Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

By the 18 th century the British empire no longer mediated divine rule. The ground was breaking down, order was dissolving. The American revolution produced heroic symbols that explicated the existential nature of man in the order of existence as both immanent and transcendent, and consequently a spiritual catastrophe was averted if not a political one. The convergence of the pragmatic and the transcendent in the establishment of the revolutionary movement would provide the ground of the American nation. The nation would function in the pragmatic yet the citizenry would recognize that it did not represent mankind (past, present, and future).

The unfolding of the British Empire revealed it’s telos which colonials found unsuitable. Colonial thinkers had participated in the continuation of differentiated reality and moved far beyond the British paradigm in terms of ‘freedom,’ including a metastatic advance, going so far as to create symbols expressing the ground of ‘freedom.’ Why this noetic advance took place on the fringes of ‘civilization’ is a really interesting question. The answer, I think, is found in the education of these people, their revulsion with imperial order, and the event of the Great Awakening where the American colonials concurred with Lebniz’s comment, “The ultimate reason for things is called God.” (Principes, 7-8).

The first generation of Americans, the ones who sacrificed everything of an immanent nature in the effort to capture the true meaning of existential order, intimately understood the realty of that order they established, and the symbols they created, specifically ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. As philosophers and in noetic terms these Americans seized the opportunity to seek the divine in a ‘freedom’ that exists from the psyche of being to the horizon of Divine mystery. Those symbols engendered in the founding are only vaguely and imperfectly understood today and readily exchangeable for ‘security’ and ‘rights’ among a people who, in the end, may no longer be worthy heirs of the great sacrifice.

The founding generation eschewed any hypostatizing derailments, particularly the abandonment of the divine communion, and sought to transfer the responsibility as ‘carrier of the order of history’ from the empire to the republican citizen who understood that ‘revelation’ acted as “God’s appeal to man to place himself under his order . . . ”

In historiogenetic terms, the republic has moved so far toward the pragmatic that historical reality is experiencing a Hegelian distortion, exemplified by a ‘progressive’ desire on the part of elements of the elite to move toward ‘empire’ and the perverse influence of foreign ideologies.

I don’t know if America represents a ‘universal mankind under God,” the ancient yearning of empire, best illustrated in contemporary terms by the call to “take democracy to the Middle East.” I don’t think that it does. If we are to survive as a people we must recapture the noetic and pneumatic insights gained during the founding period (e.g. the pneumatic reality of the Great Awakening, the noetic reality of the form of government, etc.) and we must repair the egophanic deformation that has resulted in the collapse of the symbols into the doctrinaire ‘system.’

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles