“Awakening” and “enlightenment” – they are terms which describe intersecting periods in American history.
In our nation we find ourselves in need of them again now more than ever. We stand at the cusp of either turning an amazing corner if we can wake-up as a society or becoming bonded into servitude of the whims of other nations which have been able to maintain greater clarity in seeing the consequences of nations’ choices: theirs and ours.
To save our country, we need a second “Age of Enlightenment.” With history as our road map, it then should become obvious we first need to enter a second “Age of Awakening.”
The original Age of Awakening was a stretch of the middle of the 18th century when a new ministry nearly exclusively the domain of Colonial America began to arise. It empowered the Enlightenment which had emerged in Great Britain in the late 17th century – which began slowly inspiring America’s greatest minds over the course of the century that followed.
We have gotten away from the ministry of that time, unfortunately. In truth, we have strayed terribly from it. The operative inquiry becomes, “How do we get back to it?”
One hope that I hold lies in my own personal awakening in my faith this year – and I pray it can take hold across our society.
In my previous note, I belabored the point that the Laws of God and the laws of man were never meant to be one and the same. I firmly believe the failure to acknowledge this truth is one of the key blunders of the American Right. When you vest that much broad-sweeping power into the bureaucracy of the state you allow much too dangerously great of an opportunity for those who hate Christianity to engage in destructive mischief upon stepping into that power.
But, this spring the truth to be found on the other side of that coin finally got through.
I was born into the Catholic Church. I attended Shrine of the Little Flower Catholic School for grades 1 through 8. I was raised Catholic.
Recently, though, I found myself struggling to return to faithful attendance of Mass on the Sabbath. I have been very delinquent in recent years with keeping my end of the bargain on the Third Commandment – so I understood my obligation to seek the sacrament of Reconciliation in order to be able to receive Communion again.
Even after forcing myself to not be lazy to that end for a few weekends, I still experienced significant angst over this matter.
Nevertheless, I have consistently longed to return to that path in life since I allowed myself to lapse in attending Mass.
Then it finally hit me. I don’t disagree with the Church on its Catechism. I disagree with its dogma that in order to be one with the Church you must rigidly meet points A, B, and C through X, Y, and Z.
With such an unwavering system of rules to be able to stay in the Church, in a mirror image of what the Evangelical Right Wing in America has been pursuing for decades the Vatican has been for centuries attempting to pigeonhole the laws of man into and amongst the Laws of God.
If structuring government so as to make the laws of man reflect the Laws of God is destined to be a failed concept in our society, then it stands to reason the pursuit of the other direction ultimately cannot succeed for any church.
My apprehension also stems from the massive bureaucratic framework the Church has built over the last 1700 to 1800 years.
Now, all the major denominations of Christianity have engaged in this practice. The Catholic Church, though, stands out as the leading example. (Quixotic as it may appear, I still believe in the Catholic Church’s Apostolic origins as well as the holy authority of the Pope)
This is where my libertarianism has bled into my religious province. My question now becomes, “Is it necessary for the ministry of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be so heavily contingent on the existence of a massive, complex administrative hierarchy?
Much the same way I believe society will function just fine with minimal government and reliance on our ability to engage in self-governance, so too I believe the future of Christianity would be just as promising with significant scaling-back of church organizational apparatus.
Just consider the fact that as our government has gotten ever larger and more centralized so has the omnipresence of politics grown to nauseating proportions.
As our churches become more reliant on central authorities which operate with ever-expanding dogmatic networks, it is inevitable that the risk of politics creeping into these machineries will become more prevalent.
And when politics come into play, would not the need assuredly arise for a set of rules, or laws, to keep the political side of things in check? Would not some form of framework of laws be needed to keep the internal politics from overtaking the church affairs?
Ultimately, does that not also mean you then end-up with the laws of man taking precedent over ministering to parishioners the Laws of God?
Much like with the United States government, the bureaucratic nature of organized religion has become unsustainable.
What history has taught us
As we came to learn in America, during the Age of Enlightenment which preceded the Revolution, our relationships with God and Christ were always meant to be a personal one. The opposite of this outlook is known as collective salvation.
Collective salvation was what the churches in Europe had begun implementing as a means of maintaining control of the masses: if an orderly adherence to the official sermons was not maintained, no single person could hope to be saved in the absence of blessings for the whole of society.
However, here in the American colonies during the 18th and 19th centuries, ministers and preachers began sermonizing a more individual approach toward belief in God and Christ.
