The Loss of Transcendence

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Ecclesiastes and the Christian historian

One of the philosophical principles generally accepted by historians is that no one can fully appraise or appreciate the time in which they actually live. People have often tried to give definitive and authoritative explanations of their own time period – it is a staple of opinion columns in newspapers – and many minds have flailed around trying to make sense of things. But invariably they arrive at deficient conclusions. The broad failure of this intellectual effort has been long recognised by some of humanity’s most enlightened minds. Ecclesiastes wrote nearly three thousand years ago: “Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.

It is not wise, asserts The Teacher, to approach historiography in any way that romanticises the past, unreasonably magnifies its wonders, and airbrushes away its horrors. Yet over again, we see that people think exactly in this way. Ancient Romans of the Imperial period looked back fondly to the days of the Republic. In their minds, Imperial Rome was decadent and immoral. But in contradistinction, Republican Rome had forged its heroes in the fires of glorious combat, had produced its white-bearded scholars, and the citizenry had breathed a luminous atmosphere of enlightened values.  Nearly two millennia later, we find the same thing in the minds of Frenchmen in post-revolutionary France. Only they looked back to the Ancien Régime with nostalgia for the glories of Louis XIV, the “Sun King”.

In modern times we have entered our own period of longing, told through the hundreds of romanticised historic television shows and movies that mostly give us a version of the past as modern people wish it had been. And our times are strongly characterised by an attitude that Chesterton described as the “cult of simplicity”. He meant the yearning people have (or claim to have) for “nature”. To go back to supposed cleaner and healthier way of life before the grime and plastic of industrialisation.

Ecclesiastes’ basic point is that people fail to appraise the past accurately. They unwisely forget each time period has it own unique blend of good and evil, and in forgetting this, they come to unwise conclusions about their own lives. They neither see their own time properly nor the past. To fail to see the one is to fail to appreciate the other. And like the man who brings his face very close to an oil painting until it blurs into meaningless colours and patterns, human eyes often water with the effort of dealing with history.

Developments that will be seen as monumental in a few decades may be shrugged at carelessly in the present. History is garlanded with examples. Guglielmo Marconi is considered the father of radio yet his invention was received with a distinct lack of enthusiasm in the early 1900’s. He was told by the authorities to check himself into a lunatic asylum. Yet, from our standpoint more than a hundred years later, the tremendous importance of radio is readily seen. Without Marconi’s work, Hitler could never have come to power; the Second World War could never have been fought; the culture could never have been unalterably shaped by radio entertainment. Even baseball would not be the sport it is.

It is only in the rear view mirror of history, as we get greater distance from the period we consider, that it becomes evident which forces and attitudes shaped it. But, does this mean that our own time period must always be scorched earth to us? That it is merely dead ground, shrouded in heavy fog; dense; impenetrable? Not all. It is possible to understand our time through a process of comparison. But it must be done carefully so that we do not run afoul of the warning given by Ecclesiastes who, after all, was sharply insightful when it came to the condition of man and the sociology of mankind.

We must lapse into neither apocalyptic nor romanticised thinking. We must avoid arriving at conclusions that view the past as unspeakably wonderful or our own time as unspeakably evil. Neither must we arrogantly imagine that our current state – after a mere two hundred years of industrialisation – has advanced us morally and spiritually to be wiser than our forebears. Only a sober and sensible comparison can serve as the flare in the night that lights up our age for us to see rightly.

Loss of transcendence

I contend that if there is one thing revealed by a side-by-side comparison between the present and the past, it is the profound loss of any concept of transcendence in our time. Transcendent beliefs and experiences have been evacuated from the public and moral sphere in the Western world in a way never seen before in human society.

Let me first define my terms. By transcendence I mean the social and moral anchoring of humanity to a realm that is higher than itself. For me, transcendence is a shared sense of significance that imbues life with a richer meaning than mere existence itself. It is a framework that aggressively denies the view that we are organic machines whose only real function is to consume, replicate, acquire, and amuse ourselves before death.

A sense of transcendence always lets man brush his fingertips over things that are eternal. By feeling the infinite, he is properly integrated into the stream of time. Man lives a transitory life. We all are pilgrims, transmitters of a sacred trust; a precious deposit of truth that must be safely handed on until the ending of the world. To quote Alan Bennett, “Pass the parcel boys. This is the game I want you to learn. Pass the parcel! Not for me; not for you. But for someone, someday. Pass it on!

An awareness of the transcendent is what enables a person to experience emotions and thoughts that can only arise when standing before something monumental. Awe; veneration; reverence; wonder; self-conscious humility; gratitude; adoration; and genuine worship. Unlike our forebears who valued these experiences and went to great effort to establish settings in which they might occur (churches, museums, galleries etc.), modern people have surgically excised this whole emotional domain from their psychology. Especially among the young, the words awesome or wonderful are now only terms of approval. They are unhooked from what they once signified. The term irreverent is a synonym for good and prides is synonymous with healthy.

Transcendence has been replaced with a narrow band of utilitarianism that presents an entirely different universe of values. Few things are considered sacred anymore. Important things are also consumable. Anything new is good. Anything old is bad. The is no reverence, not even for time itself. Amusing ourselves to death, wrote Professor Neil Postman in his seminal work. The number of human hours wasted on entertainment, particularly screen based entertainment, is probably higher now than ever in history.

