In dealing with American history for the benefit of a well-informed American reading public, this French-born and French-educated writer is admittedly bringing coals to Newcastle. His justification for so doing is a growing awareness that the time in which we live impresses upon us all the urgency of emerging from our ivory tower. The hour is so very late.
It is generally taken for granted nowadays that the dream of a purely objective, so-called scientific history, cherished by a previous generation, has faded away into the limbo of dead ideologies. To say that we study the past for its own sake, and without the slightest intention of fitting events into our presuppositions, cannot possibly imply that we are in a position to rid our mind of all such presuppositions. The plain fact is that it is impossible to write history without presuppositions. No one may be said to think in a vacuum, especially when crucial issues are at stake. Some kind of faith-principle is necessarily involved. The better this is realized, the less danger for a personal equation to deflect the course of an honest quest after truth.
HERITAGE AND DESTINY
Let me therefore, at the outset, state the basic assumption upon which I am going to proceed. It may be summed up in the simple statement that our destiny as a nation is forever conditioned by our heritage. However bold our forward look, our progress can only be safe if we keep a steady eye on the landmarks of the receding past. Khrushchev has it that these United States are suffering from the incurable malady of old age. His persuasion once more bears witness to the Russian Communists’ propensity to take credit for every invention. In this particular case, Edward Gibbon happens to have preceded Khrushchev. Gibbon was credited with the view. Yet wrongly so already, for the nation of mundus senescens had long before him provided Graeco-Roman rhetoricians with some of their choicest arguments. This fact puts that notion into its right place, that of empty speculation. Whatever the many reasons currently adduced for the fall of any great civilization in ages past, a constant element in the actual process of decadence will inevitably be found in the failure of that civilization to understand itself. This all-important truth should draw and retain the attention of a responsible American leadership today. It clears our basic assumption of any suspicion of having been born of wishful thinking. Rather it singles it out as having immediately proceeded from the most undeniable feature history has ever brought out.
Standing on the firm ground provided by this conviction then, the American historian owes it to his sacred call to be a prophet in his own country, a country now in dire need of the guidance it is his duty to provide. At the core of this need lies the detection of the ultimate reference of American history. According to our basic assumption, then, the task requires a fresh look at our American heritage.
POLITICS AND ORGANIZED RELIGION
The notion is in the air about us that if ever the biblical interpretation of history were to be tied up with even the loftiest of all current interpretations of national purpose, a link between the two should be forcibly wrought out by some artificial device. The very thought of it suggests a questionable fabrication. In the public mind, the only thing that matters is the motivation at work in the everyday happenings of our national life. Accordingly, if the Hebrew-Christian view of history is to be taken into consideration in the process, it has to be brought in through the back door as it were, the implication being that it had better be left alone as controversial matter. It would be an understatement to say that a missing link is thereby postulated. Even the elements to be linked together are at the outset assumed to have little, if anything, to do with each other.
It would be preposterous to challenge this view. The historian’s task is not to argue about realities but to allow the same to quicken his quest for understanding. Any well-ascertained situation constitutes a precious pointer. In the present instance, the view currently prevailing in the public mind of our day and age points to feelings of long standing on the part of the American Founders. It should never be forgotten that our forefathers lived, moved, and had their being in a highly secularized, rationalistic climate that had given rise to the deism of the Age of Enlightenment. Let us further keep in mind that many Philosophes and Idéologues of the Auteuil group were personal friends of men like Franklin and Jefferson, and that quite a number of them were inducted into the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia; and further, that the same society had been established by Franklin “for the promotion of useful knowledge,” not for the promotion of particular theological or metaphysical tenets. However religious its American members may have been in their own heart and mind, it is a fact that they never mixed their politics with organized religion. They followed in this the precedent set by the Royal Society of London, and declined to deal with subjects inviting theological or ecclesiastical controversy. One of their strongest feelings was hate of bigotry. That such a feeling was widespread in the early day of American history finds further confirmation in such instances as the Massachusetts Experiment, when the Presbyterians, obsessed by a Calvinist notion of theocracy vainly tried out by them in England, attempted to fasten it on their land of adoption. It is true that they succeeded for a few decades, but the Royal Charter of Massachusetts put an end to their quest, which incidentally provided a splendid education in democracy. There is indeed ample precedent to account for the feeling still prevailing in our day that politics should be kept apart from any form of organized religion or set of theological doctrines. The principle of separation of church and state is here to stay. Far from generating controversy, it should be taken for granted in a mood of serenity.
