Martin Luther “did more than any single man to make modern history the development of revolution,” declared Lord Acton. (Lectures on Modern History) The Protestant Reformation profoundly changed the trajectory of Western Civilization. While the Reformation changed every facet of society, it is important to remember that the Protestant Reformers were of course, primarily theologians. In their view, they believed they were recovering truth about God’s Word and revelation to the world.
Today is Reformation Day and many Protestants around the world already have or will celebrate the roots of their churches. But there is also a crisis going on in the West that needs our attention. Whittaker Chambers put it well in Witness, when he declared, “The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God.”
Secularism, but beyond that a general doctrinal disinterest, is not serving Protestants well. Many churchgoers seek out churches according to their ability to entertain. Many are often much more interested in the facilities, its programs, or seeker-friendly style of worship over what the churches actually believe and teach. The Reformers were prepared to die or be martyred for what they believed and taught. It was of primary importance to them. It would certainly seem that especially today, the West, and especially Protestants, have much to learn from these great thinkers and leaders in the Church.
“Western Civilization has begun to doubt its own credentials,” brooded the French novelist, André Malraux (1901-1976). It was men and women of faith who were responsible for a resurgence of Western Civilization. Reformation Day powerfully reminds us that if there is going to be another resurgence of the principles of freedom, liberty, and truth in our society and culture, it will have to come by way of revival and through people of faith. It is the only cure more powerful than the disease of indifference and secularism that is ushering in our demise as a people and culture.
Often many on the political right believe that reform or change in the country is just one election or another president away. Some declare another Ronald Reagan can fix America’s problems, but entirely miss that there may be no culture left to support a president like Reagan. For almost every problem in this nation, there is not a political solution that will make any lasting impact or change for the better. This point is entirely missed by so many during all the political debates and shouting matches today. Politics is becoming a mere distraction from the deeper problems. Washington D.C. is the obvious and best example of this fact.
Today we are living through the dissolution of the greater truths that once permeated Western Culture. We are living through a repaganizing of the West that was transformed and lifted up by Christendom. It’s odd to think about the fact we are living through this very monumental time in history and most people are missing it or unaware of it entirely.
Only spiritual enlightenment and a recovery of these truths can transform society and culture today. The evangelistic and holiness revivals in 18th century England completely reformed an amoral and unjust culture. Many historians have concluded that it alone prevented another bloody revolution in that nation.
Below are excerpted remarks from then Vice President Calvin Coolidge to the New York State Convention of the Y.M.C.A. in Albany, New York in 1923. The title of the address is “The Place of Religion in National Life.” There is not a full copy of the address online but you can find it in The Price of Freedom: Speeches and Addresses by Coolidge.
If you follow national politics closely today you may find it odd to hear a political leader speak confidently about universal truths when it comes to government, man, and society. Unfortunately, we don’t normally hear this kind of language from American leaders today. But it’s a valuable reminder of the significance of religious revival if there is going to be any change in the culture, institutions, or government. Coolidge powerfully makes the point that culture drives law and politics. Change and progress ultimately is born in the human heart and does not emanate from the halls or palaces of power.
When we explore the real foundation of our institutions, of their historical development or their logical support, we come very soon to the matter of religious belief. It was the great religious awakening of the sixteenth century that brought about the political awakening of the seventeenth century. The American Revolution was preceded by the great religious revival of the middle of the eighteenth, which had its effect both in England and in the colonies. When the common people turned to the reading of the Bible, as they did in the Netherlands and in England, when they were stirred by a great revival, as they were in the days of the preaching of Edwards and Whitfield, the way was prepared for William, for Cromwell, and for Washington. It was because religion gave the people a new importance and a new glory that demanded a new freedom and a new government. We cannot in our generation reject the cause and retain the same result.
If the institutions they adopted are to survive, if the governments which they founded are to endure, it will be because the people continue to have similar religious beliefs. It is idle to discuss freedom and equality on any other basis. It is useless to expect substantial reforms from any other motive. They cannot be administered from without they must come from within. That is why laws alone are so impotent. To enact or to repeal laws is not to secure reform. It is necessary to take these problems directly to the individual. There will be a proper use of our material prosperity when the individual feels a divine responsibility. There will be a broadening scholarship when the individual feels that science, literature, and history are the revelation of divine truths. There will be obedience to law when the individual feels the government represents a divine authority.
It is these beliefs, these religious convictions, that represent the strength of America, the strength of all civilized society.
This encouraging & enlightening book provides us with the direction to achieve our goals & find fulfillment while maintaining our personal freedom & integrity. Dick DeVos, President of Amway, shows us how the values that make America great can be incorporated into our daily lives.
