The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Friday, October 28, 2022

Toxic Niceness and the Corruption of Contemporary Christianity

 The Modern Age, the zeitgeist of which has long been known as liberalism, has driven the wedge of secularism between much of the society, culture(s) and civilization of what was once Christendom and the Christian faith and religion.    If the influence of liberalism extended only to the temporal this would be bad enough but it has permeated the Christian Churches and sects as well.   Over the last century and a half the word liberal developed a special connotation in the Churches and sects where it denoted people who saw the narratives of the Bible as belonging to the same category as Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales, that is to say, stories valued for their utility in teaching life lessons to children rather than for their truth, people who saw no inconsistency in calling themselves Christians and going to church every Sunday even though they did not believe in the supernatural assertions made about Jesus Christ in the ancient Creeds.   Liberals, in the theological sense, often cloaked their unbelief in ways they thought were clever.   For example, they would say that they believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ “in the sense” that He lived on in the hearts of His followers.   This meant that they did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as that phrase had been understood by everyone from the Apostles through the middle of the nineteenth century, i.e., that Jesus Christ, after He had been crucified and buried, returned to life in His body, left the Tomb, and walked and talked among His disciples again, before ascending physically to Heaven.   Perhaps the theological liberals thought that those who continued to hold to this traditional belief in this traditional understanding were so much less sophisticated than themselves that they, the traditionalists, would never catch on to how this re-interpretation of the event made their profession of belief into one of unbelief.   If so, theological liberals are well-named for that is the same attitude that more generic liberals take to non-liberals in general. 


In his Christianity and Liberalism (1923), J. Gresham Machen, then Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, contrasted traditional, orthodox, Christianity with theological liberalism and drew the inescapable conclusion that they are two separate religions.   This same assessment was more recently asserted by retired Anglican priest Rev. George Eves in the title of his Two Religions, One Church.   Indeed, it has long been a bit of a puzzle as to why liberals continue to see themselves as belonging to the Christian faith.   A partial answer can be found by considering the matter in terms of the Aristotelian distinction between essence and accidents.    Orthodox or conservative Christians consider the articles of faith in the ancient Creeds to be the essence of Christianity.   This is true even of conservative Protestants who belong to non-liturgical, non-sacramental, sects who might shudder at that wording as being too “Catholic” for their liking.   The doctrines that they regard as essentials or fundamentals of Christianity rather than distinctions of their denominations are ones that either can be found as articles in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds or which express the basic unspoken belief underlying the Creeds that the Christian Scriptures are authoritative special revelation from God.   Fundamentalism, for example, in its original form - an inter-denominational co-operative effort of conservatives fighting the encroaching liberalism - identified “five fundamentals” as being particularly under attack by liberalism at the time and as forming a basis for their contra-liberal ecumenical efforts.   Originally taken from a 1910 Presbyterian declaration, these have been formulated in a myriad of ways, each slightly different from the others, but basically, the first is a strongly worded affirmation of Scriptural authority, usually using words like inspiration or inerrancy, and the other four are affirmations about Jesus Christ all of which can be found in the articles of the Creeds – usually His deity, Virgin Birth, Resurrection, and Second Coming.  This can be criticized from a more conservative or orthodox position as being too reductionist – the Apostles’ Creed, the simplest of the ancient Creeds, famously consists of twelve articles, one for each of the men from whom its title is derived – but my point is that conservatives, whether traditionalist or “fundamentalist”, all recognize the articles that make up what we call “the faith” as essential to Christianity.  Liberals, by contrast, see all such articles of faith more as Aristotelean accidents, external trappings that can be discarded without altering the essence of Christianity.


