Friday, April 30, 2021

What is Truth?


“The truth." Dumbledore sighed. "It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”

-          J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

In response to my question, "What’s Your Alternative?” when considering a culture or tradition better suited for liberty than the Christian, and a value higher than what I suggest must be the highest value, the value of love, I received the following as one reply: “the truth.”  The truth valued higher than love.  It’s an interesting thought, one perhaps worth exploring.

Aren’t there times and situations when we know it is better to not tell the truth, or to not speak truthfully?  If the truth inflicts tremendous harm on someone without any gain to the person, is this at least something worth considering?

The truth is rarely pure and never simple.

-          Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Why would the truth be higher than love?  In other words, why value truth?  I can think of one reason: to achieve justice.  So, the “why” of truth is justice.  It’s one possibility.  Does this make justice the thing we should most highly value?  For this, we would need a standard.  I guess one standard could be something along the lines of the non-aggression principle and property rights, but that just leads me back to the question from Ira that started this entire discussion. 

In any case, if justice is the highest virtue, this leaves no room for mercy.  What of mercy?  Can a society be just without mercy?  I don’t know, maybe. 

Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; justice without mercy is cruelty. 

-          Thomas Aquinas

Why have mercy?  I guess otherwise it would be a cold society.  Three strikes you’re out, no extenuating circumstances.  But, at least according to Thomas, neither justice nor mercy can be highest, as each one is destructive without the other.  What is above them both?  Why must justice and mercy walk hand-in-hand?

I am finding that the last answer to the last “why” is love.  I certainly wasn’t the first person to figure this out.  And it wasn’t the Greeks or Romans who did, either….

A Texas Libertarian offered a comment worth exploring:

There is a simple test to conclude whether Christianity or the actions of the individual or group of supposed Christians are bad.

(1) Are the tenets of the Christian Church good?

(2) Are the bad actions of the individual or group in question in line with Christian tenets?

If (1) is yes and (2) is no, then it should be clear that it is the individual and not the religion who's to blame.

I was thinking about this in terms of the Greek / Roman morality prior to Christianity, which I explored here.  In that society, it was ethical to murder slaves for any or no reason, have sex with slaves with or without consent, treat women like chattel, murder babies for any or no reason – and certainly if they were female.  Contrast this with the Christian society that replaced it – where each of these “goods” of the Greco-Roman ethic were overturned quickly.

I will grant that in either society, no man perfectly lives his ethic.  Some Roman men did not murder their newborn daughters, and no Christian was the next Jesus Christ.

But which ethic is the one worth aiming at?  Which one, if aimed at, provided a better chance of a society where all were treated with respect, where property and life were upheld, where peace had a better chance of taking hold?  To ask these questions is to answer these.  The competition is so one-sided as to not be fair.


What is truth?  Try love.  Love is truth.  It works well for liberty, also. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Eastern Symphony


But Augustine lived a long way from Constantinople, and the Byzantine establishment found the more celebratory cosmology of Eusebius more to its liking.

The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland

It is not the cosmology of Eusebius that concerns me, but the political arrangement that this pointed to.  As better developed in my previous post: the emperor was to be subject to divine law; the bishops would be subject to the emperor.  This, in distinction to Augustine’s two cities.

Justinian famously codified Roman law, integrating religion, culture and politics – as had to be the case given this Eastern cosmology.  He legislated nearly all aspects of Christianity, including the place of the clergy in society.  His vision of the Christian state can be defined as symphony, or caesaropapism; of these two terms, he coined the former.  As explained by Strickland:

…it is not a symphony between Church and state, or even between clergy and ruler.  It assumes that the two are one, and that the purpose and identity of both groupings is identical.

For the early part of medieval Europe, this was the case – changed, per Strickland, only with the reform papacy of the eleventh century: Christendom would assign the clergy a new role of supervision and earthly transcendence.  This role – and the division it allowed regarding governance – would survive until the Protestant Reformation, when it collapsed once again, with the clergy having no legitimate role in the political life of society.

