Headlines That Should Have Been

As the Missouri headwaters begin to recede both Corps of Engineers and local officials up and down the river are warning that the next few weeks is the critical time for the levees. As the water goes down — no longer putting pressure on the super-saturated levees — the levees tend to slide into the river. Thus the next few weeks poses the greatest risk for levee failure.

Sure enough the Journal reported this morning that a Glenwood, Iowa (just south of Omaha) levee failed leading to an evacuation of five homes. No doubt the Red Cross will be busy helping out.

The Journal has also reported on the ongoing efforts of the Salvation Army as well as a new initiative to make up cleaning kits for Nebraskans as they move back into their homes. Which puts me in mind of the headline that should have been:

In Response to Floods, the Red Cross Providing Emergency Shelter, Salvation Army Providing Hot Meals, Dutch Reformed Church Providing Cleaning Kits

(and white paint for any damaged picket fences)



“Liberty” is one of those loosey-goosey words which can mean different and often contradictory things and therefore means nothing in an objective sense in contemporary discourse. In order to sort out what we mean when we use the term I want to begin with Isaiah Berlin, an English political theorist who wrote in the mid-20th century.

He distinguished “positive liberty” from “negative liberty” in his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (Four Essays on Liberty, 1969). Positive liberty is what Aristotle defined as “self-mastery;” it focuses on what the person needs to do right in order to function well in society and ultimately to be happy. Only people who have mastered themselves are able to function in society and participate in the governance of that society. Thus, the basis of good government and the definition of good citizenship, according to Aristotle, is self-mastery.

Negative liberty, on the other hand, worries not about self-improvement but rather deplores external constraint. It asks, “What is the area within which [the person] … should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons” (“Two Concepts of Liberty”). The consequence of such a view is that when something is perceived to be wrong or out of balance, one seeks to find the blame, not with oneself, but rather with the other party. Rather than improve myself, I will seek either redress or escape from society or government to correct my ills. This is the essence of negative liberty.

In a turn of phrase which distills this distinction down to two prepositions, negative liberty is “freedom from …” while positive liberty is “freedom to …”

Berlin goes on to point out that Montesquieu (the intellectual fountainhead of the American Revolution), John Locke (the more accessible source of the Revolution’s rhetoric), and David Hume (political philosopher par excellence) all defined political liberty in the negative sense. A generation later, when Tocqueville visited the U.S. and wrote his famous reflections on the American character, he too thought in terms of negative liberty. The phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is one of the quintessential expressions of negative liberty.

But most Christians, and Evangelicals in particular (and here I’m not trying to cast aspersions but rather am reflecting on my own experience), are quite conversant with New Testament language while being quite ignorant of both political and philosophical history, except where they impact directly on the Evangelical ethos. Thus, when the term “liberty” is bandied about, we Christians immediately think in terms of “positive liberty” in Berlin’s taxonomy, for that is what St. Paul was talking about when he was extolling “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21), and freedom in Christ.

In this instance Christian theology and Christian life is at cross-purposes from the Founding Fathers and the constitution, even though we use the same language. We therefore rally around the political rhetoric of liberty and we pump out a great deal of the rhetoric ourselves. And when the rhetoric is put into policies that seemingly run counter to our convictions we fail to understand why and reactively blame a conspiracy between the liberal media and liberal politicians who have shanghaied our policies. And indeed that may happen on occasion, but it is also true that we too often talk past the culture we are seeking to communicate with because we words (such as liberty) in a way which is simply foreign to our audience.

Liberty is not always liberty. Our culture’s high ideals are often selfishness. When we understand this and begin to distance ourselves rhetorically from institutions, political parties, ad hoc political movements, and policies which embody these cultural ideals that are in fact contrary to Christian faith, we might finally begin to communicate our message. One possible first step would be to ban “liberty” from our political rhetoric. It is, after all, one of those loosey-goosey words which can mean different and often contradictory things and therefore means nothing in an objective sense in contemporary discourse. And in our specific context, it often says something a bit opposite of what we mean.

The Heresy of Individualism?

