21 October 2016

Protestant Ressourcement: Pillar III

Follow the link here to see the third in a series of interviews with Brad Littlejohn, president of The Davenant Trust. The third of the pillars is "engagement." (You can read my comments on the first two interviews here and here.)

While "engagement" might seem a bit amorphous, Brad focuses his comments on navigating between the poles of neo-Anabaptist cultural withdrawal and "Christian Right" political activism. In other words, in an increasingly non- or anti-Christian cultural moment, Christians must avoid the twin (but opposite) perils of retreating into the Church to flee from cultural engagement and of disconnecting cultural (including political) activity from the Church. (And, if I had a third hand, of limiting the Church to the clergy or even to the assembly of the saints in worship.)

If my brief description leaves you mystified, simply watch the interview. It's only eight minutes.

One more thing. This interview has the best one-liner of the series: "We're dealing with human beings not just disembodied bundles of ideology." In other words, when working in a society that rejects the transcendent norms recognized by Christians, we must remember that the norms are true and evident at some basic level even to those who ostensibly deny them.

19 October 2016

Four Years Ago Today

At 7:00 AM on October 19, 2012, my father, Horace Pryor, was translated from the Church militant to the Church triumphant. I posted his obituary here and other comments about him here and here.

Christmas Day 2009
Together with my mother he is greatly missed yet comfort is present in the knowledge of their blessed estate.

17 October 2016

California Dreaming -- About Pension Reform

Last week I posted here about the travails of tiny Loyalton, California. The few thousands of Loyalton citizens simply don't have the excess cash to pay the $1.6 million the city owes to CalPERS, which administers the city's pension plans. And this is what is owed after the city terminated those plans.

When ordinary folks or businesses become insolvent, they can go to their creditors and offer to make a deal. If their creditors agree, the debt-ridden individual or corporation can pay, say, 50 cents on the dollar, and thereby become solvent. Why would a creditor agree to take less than owed? Two reasons stand out. First, even today in the commercialized Western world, most people appreciate the virtue of forgiveness. Just as there is a moral obligation to pay one's just debts, there is a moral obligation to forgive in some circumstances. (For more about forgiveness in the world of bankruptcy law go here, here, and here.)

Second, and more pragmatic, creditors know that if they don't agree to take less than what's owed, their debtor may seek bankruptcy relief in which case the creditor might get even a smaller amount. The Constitution of the United States expressly grants Congress the power to create a bankruptcy law, which includes the power to discharge debts.

Why, might curious minds want to know, can't States do the same thing? In other words, can't California (acting through CalPERS) give Loyalton a pass?

Speaking constitutionally, does express delegation of the "bankruptcy power" to Congress impliedly prohibit the individual States letting their debtors pay less than what's owed? In brief, the answer is yes and in part from another provision of the Constitution that explicitly says that "No State shall pass any Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts." (The paired set of the bankruptcy power and the prohibition of impairment of contracts is evidence of the Hamiltonian pro-trade and commerce aspect of the 1789 Constitution.) (For more about the so-called Contracts Clause go here and here.)

What does any of this have to do with poor little Loyalton? According to the California courts since 1955, this means that neither the state not its subdivisions (like Loyalton) can reduce the pension benefits that existed as of the moment a public employee is hired. In other words, unlike any worker in any other business, the pay and benefits of a California public employee can never be reduced. A one-way ratchet, if you will.

Put another way, no matter how foolish or corrupt--once promised--pensions cannot be adjusted downward no matter how impossible it has become for a city like Loyalton to pay for them.

Or can't they? Go here to read a news account of a recent decision by the California of Appeals that evades the effect of the decades-old decision of the state supreme court and permitts the implementation of "anti-spiking" rules designed to prevent certain abuses of the existing pension system.

