Tag Archives: individualism

HOW THE PILGRIMS’ STORY MIGHT CHALLENGE AND CONVICT US

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you know that in past years I’ve bombarded readers all November long with essays on the history of Thanksgiving, most of them drawn from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  Because I’ve been taking a “sabbatical” from my blog this year, I’ve spared you that fate this time around, but I find that I can’t bring myself to let the holiday pass without sharing just a few of my favorite Thanksgiving posts.

Anytime I’m interviewed about the history of Thanksgiving, the interviewers always seem to try to direct the conversation to popular myths about the “First Thanksgiving,” with the tiresome result that we end up mostly talking about what the Pilgrims had to eat.  For my part, I’d rather discuss the far more important misconceptions most of us have about the Pilgrims: we tend to misunderstand why they came to America in the first place, how they saw themselves, and how they understood the celebration that we–not they–labeled the “First Thanksgiving.”  This week I am sharing some past posts that speak to those foundational questions.  I hope you enjoy.

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"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” George H. Boughton, 1867

Showing Us our Individualism

From where I stand, the most crucial things the Pilgrims have to say to us have nothing to do with Thanksgiving itself. For one thing, the Pilgrim ideal throws into bold relief the supreme individualism of modern American life. The Pilgrims saw the world in terms of groups—family, church, community, nation—and whatever we think of their view, the contrast drives home our own preoccupation with the individual. It was with Americans in mind that French writer Alexis de Tocqueville employed the term later translated as “individualism,” and the exaltation of the self that he observed in American society nearly two centuries ago has only grown relentlessly since.

The individual is now the constituent unit of American society, individual fulfillment holds sway as the highest good, individual conscience reigns as the highest authority. We conceive of adulthood as the absence of all accountability, define liberty as the elimination of all restraint, and measure the worth of social organizations—labor unions, clubs, political parties, even churches—by the degree to which they promote our individual agendas. In sum, as Christian writers Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon conclude, “our society is a vast supermarket of desire, in which each of us is encouraged to stand alone and go out and get what the world owes us.”

From across the centuries, the Pilgrims remind us that there is another way. They modeled their own ideals imperfectly, to be sure, for as the years passed in New England, they learned from experience what we have known but long ago forgotten, namely, that prosperity has a way of loosening the social ties that adversity forges. By 1644, so many of the original colonists had moved away in search of larger farms that William Bradford likened the dwindling Plymouth church to “an ancient mother grown old and forsaken of her children.”

And yet, in their finest moments, the Pilgrims’ example speaks to us, whispering the possibility that we have taken a wrong turn. Anticipating Hauerwas and Willimon, they observe our righteous-sounding commitment to be “true to ourselves” and pose the discomfiting question: “What if our true selves are made from the materials of our communal life?”

“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” by Henry A. Bacon, 1877

Showing Us our Worldliness

I think that meditating on the Pilgrims’ story might also show us our worldliness. “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” John the Apostle warns, referring to the hollow rewards held out to us by a moral order at enmity with God (I John 2:15). From our privileged perspective the Pilgrims lived in abject poverty, and imagining ourselves in their circumstances may help us to see more clearly, not only the sheer magnitude of pleasure and possessions that we take for granted, but also the power that they hold over our lives.

But for many of us the seductiveness of the world is more subtle than Madison Avenue’s message of hedonism and materialism. God has surrounded us with countless blessings that He wants us to enjoy: loving relationships, rewarding occupations, beautiful surroundings. Yet in our fallenness, we are tempted to convert such foretastes of eternity into ends in themselves, numbing our longing for God and causing us to “rest our hearts in this world,” as C. S. Lewis put it in The Problem of Pain. Here is where the Pilgrims speak to me loudly. It is not their poverty that I find most convicting, but their hope of heaven.

