Noah Webster

The blessing and curse of liberty

Noah Webster

Noah Webster, Library of Congress

As we celebrate our nation’s Independence, some then-and-now is in order.

On July 4, 1793, Rev. Enos Hitchcock offered an oration at the Baptist Meeting House in Providence, Rhode Island. The speech was colored by personal experience. Hitchcock served as chaplain during the war, first at Crown Point and Ticonderoga and then later at Valley Forge and West Point, seeing the high cost of liberty and ministering to countless men who paid it in full.

As townsfolk gathered to celebrate that dear prize, Hitchcock directed their contemplations toward their immense blessings. With its fertile soil, various climates, broad rivers, and vast coastline, the new-won land promised every kind of produce and extensive commerce.

Hitchcock’s “sentimental effusions” — his phrase — included statements about the ongoing betterment of the people in which “[v]irtue and industry, talents and knowledge” would increase, while “opportunities for vice are rendered fewer.”

The mood was no less effusive when it came to politics. In America, he said, “the hereditary demagogue, and the cringing sycophant, are alike unknown. Protected by laws of their own framing, the people cannot be oppressed. Enjoying an equal government, which has no lucrative sinecures to bestow, there will be no great scope for ambitious intrigue.”

That was then. Now the demagogues and sycophants are back. Our laws are, more often than not, of nobody’s framing except that of unconstitutional bureaucracies, and the people are greatly put upon if not actually oppressed. There is no equal government, as special interests and their legions of lobbyists secure the bestowal of power, perks, and privileges one campaign donation at a time. And no great scope! For all appearances, ambitious intrigue is fundamental to American politics.

Hitchcock’s was a hopeful and certain vision, but one that went radically south. And quickly. There were concerns early on. A few years later, in 1802, Noah Webster offered a July 4 oration considerably more somber, one focused on the perils facing the young republic.

“Nations, like individuals, may be misled by an ardent enthusiasm, which allures them from the standard of practical wisdom, and commits them to the guidance of visionary projectors,” said Webster. These schemers, however well-intentioned, “delude themselves with the belief, that they have wisdom to elude or power to surmount the obstacles which have baffled the exertions of their predecessors.” But they don’t, as history ruefully instructs.

The Constitution supposedly hems the schemers in, but “[w]hen a magistrate becomes more popular than the constitution, he may ‘draw sin as it were with a cart-rope,'” said Webster, adding that “against men who command the current of popular confidence, the best constitution has not the strength of a cobweb.”

And so here we are these many years later, much the worse for wear. Unalloyed celebration is proper on the Fourth, but self-critical reflection is due before and after. How, after all, did we get here?

Human nature is the unimpressive answer, but it’s a fault line the founders identified at the beginning. They put great stock in religion to curb excesses and declinations of human nature both in politics and out. “The importance of religion to the peace and order of society, is unspeakably great,” said Hitchcock, for one ready example. Faith, as they saw it, would drive the impulse toward self-governance.

But don’t get your hopes up. Webster, for his part, showed a reasonable skepticism:

If there is a possibility of founding a perfectly free government, and giving it permanent duration, it must be raised upon the pure maxims, and supported by the undecaying practice, of that religion, which breathes “peace on earth, and good will to men.” That religion is perfectly republican . . . it is calculated to humble the pride and allay the discontents of men . . . it restrains the magistrate from oppression, and the subject from revolt . . . it secures a perfect equality of rights, by enjoining a discharge of all social duties, and a strict subordination to law. The universal prevalence of that religion, in its true spirit, would banish tyranny from the earth. Yet this religion has been perverted. . . .

Webster was primarily attacking the papacy and various European state churches, but there are other perversions that decay the practice of fruitful Christian faith and render self-governance more curse than blessing.

Now, as then, Americans are remarkably religious. But we are remarkably religious about things that don’t much matter. What about fasting, humility, and charity? What about asceticism? Virtues and practices that could curb our baser impulses are part of the Christian tradition but rarely cultivated or employed.

Uninterested in fasting, we are unable to check our material appetites and seek to accumulate possessions and power. Unimpressed with humility, we pursue individual interests with selfish vigor and curry favor and applause for all our self-aggrandizing efforts. Dismissive of charity, we put ourselves before our neighbors, and sometimes even our spouses and children. Are we surprised that politicians act the same? In a democracy, they are the same.

We’ve lost our national government because we’ve abandoned virtuous self-government. The very thought of ascetic restraint is baneful to the self-vaunting, proud American spirit. And yet it’s the one thing that might keep that spirit alive and honor the sacrifices made by those who freed it in the first place.

Originally published at RealClearReligion, July 2, 2011.

