Jared Witt l March 15, 2018
Consider for a moment this well known line from the United States' Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
As kids, most of us were probably taught in school that the founding documents of our nation—the Constitution, the Declaration, the Bill of Rights, that preamble that we all had to memorize before knowing exactly what a preamble is—were something like the boundaries beyond which power and law in our country must never stray.
If it was taught well, we learned that all of these founding documents should somehow be related to the concepts of equality and justice, generally, to which any other law is subordinate. So from then on, we might pass bills to publicly fund clown college, we might pass bills to require chocolate milk in the drinking fountains, or tear down all municipal buildings and turn them into skate parks, but whatever we decide to do, it must never impede one person’s “unalienable rights” in favor of someone else’s.
This is stage 1. If, like mine, your childhood was one of relative comfort and privilege (in other words, if you are typically the beneficiary of most real inequalities) you probably tended to assume that our country has more-or-less lived up to this standard, maybe with a couple hiccups along the way. This is similar to what theologians and philosophers refer to as the “first naiveté,” that stage in our development where we assume that reality actually is the way it was constructed for us by our earliest elders.
Then we get into our teenage years, and just as the job of the good grade school teacher is to inform us of the ideals on which our nation was founded, the job of a good high school teacher is to inform us that we have never once lived up to them.
We are appalled to find that while Thomas Jefferson was in his study writing these very words about the “unalienable rights” of “all men,” he was also busy impeding the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for dozens of slaves just outside his office window. And similar breaches of justice are going on outside our classroom window still hundreds of years later. Further still, we might begin to question, If men are created equal, what of women? And thus, deflatingly, we realize that something short of the ultimate ideal, is built into the words we’ve used to describe the ideal itself.
This is stage 2. We discover in adolescence that reality hasn’t lived up to the brochure, so to speak. We’re a bit angry about it. And we embark on a deconstructive phase. Deconstruction shouldn’t be confused with destruction. It’s more like intellectual honesty. We fess up to the all the ways in which our history makes a pretty lie of our professed ideals.
Both of these stages are necessary steps along the path to fully conscious adulthood. Neither should be final. And yet, I wonder how much conflict in our country right now is attributable to the arrested development of individuals stuck in one of these two stages: the childlike first naiveté or the adolescent deconstruction of it. For the one, the myth that America is actually the land of the free, where all people are created equal, is beyond question. For the other, that assertion is hypocritical and therefore worthless.
But the fully developed adult neither throws out the baby in cynicism nor drowns it in the bathwater of blind patriotism.
Maturity is recognizing that these ideals are neither fully accomplished facts nor dismissible lies. Rather, they are aspirations. And whether or not they exist or not depends very much on whether they insist within us.
I’m talking about stage 3: what theologians and philosophers call “second naiveté.” We choose to live by faith in the unreal ideal with a faith that makes it real. Declarations and constitutions have no existence on the ground. And yet, they become actual insofar as we believe them to be actual. This isn’t a complicated thought. If we truly take seriously that all people are equal (and have the intellectual honesty to recognize when we’ve left someone out of the term “all”), then we will tend to create a society where they are living equally.
What both children and adolescents have in common—both those who lightly assume that what’s on paper must be “mission accomplished” on the ground (stage 1) and those who only mock its inconsistency with the truth (stage 2)—is that neither of them takes the ideal seriously as an aspiration.
I’m not a political theorist. You’ve maybe already anticipated the analogy. The way fully developed Americans should relate to the founding ideals of our nation is almost identical to how I think Christians should relate to the creeds and belief system of our tradition.
Every Sunday, in many denominations, we say “I believe in Jesus Christ, [God’s] only son our Lord.”
Frequently, I’ll have adult ed. groups recite the creed and then ask of the words that just came out of their mouths, “do you?” Because, naturally, to believe someone is “Lord” is to follow their commands. With Jesus, this means turning the other cheek rather than resorting to any form of violence, forgiving the most heinous enemies, never taking a life and, I have to think, throwing one's self into the spokes of any systemic wheel that would crush them just the same. And it means giving away all material possessions.
So given that I’ve never had a naked person sitting in one of my adult ed classes, I have to think that this creed exists at the aspirational level for us at the moment.
To deny the belief that Jesus is Lord would be to deny our only reason for being here. To believe we actually believe it would be to minimize Jesus and what he thinks of things.
But as an aspiration, the ideal insists. If we take it seriously, it both points us toward the goal and pulls us to it.
And of course, we say it as a community. Because the goal is not for me to live up to the ideal or for you to live up to it. The goal is for us to collectively grow into the sort of community that reflects what it means to call Jesus Lord.
That’s enough words for today.
Cheers and Peace,
How Castle Church is stirring up a new spirit in the church from a brewery in Orlando, FL.