Does it work? people now ask. Does it matter to me? They do not ask: Is it right? Is it good? Does it matter to God? There is no longer a common  template of transcendent principles against which all things are tested and measured for worth. In this sense modern man is worse off than the pagans, for at least they had their heroic men, their legendary philosophers, mythologies, gods, and their epic poems against which they could judge their present.

It may have been a deficient template, alien to the concept of holiness and overburdened with immoral deities, but it was undeniably transcendent. It crossed the threshold between the material and the spiritual. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, in these ancient stories we may even see faint echoes of a longing for Christ. Prometheus, man’s greatest benefactor, stole from the gods their flame and fought with Zeus on man’s behalf.

The assumption that anything new is better than anything old has become more and more ingrained until it now dominates the latest generation so completely that they are hardly even aware of what the past was like before their august advent into the world. Terms like “updating“, “moving with the times” and “modernising” have become synonyms for good. These terms are applied not just to the domain of technology but also to morality, lifestyle, and behaviour. To update one’s household furniture is a good thing, requiring no further explanation since it is obvious that the new is always better than the old. When a politician speaks of updating the law to fit the times, it is never questioned whether “the times” would be better off fitting the law than the other way about. It is never questioned because these terms are complete microwavable arguments in and of themselves. If a house is repainted in the latest style and someone asks what was wrong with the old style, one may simply rebuke the questioner with the phrase, “We must move with the times, mustn’t we?” and this is considered a satisfactory, even unanswerable, response.

Modern Protestantism must reclaim a sense of transcendence

I am convinced that the loss of a transcendent sense is not isolated to unbelievers but also to Christians. The decline is most accentuated among Protestants but no group of Christians is really immune. This inescapable deduction flows from the most elementary observations. Consider following image:

Church

This is St. Helen’s Church in the small village of Lea, West Lindsey district of Lincolnshire. This church is a typical representation of small, country churches found throughout Europe. It was built in the 12th century and during the 900 years since, has been restored several times. It features items – pews, stained glass windows, towers, roofing, paintings and so on – that date from nearly every century between its construction until now. The east window of the northern aisle features stained glass from 1330, a century that was particularly busy for the church.

Several things are noteworthy. First, this is a building constructed for a very small village. Lea’s current population is just over 1,000 people and the village is so small that it has no shops. Other than the church, its two major communal institutions are a tennis court and a small primary school. Major metropolitan centre it is not.

Over the centuries, the local population would never have much exceeded what it is today. Yet despite the small number of people that would have worshipped here, Christians of the 12th century constructed a building that required a significant investment of capital and labour, and was obviously intended to be permanent. The builders of St. Helen’s expected it to be in use for a very long time. They were not building something that might – maybe – last for merely a hundred years. They were building something that would be used by their great-grandchildren. It would last for as long as God willed, maybe even to the ending of the age.

The building reflects an attitude of confidence about the future and a collective concern for coming generations that is quite foreign to modern man. They may not have been historians but the villagers who built and worshipped here 900 years ago would have known about the prophets, biblical kings, apostles, and probably a good deal of hagiography. They would have been trained to see their faith as one that stretched back through the mists of time to the dawning of the world. Their confidence in the long history of the church and in a transcendent God resulted in a stability of purpose. This building, in other words, was a vote of confidence in the future.

Secondly, note the aesthetics. Although only a small country church and therefore built with some degree of economy and functionality in mind, the designers and builders were still keen that it should offer a clear expression that something special occurred in this place that occurred nowhere else. For it was here that the community gathered to offer up their communal worship of God, the King of Creation in whose hands their lives rested.

For many centuries this would have been the most ornate building in the village and certainly among the largest. Situated more-or-less in the dead centre of the village, its tower reaches higher than any other structure; its windows are long and beautifully outfitted with stained glass. There are a number of Gothic features on the tower and the interior is colourful. Nothing is disposable. Everything is built with durability in mind.

The building is doctrine and faith taking form in stone and wood. It reflects a formality and otherworldly concept of worship. The fundamental attitude behind this building is that worship involves being lifted into the heavenly realms; of handling carefully the sacred trust of the Faith. It is an act of coming into a sanctified place to kneel before an omniscient and holy God, and there participate in something awesome and mysterious. Participating, it must be said, not as individuals who happen to be sitting in a group; but as a community approaching the only true God together.

This building, although one among many churches just like it, represents an entirely different way of thinking to our own. Contrast with this:

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Could meaningful worship be offered up in a setting like this? Of course. Christians have worshipped in caves, in prisons, and holes in the ground before. Our Lord promised that wherever there are two or three gathered in his name, there he would likewise gather in the midst of them. We are all familiar with the Christians in the Roman catacombs during the early centuries of persecution.

These arguments for the “democratisation” and “de-formalising” of worship are so well known by nearly every Protestant of the last hundred years that they trip from the tongue with hardly any thought. And yet, so soon forgotten, is that in the long intervening years since the ascension of Christ, the predominant and favoured form of worship of the overwhelming majority of Christians everywhere has been decidedly toward the elevated and formal. Borrowing from the forms of worship laid down in the Old Testament, Christians have sought to worship in an atmosphere of sacredness and other-worldliness, with a true effort to maintain a faithful continuance of worthwhile practices laid down by dozens of generations.

I would argue that their sense of the all-pervading holiness and greatness of God – as the One before whom man in his smallness bows – has been largely dispensed with and modern worship is more akin to the receipt of information.

