Education Lost: An Interview

Birks Building, McGill University

For those who want a stimulating discussion on the concept of the “university” (especially for those who suspect that “it” is quickly disappearing!), I’d recommend reading this interview with Douglas Farrow of McGill University.

I loved this line:

If you give up believing in truth, you give up believing in the university. Then what? Well, then you try to play power games and take as much advantage as you can of whatever resources the university has. If it’s appointments, if it’s money, if it’s equipment, if it’s influence over students – you just always edge to get the best advantage you can and it becomes a kind of jungle.

“The Audacity of the State” by Douglas Farrow

A new article by Douglas Farrow from Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, argues that modern comprehensive liberalism, 

has as one of its fundamental premises that Western society has done away with Christian theology (I do not say, all theology) as a matter of public and political relevance. And so it has. But that has opened the field to would-be saviors and utopians of every stripe. It has made possible the return of the savior state—the audacious state that aims at building a kingdom of God right here on earth.

The danger, Farrow argues, is not the re-emergence of Christendom, but the loss of a proper understanding of Christendom which itself historically required a separation of church and state, because to “combine these offices (with their respective ‘swords’) belonged to Christ alone, and any other claimant to both was ipso facto a kind of Antichrist.” So it is not Christendom per se which is the problem, but both a Christendom and, as Farrow calls it, a “sacralized savior state” which loses their “eschatological reserve.” The grand irony (if I may use such a term of understatement) is that,

In Britain, and increasingly in North America, even churches and charitable organizations are not exempted from laws that demand conformity to state-endorsed ideologies loaded with religious implications. Penalties for violation include heavy fines or even imprisonment. Thus have we come round to accepting Erastus’s invitation to the state to punish the sins of Christians, supplanting the church’s sacramental discipline. We have come round, that is, to the de-sacralization of the church and the re-sacralization of the state, which is once again taking a tyrannical turn.

Farrow goes on explore how the emergence of the “savior state” (which he defines as any state which “presents itself as the people’s guardian, as the guarantor of the citizen’s well-being) leads to increasing state control of education and of the family (or more specifically, of children).

So how should Christians respond? Not with revengefulness, or even despair. Rather, Farrow concludes: “Christians deny that the state is savior because they believe that God is savior. Their hope is not, like Mill’s, in the state; nor, like libertarians’, in themselves. Their hope, like Hannah’s, is in God.”

Theologians in court

So in the past weeks, at least two Canadian theologians have had their day in court. No, they weren’t fighting an unjust traffic ticket, but were serving as expert witnesses in some fairly high profile civil suits.

First, Prof. John Stackhouse, Jr., of Regent College (Vancouver, BC) has been called as an expert witness before the BC Supreme Court on the matter of a property dispute within the Anglican diocese of New Westminster. The complainants are members of four congregations, including three priests, who left the Anglican communion in protest of the local bishop’s blessing of same-sex marriage. They are arguing that they have the right to retain the property of the churches.

Interestingly, Stackhouse was called as a “neutral expert witness.” But according to the reporting at the Dicoese of New Westminster’s website, his testimony was called into question:

[T]he diocese’s lawyer however questioned [Stackhouse’s] objectivity by introducing a web blog that Stackhouse agreed he had written. It stated that Bishop Michael Ingham, bishop of the Diocese of New Westminster, was “heretic and schismatic” and wrote about “churches that resist Ingham’s crypto-Hinduism.”

On the stand the professor said that he had written the blog but only used “strictly descriptive terms.”

[This comment about John’s blog shows something pretty important about how “public” this blogging practice really is. It makes me realize just how careful I need to be about what I write here at Theommentary. Who knows…something I write today could come back and bite me tomorrow or two decades from now.]

The Diocese trial is scheduled to last until June 12. You can also see some of Stackhouse’s preliminary comments about it on his own blog.

A second theologian called before the Quebec Superior Court is Prof. Douglas Farrow of McGill University. (Readers will recall that Farrow is my own Doktorvater). Farrow has testified as an expert witness on behalf of Loyola High School, a private Catholic boys’ school, which has asked to be exempted from the Quebec province’s new required ethics and religious culture course. As the Loyola website asks, “Can the ‘pursuit of the common good’ and the ‘recognition of others’ be taught from a Catholic perspective or does it have to be secular?” To answer their own question, Loyola and the vast majority of the parents of Loyola students see the course as running counter to their own Catholic worldview. A Montreal Gazette article reports Farrow as saying,

“Should a Catholic institution . . . be forced to change the way it does things to fit someone else’s world view?” he asked. “In the Catholic world view, it’s not possible to be Catholic for 22 hours a day, then hold another world view for the other two hours.”

I happen to be heartened and encouraged that theologians like Stackhouse and Farrow have agreed to serve in this very public way as theologians. But I wonder what you think? Do you think that theologians like Stackhouse and Farrow are getting mixed up in matters that they ought not to? Does their service in this way “taint” them as theologians? Or is their service a natural and vital extension of their calling as theologians?

Child v. Parent: 1, 0

Last week, an Appeal Court in Quebec upheld the legal case of a 12 year old girl who sued her father because he had grounded her (after she disobeyed him for being on the internet when she was not supposed to be) from taking a school field trip. You can read the details story here.

In the CBC report on this story, the last line reads: 

In its Monday ruling, the appeal court warned the case should not be seen as an open invitation for children to take legal action every time they’re grounded.