The conservatives, obviously, are right.   One of the things that has made Christianity distinct among the religions of the world from the very beginning is that Christianity, more than any other religion, is a faith, a community held together by a set of common beliefs and defined by those beliefs.   This is true even if we limit the comparison to the monotheistic religions that look to Abraham as a spiritual patriarch.   What is believed is and always has been far more important to Christianity than to either Judaism or Islam.   It is ludicrous therefore to take that which has historically defined Christianity and make it out to be her disposable outward trappings rather than her very essence.   It becomes even more ludicrous when we turn to the question that necessarily arises out of this observation about liberalism, the question of what they regard as the essence of Christianity, if they see the articles of faith as her accidents.


The answer, of course, is that for liberals it is Christianity’s ethical or moral message that is her essence.   Note that the first obvious immediate effect of making Christianity into an ethical message cloaked in the external trappings of a supernatural belief system is to radically decrease the difference between Christianity and other religions.   This is so for two reasons.   The first is that which we have already observed about Christianity being distinct from other religions, even the other Abrahamic monotheistic religions, in prioritizing belief.   In Christianity what is believed comes first, what is done comes second.  In every other religion what is done takes precedence over what is believed.   A theory of Christianity that makes her ethical message her essence and her article of faith her accidents eliminates this distinction.   The other reason is that Christianity’s ethical message has never been her most distinctive element.   In explanation, let us start by limiting the comparison to the Abrahamic monotheistic religions and more narrowly to Christianity and Judaism.   In His ethical teachings, that is to say, His teachings that pertained to how people were to behave and live their lives, Jesus Christ taught the Mosaic Law as an absolutely authoritative text.    While this is often missed by those who superficially read the “ye have heard it said…but I say unto ye” contrasts in His most famous Sermon and gloss over the warning He gave at the beginning not to take His words as contradicting and setting aside the Mosaic Law, it is nevertheless the case.   The difference between the ethical teachings of Christianity and the ethical teachings of Judaism could be said to be the difference between the Mosaic Law as taught and interpreted by Jesus Christ and the Mosaic law as taught and interpreted by the rabbis (originally the lay teachers of Pharisees, a sect within Second Temple Judaism the clergy of which were the Levitical priests, these took on a more clerical role in post-Temple Judaism).   Without wanting to make this difference less than it actually is, for most of the last two thousand years had you told either Jews or Christians that the most important and essential differences between the teachings of their two religions lay in the realm of ethics they would have thought you belonged in a nut house.   Broadening the comparison, while certainly instances can be pointed to where different religions take opposing positions on particular ethical issues, a good case can be made that of all the different areas that religious teachings address this is the one where they have the most in common.   See the appendix to C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man (1943).


That liberalism’s making  Christianity’s ethical teachings into her essence and her articles of faith into her accidents radically reduces the difference between Christianity and other religions is something that is appalling to Christians who believe in Him Who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” and of Whom St. Peter said by the power of of the Holy Ghost “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” but appealing to religious liberals qua liberals.   Liberalism, not just religious liberalism but liberalism in general, has long been obsessed with the idea that it can create a better world in which all people live in peace and harmony and that differences between people – originally and especially religious, but also differences of race, ethnicity, sex, etc. – are stumbling blocks on the path to this man-made Paradise that they need to clear out of the road.   Even today’s “woke” left, which on the surface seems like a movement deliberately trying to do the opposite of this, to create a world of disharmony and strife by magnifying said differences to the nth degree, is, in fact, another variation on this same liberal theme, one that is distinguished by the tactic it shares with Nazism and Communism of othering and scapegoating, of placing all the blame for disharmony and strife and basically the world being anything other than an earthly Paradise on specific groups, religious (Christians), racial (whites), etc.


Liberalism, as argued three paragraphs ago, is wrong that Christianity’s ethical teachings are her essence rather than her articles of faith.   This error is compounded by the fact that religious liberalism’s ethical teachings are radically different from what Christianity has taught about ethics and morals for the last two thousand years.   Liberalism explains this by claiming that Jesus Christ’s original ethical teachings were corrupted by His disciples and especially by the Apostle Paul into something that conformed more closely to those of Judaism and/or the Greek philosophers.   The only historical evidence we have, however, is of the Jesus Whose teachings as recorded in the Gospels harmonize with those of St. Paul in his epistles, and not of the hypothetical Jesus with radically different teachings postulated by liberalism.


