protesters at St Paul’s":

The protest at St Paul’s was seen by an unexpectedly large number of people as the expression of a widespread and deep exasperation with the financial establishment that shows no sign of diminishing. There is still a powerful sense around – fair or not – of a whole society paying for the errors and irresponsibility of bankers; of impatience with a return to ‘business as usual’ – represented by still-soaring bonuses and little visible change in banking practices.

So what is the "agenda" of the St Paul's protestors? If you look at the "initial statement" issued by #occupylsx, it's pretty clear. The statement brands "the current system" "undemocratic and unjust", rejects "the cuts", attacks "the banks", calls for "an end to global tax injustice", supports the "student action" planned for 9th November, supports "the strike" planned for 30th November, supports "actions" intended "to protect our health services, welfare, education and employment, and to stop wars and arms dealing", demands "authentic global equality", expresses "solidarity" with the "global oppressed" and calls for "an end to the actions of our government and others in causing this oppression". It ends by saying, "This is what democracy looks like. Come join us."

Not an unfamiliar agenda, then. It's the agenda of the Trotskyist left – almost all of these points are made with tedious regularity by the Socialist Workers Party, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Socialist Party (formerly the Militant tendency). The problem with this agenda, as any student of politics knows, is that it's impossible to realise without a massive escalation in state power. Indeed, it's hard to see how you could end "global tax injustice" or bring about "authentic global equality" without some sort of global super-state with far-reaching powers – and, presumably, a corresponding loss of British sovereignty. This is what democracy looks like, apparently.

Like most revolutionary socialists, I don't suppose the St Paul's protestors have thought very deeply about this problem. They fondly imagine that, untainted by capitalism, mankind is essentially good. A modicum of state control may be necessary in the early years of the revolution, when men are still in the grip of greed and selfishness, but this is just a “transitional phase”. Once a fully-fledged socialist society has sprung into being, people will cast off their wicked habits and the state – or global super-state – can wither away.

In reality, of course, the “transitional phase” never ends. Mankind is incapable of shedding those bad habits for the simple reason that they’re hard-wired into our DNA. Self-interest will always trump altruism. Family ties will always have a stronger claim on our loyalties than some abstract ideal. We will always struggle to gain a competitive advantage over our neighbours – which is why the Tobin Tax is such a bad idea. Far from withering away, the socialist state becomes ever more powerful in a vain attempt to suppress these instincts and preserve "authentic global equality".

Any political movement that legitimizes an escalation in state power, however well-intentioned, must be resisted. Whatever abuses men inflict on each other under free market capitalism will always pale into insignificance next to the abuses of the state. From Moscow to Havana, a utopian vision always ends with a boot stamping on a human face.
It is important to remember that the communists have been talking about the perfidy of the bankers for over a hundred years non-stop. The bankers, especially those "Jewish bankers" are the stock whipping boys for the International Socialists and National Socialists alike. The current economic crisis just makes ordinary people, who wouldn't normally give the Marxists a glance sideways, sit up and pay attention. This rhetoric gets a hearing when the mob is stirred up and looking for somebody to blame. In this sense, left-wing politics is a parasite and a disease on the body politic. It may lie dormant in healthy times, but can goad the mob into a witch hunt when the crops fail.

Religious leaders who play up this emotion-driven, fear-ridden, angry need to blame someone for the problems we face are playing a very dangerous game. Civilization is always fragile and dark passions lurk just beneath the surface in all human beings. Right now, the Archbishop of Canterbury looks merely ridiculous. If things were to degenerate, as they have many times in the past, he would go from looking ridiculous to looking irresponsible to looking malicious and evil in quite short order. Those with a platform and an office should be careful what potions they brew and what spirits they call up in the name of "democracy" and "social justice."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Should Christians Be Concerned about Income Inequality?

I am amazed, not only at how many people think that the answer to this question is yes, but at how many people think it is obviously and incontrovertibly yes and that anyone who can not see how blindingly obvious it is that justice requires income equality is either stupid or evil.

Actually, income inequality is not a very important issue at all for those concerned about the well-being of the poor. It is a red herring, a distraction from the main issue, which is poverty and its causes. There is such a fog of unwarranted assumptions surrounding this idea that it is second only to the phrase "social justice" in being useless if clear thinking is the goal.

I want to try and untangle some of the issues surrounding the question of whether or not Christians should be concerned about income inequality and it is going to take some time. The position I am putting forward is based on logic, facts and historical evidence and, unlike the opposing position, cannot be reduced to a few slogans ready to be chanted by mobs. (I am not going to document every assertion but if challenged on a particular point I will point you to some resources.)

The position I will put forward requires careful thinking and the ability to follow a chain of argument for several steps before arriving at the conclusion. If you wish to argue, you are welcome as long as you stick to actual arguments.

1. Defining Poverty:
First of all, we need to understand that there are two ways of defining poverty: absolute measures and relative measures. To measure poverty in absolute terms is to list what a family of four needs in order to have the necessities of life but no luxuries: shelter, transportation, food, clothes, education etc. This amount will obviously vary from place to place and can be skewed by such factors as amount of real estate owned if any and so on. The analysis can get extremely complicated but for measuring differences over time it can be simplified and standardized.

