Author - Robert Joustra

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Religion runs through the rate cut
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The Politics of Hypocrisy
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Can Nuclear Deterrence Survive the Global Resurgence of Religion?
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Canada Has Not Changed
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Who’s Afraid of Secularism?
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Sacred vs. Naked
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Speaker for the Dead
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Does Labor need a global resurgence of religion?

Religion runs through the rate cut

The collapse of oil has shocked any number of economies over the last few months. The Russian central bank has scrambled to prop up the ruble, running rates as high as 17% to attract foreign capital. Canada’s own Bank actually cut rates by a quarter point, dropping the Canadian dollar significantly. All these responses look like good old fashioned supply and demand economics, but there is more than a little political theology that runs through these rates.

Oil prices aren’t set to recover quickly. Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, chairman of Kingdom Holdings, nephew of the late King Abdullah, made it clear that Saudi Arabia will continue to double down on these prices. Saudi Arabia, a country that takes nearly 90 per cent of its budget from oil, remains committed to its levels of production, which is to say its supply. The prince blamed the fall in price on demand. The country will not be the first to blink.

“Eventually there’s no doubt that some countries have to blink and reduce their production…I don’t see Saudi Arabia or OPEC countries blinking,” he said.

Students of religion and history can clearly see at least two countries in the crosshairs of this game of brinkmanship: America, and its boom in fracking, and the rival Shia state of Iran. A fringe benefit has been the near collapse of the Russian ruble.

The list of Saudi grievances is long. Riyadh has been annoyed by American unwillingness, or incapacity, to resolve the Palestinian problem, its détente with Iran and seeming tolerance of Iranian nuclear ambitions. Far more than annoyed, it has been heavily engaged in the civil war in Syria, which has now spilled out and threatens the tenuous remains of the Iraqi government after the American withdrawal. Some have even labelled this a proxy war funded by the oil money of religious zealots around the Persian Gulf, lined up on Sunni/Shia religious lines.

Among the many sides of that war include somewhat famously Iran, its subsidized Shia brigades, and its increasingly unsteady overtures to the Kurds and to the West to protect Shias in the brutal path of destruction ISIL is cutting.

We may never see $100 a barrel again, warned Prince Alwaleed on Jan. 23, a statement that if true will cripple (North) America’s comparatively expensive oil production, and gut the state finances of its religious rival Iran. Maybe that’s a happy coincidence.

The oil politics of the Middle East will always have an Islamic political theology, or maybe more to the point rival theologies, running through it. And that’s a lesson that Governor Stephen Poloz, pun intended, took to the Bank.

The Politics of Hypocrisy

Freedom of speech, like freedom of religion, is one of those things pundits like to cry foul on for hypocrisy, partly because it’s so easy, partly because there’s so often some truth to it. Some truth being the operative, and highly misleading watch phrase.

In the forthcoming issue of Convivium Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Dr. Andrew Bennett, gets the question put to him in Turkey when calling, very frankly, for the restoration of both civil and ecclesiastical properties to Jewish and Christian communities. In response, one of the people talking with him said: “Well, thank you, Ambassador Bennett, for engaging with us on these questions and raising these issues with us. Perhaps we could come and help you with Quebec.”

Foreign affairs always runs a  hypocrite’s gamble: pressuring and encouraging the virtues that Canadians hold dear abroad, when our practice at home is far from perfect. The launch of the Office of Religious Freedom in 2013 dovetailed a little too conveniently for some with the (defeated) Charter of Quebec Values, raising the now often repeated charge to ‘get our own house in order’ before going abroad. This argument makes two very important political mistakes.

First, it intentionally ignores the spectrum on which political and social problems take place, falsely presuming that scale and severity does not matter. To say that the Charter of Quebec Values would have been a violation of religious freedom of the same kind as Turkey’s seizure of places of worship is to say Canada is a lawless society of the same kind as, say, Somalia and its infamous offshore piracy because there is jay walking in Montreal during rush hour. Both are lawless acts, but prudential politics recognizes degree matters.