Whether the decision of the appellate court stands, and whether, even if it does, it can be extended to more fundamental aspects of the California pension system, remains to be seen. Nothing so far will help Loyalton but permitting some flexibility in the California system might help other public employers in the future

14 October 2016

Protestant Ressourcement: Pillar II

A few days ago I posted Protestant Ressourcement: Pillar 1 here. The first pillar of the work of The Davenant Trust is reason. The second pillar, described in this interview with Davenant president Brad Littlejohn, is tradition. Tradition in the world of Protestant American Evangelicalism has had something of a mixed reception. On the one hand, many Evangelicals boast of a "me and the Bible" approach to theology but on the other, most of what they find in the Bible is what they've heard as a matter of tradition in their churches, Sunday School classes, or via cable TV.

Brad does an excellent job of framing tradition in the Protestant tradition. Just as virtually no one would try to chart a course across rugged terrain without a map, so too the accumulated 2000 years of reflections by intelligent and deeply committed Christians provide us current day Christians with the lay of the land, which can greatly shorten the time it would otherwise take to get to our destination.

In other words, theology is best done as a group activity and honoring one's theological forbears means making them part of our group.

In any event, don't believe me. Listen to Brad.

13 October 2016

"Roman Law and the Legal World of the Romans"

Image result for Roman Law and the Legal World of the Romans

I have finished Andrew Riggsby's book on Roman law and can highly recommend it for an undergraduate course in Roman law or as a supplement for a JD-level class in legal history. In terms that are exceptionally clear (perhaps too clear at times), Riggsby lays out the basic concepts of Roman law over the course of the Republic and Empire. More than many other texts, he tries to explain how much (or little) Roman law had to do with everyday life in Rome's territories outside the city itself. His handling of the sources and adjudication of religious law was very helpful. 

On the one hand, Riggsby is careful not to overplay the certainty of his conclusions when documentary evidence is lacking. On the other hand, he may be faulted for oversimplifying his subject at times. That oversimplification, however, does much to make the subject comprehensible to the non-specialist (which is most of us).

12 October 2016

California Dreaming -- About Pensions

Several years ago I wrote a lengthy article about the Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy of Stockton, California. While not exactly a blockbuster, among other things Municipal Bankruptcy: When Doing Less Is Doing Best (download here) surveyed the perilous near-insolvency of the largest public employee pension plans in California. CalPERS, the plans' administrator, fought every attempt to modify the pensions of Stockton's retirees and current employees. While the bankruptcy court ultimately held that federal bankruptcy law trumped California pension law, Stockton chose to surrender rather than fight CalPERS all way to SCOTUS. (Check my posts here and here for further explanations.)

Much has happened since then, albeit little that has garnered much press. Among the tidbits of interest is the situation in which the tiny city of Loyalton finds itself in a world of hurt (details here). The population of Loyalton--3,240--is facing a bill from CalPERS for  whopping $1.66 million for dropping out of the state administered plan.

In one sense, the bill is appropriate; after all, CalPERS will be on the hook for the benefits due Loyalton's current retirees and employees who will subsequently retire. Of course, had Loyalton stayed in the CalPERS-administered system, it wouldn't have had to pay $1.66 million in one fell swoop (or perhaps even at all). CalPERS has and continues to systematically undercharge participating municipalities for their accruing pension obligations. That explains why experts believe CalPERS-administered plans are only about 70% funded. (In layman's terms, that's called kicking the can down the road.)

When a city like Loyalton drops out of its system, the kid gloves come off and CalPERS demands payment in up-front cash the full amount it believes will necessary to pay the pensions of all of a city's retirees and employees. Moreover, something that's not mentioned until the end of the news article linked above, CalPERS gets a statutory lien on Loyalton's city-owned property as collateral for the full amount due (plus interest).

In short, Loyalton is screwed. Much of the responsibility for this situation rests on previous elected officials in Loyalton who overspent, over-committed, and let embezzlement occur. Yet none of that moral responsibility helps the current residents who, along with paying taxes to keep the city running, are left to foot this bill

11 October 2016

Word of the Day: Anosognosia

You can look up a nice discussion of "anosognosia" on Wikipedia here. In short, in the field of psychology, anosognosia refers to a condition where a person who suffer from some disease or disability doesn't know that he or she has the disease or disability. Anosognosia refers to something more fundamental than mere denial and is associated with an injury to the brain.