The other method is to peg the poverty line to a percentage of the median income. This means that the poverty line will go up and down depending on the income of the highest earners in society, which often fluctuates from year to year depending on the state of the economy. All sorts of distortions occur in this type of measure. For example the poverty line may go down in a year like 2008, which would mean that a family of four living in Toronto might be considered no longer to be under the poverty line even though its income for that year actually dropped due to the loss of an extra part-time job. But chances are, food etc. is no cheaper, so common sense tells us that can't be right.

2. The Goal: Helping Poor People Become Better Off
Another problem with the relative measure of poverty is that it has a buried assumption that income equality ought to the be long-term goal of our society. But let me propose a different goal: helping poor people become better off. You might say that you thought pursuing income equality automatically does this, but the example I gave above shows that this is not true. If we want to succeed in social policy, our goals must be crystal clear.

I suggest that if the average income of the poorest 20% of the population increases over time relative to inflation and the number of people living in poverty declines, we should count that as progress even if the average income of the middle 60% or the top 20% grows even faster. Why? Because the goal is to make sure that the average income of the bottom 20% does not drop.

3. What makes the poor even poorer?
Well-intentioned social democratic economic policies that involve high taxes and large social welfare programs can hurt the poor even more than benign neglect. The fact is that policies intended to help the poor often end up hurting the poor. Let me give two examples from the past; they are not theoretical but actually happened.

First, there is inflation. When budget deficits are high due to high government spending the temptation is very strong for governments to let interest rates rise, increase the money supply and pay off debts (or, more realistically, continue to increase deficits) using devalued currency. Thus 2011 dollars are borrowed and spent but repaid in devalued 2021 dollars. But, surprise, surprise, lenders are wise to this game (which we saw played out horrifically in the 1970s) and demand higher and higher interest rates.

Meanwhile, ordinary people (the bottom 60% especially) are hurt the most by high inflation. Wages seldom keep pace with inflation and most people see their purchasing power eroded. Those living in the tightest margains (the bottom 20%) suffer the most. So keeping government deficits low, national debt low as a percentage of GDP and inflation under control is extremely important. High inflation over time can undo the net effect of higher welfare payments and leave both those on welfare & unemployment, as well as the working poor, worse off despite ever growing government spending on poverty.

Second, the Great Society programs in the 1960s in the US destroyed the black family. Young women were given a financial incentive to move out on their own and have babies without being married. The gap between white and black income had been closing the late 50s but immediately and permanently (so far) began to widen. The gap between white families headed by single mothers and ones with married couples raising their biological children also widens steadily, suggesting that the cause is family structure not race.

The socialists and liberals who supported welfare saw themselves as compassionate and generous, but they hurt ordinary, working class people, diminished economic mobility and created a multi-generation underclass. This is tragic. Poverty rates for intact families has long been in single digits, while the rate for families headed by single women is north of 35%. Obviously, liberal support for the sexual revolution has contributed to the problem as well; sexual liberation for white, upper-middle class women is much more benign in terms of economics than it is for those in the bottom 20% of income levels.

4. Another Problem in Measuring Poverty:
It is a truism that you will never be able to fix a problem you can't even define. And defining poverty is tricky. If you divide the population into 5 groups by annual income: bottom 20% etc., then it is easy to forget that most people move through different income brackets as they move through the life cycle. Young people in their twenties typically do not earn as much as those same people do in their forties and fifties. And retired people don't earn as much as they did previously and they don't need to in order to maintain the same lifestyle.

In order for poverty statistics to mean anything they must measure two things: the number of people who never move out of the bottom 20% and how much mobility there is between the five groups. If a society has high mobility (eg. 60% of those in the bottom 20% in 1990 are in the highest or second highest group in 2010 and only 10% are still in the bottom 20%), then you are looking at a just society in which most people are getting ahead during their lifetimes. If an individual does not make it up the income ladder under those conditions, then the fault likely lies with the individual's lifestyle or character or some sort of physical or mental handicap. Prison may be the only alternative for some and charity will be necessary for others.

My retirement adviser tells me that most people only need about 65% of their pre-retirement income in retirement. Most retired people have their mortgages paid off, do not have the expenses associated with working and are not saving for retirement. My point is that they do not live on two-thirds of their previous income by eating cat food. Their lifestyle is roughly the same. Such people should not count in statistics defining poverty. Another example is a family in which husband and wife both work for 3 years after marriage and live on one income while saving up a down payment on a house. Then the wife gets pregnant and quits her job. Their income drops and they go out and buy a house! Like a long-anticipated retirement, this is not a failure in terms of a family dropping from one income group to another; it is a good planning.

5. Defining poverty not entry level job compensation:
So my point is that we need to focus on what happens to the bottom group, but even there we can let our romantic notions trump good economic sense. A good example of this is the fallacy of higher minimum wage laws helping poor people. Any solid economics textbook (like Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell) can explain in detail why raising the minimum wage does not help the poor.

