Saturday, December 01, 2007

What is the United States of America for? -- betterment

Yesterday's post bears some clarification - when I speak of "what we stand for" - the 'we' in the statement was about the United States, not about the Christian Church, nor about self-identified conservatives, nor about emergent neo-puritans.

Here's the rub. This nation is at war. This war not only pits our nation against agressors overseas, but it also pits our citizens against each other as we try to figure out how to move ahead. Much of the public discourse I hear is acrimonious, accusatory, inflammatory, and just plain angry. Every tint and shade on the political spectrum is beating its own ideological drum.

I hear few voices calling us back to our nation's ideals.

And so I propose to spend some time reflecting upon ''What is the United States of America for?" -- What is compellingly attractive about this nation? Of course when we speak of ideals, we must remember that every person and people lapses from their ideals and falls short of the mark. Even so, it is still worthwhile to reflect on our ideals, if nothing else but to provide us a way forward. Interestingly, the Teaching Company offers a course on this very topic, called American Identity. When it goes on sale, I'll likely get it. The synopsis talks about "habits of mind" that are general traits of Americans, and I like that. Rather than a litmus test, there is more of a general shape of being -- and it is in that spirit that I'd like to reflect on a few traits that I've observed.

The first of these is the idea of Betterment. I prefer the term "Betterment" to it's younger cousin "Self-Improvement". "Self-Improvement" is the bailiwick of pearly-toothed pitchmen peddling their books, seminars, and ten week courses. It has spawned a whole genre of books from which my only gleaning has been "Never buy a book that features the author's photo as the most prominent feature of the cover" (and that especially goes for Christian titles).

"Betterment" meanwhile feels older, more patient, more in tune with my sensibility that any kind of change takes a bloody long time and more effort than I really like putting forth. We see this strain of American Character in the aphorisms of Ben Franklin and the Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards. The persistence of the Chatauqua Institution is but a holdover of a 19th century trend of holding such institutes all across the United States.

Many of our heroes are self-educated people who have worked up from humble origins to achieve greatness: Abraham Lincoln learning to read the classics by firelight in his log cabin, Eisenhower the farm boy from Abeline who held his own amongst the brightest figures of his generation, Thomas Edison who was called "addle-headed" by his schoolmaster, Booker T Washington who rose up from slavery to become a foremost advocate for education and founder of institutions, and the list goes on.

The unique hue to betterment that we see in American society is that betterment is best enjoyed as a self-initiated thing. Of course, we have any number of coaches, cheerleaders, exhorters, and nannys who will pull people along. Yet underneath, we seem to understand that Betterment must begin must be an intrinsic thing. The desire to improve one's standing cannot be foisted upon another person. The best we can do for others is offer opportunity...we cannot then take their hand and make them seize said opportunity.

What then of good old Calvinistic doctrine that says humanity is "completely unable?" That docrine means to say we're unable to do things that please God without the prior work of the Holy Spirit healing our hearts and pointing them toward the Westminster Confession says, "Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He freeth him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet, so, that by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil." (ch 7.3-7.4).

Said doctrine points us as Christians toward the kind of Betterment we ought to seek. The United States of America, in guaranteeing "pursuit of happiness" does not guarantee that we will all follow the right path toward happiness. We're only guaranteed the liberty to pursue it. In the same vein, the United States has a strain of betterment, but difference in the house on what actually leads to betterment. Education and improvement of the mind is of great value, but is it the greatest? Physical fitness and stewardship and care of the body is a fine thing, but is it the best thing?

It would be somewhat dualistic to pit spiritual betterment against such things. I would suggest that Christians should be able to pursue betterment of body, mind, relationships, and other parts of life as expressions of their spiritual growth. Our faith in the Lordship of Christ should lead us toward betterment in all areas of our lives. One quick look at Baxter's A Christian Directory will show you that the Puritans viewed all of life as the fields in which our spiritual committments bear fruit.

Soli Deo Gloria