While working on another project it dawned on me that the way I described the American theology in 2015 as a transcendent occurrence, much like “being born again”, may have appeared to be a little bit of a philosophical stretch, inasmuch as Christianity and Judaism (and some argue Islam) are considered to be transcendent in that special way of defining the “realization of God as separate from the material universe”. Christians, more than the other religions, seem to feel it on an individual or personal basis.
Every religion teaches its young its history and precepts, just as every nation teaches its young its history and precepts, but rarely on the basis of inspiration. While teaching is considered the more orderly way of passing on a concept, especially to the young, there is little consideration that an event in a person’s life, well-removed from the classroom, may come along and gob-smack that person…at any age…in any location…and change the course of that person’s life forever. The best examples in History, examined below, are how or why, for over 300 years, people who had only heard of the teachings of a Man named Jesus in Palestine, then executed and later Risen, consistently offered their lives up by refusing to renounce this very belief.
A more modern example would be the several million young white men in America who lined up to enlist in the Army to rescue three million people they had never personally seen, their newspapers only showing crude drawings as representations, knowing them only as “slave” and “Negroes”. Nearly half a million of those young volunteers died rescuing those people, killing almost as many young white men who fought them, and in the process, destroying the entire culture that protected that institution.
Why this was a transcendent act was first, that these free moral agents all moved in a single direction once the call went out driven by impulses within their individual selves, more often than not prompted by some voice from the pulpit of their small town church, a voice that likely had been echoing for forty years, from Maine, to Ohio and Indiana, to Iowa and Kansas.
Second, this was the first time in recorded human history that any people, anywhere, had laid down their sons’ lives for the rescue of an unrelated people they had never even seen, much less knew by name.
And in the 160 years since that Civil War, Americans have died other times in rescuing people from bondage as varied as French, Italians, Dutch, Arabs on two continents, Afghans, and Pacific Islanders. And the only other nations that have done the same in those years since the American Civil War were following America’s lead.
Interestingly, the three (3) transcendent religions cited are all referring to the same God, although they describe that vision different.
The most ancient is Judaism, which claims the original relationship with God, beginning with God’s covenant with Abraham. He was called “YHWH”, or Yahweh, at that time, and the Jewish faith began with that Covenant would also claim a kind of territory, very “thin red line” running through twelve tribes, fathered by Abraham’s grandson Jacob, following their story into Egypt, and eventual slavery, there for 200-to-400 years (scholars argue). Because of their own ingratitude, like spoiled children, after they’d been rescued from Egyptian slavery by Moses, who was to lead them to the Promised Land (modern Israel), they would never be allowed to see the Promised Land, so it be would their next generation, after Moses, that would be allowed to enter into the Promised Land. Then, time after time after time, through 300 years of Judges (a kind of democracy), and then Kings another 500, they mostly continued to do what was displeasing to Yahweh (God). Even in their very best days, when actually living what they preached, they had become little more than a very exclusive country club. Whatever they knew of God they didn’t really care to share, and if they “loved” as we think of love, they loved Yahweh’s Law more than Yahweh Himself, or for that matter, the rest of mankind.
In short they’d “screwed the pooch”, and after close to 1000 years of not living up to their end of the Covenant, God more or less cut them loose. In a 1000 years that original “thin red line” remained the same size, both spiritually and politically, while the rest of the world lived under one form or another of religious and political tyranny.
Still, I suppose this was one sort of transcendence, only I don’t think it was what God had in mind with the Covenant He proposed…a thousand years and still not even a single Samaritan or Edomite could get invited to join their Club?
The world would be the same a few hundred years later when Satan encountered Jesus in the Wilderness, offering Him all those kingdoms he still controlled, if Jesus would only switch allegiances from God to him. But Jesus was sent to offer God’s blessings to “all” the world, not rule it. And to prove it, He directed His preaching to the common folk; the meek, the poor of spirit, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, touching a whole list of regular villagers, farmers and fishermen, not a church elder among them, and ignoring the political class altogether. And Jesus was executed for it, only it wasn’t the Romans but the Jewish “church” who demanded it and carried it out.
The opening pages of the Christian type of transcendence took about three years to write, and people continued “to hear Him gladly.” Now, this next part is fact, for Jesus was publicly executed (noted by the Roman historian Josephus), and as I have commented elsewhere, even though the story that He arose from the dead after three days cannot be proved factually, the unassailable circumstantial evidence is that in the few short years after those events, many hundreds of what I call first-generation Believers, who had actually witnessed Jesus or heard about Him first hand, chose to die rather than give up this belief, when give the chance recant this belief.
And over the next 300 years, tens of thousands more would also die in this fashion, often in arenas for the amusement of cheering crowds enjoying the clever and entertaining ways Romans could figure out how to kill people who would refuse to repudiate this belief. (Imagine the types of people and what class, would attend such an event today.)
That men and women, ordinary folk, not the intellectual and political elites, would choose to die rather than recant a belief in both a Man and God who none of them had ever personally seen is prima facie an act of transcendence. And many thousands of them died.
And this was the first mark of transcendence that moved beyond an individual’s life, and into the life and existence of a community.
