The Triumph of Christianity – A Few Thoughts

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Rodney Stark is a name I kept hearing being tossed around, both in print and in speech. Out of his many books, I settled on The Triumph of Christianity as an introduction to understanding his impact. Sociologist by profession, Stark seems to mainly focus on historical misperceptions and obfuscations regarding the influence of Christianity on the development of Western civilization.

“History” is a funny thing. It is one’s perspective based on documentation (if it exists), evidence, human nature, and interpretation. There’s a lot of wriggle room there. Historical facts are fixed; getting to those facts is the trick. All historians view history through the lenses of their own experience with a little (or a lot) of bias thrown in. Neutrality is difficult, if not impossible. Stark is no exception.

Still, it is refreshing when an author can offer credible analysis for his theories and is willing to question long held assumptions. I’ll mention a few that stood out to me. Mentioning one does not mean I fully agree with it or endorse it. But I am allowing them to challenge my own historical perceptions.

“Christianity was not a religion based on the slaves and lowest classes of Romans, but was particularly attractive to the privileged.”   

The Christian message certainly appealed to Roman slaves and to the underprivileged. It brought all classes into fellowship–even friendship–with one another. This was an unheard of phenomenon. The New Testament contains numerous references to this reality.

Stark contends a primary sociological reason that Christianity spread so rapidly was because members of the privileged classes embraced it. This was not only true for the first and second century church, but observed in the 16th-century Reformation movements as well.

“Paganism was not quickly stamped out by a triumphant and intolerant Christianity, but disappeared very slowly and lingers still in various New Age and esoteric circles.”

The mainline view is that Constantine adopted Christianity as Rome’s state religion in 313 AD. Persecution against Christians decreased dramatically. With its new government sanctioned status, the church turned fiercely upon its pagan neighbors.

Yes and no, says Stark. What Constantine actually did was to include Christianity in the list of acceptable religions. He made it “respectable.” As a result, the ranks of the clergy swelled. Lack of persecution and an easy-living created a lax and lazy leadership.

The emperor then turned his attention toward supporting heresy hunts. “Heresy” was broadly defined and included pretty much any viewpoint that didn’t garner official church approval. So instead of persecuting pagans, the church spent time and energy going after sects. If anything, Constantine’s legacy was that he took a robust and steadfast minority faith, endorsed it, and let it loose upon itself.

“The Crusaders were not greedy colonialists, but marched east for religious motives and at great risk and personal expense. Many knowingly went bankrupt and few of them lived to return.”

This is one of Stark’s more controversial assertions. It has become accepted in academic circles and parroted by pundits that modern radical Islamic terrorism is, in part, a response to the crusading Europeans of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Voltaire, Hume and Diderot all helped to shape this narrative. Edward Gibbon probably originated it.

Stark writes,

…a group of distinguished contemporary historians…propose that the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations, by many centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West, and by sudden attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places.

Self-preservation and the Pope’s promise of absolution seem to have been the actual motives for the Crusaders. The European knights were a bloodthirsty folk, yes. But so were their Islamic foes. It was, quite simply, a bloody age.

“The so-called Dark Ages not only weren’t dim, but were one of the most inventive times in Western history.”

Again, according to Stark, the “myth” of the dark ages was propounded by Enlightenment thinkers. After the fall of Rome, there were no longer large cities with hundreds of thousands of residents. Instead, Europe separated into hundreds of independent “statelets.”

There was not yet the renewed interest in Greek and Latin. But literary interests aside, without Rome’s tax burdens, “human effort and ingenuity turned to better ways to farm, to sail, to transport goods, to conduct business, to build churches, to make war, to educate, and even to play music.” In fact, the primary revolution, claims Stark, was not literary, but scientific.

Modern science stands on the shoulders of discoveries made in the “dark ages.” It was also led by deeply religious men. So that…

“Science arose only in the West because efforts to formulate and discover laws of nature only made sense if one believed in a rational creator.”

The foundation of modern science is the scientific method. The expectation for consistent results when testing a hypothesis is based on observable laws. Hence, the grand assumption of science as we know it today is that there is a natural law Giver.

“The claim that religion must soon disappear as the world becomes more modern is nothing but wishful thinking on the part of academic atheists.”

Actually, the statistics show the opposite. Stark closes with the evidence of this. (See also Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins) He demonstrates that though Christianity might be on the decline in Western Europe, it is on the rise in many other parts of the world (like Africa and Latin America).

Whether you agree or disagree with Stark’s conclusions, his views are certainly worth considering. As a Christian, I ultimately credit the “triumph of Christianity” to God’s work in history. But underlying spiritual reality is commonly displayed through the “natural” progression of events. Here in is the value of Stark’s contribution: he capably applies social analysis to historical trends.   

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An Anabaptist Ethos – Part 3

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Having written about my personal interest in Anabaptism in Part 1, and about the basic theological tenants (in my view) of Anabaptism in Part 2, I’m going to attempt now to reflect in general on the social and political implications of the movement. If there is a theme, or—if you will—a thesis, tying these three posts together, it is that the Anabaptists have traditionally sought to maintain a clear distinction between the church and the state. If you’ve spent any amount of time perusing this blog, you have no doubt noted the prominence of this theme within its pages as well.

In thinking about the development of my interest in the dynamics of the church/state relationship, it seems to have two points of origin. Firstly, I’ve always been interested in the process by which tyrannical governments ascend to power, usually by the direct consent or indirect apathy of the people, and then proceed to commit the most atrocious of crimes in the name of the state. How does, arguably, one of the most civilized cultures on the planet (in terms of the philosophic, scientific and arts) fall so low as to bow before a monster like Adolph Hitler? Or, how does a Mao Tse Tung get away with murdering 50 million people—people steeped in the ancient and enduring Chinese culture? Or, how does a Stalin crush under his boot a thoughtful and literate society that produced intellectual giants like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky? In the old days of monarchies ruling over ignorant populaces, this sort of wanton exercise of power is understandable. But how did this occur in the twentieth-century, post-enlightenment world? Analyzing these questions creates further questions concerning individual freedom, civil rights, forms of government, and the role of religion in society.

The parallel point of origin in my thought process on the subject came about as a result of me becoming a Christian. In the earlier days of my spiritual development I got my hands on a number of biographies about Christians who suffered under tyrannical regimes, typically through imprisonment, forced labor and torture. In some cases these men and women of faith were arrested on political charges. But most of the time, they were simply persecuted because of their faith. Of course religious persecution isn’t limited to Christianity, but due to my own personal interests, it was upon the experiences of Christian’s that the majority of my studies were focused.

Enter Anabaptism and my consequent interest in it. Here was a group of Christians who habitually experienced persecution at the hands of the state. In fact, the story of Anabaptism is largely a story of suffering (just pick up and peruse the massive Martyrs’ Mirror). But their suffering was not their defeat; it was their triumph. Because they possessed convictions they were willing to die for, the Anabaptists really lived. After all, what is faith if it doesn’t produce a passion for life even under the shadow of death? And this kind of eternal hope and perseverance isn’t limited only to those referred to as “Anabaptists.” The history of Christianity has rightly been called a “trail of blood.” However, countless numbers of those who’ve died at the hands of the state (or state church) never had their names recorded for posterity.

As a result of the brethren’s experiences, Anabaptism has explored the idea that life is a pilgrimage, a journey whose final destination is a new heavens and a new earth. This perspective has led certain groups like the Amish or Old-order Mennonites, both of which share an Anabaptist heritage, to all but withdraw from society, only associating with outsiders when absolutely necessary. I have a few friends of this persuasion. I respect their lifestyle choices and am not making any judgment calls upon how they’ve chosen to live. I’m only pointing out that this is one interpretation of the “pilgrim and stranger” motif.

However, early (sixteenth-century) Anabaptists did not generally withdraw from the society around them. They sought, rather, to engage it. In many places in Europe they were forbidden by law to publicly or privately assemble. This necessitated the need for the brethren to meet in secret if they were to continue to be faithful to Scripture’s admonition to not forsake the assembly. But they still sought through everyday contact with their neighbors, both socially and through business opportunities, to share their faith and their interpretations of the Bible. If they had withdrawn and kept their mouths shut, there wouldn’t have been so many burnings at the stake.

On one hand, Anabaptists were viewed by governments and the state church as separatists—strange and heretical because their lifestyles contrasted sharply with the mainstream. If you are considered a fringe element, you will not tend to feel at home in society that labels you as such. To the Anabaptists, this reinforced their view that God’s people are merely pilgrims, so it is no wonder that they did not feel accepted. On the other hand, the Bible teaches that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” God Himself didn’t withdraw from or ignore humanity, He reached out to it through His Son. For this reason a balanced approach will not allow a Christian to view the situation as entirely hopeless or people as beyond redemption.

So how does one interact with a society or state that persecutes him and still recognize that state’s authority as legitimate? I won’t attempt to answer that here (see When Government Becomes God). Instead, I propose the question rhetorically to demonstrate that the state/church relationship is unavoidable. The church is in the world. And governments are of the world. Both are ordained by God, but exist in perpetual distinction. No group that I am aware of went as far as the Anabaptists in emphasizing this. Arguably, there were also very few groups, religious or secular, that were as respectful of legitimate laws of the state as the Anabaptists.

Unfortunately, human nature is such that power is viewed in the context of control. Governments are, of course, no exceptions. The Anabaptists did not attribute ultimate authority to government. This they reserved for God alone. In their view government always takes a subordinate position to the Law of God as revealed in the Bible. This is intolerable to tyrannical regimes. No man can worship two masters. Anabaptists subordinated themselves to the state, but they would not bow to it.

The hallmark of free societies is the intellectual freedom of the individual. This applies to matters of faith as much as it does to any other ideology. The individual must be allowed to think for himself and come to his own opinions on religion and philosophical questions. Everyone has an opinion on these things (though everyone’s opinion is not necessarily well-reasoned or even acknowledged). To be allowed this freedom of thought is foundational to free societies. But totalitarianism, at its core, seeks to suppress the individual, to make him a corporate entity that thinks, believes and does what he is told.

Because the Anabaptists insisted upon separation of church and state, they laid crucial groundwork for the civil liberties we enjoy today. Their own motivation was the securing of freedom to worship as they pleased. But this necessarily extended to others the same freedom. True liberty does not infringe upon the rights of others. If you notice “Jeffersonian” or “libertarian” leanings in all of this, it’s because America’s Founders were well aware of the trials and tribulations the Anabaptists had passed through. And they recognized the necessity of complete freedom of religion and expression if a society is to be truly free.

The separation of church and state was initially an idea propounded by of the church. It was the church that insisted that the government has no jurisdiction over religion. Presently, however, the opposite interpretation is proffered. Governments (and the special interests that influence them) now attempt to insist that the church should have no influence, either on society or policy. We need to realize, however, that if the church is limited in any measure as to what it can publicly propound and practice, then everyone is affected—and not for better.

The influence of Anabaptism on general society lies in the Anabaptist realization that freedom must be extended to all, regardless of ideology, regardless of religion, regardless of socio-economic status. The irony, I realize, in this is that evangelical, conservative expressions of the Christian faith are typically branded as narrow, restrictive and bigoted by the modern pundits of political correctness. And in some cases, no doubt, they are. But what someone or some group believes, however, is not the point. Belief systems and their expressions should never be the focus of the state to either endorse or condemn. The idea that belief systems must be protected is what is significant.

Even though denominations associated with Anabaptism traditionally have very little to do with politics, the Anabaptist contribution to our modern understanding and application of democracy and civil liberties should not be ignored. In this day, with the frightening speed at which these liberties are eroding and the increasing distortion of the democratic process, perhaps the Anabaptist ethos has more to offer than just a fresh approach to theology. Perhaps it can offer encouragement to those of us who cherish individual freedom and civil liberty to contend for what we have too long taken for granted. In our technotronic age of mass surveillance and electronic control systems, the Anabaptist vision of the church and the state might never have been as vital to recapture.

