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Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Franklin’

Pluribus and Unum

The United States of America has somewhat of a schizophrenic community identity.  On the one hand, we relish in the idea that we are a “melting pot” of cultures; a country where people from any culture are welcome to legally come and establish a new home.  However, on the other hand, we worship the idea or myth of the rugged individual who comes to this country or who pioneers a new horizon; a country where an individual can realize the potential of all that he or she can become with enough hard work and luck.

For some time now, I have been pondering the sources of these attitudes within our American culture.  More specifically, I have wondered about our idea of the rugged individual who makes it on his or her own and how that shapes our relationships, politics and religion.  We love our pioneer stories.  We almost worship the entrepreneur who starts out with nothing and produces something out of a garage or shop that not only attains success but also produces wealth.  Our movies make heroes of the rebellious individual who beats the system or the status quo accepted by the larger majority.

This heightened sense of the individual over the community gives rise to many tensions in our society. Loyalty is no longer given to any one group but to the self.  So, individuals move from church to church, job to job, and even community to community for personal advantage.  Loyalty is passe’, whether it is to a marriage union or workers union.  Most Americans are looking for the “best deal” and “for the right price.”  We have taken the American Founders ideal of an individual’s freedom to pursue “life, liberty and happiness” to individualistic twisted ends.

Individualism fractures society more than it unifies it.  It seems to be the human tendency to move toward separateness until there is something that unites us – a common enemy, a common problem, or a common experience in the midst of disaster.  Once the threat has passed, however, jockeying begins all over for the selfishly personal “best seat at the table.”  Jesus’ disciples exhibited this same behavior despite the fact that it was Jesus who brought them all together and was the unifying factor.  Perhaps church bodies could learn something from their example and Jesus’ instructions to them.

Of course, the fracture of civilization and its relationships is nothing new to human existence. It is as old as the Garden of Eden where the break in community with other humans and with their Creator began.  However you tell the story and understand it, it perfectly illustrates the human condition.  From Genesis chapter three through history up to today, we witness the effects of the rips and tears in our social fabric.  The story of the Tower of Babel, when God caused confusion through language and culture, is only the pinnacle of this story.  Humanity has been on a steady descent ever since despite the attempts of world rulers and empires to bring a return to a one-world order according to their terms.  This has only led to resistance and further fractures in the global human community.

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Of course, conveyors of conspiracy theories like to point to one of the Latin phrases on the reverse side of the United States’ Great Seal to show that the U.S. is involved in the same scheme. The Latin words

Reverse of the Great Seal of the United States.

Image via Wikipedia

Novus ordo seclorum” are taken by them to mean “New World Order” when, in fact, they truly mean “New Order of the Ages;” signifying the beginning of a new era with the birth of the United States of America.  The other Latin phrase appearing with it is “Annuit coeptis,” which means “God favored our undertakings.”  So, there is a bit of irony in the theories of conspiratists in that it would seem that they believe the U.S. is involved in some diabolical plan to take over the world with God’s blessings.

At any rate, the Latin phrase on the U.S. Great Seal which most Americans are more familiar with is “E Pluribus Unum.” This is roughly translated “out of many, one” or “one from many.”  In recent American history, it has been embraced to refer to the great cultural “melting pot” of this country.  However, at the beginning of American independence from Great Britain, it was an attempt to directly reflect the unity of the diverse thirteen colonies.

Modern Americans tend to forget just how fractious those early colonies were based upon their religious preferences, politics, loyalties to England, economies and ideals of the ruling classes. The contentions were never really settled until after the Civil War – and some would argue, especially from the southern United States, that it is still not settled.  Early on, the threat of secession from the federal union was always present; first from the northern states and then from the south.  Politics became divided very early over the preeminence of individual and state rights versus federal rights.  We still wage political battle over those ideas today.  This conflict may always be in flux and never really settled in our American democracy.

Interestingly, E Pluribus Unum was the motto of the United States of America until 1956, when it replaced with In God We Trust.” Until then, it appears on most U.S. coinage since it was mandated by law in 1873.  It first appeared on U.S. coinage in 1795 even though it was first proposed for the Great Seal of the U.S. in August of 1776 and finally formally adopted in 1782.  In the 1776 proposal, which Benjamin Franklin had a hand in, the seal had a shield with six symbols; each symbol representing the six main countries that provided immigrants to the colonies: the rose (England), thistle (Scotland), harp (Ireland), fleur-de-lis (France), lion (Holland), and an imperial two-headed eagle (Germany).  Those six symbols were surrounded by thirteen smaller shields, which were to represent “the thirteen independent States of America.”  Of course, the “independence” of those states and the others to follow would greatly change with the new constitution of 1883.

The idea that a country not formed by, from or for any one ethnic group can exist without fracturing into hundreds of splintering self-interest groups is still being tested.  The United States and its people are still very much a democratic experiment in the making.  The strength of our union requires every citizen and local and state government to bow to higher ideals than self-interest.  This, in part, was the empowering force behind Abraham Lincoln’s administration and other leaders to seek to preserve the union with southern states who attempted to go their own way.

Even in many American churches, the unity of the church fellowship takes pre-eminence over selfish desires and goals. There is a desire on the part of the individual to be a part of something larger than just the small cosmic consciousness that the individual inhabits.  Becoming and being a part of a community of faith enlarges one’s life and capacity for living in and through the lives of others as believers pray, worship and serve together.  The essence of the Gospel and the Church’s theology is that the Creator, through His incarnation in His Son, Jesus, has come to bring true unity in human and divine relationships.  As the apostle Paul would have it, the enmity or hostilities created by cultures, languages, skin colors and offenses to God have been removed by the peace offering made by Jesus the Messiah on the cross.