My question is: Why in the world not? How is this ruling not an open invitation, given that it actually overturned the father’s parental judgment? It is silly for the appeal court to make this judgment, then warn everyone not to use it as legal precedent. It will be precedent, their warning notwithstanding. 

In reality,  this case sets an extremely dangerous legal precedent that suggests that when parents disagree on a matter of discipline in regard to a child, the child has the option of taking a parent to court to resolve the dispute. (This is, by the way, not only my lay opinion, but the professional legal opinion of the lawyer who represented the father in the case as well. You can hear a brief interview of the lawyer here.)

It is this kind of judgment taking place in our court system that gives me an eery reminder of what my Doktorvater Douglas Farrow has been warning us about for quite some time, mainly, that when the State begins to think that it has the authority to define the nature of marriage (and therefore the nature of “family”), it also will begin to increasingly become our “legal guardians/parent” over against the place of our “natural/biological parents.” Scary…

What is marriage for, anyways?

My Doktorvater, Dr. Douglas Farrow, was recently interviewed (January 31, 2009) on the “Drew Marshall Show” on the topic of where marriage is going in Canada. The write-up to the show is as follows:

To some, same-sex marriage is evidence that society has finally come of age. To others, it is yesterday’s issue, posing no danger to traditional marriage. To still others – McGill University’s Douglas Farrow among them – it has turned civil society on its ear, creating a new political situation in which several things are no longer clear: Is the state the property of the citizenry? Or are citizens, with their cherished personal associations, including marriage, now the property of the state? Who “owns” the children, now that natural parenthood had been replaced by legal parenthood? Is the family still “the natural and fundamental group unit of society,” as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights claims? Or is the concept of the “natural” moribund? What is marriage for, anyway?

For those who are still trying to figure out what the change of definition of marriage means for us from a theological and legal perspective, you can listen to the interview here.

Losing our Conscience in “The New Moral Order”

In his excellent article just released in Catholic Insight on November 10, 2008, Dr. Douglas Farrow of McGill University exposes what he calls the “The New Moral Order” being developed in Canada today. In this new order, Farrow argues, the older categories of:

1) natural law [the universal aspect common to all],
2) religion  [the covenantal aspect under which all are created], and,
3) conscience  [the personal aspect of moral response] 

are steadily being replaced respectively with the new categories of:

1) pluralism [i.e., the only thing universal is that we are all different);
2) secularism [i.e., rather than life under and before God, it is life without God]; and,
3) autonomy or individualism [rather than a personal adherence to a norm, it is personal adherence to oneself].

Now my own Barthian/Reformed sensitivities still prevents me from buying into my Doktorvater’s commitment to a notion “universal natural law” as is predominantly taught in Roman Catholicism. [The Cathecism of the Catholic Church says that “natural law is immutable, permanent throughout history” and is “a necessary foundation for the erection of moral rules and civil law.” (Catechism, art. 1979)]. I still prefer to think along the more Reformed (especially Calvin’s) notion of “common grace.” Yet even if you replace “natural law” with the idea of “common grace” which understands that the world “is not only created by God but upheld in its created existence and nature by his grace” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1, 117), I think that Farrow has rightly identified the three purely secularized replacements vying for recognition.

But beyond the way in which Farrow brought these three fundamental ideas together (along with their parodies) in such a precise fashion, I  found it especially illuminating how Farrow notes that conscience, traditionally understood, is the discipline of the self subjecting itself to a higher order. Conscience was, in other words, the testing of oneself–of “me”–to see if I was living in alignment with that which Iknew and believed to have binding authority upon me. To live and act according to conscience was in effect to say, “I will do what I know to be right and good on the basis of my acknowledgement that something or someone is higher than me.” Indeed, conscience, when it is working properly, is precisely defined (imagine that!) by Barth as “the place where man becomes one with God’s will” (CD I/1, 202).

But now, with autonomy and individual rights increasingly reigning the day, it has come to the place where even conscience must be obliterated, lest we find ourselves testifying even in a small way that we are subject to something outside of ourselves. To speak of conscience, in other words, is to admit that something (or heaven forbid, someone) is judging me. So, the last triumph of “human rights” talk will be when the conscience is completely redefined from “a moral agent’s internal compulsion to act in accordance to external authority” to mean “submission to one’s self, and to one’s self alone”–without the hassle of having to conform oneself in any way to something external or higher or larger or, to be sure, divine. As Luther, in his own characteristic fashion, once put it, “Conscience is an evil beast which makes a man take a stand against himself.” (Luther’s Works, American Edition, 7:331).

Though I encourage you to read the article in its totality on your own, I thought that Farrow’s penultimate paragraph was worth reproducing here:

What then shall we call this new morality, if not the morality of despair?  And with what shall we confront it, even and especially where it is most menacing, if not with the gospel of hope?  For despair, as Kierkegaard argued in Sickness unto Death, is the refusal to be oneself before God, and Christian hope is the right antidote to that.  Christian hope is grounded in the knowledge that God himself is for us in Christ, not against us, so that in Christ we may indeed be ourselves, and be ourselves before God. This, I think, is what Pope Leo XIII also had in mind when he said in Jesus Christ the Redeemer:  “The world has heard enough of the so-called ‘rights of man.’ Let it hear something of the rights of God.”

[You may also want to read Farrow’ previous article (also in Catholic Insight) where he comments on how the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario is attacking the freedom of conscience of individual physicians to not perform procedures such as abortions.]