The second major mistake in this argument is the expectation that Canadian society will have worked out to a nearly perfect degree the fullest expression of its most cherished virtues before preaching them. Obviously this will never be true. Canada’s most cherished virtues are aspirational. We aspire to be people of generosity, of fairness, of tolerance, of justice, and of genuine pluralism. Societies and people do not arrive at these things. They aspire to them. And it is, after all, what we love, what we aspire to, that is the best definition of a people and of a country.

The same basic mistakes are scrawled across editorial pages after the terrible events of Paris. We are not all Charlie, of course, and that I choose not to use my freedom of speech to post satirical cartoons of other’s faiths does not somehow make me complicit in this terrible violence. I can defend the right of those who do without joining in. I can defend the virtues of freedom even wishing we used those virtues different ways. Degree – how and why I disagree – and intent – what I am aiming for – matter.

Every liberal society worthy of its name treasures freedom of speech, just like freedom of religion. And every society on opening its mouth to say so is a hypocrite. That’s not a reason to stay close mouthed. But it is a good reason to try harder.

Can Nuclear Deterrence Survive the Global Resurgence of Religion?

Vienna, Hoffburg Palace – Gerard Powers reminded us in September that disarmament cannot be forgotten. To the young, in which I easily include myself, deterrence theory, mutually assured destruction, and nuclear balance of power are relics of a by-gone era. Even when we teach or learn about nuclear weapons it has a feeling of something archaic, something that was, not something that is. Not things, not machines, that still squat in warehouses, coil in soils, and ride under oceans on launch ready alert.

But they remain. As a guest of the Nuclear Threat Initiative over the past several days we’ve explored transformations in war (‘unconventional war’) that make weapons of mass destruction less useful, breakages in the logic of deterrence from a bi-polar to a multi-polar world, and even – somewhat terrifyingly – the truth that the nuclear weapons we’re most in danger of have usually been our own.

A front runner in these conversations has been the Catholic Church, long opponent of the use of nuclear weapons, and now articulate spokespersons for the morality of even their mere possession. Religious sentiment has long been rallied against the use of nuclear weapons, but a shift seems to be coming, at least in the tone, from the Vatican and from senior Vatican officials at this conference, that even possession of nuclear weapons is an affront to the dignity of human kind. We are squandering the world’s wealth, lamented Pope Francis in a written address to the Vienna conference, on these arsenals. Estimates run that merely upgrading the weapons of the United States of America, crucially necessary because of the danger posed by dated nuclear technology, could run into the trillions. The cost of disarming and disposing of the same weapons runs to nearly the same, if not higher. Either way, a phenomenal bill is coming due on America’s – and the world’s – nuclear arsenal.

How to make this decision? It cannot be done trapped in the ‘iron cage’ of Realist deterrence, say the conference organizers. We must have what Pope Francis calls an ethic of solidarity. Pope Benedict XVI said in Caritas in Veritate that globalization makes us neighbours, but it does not make us brothers. The nuclear conversation, in the words of Hugh Gusterson, leaves the modern logic of rationalism and technological efficiency “impaled on itself.” We must have a new order, a new conversation, new moral sources that tell us why these weapons exist, why we have made them, and what we are going to do next. Next year is the 70-th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The impasse is real.

That conversation, crucially, must also include inter-religious voices. Vatican officials this morning noted that a key player in any dialogue is the Russian Orthodox Church – cutting off talk of a new cold war before it starts. “The Church,” said the same official, “must shoot high, because if we don’t do it, no one will.”

Canada Has Not Changed

Ottawa is my home, but yesterday I was in Toronto. Today I’m in Washington, reading words from friends, texts, phone messages, about where they were, that they’re shaken, unsettled, but fine. My friend and former colleague Peter Stockland was there, and I’ll share his words verbatim, because they’re as good as I’ve found, from the Cardus blog this morning:

Toronto Liberal MP John McKay was, at that moment, the admirable embodiment of the honest politicians who lead us.

“That is an excellent question,” he said. “I have absolutely no idea what the answer is.”

We were standing at the corner of Metcalfe and Albert streets in Ottawa, a few hundred metres south from where a gunman was shot dead in the Hall of Honour of Canada’s Parliament and a few blocks west of the War Memorial, where Hamilton-based soldier Nathan Cirillo had just been murdered by that same gunman.

