A Foreword for the Fourth: Freedom in the Light of God’s Will
One problem with living in the looming shadow of some existential threat can be the tendency to become exclusively preoccupied with it. Who or whatever is the focal point of danger becomes the reality defining the line between existence and nonexistence. This is particularly true of threatened human communities, since no natural body provides the lineaments in which, upon reflection, diverse individuals can immediately recognize the locus of their common existence. In human individuals, the natural body is preoccupied with the activities by which it sustains itself. It moves, feels, breathes—taking in and sorting out all kinds of information, in a manner replete with irresistible purpose. At first its force is so altogether unassuming that the power it represents is in no way noticeably distinct from the wholesome existence sustained by it.
So, Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God almost without knowing it. The Biblical account conveys this beautifully when it says, “they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” They had no sense of being exposed to any way of being but their own. No sense, therefore, of any limit or boundary rising up, like blood to color their cheeks, thereby connoting the distinction between their presence and the one in whose presence theirs dwindled almost to insignificance.
Shame came later, when they reached beyond the information by which God instructed their distinct natural existence (literally, building it up from within their being, but also, of course, from within His own). By doing so they take in the knowledge (become conscious of the truth) that, in their own eyes (i.e., according to their own perception) distinguishes their way of being from the being itself of God, which substantiates it. But what becomes of their way of being once they consciously apprehend this distinction? Insofar as they comprehend the difference between themselves and God, they must see themselves as being apart from Him. But if His being substantiates theirs, the perception of being apart from His reveals their being as insubstantial, for it’s bereft of the substance without which they cannot understand it in any way, much less in their own.
To be without being is beyond human comprehension. Yet this is what we would have to comprehend in order to know what it means to be apart from the substance of being, which is all that God is, in truth. Constantly striving to apprehend what cannot be taken in without, as it were, cutting away the ground of understanding that makes apprehension possible— is this not what gives the term “apprehensive” its connotation of fearfulness? To know that we do not know may be the beginning of human inquiry. But it is also the conundrum that makes the first step away from ignorance a groundless assertion. Unless, that is, what Adam and Eve took for granted (before their willfulness betrayed their existence) is once again assumed, which is this: Because existence is informed by God’s being, its sustenance depends entirely upon Him. Therefore, no understanding of existence can be sustained except in accordance with His precepts (i.e., what He makes Himself to be so as to give and take account of what existence is, before it comes to be, so that it becomes what it was before being given or taken into account.)
This the Bible account conveys beautifully when it says: “What God is, He already was; and What He is to become, He has been already- He shall find out the fugitive.” (Ecclesiastes 3:15) Thus, God apprehends what, on our own, we cannot grasp; and what, in purporting to apprehend it, we altogether lose from sight. Shakespeare’s character, Macbeth, epitomizes this limitation of our humanity in his response to Lady Macbeth, when she sneers that his reluctance to murder King Duncan is unmanly. “I dare do all that may become a man”, he says. “Who dares do more is none.”
But since God is the quintessential being of human existence (understanding what it means before ever it comes to be) God does all that may become a man, yet is much more. Thus, He apprehends what preserves humanity, in the literal sense. His precepts anticipate and reflect the whole complex of prerequisite relations and events in consequence of which human existence emerges, as such. In this respect, the precepts of God do not secure human beings against some enemy. Rather, they secure the very possibility of humanity, in light of the positive commitment of His being through which He calls for their existence, informing and disposing Himself so as to provide whatever is needed to realize it.
In a little while we Americans will celebrate the 4th of July. These days we are, I think purposely, encouraged to see it as a celebration of human independence, and the prosperity and greatness that our assertion of freedom makes possible. Actually, it is the day when representatives of the first citizens and patriots of the United States adopted a statement that justified the action they had already approved on July 2. What we call the Declaration of Independence set forth their justification for that action. To do so they relied on God’s provisions for human existence— including the precepts for human nature that call upon us to live by those provisions, exercising our freedom according to His will, so that our actions deserve the name of right, which we call liberty.
A true remembrance of this sense of our vocation, translated by practice into every aspect of our lives as citizens, ought to be the heart of our civility and our identity as Americans. Informed by that remembrance, we can resist the temptation to surrender our nation’s good heart to some masquerade of evil, which pretends to inspire our patriotism by forgetting our true and positive vocation for humanity, evoking instead only our present dangers, and the enemies who pose and embody it.
Looking to God we will find our purpose in the pursuits of right and justice we engage in for His sake. We will take courage from that purpose, which calls us to look beyond the clear and ever-present dangers of the moment, to the clearer, more everlasting truths that come of God’s benevolent will for our humanity—the love He expressed in the ordering by which He prepares the world for our existence; and which He called upon us to recognize in His precepts, and to imitate in our lives, by the example of Christ, His Son.
“For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” the Apostle wrote. (Philippians 1:21) What terrors can any enemy bring against a nation whose common good is to live, by choice, according to the will that, if we follow Christ’s example, we place above our own—which is the will of God, “who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them.” It is no coincidence that our nation’s independence was first asserted on the authority of the Creator, God. It is, and has ever been the key to our courage, our strength, our survival and happiness as a free people— both our liberty (which is freedom rightly used) and the just union that, by right, makes us one nation, depend upon it. It was wrong to blame what Christians believed for the fall of Rome’s great empire. But if our Republic falls, its Christian citizens will have good reason to lament that it was the failure to live by Christ, without fear and unashamed, that must rightly be regarded as the one thing needful to prevent that fate.
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