Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving 2007

“America is the Only Nation in the World Founded on a Creed”[1]

G.K. Chesterton:“It may have seemed something less than a compliment to compare the American Constitution to the Spanish Inquisition. But oddly enough, it does involve a truth, and still more oddly perhaps, it does involve a compliment. The American Constitution does resemble the Spanish Inquisition in this: that it is founded on a creed. America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that al men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism, and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived. Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things.”

The Creed: The Declaration of Independence: The self-evident truths appear in consciousness because of the experience of the self in the transcendence that is prayer, community life and hard work. It is fundamentally a Christian faith-experience that took place in the colonies from 1620 to 1776 in which it exploded as autonomy of self-determination that would not brook the slightest imposition by the British Crown. It was not the unrighteous revolution that took place in France, but the righteousness of the dignity of the person and the natural right to decide about the self. T o wit:


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

Self-Evidence From Faith-Experience: Historically, North America passed through the experience of 150 years of Christian faith lived by mostly baptized Protestants with benefit of Scripture, prayer and work. As we have seen in previous blogs, the experience of faith as self-gift to the revealing Christ creates a consciousness of self-dignity and rights:“(I)n the beginning, America was Protestant: that point has been emphasized by every historian of the United States. Therefore we turn to the doctrines and the mentality and the social characteristics of what we call Protestantism – or rather, of certain types of Reformers. But also we need to remind ourselves that when we call early America Protestant, we mean that America was Christian. The fundamental Christian convictions… were not undone at the Reformation. Instead, certain of those beliefs received a renewed emphasis from Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the other Reformers…. The Protestant Reformers believed that they were reasserting and reviving the teachings of the early Church of Christ….“The vast majority of people in the thirteen Colonies professed the Christian religion in one or another of its Protestant aspects – chiefly in Anglicanism, in Puritanism (an offshoot of Calvinism), or in Presbyterianism (another offshoot of Calvinism)…. This should be borne in mind: despite the ferocity of the Wars of Religion, the similarities among various Christian bodies are more important than their differences, where we have to do with questions of the order of the soul and of the commonwealth. Hideously though Catholics and Protestants often dealt with one another, still their understanding of man and of society had come from one Christian root.”[4]


Go Forward, Not Back



John Henry Murray, S.J. wrote: "The renewal of our American public philosophy does not mean a return to the past. The movement cannot be launched under the slogan, ‘Back to the Founding Fathers!’ Even if we were to execute this maneuver of a return to the past, we would find that the philosophy of the Founding Fathers, good as it was, is not good enough for the political and social needs of todoay, any more than their Deism would be good enough for our contemporary religious needs.

“I have said that the Founding Fathers did their work within the context of an older tradition, the liberal tradition of the West. This was the basic strength of their thought – that it was traditional. But this too was its weakness: for they made contact with the older tradition at a moment when it had already been weakened from within and had begun its decline. We can see this today, both from the standpoint of our scholarship and also from the standpoint of our experience – political, social and economic. Hence, we can see what our problem is today. It is not to go back to the Founding Fathers; you would better say that it is to go forward from the Founding Fathers. Our problem is not to make vital contact with the traditions of civility as these traditions were possessed and restated by the great men of the 18th century. Our problem is to back beyond the 18th century and to make vital contact with the traditions of civility in their purer form before they had been touched oby the rationalism, voluntarism, secularism and individualism of the 18th century England and America. It is only thus that traditions are renewed – first, by a return to their original sources, and then by a restatement of their original principles and inspirations in terms of a later and much altered social reality. This is a large subject….