I mentioned Islam, which also considers itself a transcendent religion, based on the revelations of Mohammed, who claimed to have met with the same Yahweh of the Old Testament, who he called Allah, in the 6th Century, forging yet another religion. But the 17th Century Christian apologist, Pascal, differentiated between Jesus and Mahomet; “Mahomet was not foretold, Jesus Christ was foretold, and Mahomet slew, and Jesus Christ caused his own to be slain.”
It’s true that when Mohammed preached in the 6th Century the converts did not embrace their neighbors with love, but rather picked up their swords and conquered them, giving them the choice to embrace their new religion or surrender their necks to the sword. (This is still the chosen method of punishing this heresy in dominions under Muslim control today.) First they conquered to the West, all the way to Spain, then conquered eastward as far as India and Indonesia, building an empire that was larger than Rome’s in 600 years. And despite finding some very persuasive language in the Quran offering transcendent moments to change an unbeliever’s heart, they still took his head if he refused.
In fairness, Christianity itself would move in this same direction once it too had been declared the exclusive religion of a kingdom. Coming to God was no longer quite so voluntarily. By the 4th Century, Christianity had become the state religion of Rome’s eastern empire, later called the Byzantine Empire. The same occurred in the 8th Century when the Roman Church signed a power-(and-profit-) sharing agreement with the Holy Roman Empire, covering Western Europe. The Church then had the authority to capture, try and execute heretics, witness Joan of Arc, and all sorts of other religious disputers with official Church Doctrine. The inevitable Reformation took place, which set Europe ablaze for over 200 years, many thousands of wrong-thinking Christians dying in that bonfire, but at the hands of Christians this time, not pagans.
So you can see how tenuous this “transcendence” can be once put into the control of ruling elites, who are ostensibly, the best and brightest of a society.
(Hold that thought.)
It was from this furnace that America was formed, built entirely by common men and women, involving several religious persuasions. It was not mere coincidence that top-down political government and top-down religion, neither of which had been beholding to any transcendent philosophy for centuries, was not part of this experiment.
My favorite personal proof: I learned the nature of this transcendence personally, as I’ve told before, when I attended a birthday celebration for a Soviet law professor in Ukraine in the days leading up to the final lowering of the Soviet flag in January, 1992. Around three tables pushed together, in a dimly lit room, in early-winter, there were twelve, academicians, atheists all, standing, glasses held high, while the host’s son would go around and fill each glass with a home-brew vodka in a very traditional Russian round-robin series of toasts. When this parade finally ended at the head the table, the host asked me to speak on his behalf. Having nothing un-foolish to say right off the top of my head, I reached into my inside pocket and pulled out my trusty Cato Institute edition of the Constitution, and read from it aloud, more specifically, Jefferson’s famous lines of the Declaration, one slow phrase at a time, so it could be translated. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
At the time I didn’t know these words by heart, but I do now.
What happened next is why.
Common words to many Americans, I swear, I don’t think any of those Soviet professors had ever heard them before, for upon finishing, I looked up to see every person assembled crying, tears pouring down their cheeks. There wasn’t a single smug been-there-heard-that look in the crowd. Then after we had eaten, three of the professors, continuing a constitutional Q & A begun before the meal, rushed up to say “Mister, Mister, now we understand Amerika Constitution. Is simple…even Ivan Ivanovich (the Russian Homer Simpson) can pursue life, liberty, happiness without permission of state.” (Emphasis mine …and theirs.)
Out of the mouth of babes, huh? But scholar-babes…who could get to the nub of a proposition in a blink of an eye…and yet be humbled by a simple truth when they discovered it for the first time.
Transcendence writ large.
That process had defined America from the early 1600’s to the 1960s or 70s, over 300 years, that every generation, or a least enough of them, would rediscover, as if for the first time, (“to be born again”) to continue this wonderful blend of religion and community and nation into the next and the next. Although predominantly English by blood, the English had been calling us “Americans” for close to a century before our Revolution. We were something different and they knew it. Still in the world’s eyes we were not best at anything, and hardly worth noticing. At least then.
There were no high-born Americans until the late 1800s, when Europeans saw how we wasting our money by not putting it into European banks, money we’d made by the “gazillians” by being unencumbered by laws that punished achievement at the bottom. So they sent us bankers. Since the 1960s countries with an abundance of engineers and later, tech wizards, but no jobs at home because of corrupt governments, were able to move here on special visas, to fill technical needs left vacant because more Americans would rather play video games than design them. (Remember Apu from “The Simpsons”, in 1990, who had a PhD in Computer Science but ran the local Kwik-E-Mart?) So this process is not new, at least 30 years, a full generation.
America no longer has a process whereby new immigrants are subject to the same process of entering the “transcendent” phase of “becoming American” both from the bottom, fence-crossers, who are now met many kinds of handlers paid for my private groups with a private political and financial interest in seeing them never integrated into America, as well as upper-end technical experts who hit the ground running with 6-figure wage packages, and apparently a lot of political pull to take America in another direction as to the type of management model would best suit the post-modern world.
Still, 75 million, from every walk of American life, from CEO’s to physicians to bodega operators on Poughkeepsie joined to reject this new top-down approach to managing a redirected America…and now, clearly without the consent of the governed.