With the overall situation thus clarified, we feel all the more at ease as we prepare to take a closer look at our charter-documents and at the intentions that brought them into existence. If we mean to understand the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, we must realize that, while they do reveal strong rationalistic trends, they are essentially Hebrew-Christian documents. Even men like Franklin and Jefferson, who particularly liked to assume a rationalistic attitude, would fight oppression in the name of the Lord. To them, rebellion against tyrants was obedience to God. To them, the Creator of heaven and earth was the Giver and remained the Guarantor of the rights of man. To them, admittedly, the framework of government and the maintenance of social order were the things of Caesar; yet the rights of man per se were not Caesar’s, but the things of God.
Truly, there can be no question of forging a missing link at this point. In considering our national purpose under God, we are dealing with a matter of symbiosis in the original Greek etymological sense of the word, which simply asserts the fact of living together. A still closer scrutiny of this fact may prove valuable toward further constructive understanding.
THE RELIGIOUS PREMISE
Clearly, the religious view and its moral implications were at the root of the Founding Fathers’ innermost convictions. Whatever political principles they laid down were directly derived from the religious view and its moral implications—in that order. But what do I say? The religious view and its moral implications were more than convictions. They were stated as matters of elementary evidence. The very first sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence held “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Strong language indeed, this!
The point which invites scrutiny is the assumed self-evident character of the religious presupposition of “these truths” here apprehended as undergirding the charter of our rights, and as owing to God the Creator and Preserver, their inalienable nature. This assumed self-evident character, then, is but one aspect of the self-evidence of God as stated in the opening words of the Westminster Confession which in those colonial days constituted the sum of Christian doctrine—and I quote: “The light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable.” This evidence had been drawn directly from the Bible by the Westminster divines in very much the same way as the substance of the New England Primer to which our forefathers owed their first initiation to the truth that makes men free.
There was however in the evidence under consideration an extra-biblical element which made it eminently accessible to the Founding Fathers, and this element has not, to my knowledge, drawn the attention it deserves. The conception according to which some knowledge about God is available to all men through “the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence,” is designated by theologians as natural or general revelation, the further designation of special revelation being restricted to the disclosure of truths said to be necessary for salvation. The plain fact is that the notion of a so-called natural or general revelation was not originated by the Bible but by the philosophers of ancient Greece. What actually happened was that the early Christians welcomed it because it provided a useful and much needed point of contact between classical views of religion and the Hebrew-Christian view. To wit, Paul’s speech to the Athenians from Mars Hill on the theme, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.” In that speech the point of contact to which reference has just been made may be detected in the sentence: “For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:28). On the classical side, we have such statements as that of Plato to the effect that the inspiration of the poet, no less than that of diviners and holy prophets, is the word of God. And for this reason, Plato adds in Ion, 533, “God takes away the mind of poets and uses them as his ministers.” To make a long story short, as indeed must be the case here, what the deists of the Age of Enlightenment did more or less consciously, was to revert to a kind of evidence that proved most congenial to their highly secularized rationalism. Such was their way of keeping whole an intellectual heritage traced back to both Athens and Jerusalem—Tertullian notwithstanding.
This once granted, however, it would be historical nonsense to ignore the Hebrew-Christian overtone of our Declaration of Independence. Even the most rabid rationalist of our day who happens to speak of God cannot forget what he once heard in Sunday school. How much more so in the case of our Founding Fathers when we recall the intellectual and spiritual climate in which they lived! The God they knew was the Creator and Upholder of his creation, sitting at the roaring loom of history, directing its course to its appointed end.