I am not suggesting that reverent and meaningful worship cannot be offered up in a variety of formats, neither am I advocating for a particular form of worship. Only that a study of the past conveys a very different attitude toward life and toward God from what is generally expressed today. The difference is the loss of a heavy sense of transcendence, and this has diminished the practice of the faith, and I believe driven people from it. In some way, an informality in worship renders it something less than that which our forefathers of faith experienced and practiced, and passed to us.

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No Ideology Last Forever

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A statue of Stalin, once the feared ruler of millions, lies abandoned in the dirt. The ideology of communism which he used to justify his brutality has also experienced much the same fate.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the defeat of Germany during the Second World War was the absence of Nazis. Few people acknowledged having ever belonged to the party. Its leaders scattered and tried to bury their record. Many other Germans claimed no knowledge of government atrocities like the Holocaust. Subsequent interviews of civilians often have them musing along the lines of, “We didn’t want to dig too deeply into what was happening. We just thought the removal of Jews would be good for business.

Even Herman Göring claimed not to been an active persecutor of Jews. He later said that he would never have supported the Nuremberg Laws and other anti-Semitic measures had he realised it would lead to the horror of the Holocaust. Despite this, Göring gave tacit support to the Holocaust, and was certainly complicit in robbing Jewish families of valuables. In other words, he might not have been so savagely anti-Semitic, but he knew how to make hay while the prevailing wind was blowing in a certain direction.

In Hitler’s Last Will and Testament, dictated in his bunker in Berlin in the final days of his regime, he said that he hoped Nazism would continue after his death and that “the struggle” of the German people would continue. By this, he meant their struggle against Jews and communism. Of course, Hitler did not get his wish. In fact the credibility of Nazism collapsed utterly as his regime was dissected and examined after the war.

Today, apart from a few cracked anti-Semites gathering in basements and getting a buzz from their Sieg Heils and salutes to portraits of a long-dead dictator, Nazism holds little attraction to people. The wearisome rallies, songs, racism, shouting, saluting, and its brutal, heartless use of human beings as mere instruments all seems horrendous, ridiculous, evil and sad.

In fact, although a few of my students express sympathy with some of the tenets of Fascism, none of them can understand the attraction of Nazism. None of them can fathom how such an extreme ideology could come to power, and then remain in power even when its effects on the population became increasingly deleterious. Although Nazism at its peak seemed to be unassailable and impregnable, beyond the power of a mere man to overturn, yet after a run of just twelve years it came to a bloody termination along with the group that gave rise to it. It demonstrates that human ideologies do not last forever. And when they fail – as they inevitably do – great is the fall of them.

This is an encouraging reminder for us in the 21st century. Our time is characterised by a rampant and radical secular ideology, ever more aggressively intent on toppling Christian beliefs and convictions and pushing them out of the public sphere. This is not new. Since the Enlightenment, a smorgasbord of ideologies have been part of the human experience in the West, and each of these have been variously hostile toward Christianity to different degrees. The current anti-theistic humanist secularism is more benign, (at least, in some ways), than the communism and fascism of the previous century. But it is an ideology nonetheless, with advocates who justify their programme with terms like equality and tolerance when we know that what they actually mean is unequal treatment, with some groups having rights that supersede those of other groups (e.g. Christians)

Ideologies always require government and institutional support. But if history teaches us anything, it is that ideologies that require institutional protection are fundamentally weak things. They can thrive only in an absence of any meaningful rebuttal. They can survive only when they can avoid being challenged. This is particularly true of the “social justice” shibboleths of secularism where only one viewpoint is ever presented in the professional news media; and where only one viewpoint is discussed, taught, spoken, and written. People who step out of line find a mob howling for punishment. Institutions then swing into action against the offenders, sometimes even to their own detriment. One university in my state rejected a large grant of money for a new research centre because a person was involved in the project who had made the claim that poverty was more important than climate change.

Transparently obvious truths cannot be publicly spoken when an ideology is in ascendancy. Questions cannot be asked. Things become unsayable. And the vast mass of people meekly fall into line, sensing the direction of the prevailing wind. Most people find it is altogether safer to capitulate or at least to keep quiet – as Orwell once wrote, to aim to be “free on the inside”. Those who openly chaff under the yoke of the ideology – usually Christians – pay the price for doing so. They are the bigots who must be maligned but never understood. Some activists would have people believe that the Christian faith is an evil, and that their version of godless secularism is mankind’s deliverance. Under such pressures, for the Christian faithful, sometimes it can seem as if the current ideology is permanent and unmovable.

But history teaches us that no ideology and no social arrangement lasts forever. All ideologies, by seeking to create a godless worldview and social practice, are shot through with cancerous contradictions that ultimately destroy the ideology from within. For example, communism could never be realised as Marx dreamed, because it was fundamentally unable to reshape human nature. It was a juvenile idea – that people would labour for the sheer betterment of others and not for their own advancement, and that in time government could thus wither away leaving a workers’ paradise. It was a simplistic childish notion in the extreme (as ideologies generally are), but one reinforced by a monstrous regimen of secret police, torture, massed surveillance, and barbed wire fences. The fences and walls have been a ubiquitous feature of communist regimes, whose leaders have always found it necessary to keep their people from escaping paradise.

Such contradictions led to falsified data until the Soviet Union was largely planning its economy on figures that were essentially fictitious. Everybody told lies. Atheism did not produce the seedbed of a moral life, and without God everything becomes morally permissible. The entire society participated in a great mass deception of social practice. The people themselves often came to recognise that their way of life was abnormal and that it should not be necessary to mouth platitudes or inflate production figures. They came to see their leaders as pathetic fools. Eventually, the simple human longing for a reasonable measure of prosperity overwhelmed the government machinery of fetid dreams, lies, propaganda, and a failed ideology.

