Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Constitutionally transcendent redux

Over the history of my blog I have re-posted few things. But this Fourth of July, given that it brings to a conclusion the Fortnight for Freedom, during which we have prayed that our religious liberty, not only as Catholics, but as citizens of the U.S., would be preserved in light of the attempt by the Department of Health and Human Service to impose its unjust mandate on the Church, which would also have the effect of reducing freedom of religion in this great nation, I am re-posting what I put up last July 4th with a few minor tweaks. Once in awhile, something is more relevant than it was when it was written.

Today we celebrate the 236th anniversary of that day when the United States, originally 13 British colonies, declared its independence from Great Britain. This post unapologetically builds on my post from two years ago, "When in the Course of human events..." In the powerful declaration, publicly proclaimed in Philadelphia, we read these important words: "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."

Furthermore, John Adams, who was perhaps the most influential Founding Father, writing to some officers of the Massachusetts militia in 1798, well after our Constitution was ratified, offered this- "we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

John Adams, painted by Gilbert Stuart 1798

Constitutionally, the United States is built on the assumption of a transcendent order. Many of our struggles today arise from a general loss, or at least diminishment, of our collective sense of transcendence. We are tempted to interpret Adams' words to mean religion as a form of social control, but to read them that way is to take them anachronistically. In his book, published last year by Catholic University Press, The Turn to Transcendence, Dr. Glenn Olsen wrote that Christianity, like Judaism before it, is cosmological, meaning that Christians "see human life both as dramatic, centered on a struggle to achieve a proper use of freedom, and as eschatological, receiving its orientation from beyond history" (208). Indeed, rather than as a form of social control, Adams, in his address, seems to also be concerned with the proper use of freedom. As St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Galatians: "For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (5:13- ESV).

Olsen goes on to note that is was Heidegger who "compared the meditative knowledge of medieval figures such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, aimed at the transformation of our being in the light of destiny, with the calculative thinking of the modern world" (209). The calculative thinking of the modern world often holds that what counts as true knowledge must be empirically verifiable, despite the devastating critique of so-called verificationism by Wittgenstein, among others. Indeed, the calculative thinking of the modern world is instrumental insofar as it is "aimed acquiring tools of action" (209).

Calculative thinking, which is instrumental, Olsen goes on to note, quoting Adriaan Peperzak, is "'rationality without receptivity,' thinking without 'admiration, gratitude, and compassion, but rather ...[based on] celebration of human intelligence, possession, engineering, and mastery'" (209). He is quite correct to note that the movement from the transformation of being in light of our destiny to so-called calculative thinking leads to a loss of transcendence, the further obliteration of the question of Being that it was Heidegger's project to recover.

Being constitutionally transcendent is exactly what still makes the United States of America exceptional. Hence, losing that which constitutes us as a nation is a perennial temptation we must resist.

I'll end this post with the last part of the Prayer for the Protection of Religious Liberty:

Grant, we pray, O heavenly Father,
a clear and united voice to all your sons and daughters
gathered in your Church
in this decisive hour in the history of our nation,
so that, with every trial withstood
and every danger overcome—
for the sake of our children, our grandchildren,
and all who come after us—
this great land will always be "one nation, under God,
indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

We ask this through Christ our Lord.


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