Over at Think Christian, I reflect on an “authentically Christian” view of work, which takes into account its limitations, failings, and travails, as well as its promises, prospects, and providential foundations.
The TC piece is in response to a post by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, in which they juxtapose the pscyhologizing of work as subjectively authentic self-expression with their own preferred view of work as something done simply “for the sake of sustenance.”
Critchley and Webster are right to point to the dangers of unchecked subjectivism, but are wrong in devaluing work as merely instrumental. David F. Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary penned a monumental indictment of the inroads radical subjectivism has made in Christian, and particularly evangelical, circles in his 1994 book, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. As Wells puts it, the difference between the objective and subjective points of departure for our knowledge amount to two different ways of seeing the world; one is biblical, the other is worldly. “The one belongs to those who have narrowed their perception solely to what is natural; the other belongs to those whose understanding is framed by the supernatural. The one takes in no more than what the sense can glean; the other allows this accumulation of information to be informed by the reality of the transcendent,” writes Wells.
More recently, Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia analyzed the shift from objective measures of oppression to subjective psychologizing in the context of political ideology. “Supplementing the economic categories of Marx with the psychoanalytic categories of Freud, Marcuse and his followers effectively broadened the whole notion of oppression to include the psychological realm. Such a move is dramatic in the implications it has for the way one views politics. Simply put, oppression ceases to be something that can be assessed empirically in terms of external economic conditions and relations, and becomes something rather more difficult to see, i.e., a matter of the psychology of social relations,” writes Trueman. (more…)
Today, Acton’s Rome office and the world were stunned by what the Dean of the College of Cardinals said was a “bolt out of the blue”: just after midday Benedict XVI informed the public that he would be stepping down as the Catholic Church’s pontiff and one of the world’s preeminent moral and spiritual leaders, effective on February 28. He will be the first pope to abdicate voluntarily the Seat of St. Peter in nearly 600 years. The last one to resign was Gregory XII in 1415 as part of deal to end the great Western Schism.
Pope Benedict XVI, a disciplined, humble and soft-spoken German, is certainly not known for Roman caprice nor does he have a flare for the dramatic. Notwithstanding, he surprised us all in a brief statement issued in perfect Latin (translated below) at the end of a consistory held in the Apostolic Palace for causes of canonizations: (more…)
The first presidential election I remember was the Ronald Reagan – Walter Mondale race in 1984. My kindergarten class in the Philadelphia suburbs held a mock vote that Reagan overwhelmingly won. It of course reflected the way our parents were voting. I can remember at the age of five, John Glenn was one of the Democrat candidates seeking the nomination and I knew he was a famous astronaut. The truth is, I’ve always been fascinated by presidential elections and Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms by Ed Rollins and Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater by John Brady are two political books that deeply influenced my thought. Both books remain relevant and offer valuable lessons today.
Frank Hill, who directs The Institute for the Public Trust, has a solid post discussing Robert Kennedy, self-government, and tomorrow’s election. Hill quotes Lord Acton in his essay as well. He cites Kennedy’s “Day of Affirmation Address” in South Africa in 1966. It was a striking address, touching on the universal truths recognized by the West. Below is a great line from Kennedy’s speech that day:
At the heart of that Western freedom and democracy is the belief that the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit. Therefore the enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and the abiding practice of any Western society.
Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and Ronald Reagan’s 1976 campaign are probably the two campaigns that offer the most mystique and magic for liberals and conservatives. One campaign ended with a tragic assassination and the other left conservative activists heartbroken by a narrow defeat. Both candidates were treated to adoring fans and followers and shook up the political landscape. While they represented different ends of the political spectrum, they were both visionary presidential campaigns. Those two campaigns caused a lot of young people to get excited not just about politics or power but deeper ideas about government and the human person.
Tomorrow is a big election. We’ve rightfully placed a heavy emphasis on the limits of politics here at the Acton Institute. Politics will not solve the deeper issues and problems facing this nation. The topic was the overarching theme of Rev. Robert Sirico’s 2012 Annual Dinner address. Jordan Ballor and I hosted an Acton on Tap addressing that very question in 2010. But elections and politics are important and serve a purpose. There are clear philosophical differences between the candidates and the peaceful transition of power reflects well on the foundations of our country.
At Acton we’ve always tried to raise the discourse and talk about higher truths. In a country that now faces crippling debt, moral chaos, and threats to religious freedom, we would be wise to draw upon some words James Madison used to close a letter he penned to a friend in 1774. Madison, concerned about persecuted Baptists in Virginia wrote, “So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty and Conscience to revive among us.” I would think most of our readers would agree and wish that much would be so.
