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How Could Tyranny Destroy Our Democracy?

Political scientists and historians are increasingly expressing profound concerns about the future of democracy in the West. I have been asking, as an amateur historian of America, “How and why do democracies die?”

The study of democratic backsliding, though around for a long time, is becoming more urgent as we watch events unfold so rapidly it creates deep concern in many of us. In the mid-2000s, the global spread of democracy, after 200 years of expansion, clearly began to stall. Perhaps it was the Iraq War and the events in the Middle East but however we understand what happened since 9/11 populist movements in the West began to arise and grow in number. This new form of Western populism, joined with a growing passion for nationalism and a seriously distorted form of exceptionalism, are now impacting America on a daily basis. This feels a lot like something we’ve seen before, in other places, but I do not think mosts of us are paying attention.

This new expression of Western populism bears more than a passing resemblance to Latin American populist waves that turned authoritarian very quickly. (Perhaps this

René Girard: The Passing of an Amazing and Iconic Thinker

I think it is quite unlikely that many readers of this post know the life and thought of René Girard. I discovered him late in life, only about fifteen years ago. I found his work on human desire both insightful and brilliant. Agree or disagree with Girard’s thought he helped us rethink human desire, anthropology and sin. If you reject the idea of evolution please do not let that issue keep you from learning from this great Christian thinker. This presentation by Fr. James Alison is a great, short summary.

You may need to see this several times to actually process Girard’s central thought but this is as good as any short presentation of the man and his thinking I’ve seen.

The Way of Jesus Beyond Doctrinal Propositions: Living the Love and Unity of Christ

P1240816The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service that I wrote about yesterday included a warm and deeply thoughtful sermon by Fr. George Byron Koch, pastor of Resurrection Church (Anglican), West Chicago, IL. Fr. Koch is the new chairman of the ACT3 Network board and a very dear friend. He is also a great writer and preacher. His sermon in the Christian Unity service was one of the best calls to our unity in Christ I have heard in a long time.

George Byron Koch is the author of What We Believe and Why (Byron Arts, Northwoods, IL, 2012), a magnificently readable and insightful study of Christian faith and practice. 51Uif1n6RHL._AA160_Two particular insights undergird this book: (1) The Christian faith has been torn from its Jewish roots, and; (2) The influence of philosophy on the church has divided it again and again, creating extremely deleterious consequences for Christ’s mission. I not only share George Koch’s view I believe you will hear both aspects of it clearly in this

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Philosophers have debated this question for millennia: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Christians have an answer, indeed the only answer that I believe satisfies both the mind and the heart.

the-love-of-god-tara-ellisIn the distant past there was only God. The ineffable and eternal God, existing in the triune fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He was/is a God of eternal love. God is a triune fellowship of selfless, perfect, other-centered love. Further, there is no conscious life outside of God, the Father-Son-Spirit. God alone constitutes the complete whole of reality.

This is what we confess in the Creed and this really is central to Christian faith: “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”

But in God there was never anything lacking. The picture is perfect. It is one of a ceaseless peace and joy flowing in love within the circle of the three persons in the divine trinity. God did not, simply put, create everything that is because he lacked anything or needed you or me. He created us out of a

Nature’s God: The Origins of the American Republic and Why It Matters (Part Two)

Unknown-4Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic is, at least to my mind, one of the most interesting, readable and important books I have read in 2014. I could hardly put it down. It reads easily and demonstrates quite convincingly most, though not all, of the author’s claims.

Stewart argues that the ideas which directly shaped the American revolution were largely ancient, pagan and continental (i.e., European not English). The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, and the natural divinity of the Dutch Jewish heretic Benedict de Spinoza (photo at right), largely shaped the views of most of our American founders.Unknown-5

Stewart draws deeply from a study of European philosophy, without becoming bogged down in ideas that you cannot comprehend. He shows how the philosophical ideas of the founders were shaped by thinkers that were anathema to the clergy of the time. These American revolutionaries hated the idea of God’s law and rejected supernatural revelation.