Fr. Peter Gillquist
Church Life

Fr. Peter Gillquist’s angelic welcome

Fr. Peter Gillquist

Fr. Peter Gillquist

It’s appropriate to contemplate angels rejoicing at our homecoming. After all, if we are the heirs of salvation, and angels are ministers to the heirs of salvation as Paul says in Hebrews, then our final success is their success too.

My mind turns to this subject after hearing about the passing of the beloved Fr. Peter Gillquist.

Upon the passing of Acholius the bishop of Thessalonica, Ambrose of Milan said something that applies here too. He expressed regret that this “veteran . . . of Christ” had departed life on this earth. But now that Acholius was “freed from the bands of the body,” he was “carried by the ministry of Angels to the intimate presence of Christ.”

While Acholius left grievers here on earth, the angels met him with “jubilation,” rejoicing “that such a man had come among them.”

I think that term “veteran of Christ” fits Fr. Peter too. Surely now angelic jubilation welcomes this veteran of ours.

While praying, the fourth-century ascetic bishop Nephon experienced a vision in which he saw angels from heaven “ascend[ing] and descend[ing] like bees, transporting the souls of people who had died.” At one point Nephon saw a godly woman welcomed by angels “embracing and kissing her tenderly.”

As they gathered around her they sang, “Glory to God Who delivered this soul from the dreadful dragon!” I like to think that’s the song meeting Fr. Peter.

Memory eternal.

Detail of fresco by Manuel Panselinos, Wikimedia Commons

The Lord’s Prayer: God’s words, our needs

Detail of fresco by Manuel Panselinos, Wikimedia Commons

Detail of fresco by Manuel Panselinos, Wikimedia Commons.

Why does the Lord’s Prayer matter? Let the context answer the question. In Luke’s account, Jesus’ disciples approach. They point to John the Baptist’s practice of teaching his disciples to pray and ask for similar treatment. “Teach us to pray,” they implore.

This is a reasonable request. What is a person, a fallen human, supposed to say to an almighty, all-holy God? God tells us that his ways are not ours. We cannot identify with him. And if prayer is communication between two persons, a communion of hearts, then we are at a real and genuine loss. As Paul said in Romans, “We know not how to pray as we ought.”

We need a teacher.

God’s words

In Christ we have the best teacher. Confessing Christ as God, we have God himself as our teacher. And in the Lord’s Prayer, God gives his words to us. “It is a loving and friendly prayer to beseech God with His own word,” said Cyprian, commenting on the Lord’s Prayer. These are the words he most wants to hear.

By itself this is remarkable. But we do more than confess Christ as God. We confess Christ as man, and the Incarnation makes our teacher all the more apt to lead us in supplication.

One of us

Christ is consubstantial with the Father. But, as the Council of Chalcedon declared, he is also “consubstantial with us.” He is “truly God and truly man.” That’s the weight behind Paul’s phrase, “born of a woman.” And that’s how the church — as it did at Chalcedon — can apply to Mary an otherwise scandalous title: “Mother of God.” We cannot identify with God, but God in Christ identifies with us because he became one of us.

When the eternal Son of God took flesh from Mary he also took full and total solidarity with man. Jesus is God, but he is human and consequently knows our real needs. And he knows them fully, having experienced them as a man. Christ’s full assumption of our nature means that we can trust that he speaks fully for our nature.

Our high priest

Notice how Paul handles this in the Epistle to the Hebrews, particularly the second, fourth, and fifth chapters. Paul tells us that Christ “is not ashamed to call [us] brethren” and that he “partook of [our human] nature.” He was “made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people.”

“In the days of his flesh,” says Paul, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear.” Importantly, “[a]lthough he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” This solidarity in suffering means “we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

And Paul’s wondrous conclusion from the foregoing? We can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Taught by God

This takes us back to the disciples’ request, particularly the verb teach. The Lord’s Prayer is catechetical. In its short and simple petitions Jesus corrects and directs the desires of our hearts. We inherit and cultivate a million wrong desires, but we find in the Lord’s Prayer what our Teacher says is truly needful. And we can trust that he knows.

The power of the Lord’s Prayer rests in the Incarnation. Its petitions reveal the attitude that God most wants reflected by his people. And because of the Incarnation we can know by faith that it reveals what God’s people most need from him.

(This is the first in an occasional series on the Lord’s Prayer.)


We know God by experiencing him

In the endless debates about Christianity, it’s common to subject the church to a cost-benefit analysis. On one side of the ledger we tally up the positives: hospitals, orphanages, universities, and so forth. On the other side we tote up the wars, the witch hunts, and other unhappy what-have-yous.