All of this might of but passing interest except for a sentence from an article by legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron. I've posted about one of Waldron's articles here and here and others on other occasions; he's one of the best contemporary legal philosophers, in my opinion. I'm slowly working through one of more recent pieces, Jurisprudence for Hedgehogs, which you can download for yourself here. (Frankly, it's way inside jurisprudence baseball, of special interest only to those who wish to follow the Hart-Dworkin debate to the nth degree.)

One paragraph from that article caught my attention:
The distinctive thing about Justice for Hedgehogs was supposed to be an acknowledged move to the much stronger claim that ‘law is a branch, a subdivision, of political morality’ (405). If that’s the latest view, then Dworkin does have to respond to what would seem to follow—namely, that what the partisan, geriatric, moral anosognosics so often found ornamenting the Supreme Court have enshrined in the law, like the Citizens United decision or the very recent decision about the Voting Rights Act [or Obergefell or Roe], is now part of political morality. And if, as he has indicated, he is not prepared to simply retreat to the classic natural law position—lex iniusta non est lex—then he has to tell us how to think about bad law. (Emphasis added.)
A brief setting of the stage might help. During his lifetime Ronald Dworkin was reacting to the sophisticated legal positivism of H.L.A. Hart. Dworkin believed that there was an unavoidable moral component to the law itself, including the law of judging the law (i.e., what courts do when they interpret and apply the law). Dworkin did not, however, believe there were objective, transcendent moral standards so he derived his argument for morality in the law from the nature of law, a sort of Anglophone phenomenology. Morality could not help but be part of law because it was inherently part of the thing we call "law," not because "laws"--to be law--needed to conform to an external moral standard (hence the reference to lex iniusta non est lex--"an unjust law is no law").

All well and good (or not), but how, asks Waldron, does Dworkin propose to evaluate whether a particular law is good or bad? All law is inherently moral; law cannot help but include a moral aspect (otherwise it isn't "law"). And if there is no external moral standard by which to evaluate a particular law, how do we know when a particular law or a court's interpretation of a law is morally wrong? After all, it can't be amoral since it is of necessity "moral" but, without an external standard, it can't be immoral, either.

(Dworkin's position, according to Waldron, can be salvaged. In other words, don't take my failure to summarize his argument at this point as evidence there no argument. It's simply that I want to get to the point of this post before I lose my audience.)

All of which brings me to the word of the day.

Many (most?) justices of SCOTUS declaim any moral aspect to their work other than, perhaps, carrying out a purported moral duty of positivism. They are merely "legal technicians," so they say, carrying out the intent of the Framers or Congress, as the case may be.

Yet on Dworkin's account--and with this I believe Waldron agrees--their work is, among other things, an exercise of moral judgment. In other words, they suffer from anosognosia--they are acting morally without knowing it. Not a clinical anosognosia, of course, since to act morally is neither a disease nor a disability, but ironically so, in their protestations of not doing what they cannot help but do.

Much more could be said about Dworkin and Waldron's take on Dworkin but I'll quit here knowing that at the least I may have helped a serious Scrabble player.

06 October 2016

Protestant Ressourcement: Pillar I

Over the course of the past three years I have posted often about the excellent times had at the Convivium Irenicum. (You can work backwards to all the exciting details from the links to the final posts for 2016 (here), 2015 (here), and 2014 (here).)

These annual convivia are produced, so to speak, by The Davenant Trust. The mission of The Davenant Trust is much larger, however, than hosting great meetings:
The Davenant Trust is a non-profit organization founded to support the renewal of Christian wisdom for the contemporary church. We seek to sponsor historical scholarship at the intersection of the church and academy, build networks of friendship and collaboration within the Reformed and evangelical world, and equip the saints with time-tested resources for faithful public witness.

To make its goals more accessible, several short videos have been created each addressing one of the "Pillars" upon which The Davenant Trust will implement its mission. You can view the first--addressing the nature and place of Reason--here.