When you read the Declaration of Independence you should ask questions: “What is

Visions of Vocation

UnknownAuthor Steven Garber wrote one of those rare modern books that I have read twice. Some years ago I developed an answer that I cleverly gave to folks who, upon seeing my immense library (before I sold nearly 15,000 books over the last few years), would gasp at my floor-to-ceiling library shelves and ask me, “Have you read all of these?” I calmly answered, “I’ve read some of them twice.” This was true. Hoping I could read them all was only a pipe dream but unless pressed hard I did not admit to that until I gave up reading them all in my late 50s and realized I should break up the Armstrong collection sooner than later.

Steven Garber’s book, The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior (IVP), was one of those books that I actually did read twice. It is a truly magnificent book. I recommend it to everyone who reads this blog.

Steven Garber taught for many years on Capitol Hill in the American Studies Program and then became scholar-in-residence for the Council of Christian

Dialogue vs. Dogma?

social-media-wheel-with-icons-10090170The word dialogue is very important to me, and my view of truth, at least in terms of the way Christians live with one another, and with non-Christians, in the modern age. What do I mean by dialogue? Could it be that the very idea behind this word is deeply flawed, as some cultural and religious conservatives maintain?

Back in 1971 I was in the candidate process for the assistant pastoral role in a church near Wheaton, where I had begun graduate theological studies in mission and theology. The senior pastor preached a sermon one Sunday that fatally finished my intent to work with him. The title of his sermon is one I shall never forget: “Dogma or Dialogue?” He made the case, rather poorly I thought, that dialogue was always the enemy of Christian dogma and true belief. I could not tell you why he was wrong, at that time, but I knew that he was. I began a journey to figure out why I thought that he was wrong. I was only a twenty-one year old

The Emotive Cry for Community

UnknownMichael Novak, in his stirring memoir of a journey from left to right, devotes an entire chapter to community, as I noted yesterday. He writes: “One of life’s most time-consuming tasks is to achieve disagreement with an ideological opposite. Without blinking, you might object; ‘It’s not had to disagree. Heck! Most people do it all the time” (282). But aren’t disagreements really inevitable? After all we have different understandings of terms, widely varying perspectives on history, and unique sets of fears and rosy scenarios that we all entertain? But, says Michael Novak, “We are most often like two ships passing in the night” (282). Is he right? Could this really be true? I think so.

One of America’s most wise and important Catholic thinkers in the last century was the Jesuit John Courtney Murray. Novak says that Murray once said two people cannot (to use Novak’s description of Murray’s point) come to a “real disagreement without sticking to the argument for a very long time–maybe long enough to work through a case of brandy together as they ruminate.

The Carter Years and the Bankruptcy of Bad Economic Ideas

Unknown-2The Carter years profoundly convinced Michael Novak of the bankruptcy of his previous economic ideas. While Novak explains Carter’s personal love for Jesus Christ as genuine, and easily misunderstood, he rightly separates the good heart of the man from some of his very bad ideas about what makes for a free and prosperous society. During the Carter years Novak’s own views were taking new shape. He was writing more about economics and making new friends globally. When Ronald Reagan was elected the president in November of 1980 he asked Michael Novak, lifelong Democrat, to become his ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights. After a time in Geneva Novak returned home but then was sent back again in 1982. This work had an immense impact on Novak’s view of the world.

Novak’s new friends, which he cultivated in the late 1970s, began to gravitate to his home for meals and thus came into his personal life as confidants. These friends included Fr. Robert Sirico, Bill Bennett, Jack Kemp, Mort Kondracke, Ben Wattenberg, Irving Kristol, George Weigel, Henry

From Socialism to Capitalism – A Move That Cost Michael Novak Friends and Prestige

124_2013_bknovack8201_s640x821Michael Novak, author of the memoir Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative (Basic Books, 2013), writes eloquently of how he became disillusioned with the “new” versions of the old Keynesian liberalism of the 1970s. This economic view promoted government spending to excess in order to stimulate the economy and create jobs. The core belief was that this approach would solve the problems of the poor through a greater expression of compassion which would come about through direct governmental help. Nothing awakened him to the failure of this kind of thinking quite like the policies, and outcomes, of the Jimmy Carter era.

As I noted in my blog on Novak’s memoir last Wednesday (1/29) one of the reasons that I so deeply appreciate his position, and thus his memoir, is that he openly explains why he  “resist[ed] libertarianism” (159). He admits that he found great reasons in libertarian arguments to reject his strident socialism but not enough to compel him to embrace the total package. To make sure his position is properly stated I

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