From this analysis we expect to decide if Christianity is worth believing. If it tilts positive, then yes. If negative, then no.

Since the relative value of the items in each column are assigned by the prejudices, tastes, and inclinations of every individual who conducts the exercise, it amounts to nothing. Results are argued endlessly, and participants are rarely persuaded to a different position.

Arguments are not enough

Scripture says at the end of all things every knee will bow and tongue confess that Christ is Lord. Until then, all arguments are provisional, none are foolproof, and all require modification, updating, customization, and repositioning for specific contexts and situations. And still they will convince few. That is because faith does not flow from syllogisms—edifying as they might be.

It’s important to remember King Agrippa’s response to Paul’s testimony. “You almost persuade me,” he said.

What did he miss? Was Paul’s presentation off-key? Did he leave out a salient point or convincing/convicting barb? No.

Agrippa lacked an encounter with Christ, an experience of God, something that Paul famously had on the road to Damascus and every human being—many for the first time—will have when they one day kneel before the same Christ and confess his true identity. Until that point, arguments remain poor substitutes.

An experience of God

Knowledge has intellectual dimensions, but knowledge is not solely or even primarily intellectual. Knowledge is also intuitive and relational. It’s sensory and tacit, instinctual, participatory, and experiential. And that’s just as true of religious knowledge as of any other kind.

When Scripture says that Adam knew his wife Eve it implies an experience, not an distinct episode of discursive rationality. The sexual relationship between husband and wife has an intellectual dimension, sure, but the knowledge is fuller than that. And it is the kind of knowledge that increases and intensifies as its experiences multiply over time.

It’s significant that Paul identifies this as the kind of knowledge Christ and the church share. Speaking of the union of husband and wife, Paul confesses the union is a profound mystery that is only fully understood through Christ and his bride and body, the church.

More than argument and assent, the relationship between God and his people is marked by invitation and disclosure. (Tweet!) It is a knowledge not bandied or debated but experienced and enjoyed.

Taste and see

I have no intention of diminishing the the good and useful work of apologists, but there is more to the gospel than getting certain facts straight and more to evangelism than making that those facts attractive or compelling.

As scholars like Rodney Stark have noted, the research on conversion shows that people overwhelmingly convert as a result of relationships, not doctrine. Doctrine is hardly unimportant—after all, one’s faith must be in the right thing—but it’s clearly not the only factor or concern.

Ours is a God who invites us to reason with him, yes. But he is also a God who inspires the psalmist to say, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Our missions and outreach will fail if we forget that. Likewise, they will succeed if we take it to heart.

Small Things
Spiritual Growth

Pursuing God through the small things

Small Things

.v1ctor., Flickr

We live in a day of extremes, and sometimes it seems our culture’s highest virtue is going overboard. Everything is super-sized, quad-shot, high-energy, maximum-strength, full-throttle.

I wonder and worry about how much of that infects our faith. If being radical for Jesus means being totally committed to the kingdom, that’s great. But if we’re obsessing on doing something big for Jesus, as if that’s the only thing that counts, then we’re missing something. The truth is that holiness and kingdom service are found in the small occurrences of normal days.

“It is a great misconception to think . . . for the sake of heaven . . . that one must undertake great, reverberating tasks,” said Theophan the Recluse, a nineteenth century Russian bishop.

“Not at all,” he continued. “It is necessary only to do everything according to the commandments of God. Just what exactly? Nothing in particular — only those things which present themselves to everyone in the circumstances of life, those things which are required by the everyday happenings we encounter. This is how God is. God arranges the fate of each man, and the whole course of one’s life is also the work of His most gracious foreknowledge, as is, therefore, every minute and every encounter.”

The theologian, philosopher, and doctor Albert Schweitzer said something similar:

Always keep your eyes open for the little task, because it is the little task that is important to Jesus Christ. . . . The great flowing rivers represent only a small part of all the water that is necessary to nourish and sustain the earth. Beside the flowing river there is the water in the earth — the subterranean water — and there are the little streams. . . . Without these other waters — the silent hidden subterranean waters and the trickling streams — the great river could no longer flow. Thus it is with the little tasks to be fulfilled by us all.

Schweitzer of course did great things as well as little, a point that adds credence to the observation. Don’t neglect the little things. And don’t be discouraged if the little things are all you seem to accomplish. The kingdom is built of little things. What’s more, God has ordained them. The small tasks are exactly those good works that God has providentially prepared for us to do, and faithfulness is all he asks.

God is surely calling some people to big, hairy, audacious things. But he is also looking for trickling brooks and subterranean streams, without which the great flowing rivers shrink and dry.