An Anabaptist Ethos – Part 2

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In Part One I sought to emphasize that at the heart of what set groups referred to as Anabaptists apart from both Protestants and Catholics was their desire for a complete separation between the church and the state. This has gotten denominations that hold to an Anabaptist interpretation labeled as “separatists” or “radicals.” The latter refers in particular to the Anabaptist effort toward a literal New Testament application of Scripture to church organization and practice (ecclesiology in theological terms). Others historically have also sought this to varying degrees. The more congregationally-minded Puritans come to mind, as do the Plymouth Brethren who made a very commendable effort toward implementing apostolic church patterns.

The Anabaptists were unique in the sense they didn’t consider themselves reformers. Technically, the Reformation as a historical movement began by seeking reform of the Roman Catholic Church. When it became clear this wasn’t going to happen, recognized Reformation vanguards such as Luther, Calvin and Zwingli began their own churches outside of and in defiance to the Pope’s authority. In an effort to rid the church of extra-Scriptural Roman additions and practices, their cry was “Sola Scriptura,” or “Scripture alone.” These Protestants were protesting against Roman Catholicism—reformers seeking to reform the Catholic Church. In contrast, however, the Anabaptists had no desire to reform Catholicism. They considered the Roman church a false church and as such were only interested in a complete and irrevocable break from her.

The Anabaptist perception was that the the Roman Catholic Church had drastically departed from biblical teaching as a result of its alliances with earthly governments. Though I’m speaking in generalizations, most separatists would view the year 313 AD as the crucial turning point. This is when Constantine officially endorsed Christianity. Christianity in effect became a state religion, thus begetting the term Christendom. A generally held theory is that this point in time represents the “fall of the church.” Now it could legitimately be argued that the early so-called church fathers like Tertullian, Clement and Origen had already themselves done a good bit of departing from New Testament principles. But they all lived in a time period before Constantine’s decree when Christianity was still experiencing a fair amount of persecution at the hands of the state.

From the reign of Constantine onward, the church/state alliance grew progressively stronger. By and large, the kings during the Middle Ages bowed to the bidding of the Popes. The masses, primarily peasants, were illiterate. And until Gutenberg’s printing press followed eventually by the availability of translations of the Bible into common languages, Bibles were rare and outrageously expensive anyhow. The Church, with its power-base in Rome, not only “interpreted” the Bible for the masses, but continually added to the Bible’s teachings. The result was the Roman Catholic Church grew into what many considered a religious monstrosity, irretrievably having departed from biblical Christianity.

A primary tenant of Anabaptism, therefore, was that the kingdom of God is separate and distinct from the kingdoms of the world. This distinction must be maintained or the state will inevitably and negatively influence the church. This idea wasn’t an attempt to promote rebellion against the state. On the contrary, history shows that Christians who’ve attempted to apply the Scriptures to their lives have consistently been the most law-abiding and respectful citizens of any state. The purpose of emphasizing the reality of the kingdom of God was both a reflection of the Anabaptist understanding of Scripture and an attempt to maintain purity within the church.

One thing about a state church is that everyone is a member. Within the church there is no distinction between those living a moral life consistent with the Bible’s teachings and those who are not. This rightly bothered Martin Luther, even though he was the de facto leader of the German state church (i.e., the Lutheran church). He admired the Anabaptists’ ability to maintain a high degree of moral purity within their fellowships. Unfortunately, however, this didn’t keep him from eventually turning against them because of what he considered their excessive resistance to church-state influence and their “extreme positions. John Calvin too faced the problem in Geneva of how to insure Christian ideals among the populace. He ended drafting a lengthy list of do’s and don’ts for the entire citizenry to follow, accompanied by stiff penalties for their infractions—penalties to be enforced, of course, by the civil authorities.

The Anabaptists, on the contrary, desired that those who cast their lot with them to voluntarily choose the path of obedience, without coercion from either the church or the state. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me…” Jesus gave people a choice. And in Anabaptist thinking, a personal choice is exactly what has to occur in order for the church to be retain its biblical legitimacy. Hence they placed great emphasis on discipleship—that is, following in the footsteps of Christ by obeying His teachings. So another distinguishing tenant of Anabaptism was the individual’s pursuit of holiness as a lifestyle.

But here’s the rub. How do you maintain church purity? Is obedience even enforceable? The Roman Catholic Church’s solution was often to burn their opponents at the stake, chop their heads off, or simply drown them. But this usually had little to do with how a person was behaving as much as with what he was teaching or with whom he was associating. I don’t think I need to go into any detail as to why this approach to dealing with dissent is not appropriate. It’s certainly not Biblical.

Sadly, Protestants have been guilty of similar practices. Michael Sattler, a leader among the Anabaptist Swiss Brethren, was put to death with the approval of Ulrich Zwingli, the leader of the Protestant reformation in Zurich. And John Calvin infamously supported the Geneva civil authorities execution of Michael Servetus for his heretical views on the Trinity. I don’t say all this to pick on Protestant reformers. Many certainly earn our respect, both for their courage and teachings. But I don’t feel we can dismiss their actions lightly, especially when they condemned Rome for what they turned around and did themselves; namely, persecuting those with whom they disagreed.

How then did the Anabaptists handle church discipline? They rejected the use of the sword on any condition, having personally felt its sting. They instead followed the New Testament teaching that directly addresses the way in which an errant brother or sister should be dealt with. That is, the unrepentant member was turned out of the fellowship with the hopes that he would eventually repent and seek restoration with the church. This was definitely an improvement over physically persecuting dissenters and it often proved to be a highly effective means of restoring wayward brethren to the path of obedience.