Nazism was no different. Its entire existence was predicated on war. It never learned how to function in peacetime. In time, Hitler’s application of Social Darwinism to government and to society produced a brutal, radicalism that created so many enemies and so many foolish, childish decisions that the regime could not sustain itself. The same could be said for every other social ideology. All ideologies and schemes of mankind eventually run their course. They cannot survive because they do not find their origin in God, or predicated on his enduring word. Only the Church has survived century upon century, because it builds itself upon the everlasting Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So it will be for the current brand of secularism that is progressing to a soft form of tyranny before our very eyes. This secularism is also riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. It too will last for a season before it will also collapse beneath the weight of the lies it perpetuates and the ungodly, false dream it is trying to live out.

Human Rights vs. Human Rights

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A Soviet propaganda poster. Its message was obvious to the most illiterate Russian peasant: religious people stand in the way of progress and the development of a better world. Bulldozing them out of the way is therefore a logical and necessary step to betterment.

Anyone who has studied dictatorial regimes will recognise that classic, orthodox tyrannies always recognise the Christian Church to be an impediment, if not an outright obstacle that must be destroyed. For all of Richard Dawkins’ nonsense about Hitler being a Roman Catholic, his administration was deeply anti-church and anti-Christian and produced some of the most bizarre replacement theologies in the modern world (like Himmler’s occultic blend of mysticism and German mythology). German fascists took this view partly because Christianity was based on “Jew texts” and partly because biblical Christianity elevates virtues that the fascists regarded as weakening vices – things like compassion, care for the weak, the primacy of the reward in the world to come, and the universality of the human condition unrestricted by “blood, race and soil”. Such beliefs are incompatible with any human-centred, utopian ideology.

Likewise, communist regimes around the world – with almost no exceptions – have been equally as systematic (and in fact, usually more transparently hostile and radical than the fascists) in their opposition to confessing Christians. Russian communists were unabashed in listing the eradication of religion as one of the major objectives of their administration and ideology. Tens of thousands of churches were demolished; the overwhelming majority of Russian Orthodox clergy were shot (about 100,000) or otherwise imprisoned. In fact, the Russian Orthodox Church was very nearly extinct when the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa. It is almost unbelievable, but in all of Russia there were only about 500 functional churches left and a very small handful of clergy.

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(The Second World War is a tragic episode in human history, but is rich in examples of the Sovereignty of God. It is surely no coincidence that a residue of Christianity – albeit in the form of Russian Orthodoxy – was preserved under Stalin in the Soviet Union itself by an invasion orchestrated by an equally anti-Christian ideology.)

Whatever one may think of the orthodoxy of the Russian Orthodox Church (and as Protestants we cannot accept the bulk of its teaching as biblical), their faithful adherents nonetheless present an illustration of amazing resistance and fidelity in the face of what is probably the most intense and widespread persecution of Christian people in the modern era. The persecution lessened only after the German invasion, when Stalin gave concessions to the Russian Orthodox Church and actively sought to revive so that it might to imprint some sense of supernatural mission upon the minds of the Russian people, who could hardly be expected to fight in the name of communism alone having, by that stage, experienced it for about 23 years.

The question to consider here is why is the church such a target? The answer is straightforward, at least when considered in raw political and social terms: in revolutionary times all radicals who are intent on cultural transformation recognise the Church as an autonomous centre of opposition with its own authoritative message that demands unquestioning obedience. This cannot coexist with modern total states, although the Church can coexist with monarchical states where the king cannot rule or legislate by fiat alone.

From the perspective of radicals, the Church’s teachings always trumps those of the state, and therefore constitutes a serious threat to the state. The Church has a message from heaven; the state can only claim that its ideology is from men. The Church has its mandate from God; the state can only claim a mandate from “the people”. The Church has texts that are infallible, inerrant and ancient; the state can only appeal to texts that are fallible, errant, and recent. The Church is founded on God in human form – the Person of Jesus Christ; the best the state can manage is to attempt to deify a leader, president, or generalissimo. The Christian people who constitute the Church will lay down their lives for the Faith in the sure knowledge of everlasting life; the state can only command men to lay down their lives for a paradise on Earth.

In Western countries we have become accustomed to the Church being legally inviolable. Its finances are untaxed; various constitutions declare it immune from government interference; and it is usually exempted from laws that run counter to its teachings and mission. Indeed, this is a peculiar feature of Western constitutional government, which is so much a product of the Protestant Reformation.

But, times are a’changin’. We are living in the midst of a cultural revolution, primarily driven by sexual inclinations and the legitimisation of novel relationship types. And the Church is increasingly existing on an island of shrinking support in the wider culture which is growing restless at the Church’s historic immunity to state interference. And the means by which the state is being harnessed to attack this only remaining bastion of serious counter-cultural opposition is the tension between “human rights”.

Human rights are universal. They apply to all people. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a covenant devised in the ashes of the scarred, near-apocalyptic, post-Second World War era with all its traumas, and was designed to be applicable to the entire human race. It is a wonderful document, full of righteous sentiment, affirming the freedom and dignity of the individual and granting to him or her the right to be unencumbered by the unreasonable control and mastery of another. Great faith was invested in this document. It was assumed that signatory nations with their recent experience of war would remember the depths of human horror forevermore, and thereby not depart from this straight way.