Exactly what liberalism claims the “true” ethical teachings of Jesus were has changed over the course of the century and a half that religious liberalism has been afflicting the denominations of Christianity.   Generally, however, the values of the ethical teachings of religious liberalism’s “historical Jesus" line up closely with those espoused and promoted by political liberalism at any given moment in time.   This has remained constant, even though the values that political and religious liberalism promote together frequently change.   There is one other constant, however, and that is the idea that Jesus’s teachings essentially boil down to “be nice to each other”.  


This particular idea requires special attention because a) it has spread beyond the kind of religious liberalism described above and can be found espoused even by some who would usually be considered conservative or orthodox and b) it correlates with a problematic phenomenon in the broader society.   This is the phenomenon in which such an exaggerated value is placed on such things as being positive and non-confrontational, always smiling and acting cheerful, and the like, that they either a) hinder or outright prevent a host of other things of equal or superior value, such as truth and honesty or b) serve as an outward, superficial, mask of thoughtfulness towards others behind which those who are exceptionally self-centered and who delight in controlling and/or hurting others hide.    Feminist writers – I think that Elizabeth Hilts, the author of a series of books giving exceptionally bad advice to women was probably the first – have been referring to this phenomenon as it pertains to the first of the two identified drawbacks at least insofar as it affects women as “toxic niceness” for decades.   Such writers, in my opinion, speak from the perspective of a repugnant solipsism that tends to blind them from seeing anything outside the perceived victimhood of their own sex and which renders their idea of which truths are suppressed by excessive niceness highly inaccurate.   Nevertheless, since the phenomenon is real and affects both sexes rather than merely the one, we shall borrow their term for it as a better one could hardly be coined.   We shall concentrate, however, on the second drawback.


That toxic niceness, this cult of excessive and unbalanced positivity, can serve as a cloak of hypocrisy over a particularly vicious form of nastiness is quite evident.    Indeed, it is almost axiomatic to say that the sort of people who are always acting upbeat, who always wear a big smile plastered on their faces, who try never to say anything that isn’t positive turn out, if you get to know them at all, to be the biggest jerks and jackasses.   Who is not familiar with the kind of person who smiles and acts like your best friend to your face but who stabs you the moment your back is turned?   Or the sort of person who never confronts anybody, who never goes to someone and says “Hey, I have a problem with what you just said/did”, and who may sometimes go around bragging about what a non-confrontational person he is, but who is constantly running with complaints about everyone to those in positions of power and authority as fast as his tale can tattle.   


Here in the Dominion of Canada we have in recent decades allowed toxic niceness to permeate the culture to the point that we are all suffocating from it.   My province calls itself “friendly Manitoba”, an expression that can be found on the license plates of our automobiles.   Yet Winnipeg, the city in which I live is a city in which it is notoriously difficult to change lanes when you need to do so because other drivers will speed up or slow down – whichever it takes – to prevent you from doing so.   Just last week I heard a radio station, I forget which one, in which an advertisement referred to our city as the place where turn signals are optional.  In Winnipeg, if you signal that you need to change lanes and there are vehicles behind you, they will immediately pull into the lane you wish to move into and speed up – all without signaling themselves – so that you either have to aggressively beat them into the lane or wait for them all to pass you, even if this means missing your turn or illegally brining your car to a stop in the middle of the street.    This is one of the most inconsiderate, jerkish, ways of driving that can be conceived short of something criminal and cartoonish like driving down the sidewalk and stamping out a tally of the number of pedestrians you knock down on the side of your car.   Yet it is typical of the drivers in the capital of “friendly Manitoba”.   This example is topped, however, by that of the current Prime Minister of Canada who could be said to be the poster boy for toxic niceness.   He won his first election on a platform of empty positivity which he contrasted with the supposed negativity of the previous government.   He borrowed the phrase “sunny ways” from Sir Wilfred Laurier as his motto.   He carefully crafted this image of a smiling, upbeat, positive person who is all about caring and listening and being inclusive.   Beneath it all, however, he quickly proved to be a truly nasty jerk and bully, a real υἱός τῆς κῠνός with an abnormally low level of toleration for those who disagree with him, who saw the caring and compassion of other Canadians as a means for him to exploit to rob Canadians of their basic civil rights and liberties and seize more power for himself.


