Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Our Misled Loyalty (to the self via the state)

We in 21st century America (Christians included) may be the most narcissistic in history. We want it all, we want it now, and its the job of the government to give it to us. How did we get in this mess? Missiologist Leslie Newbingin provides a very thoughtful analysis. Read it carefully and then consider how our nation's evolving self-focus has informed your own thinking.

"From the Enlightenment onwards, it is the 'rights of man' which has seemed axiomatic. To the founding embody the principles of this new philosophy, it seemed necessary and natural to begin with the famous words: 'We hold 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.' The rights of the human person are the unquestioned starting point from which all else follows.

These rights include the right to pursue 'happiness.' Happiness was hailed by the eighteenth century philosophers as 'a new word in Europe.' In place of the joys of heaven to which the medieval person was encouraged to look forward, Enlightenment people looked forward to 'happiness' here on earth.

Hannah Arendt (On Revolution, 1963) has pointed out that, for some at least of the American founding fathers, the happiness intended was the 'public happiness' of actively shared responsibility for public life. She also shows, however, that while any sort of private hedonism was very far from their purposes, the course of events led inexorably to an interpretation of their language as meaning the pursuit of private wellbeing. The result is that the world becomes a place where each individual has the 'right' to pursue 'happiness' in the domestic and privatized sense, and it is the responsibility of the state to see that this right is honored.

Nationalism [read 'patriotism'], therefore, becomes our effective ideology, always in times of crisis proving stronger than any other ideological or religious force [think American flag draped and 'God Bless the USA' saturated Christian churches after 9-11]. If there is any entity to which ultimate loyalty is due, it is the nation-state. In the twentieth century, we have become accustomed to the fact that - in the name of the nation - Catholics will fight Catholics, and Protestants will fight Protestants. The charge of blasphemy, if it is ever made, is treated as a quaint anachronism; but the charge of treason, of placing another loyalty above that of the state, is treated as the unforgivable crime. Tha nation-state has taken the place of God."

- Leslie Newbingin, Leslie Newbingin: Missionary Theologian, A Reader, pp. 195-96

The reason for this mess? Our primary pursuit of present, private happiness.

1 comment:

thefourwinds said...

I remember discussing the phrase "pursuit of happiness" with Peter Marshall, who dismissed my concerns by merely saying I didn't understand the word in the context. But it's absolutely correct that that phrase has clearly been understood to mean private, personal happiness.