Commentators such as the distinguished Canadian thinker, George Grant, have noted that it is difficult today to know what to do, in terms of practical politics, about stopping the current epidemic of abortions. This is because of a decay, these authors assert, in the philosophical underpinnings of Western society that might be summarized in the phrase “the twilight of justice.”
In view of the danger of despair in such a situation, it was both heartening and somewhat surprising to attend a gathering convened specifically to explore ways of lightening the darkness, and perhaps even doing something about it. The National Symposium on Human Life, held at Bayview Glen Church, Thornhill, Ontario, October 1 to 3, drew over 300 Evangelical Christian professionals, academics, writers ministers, and pastoral workers from across Canada to a full schedule of corporate worship, lectures and workshops. The symposium centred on the theme of developing a Christian response to the various manifestations in our society of the attitudes to human life that have been collectively characterized by Robert Jay Lifton (referring to their earlier appearance in this century) as “biocracy.”
Organized by a subcommittee of the Social Action Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the symposium was considered a moderate success by its sponsors. Rev. Brian C. Stiller, the executive director of the EFC, noted that although he had “expected more people to attend,” the congress had “nevertheless accomplished our prime objective – to model a conference within the Evangelical framework on a very difficult social issue.” Stiller also stated frankly that he and his colleagues had “learned some lessons about our community” from its response to the call for participation, such as the evidence that “life issues” including abortion and genetic engineering “are not as much on the immediate agenda” of Evangelicals as had bee thought, or hoped.
Dr. Paul Marshall, an author and professor of political theory at eh Institute of Christian Studies in Toronto, and the chairman of the Social Action Commission of the EFC, was pleased that so many informed and articulate speakers and participants, persons involved with the medical and “caring” professions, were attached to the conference, and that his first attempt by the EFC to organize something around the abortion issue with a braider philosophical scope than a “pep rally,” had clearly not misfired.
The realm of practical politics was not neglected, however. On the concluding day of the gathering , a plenary of the session was addressed by the Honourable Jake Epp, the federal minister of Health and Welfare, who realistically cautioned the audience not to expect governments in a pluralistic liberal-democracy to implement social policies that are entirely satisfactory to Evangelicals.
On the previous evening, Professor John Redekop, chairman of the Political Science Department of Wilfred Laurier University and head of Canadian Studies there, offered some suggestions as to how to support a “Christian ethos” in government in the context of Canadian political culture.
Both Professor Redekop and Gerld Vandezande, public affairs directors of Citizens for Public Justice, addressed the problem of ideology (i.e., political religion) as a phenomenon of contemporary reality in their workshops. Both speakers made it clear that the ideological presuppositions of modern thought must be understood if Christians are to avoid the mistake of thinking that they can translate their faith into immediate political programmes.
Not a single issue
Rev. Stiller summarized the intention of the conference as an attempt to help people to see that “abortion is not a single issue,” and noted that organizers had realized that in order to accomplish this, they would have “to get as foundational as we could.”
Thus, an underlying theme of the convention was the articulation of an Evangelical anthropology as a critique of modern “humanist” theories of human nature. This was introduced at a workshop on the fist evening by Dr. Clark Pinnok, professor of Systematic Theolody at McMaster Divinity School.
Dr. Pinnok’s argument, based upon a synthesis from Biblical allusions to man’s status as an “image of God,” boiled down to the assertion that “high value” and “dignity for all human persons” should make “the preservation of human life an absolute standard.” A note of controversy was introduced here, however, as Pinnok pointed out that Christians had been divided historically on precisely this question, namely, the nature of the “image,” the degree to which it had been damaged by the Fall, the specific means by which it was to be restored and the meaning of such a restoration.
Here Dr. Pinnok touched upon a second underlying theme of the conference – one which remained unarticulated. He evidently alluded to it, though, when he posed the question, fundamental to an in-depth consideration of the root of modernity: “How did Christian theology get off track?”
A further canvassing of this deeper matter involving as it would an analysis of the process of conversion of Christian civil theology into a kind of political “Gnosticism” (in Eric Voegelin’s phrase) in the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods, might take us to a place of understanding that would lead beyond Grant’s “twilight of justice.”
Terry Barker is completing a doctorate in Politics at Oxford.
He teaches Canadian Studies at Humber College, Toronto.