These examples from the broader culture and society show how beneath an excessive emphasis on being nice the worst sorts of nastiness can be hiding.   What is true of toxic niceness in the broader culture is also true, perhaps even more so, of the reduction of Christianity or at least her ethical message to the idea that we ought to “be nice”.  


How anyone ever got the idea that Christianity was all about being nice is beyond me.   Those who use the word “Christlike” as if it were a synonym for “nice” are especially befuddling.   Have they never read the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew in which the dear Lord gives a harangue, almost the length of the chapter, directed against the scribes and Pharisees in which He repeatedly calls them “hypocrites” “fools” “brood of vipers” and the like, likens them to “whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” and threatens them with hellfire and damnation?   Ironically, if any of the sort of people I have in mind were to hear anyone today talk like this the first thing they would say would be that he is not being very “Christlike”.   It does not seem from this chapter that being nice was top priority with the Lord Jesus.   Nor would the incident recorded two chapters previously in which, having arrived at the Temple after His Triumphal Entry, He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and dove merchants and drove them all out (St. John in his Gospel records a similar incident that took place prior to the start of Jesus’ preaching ministry in which He drove the merchants out of the temple with a scourge) suggest that following Jesus’ example means being nice all the time.


Jesus did not tell His disciples to be nice, a word that does not appear in the Authorized Bible and which in other versions appears only in the Old Testament in reference to things, words, and situations rather than people.   Indeed, the very appeal of niceness to so many today, whether they be professing Christians or just members of the broader society, is that unlike those things which Jesus did enjoin upon His disciples, such as a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20) and to love one another (Jn. 13:34), niceness is neither difficult nor does it cost its practitioner anything.   It is the ideal virtue for the virtue signaler, the sort of person who likes to go around showing off how good of a person he is with cheap, shallow, and empty forms of goodness that either come with no cost or have a cost that he can easily export to others, in order to gain the praise, credit, and applause of other people.   The sort of person, in other words, who does the same thing Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for doing in Matthew 23:4-5.


When He comes again in His glory to judge both the quick and the dead, what will He say to those who are promoting toxic niceness in His name?

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Monarchy and the Transcendence of Politics


His Majesty King Charles III acceded to the throne of the United Kingdom and his other Commonwealth Realms including the Dominion of Canada the moment his mother, our late Queen Elizabeth II, passed from this life on Thursday, 8 September.   The formal proclamations of the accession began to take place on Saturday, 10 September.   Although there were also proclamations in Wales, Scotland, and North Ireland the formal proclamation on behalf of the entire United Kingdom took place at St. James’ Palace in London.   Similarly, while there were provincial proclamations as well, the formal proclamation on behalf of the Dominion of Canada took place at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Saturday, 10 September.  


Although these proclamations were, of course, ceremonies of state, they were not political in the common sense of the word.   While the term “politics” is derived from the Greek word for city and state and thus can mean something along the lines of “statecraft” in everyday English we employ it in reference to the process of competing for the power of elected office by flattering the electorate, making empty promises and vain boasts, defaming your competitor(s) and demonizing factions other than your own.   Mercifully, the institution of the monarchy is not political in this sense.   The office of Sovereign is filled by hereditary right and the moment the previous Sovereign dies the next heir in the line of succession accedes to the throne.   Thus the king or queen can be a symbol of unity in a way that no elected head of state could ever be.   It is very appropriate, therefore, that on this occasion, while office-holding politicians were present and had to sign the proclamations, it was generally non-political figures, usually historians or similar such scholars associated with the realm’s college of arms, who had the duty of reading out the proclamation.   In the United Kingdom this was the Garter Principle King of Arms, David White.   In the Dominion of Canada it was the Chief Herald of Canada, Samy Khalid.