When I was three years old, my proud father, who was superintendent of the Sunday School in our small-town Baptist church, stood me on a chair in front of his Bible class so that I could regale the adults with a gospel hymn. (I know this because my mother was so fond of remembering it.) “When we all get to heaven,” I lisped enthusiastically, “What a day of rejoicing that will be. / When we all see Jesus, / We’ll sing and shout for victory.” On the whole, I don’t think American Christians sing much about heaven any more, much less long for it. I know that I do not, and I don’t think I’m alone.

After decades of talking with Christian young people about the afterlife, Wheaton College professor Wayne Martindale concluded that, “aside from hell, perhaps,” heaven “is the last place we . . . want to go.” This should give us pause, shouldn’t it, especially when we recall how largely heaven figures in New Testament teaching? “Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven” (Matthew 6:20), Jesus taught His disciples. On the very night He was betrayed He promised His followers that He would prepare a place for them and asked the Father that they might “be with Me where I am” (John 17:24). Paul reminds us of this “hope which is laid up for [us] in heaven” (Colossians 1:5). Peter writes of the “inheritance incorruptible and undefiled” that the Lord “has reserved” for us there (I Peter 1:4).

There are surely many reasons why we find it so hard to “set [our] minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2), including our misperceptions of heaven and our fear of the unknown, but one reason must also be how well off we are in this world. If “churchgoing Americans . . . don’t much want to go to Heaven,” Martindale conjectures, it may be because we feel so “comfortable” on earth. Our creature comforts abound, and for long stretches of time we are able to fool ourselves about the fragility of life. Modern American culture facilitates our self-deception through a conspiracy of silence. We tacitly agree not to discuss death, hiding away the lingering aged and expending our energies in a quest for perpetual youth.

Here the Pilgrims clearly have the advantage on us. In the world as they knew it, material comforts were scarce, daily existence was arduous, starvation was possible, and death was always near. Readily might they echo the apostle Paul: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (I Corinthians 15:19). What a consolation to believe that, when their “earthly house” had returned to the dust, they would inherit “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (II Corinthians 5:1). What a help, in time of heartache, to “lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country.” What a balm to their souls, to quote Bradford’s poignant prose, that “they knew they were pilgrims.”

“The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth,” Currier & Ives, 1876.

Reminding Us That We are Pilgrims

What difference would it make if such a realization were to penetrate our hearts today? I don’t think it would require that we become “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good,” as naysayers have sometimes suggested. Asserting that “a continual looking forward to the eternal world” is “one of the things a Christian is meant to do,” C. S. Lewis found in history the pattern that “the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” Indeed, in Lewis’s estimation, “It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in,’” he concluded. “Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

Rather than amounting to a form of escapism, “aiming at heaven” might actually enable us to see both ourselves and the world around us more clearly. To begin with, to know we are pilgrims is to understand our identity and, by extension, where our ultimate hope lies. This is something we struggle with, in my opinion.

American Christians over the years have been tempted to confuse patriotism and piety, confounding our national identity as citizens of the United States with our spiritual identity in Christ. We are to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), Paul enjoins us, and yet never forget that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:19). We should thank God daily for the blessings he has showered on our country, but to know we are pilgrims is to understand that our hope of “survival, success, and salvation” rests solely on our belonging to Christ, not our identity as Americans.

In contradiction to this truth, American culture calls us to be “well-adjusted citizens of the Kingdom of this world,” as Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft trenchantly observes. We who name the “name above all names” have all too often acquiesced, in part by convincing ourselves that, given America’s “Christian culture,” there were no hard choices to be made—that our religious and national identities were mutually reinforcing, if not downright indistinguishable.

But if knowing we are pilgrims means that our true citizenship is in heaven, it also means that we are “strangers” and “aliens” here on earth—yes, even in the United States—and this means, in turn, that we should expect the values of our host country to differ from those of our homeland. American Christians have adopted numerous ploys to obscure this reality, but one of the most influential has been the way we have remembered our past. One example of this is how we have distorted the Pilgrims’ story, clothing them with modern American values and making the future United States—not heaven—their true promised land.

