I confess that I love reading. I confess I also love history and reading about history. That is evident by the number of books on our shelves as well as how many of them relate to history, whether in truth or fiction. I heard once that if we don’t know our history and learn from it that we are doomed to repeat it.
As I have listened to and been a part of numerous conversations about the state of our country (the United States), I heard on all sides more negative pessimism than I can recall. Christians have recognized it is time (long past time) to be praying and I agree, but there is something else that I think we would be advised to consider doing.
You see, we seem to be uncertain of how to “fix” the condition of our nation and how we arrived where we are. Many of us can be heard saying we do not recognize this country that we grew up in. As a result, along with numerous other books I have been reading to encourage my spiritual life and practice I have been reading a bit more in history to try to sort out what we all seem to be missing no matter what our political persuasion. I have been looking to hopefully discover some dusty truth that has been long forgotten if I ever knew it to better inform my understanding.
I won’t bore you with what I have been reading and continue to read, but one of the books I finished recently is If You Can Keep It by Eric Metaxas. I have always loved his writing and been challenged by it and his most recent book did not disappoint me. It has resulted in deeper thinking resulting in reflections that I want to share with you in this, the first of three posts.
Metaxas talks about a principle that I do not recall hearing prior to this book in regard to the foundation of our freedom called The Golden Triangle of Freedom that was a title framed by Dr. Os Guinness, cultural observer, that he wrote about and also spoke about at a meeting of Socrates in the City. The group meets monthly with various people and speakers to dialogue about “life, God, and other small topics.” (You can check out the website and listen to many of these at www.socratesinthecity.com)
Dr. Guinness quotes St. Augustine’s words “If you want to understand a nation, don’t look at the size of its population, the strength of its army, or the prestige of its universities. Look at its loved things that are held in common, the supremely loved things.”
The question gives me (and maybe you) much to think about. I wonder if any of us can clearly define what it is in 2016. If you look at how we spend our time, our money, and our gifts, I think it might look more like a collage as a result of our very individualistic preferences.
That was less so when this country was born. The predominant answer from the time of the Pilgrims through the founding of our country would be “freedom”. Those who came to start a new nation knew things we have forgotten. They didn’t want freedom only for then, but to have freedom for this country always. They also knew no free society had been able to stay free forever.
That understanding was foundational to the framers of our country. They knew they faced three tasks: 1) Winning freedom (1776, the American Revolution); 2) Ordering freedom (1787, the Constitution that set up policies and structure to last): and 3) Sustaining freedom.
The first two of these were clear and the path direct. The last of these would fall to those who would come after to the present time. Would freedom be taken for granted?
The framers knew why those other free societies had not survived. They identified three things: external enemies, corruption of customs, and time. Time would be the most deadly as the fresh breath of freedom would likely fade because nothing lasts forever that is temporal.
Those same framers knew the paradox that freedom is the greatest enemy of freedom when it has no mooring and erodes into permissiveness and license that would be sure to corrupt freedom.
Dr. Guinness speaks a great deal about this in his address and refers often to the ideas from his book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, published in August 2012.
He uses the triangle to look at the foundation the framers understood because each leg of a triangle reinforces the other and strengthens it.
The first leg of The Golden Triangle is this: “Freedom requires virtue”. Virtue seems to be an outdated word for us today, but its root is courage and it looks at character. John Adams wrote in a letter, “The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue.” The belief was that people have a right to know the character of their leaders. There has been a lot of talk about character during this season, but as a whole we tend to value what we see as competence more than character.
The second leg of The Golden Triangle is this: Virtue requires faith”. In considering how to reinforce virtue, the founders looked at what inspired virtue. Even though this country was not setting a religious state they respected the Christian faith because as Dr. Guinness said, “it gave a thick notion of virtue”. The founders and framers were wary of a society of atheists even though they would be granted the freedom to live here and believe as they chose.
The third leg of The Golden Triangle is this: “Faith requires freedom”. Our First Amendment is unique for the list of freedom it grants. It broke 1,500 years of European tradition.
What I learned about how things had changed suggests that it began in the nineteenth century “when faith became privatized and publicly irrelevant” according to Guinness. The erosion started in the realm of faith, not in government. Then in the twentieth century our focus was on “proceduralism” in public life so that faith, freedom, and virtue were considered to be things that were personal and private. This led to the postmodern era where no such thing as truth became the driving force.
Now we live in a time where most notions of freedom are negative whether they are libertarian, liberal, or conservative.
As believers, these are sobering realities for us to consider since we are to be the salt and the light to any society where we live. We are to be the guardians of faith that guards and guides healthy freedom.
I wonder if that is why so many people in so many places have been sensing the Lord saying, “Repent”.