It so happens that on the day of the proclamation another event took place in the Dominion of Canada which by contrast was very political indeed.   This was the convention in which the Conservative Party of Canada chose their new leader.     Father Raymond J. De Souza, in a column for the National Post a couple of weeks ago criticized both the Conservatives for not post-postponing the convention or at the very least announcing the result “without fanfare” and the Prime Minister for the partisan rant he gave the following Monday in the guise of congratulating the new leader of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.   I wholeheartedly agreed with Father De Souza that partisan politics of this sort ought to have been put on hold until at least after the interment of Her Late Majesty and in that spirit have refrained from commenting on the new Conservative leadership until now.


In our constitution, the principal body of government under the reigning Sovereign is Parliament, a bicameral legislature, the lower chamber of which, the House of Commons, is filled with Members chosen to represent local constituencies by popular election.   By custom, the person with the largest amount of support in the House of Commons is invited to become His Majesty’s Prime Minister and to select from his associates those who with him will join His Majesty’s Privy Council as the Cabinet, the committee within the Privy Council charged with the day-to-day administrative work of government and thus conventionally referred to as “the government”.  If you are going to have this kind of government, then you have to accept alongside it the necessary evil of politics in the sense described a few paragraphs ago and the inevitable companion of this kind of politics which is partisanship, the division of the legislative assembly and the electorate it represents into competing factions.    While politics and partisanship are undoubtedly evils, they are far lesser evils than that which occurs when a single faction eliminates its competitors and establishes a one-party, totalitarian, state.   This was a major lesson of the first half of the last century.   Therefore we put up with the nonsense that is this kind of partisan politics and thank God that in the time-tested ancient institution that is our traditional hereditary monarchy we have a symbol of order, unity, and continuity that transcends the political.   Only a complete dolt, a total doofus,  a hopeless sniveling moron would wish that it were otherwise.


While political parties claim to disagree about all sorts of different ideas and issues, on one matter they are all remarkably alike in their thinking.   Each believes that the country would be better off if they, the party in question, were the ones governing it.  This is what each party is ultimately trying to convince the Canadian electorate to agree with them about in every Dominion election.    Ultimately, for each political party, their ideas, positions, and policies with regards to specific issues are subservient to the idea that they ought to be the ones in power.   This is the reason why parties often jettison ideas and positions that they once treated as sacred principles.   They, that is the parties, feel that they, that is the ideas and positions, have become a hindrance to their attaining the power they covet.   Since the willingness to sacrifice principle for ambition is ordinarily regarded as being an indicator of bad character rather than good character this can be viewed from one angle as speaking very poorly about the corrupting effect partisan politics has on its participants.   The other angle that needs to be considered, however, is that if this were not the case, and every party was made up of inflexible ideologues rather than pragmatic compromisers, this would hardly be preferable to things as they currently stand.   It would make things more interesting, certainly, but in a way that is much worse rather than much better.