Yet these rights have now come into tension – a tension that was never imagined in 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was developed. The great tension of our times is the freedom of conscience and religion as opposed to the new rights of non-discrimination, non-offence-giving, non-hate speech, and radical equality of access to individual’s service. The cultural revolutionaries adopt the attitude that, “Very well, you may have your freedom of conscience and religion, but you must never act upon it within the shared public domain“, which of course is no freedom at all.

In like manner, to say, “Yes, we uphold freedom of speech, but if you say X or Y, which was once acceptable but is acceptable no longer, then you are engaging in hate speech, calculated to offend people, and therefore is illegal and unacceptable“. Under such a view, freedom of speech is no longer freedom at all. As the Internationale put it (heaven forfend! I quote from it only this once!),  freedom is transformed into mere extended privilege. It is transformed into the right to only say what is popular; what is convenient; what is supported by the majority. To be able to say only what everybody else is saying requires, surely, no legal protection at all. You do not need a human right for that. You do, however, need the right of free speech to protect the act of saying something that is unpopular.

As soon as one is told that they may not act according to their conscience in refusing to do something – like bake a cake, or open their bathrooms to people of a certain gender, or openly declare their ancient beliefs – then the rights that were brought into focus by a devastating and tragic episode in human history have been eroded.

This is because “rights” increasingly are not thought of as universal standards that apply to all people equally and thus are meant to protect the unpopular as much as the popular. Rather they are seen as primarily about protecting the interests of select minorities from the unintended, uncontrolled, and indirect results of other people’s freedoms, and moreover doing so with a hyper-sensitivity and a higher-priority toward some groups rather than others.

For instance, in Australia there is mounting pressure for a parliamentary decision on something that is commonly called “same-sex marriage”. The conservative government has purposed to use a process similar to that of the Irish referendum, and to ask the Australian people to vote on the issue through a plebiscite. The constellation of left-wing parties are deeply opposed to any kind of popular vote. Why? Because “human rights are not determined by popular vote“. Ironically, these parties argue that the correct approach is to have politicians vote on the issue in the parliamentary chambers and be done with it. In other words, if it were carried by a majority vote by professional politicians then this “human right” would presumably enter existence as a human right within Australia.

Of course, in objective terms, it is true that human rights are not decided by a majority. That is the philosophic framework behind human rights. But this is not the case in terms of political process. After all, each signatory state to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had to ratify the covenant through their parliamentary systems. Even the United Nations itself is an organisation that functions on the basis of voting, and this has never been seen as inimical to human rights. To want human rights to enter existence without any process at all is to advocate tyranny and a fear of democracy. Yet the left-wing parties do not really believe their own rhetoric. They merely count on people not thinking it through very deeply. The reality is that they prefer a method that avoids any popular vote because it is much easier to work over a small group in the nation’s capital who will have a “conscience vote” (in other words, a vote reflecting the politician’s own conscience rather than the will of their electors). Moreover, they prefer this method because they calculate that they have the numbers to enact the legislation.

In other words, it is precisely because they think they have enough numbers in parliament to win on the issue that they have chosen to belittle a more democratic approach. And in so doing, they are essentially claiming that these human rights exist in some ethereal place and that they can be determined by a select group (i.e. themselves) who need not apply a democratic procedure to their recognition, or even acknowledge and seek out the true will of the people they represent. After all, they have the numbers.

They are therefore practising the very thing they claim to oppose: the use of numbers to birth a human right in Australia.

Another, and more instructive argument that they have made, however, is that debating same-sex marriage and voting on it would be cruel, divisive, and raise uncomfortable arguments and issues that could lead to great harm among people who practice homosexuality. In essence, (and it has been seriously put this way) the exercise of popular democracy could lead to deaths among practising homosexuals who might be tempted to commit suicide due to exposure to people and ideas that oppose their particular lifestyle. This, of course, raises a great many questions about how far democracy should be curtailed in order to prevent bad things from happening to people who might have mental vulnerabilities. For instance, is it the case that parliament should not debate same-sex marriage in case it is so hurtful and divisive that it causes people who practice homosexuality to commit suicide? If a public debate is harmful and would unleash dark forces, so might a parliamentary debate. After all, both would hit the television screens.

Moreover, is it the case that parliament should not discuss taxation in case it drives the poor to despair and leads to suicide? Should there be no freedom of speech on certain issues like war, in case soldiers’ widows become traumatised and commit suicide? If, as these left-wing group argue, the precautionary principle must be applied to protect people from unknown future harms, then just how far are we to take the precautionary principle? Indeed, arguments are beginning to surface to the effect that religious freedom itself should be curtailed precisely on the basis of the precautionary principle. To allow religious people to speak their message could result in harm to people whose lifestyle they disapprove of. Therefore, in the interests of human rights, the human right to the free exercise of religion must die. It seems, in the new economy, not all human rights are equal.

Lutherans Regret Abolition of Women’s Ordination in Latvia

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The German Evangelical webpage featured an article that outlined the regret among various Lutheran leaders when Latvian Lutherans voted to abolish women’s ordination.

There is nothing particularly groundbreaking about that, of course. The mainstream churches of Europe have so deeply sunk into secularism and theological liberalism that true Christianity now resides in exceptional pockets. It is no longer the norm. One needs to go as far afield as Africa or Asia to find mainstream churches that faithfully retain their deposit of orthodoxy.