“Nor are the Founding Fathers themselves good enough, though we can still learn much from them. Our task is not the recapture of a particular moment in the history of the liberal tradition; it is the re-creation of the tradition itself through an understanding of its inner substance and through an adaptation of this substance to the society in which we live. This much, I think, needed to be said in order to measure the magnitude of the task that confronts.”
[1]


The Crisis Facing Us Today:


We are confronted by the alternative: a dictatorship of relativism powered by an inexorable biologistic positivism, or a voluntary spiritualization powered by the energy of creative minorities and exceptional individuals. Joseph Ratzinger presents this in the alternative between Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. He says:

“There are two opposing diagnoses on the possible future of Europe. ON the ond hand, there is the thesis of Oswald Spengler, who believed that he had identified a natural law for the great moments in cultural history: first came the birth of a culture, then its gradual rise, flourishing, slow decline, aging, and death. Spengler argues his thesis with ample documentation, culled from the history of cultures, that demonstrated the law of the natural ife cycle. His thesis was that the West would come to an end, and that it was rushing heedlessly toward its demise, despite every effort to stop it. Europe could of course bequeath its gifts to a new emerging culture – following the example set by previous cultures during their decline – but as a historical subject its life cycle had effectively ended.

“Spengler’s ‘biologistic’ thesis attracted fierce opponents during the period between the two wars, especially in Catholic circles. Arnold Toynbee reserved harsh words for it, in arguments too readily ignored today. Toynbee emphasized the difference bet5rween technological-material progress and true progress, which he defined as spiritualization,. He recognized that the Western world was indeed undergoing a crisis, which he attributed to the abandonment of religion for the cult of technology, nationalism, and militarism. For him this crisis had a name: secularism.

“If you know the cause of an illness, yo can also find a cure: the religious heritage in all its forms had to be reintroduced especially the ‘heritage of Western Christianity.’ Rather than a biologistic vision, he offers a voluntaristic one focused on the energy of creative minorities and exceptional individuals.”
[2]

Toward the end of his remarks, Ratzinger says: “The essential problem of our times, for Europe and for the world, is that although the fallacy of the communist economy has been recognized – so much so that former communists have unhesitatingly become economic liberals – the moral and religious question that it used to address has been almost totally repressed. The unresolved issue of Marxism lives on: the crumbling of man’s original uncertainties about God, himself, and the universe. The decline of a moral conscience grounded in absolute values is still our problem today. Left untreated, it could lead to the self-destruction of the European conscience, which we must begin to consider as a real danger – above and beyond the decline predicted by Spengler.”
[3]

This is our problem now in reaching the absolute of Jesus the Christ in Jesus of Nazareth, and hence the absolute value of the human person who is the ontological ground of the self-evident truths of this American Body Politic.


[1] John Courtney Murray, “Freedom, Responsibility and the Law,” Catholic Lawyer July 1956.
[2] J. Ratzinger and Marcello Pera, “Without Roots,” Basic Books (2006) 67-68.
[3] Ibid 73-74.

5 comments:

Kevin said...

Father Bob,
"This is our problem now in reaching the absolute of Jesus the Christ in Jesus of Nazareth, and hence the absolute value of the human person who is the ontological ground of the self-evident truths of this American Body Politic."

In retrospect, the problem was there at the beginning; the Founders tried to bridge an impossible divide between Jesus of Nazareth and the Enlightenment narrative. The latter sees Christ as just another flavor safely offered for private consumption at the Marketplace of Ideas.

Father Murray says we should attempt a "re-creation of the tradition itself through an understanding of its inner substance and through an adaptation of this substance to the society in which we live." A return to ancient and classical sources would surely affect the death of the liberal tradition.

Clearly, a noble endeavor and one I support, but don't expect much of a reception from those who think the "Founding" the pinnacle of human cultural achievement. Too many have invested in the myth of "American Exeptionalism" and the fruits of pluralism to accept their passing.

Still, I'm on board!

Anonymous said...

The loss of absolute values arose, as we all know, from the rise of relativism. The future of our country, our culture, and our faith depends upon the next step. Man cannot accept the fate of irrelevance dictated by relativism. Relativism has no future because it is inherently destructive. It offers no answers.