HOW THE PILGRIMS’ STORY MIGHT CHALLENGE AND CONVICT US

Only TWO more days until Thanksgiving. My goal this week is to point out positive lessons we might learn from a more accurate encounter with the Pilgrims’ story.  Yesterday I shared with you that I find the Pilgrims’ story both inspiring and encouraging. I also find it challenging and convicting. To explain what I mean by the latter, here’s an extended excerpt from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History:

"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” George H. Boughton, 1867

“. . . From where I stand, though, the most crucial things the Pilgrims have to say to us have nothing to do with Thanksgiving itself. Far more important than its indictment of the holiday, the Pilgrim ideal throws into bold relief the supreme individualism of modern American life. The Pilgrims saw the world in terms of groups—family, church, community, nation—and whatever we think of their view, the contrast drives home our own preoccupation with the individual. It was with Americans in mind that French writer Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term later translated as “individualism,” and the exaltation of the self that he observed in American society nearly two centuries ago has only grown relentlessly since.

The individual is now the constituent unit of American society, individual fulfillment holds sway as the highest good, individual conscience reigns as the highest authority. We conceive of adulthood as the absence of all accountability, define liberty as the elimination of all restraint, and measure the worth of social organizations—labor unions, clubs, political parties, even churches—by the degree to which they promote our individual agendas. In sum, as Christian writers Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon conclude, “our society is a vast supermarket of desire, in which each of us is encouraged to stand alone and go out and get what the world owes us.”

From across the centuries, the Pilgrims remind us that there is another way. They modeled their own ideals imperfectly, to be sure, for as the years passed in New England, they learned from experience what we have known but long ago forgotten, namely, that prosperity has a way of loosening the social ties that adversity forges. By 1644, so many of the original colonists had moved away in search of larger farms that William Bradford likened the dwindling Plymouth church to “an ancient mother grown old and forsaken of her children.”

And yet, in their finest moments, the Pilgrims’ example speaks to us, whispering the possibility that we have taken a wrong turn. Anticipating Hauerwas and Willimon, they observe our righteous-sounding commitment to be “true to ourselves” and pose the discomfiting question: “What if our true selves are made from the materials of our communal life?”

. . . I think that meditating on the Pilgrims’ story might also show us our worldliness. “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” John the Apostle warns, referring to the hollow rewards held out to us by a moral order at enmity with God (I John 2:15). From our privileged perspective the Pilgrims lived in abject poverty, and imagining ourselves in their circumstances may help us to see more clearly, not only the sheer magnitude of pleasure and possessions that we take for granted, but also the power that they hold over our lives.

But for many of us the seductiveness of the world is more subtle than Madison Avenue’s message of hedonism and materialism. God has surrounded us with countless blessings that He wants us to enjoy: loving relationships, rewarding occupations, beautiful surroundings. Yet in our fallenness, we are tempted to convert such foretastes of eternity into ends in themselves, numbing our longing for God and causing us to “rest our hearts in this world,” as C. S. Lewis put it in The Problem of Pain. Here is where the Pilgrims speak to me loudly. It is not their poverty that I find most convicting, but their hope of heaven.

When I was three years old, my proud father, who was superintendent of the Sunday School in our small-town Baptist church, stood me on a chair in front of his Bible class so that I could regale the adults with a gospel hymn. (I know this because my mother was so fond of remembering it.) “When we all get to heaven,” I lisped enthusiastically, “What a day of rejoicing that will be. / When we all see Jesus, / We’ll sing and shout for victory.” On the whole, I don’t think American Christians sing much about heaven any more, much less long for it. I know that I do not, and I don’t think I’m alone.