James Matthew Wilson wrote an essay which is part of an ongoing conversation, parts of which are in the First Things journal, the Distributist Review journal and Front Porch Republic online journal entitled Libertarian Solutions to Communal Difficulties. His references to the various conversationalists can be confusing if one hasn’t kept up with the conversation. But if the reader is willing to move past the opening introductory paragraphs, he will discover a wonderful gem in Wilson’s critique of Enlightenment Individualism.

Wilson’s primary target is Libertarianism, but if you’ve read my other posts under the “Liberty” category, you will realize that this essay is also a theological critique of how we perceive politics in America in general.

We Americans think first in terms of the individual, not the group. We associate “the group” with socialism and other political evils. Wilson’s essay offers one of the best critiques of this way of thinking that I have ever read. It will help all of us Christians (whether Republican or Democrat) to think critically about our various party lines and begin to think in a Christian manner, which, by the way, will force us to be uncomfortably “in the world but not of it.”

Must See Political Commentary

I have a love/hate relationship with Jon Stewart, host of the Daily Show, but his analysis of how the networks are systematically ignoring a major candidate — Ron Paul — is simply must see t.v. Please check out this short segment on the Iowa Straw Poll entitled the Corn Polled Edition. While it’s hilarious, it also makes me rather angry at the lack of fairness the media is giving this guy.

Good candidate or not, let’s at least try to make a pretense of being fair and balanced.

Individual Liberty and Statism

Patrick Deneen argues (drawing from the sociologist Robert Nisbet) that an emphasis on individualism (and specifically the sort of individualism celebrated by our Founding Fathers and enshrined in the constitution) leads directly and inexorably to Statism.

Statism is a logical and even inevitable consequence of individualism – and thus, that the apparently opposite and conflicting philosophies of classical liberalism [ie, the Republican Party and libertarianism] and progressive liberalism [ie, the Democratic Party and socialism] are actually inseparable. If this is the case, to seek to combat iterations of collectivism by appeal to the individualistic principles of classical liberalism is to be engaged in the philosophical equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire. (from Community AND Liberty OR Individualism AND Statism).

Why does Deneen (and Nisbet) claim that seeking individual liberty inevitably leads to an all-powerful state? As Nisbet says (quoted by Deneen), human beings are by nature social and relational creatures. This sociological principle, by the way, matches what the Judeo-Christian tradition has said from the beginning. And Nisbet goes on to make a profoundly Christian conclusion from this: The “assumption of anthropological individualism … deforms the human person” and it is the deformation “that fosters the conditions that make collectivism and attractive and even inevitable alternative” to the Republican and Libertarian party principles.

Deneen continues: “Without the rise of individualism, the rise of collectivism is inconceivable.”

In other words, the solution to the massive state intrusion into our lives is not simply to reduce government. Two hundred years of autonomous individualism in America have intruded into our public institutions (marriage, family, churches, communities) and often actuly broken them down. We now have several generations that have grown up in a world largely unchecked by any institution except the state. If influence of the state were dramatically reduced or removed, chaos would reign because few institutions and communities remain to check the insipient evil in our hearts.

If Libertarians and/or Tea Partiers were given massive victories and repainted America with their pallet, it would be likely that we would have our own Tottenham chaos over here in the colonies. Please don’t misunderstand, dismantling the massive American government is not a bad thing. But rather than making our primary agenda to rail against state intrusion, we need to begin a massive grass-roots effort to rebuild the public institutions which have been decimated by two hundred years of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This may seem an impossible task, a quixotic adventure, but it is probably the only hope of recovering the civilization our forebears hoped to create in the New World.

True Personhood

The person, in Christian theology, is more than merely an individual; he is an individual-in-relationship. From a slightly different framework, a person, when he tries to become autonomous, is reduced to a sort of sub-person – less than that into which he was created.

God created humans into community: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). This is why God created them male and female (Gen 1:27). This is also why the Bible doesn’t talk about salvation in terms of accepting Christ into one’s heart (although this is not a foreign idea in scripture – Rom. 10:8, for instance). Rather, the primary description of salvation is an act of faith by which we are engrafted into the living tree or through which we enter the Body of Christ. Christianity, and the salvation which initiates it, is a communal affair just as everyday life is a communal affair.

