Freedom at 236

Some of us have a habit of taking stock of our lives when those annual reminders known as birthdays roll around to tell us we’re not getting any younger; and the more often it happens, the more urgent becomes the attention we are willing to give to areas that need to be addressed, not only for our own benefit but for that of the people we will eventually leave behind.

I don’t know how a nation does the sort of soul-searching individuals do. Certainly, there is no shortage of volunteers to make the assessment and pronounce the cures for all ills discovered in the process. But the agendas attending these pronouncements are generally quite transparent; and those agendas all too frequently have little to do with a sound understanding of what we once were, what founders set out to create, or what changes in the initial vision have been necessitated by the movement of times, ideas, philosophies, and the means by which any of these are communicated, instantiated, or defended. Yet where we go from here has to begin with where we’ve come from and how we got from there to this point, unless one holds the notion that history is all irrelevant–in which case there is no way to discern either where we are or where we ought to go.

Many of us learned and even memorized the words of such an assessment made eighty-eight years into what became known as the Grand Experiment. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address included several lines that have never left my memory:

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, can long endure.

How long, and under what sorts of duress and circumstances, can the vision endure? How does it fare? I suspect that how we answer such questions has more relevance in a presidential election year than at other times. But it seems that we are very close to a point in national/cultural history at which freedom and equality are seen by too many on either side of a great political divide as irreconcilable pursuits. What I fear is that freedom is viewed only as the absence of restraint on what one desires, regardless of the merits of those very desires. One wants to be free from restraint to become as wealthy as possible; another wishes to engage in whatever pleasurable activities happen to be in vogue, create whatever relationships strike the fancies of the moment. To such a mindset, equality consists only in the opportunity fo each person to do the same with his or her freedom.

How we negotiate the claims of freedom on one hand and the guarding of equality on the other has much to do with what we believe freedom to be and to what extent we will protect the rights of others from being violated in our chosen pursuits. I would also suggest that it has to do with what we perceive human beings to be in the first place. This, honestly, is the source of my deepest concerns for our future: we have lost the grounding of both the Declaration and the Gettysburg Address, namely that we are the intentional creation of God. I am hard pressed to think of solid grounding for human dignity, freedom, and therefore mutual concern and protection absent this foundation. This is not to suggest that people without such a belief are unable to act in ways that are honorable and responsible to freedom and equality; there are ample examples of such people, and I am thankful for the fact. Whether they can give a satisfying reason for their nobility is another question, and it is a question being more and more frequently asked by another generation, one which finds anything having to do with sacrifice and hard work too much of an imposition on their freedom.

This is not intended as gloom and doom. It is yet another call to Christian people of all political stripes to pay greater attention to our humanity than to our party, and to engage in the hard work of helping a culture think through its options. Are we up to it?

Oh, and Happy Birthday to us!

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A Not So Brave New Farm of Sheep?

Okay, the title is a weak attempt at cleverness; but I wonder how many of you (and it would help to be of a certain age) could identify the three books referenced therein. Thoughts of each of them have been running through my mind today as the dust tries in vain to settle from the announcement by the U. S. Supreme Court that the Health Care Reform Act (HRA below) has been largely upheld.

Unlike tv reality (yeah, right) shows, I won’t leave the reader hanging until the end before revealing their identity. The books are Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and the somewhat lesser known A Nation of Sheep by William Lederer. They come from an earlier time (mid-late twentieth century), and were part of the required summer reading lists I was required to work through in high school. That practice alone tells you I’m from an earlier era.

What’s the point of resonating with these books and the announcement? Well, first of all, I am not making comment so much on the details of the constitutionality decision itself; I am not a qualified legal analyst or constitutional scholar, of which there are more than enough pretenders burning up the status pages of facebook. While I admit it doesn’t make sense to me, I also admit that I don’t know enough about what makes sense to the people who have studied these things for decades. Secondly, I don’t think this is about whether or not President Obama is a good or evil man. For the record, I believe he is a decent man who cares about people; but I also think his thinking about who should do what about the problems we face are seriously flawed. And those flaws are what remind me of the books.

Brave New World had much to say about the dehumanization of the citizens. They were told what to think and were given ample doses of pleasure-inducing drugs when their brains actuality tried to kick into gear and question the “truths” that were being constantly drummed into their minds. Dissenters were shipped off to a safely confined area where they could do as they pleased–even think freely–among themselves. It’s the constant repetition of “truths” that concern me with regard to the current cultural climate, including but certainly not limited to the president. If a proposition is repeated long enough, loudly enough, and by enough people, it becomes the truth; and such a process lies at the heart of political correctness, in which a decision to treat preferred positions as true and unassailable closes debate and marginalizes those who might dissent. Many such propositions are buried in the 2,000 pages that comprise the HRA. And they include positions regarding abortion, homosexuality, the role of government, the nature of religion, human evolutionary development, and a host of others. They are neither argued nor open to argument; they became true by governmental fiat, as determined by consultation with supposed experts.