What is instructive about this article, however, are the arguments made by supporters of women’s ordination. Their arguments bear the unmistakable imprint of secular reasoning. It is a powerful indication that feminist philosophy has deeply infiltrated the Lutheran World Federation, (not that there was ever much doubt about that). [Read more]

Why Church Discipline Matters

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While vices are always destructive, few people seem to realise that a virtue taken to extremes is equally destructive.

Take, for instance, the man who practices the virtue of charitable giving by handing his entire wage to the homeless while his own children are left to starve. To do such a thing is to twist the intended virtue into something dark and ungodly.

Or, to use another example, the woman who practices the virtue of cleanliness in her home by using such dangerous chemicals and cleansers that her family grows ill. By going to the extreme, she completely defeats the value and goodness of the virtue.

Unfortunately we live in times when virtues are practised in this fashion. The great Christian virtues have become detached from the Faith and the Person of Jesus Christ, and have instead gone wandering through the world on their own, being taken to extremes, and wreaking havoc everywhere. Like black holes, these virtues have acquired their own cloud of satellite ideas that swirl around them. These prove to be ultimately destructive and are never conducive to human flourishing, despite so promising.

Communism, for instance, was predicated on the noble virtues of helping the poor and relieving the oppressed. It morphed into a dreadful and murderous justification for corruption and power. Feminism was built on the virtues of treating women fairly and giving them dignity. It has transformed into the mutant creature of third wave feminism which seems intent on unloosing the anchors of civilisation itself.

Virtues on their own, are not good. Virtues must always live in balance with other virtues. They must be disciplined and guided. There must be careful thought invested into how best to practice them. Virtues must always be lived out in such a way that they hold the integrity of their form, and achieve God’s purposes rather than ours.

In church history, the question of how to balance the virtues of doctrinal purity with mercy has occasionally arisen. It is not an insubstantial issue. If one goes too far in either direction, the virtue collapses into error and irreparable damage, most especially to people’s immortal souls and eternal future.

For instance, the virtue of sound doctrine – taken to extremes – becomes an excuse for inquisitions, interdicts, and mass excommunications. It results in suffocating, merciless dogmas. Nearly every denomination that once took doctrinal purity to an extreme has receded into a cold, empty formalism.

On the other hand, the virtue of mercy and love – taken to extremes – results in the jettisoning of God’s word and a toleration for every aberration and error within the culture around us. For instances of this, one need look no further than various Anglican communions around the world where, under the umbrella of “love” and “mercy”, there is now such a broad latitude in these churches, that they show indifference to the doctrine of their communicants and clergy.

You hardly even need to believe in God to be part of the Anglican communion nowadays, much less be a Christian. There are atheist clergy walking the ecclesiastical ranks. There is toleration and celebration of nearly every trendy left-wing cause, no matter how unbiblical. Practically the only thing that can get you tossed out of an Anglican communion these days is to espouse something politically to the far-right, like fascism. On the other hand, you can be an atheist, a neo-pagan, embrace historic heresies, and deviations and still find comfort, embrace, and inclusion. Because that is “loving”.

On page 10 of the recent edition of the Diocese of Toronto’s Anglican Newspaper, there was a recent article in which an Anglican church there is devising ceremonies and rituals to bless people who undergo gender changes. It is a testament to the speed at which the transgender movement has gained credibility and acceptance within the Diocese of Toronto that their Anglican newspaper does not once question any of the assumptions surrounding the rite and the individual involved. It is taken for granted that the whole matter is entirely consonant with the Holy Scriptures, because it is about “love” and “celebration”, ergo virtuous.

The photograph features two female clerics performing the rite. The church building is adorned with a rainbow flag. The only visible remnants of any link with our ancient Faith are the vestments worn by the two women which constitute merely the sad vestiges of a past era. The fact all of this is contained in a “Christian” church is illustrative of the compounding nature of error. It grows, steadily but surely, until it reaches a point where it chokes everything else and renders its host a corpse.

(As an aside, the presence of traditional vestments always interests me. This is one the most remarkable things about the culture warriors in these churches: though they are willing to jettison nearly every biblical doctrine, create novel new rituals, embrace fashionable causes, and design hideous new churches with “hip” architecture, the one thing they cling to with tenacity are the robes and collars, the titles and insignia of the clergy.

It is an irony, really, that among orthodox clergy, those external trappings of office are often put aside. Former Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney (Australia) preferred casual clothes or a tidy suit. Most Reformed local churches have done away with vestments entirely. Even Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who wore the traditional preaching gown in church, had no interest in collars and robes. Leonard Ravenhill gave those things up and even came to repudiate them as unnecessary innovations. Yet, among liberal, heterodox clergy, those things are always last to die. They seem to exalt in their purples and silk.)

How does a church so spectacularly collapse as these Anglican denominations have done? Precisely because they made a choice in generations past not to try to walk that narrow road in which one rightly balances the affirmation of doctrinal truth with mercy and love.

Neither of these virtue can (or should) undo the other. Both must be present in harmony, the one feeding the other. Pure, sound, biblical doctrine gives rise to a ceaseless flow of love and mercy. And love and mercy to the sinful, broken and the lost reinforces the beauty of orthodoxy; the loveliness of biblical truth; the necessity of God’s holy precepts. Both virtues, properly attached to the True Vine – the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ – are filled, animated, actualised, motivated and energised by Himself. For love is only true love when it is His love. And doctrine is only any good when it is His doctrine.

How does one walk this fine line? By having an apostolic fidelity and allegiance to the Holy Scriptures as the first and final authoritative centre of Christianity.