This short introduction not only offers keen insight into Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but directly speaks to the ills of our society.
Guinness points out that much of the West, to its detriment, paid closer attention to the political opposition to communism over the moral proposition on which it rested, thereby missing the true power of Solzhenitsyn. Spiritual freedom and political freedom are deeply intertwined. It is a sentiment articulated so well by the founders and framers of this nation. It has been largely forgotten today or simply misunderstood.
“Knowledge is power but truth is freedom,” says Guinness. Making the case for ordered liberty, Guinness adds that “without truth we are all vulnerable internally to passions and externally to manipulation.” He quotes Walter Lippmann who declared, “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means to detect lies.” He echoes Lord Acton who stated that freedom is “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”
This introduction is worth continually revisiting over one’s life. Guinness quotes the French philosopher Simone Weil, who stated, “We live in an age so impregnated with lies that even the virtue of blood voluntarily sacrificed is insufficient to put us back on the path of truth.” It’s a reminder of the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1, where he wrote that those lost in sin and without repentance are given over to their sinful desires. “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised,” says Paul. (Romans 1:25)
PowerBlog readers can thank Elizabeth Dyar of RaceFans4Freedom, another Solzhenitsyn admirer, for alerting me to this gem. Below is the recording of Os Guinness on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and truth:
On the drive over to Acton University this morning I heard an argument on the radio about how the economy would have been fixed if only the dollar amount of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 would have been doubled. What a sad statement to pin your hope to in order to fix the American economy. That argument is unlikely to be uttered at Acton University. Fixing economic problems and lifting up the human condition is not measured by dollars here. Present at Acton University is the strong sense that solving complex problems and failures in society are attainable outside of centralization or a materialistic worldview.
It is easy to walk outside the community and walls of AU and give up on society. But this week has been a powerful reminder that there are hundreds of people here who are certainly brilliant, but more importantly, empowered by our Lord. The conference convicts you that you can do more to transform a hungry and needy world.
It has been a blessing to converse and share fellowship with people like Michael Novak. Novak was speaking out aggressively about the free and virtuous society when free markets were even less popular in the intellectual and academic arena. In a lecture on Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Ed Ericson cited Novak’s brilliant essay in response to Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address in 1978. Novak, in responding to that address, notes that “the most serious seekers after truth come to unexpected and remarkable convergences.” I can’t think of a better summary for the community and fellowship here at Acton University. While there are certainly theological differences, we are all united and invigorated by the truth. And as Solzhenitsyn himself declared, “One word of truth outweighs the world.”
I wanted to recall a section about truth that cannot be repeated enough. It is especially pertinent in light of the Obama Administration’s so-called compromise on the HHS mandate. The compromise changes nothing. It is political sophistry. It still forces people to act against their conscience and support moral evil. The truth about good and evil cannot be swept away by an accounting trick.
The HHS mandate is a further example of the growing intolerance of liberalism that sees as a threat any vision of life which has transcendent ends and adheres to clear moral standards beyond current fashion. Liberalism is pro-choice only insofar as you stay within certain bounds. Outside that divergence will not be tolerated and no compromise will be made.
This is the famous Dictatorship of Relativism passage.
How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves – flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4: 14) comes true.
Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.
We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceipt from truth.
We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith – only faith – that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.
Dr. Samuel Gregg, Acton’s Director of Research, has become something of a regular guest on Kresta in the Afternoon of late; below you’ll find audio of his two most recent appearances.
Leading off, Sam appeared with host Al Kresta on February 15th to discuss Pope Benedict’s concept of the dictatorship of relativism in the context of the HHS mandate debate, and the potential consequences of the death of absolute truth. Listen via the audio player below:
Then, on the 22nd, Dr. Gregg made another appearance with Kresta to discuss the concept of ordered liberty, contrasting the concepts of freedom for excellence vs. freedom of indifference. You can listen to the interview below, and if you’re interested, head over to the Acton bookshoppe to pick up a copy of On Ordered Liberty, his book on the same topic.
I have said it many times in the past, but now I have confirmation: According to the editors of the New York Times, the Pope is not permitted to make moral judgments because only the Editorial Board of the New York Times (all genuflect here) is permitted to pontificate:
“Ms. Abramson, 57, said that as a born-and-raised New Yorker, she considered being named editor of The Times to be like “ascending to Valhalla.”
“In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion,” she said. “If The Times said it, it was the absolute truth.”