Thus another tenant of Anabaptism rises to the forefront: God has ordained the state, not the church, to wield the sword. This has all sorts of implications. For one, as noted, the church is not in a position to punish those who break laws of the state. This is the government’s job through the medium of the justice system. The corollary of this is that the church renounces any authority to punish, lethally or otherwise, “heretics.” The church’s authority is spiritual in nature and is exercised within the fellowship of believers who’ve voluntarily chosen to place themselves under the ultimate lordship of Jesus Christ. Believers acknowledge the state’s duty and God-given right to punish criminals. But the church does not seek nor expect the state to collude or interfere with matters that clearly fall out of its jurisdiction.

This view of the church’s role verses that of the state also means that the Anabaptists generally taught it was wrong for a Christian to be in the military or to take part in state-sponsored wars. The Christian, as a man of peace, has no business killing on behalf of the state. This conviction alone was enough to draw the wrath of kings and state churches down upon the brethrens’ heads. The sixteenth-century witnessed regular skirmishes between Christendom and Islam. Because the Anabaptists refused to take any part in these fights, they were often accused of siding with the Muslims. In reality, they took no side but the side of peace. The Christian and state-sponsored war issue is beyond the scope of this post. I simply at this point want to point out the Anabaptists refusal to take up arms was one of their distinguishing features.

Lastly, and this is related to what’s already been said, the Anabaptists were among the original Congregationalists. They believed that each fellowship was an autonomous unit, not under the authority or jurisdiction of any other church or centralized church authority. Scripture alone was the church’s guide and ultimate source of appeal. Jesus Christ was the head, and the Holy Spirit was present in each fellowship to lead the brethren into all truth. So not only was a state/church distinction maintained, but an insistence upon local church autonomy was as well.

In summary, some primary features of Anabaptism are:

– Maintaining clear distinctions between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world.

– The pursuit of holiness through consistent obedience to the Bible’s teachings.

– The refusal to take up the sword.

– The autonomous nature of the local church, or fellowship.

Admittedly, this is not an exhaustive list. Rather it represents what I  perceive as main components of Anabaptist thinking. Also, I acknowledge this post has been a somewhat technical, but I feel necessary if one is to begin to gain an understanding of Anabaptist history and convictions. In Part Three I hope to discuss more speculatively the implications of these beliefs, both for the individual and for society as a whole.

Dry Season Reminiscents

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The thing about farming is that you need rain. The thing about Africa is that rain isn’t always forthcoming. This year the rains didn’t arrive in our little cove when they were supposed to. So our homesteading efforts have obviously suffered the effects—particularly the agricultural aspect. Hence, like the seed I’ve sown that’s waiting on reluctant showers, this section of my blog has lain dormant.

We haven’t been stagnant, however. Livestock still had to be fed. The combined manure of goats, sheep, rabbits and chickens had to be shoveled and piled to fester for future fertilizer. Honey had to be harvested and young trees still struggling to take root had to be consistently watered. I’ve done some experimenting with sprouting avocado seeds both in cups of soil and hydroponically. And I tried grafting some local mango saplings with a hybrid strain we planted several years ago. The outcome of this is yet to be determined. But by the looks of it so far, I might not have gotten the timing just right as my grafts don’t seem to be taking.

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                                    Local Beekeeping

Trial and error, waste and renew, plan and scrap those plans, plant and watch your neighbors’ pigs demolish your cassava crop. Well, I didn’t really watch them, per say, since they came and did their misdeeds in the pre-dawn hours or in the evening when I was bathing. I hesitate to “shoot, shovel and shut up,” seeing as that could have a long-term negative impact on our ministry to the local population (i.e. – the pigs’ owners). Instead, it’s been a matter of turning the other cheek while attempting to get reimbursed. Like my mango grafts, I’m not too confident about the final outcome.

At any rate, it’s all part of the wonderfully convoluted journey in homesteading. I can physically see the changes that have occurred in the last five years and, if I reflect on it, we do tend to do a lot more right now than we did at the beginning. It’s been well worth the effort, the hard work, the sweat, the chapped hands, and the proverbial tears. But if you’re looking to get into farming or homesteading because it seems like a “back to nature,” Thomas Hardy novel sort of ideal, I’d urge you to reconsider. Our forbearers who knew what they were doing didn’t live in idealisms, at least not in their minds. They lived real rough and tumble lives of labor, the likes of which I’ll probably never experience.

But if you’re ready to claim a patch of dirt, roll up your sleeves, toil in the heat, still maybe not get enough rain, and possibly experience pigs eat the only crop you’ve got left from last year, go for it! The rewards surely compensate for the all the effort: the contentment of knowing exactly what went into the soil that grew your food, a life lived close to the earth and in harmony with nature’s rhythms, and the satisfaction of an honest day’s work, just to name a few.

And if the odds still seem to be stacked against you, you can always turn to the owls you rescued for a little sympathy…

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The Highjacking of Liberalism

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Mortimer Adler

I recently re-read Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book, subtitled “The Art of Getting a Liberal Education.” Originally published in 1940, Adler bemoans the demise of the liberal arts in American colleges. He credits this phenomenon largely to the neglect of requiring students to read what he refers to as the “great books.” The result, in his opinion, is not only an intellectual loss for society, but even worse, he foresees the eventual loss of individual freedom. Only free minds can foster free societies.

If Adler was discouraged at what American colleges were producing then, what would he think about the quality of education today? 

There was one statement in the book that struck me as particularly insightful, if not prophetic, for its current relevance. In a speech entitled, “Liberalism and Liberal Education,” Adler comments:

I tried to show how false liberalism is the enemy of liberal education, and why a truly liberal education is needed in this country to correct the confusions of this widely prevalent false liberalism. By false liberalism, I mean the sort which confuses authority with tyranny and discipline with regimentation. It exists wherever men think everything is just a matter of opinion. This is suicidal doctrine. It ultimately reduces itself to the position that only might makes right. The liberal who frees himself from reason, rather than through it, surrenders to the only other arbiter in human affairs—force…

These words so penetrate into the marrow of a primary problem today, not only in higher education but in society as a whole, that I feel they are worth some unpacking to really get at the essence of what Adler posits.