So, we are not merely “pluribus” – many independent individuals or states of being seeking to find out own way. We are also “unum” – formed as Americans in our democracy to unite around those ideals that make us a unique light to the rest of the world.  We are a cosmic declaration that people from different parts of the world, with different skin colors, abiding by different religious convictions can not just merely co-exist but also become unified for the common good of each individual in its society to pursue life, liberty and happiness.  It was this very audacious and precarious idea that caused most of the America’s Founders and the truly wise and understanding today to constantly invoke the help and aid of Providence.  And so, it seems, as long as the help of heaven preserves our union and democracy, we will continue to be E Pluribus Unum.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Our Divine Therapist Who Art In Heaven

It turns out that the secularization of America may unwittingly be the work of the Church itself.  Its abandonment of doctrine that comes with strong exegetical Biblical teaching and preaching has developed a religious population in American churches that know little if anything about the most basic tenets of the orthodox Christian faith.  This is the sad report given to us by the Barna Research Group in April 10, 2009, entitled “Most American Christians Do Not Believe that Satan or the Holy Spirit Exist.”

For several years now, the dominant religious “Christian” belief system in America has been identified as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.*  The fact of the matter is that it only on a very limited level can it be identified with orthodox Christian beliefs.  Nevertheless, it remains the predominant belief system of most American Christians, especially among its youth.  They cannot be faulted for this as one only needs to examine what has been taught in many American churches for the past 30 years.  The fault must lie at the feet of those responsible for the discipleship and education of their congregations.

The simplest way to break down what Moralistic Therapeutic Deism believes is that it asserts “God as Creator and Law Giver but largely uninvolved in daily life and presumes that all good people will go to heaven, regardless of religious beliefs.”  The authors identify a five-part “de-facto creed” of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

The authors of the book go on to say, “Moralistic Therapeutic Design is about inculcating a moralistic approach to lifeIt teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person.  That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health and doing one’s best to be successful.”

As such, then, “This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etcetera…It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems and getting along amiably with other people.”

In this system of belief God is present in life like a life-coach or therapist.  He is there to help people succeed in life, to make them feel good, and to help them get along with others.  According to Bill White in his article, “Descent Into Darkness,” the belief statement that sums up this religion is: God helps those who help themselves.  “In fact, 75% of Americans are convinced that quote comes from the Bible.  It was actually Ben Franklin who said that, and he publicly acknowledged that he was a Deist.”

Why call it Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Well, when one considers its central tenets as expressed above, it is very evident that it is moralistic because the primary teaching is to “be nice.”  And, it is therapeutic because, by focusing on pop psychology and self-help, the goal is to bring us comfort.  Finally, it is deism because the core belief is that there is a God who made the world, but he does n0t require much of us; he is generally nice but not too involved.

Some of the trouble lies in our attempts to make the Gospel “user friendly.” Most attempts only emasculate the Gospel so that it makes no demands.  Following Jesus is not supposed to be hard.  “The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not demanding,” say Smith and Denton. “Actually, he can’t be because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good.  In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist.”  (Chanon Ross addresses this issue in youth ministry in his article “Jesus Isn’t Cool: Challenging youth ministry.”)

Columbia Gorge Above John Day Dam, Horse Thief Lake, Spring 2010

Columbia Gorge Above John Day Dam, Horse Thief Lake, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

This insipid form of Christian belief has been adequately addressed by more brilliant people than me.  For instance, Lane Chaplin handles it very well in his blog.  He identifies this system of belief of classical Pelagianism, which teaches that man is basically good apart from God’s grace.  That is an oversimplification of Pelagianism but makes its point.  Gene Edward Veith of World Magazine has an excellent critique of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as well.  It is a part of the “Christless christianity” that Michael Horton fears is preached in most American pulpits today.  As Brian Kiley points out in his blog, Live Generously, no where do we hear the theology of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism more than at funerals, especially funerals of famous individuals like Michael Jackson.*

The remedy for this creeping spiritually destructive teaching, of course, is strong, exegetical teaching and preaching from the Bible.  A return to focusing upon the central doctrines of the Church in the education of our children and young people will help them develop a robust faith in God.  This does not demand dry, irrelevant teaching and preaching.  Application of beliefs to daily living is always important.

On the other hand, it may be just as easy to rework the Lord’s Pray a bit to accommodate our view of God:

Our Divine Therapist
Who art in heaven
Hallowed are our plans and convenience.
Thy goodness come,
Thy morality be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our peace and happiness.
Forgive us our mess-ups
And help us to overlook the mess-ups of others.
And lead us to become better people
By delivering us from our inner demons
For your distant watchfulness means our peace and contentment and joy forever.  Amen.

Now that God has been reduced to serving my need for comfort and convenience, I have a few things I need to let him know about that is really bugging me.  Where do I find his therapy couch?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

*CAUTION:  Here is one example where the Wikipedia information is mis-information.  First, it only identifies one of the authors in the study, Christian Smith.  The other author was Melinda Lundquist Denton.  Second, it has the wrong school!  It was not University of Notre Dame but instead University of North Carolina.  The study was a report to the National Study of Youth and Religion.  It was the basis for their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
*CAUTION:  Apparently Brian Kiley followed the Wikipedia article and provides the same misinformation.  Be careful of using Wikipedia!

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