In theory, this Eastern symphony held that the bishops were to ensure that the emperor remained subject to divine law, but it rarely worked out this way given the power relationship.  When Justinian slaughtered thirty thousand citizens during the Nika Riots, no bishop came forward to speak truth to power.  Conversely, the emperor had no hesitation to ask the bishops for support, regardless of policy.

He could be tyrannical, but Justinian also passed many new and unique laws: laws in support of women, laws against infanticide, property rights of women were increased, and women convicted of adultery were no longer under penalty of death.  Sex slavery was forbidden, and crown resources were used to help women escape prostitution.

By now, Rome had been successfully invaded by the Visigoth Alaric.  Justinian, the emperor housed in Constantinople, would spend significant time and treasure in a battle for reunification.  At this time, the emperor was still “Emperor of the Romans”; official documents were still written in Latin, not Greek; and the capital was still officially called “New Rome.”

This battle for reunification was a waste of lives and resources; nothing was gained, or regained.  In the meantime, the Lombards would cross the Alps into Italy.  Rome and Ravenna would remain firmly in the hands of Constantinople for another two hundred years, but much of northern Italy was lost to the barbarians.

Therefore, it was Constantinople that would be the center of both the Roman and Christian world.  Even those few who remained and survived in Old Rome would agree with this.  The greatest temples and the best scholarship were all to be found in the East.

Which left the Roman bishop as the sole governance entity in the West.  As the political element was disappearing from Rome, the ecclesiastical element was taking its place.  But it would go further, in the person of Pope Leo the Great…

…who claimed, largely without precedent, that the papacy exercised jurisdictional preeminence (principatus) throughout the universal Church.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Why Isn’t it Working?


From a discussion between Jordan Peterson and Bishop Robert Barron.

After Peterson described what to him was one of the more stunning aspects of his rocket ride, when live audiences would go completely quiet: when he would say to the audience, take responsibility; pick up the heaviest load you can carry.  From this, the following dialogue between Peterson and Barron ensued (fairly accurate transcription):

Barron: if you want to be a good priest, go out where people are suffering, in the depths of suffering.

Peterson: so, then what’s wrong with what you guys are doing?  Why isn’t it working?  What’s the problem?

Barron: it’s true that we’re not doing enough of that, and I do think we have succumbed too much with the modern thing, which is a pre-occupation with rights and freedom and my individuality.

Peterson: well, you see this so much in church activism right now, where the church seems to be replacing itself in some sense with social activism.  It’s like “we’ve got enough social activists.”

Peterson’s comments reminded me also of something Tom Holland said about the Anglican Church and its leadership: don’t give me another public service announcement about wearing masks and washing hands.  The British National Health Service is already doing plenty of that.  How about a good sermon on Original Sin or some such?

Barron then talked about the three tasks of the church: worship God, evangelize, serve the poor.  But divorcing the last one from the first two does evolve into social work.  I would say it devolves into something less, and worse.  If it was only social “work,” at least it would be the individual Christian doing the work.  It has, instead led to social activism.

Much of both Catholic and Protestant churches have devolved to this – social activism.  Meaning, advocating that the state takes up the cross that the individual Christian and the body of Christ should carry.  Some advocate for the state to feed the homeless, care for the widow, take money from some and give it to others.  This is not “serving the poor.”  Service requires personal action, not demanding that a surrogate is forced to act in your stead.

Others advocate for the state to bomb people in foreign countries.  I don’t even know what to make of this, beyond the victory of Scofield.

Peterson grew relevant for many reasons, not the least of which he demanded that individuals take up responsibility and quit chasing superficial “happiness.”  In other words, Peterson advocated that individuals take up other-regarding action: love.  This is the purpose for which man was made.


Churches that preach responsibility will likely lose some members.  They will gain others.  The numbers are irrelevant – or should be to pastors and priests serving God and not man.