Thanks to a man named George Whitefield, who began a barnstorming tour across the colonies in the mid-1700s preaching his new – and (dare I say) revolutionary – outlook on finding God, the people in the New World would slowly but surely come to understand that when we as individuals are good and more virtuous then the parishes and congregations (and ultimately the communities) are stronger and greater.
What Whitefield would end-up not only teaching but inspiring in our American ancestors during that period in history was when we are more enabled as individuals to better ourselves and fortify the spiritual health of our families, our society as a whole gradually becomes a healthier and more vibrant place.
Naturally, humanity at that time 260 years ago had a long way to go in terms of realizing civilized living and overcoming many of the superstitions which still dominated the culture. But, during that period people in the New World were more focused on self-betterment than at any time before and since – paving the way for a societal rise to world greatness that the world had scarcely seen before.
And all the while, the collective gains were being made because the spirit of the individual had been unleashed – an individual who understood the vital importance of loyalty to country yet at the same time was free to seek salvation one-on-one with God and Christ.
So, what does this mean?
One of the most important components of the spread of Whitefield’s message and the rise it gave to the American Enlightenment was the fact the individual churches retained a great deal more autonomy across the Colonies than their counterparts back in Europe and Western Asia.
Of course, much of that was due to the existence of such an enormous geographical separation from the various councils and authorities for each Christian sect as well as the lack of modern transmittal of ideas as we know it today. Still, the overall conditions of the time – not just in terms of the absence of technology but the evolving sense of the American identity – led to an amazing awakening not just of Christianity but for Christian values.
Arguably the key messages being spread across the colonies during this particular junction in history was the importance of virtue among the people: that without Americans being a virtuous people the prospects for not only achieving independence but also for lasting as a sovereign nation would be rather dim.
But, it was the more independent nature of the congregations (particularly in the more remote, frontier reaches of the original colonies), outside of the reach of church bureaucracies, that helped cultivate the sense of American Individualism: the person who sought the optimum cross-section of self-sufficiency and Christian virtuousness.
Perhaps most importantly, the conditions of living in and maintaining a community in the more untamed, frontier portions of 18th century America also led people of differing faiths to work and worship together as a result of the necessity of unity just to survive, let alone prosper – bolstering the nation’s identity as a land of religious freedom.
Where should this lead us?
It has become a growing rallying cry – among those of us who wish to see the ship of America sail true again – “Where is our George Washington among us?” that person whom we need to step forward (no doubt reluctantly as the Father of Our Nation did) and inspire us as a nation to modestly and graciously seek the path toward Restoration: that individual who can do so having earned their place as “First in the hearts of America.”
What many of us (myself included) have forgotten from our history lessons is that even George Washington needed to be preceded by others in the greater scheme of things who would set the stage for him to become our nation’s most beloved leader.
Before Washington took his place in the annals of American history there needed to be the likes of Thomas Paine, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.
Before them, there was George Whitefield.
Before we can find our modern-day Washington, we must find our modern-day Paine, Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin.
Before we can find them, we must find our modern-day Whitefield.
In the end…
If nothing else, my aim with this essay is to point-out that we are doing ourselves a disfavor by clinging tightly to our identities as Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, and so on.
Do we not all believe in the Immaculate Conception, birth, life, ministry, crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ?
And that leads me back to that juncture I reached this spring: that tightly-held notion of being a Catholic was nothing more than a label – and we have become entirely too preoccupied anymore as a society with finding a comfortable label for ourselves.
As a result, in the modern quest for labels we allowed ourselves to forget our identity as Christians.
Christ called upon His apostles James and John to become “fishers of men.” His call to us through the ages hasn’t changed: to be disciples of Him. He has never called upon us to fit neatly into an arbitrary category.
For Christianity to survive another 2,000 years, we must learn to focus on discovering Christian Unity. Ultimately, these labels of church identity serve as much to divide us as any other factor working against Christianity today. With so much stacked against us anymore when it comes to living by the Gospel, what sense does it make to actively pursue and erect additional barriers to unity as Christians?
Even if we are unable to arrive at the kind of ecumenical Christian faith I pray can be achieved, a united Christian faith will become a movement for good the likes of which the world has not previously witnessed.
I believe in Christ and I believe the Bible is the Holy Word of God.
I make those proclamations in the complete absence of shame or embarrassment. Of course, there will be those who try to peg a different set of labels on me – such as Jesus freak, bible thumper, and other, similarly derisive (if not blasphemous) markers.
Just know this: they only label me – they cannot define me.
My faith in God and Christ will accomplish that.