He distinguishes between true and false liberalism. A liberal education was traditionally understood to be an education that liberates the mind. That is, one studied the great writings of the great thinkers of the past so as to learn to first of all think properly. The assumption was that if one could clearly use his faculties of reason, he could think for himself. The educated man frees his mind from ignorance and can accurately evaluate what’s before him, separating conjecture from fact, propaganda from truth.

If true liberalism frees the mind, false liberalism enslaves it. It does so by hindering one’s ability to properly reason. Adler’s second point builds on this, addressing what has now become known as relativism. This doctrine ultimately teaches there are no mental or moral absolutes. Adler correctly points out that if there is no intellectual or ethical benchmark, then everything becomes nothing more than a matter of opinion. He calls this “suicidal.”

How so? Relativism is suicidal because it it gives feet to the philosophical notion “might makes right.” It doesn’t matter what the truth actually is. All that matters is what the majority deems preferable (democracy) or what the leader decrees compulsory (tyranny). When well-formulated and time-tested legal precedents are ridiculed and ignored, when the rule of law is no longer relevant, and when no one seems to know the difference, the masses will follow whatever is put before them. The reality today is fewer and fewer individuals possess the proper tools of mental evaluation.

Modern liberalism tends to promote the idea that everyone’s opinion is right, regardless. Though this might sound ideal, the fact is everyone can’t be right. Someone has to be wrong. (This would be an example of logical thinking). It might hurt someone’s feelings to be told they’re wrong, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are. Liberalism used to mean exercising free thought so as to come to reasoned conclusions. It meant there was indeed such a thing as a right position and it was the responsibility of an informed citizen to arrive at it. Now, modern liberalism has brought us to a place where all that matters is the individual’s “right” to not only have an opinion, but to insist that his opinion must be accepted as legitimate.

Adler’s next and slightly more subtle point is that there is a crucial difference between discipline and regimentation. True liberalism calls for a disciplined mind. The only path to free and informed thinking is the path of discipline. A liberal education is not bestowed; it is earned. In contrast, modern education promotes regimented learning. You learn facts and figures, and then you recite them in the form of a test. If you offer the “right” answers (according to what your teacher wants to hear), and do this consistently, you eventually receive a passing grade.

A degree no longer signifies the individual can think according to the traditional definition of the word. It doesn’t mean one can solve problems. It doesn’t mean one can arrive at his own conclusions. And, it certainly doesn’t mean the one who possesses an “education” is poised to stand on the shoulders of history’s intellectual giants. He might not even know their names, much less what they taught!

Finally, what strikes me most forcefully about Adler’s penetrative statement is that he does not hesitate to draw the correlation between false liberalism and tyranny. To the extent that classical liberalism gives way to its fallacious counterpart, liberty begins its inevitable slide into totalitarianism.

It’s Real Simple: Liberty vs. Totalitarianism

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We’ve been conditioned politically to think in terms of left and right, red and blue. This is not only the case in America, but also in other “democratic” countries that always tend to end up with the same old two-party system as well.

You would think we were talking about sports instead of politics.

But the analogy is fitting. I mean, does it existentially matter today who won last year’s Super Bowl, or the World Cup the year before? Does it have any meaningful effect on your or my life whatsoever?

In reality, the difference between the parties is usually only their rhetoric.

Typically there is not any meaningful change when the other party takes the reins– merely the illusion of it. Simply switch mascots, hone the tone of the speeches and cycle the faces behind the podium. The two party system is too easy to manipulate by those really in charge.

We shouldn’t be surprised at that. The historical struggle is not between left and right, liberals and conservatives, or communists and fascist—with so-called moderates in the middle. The struggle is between totalitarianism and liberty. Always has been, always will be.

The establishment’s job is to take the public’s focus off of the real power-brokers and put it on the political parties. This mechanism has proved wildly successful time and time again. When the same corporate and elite interests stand in the shadows pulling the strings of both parties, there is in fact no real difference between the two.

Once political science is reduced to its common denominators—liberty vs. totalitarianismthe smoke clears and one can see the wizard(s) behind the curtain. Suddenly, it all makes sense. Until that point of realization, however, there can be no real change.

Nothing is hidden except to be revealed.

An Anabaptist Ethos – Part 1

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Let me begin by stating I don’t like labels. I find that my beliefs and convictions don’t tend to fall in any one particular category, rather it be theologically, philosophically or politically. That’s not to say I don’t identify with certain labels, only that I have a hard time accepting carte blanch any label to the exclusion of all others.

Having said that, I realize there regardless of my aversion for being pigeon-holed there are labels which I carry. In the religious realm, for example, I am a Christian. But that’s such a broad term it communicates very little of substance. So I’ll add that I take a literal and conservative view of the Bible. Therefore, I will reluctantly concede to the much narrower (and admittedly loaded with negative connotation) identification as a fundamentalist, at least in the original sense of the term. I’m also a missionary, which obviously entails me being evangelical. And now having got all that out of the way and am sure having made some readers cringe, let me move on to the specific topic of this post.

Because of my faith being the prism through which I view my experiences, my theological views necessarily and profoundly determine my worldview. Or, my religious philosophy is shaped by what I believe the Bible teaches. If anything, I identify most closely theologically with Anabaptism. It, like many labels, was not coined by those who believed and practiced what came to be associated with its tenants, but by those who rejected said practitioners. Anabaptist means “re-baptizer.” But more on that later.

G.K. Chesterton (who was certainly not an Anabaptist) wrote in Orthodoxy about a fictional English yachtsman who “slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.” This man promptly planted the Union Jack, claimed the spot for the British Empire, and was gazed upon wonderingly by those bemused beach-goers who surrounded him, thinking he was out of his mind.

The point of Chesterton’s illustration was to describe how he had set out on a personal quest for truth and discovered that truth, as embodied in the Christian faith, had been there all along. I felt similarly about Anabaptism. As a new Christian, I didn’t begin by weighing all of the various theological views within orthodox Christianity (which would, by the way, have taken many years if not a lifetime). I began by reading the Bible and coming to my own conclusions regarding its content. As gradually I studied more church history and historical theological perspectives, I came to the realization that my convictions were most closely aligned with the so-called Anabaptists.