05 October 2016

Charles Taylor Hits the Jackpot

Charles Taylor, author of "A Secular Age" (about which I blogged nearly ad nauseam herehere, here, here, and here) has won the first Berggruen Prize for philosophy. You can read the brief NYT account here. The Toronto Globe and Mail has a longer story here.

One doubts that the 84-year old Taylor pursued his interest in philosophy in the hope of winning a cool $1 million. The chances of winning that amount in the lottery are probably about the same. I am pleased, however, to know that someone not entrenched in either the Anglo-American analytic tradition or the contemporary Continental tradition, much of which I would characterize as nonsense on stilts, has won. While a somewhat plodding (and sometimes prolix) writer, with a reasonable modicum of effort one can understand Taylor. And that effort is, in my opinion, worth the while.

03 October 2016

Daniel Bernstine

Notice of the death of another of my law school professors has come my way. (An earlier post about John Kidwell appeared here. Sam Mermin passed away before my blogging started.) To the best of my recollection, Daniel Bernstine was the only African-American male on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin College of Law while I was a student.

Bernstine taught only one course that I took, Federal Courts, which dealt with the arcana of the Constitutional jurisdiction of the federal courts in the United States. Some 36 years later, I don't remember much of the class but I do remember then-professor Bernstine positively. His class-appropriate yellow tee-shirt emblazoned with an old-fashioned steam engine with the words "Erie Railroad Co." stands out among my law school memories.

Bernstine went on to become the law school's dean and held a variety of other posts over the subsequent years. He was 69 at his death, which means he was only seven years older than me. A sobering thought.

You can read more detailed accounts of Bersntine's life here, here, and here.

26 September 2016

"Reflections on Francis Schaeffer"

Long, long about--sometime around 1970, I suspect--someone (I wish I could remember who) gave me the first of what became known as Francis Schaeffer's philosophical trilogy: "Escape From Reason." I devoured it and Schaeffer's next two books, "The God Who Is There" and "Death in the City" in short order. These books were for me, like many growing up in the Evangelical tradition in the 1960s, an initial introduction to philosophy and cultural criticism. Schaeffer as a gateway drug, so to speak.

As an undergraduate philosophy major I didn't read Schaeffer but I remembered his works with affection through my college and law school days. I had come to understand, at least in a general sense, that Schaeffer was a popularizer and not an original philosopher. Until reading "Reflections of Francis Schaeffer" (Ron Ruegsegger, ed., 1986), however, I didn't appreciate the degree to which Schaeffer's summaries of the thinking of the notable philosophers in the Western tradition were either incomplete or simply wrong. Yet like me, the authors of the chapters in "Reflections" generally display a genuine affection for Schaeffer the man and his almost single-handed efforts to introduce American Evangelicals to the contours of Western thought. Generally a decade or so older than me, many of them had spent some time at L'Abri, Schaeffer's mountain-side study center in the Swiss Alps. Many then, and others later (as they pursued their studies) loved the man but couldn't help but react critically to his superficial analyses.

If there was a second consistent theme to the criticism theme of Schaeffer it is one I've noted elsewhere: a devotion to "worldview thinking." Indeed, the two criticisms--superficiality and worldview thinking regularly go together. (See my earlier posts here, here, and here for some elaborations of my concerns about worldview.) Identifying (or simply positing) an earlier philosopher's or artist's worldview saved Schaeffer the trouble of actually and seriously interacting with the other's work at a fundamental level.

But now I'd like to add another concern about "worldview:" identity politics. If anything has to come to characterize contemporary political thought it's commitment to "identity." Whether one "identifies" as a sex other than one's natural endowment or simply as a racial or economic category, identity politics comes to little more than assertions of the putative collective "rights" to expression as one identifies oneself. There is no "human nature;" instead, what counts is one's socially constructed identity. In yet other words, the concept of self-identity has succumbed to ideology. What had been external--an untethered form of political Manichaeism--has now been turned inward. 