I would argue that one facet of the image of God in which we are created is our curiosity and expansiveness. One thing the 20th century Process theologians got right was their insight that humans are not only “beings,” they are also “becoming” and this process of “becoming,” is vital in understanding who we are as humans. (Where the Process theologians went terribly wrong is when they applied this trait of creation to the Creator, and thus reduced him to the status of just another being.)

The flip side of this human expansiveness is the unavoidable truth that we are not infinite, and therefore our potential for expansiveness can be as much a curse as a blessing. Air (or any gas) will naturally expand to fill the volume available to it. But humans are not a gas and our essence cannot be spread infinitely thin. We are not pure spirits. While we are inherently spiritual we are equally inherently physical … and this physicality necessarily imposes limits upon our expansiveness.

Ah, but we humans are a curious lot, and those necessary limits are therefore an inconvenient truth which we conveniently try to ignore. And here’s the rub. If we cease to be self-regulating, if we attempt to become expansive beyond our ability, the created order will put limits upon us without asking our permission.

This is one way of understanding compulsions and addictions. As John Médaille is so fond of saying, “While it is a free choice, it is not a choice of freedom” because our free choices are driven by other factors, some external and some internal. Communities (and here I am thinking broad enough to include families, organizations, associations, neighborhoods, and government entities of which we are a part) keep this expansive curiosity in check. These checks and balances include everything from an internal sense of responsibility to the community, to mores and expectations, to community rules, to laws. Without these various layers of limitation, we fallen and sinful humans, acting in our autonomy, can often justify just about anything and become very self-destructive.

For Christians reading this essay, the above hopefully sounds patently obvious. What may not be so obvious to us is that the above stands in stark contrast (and contradiction even) to the Enlightenment understanding of the autonomous individual upon which our American constitution is based. Enlightenment thinkers saw nearly all external limits as bad things, at the very best as necessary evils. Immanuel Kant, for instance, believed that the ideal condition was to be an “autonomous individual” and in contrast to this he fought against “heteronomy” which is the opposite of “autonomy” and, in his view, this meant that our actions were being determined by “alien causes” [Colin Gunton, Enlightenment and Alienation, p. 59). His program, and the program of the Enlightenment in general, was to throw off all those “alien causes” which limited us.

But the Enlightenment thinkers, being far from Christian in their framework, Deistic at best, failed to understand the curse of the limitless individual to which they aspired. “Free choices are not choices of freedom” in Médaille’s words. Heteronomy is good to the extent that we wisely submit to the outside limitations of God and communities and not to the outside limitations of compulsions and addictions. We can be truly free by being willingly and properly limited or we can become enslaved inside our own freedom gone amuck.

This is why being an individual (this is the autonomous ideal of the Enlightenment) is to exist in a sub-human state. Individuals are not truly free but are enslaved by the unintended consequences of their curious and expansive – and inevitably inappropriate – choices. And humans were not created to be slaves or automatons; to become such a being is to forgo our proper personhood for something more akin to mere animal existence. In contrast, when we knowledgably, willingly, and gladly forgo our seemingly limitless curious and expansive nature for the limitations of life together, we discover the true meaning of our identity as it bumps up against and become defined in the context of God, other people, communities, and the created order itself. True liberty is this freedom to move about and bounce up against other entities that are truly free. The false freedom of individuality ultimately results in movement that becomes increasingly constricted by the ropes of inevitable and unintended limitations created by our autonomous choices.

What Is A Liberal?

“Liberal” is deeply problematic term in the contemporary world. It comes from the Latin word “liberalis” which literally means “pertaining to a free person.” This Latin term liberalis was used to translate the Greek term “eleutheros” in the Vulgate (Jerome’s translation of the scriptures from Greek to Latin). This same Greek term is translated as “liberty” or “freedom” in most English translations. (This fact will become significant in a later essay.)

In secular usage it has bounced back and forth between being a complimentary and pejorative term. In the 14th century “liberal” referred to things that were noble and generous. In turn, during the 16th and 17th centuries it was frequently used a term of reproach. European society had become quite rigid in this period and those who rejected society’s standards – free thinkers, carousers, libertines, and other trouble makers – were thought of as liberal, that is, as bad for the health of society.