Think of it this way. Not all jobs play the same function. Some jobs are good entry level jobs that pay low wages but offer the opportunity for young people to gain invaluable work habits, experience and content for the resume. Such jobs need to pay low enough wages so that there will be lots of them around for young people just starting out to get a first job. They should also provide incentive for people to gain marketable skills and try for better jobs.

If the lowest wage jobs are converted to high pay jobs there will be fewer of them. That will make the statistics look like income went up for the bottom 20%, but in reality what went up was unemployment and that is not good for poverty reduction.

6. What about those filthy rich?
I've saved the most important point for the last: isn't it unfair for the rich to get richer faster than the poor get richer? No, it isn't unfair, it isn't bad for society as a whole and it is actually a good thing for the poor. Let me explain.

For most of human history income disparity was not as great as it is now for a very good reason: the total wealth of the human race was only a tiny fraction of what it is today. In the past 2 centuries - for the first time in all of recorded history - billions of people have moved out of abject poverty and the middle class has exploded. What is the cause of this? It is not socialism, but rather capitalism - the biggest and most successful anti-poverty program in human history!

Throughout human history most people (over 90%) lived a hand to mouth subsistence lifestyle. Only a wealthy, privileged few lived anywhere close to the level of lower middle class working people today. And even when the king and nobility amassed most of the wealth in a given nation, they still didn't have that much compared to the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffets and so on of our day. The gap keeps getting bigger because of the success of capitalism and we should not be concerned about that reality.

A much bigger concern should be the possibility of economic policies that prevent people from rising from the lower income groups to the top 1% of income earners by inventing useful goods that people want or need and are willing to pay for. In fact, I suggest that income mobility is far more important as an indicator of whether a society is just than poverty measures in themselves.

The poor need rich people to be rich and to grow richer by investment. Why? As Thomas Sowell might put it: "A poor man never gave me a job." The engine of economic growth in a just society is small businesses and the biggest problem entrepreneurs with a good idea face is a lack of capital investment. If capital gains taxes are too high (they actually should be abolished) then investors will not be able to get a rate of return sufficient to justify the risk.

If an investor wants to invest in 10 companies that want to start up or expand, he knows that 3-4 are likely to go bankrupt. Some of the rest will stagnate and provide little return and hopefully a few will be successful and provide a high return sufficient to cover the losses and give an overall rate of return higher than less risky investments like government bonds. If not, investment capital will dry up, businesses will stagnate, and employment will go down instead of up.

Who gets hurt in such a scenario? The person looking for a job who is unemployed is hurt significantly. The rich, on the other hand, have options. They can buy real estate or gold, invest off shore, or invest in the government bonds that are paying ever higher rates because the federal deficit is exploding. The point is that economic policies that appear to help the rich actually help the poor. The Democratic Party in the US and the Liberals and NDP in Canada successfully demagogue those who argue for business-friendly policies as insensitive to the poor when their opponents are, in fact, the ones promoting policies that help the poor. When the Republicans and the Conservatives promote policies that help small and medium sized businesses, they are doing the best things possible to help the poor.

Of course, Big Business and Big Government often are in bed together colluding to stifle competition and replace capitalism with mercantilism or state capitalism (which is not really capitalism) or cronyism. They often keep small businesses down by increasing regulation that the bigger corporations can afford to comply with but small ones cannot. Excessive government regulation of all kinds can damage the economy and hurt the poor. I do not understand why those who profess to care about the poor are not as suspicious of government as they are of business. Both need to be controlled and watched. Governments do not operate under market discipline so they are prone to do stupid things to the economy and voters are often so uninformed and unthoughtful that they are easily manipulated by slogans and heartfelt assertions of good intentions. Only results should be considered, not intentions.

Countries that pursue high tax policies that keep the rich from amassing large pools of capital in the name of "social justice" and "income equality" are successful in damaging the economy, increasing unemployment, creating inflation and freezing income inequality into rigid classes that keep people from being able to advance in life by hard work and individual initiative.

Governments have no money of their own; all they have is what they take from citizens. But governments famously waste about half the money they tax and spend, which is a tremendous drag on the economy. Private individuals and businesses, guided by market disciplines, create much more of real economic value for every dollar they spend than governments do. Yet every welfare state or socialist policy idea ever advanced advocates increasing the size of government.

Rich people invest their money, when tax and other government policies are rational enough to encourage them to do do, in money-making endeavours that are also job-creating endeavours. We should not "eat" the rich; we should honour them and respect them.

If people get rich by doing illegal things, that is of course different. But working hard, having good ideas, starting and growing businesses are all socially beneficial behaviours that ought to be encouraged.

As Christians, we should think more about how to create a business friendly environment, how to increase economic mobility and how to reward socially beneficial behaviours than about income inequality. As long as the poor are getting ahead in real terms and opportunity exists for all, we have as just a society as is possible under the conditions of the Fall.