Although formally resistant to social constructivism, conservative Christians oriented to worldview thinking can find themselves making the same sorts of arguments as the purveyors of identity politics. If, as Schaeffer regularly argued, one's actions followed directly from one's worldview, and one's worldview was simply a given, then it's only a short step to equating worldview and identity. It is a step, of course--Schaeffer believed that one could critique another's worldview by the use of reason--but the high-level, abstract sort of reasoning in which Schaeffer engaged wasn't likely to dent someone's preferred identity. And even more regrettably, many of today's popularizers of Christian worldview thinking don't much try. One simply "has" a worldview and, if it's Christian it's right and if it's non-Christian it's wrong, and that's about it. In short, conservative Christians have succumbed to ideology

One of James Hurley's contribution of "Reflections" is true of all of us: "Great strengths can also be great liabilities." We should not only honestly acknowledge Schaeffer's shortcoming, however, we should try to do better. "Reflections" does a fair job of the former but we must take on ourselves the responsibility of doing the latter.

19 September 2016

More on Citizenship (and the Trials of Translation)

Some months ago I posted a short piece here in which I celebrated the new American citizenship of son-in-law Attilio Arcari. I also engaged in some speculation about the English and Italian translations of the Epistle to the Philippians 3:20 in which the Apostle Paul uses the Greek word πολίτευμα (politeuma). Modern English translations use the the word citizenship while Italian ones choose patria and not the more technical cittadinanza.

Since I barely knew what I was talking about, I asked my former (and now retired) Regent University colleague, Joe Kickasola. His detailed--and very interesting--response is reproduced below:
(1)  The usual Greek word for “citizenship” is politeia (Ac.22:28), but in the NT politeuma (Plp.3:20) is used as equivalent to politeia.  So, “citizenship” is a proper rendering at Php.3:20.

(2)   The reason Paul at Php.3:20 uses politeuma (the action form of the noun, “the administration of a commonwealth,” or “commonwealth”) instead of the also correct politeia (the stative form of the noun, “the state of being a citizen,” or “citizenship”) is that he is punning on what he had already said at Php.1:27, where he used the action form of the verb, politeuomai, “to order one’s life and conduct, to live with certain habits and principles”).  Php.1:27 is correctly rendered into English as “(Only) conduct yourselves (politeuesthe) (worthily of the gospel of Christ).”  Paul is matching the later action form of the noun with the earlier action form of the verb, i.e. politeu-ma with politeu-omai.

(3)   This understanding of Php.3:20 & 1:27 is actually confirmed by both the Latin of the Vulgate (conversatio) and the English of the KJV (conversation), neither of which have a reference to speaking/talking.  The Latin root vert-are means “to turn.”  The frequentative form of this verb is con-vert-are,  “to turn about with, to conduct oneself with others,” and the frequentative form of the noun from this verb is conversatio-onis, which lends to the Old English the word “conversation, manner of living, public behavior.”  The English word “conversation,” as is well known, but not in view here in Philippians, includes such social behavior as talk/speaking, as is evidenced in our derived word “to converse,” as well as the legal terminology “carnal conversation” which means adultery, which meaning of conversation is more the sense in Philippians here referring to social/public behavior.

(4)   To conclude, “conduct yourselves” in a manner worthy of Christ (rather than worthy of Caesar) at the Roman colony of Philippi (1:27) is confirmed by our “citizenship in the behavioral sense” being in heaven, not in the political or ethnic sense of Rome, because of the glorified body that Christ will give us at His Return (3:20-21).

(5)   Lastly, as to the Italian translation of patria (native country, fatherland, ethnic commonwealth), you are probably right as to why this ethnic term was favored over cittadinanza (the legal term for “citizenship”), given the different kind of political unions existing between Italy (ethnic) and the U.S. (legal).  But since every “citizen” (cittadino in Italian) in the Roman colony of Philippi shared a common cittadinanza (citizenship), I would have favored cittadinanza to patria, in that neither the legal nor the ethnic factors are in view here, but rather the behavioral aspect, i.e. conduct worthy both of Christ and His heavenly kingdom.