It was therefore a perfect word to turn on its head as the Enlightenment gained traction in the 18th century. The term came to mean “tolerant” or “free from prejudice” during this period. Given the wanton destruction, the general meanness, and occasional purely evil activities associated with the European societal upheaval of this period (everything from the ethno-religious wars sparked by the Reformation, to the Roman Catholic over-reaction epitomized in the Inquisition, to the Thirty Years War), the thought of being “liberal,” that is of being tolerant or free from prejudice, became absolutely virtuous.

This is the sense with which it entered the North American vocabulary. The early English settlers (particularly the Pilgrims and later the Puritans) were not particularly open-minded and the societies they created in Massachusetts and Virginia were anything but “liberal” in the Enlightenment sense. One of less understood aspects of the European settlement of North America is that the American frontier was not kind to Christianity. The settlers who moved to the western frontier (wherever that frontier happened to be at the time) were largely irreligious. And in the highly authoritarian Massachusetts society many who stayed strongly resisted the authoritarian religious society which had developed.

This, by the way, is why the Great Awakening (1730s and 1740s) is so crucial in understanding American history. The original settlers were indeed religious. But this raw land with an unlimited western boundary was very unfriendly to religion. If an individual didn’t like something he or she found to be religiously distasteful, it was easy to move west. Rather than deal with the discipline and limits that Christianity preperly puts on sinful nature, it was far easier to move west and live life by my rules. Within a few short years, Puritan America devolved into a freewheeling, often drunken, and nearly lawless land of individuals who lived life on their own terms, which, if it included God at all, included God as was convenient for my own lifestyle.

This is also how Rhode Island came to be founded. It was the first authentically libertarian (and to a certain extent, anti-Christian) colony and was decidedly opposed to any public religion because religion (especially the Puritan and Roman Catholic varieties) had come to be seen as decidedly intolerant and very prejudicial.

While the American people were privately deeply affected by the Great Awakening and America once again became a very religious place after the Great Awakening, it was no longer the societal Christianity of the Puritans. American Christianity after the Great Awakening had been tamed and privatized. And while the people were religious, the country itself became a secular land which gave lip service to religion under the twin headings of “freedom of religion” and “separation of church and state,” while adopting an official position far less friendly to authentic Christianity and far more attuned to the Enlightenment belief that man was his own measure and judge. If any one man (or group of men) chose that measure to be God’s standards – as they privately understood God and his standards – so be it. Just don’t try to impose that standard on everyone else.

This political philosophy is called Classical Liberalism. It is the political philosophy of Jefferson and Washington. It is the political philosophy enshrined in the Constitution. It is the philosophy upon which American politics was founded.

Once the royalists were expelled from the new country, all political philosophy in America was rooted in the sovereign individual. Neither the Whigs nor the Democratic-Republicans questioned that the sovereign individual lay at the heart of societal liberty and political success. As those parties disappeared and were slowly replaced by what would become the modern day Democratic and Republican parties, this underlying assumption of the sovereign individual continued to provide the foundation for all political thinking.

As we move into the modern era this foundational assumption that the sovereign individual exists has never been seriously questioned. Socialist political systems assumed that these sovereign individuals were fundamentally virtuous and that a society could be built by appealing to their virtues. Fascist leaders recognized that sovereign individuals were fundamentally weak because they weren’t united. Fascist societies took advantage of this weakness and created authoritarian systems in which these individuals could be controlled and even manipulated. Democratic societies recognized that individuals weren’t virtuous, so the societies were designed to play one person’s vices off of another in order to bring a balance where everyone got a relatively fair deal. But all of these political theories (whether embodied in contemporary Socialist, Democratic, Republican, or Libertarian parties) assumed that the root reality was the sovereign individual.

It is in this historical sense that all American politics – whether Democrat or Republican, whether Socialist or Libertarian – is liberal politics. It all assumes, at some level, the reality of the sovereign individual.

What then is American political conservatism? It is the attempt to conserve a particular species of classical liberalism. Conversely, American political progressivism (or liberalism) is an attempt to expand the scope of classical liberalism. In spite of the nomenclature both movements are a species of classical liberalism and find their core logic in questions surrounding the sovereign individual.