The question put to McKay was the obvious ambient mystery of the day: how on earth, after killing Cirillo in broad daylight, could that gunman have made his way onto Parliament Hill carrying a loaded long gun, then gotten past Parliamentary security into the building itself?

Because of the location of the Liberals’ weekly caucus meeting room, McKay and his colleagues were able to exit the building, unlike their Conservative and New Democrat counterparts who barricaded themselves inside rooms that flank the entrance hallway where the shooting occurred.

He was close enough, though, to hear the “pop, pop, pop” of gunfire—“more than three, fewer than 10”—which he thought was the sound of construction work before he was ordered to dive for cover.

And, having made his way to safety, what was McKay doing? His duty. He was standing patiently talking to a group of reporters in a “scrum,” trying his best to explain what had just happened, openly acknowledging what he did not know. To state the blindingly obvious, he was experiencing shock from the terror mere moments old. He had to fight to control tears. Yet he did his polite, deferential, instinctive duty to communicate, through the media, what he could to his fellow citizens.

Another ambient mystery already percolating even as police teams swarmed through cordoned-off downtown Ottawa hunting no-one-knew-what was: Will this change us? Will we be a different Canada the day after than we were in the minutes before the killing of Nathan Cirillo, the gunfire assault on our Parliament? Watching the sheer, utter normalcy of John McKay dutifully answering questions at the confluence of the chaos, I knew the answer was “no.” It won’t change us. Why? Because we are Canadians.

To say that we are Canadians is not to say that we imagine ourselves as some agglomeration of super heroes—or hyper stoics—immune from the vicissitudes of an outside world gone mad. To say that would be to say that being Canadian is being delusional. In our hearts, if not always on our lips, we acknowledge we have no such immunity. To pretend we believe otherwise is either myth making or mischief making or both.

We know, in our present moment and in our history, that we are indelibly, painfully marked by the world. Nathan Cirillo was guarding our War Memorial when he was killed. In less than three weeks, on November 11, we will lay wreaths there as an act of memory for those who died doing their duty all along the boundary where the world touches Canada. We will be reminded, contra myth makers and mischief makers, that we are a people who fight and die to stand on guard.

We are known as a polite and deferential people, because by and large we are. During Wednesday’s events, a group of us snuck up to a spot outside the National Arts Centre to watch activity at the police command post. Spotting us, an officer rushed over and ordered us out, telling us that we were putting ourselves in danger.

“You don’t have to shout,” I said. “There was nothing that said we couldn’t be here.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but you’ll have to move.”

I’m sorry but you’ll have to move. In the middle of that emotional tinderbox. I have been in other countries where the response in such tense circumstances was a gun barrel pointed at my head.

Though we are dutifully deferential, however, we do not defer to fear. We never have. I believe we never will. There is something in us, as people, that will not admit it.

Sure, there will be reviews and inquiries and reports and reassuring sounds that we’re looking into it so it never happens again. Sure, there will be “security upgrades” for access to Parliament Hill, whatever that means in an age where, as Wednesday’s events proved yet again, security means enduring time-consuming inconvenience to obtain the illusory comfort of the impossible.

But we will not be changed by fear. And if the question of how that is possible when much of the rest of the world reacts by hunkering down, blockading in, assuming the protective position, is put to us, we will answer, following the admirable lead of our honest politicians: “That is an excellent question. We have no idea what the answer is. We’re just being Canadians.”

Who’s Afraid of Secularism?

Comment Magazine - Cracks in the SecularCharles Taylor makes a small, somewhat off the cuff, argument in Secularism and Freedom of Conscience that strong civil religion tends to beget strong religion. In a recent opinion piece for Comment magazine, I summarized as follows:

This is the case, they say, in Quebec where, after the Quiet Revolution, a strong civil religious Catholic political culture was supplanted for an aggressively secular civil religious culture. They find similar trends in Turkey and France, where formerly strong “religious” civil religions were replaced very rapidly by equally strong secular-liberal civil religions. They write, “[t]hat type of political system replaces established religion with secular moral philosophy.” Maclure and Taylor say this is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau meant by “civil religion,” and when strong civil religions are toppled in political cultures, the probability is that they will be replaced by a rival, equally strong, civil religious tradition. Thick moral content is needed to combat and supplant thick moral content.