“So what?” you say. “You discovered that what you believe was already a belief system.” Well, yes and no. And this one of the things I find so fascinating about Anabaptism. It is not so much a belief system as a perspective. That which has bound different groups branded as Anabaptists together over the centuries is not a creed but more of an ethos. It is not a denomination, though denominations have sprung out of it. Until fairly recently in church history texts Anabaptism wasn’t recognized as legitimate movement within Christendom. Unlike Protestantism, Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy it has no “official” systematic theological dogmas. It has always been more of a movement than a recognized religious entity. And, Anabaptists have unfortunately been persecuted by both the Protestant and Catholic Church.

This, at least, is how I see it. Like any other subject, I’m sure ten Anabaptists would offer ten different definitions. However, there are certain key elements that I feel are common to an understanding of Anabaptism. Many have undertaken to summarize them, especially within the last few years as the movement has grown some in popularity among a younger generation, even spawning a new term, Neo-Anabaptism. Seeing as I’m already underway, I’ll proceed to state my own views on the matter as well. And I must say, having gotten this far I’m already tired of using the term. But for lack of any other, here goes.

By way of a brief historical survey, Anabaptism “officially” began in Switzerland in 1527 when a document known as the Schleitheim Confession was drafted. I say officially because there have always been groups of Christians since the time of the apostles who’ve adhered to what came to be recognized as uniquely Anabaptist viewpoints. The Schleitheim Confession roughly defined the tenants by which this group of Swiss Christians differentiated themselves from the Protestant and Catholic churches. The main divide, however, and what I perceive as the crux of the matter, was that these believers felt it was essential to separate from the state church. This was a big deal—a much bigger deal than we can imagine today. Both the Protestant reformers and Catholics who they reformed against were represented by state churches. Depending on the country or king, one or the other was the only church of which to legally be a member.

The Anabaptists (who simply referred to themselves as “brethren”) felt strongly that the Kingdom of God, as embodied by the church, should not be yoked with the kingdom of the world, as embodied by the state. They weren’t against the state, per say, or against the governments that were the visible manifestations of the state. They simply maintained that the church is its own separate entity. Again, to our modern ears this doesn’t seem like it should be a point of contention. But in the sixteenth century, it was a matter that people were willing to—and did in fact—die over.

The baptism of an infant was the point at which an individual was put on the state tax roll. In other words, in the lands of Christendom if you were a citizen, you were a “Christian”; and if you were a “Christian,” you were a citizen, period. The individual had no choice in the matter. The Anabaptists rightly recognized that according to the Bible, to become a Christian is a choice that should be left up to each individual. Therefore, if a person who was of age decided to follow Christ, they taught he should undergo baptism as a testimony to this resolution. Since everybody in the state was baptized as an infant, the powers-that-be considered this “adult baptism” heretical. They called those who did so “re-baptizers,” or, Anabaptists. And the church, with the power of the state behind it, persecuted them fiercely.

These re-baptizers were considered disturbers of the peace, breakers of the law and fomenters of rebellion. The terrible irony is, as Christians who took the words of Jesus seriously, the brethren refused to take up arms and defend themselves against the state. Thousand were burned alive, beheaded and drowned across Europe throughout the sixteenth and into the seventeenth centuries. But rather than the movement dying out, it grew and continued to spread. Today, we in the West are indebted to those early Anabaptists. They laid the foundation for our freedom of religion. Regardless of what you believe or don’t believe, if you live in a “free” country you are able to express your religious views in whatever way you desire—in large part because of a bunch of Christians who refused to compromise their beliefs.

Now this has been a highly condensed and simplified history lesson. But before I get into the main tenants of Anabaptism in Part II, I want to re-emphasize that the church and state issue was the issue. Also, I want to state again the movement that came to be called Anabaptism is not new. Since the days of the first apostles there have always been groups of Christians who’ve maintained a clear and practical distinction between the church and the state. They’ve gone by different names—typically unflattering titles hoisted upon them by their enemies—and they have all without exception suffered varying degrees of persecution from the state (usually by decree of the state church) for their stance.

My historical novel, The Hidden Altar, delves into Anabaptism in its sixteenth-century context while paralleling a contemporary American church setting. It explores the questions Anabaptists attempted to answer centuries ago and how their conclusions might apply to us in the West today.

I’ll discuss more of the actual beliefs and distinctive characteristics of Anabaptsm in Part 2.

Realistic Presuppositions

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In following up on my last post, I’d like to go in a little bit different direction with this one. My previous attempt in writing was to ask why we don’t ask more questions. When things aren’t as they should be, as many things currently aren’t—public health, the economy, wars and rumors of wars—it seems to me we should go beyond mere acknowledgement of the facts and seek answers.

After all, symptoms are only manifestations of an underlying sickness. Acknowledgment is the first step in treatment. Or, by way of illustration, what caused the cancer in the first place? Might we not be better off trying to find out why the cancer rates are rising rather than endlessly giving money in search of an elusive cure? If we can avoid getting sick, there’s no need for a cure.

Many people don’t seek ultimate answers because they are afraid where the truth might lead. And I understand this. Life tends to throw enough that is undesirable our way on regular day that we sure don’t want to go rootin’ around for more. But I also understand that ignoring causes really only ends up hurting us more in the end—physically, mentally and spiritually. As I said before, what we don’t know can hurt us.

It is the so-called “normalcy-bias” that keeps most of humanity in check—that is, blinded to reality. We are told everything is okay. The media tells us so. The government tells us so. Even the churches tell us, if simply by not addressing issues, not to worry. But it doesn’t take an advanced degree in logic to realize we are living in unprecedented times with humanity dancing on the edge of a precipice. I’m only pointing out what we all know in our gut. But the more out of control things get, the more we’re instructed to calm down, breathe easy, and go back to sleep.

An oversaturation of mindless entertainment, an all-consuming mania over sports, media manipulation, social-networking ad nauseum, toxic food, a steady diet of pornography, and a ridiculing of anything that touts traditional values or morality—these are just a few signs of the times, some of the factors that keep western society in its current trance. We have been distracted into a stupor and lulled into decadence.