This definition may seem, on the surface, to be obscurantist. But in a future essay I will consider the proper understanding of the person in Christian theology, and from that perspective, being clear that all American politics begins with the sovereign individual becomes an urgent concern.

Libertarian? Not so much anymore.

I’ve made no secret of my Libertarian leanings from the beginning of this web site. But over the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to study classical liberalism (what is now typically called Libertarianism), not only as a collection of political proposals – most of which involve less government – but also as a political philosophy. On that front I have found it to be deeply flawed … flawed to the point that I have become uncomfortable with the Libertarian moniker.

This is actually not a new change, but it is a complicated one. Thus, whenever I sat down and typed that first sentence, “I am no longer a Libertarian,” it seemed to require an explanation and the explanations inevitably got windy enough that I ended up deleting the essay. But increasingly I am finding the various strands of thought that drove me away from Libertarianism to be compelling ideas to talk about.

I therefore decided to write about it in little but interconnected pieces under a new category called “Liberty.” This is probably not the best category name and I’ll no doubt rue its choice as this series develops. Be that as it may. If an essay or blog post is filed under “Liberty,” you will know that it is part of what I expect will become part of this meandering series of essays.

The Small Vessel of the Heart

Here is an oft-quoted definition of the heart from Macarius, one of the desert fathers. But I believe it’s worth repeating.

Within the heart there are unfathomable depths; there are reception rooms and bedchambers within it, doors and porches and many offices and passages. In it is the workshop of righteousness; in it is the workshop of wickedness. In it is death, and in it is life.

The heart itself is only a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil; there are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices; but there too are God and the angels; life is there, and the kingdom; there too is light, and there the apostles, and heavenly cities, and treasures of grace. All things lie within that little space.

[A note as to authorship: This is a saying of Macarius the Great, which generally refers to an Egyptian monk. Irenei Steenberg observes that Macarius was a very common name and there were several saints with the name Macarius and even more than one that is identified as Macarius the Great. He claims that this particular Macarius was a Syrian spiritual master and not the better-known Egyptian Macarius. I suppose it doesn’t make a great deal of difference, but I do like accuracy, where possible.]

The Virtue of “Receiving”

Once again I will quote Fr. Irenei Steenberg. This time concerning the concept of “handing on.”

The mystery that is manifested in the utterly simple words of the angel [to Mary, ie the essence of the Gospel], which is proclaimed in the unwavering words of the apostles and handed down through history, comes to us in a variety of different ways. The Church espouses a broad selection of means of handing on what it has received. And one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity in the Orthodox understanding is that it is that it is something that is handed on. You cannot invent it; you cannot create it. You have to be given it; you have to receive it. Christ hands it to his apostles. They hand it on to the followers surrounding them. They, in turn, hand it down to us. And we, here in the twenty first century, receive it as a gift given to us.

At this point I will interrupt the quote and observe that he is critiquing both the Roman Catholics and the Protestants. “You cannot invent it.” This is aimed at the offensive R.C. idea of “living tradition” which develops and is added to by the magisterium. But then he goes on. “… You cannot create it. You have to be given it; you have to receive it.” This is a critique of Protestant reaction against the R.C. “living tradition” error. Not trusting the community which Christ calls, Protestants tend to dig for truth on their own. Rather than receive the gift, we would prefer to find it ourselves. (Can you sense the prideful posture of this action?) Receiving a gift that has been handed on requires humility. Exegeting a text and finding the truth yourself requires expertise. Which is the Christian virtue?

Now I will continue with Steenberg:

The word “to hand on,” in Latin, is traditione – “tradition” – a verb, “to tradition something.” We often think of tradition in a very debased sense, as if it’s a kind of thing to set alongside – what’s our favorite thing to compare it to? – scripture. Scripture and Tradition, as if they were both entities in and of themselves and we would then decide, do we like this one more or this one more? Or are they equal? And sometimes the Orthodox, for lack of a better way of explaining it, say they’re equal for us.

No they’re, a not. They’re not things that can be compared. Tradition is an action, a “handing on.” The scriptures are part of the fruit of that act – a “handing on,” an experience of God to another generation.