Moral Imagination, Moral Disciple and American Culture

President of the United States Thomas Woodrow ...

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Douglas Wilson writing at Blog and Mablog observes that
Chesterton once said that America was a nation with the soul of church. And when he said it, it was true enough. But today we are a nation with the soul of a mainline church, which is to say, things have gotten pretty diseased. But despite the diseased state of the soul, we still have all this infrastucture lying around. America is still Christian in the same way that Woodrow Wilson was still Presbyterian — we have all of it, except for the Jesus part. We have everything we need, except for the blood on the altar. We have it all, and have managed to do this in such a manner as to have nothing.

There are, I think, few things as dangerous as a Christian sensibility without Jesus. Earlier in his post Wilson points out that “the basic American disposition and outlook” is formed by the Gospel. Historically this has happened “formally for 250 years, informally for another 200″ and is still happening today through in a negative way by being actively rejected “by our American Christendom deniers.”

But these active denials have not erased the ongoing effects of our Puritan DNA. There is our sense of destiny, which comes from postmillennialism. There is our activism, which comes from the Puritan work ethic. There is the famous pollster question about whether America is on the right track/wrong track, which goes back to basic covenant theology — blessings for obedience and chastisement for disobedience. There is the idea of the need for American leadership in the fight against global evil, whoever it currently is, which goes back to the Puritan views of Antichrist. And there are our periodic spasms of introspection, which used to involve the Ten Commandments, but which now involve ethical shopping tangles and what country your coffee beans came from. Nobody but a Puritan could agonize over something like that.

Flannery O’Connor was right not only about the South but American culture in general; both are Christ haunted. As I said in an earlier post (here) American culture finds itself embracing Christian virtues without any sense of the wider culture context within which they were given and within which they make sense. This can easy give us the zeal of reformers without the humility the repentant.

On a related note, David Brooks points (If It Feels Right…), to “an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism.”  While in “most times and in most places,” he writes, “the group was seen to be the essential moral unit,” today more and more of us “assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit.” Our moral reflection is less and less the product of a “shared religion.”  Yes, American culture still structures our moral “imaginations” but without the “moral disciplines” of an earlier age and with the sense that if the “rules and practices” of the moral life exist at all, they are now “something that emerges [exclusively] in the privacy of your own heart.”

Unlike Brooks, I am not certain that the “these shortcomings will sort themselves.”  Yes social roles and institutions can and do “inculcate certain habits” that bring with them what he calls “[b]roader moral horizons.” But “the erosion of shared moral frameworks and the rise of an easygoing moral individualism” requires more than simply waiting for things to sort themselves out.

This is why Wilson is right when he says that
We must call our people to repentance, but it must take into account two things. We must recognize what true repentance is, of course, but we must also understand who “our people” are, and how we got here. There will be no American reformation unless we retrace our steps. What did we?

The ascetical and sacramental tradition Orthodox Church can play a key role in helping people understand repentance. Take as a whole, the tradition helps us conform ourselves to the Gospel of “Jesus crucified, buried, and risen.”

But for all that the Church’s tradition is necessary it isn’t enough to simply assume people are forming their lives according to Christ and the Gospel because they attend Liturgy on Sunday and confess once or twice a year.

We also have to be willing and able to help people understand how we got to where we are, personally and as a culture. Part of this as well is helping people see what a moral imagination and a life of moral discipline looks like in practice.

Most important of all is helping them to know the joy of a life lived in conformity to Christ.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


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  • Luc LaSalle

    Christ is among us!

    Very good article. “Merci!”

    Concerning president W. Wilson, a progressive politician, I invite everyone to check out american conservative columnist George F. Will (ABC “This Week”) interesting thoughts at the following web page (he is about to write a book on the subject):

    -In XC

    Luc L.
    Montréal, Canada

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    • Fr Gregory Jensen

      De rien!
      And thank you as well for the link to George F Will’s essay.  I found the last paragraph especially interesting: *Wilsonian government, meaning (in Wilson’s words) government with “unstinted power,” is hostile to Madison’s Constitution which, Madison said, obliges government “to control itself.” Thus our choice is between government restraint rooted in respect for nature, or government free to follow History wherever government says History marches.*

      It seems to me that Will’s observation is applicable not only to secular government but also our Christian life. The goal of asceticism is self-control rooted in not simply a respect for human nature but a genuine appreciation and gratitude to God for the gift of my own humanity. 

      We see this I think in the delightful phrase from the Desert Fathers: “kill the flesh to save the body.” The whole of our ascetical struggle is against the very notion that I am free to simply do as I wish. I am not. True freedom comes not from willfulness but from my willingness to live a life in harmony with the God’s will for my life. 

      This ascetical anthropology is contrary to all forms of materialism. It is also a check on the tendency of some to make an ideology of economic freedom.  

      But the free market, like government, is only free if it is rooted in personal virtue.

      But that’s for another day!

      Thanks again Luc!

      In Christ,


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