There is one underlying “why” that I do feel compelled to advance. Beyond all that we can perceive with our five senses is a spiritual reality. The ebb and flow of intellectual, economic and religious history, the rise and fall of nations, the advancements and digressions of humanity, the development of science and technologies,  the cyclical struggles between totalitarianism and free states—all of these testify to very real spiritual forces at work behind what the natural eye can see.

The Christian worldview, which is the philosophy of life grounded in faith upon the teachings of the Bible, offers the only framework within which everything finds its proper place and perspective. The world makes sense when viewed through the Christian lens. The puzzle pieces fit.

If I’m charged with being biased because I’m a Christian, then I will answer that I am biased because I am a Christian. We are all biased toward our individual philosophical and religious systems. And we all adhere to a particular worldview and place our faith in something, even if that something is science, atheism, or nature. I’m increasingly discovering that the more I learn and grow in knowledge and experience, I only find my faith in Christ and the Scriptures confirmed.

I like how Francis Schaeffer put it:

“The more logical a man who holds a non-Christian position is to his own presuppositions, the further he is from the real world; and the nearer he is to the real world, the more illogical he is to his presuppositions.”

Everyone starts with presuppositions—assumptions we hold concerning reality—and then we make our daily choices accordingly. In other words, everyone has their own metaphysical and ethical outlooks about life. We place our “faith” in these, molding our lives and decisions around them. If we are honest in our quest for truth, we will continually evaluate what experience, common sense and empirical evidence are teaching us so we can test them against our deeply held presuppositions. If the latter contradicts the former, the fault is not with reality but with our faith system.

All this to say there is a fundamental spiritual dynamic at work, an ancient battle between good and evil that the Christian recognizes is between God and Satan. There is a war going on for the souls of men and woman. We need our eyes open that we might see and understand this. The abnormalities of the times can be viewed as what they in fact are—evil on the rise, with more and more of humanity choosing to cooperate with it.

All is not normal. If we admit there are serious problems, resolve to find answers and allow the truth of our discoveries to lead us where they may, we as individuals, and by extension as a species, will go a long way toward breaking the normalcy bias that keeps insisting everything is okay.

Nothing is hidden except to be revealed.

The New Normal

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I’ve recently been reflecting on the current health crises, both in terms of personal health and our physical well-being as a species. The statistics are disturbing, to say the least. Honestly, when I step back and attempt to take it all in, the implications are staggering and the fear I have for the future of humanity, very real.

A little extreme? I don’t think so; not when you take a serious look at the numbers. Let’s consider autism for starters. I remember a time when the diagnosis was rare. In the eighties there was approximately 1 autistic child per 5,000. Some of the small numbers of children who were diagnosed with autism had to travel to other states to even receive treatment. In fact, very few doctors in the US specialized in treating autism. But this all changed in the nineties with an explosive increase of cases.

Now, you can hardly go anywhere without running into a child, or two (or three) with serious neurological disorders—most of which are lumped under the autism label. You see them in restaurants, malls, schools and churches. Many parents, God bless them, are struggling to deal with children whom they deeply love and who would do anything to improve their child’s condition, yet are at a loss as to what caused it or the steps to take to try to remedy some of the symptoms. Studies now put autism at 1 in 68. That is, unbelievably, over a 600 percent increase! Is this normal? Anybody else notice?

And to add insult to injury, at the current rate of growth it’s predicted that one in every two children will be autistic by the year 2025. I know that this claim has been “debunked” by some. Yet you only have to study the graphs to see the plausibility of such a prediction. If autism rates have been steadily increasing for over two decades, why will they not continue to rise?

This should not only cause us pause, it should knock the breath out of our collective lungs. We should be jumping up and down, demanding answers, shouting in the public squares and not resting until the crisis is checked. A few are doing so. But the sad truth is, too many people only shrug their shoulders and accept it as if this is the way things are supposed to be. Or worse, they simply blow it off as lunacy to even be concerned.

What about cancer rates? According to current statistics, one in three people will contract cancer. One in four will die from it. Who doesn’t have among their relatives or close friends victims of cancer? And you are lucky if it’s only one or two. I don’t generally buy the misdiagnosis line, either for cancer or for autism—the convenient out that says, “We just didn’t know what to call these conditions before advanced diagnostic testing. I don’t believe that the doctors of the last few generations were that clueless. In one sense they probably knew more than current medical professionals because they didn’t rely on computers and high-tech equipment. They thoroughly learned and memorized the symptoms of a multitude of rare illnesses and depended on their experience and instincts.

Let’s add to this brew type 2 diabetes, childhood obesity, brain tumors, rising sterility rates and now on the upsurge, kidney failure. Anyone who cares to know can find major scientific and medical studies documenting sharp increases of incidences in all these areas. Thankfully, many people are becoming more and more concerned with their health. We are beginning to understand our bodies shouldn’t start breaking down at 25. The organic food craze, exercise and health-tip sites are all positive rumblings occurring among a substantial portion of society.

But beyond acknowledgement that there is a health crisis in the West, we need to ask why. And this is where it seems to me we miss the forest for the trees. “Yes, the figures do certainly show people are increasingly unhealthy and that neurological disorders are abnormally high. I do agree there are measures I can take as an individual to alter my eating habits and limit my exposure to certain environmental toxins.” Well said. But how did things get to this point?

Allow me to give an example to explain what I mean. Years ago I had a conversation with someone who has an autistic child. In the course of our cordial talk, I ventured to pose the question of whether they thought vaccines had anything to do with their child’s condition. I wasn’t pushy, nor was I as educated on the ins and outs of the vaccine issue as I am now. Hence, I didn’t go very far with my query. The response I got was, “Why does it matter what caused it? It’s just something we have to deal with.”

That answer bothered me then, and it bothers me now. Granted, knowing what exactly caused this particular child’s autism would not have substantially change matters. The damage was done. Yet, why would you not want to know? There are others who would obviously benefit from knowing potential causes so as to possibly avoid seeing their own children become autistic. Also there is the relative peace of mind it would bring to the suffering parent.

