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?


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.]