Animal Farm, on the other hand, warns against thinking that we can fix everything by replacing leaders. We do not, and perhaps cannot, permanently install the people themselves as governors; those who ascend on such a basis eventually assume it their business to be “more equal” than others. Perhaps the genius of our American system is that it has forestalled the ascent of the new ruling class for as long as it has. But (inevitably?) that leadership decides more and more what will and what will not be tolerated–and what can and cannot be left for the governed to decide. My fear with today’s decision is that it marks a point of no return regarding the powers the government can take upon itself. If the requirement to purchase one particular good is in place, can we really expect that it will not become the first in a series? If this, why not that also?

Finally, Lederer’s book from 1961 pointed to the mesmerizing effect of mass marketing and governmental shell games, hiding things in law and anesthetizing us to their effects, leading us to where we can be fleeced and slaughtered (figuratively, of course). The book resurfaced recently through references in the speeches and writings of Andrew Napolitano. He is worth a read.

What does all of this recollection of books read in high school more than forty years ago tell me? It does not mean that I’m excessively angered by this particular decision, though I think it a bad one. It does not mean that I’m joining a new or existing political movement. It does not mean that those who do, or even those who continue the current regime are necessarily worse people than the rest of us. It does remind me of the inability of human government to do that which can only be done under the Lordship of Christ. We try in vain to instantiate the kingdom for which all humanity inwardly longs–the kingdom in which real truth, righteousness, beauty, and goodness prevail. And the response of believers, rather than to rail against a president or his detractors, ought to be to live and exemplify what a redeemed humanity looks like, where people bear one another’s burdens, rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, and live as they truly are and ought to be their brother’s keeper.

Made To Do What? Part 1

There has been much rethinking about the Christian message going on in recent years. It is likely to continue into the foreseeable future (which, of course, is itself an ever-shortening period). Questions concerning the nature of the Bible, its purpose, its origins, its interpretation, its authority are all very important; questions about the nature of justification have been rekindled recently; the status of unevangelized and even of evangelized and unconverted people have come up again in recent discussions; the meaning Genesis is under scrutiny as more and more Christians find traditional interpretations difficult to square with what seems to be indisputable evidence from science pointing in a different direction. And all that and more comes from within the evangelical tent.

It can be very tempting to say “just give me Jesus,” and let the questions go without further thought. On one hand, that simple formula might be taken as our call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God; it’s Jesus’ way of doing life. On the other hand, any version of Jesus we wish to be given is undeniably filtered through a way of using the word about him, the people who speak it to us, the culture in which we hear of him, and a host of other factors both personal and sociological. Even in the interpretation of Jesus, we seem at times to be choosing between interpreting Jesus in light of our way of looking at life or pretending that there are no factors of time and culture between the Jesus of the New Testament and our 21st century lives.

All of which ought to make us a great deal more humble about our assertions than is often the case. We encounter everything from a particular perspective and learn best when we hear from other starting points. Contrary to some people’s opinions, however, we are not entirely bound by our starting points; we can engage those from other cultures and learn from them, especially from within the Christian framework, but also from outside on the biblical assumption of a common humanity. But humility in our conclusions is not the same as disinterest in our thinking. We do have minds, we have been given both natural and special revelation, and we do share an interest in finding our way toward the truth about things. We can’t be otherwise. Even those who have given up the search for truth due to the many barriers that guard our way to it cannot help but make assumptions about the way things are. We are made to think, and we will do it, although it may be done very poorly and inadequately. Yet think we must.

What do we think about? Our needs, survival, protection—to be sure, a significant portion of the human race is occupied with these matters for most of their lives. But we also think about our future, about our origins, and about such things as purpose and meaning, legacy and posterity. We think about what we make, what we want to make and what we have made that we wish we had not. And we think much about what has gone wrong, or at least about what prevents us from having the kinds of lives that we intuitively expect to have. Why are things not different? And when we think in this way we seldom ask the opposite—why are things not worse than they are? What’s up with that?

Christian theology/philosophy (should there be a distinction?) must provide some sort of stable-yet-tentative answers toward these questions. We cannot sum up human existence by suggesting that the only thing we need to know about human beings is that we are sinners worthy of judgment who saved by grace in Jesus. This begs too many questions to even begin, yet it seems to be all that is on offer in all too many simplistic versions of “the gospel.” For starters, why were we made in the first place? You might offer an answer to that one, or take the safer route and say, “this is what I’ve heard.”

Tis is the first post in a series that asks who we are, what kind of beings God said were made in His image and likeness. The first answer suggested here is that we are thinking beings. We should not wish to be otherwise.