After decades of talking with Christian young people about the afterlife, Wheaton College professor Wayne Martindale concluded that, “aside from hell, perhaps,” heaven “is the last place we . . . want to go.” This should give us pause, shouldn’t it, especially when we recall how largely heaven figures in New Testament teaching? “Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven” (Matthew 6:20), Jesus taught His disciples. On the very night He was betrayed He promised His followers that He would prepare a place for them and asked the Father that they might “be with Me where I am” (John 17:24). Paul reminds us of this “hope which is laid up for [us] in heaven” (Colossians 1:5). Peter writes of the “inheritance incorruptible and undefiled” that the Lord “has reserved” for us there (I Peter 1:4).

There are surely many reasons why we find it so hard to “set [our] minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2), including our misperceptions of heaven and our fear of the unknown, but one reason must also be how well off we are in this world. If “churchgoing Americans . . . don’t much want to go to Heaven,” Martindale conjectures, it may be because we feel so “comfortable” on earth. Our creature comforts abound, and for long stretches of time we are able to fool ourselves about the fragility of life. Modern American culture facilitates our self-deception through a conspiracy of silence. We tacitly agree not to discuss death, hiding away the lingering aged and expending our energies in a quest for perpetual youth.

Here the Pilgrims clearly have the advantage on us. In the world as they knew it, material comforts were scarce, daily existence was arduous, starvation was possible, and death was always near. Readily might they echo the apostle Paul: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (I Corinthians 15:19). What a consolation to believe that, when their “earthly house” had returned to the dust, they would inherit “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (II Corinthians 5:1). What a help, in time of heartache, to “lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country.” What a balm to their souls, to quote Bradford’s poignant prose, that “they knew they were pilgrims.”

What difference would it make if such a realization were to penetrate our hearts today? I don’t think it would require that we become “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good,” as naysayers have sometimes suggested. Asserting that “a continual looking forward to the eternal world” is “one of the things a Christian is meant to do,” C. S. Lewis found in history the pattern that “the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” Indeed, in Lewis’s estimation, “It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in,’” he concluded. “Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

Rather than amounting to a form of escapism, “aiming at heaven” might actually enable us to see both ourselves and the world around us more clearly. To begin with, to know we are pilgrims is to understand our identity and, by extension, where our ultimate hope lies. This is something we struggle with, in my opinion.

American Christians over the years have been tempted to confuse patriotism and piety, confounding our national identity as citizens of the United States with our spiritual identity in Christ. We are to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), Paul enjoins us, and yet never forget that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:19). We should thank God daily for the blessings he has showered on our country, but to know we are pilgrims is to understand that our hope of “survival, success, and salvation” rests solely on our belonging to Christ, not our identity as Americans.

In contradiction to this truth, American culture calls us to be “well-adjusted citizens of the Kingdom of this world,” as Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft trenchantly observes. We who name the “name above all names” have all too often acquiesced, in part by convincing ourselves that, given America’s “Christian culture,” there were no hard choices to be made—that our religious and national identities were mutually reinforcing, if not downright indistinguishable.

But if knowing we are pilgrims means that our true citizenship is in heaven, it also means that we are “strangers” and “aliens” here on earth—yes, even in the United States—and this means, in turn, that we should expect the values of our host country to differ from those of our homeland. American Christians have adopted numerous ploys to obscure this reality, but one of the most influential has been the way we have remembered our past. One example of this is how we have distorted the Pilgrims’ story, clothing them with modern American values and making the future United States—not heaven—their true promised land.”

First Thanksgiving

ARE WE A SOCIETY WITHOUT HOPE?

What is the nature of the story that we Americans tell about ourselves? What is the driving idea of our culture? Are we a hopeful people, and if so, on what do we base our hope?