This end throughout the ages had increasingly been brought into focus in terms of the kingdom of God. In the fullness of time, the man Christ Jesus had become the living sign of that kingdom as detected through his person, his proclamation, his movement. The very fact that we designate time as B.C. and A.D. leaves no doubt as to the unique significance of Jesus Christ in the divine plot, and to a considerable extent confirms the reality of that plot. History, then, is oriented as the universe is oriented; better still, in our contemporary language, as the space-time continuum is oriented. The faith-principle of this prophetic view is henceforth summed up in the Kingdom concept. Lending reality to this concept are the already present powers radiating from the One who mediates them. Impinging upon us from a dimension hardly accessible to our human makeup, the kingdom of God is able to penetrate and transform our total situation. Thus the heavenly realm is already present to eyes of faith, even as its full manifestation is expected by Christian hope. The kingdom of God may accordingly be characterized as both a present experience and a future consummation. Augustine, the original formulator of the Christian philosophy of history, summed up these implications in his symbol of two cities—the earthly city given to greed and the lust of possession, essentially motivated by a self-assertive egotism, and the City of God where all power comes from the realm of things invisible to displace self-will through divine love. As he saw it in the light of Scripture, these two cities were both alike in that they were enjoying temporal good and suffering temporal evil. Otherwise they stood in sharp contrast. They had a faith that was different, a hope that was different, a love that was different (De Civitate Dei, XVIII, 54).
The reader will not ascribe to me, I am sure, the intention of implying that our Founding Fathers were aware of the whole background just sketched out. The reason I have recalled it to attention is that our own awareness of it is a prerequisite to the understanding of our charter documents with special attention to the opening sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. Adequate detection is always conditioned by a high degree of familiarity with the elements under consideration.
What impresses one as he reads the text at hand against the background henceforth acknowledged as its true setting is an unmistakable outline resemblance between the biblical view of the kingdom of God and our forefathers’ burning vision—that of a delectable country upheld by the benevolent Creator who had endowed its inhabitants with such inalienable rights as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The haziness of this profile-resemblance may be accounted for by the fading away, in an age of enlightened deism, of the scriptural vision of an earthly city impinged upon by the heavenly City. It is in the direction of that fading vision that we should look to realize the original import of our Hebrew-Christian heritage in terms of our national purpose.
A SECULAR KINGDOM?
In conclusion, then, let me suggest that the ultimate reference of American history may well be a secularized intimation of the Scripture’s teaching concerning the kingdom of God. And further, that this same intimation may yet find its justification in actual fact. In this case, the tension between Augustine’s earthly city and City of God would account for many of our unrelieved tensions. To illustrate, it would explain how, once the Christian view has been lost sight of, all that is left of our original heritage is a kind of Americanism so poorly aware of the true nature of its loss that recourse is taken to commercial advertising to urge prospective customers to go to church the following Sunday. Surely a more pertinent reminder would be that it should not take more nerve to be an avowed Communist than a professing Christian in this land of ours.
Were our heritage only apprehended by the kind of leading minority which has always determined the national will-to-live through the crises of the past, a renewed awareness of our ultimate reference under God would help restore the perspective of our destiny. Only in the measure as we apprehend the true nature of our heritage may we escape the general fragmentation of our national purpose as witnessed by our deficiencies, partialities, and unhappy divisions. What is involved in all such declensions is nothing short of a deflection of both our heritage and destiny, a barter of vision in our understanding of history. A shrunken outlook can only result in varieties of split-loyalties finally amounting to disloyalty. Once the ultimate reference of our history is lost, the landscape of our reality is bound to turn into a wasteland where genuine historians yield to highly-paid popularizing newscasters. In the measure our nation gets out of touch with its own history, it is likely to witness a transvaluation of values according to which the idols of the day, whether pros, crooners or other entertainers, are called upon to fill the void brought about by the loss of our true vision.
Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.
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