And the only way to maintain this in any church is with loving, but firm church discipline. Toleration of heresy; the embrace of false creeds and doctrines; the widening of boundaries to the point where there is no longer an identifiable marker between non-believers and believers is a certain recipe for a church’s death. The Anglican communion has now reached a point where its evangelicals and orthodox are evacuating it. This process is very nearly complete. And once finished, there will be nothing left to sustain and maintain these denominations who are already consolidating an ever-shrinking catalogue of churches.

How sad it is and yet how eminently predictable. Church discipline matters because it keeps a church alive for the following generations.

Neglect it, and there is nothing more certain than that the next generation will go into captivity.

The Brewing Civil War within Roman Catholicism

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I follow conservative Roman Catholic blogs.

It is fair to say, that I follow very conservative Roman Catholic blogs. The sort written by conservative priests who look fondly back to Old Rome – to the days when the liturgy was in Latin and ecclesiastical discipline within the ranks was iron.

These are the people whose slogan is “save the liturgy, save the world”. Yes, to all the Protestant readers who just fell off their seats, you read that correctly.

This is Rome Catholicism of the Tridentine Rite. This is the Rome Catholicism of arcane medieval mysticism. This is a Rome Catholicism that has been almost forgotten, except in small – but admittedly growing – pockets, where people desperately wish to re-barnacle their religious life in esoteric rituals that were stripped away by Vatican II.

One of the things that has become really, really clear is that there are two utterly incompatible views that now co-exist in Roman Catholicism. The liberal wing are… well, essentially theistic soft secularists, if such a thing can be imagined. They pretty much follow the culture on issues like homosexuality, feminism, abortion, environmentalism, same-sex marriage, and the whole worldview. You can find Catholics within this wing who criticise their own church’s stance on these issues. You can find large numbers of Catholics who even actively and enthusiastically embrace these elements of the culture. For instance, there are entire branches of orders of nuns who are essentially leftover 1960’s radical feminists. They go about crusading for political purposes.

But, to the other extreme, there is the conservative wing. These Roman Catholics largely live in the past, venerating historical Popes and cardinals, and glorying in a very traditional worship that consists of little other than elaborate and ornamented ritual. They reject the minimalist contemporary design of modern churches – which are often built according to zany postmodern designs – and approvingly point to articles in magazines in which pastors describe how they have transformed their parishes by installing pews, altars, candles, and all the other furniture of a heavily-liturgical religion.

(The fact that there is such a palpable thirst among modern Western populations for a deep link to the past and a desire for continuity with history, could be the subject of an entire book. Unfortunately for the poor benighted souls turning to liturgical religions like Roman Catholicism, the tradition that they are told goes back to the New Testament is often only about 500 or so years old. Most of the “apostolic tradition”, along with its attendant rites and rituals developed in the medieval period. To be deeply rooted in God’s work in history, one must turn to the pages of scripture).

Each wing denounces the other. An excellent illustration of this – at least in miniature – is found in the running clash of purpose and perspective between a very popular blog operated by the Roman Catholic priest, John Zuhlsdorf, and the National Catholic Reporter. The National Catholic Reporter occasionally prints insinuations or commentary that would reflect unfavourably on Zuhlsdorf’s website and views, characterising them as unloving or harsh. For his own part, Zuhlsdorf declares the National Catholic Reporter to be “un-catholic”. In fact, Zuhlsdorf usually refers to this publication as “fishwrap” or “the National Schismatic Reporter” and holds in low esteem the liberal Roman Catholics who comment there.

Both parties have convictions utterly removed from the other. The NCR seems hopeful for some changes on the issue of woman’s ordination. They seem to take the view that there is a possibility of having women deacons. Zuhlsdorf, for his part, is implacably opposed to women’s ordination.

Whatever we might think on the issue – and, we, evangelicals and Reformed would typically side with Zuhlsdorf on this issue – the fact remains that these are opposing viewpoints, held with extreme conviction and passion. And both seem to have emerged within Roman Catholicism at the same time and in high volumes. It bespeaks a collapse of church discipline at some point in the line. For how else could two opposing camps emerge in the one communion?

But, this is only the tip of the iceberg! Most of the folks supporting women’s ordination would necessarily (eg. it is necessary to hold these beliefs in order to arrive at their position) have very non-traditional views of the ecclesiastical authority of the Roman Catholic Church and their supposed “teaching magisterium”. They necessarily hold non-traditional views on apostolic tradition. They necessarily repudiate the past example of their own church as repressive, archaic or opposed to women. Indeed, one of the Youtube videos put out by one of these groups has a woman in mock papal attire singing, “Don’t listen to St. Paul… I can lead the way” and a woman dandying her baby wearing a shirt that reads “Mommy for pope”. In other words, Zuhlsdorf – to a certain extent – is right. These people have no theological relation to the theological universe of what once called itself Roman Catholicism.

Another example of this breakdown is seen in Ireland, where the decay of Roman Catholicism is now an unmistakable fact. Here is a country that has a long history of being a Roman Catholic stronghold. A country where 73% – nearly three quarters of the population – claim to be Roman Catholic. Yet in the 2015 referendum on same-sex marriage, 62% of Irish voters approved a constitutional change to allow people to marry without the distinction of sex.

Assuming that the 25% of the population who are non-Roman Catholic all voted in favour of this change, it would mean that 37% of the Roman Catholic population also voted in favour of same-sex marriage. And this contrary to the advice, teaching and instruction of their own clergy and church! (Although, to be honest, any fair assessment of the political campaign conducted by those affiliated with Roman Catholic Church would surely indicate a fair degree of apathy. The impression I received, at least, was that their heart was just not in it. The secular perspective had already quite clearly won – at least, according to the vote statistics – even within the Roman Catholic community long before the referendum took place.)