Politically, our Constitution can work if we redefine the pursuit of happiness. It need not be the pursuit of materialism and selfism. As the egoic structure of our culture continues to collapse, individuals will begin to understand fully that happiness does not come from materialism and selfism. A geometric progression of consumption is not sustainable. Once that stops ($100 + per barrel of oil), people will naturally evolve to a new consciousness that will embrace our Catholic ideals of giving ourselves to our God and neighbor. Then, our society may become much happier, and elect a government that pursues the evolved definition of happiness. The Constitution can live on if those who benefit from it interpret it in a manner that leads to true happiness.

Kentucky Scot

Kevin said...

Kentucky Scott,
"Once that stops ($100 + per barrel of oil), people will naturally evolve to a new consciousness that will embrace our Catholic ideals of giving ourselves to our God and neighbor."

I suspect things will get far worse before we see a Catholic Renaissance. Social disorder will accompany the massive changes in our living arrangements when cheap energy and cheap credit vanish. The Americn people will be very susceptible to the Man on the White Horse and likely concede even more power to the secular state.

At any rate, I do agree that a new age of limits and a return to self-sufficient, sustainable communities will help usher in a Catholic epoch. But the cost will be severe.

Brian Kilroy said...

Point #1: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” While we are indeed fortunate and certainly blessed to have the Constitution and Declaration as the foundation of the American experience, Chesterton had it mostly right when he said: “Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly.” To hit the nail a bit harder and to slightly modify poet Robert Frost, “we have many miles to go before we sleep. . .” -- on both points – in the matters of God and government when applying the sound dogmas of our Founding Fathers. Indeed, both the Declaration and Constitution are wonderful roadmaps--albeit for the “path not taken” (another Frostism) over the past 200+ years. Sadly, cultural conservatives and liberal secularists share the blame for the wild sleigh ride that fills the political, economic, and religious history of our very short experiment. Both groups have both been essentially “peas in the same pod” as their own forms of relativism have prevailed for political expediency and the self-satisfaction of their constituencies. God has seldom really entered into the equation while frequently referenced as a footnote by both camps. [Note: puzzled about Liberals quoting God in American politics? Seems illogical perhaps these days, but please read some of FDR’s best chats and speeches. How soon we forget who was effectively quoting whom – just 65 years ago.] Indeed, the Chesterton “nobody expects” expectation has been fulfilled in our modern political system.

Point #2: As Father Bob points out, John Henry Murray, S.J. wrote: "The renewal of our American public philosophy does not mean a return to the past. The movement cannot be launched under the slogan, ‘Back to the Founding Fathers!’ Amen to that, I say. Jesus of Nazareth did not return to the past –- ancient Israel -- on the Sermon on the Mount. He came instead to fulfill the past: “Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Our challenge is similar: to revisit the ideals and self-evident truths laid out in our nation’s founding documents while more importantly fulfilling God’s laws on which they were loosely based. And the task goes way beyond the ideals prescribed by the Founding Fathers –- “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20).

Point #3: The radicalism of Jesus of Nazareth is “the way” and it is nothing like which comes out of the modern political world, so why do we `bother trying to fit a square peg into a round hole? Jesus of Nazareth came as the Word of God in person; he came as the new Torah and Temple, in short, “The Way.” As Benedict XVI points out: “The Sermon on the Mount cannot serve as a foundation for a state and a social order, as is frequently and correctly observed. Its message seems to be located on another level.” We need look no further than the Beatitudes and Jesus himself to see the directions for the new order -- from God himself, in Jesus. Bendict XVI: “This restructuring of the social order (around the Beatitudes (my emphasis)) finds its basis and its justification in Jesus’ claim that he, with his community of disciples forms the origin and center of a new Israel.” We are the new disciples and the new Israel is all around us – it is our world and we are now charged with modeling and living the new social and religious order. And, the new order is first and foremost communion with Jesus of Nazareth and not as Benedict XVI points out, “an absolute secularism, for which forgetfulness of God and exclusive concern with success seem to have become the guiding principles.”

Anonymous said...

Wow! Great discussion. All of these comments were challenging. We would all agree that "the new order is first and foremost communion with Jesus of Nazareth" and that "things will get far worse before we see a Catholic Renaissance." Let's hope we get there.

Kentucky Scot