Monday, May 25, 2009

Puritanical Reactions

Yesterday was my final Puritan History class. I ended with a sum up of American Puritanism and the legacy of the Puritans in America, which largely seems to be that they are a group of people to say snide things about and distance one's self from as much as possible. I started by talking about something I saw in one of Tony's history textbooks. It was a column where they had a quote about resolutions on one side by Jonathan Edwards and on the other by Benjamin Franklin. Edwards' had a good deal to do with self-discipline, self-evaluation, self-control and the merits thereof. Franklin talked about how he would not wish to reach perfection because then he would become intolerable. I still remember Tony's reaction to Franklin's quote. He said "what a jerk."

I come not to slam Benjamin Franklin. Although I do suggest that his side won. There is a national church in America. It is the Church of Personal Freedom. Again, this is not a finger wagging session as I am well aware how deep I am in that particular Venn Diagram. Just cut in front of me in line and see.

I was talking about this to Laurie, and after I get this out I really promise to retire this story/allegory/metaphor from now on. But I was talking about the able bodied homeless guys in the beat-up camper a few months ago parked across the street, illegally camping, smoking crack right on the curb in broad daylight on lawn chairs they'd set up, and either cussing out or wolf whistling at anyone who came out of their houses. And then they were aggressively belligerent to the police when they inevitably showed up. I told Laurie that that is the logical end of the cult of personal freedom. To do whatever you feel like no matter who it harms with no regard for law, dignity, decency, kindness, or compassion (insert remark on modern American foreign policy here.)

Do not get me wrong. I have no desire to lose any personal freedoms. I love the freedoms we enjoy and I think I join the bulk of my fellow citizens when I say that I would hate to see any of them disappear. I love my country and, frankly, don't fear my government all that much. That is not what I am talking about.

What I am talking about is the culture of coveting. I am talking about how we are carefully trained by advertisers, schools, which prepare children for a life of consumption, and the entertainment industry to keep consuming. How much personal freedom does one really have when one is harnessed to the heavy yoke of one's immediate desires? Using myself as an example (because I don't pretend to suggest that I am anywhere near immune to such things) if I shun Megaplex theaters, the Eminem comeback, American Idol and so forth, but (in the land of make believe where I still have a disposable portion of my income) I would get a Kindle, the Glenn Gould boxed set, and Laurie and I would spend our evenings watching DVDs from the Criterion Collection. You see what I mean. And armed with the knowledge that this culture of coveting, which could never have supported itself more than a few decades, is collapsing upon its self... Knowing that this culture of coveting is what has, in fact, brought me to being laid off almost 2 months ago now, I still behave in the same way. Most of us will go on consuming in the same manner until 1) the whole world economic system utterly implodes upon its self with no hope of repair or 2) our hearts stop.

Let me also take a moment to say that I am not anti-capitalist. I am also not decidedly anti-any other economic system or most political systems up to and including peaceful anarchy -IN THEORY! But there is one main flaw in every economic, and governing, for that matter, system.

What about the Puritans? Why am I going on about economics and politics? Laurie posted a quote by John Adams a while back: "We have no government armed with powers 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." I think that the Puritans would wholeheartedly agree. In fact, I found this quote a rare instance of a founding father looking to what was good about the American past and looking to bring it to the American future. That has ended. Systems don't work because people are wicked. Systems don't work because this is a fallen and sinful world. People are, in essence, ungovernable.

Ah, I hear some of you taking in breath to ask if this is where I talk about the greatness and perfection of Christianity. Clearly, if you have that in mind to ask at this point, you have never had any interactions with the governing bodies of a church. This is why Christ reminds us to remove the board from our own eye before we try to pick the speck from someone else's eyes.

What do we do? Well, last week I talked about how we ought to look to the great cloud of witness to run the race that is set before us, and about how we may must needs content ourselves with being one voice crying out in the wilderness (and probably several other metaphors from scripture pulled wholesale out of context.) What we do is to live utterly consumed with love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance. Ah, that last one is what Laurie and I plan on naming our hypothetical daughter. Self-control brings up the rear of that list. Self-control is the opposite and antidote to the current economic crisis.

And, at the end of it all, what does this say practically to me, Paul Mathers, in my daily life? What have I gleaned from this long study of the Puritans? I think what I take are two lessons. One is to cloak one's self in the truth constantly, daily, earnestly, and fight falsehood like a wounded,cornered badger. But temper that with the overlying lesson, the most important lesson, the superobjective as it were from the more successful of the Puritans. That lesson is grace. When Christ atoned for our sins, allowed us a restored relationship with God, imputed His perfect righteousness to us fallen men, the flood of grace that washes over us is beyond our comprehension. Believer, you are entirely the product of undeserved grace, and you continue to be in constant need of said grace. I think what I learned most from the Puritans, some by positive and some by negative example, is to be ever diligent to walk in grace.

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