I’m not saying a vaccine was responsible for this child’s autism. I don’t know what caused it. But I do know if I were the parent, I would want to find answers. And if my answers led me to an uncomfortable conclusion, so be it. At least I would know.

I simply can’t understand why so many people don’t care to seek answers, whether it comes to their health, or the economy, or the state of the present geo-political landscape, or any of a dozen other pertinent matters that affect us all. Ignorance is generally not bliss. In fact, what you don’t know could very well kill you. High fructose corn syrup, GMO’s, aspartame and MSG are literally toxic to the body. Not knowing this and consistently eating food containing these can seriously compromise an individual’s health. Mercury is bad, even if it’s a “trace amount” in a vaccine. Glyphosate (weed killer) in the water supply damages the kidneys and has been linked to numerous other health problems including autism. These are things I, at least, want to know. Give me all the facts—the good, the bad, and the ugly. I can handle it.

However, I do understand one reason why people remain in ignorance. And that is what is so frustrating.

The condition has been described by various names, one of the more popular being the “normalcy bias.” Simply put, this mental outlook is what allowed Germans in 1942 to ignore the fact that all the Jews in their neighborhoods had been picked up by the Gestapo and disappeared. It’s what caused “good people” to turn a blind eye (or nose) to the smell of burning flesh rising out of the smokestacks at the strange camp over yonder in the woods. It’s not that the public couldn’t figure out what was going on. They simply chose not to.

This condition occurs incrementally. It creeps and crawls, subtly fogging the brain and numbing the senses. We think everything is “normal,” when in fact if we were to step back and shake our heads clear of the layers of social conditioning, we would be appalled—terrified even—at the real state of affairs. And I guess I’m in part answering my own question. People in general would rather be ignorant than afraid, preferring deception to discomfort. We will go to tremendous links to justify a terrible situation just so as to not have to deal with it. But fear is healthy if it drives us to see how things really stand. If I’m sleeping in a burning house, I want my neighbor to scream and terrify me with the news of my impending doom. Only then will I be able to escape.

The decline in the health of Americans is not normal. The drop in IQ levels is not normal. A social life completely revolving around a screen instead of face to face, or at least voice to voice, interaction is not normal. An economic bubble much larger than it was in 2007, hence more catastrophic in the event of its eventual bursting, is not normal. Civil wars and uprisings across the globe on the scale that we are currently witnessing are not normal. Or, maybe all this is normal and I’m crazy. Maybe it’s the “new normal” and I need to get with the program.

For all that, however, I prefer health and economic stability, peace and prosperity. Healthy children, contented parents and wholesome family units bring me joy. I like my brain to function correctly and I enjoy sitting down over coffee to chat with a friend. I’ll hang on to these things, and I hope others will do so as well.

But in my plea for a reclamation of reality, I don’t want to digress too far from the question why. Why are things the way they are? I won’t presume to say I have all the answers. Each person must come to their own conclusions, anyhow. But answers never come when there are no questions allowed to draw them out. Let’s not be content with the current state of affairs. Let’s follow the truth wherever it might lead.

Nothing is hidden except to be revealed.

Spreading Democracy (A Bad Idea)

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Athenian Crowd

The twentieth-century is lauded politically as the age of the victory of the democratic ideal. The United States has seemingly appointed itself the dispenser of democracy worldwide. The problem is that the US is not a democracy.

The US is a constitutional republic. And it’s not merely a matter of semantics. There are fundamental differences between a democracy and a republic. These differences are important enough that they need to be rightly recognized and understood. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to give the textbook answer. I will, however, attempt to offer my views on the distinction.

A democracy at its most fundamental level is mob-rule. The majority triumphs. The winner takes all. Athens and other Greek city-states operated as democracies. Aristotle was skeptical of this form of government. The framers of the Constitution knew the dangers as well and attempted to avoid the pitfalls that a pure democracy would inevitably produce.

The most obvious danger of a democracy is that men are too easily swayed by charismatic personalities. If an elegant and influential speaker can convince his hearers that his position is preferable, he can secure the majority’s vote. It is all too easy for truth and logic to be cast aside in favor of the “best” argument.

In a pure democracy there is very little to anchor policy. Laws continuously evolve according to the whims of the populace or its leaders and thus too easily morph into something completely different than was their original intent. Therefore, the unique and necessary feature of a constitutional republic is that it is firmly fixed upon the rule of law. This defining characteristic in the US is known as the Constitution (with its accompanying Bill of Rights).

Everyone from presidents to police officers takes an oath to the Constitution. Yes, government officials do represent the people, but first and foremost their job is to uphold the rule of law. Officials are not elected to to make their own renegade decisions. The Constitution offers the governmental and civil framework through which elected representatives of the people perform their duties.

The American founders were concerned that both the people and the states be represented in government. They acknowledged how crucial it is for the citizens to have a voice. They also understood that their needs to be a balance between the people’s voice, the states’ sovereignty and the rule of law. This is where the little understood electoral college comes in. Because of it, American citizens indirectly elect their government officials. The states appoint their respective electors, which, in theory, honors the power of the states without annulling the people’s desire.  

Why is all of this important? A pure democracy is easy to manipulate or corrupt. A purely republican form of government, though representative, has no anchor to check and stabilize man’s perpetual propensity toward the accumulation of absolute power (tyranny). A constitutional republic, however, has as its foundation a fixed and stable constitution. A constitutional republic not only ensures representation of the people and the states, it simultaneously safeguards– through its constitution–the inalienable rights of the individual.

It is entirely possible that the American people and states no longer meaningfully exercise their legitimate authority. It is possible that the Constitution is largely ignored. And it is possible that our “elected” officials simply make their own decisions according to the desires of those who know the locations of the closets where the ugliest skeletons reside. I hope not. Yet, it is possible.

The next time someone insists the United States is a democracy, beg to differ. The Founders surely would have.