Apocryphal of a prediction as it may be, a comparative study of American and Canadian ‘secularism’ paints a very different trajectory for the two countries. Whereas Canadian political culture disestablished Christianity so long ago, we’re now on to disestablishing liberal secularism, toward what others have somewhat ambiguously, but provocatively titled, a post-secular age. The American experience, on the other hand, by virtue of its strong civil religion seems to have a more ominous future. “There is no deux-solitudes (two-solitudes, or two different but coexisting poles) in American civil religion: there is a winner, and there are losers.

My friend Kevin Flatt dissents, and writes a fine rejoinder, How to Survive the Secular Apocalypse. The whole Fall issue of Comment is a treasure, including a fresh interview by James K.A. Smith with Charles Taylor himself on the Charter of Quebec Values, the future of the religious/the secular, and more.

Sacred vs. Naked

As choices go, the sacred versus the naked is one of the more arresting. But – says David Anderson, Parliamentary Secretary to Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs – that’s just the false choice facing many political cultures around the globe today.

On the one extreme, he says, governments grant and enforce exclusive status to one religion. That’s the sacred choice. On the other hand, governments try to stamp out religion and its expression from public life. They go, it’s said, naked.

Both of these are flawed in a way that Charles Taylor explains in Secularism and Freedom of Conscience. They both rely on strong civil religion, a comingling of political-theological enforcement that often produces, according to God’s Century, pathological and destructive politics. This see-saw default, argues Taylor, is endemic to many political cultures partly because the alternative can be seen as a dangerous gamble, especially in times of fear and anxiety.

Religious freedom, says David Anderson, can’t be a balancing of some kinds of belief with others, but the right of persons to choose to believe, or not to believe (and change those beliefs) as they see fit. The objective is not sameness, he says, but freedom.

That’s a gamble. And it’s probably the critical gamble of our time that enables democracy. Chris Seiple, from the Institute for Global Engagement, says the big question of our moment in history is: “how to live together well, in the midst of our deepest diversity?” The anxious, religious and non-religious alike, will be alarmed by that diversity – and sometimes they’ll have good cause to be. The temptation, says Taylor, is always very strong to reintroduce a stronger civil religion, to foreclose on the possibility of deviant diversity, to control and manage pluralism. That, he’s said in a recent interview with James K.A. Smith, is the story of the Charter of Quebec Values.

Limits to pluralism exist. But in the false choice between going sacred or going naked, the gamble of secular societies truly deserving of that name will be on their own citizens funding the virtues and values that laws cannot make, and markets cannot sell. Therein the clothes of democracy.

Speaker for the Dead

As séances go, says Timothy Larsen in the latest issue of Books & Culture, most tend to be awfully one sided: a question, a gust of wind, a tap on the desk, a flicker of the lights. Not much of a dialogue, he says, which sadly tends to be the way we deal with the dead even when we’re using the tools of history and not a Ouija board.

The pillaging of the past for clear and unambiguous stories that make sense of the present day is not a new problem, but it’s earned a special place in the conflagration in Iraq in the last month. Yesterday, the New York Times ran some easy reading on how “Longtime Rivals Look to Team Up to Confront ISIS,” a feel good round up about how pretty much everyone in the region is grudgingly putting aside old enmities to face ISIS/ISIL together. “I don’t think there’s been anything like this since the seventh century,” quoted one former American ambassador. It’s a delicious piece of journalistic overstatement, but it also fingers the pitiless, and instrumentalist, way the history of the region is often picked over in the moment to score today’s talking points.

There has, in fact, been something like this since the seventh century. The now accepted truism that Shia and Sunni Muslim traditions are nearly eternal and intractable enemies neglects not only the basic political-theological history of a region, often defined by its mutual vulnerability to external threats (say, the Mongol demolition of central Asia), but also long histories of exchange and dialogue between groups that might alarm us. S. Frederick Starr in his important new book, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane makes a long point that not only did scholars and theologians across ‘long time rival traditions’ engage in regular debate and dialogue, but that dialogue was itself the fruit of a great deal of scientific, philosophical, theological, and medicinal innovation. Further, he speaks at length of the central Asian legacy of these achievements, not only their Islamic origin, harkening both to Zoroastrian and Buddhist roots of what only retrospectively gets called the Islamic renaissance of culture and science. We hear stories about paper making in Khwarazm, of that jewel of trade and culture Samarkand, the astronomical sophistication of Balk, and the urban academies of Merv.