The result will be a stronger church.  And the result of this will be a more stable society.  And the result of this will be the possibility of regaining some sense of liberty.

At the end of the discussion, Peterson commented: we need ritual, because the world is changing too fast.  And that’s another reason why the church shouldn’t try so hard to be relevant.

By relevant, he means fitting in to the modern sensibilities.  Be the church, not just another (poor) version of modern societal trend.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Glimpses of Christendom’s Political Schism


Christianity did not take over the empire because Constantine converted to it.  Constantine converted to it because it was taking over the empire.

The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland

In this post, we will see the beginning of the differences in the concept of governance and government between what we know today as the East and West of Christendom – between the Greek and Latin.

Until this point, in the first three centuries of Church growth and development, the foundations had been laid for a highly developed civilization.  Christian culture carried with it a strong sense of identity – much more so than the pagan civilization before it and around it.  The Incarnation was instrumental in this, as it brought a living experience into the world.

With Constantine, Christianity was given legal standing, along with other religions of the empire.  He formally ended persecution of Christians and passed several laws that reflected Christian cultural values.  Crucifixions were abolished as a form of execution; gladiatorial shows were ended, given the history of these with Christians.

While he did not abolish slavery, he did ban its most abusive features: the master could no longer murder his slave without consequence – in other words, slaves had protection from arbitrary killing.  He established the city that would bear his name, but officially named New Rome.  The city would not have pagan temples, but Christian. 

His most enduring act would be to call together the empire’s bishops to Nicaea in 325, to resolve the question of Christ’s identity.  An Alexandrian priest would claim that Christ was a great man, but not divine.  This priest, Arius, was the source of the doctrine known as Arianism. This issue was to be resolved.

He would also execute the son of his first wife, and shortly thereafter, his second wife.  The circumstances are unknown, but it is speculated that the second wife accused his son of attempting to seduce her; after having him killed, perhaps Constantine came to learn it wasn’t true.  Finally, he would honor his mother in a way no pagan emperor had done, renaming her home town in her honor. 

All this is background to perhaps the first hint of what made the outcomes relative to governance different in Eastern (Greek) Christendom vs. Western (Latin) Christendom.  Not that the split was evident yet – obviously, we are still early in the fourth century; cracks did not begin to develop until later and the final, official religious split not until the eleventh century.  But the story can begin to be told.

We have seen how traditional Christianity assigned a redemptive purpose to the world. …The Church was therefore given a ministry of sanctifying the world.

Many areas of human life, therefore, became subject to this effort: not only the relationship of marriage, but other social and economic relationships; the time of the calendar and the space of physical worship; art and language, especially when used in worship; even the Greek letters chi and ro, when joined together to honor Christ.

Could not that realm of human culture and civilization known as government, then, also participate in the sanctification of the world?  With Constantine’s conversion, even this part of the creation now came within the scope of the Church’s cosmic ministry.

Of course, it is too early in the story to draw a sharp distinction between this idea and that which formed later in the West – where the Church and the Emperor, while complimentary, moved in different circles and kept a check on the other’s authority.  But this statement sure sounds monopolizing.

Whatever these concerns, that he freed the Christians from official persecution was a welcome event in the lives of Christians in the Empire.  Looking back on this event where Christianity and the Emperor would begin to unite might cause us some difficulty today, but had we been alive (and Christian) during that time, I suspect it would have brought nothing but relief – even joy.

Strickland notes that it is among modern Protestants “who regard the rise of the Christian state to be a betrayal of the Church’s true vocation.”  I have heard such criticisms in some corners of Protestantism, yet I also see many Protestant denominations that wish to use the state in manners that they feel just.  I guess I could say the same for many Catholic and Orthodox as well, which might be consistent with the picture Strickland is painting.

In any case, through Constantine the Empire would end its bloody “sacrifices.”  What more or greater could be sacrificed than the Son of God having offered Himself on the Cross?  Certainly a good thing, as long as the Christian state holds to its sacramental foundation.  What happens if / when it loses this foundation (as we could certainly argue has been increasingly true since the Enlightenment)?