The new leader of the Conservative Party, which is currently His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the party with the second most seats in the House of Commons on which the task of holding the governing party accountable to Parliament chiefly falls, was chosen by the membership of the party at the aforementioned, ought-to-have-been-postponed, convention.   In passing, let me say that I very much dislike this method of party’s selling memberships to people who then choose the party leader in convention.   The older method, in which the leader was chosen by the party caucus, that is to say, the Members of Parliament who belong to the party, was much better.  The party leader’s veto over local riding associations as to who runs as the party’s candidate in the constituency, an innovation introduced by Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s, ought also to be scrapped.  Returning the final say in candidacy to the local riding associations, and the final say in leadership to the caucus, would have the effect of making the leaders accountable to the parties they lead rather than near-dictators within their parties.   Allowing the party leader to act like a dictator within his own party makes him all the more likely to act like a dictator to the whole country should he become Prime Minister.   These reforms, both of which involve returning to an older, better, way of doing things, are the electoral reforms needed, not proportional representation, which would be the way to attain the undesirable goal of a Parliament filled with parties of inflexible ideologues discussed at the end of the previous paragraph, nor lowering the voting age, which if anything ought to be raised.   All that having been said, it was by membership convention that the new Conservative leader was chosen.


Pierre Poilievre, the Member of Parliament for Carleton, had been ahead throughout the leadership race, and so it came as little surprise that he won.   He owes his victory to two broad waves of opinion.  One of these is within the members and supporters of the Conservative Party and is the opinion that the party’s leadership in recent years – basically since they left office in 2015 – has shown far too much of that tendency discussed a couple of paragraphs ago, to sacrifice principle for ambition, and without achieving the intended end as they lost two consecutive Dominion elections that ought, by all rights, to have been easy wins.   The other wave is not confined to Conservative supporters but is the growing sentiment among Canadians that the present Prime Minister has been in office far too long, is haughty and arrogant and completely out of touch with the country he governs, has made life unaffordable and miserable for a large segment of the Canadian population and is continuing to do so and by all indications will keep on doing so in the future, has divided Canadians and turned them against each other,  has been hopelessly corrupt and abusive of government power and that he needs to go, preferably yesterday.   Poilievre’s performance as a critic of the government in the Shadow Cabinet for the last seven years, which was better than that of most of his colleagues and any other of the candidates for leader, combined with these waves of thought to make him the natural choice for the next Conservative leader.


The qualities of Poilievre that brought him enough support to win the Conservative leadership on the first ballot are such that it is fairly safe to say that he will do an excellent job in his current role of leader of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.   The question that only time will answer is whether these same qualities will translate into the ability to lead his party to victory in the next Dominion election and the ability to govern the country well as Prime Minister should he do so.  


I hope that the answer to both parts of that question proves to be yes.   It is not so much that I am anxious to see the Conservative Party in government again.   It is rather than I very much share the sentiment expressed in a recently trending hashtag that the present Prime Minister needs to go.     The last time that the Conservatives were in government they angered me so much by passing a bill giving government agencies enhanced powers to spy on Canadians, a bill which had no support in Parliament outside the Conservatives except from the current governing party, that I vowed never to vote for them again unless they majorly adjusted their attitude and leadership.    While I call myself a Tory I do not use the word in the obvious partisan sense of the present day, or even in the sense of what is usually meant by “small c conservative”, i.e., someone holding views on political, fiscal, economic, social, cultural, moral and religious matters that correspond to those that are ordinarily thought of as right-of-centre although I happen to be that as well, but rather to mean someone who believes in and supports the institutions, spiritual and temporal, that survive as our living connection to the Christian civilization that preceded the Modern and liberal and through that civilization to the ancient world, which meaning accords well with the definition famously provided by Dr. Johnson in his Dictionary.   I would recognize a churchman and monarchist whose views on government spending, taxation, economics, etc. are mostly if not all diametrically opposed to my own – F. D. Maurice, the Anglican priest who was one of the founders of the Christian Socialist movement in the Victorian era is an example that comes to mind – as a fellow Tory, far sooner than I would a republican like Lorne Gunter whose views on such matters are much closer to my own.   


With that thought we return full circle to where we started this essay and I shall close by reiterating the point that we are blessed to have in our traditional monarchy an institution at the head of our state that transcends the chaos of the perpetual struggle for power that is partisan politics and represents stability, continuity, and order.  


God save the King!