But to read (some) political commentary on war in the region today would convince you that rival political-theological traditions of Islam have been making total war on each other since the first Fitna (656-661). This is true in the same way as the wars of religion in Europe (1618-1648) were an uncomplicated contest between Protestants and Catholics, an easy history which all but the most committed dogmatics have long since abandoned. In fact, the history of central Asia is replete with historical facts on both sides of the argument – of fitnas and dynastic war, but also of interreligious, scientific, and cultural renaissance.

It serves present-day sensibilities, and sensationalism, to give a picture of a region/religion that is hopelessly and eternally divided, driven to aligning tactically on the back of the atrocities of ISIS/ISIL. Tactical alignment, as Nasr says, may be a present reality, but it is neither a first, nor last time, something like that has happened in a region, one time Center of the World, one time home of the world’s greatest, most enduring empires. Dan Philpott writes about the global resurgence of religion that the more interesting question is not ‘why religion is back’ but ‘why we [in the West] ever thought it went away.’ Larsen might say a version of that question is the more interesting for central Asia too. The more interesting question is not ‘why regional interests have aligned for the first time since the seventh century’ but ‘why we ever thought they hadn’t before.’

Does Labor need a global resurgence of religion?

Tesco’s turning their workers into banded cattle, or at least that’s the way Brian Dijkema tells it in Canada’s National Post. Earlier this year, reports surfaced that workers at the grocer’s Dublin distribution center were “forced to wear armbands that measure their productivity so closely that the company even knows when they take bathroom breaks.” Writing for the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead described it as “vaguely menacing and dehumanizing.” There’s nothing vague about it.

This menace and dehumanization has its anchor set firmly in what Charles Taylor calls one of our ‘pathologies of the modern moral order,’ the instrumentalization  and economization not only of material reality, but of human labor and life itself. We’ve gorged aplenty on radical critiques of ‘capitalism gone wild,’ but – argues Taylor – it is not the economic system itself that is properly the center of our concern, but rather the monopoly of the modern logics of efficiency and consequentialism. As Gideon Strauss, writing for Comment magazine, says “Market economy? Yes! Market society? No!”

This month I joined Catholics and Protestants in Rome to discuss the enduring insights of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. Rerum Novarum, too, was written in a period of rapid and disquieting economic and social change. Where the Pope wrote on ‘the new things’ others, like Abraham Kuyper, were writing on ‘the social question,’ wondering how peace, how mutuality and solidarity, could exist between an increasingly polarized capital and labor.

We still wonder that, and you don’t have to be especially religious, or be reading papal encyclicals, to realize the urgency of it. Like Dijkema, you can witness the banding of Tesco workers and wonder if this isn’t menacing and dehumanizing, if efficiency is really the best or priority virtue, if it should monopolize public and even private spheres of life. Charles Taylor agues in A Secular Age that to think beyond the dichotomy of efficiency and consequentialism necessitates a background, often an inescapable one (he calls it a ‘horizon’), against which not only our ends but also our means gain shape and meaning. What, after all, is an economy for? The efficient distribution of goods is essential, sure, but the economy is not exhausted by it. Work for man, not man for work! – argues Rerum Novarum, yielding an essential moral vocabulary for understanding not only the dignity of work, but its basic human condition. Through good work we are made more human. Good work is a gift, a vital one, to being fully human, not just a means toward an end, but an end in itself. And when the monopoly of efficiency overtakes the dignity of human work an economy has failed.

That, at least, would be the judgment of Rerum Novarum. Efficiency is a central virtue to any economy, but it is not the only virtue. Efficiency is a necessary, but not sufficient cause of economic success. To get deep into the guts of economic systems, we need a moral vocabulary beyond what mere secular economics provides. That moral vocabulary, it seems to me, is nowhere more prominent than in global religious discourse. Rerum Novarum is one example. There are more (Abraham Kuyper, among them). Maybe, to get deep into the guts of the economy is to end up, suddenly, surrounded by religion.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.