You can find these sorts of inroads into Roman Catholicism at every point. And most troubling for the conservatives, the secular viewpoint seems to be held by a growing number of bishops, cardinals, and priests. Many of these come in for regular excoriation from the conservative wing . On the other hand, the conservatives lionise other of their hierarchy as if they were celebrities. These cardinals and bishops receive rock star treatment because they celebrate the mass in Latin or they are fighting back against the ambitions of the liberal half of the church.

Now enter the Pope.

For all the unbiblical Roman pretensions that the Pope functions as an authoritative unifying figure, the reality is the inverse. Nobody could say with a straight face that Pope Francis believes what his medieval (or even early 20th century) predecessors believed given his remarks on a range of issues. He continues along the lines set by previous Popes who proclaim a social gospel to outsiders and a religious practice to insiders so lacking in discipline as to render it almost indifferent to the manner in which they choose to live. Among Francis’ encyclicals is the entirely forgettable Laudata si’, or the “Green Encyclical”, which was about the environment and sustainability. In Francis’ speech to the Congress, he mentions Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Abraham Lincoln but does not once make reference to the Lord Jesus Christ.

In so doing, he merely follows the example of other post-Vatican II popes, like Pope John Paul II, who was certainly no great evangelist either. When addressing the European Study Congress, Pope John Paul II spoke much about “Christianity” and even mentioned “Christ” once, but his focus was not where the conservative Roman Catholics would have placed it.

It is categorically impossible to imagine the Apostle Peter – whose authority Roman Catholics claim for their pope – if presented with the chance to address the representatives of the most powerful nation in the world, or a congress planning a trans-continental constitution that would govern 500 million people – would fail to present the fullness of the message of the good news of Christ our Lord.

But the Popes reflect the Roman Catholic Church’s culture. True there is a bit of a lag before certain cultural trends and elements get represented in a pontificate, but it shows up sooner than later. Popes are increasingly political-correct beings and mealy-mouthed, never being entirely direct. Each subsequent pope differs substantially from the one before and thus the entire Roman church is in a perpetual condition of division. Half of them will cleave now unto this pope, and the other half will cleave unto that one. Francis is beloved by the liberal Catholics, just as Benedict XVI is beloved by the conservatives – some of which freely admit to shedding tears over his resignation.

Of course, nearly every Roman Catholic holds to Pope John Paul II whose genius for more than thirty years involved the careful placation of all wings of the church by granting to each a measure of what they sought. One month he would pound the arms of his throne and thunder down the old dogmas, gladdening the heart of the conservatives. A few months later he would make a ringing declaration about women or some other group, and bring pleasure to the liberals. But in retrospect, I think it will be seen that Pope John Paul II’s seemingly stable pontificate, solved nothing. In fact, he oversaw the unravelling of the discipline and authority of his church, the continuation of the 1960’s experiment. His pontificate will be seen to mark the further degradation of the belief and allure of the (non-existent) continuity the religion claims for itself.

One could go on. The fact that there is such a staggering variety of religious orders – some liberal and some conservative – each existing side-by-side within the tent. We could examine the rot within Roman Catholic educational institutions, producing generations of Roman Catholics who are probably mostly theologically liberal. We could consider the resurgence of conservatism within many seminaries, coupled with the fact that the overall number of priests is low and shrinking. But time constrains me.

Bottom line: this state of affairs cannot continue forever. One wing will dominate eventually, or there will be a permanent schism. Many conservatives have already thrown in the towel, declared most of the post-Vatican II popes to be heretics, and have run off to sedevacantist movements and the SSPX, who generally believe that the Seat of Peter is empty and there is no legitimate pope.

It is fantasy to imagine the staunch, Tridentine, “Latin Mass” conservatives winning this battle. In fact, their efforts are more likely to accelerate a schism since so many of them actively believe that their Tridentine mass is more legitimate than the Novus Ordo mass which is the common global Roman Catholic practice.

Certainly, the wing that shall be most badly affected will be the conservatives for whom the Pope and bishops and priestcraft is pivotal. Their entire faith is built on it. They have been taught that their church, when manifested in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, is infallible and miraculously safeguarded from error. The ructions to their faith when they realise with the passage of time, that the old Roman Catholicism is beyond revival, will be painful to bear. The conservatives are desperately placing their hope in the next pontificate. Pity them, should the next pope be another Francis. Their demoralisation will be complete.

We must keep our eyes open for these troubled souls, the recipients of a dreadful medieval corruption that enslaves and mesmerises with the false claims of historicity. We must aim to always be ready to offer to these people the gospel – for there can only be one. This gospel is the one that they have never heard. The pure gospel that elevates the Great High Priest, Christ Jesus. A gospel that speaks to the heart and redeems it by the sovereign power and grace of a compassionate and holy God. A God who does not come seeking for the utterances of empty phrases and repetitious prayers. Who does not look for hail Marys and penances. Who does not justify us based on our merits or our works. But a God who revealed himself fully through his Son; who regenerates men through his words – alone infallible and inerrant – and who sends his genuine Spirit as the down payment on future glory.

A God who once spoke words that are much applicable to these burnt out, tempest-tossed, misused, and exhausted Roman Catholics:

Come unto me, all you who labour and are heavily burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn about me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you shall find rest for your souls.