Monday, July 4, 2011

Constitutionally transcendent

Today we celebrate the 235th anniversary of that day when the United States, originally 13 British colonies, declared its independence from Great Britain. This post unapologetically builds on my post from one year ago, "When in the Course of human events...". In the powerful declaration, publicly proclaimed in Philadelphia, we read these important words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Furthermore, John Adams, who was perhaps the most influential Founding Father, writing to some officers of the Massachusetts militia in 1798, well after our Constitution was ratified, offered this- "we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

John Adams

Constitutionally, the United States is built on the assumption of a transcendent order. Many of our struggles today arise from a general loss, or at least diminishment, of our collective sense of transcendence. We are tempted to interpret Adams' words to mean religion as a form of social control, but to read them that way is to take them anachronistically. In his book, published last year by Catholic University Press, The Turn to Transcendence, Dr. Glenn Olsen wrote that Christianity, like Judaism before it, is cosmological, meaning that Christians "see human life both as dramatic, centered on a struggle to achieve a proper use of freedom, and as eschatological, receiving its orientation from beyond history" (208). Indeed, rather than as a form of social control, Adams, in his address, seems to also be concerned with the proper use of freedom. As St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Galatians: "For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (5:13- ESV).

Olsen goes on to note that is was Heidegger who "compared the meditative knowledge of medieval figures such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, aimed at the transformation of our being in the light of destiny, with the calculative thinking of the modern world" (209). The calculative thinking of the modern world often holds that what counts as true knowledge must be empirically verifiable, despite the devastating critique of so-called verificationism by Wittgenstein, among others. Indeed, the calculative thinking of the modern world is instrumental insofar as it is "aimed acquiring tools of action" (209).

Calculative thinking, which is instrumental, Olsen goes on to note, quoting Adriaan Peperzak, is "'rationality without receptivity,' thinking without 'admiration, gratitude, and compassion, but rather ...[based on] celebration of human intelligence, possession, engineering, and mastery'" (209). He is quite correct to note that the movement from the transformation of being in light of our destiny to so-called calculative thinking leads to a loss of transcendence, the further obliteration of the question of Being that it was Heidegger's project to recover.

Being constitutionally transcendent is exactly what still makes the United States of America exceptional. Hence, losing that which constitutes us as a nation is a perennial temptation we must resist.

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