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

What’s Your Alternative?


The last few weeks have been quite interesting at this blog.  The discussion prompted by a question from Ira Katz led to a series of several posts on the topic of sustainability of free market capitalism.  These posts can be found here:

-          One Answer to An Important Social / Political / Economic Question of Our Time

-          Free Market Capitalism as the Highest Value (Part Two)

-          The Way Out and the Way To (Part Three)

-          Virtuous Governance

A further post on the topic of Christian morality continued these thoughts and this conversation.

In this post, I would like to focus on some of the criticism to my thoughts and the discussion.  A sampling, summarized, paraphrased, and without attribution:

-          Private property can survive if held as the highest value, regardless of any other underlying cultural conditions

-          The good acts of Christians are touted, while the bad acts are ignored

To address these, first allow me a broad sweep of the history of the West: within a few hundred years after Christ’s death and Resurrection, Christianity grew to be a significant cultural and religious tradition in the West; within a few hundred years after this, it grew to be the dominant tradition.  This growth was sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent.  It resulted in a society with about as libertarian a law code ever devised in the West.  Suffice it to say, the code was not always fully followed.

It maintained this position, even after the Reformation and Renaissance.  The post-Reformation period brought on what we call Wars of Religion, which were actually wars of state building.  The fracturing of Christendom was used as the pretext by the many princes to monopolize authority.  There were not states as we understand the term in much of medieval Europe prior to this fracturing.

Christianity gave up this position beginning with the post-Enlightenment era but was not fully removed culturally until the mid or late nineteenth century.  This event was noted via Nietzsche’s madman, declaring that God is dead.  This is not to say that there were no Christians in the West, nor is it to ignore the various revival periods in the last couple hundred years.  However, Christianity was removed from any role in civil governance.

Of course, a full-blown Christian ethic did not blossom on the day Christ walked out of the tomb.  It never did, and never will – not in the world of fallen man.  Oh, no.  I said those words: fallen man.  Almost as bad as the words Original Sin….

I will set aside Original Sin; I am coming to understand that even in the Christian world this is not a straightforward concept.  But, as to fallen man…this must be the least controversial statement one can make about man’s condition, yet even it draws strong reaction.  Least controversial because, under any ethical standard one might hold (other than nihilism, I suppose), any honest individual will recognize that he, at one time or another, falls short.

Yet, that this term often draws a strong negative reaction is always a signal to me that the person so responding is running on automatic pilot: hearing the word “Christian” just automatically causes a negative reaction in some people.

But back to this issue that a full-blown Christian ethic did not come arm-in-arm with Christ out of the tomb…. This criticism baffles me.  It is an ignorant criticism, on the one hand because it demonstrates a lack of understanding of Christian anthropology, and, on the other hand, because it lacks an understanding of the direction that time flows.  Let’s take each in turn.

Christian anthropology: Christians are clear about the fallen nature of man and that man cannot achieve perfection in this life.  Christians are then criticized both for making the claim that man is fallen, and also criticized for being less than perfect (fallen) as Christians.  To whom can these two criticisms, placed side by side, make any sense?

The direction of time: this issue should be completely obvious to anyone living and thinking in the last few years.  We live in a time where behaviors and beliefs that were acceptable even a few years ago will today result in loss of employment and even loss of life.

Critics of Christianity press on the issue of the reality of slavery in the Christian world, and even seemed to be accepted by various New Testament passages – ignoring the fact that slavery was a) an improvement over the previous practice of killing all captured prisoners of war, b) was endemic and common throughout the world, and c) was considered morally proper in the Greek and Roman world in which Christianity was born.

There are numerous similar examples.  Yet the critics press on: why couldn’t God just end all of [whatever the list of today’s latest moral crimes], or why didn’t Jesus speak out against [whatever the list of today’s latest moral crimes]?