These questions lie at the heart of a book that I just finished titled The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, by Andrew Delbanco. The author is a professor of American Studies at Columbia University, and this brief volume (118 pp.) originated as a series of three public lectures that he delivered at Harvard University at the close of the 1990s. I have read one previous book by Delbanco: his more recent work College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Although I didn’t wholly agree with Delbanco’s thoughts on higher education, I found him very thought provoking. Delbanco is not a Christian (he describes himself as a non-observant Jew), but he has spent much of his career studying American religious history, he takes religious belief seriously, and he seems drawn to religious questions. Certainly, the questions that he asks in The Real American Dream are fraught with religious significance.

Delbanco

Delbanco’s starting point is the importance of story. “Human beings need to organize the inchoate sensations amid which we pass our days—pain, pleasure, desire, fear—into a story,” he observes on the very first page. “When that story leads somewhere . . . it gives us hope.” When Delbanco talks about “hope,” he isn’t referring to a sense of optimism that the economy will pick up, or that we’ll land the promotion we’ve been working toward, or that our children will grow up healthy and happy. Hope, as he means it here, is something deeper. It is the sense of comfort that saturates our soul when we believe that our lives are a part of something larger. Hope inhabits us when we see our lives as enmeshed in a larger story that reassures us that life is more than simply about filling time until we die. The “real American dream,” according to Delbanco, isn’t the yearning for a three-bedroom house and a two-car garage or any other materialistic cliche; it isn’t even uniquely American. The real American dream is the hope of satisfying “the unquenchable human need to feel connected to something larger than the insular self.” This book is a meditation on how Americans have tried to satisfy that longing over the centuries.

Generalizing broadly, Delbanco divides American history into three eras, each characterized by a different dominant approach to this “craving for transcendence.” Throughout the colonial period, the central figure in the American story, as the colonists told it, was God. Giving special attention to the Puritans, Delbanco maintains that colonial American culture found in religious belief the basis of a coherent world view. God’s exhaustive sovereignty drove the human story, and His divine plan, though often inscrutable, infused the colonists’ lives with meaning and purpose.

By 1800, however, the Puritans’ robust Calvinism “had been permanently displaced from the center of the culture.” Although the change unfolded gradually, between the American Revolution and the Civil War the nation came to replace God as the culture’s focal point. Delbanco writes, “Christian symbolism, even as it was weakening, was transformed into the symbol of a redeemer nation, and thereby into a new symbol of hope.” Abraham Lincoln both embodied and propelled the trend. In an 1854 speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, for example, Lincoln proclaimed that the notorious legislation had “soiled” the nation, and called on Americans to “repurify” their garments by washing them—not in the blood of the Lamb—but “in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution.” In Delbanco’s estimation (and in mine), Lincoln “contributed immeasurably to the sacralization of the state.”  For a century thereafter, Americans looked increasingly to the nation, not to God, “as the source of justice, mercy, and hope.”

This pattern held true into the 1960s. But from the 1960s through the 1980s, according to Delbanco, popular faith in the government declined dramatically and the nation ceased to function as the driving idea at the heart of the American story. Events of these years “cooperated in installing instant gratification as the hallmark of the good life, and in repudiating the interventionist state as a source of hope.” The focal point of American culture since that time has not been God. It has not been the nation. It has been the self.

In a word, the history of hope that the author sketches is one of “diminution.” He summarizes it this way: “At first, the self expanded toward (and was sometimes overwhelmed by) the vastness of God. From the early republic to the Great Society, it remained implicated in a national ideal lesser than God but larger and more enduring than any individual citizen. Today [i.e., 1999], “hope has narrowed to the vanishing point of the self alone.”

Delbanco openly laments what he finds. Looking about him, he sees a culture without a coherent story.  That means a culture without hope. “We have gotten very good at deconstructing old stories,” he observes almost bitterly, but “when it comes to telling new ones, we are blocked.” How could it be otherwise? The values that drive us—unfettered individualism, unmitigated materialism—cannot lead beyond the self. The symbols that encapsulate us—the golden arches and the Nike swoosh—can never inspire us or point us toward hope. “And so the ache for meaning goes unrelieved.” The pressing question, Delbanco contends, is whether we can face this emptiness openly and honestly. “Do we have the nerve to say of ourselves that a culture locked in a soul-starving present, in which the highest aspiration—for those who can afford to try—is to keep the body forever young, is no culture at all?”

