Independence Day: No future without evangelization

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 04, 2014

If you are a reflective American, I’d imagine you find it hard to observe Independence Day. It is simply too hard to avoid this question: “Independence from what?” At one time, the answer was political and the question referred to Britain. Today, the answer is fundamentally religious, and the question refers to reality itself. Above all things, it seems, Americans wish to be independent from reality.

Of course, America is hardly alone. American culture has always been closely tied to European culture. The drive for American independence unquestionably grew from the same seeds which led to political and social changes at roughly the same time throughout much of Europe. Of course, Europeans in Europe did not have the luxury of starting from scratch that Europeans largely enjoyed in the Western hemisphere.

But still, as a cause for war, the real differences between Great Britain and her American colonies were always so small as to be laughable. The kind of controls King and Parliament exercised over the colonies in the 18th century pale into insignificance by today’s standards of government. But politics always depends on exaggeration; indeed, part of what it means to be human is to exaggerate our own problems.

Nonetheless, in our time, it is really the relatively unified culture of the West, and not just American culture, which we may rightly describe as yearning to be free. But we do not know what it is than enslaves us. Instead of embracing reality to learn, we prefer to jettison reality as the last encumbrance.

The Empire of Desire

All human authorities are obviously provisional. They exist for a practical purpose, and insofar as they fail to achieve their purpose, they require adjustment in some way. Some cultures esteem traditional authorities very highly, but Western culture has slowly developed such a strong sense of personal, individual autonomy that authority is typically denigrated. We tend to be acutely sensitive to the drawbacks of having respected authorities in place, and fairly blind to the drawbacks of a fundamental cultural disdain for authority.

In a deeper sense, of course, the human person almost never dispenses with authority. Instead, we tend to follow the authorities which we have been conditioned to accept uncritically. Thus the authority of the mass media and the authority of fashion (the glitterati) have immense influence, and in contemporary culture huge numbers of people take their social cues from whatever the “right” people are saying. Ultimately, there is a strong human tendency to defend the authorities which tend to protect the things which we hold dearest.

In the modern West, I think what we now hold dearest is the Empire of Desire. We have grown wary of letting any authority into our lives which honors specific moral absolutes; we instinctively understand that a moral absolute in one area can lead to legitimate restrictions of our desires down the road—including our personal sexual desires. Those who live in the West generally have been conditioned over several generations now to regard the fulfillment of the most personal of desires as the one thing that legitimate authority must protect—hence our convenient dictatorship of relativism.

A great many historical and cultural developments have led the West to the conviction that the fulfillment of transitory personal desires is the key to happiness. Other ages and other cultures have been far more suspicious of personal desire, very commonly emphasizing the need to control and even suppress our desires in ways which lead to a greater self-actualization. But the perception that resistance to transitory desires is necessary for happiness has largely been lost. And with it we have lost the wisdom that the cultivation of deeper aspirations requires discipline: What is ultimately both deeper and higher in human life is obscured when we devote ourselves to pleasure.

Where Religion Comes In

It has often been said that religion is the foundation of all culture, and this is certainly true if by “religion” we mean the deepest and most abiding beliefs of a community. These beliefs determine for us what has ultimate value, and it is these values which drive all the habits, associations and institutions we forge as a people—the cultures which reflect our identity.

If, however, a people suffers a rational collapse, it will deny that nature is ordered and that natural order requires the existence of the spiritual, including the supernatural. If a whole culture begins to perceive reality as totally random or arbitrary (note that the arbitrary is by its nature without order), then it will lose confidence in its ability to recognize and attain anything higher than immediate gratification.

For many this will lead to despair. Beyond transitory pleasure there can be no hope. The most important thing in life, therefore, becomes to pursue whatever can stave off feelings of despair. This can only take the form of scratching an itch, of seeking whatever we happen to want right now. The result is that whatever interferes with this pursuit is defined, turn by fashionable turn, as a violation of human rights. Unfortunately, it is difficult to imagine a less rational basis for organizing and codifying human good. Paradoxically, it takes a fundamental recognition of the order of the universe to appreciate the obviousness of God. In the modern West, we seem to have nowhere to turn for meaning.

Increasingly, this is what “independence” and “freedom” mean in the West today, and certainly in America. Independence and freedom from what? From reality. For this reason, the joy of our national celebrations tends to turn to dust in our mouths. We may have much to appreciate in each of our countries, much good to celebrate among our people, our land, and even some of our remaining cultural strengths. But as a total day of celebration, it is all rather chilling.

We are simply too far gone. It is difficult to be sanguine when the times call for desperate measures. This ought to throw us back on our Faith, not on our Country. What we can do—in most cases the only thing we can do—is pray, bear witness, and evangelize. There is joy and happiness in these. But the point is that there should be joy and happiness in a great many things that grow out of these. Against the day when this becomes true, we can and must rescue all the goods we cherish by rooting them, when we celebrate, in Jesus Christ.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 05, 2014 8:32 AM ET USA

    Enjoyed the essay. What better gift to offer Americans on the birthday of our nation than a reality check? I, for one, am most appreciative.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jul. 04, 2014 9:28 PM ET USA

    All that 18th century energy was, IMO, dissipated in a dubious cause at best. After all, even back then we drove some very good people from the land -- Gov. John Wentworth of NH, for just one example, among the best leaders that "colony" ever had or has had since. And Canada seems to have survived quite well without all the bloodshed the War of Independence involved. Beyond that, though, both we and our northern neighbors have ended up in similar sinkholes of legal amorality when not immorality.