It’s a good question.

Historians traditionally don’t like to talk about the present, and we tend to banish the historians who do so from the club and label them “social critics” or “public intellectuals,” neither of which is meant as a compliment. In part this is because we fear that too much attention to the present will undermine our ability to explore the past objectively. There is something to be said for this concern, and when taken in moderation it can guard against tendentious political claims masquerading as disinterested scholarship. But when taken to the extreme—and I think it has been—academic historians’ suspicion of “present-mindedness” has primarily worked to convince the rest of society that history is irrelevant to our lives. As Joseph Ellis puts it, “The scholarly instinct to establish a secure checkpoint between the past and the present in order to prevent the flow of traffic back and forth . . . [has] had the disadvantage of making history an irrelevant, cloistered, indeed dead place, populated only by historians.”

So I wasn’t put off by Delbanco’s reflections on the present. What struck me, however, was how unsatisfying they are. Although he labels his concluding remarks a “jeremiad,” they hardly rise to that level. When the Lord called Jeremiah to be his prophet, he promised that He would use him not only “to root out and to pull down,” but also “to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). Jeremiah offered not just “social criticism” of Israel’s ills but the hope of a new story: the vision of a new covenant with God that would be written on the hearts of His people. In the end, Delbanco can only lament what he sees.

Despite its limitations, The Real American Dream offers much that is valuable. Here are four “take-away” points that I will continue to meditate on:

First, I love Delbanco’s emphasis on story, and I like the categories that he gives us—God, Nation, Self—for thinking about the ways that we make sense of our lives. These categories are not exhaustive, of course. The latter two are examples of idolatry, and as Calvin taught, the forms that idolatry can take are endless. Even so, Delbanco has given us a useful way of thinking about American culture, both past and present.

Second, it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Delbanco’s realization that, for some Americans at least, after the Revolution veneration of the nation came to supplant faith in God as the focal point of the American story. This is a perpetual temptation, and we must guard against it perpetually.

Third, as a historian I am very much taken by Delbanco’s observation that contemporary Americans are “locked in a soul-starving present.” (At another point, he characterizes the modern self as “marooned in a perpetual present, playing alone with its trinkets and baubles.”) My sense is that the author means that it is this particular present that is “soul-starving,” i.e., the present (at the close of the twentieth century) in which individualism, materialism, and instant gratification have become the new American Trinity, the present in which Americans lack any viable basis for a life-giving hope. And yet I wonder if his insight can be made more general. Might we say that any society that is stranded in the present is in some sense “soul-starved,” or at the very least, spiritually impoverished? I would venture to say that any story that gives hope—that “leads somewhere,” in Delbanco’s words—not only transcends the self but also transcends our own moments in time. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Finally, The Real American Dream will continue to stimulate my thinking because of something the author left out. Andrew Delbanco holds a Ph.D. from Harvard and teaches at Columbia, and I suspect that he hasn’t spent much time in the Bible Belt, if you get my drift. His focus throughout the book is on elite thinkers, and once Puritans like John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards pass from the scene, he scarcely acknowledges the existence of the Church, much less pays attention to the kind of story that the rank and file of believers were telling about America. (In fairness to Delbanco, this is a short book, and his inattention to Christians after 1800 is consistent with his conclusion that religious belief had moved from the center to the periphery of American culture by that time.) So here is the question I will continue to chew on: would paying more attention to the influence of American Christians fundamentally alter the overarching pattern that Delbanco sketches? Have American Christians mitigated or reinforced the tendency to idolize the nation? Have we challenged or confirmed the exaltation of the self and the primacy of immediate gratification? In sum, have we been salt and light, or have we let the world squeeze us into its mold?