Yearning for the next Great Awakening

Methodist Camp Meeting  1819

 

The Christian world is anticipating the most important days on the calendar.  From Palm Sunday,celebrating the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, through the events leading to the Last Supper, the solemnity of Good Friday reflecting the Passion of Christ culminating in the crucifixion, and the subsequent Resurrection on Easter Sunday,  the believer reflects upon the immense events in reflection towards their own life in faith.  The hunger for meaning in life, once served to overwhelm any situational material deficits or abject circumstance.  We in the West, however, live in an ever more post Christian world, where belief systems and faith are considered archaic vestiges of an earlier age, when science and progress were not available to rationalize one’s life and provide a secure safety net.  The post Christian world makes a virtuous life obsolete, and the countries of Europe now celebrate a world without boundary or differentiating belief system.

America in many ways, however, was uniquely formed on the foundational rocks of  such religious belief.  The desire to find a land unfettered by preconceived notions of rule and open to individual expression of religion was the original driving force of the fragile colonial settlements and their eventual diverse belief systems.  The land was so large that close proximity with an alternative belief system was dealt with simply by moving to another part of the wilderness, then, taking root.  The founding of the country as a country driven to achieve independence and freedom through revolution was an outgrowth of this intense view that Providence had led the immigrants as pilgrims to a chosen place, where they would build their “city on a hill”.   Each man built himself a kingdom of faith and virtue, and looked to his leaders to preserve his right to do so.

This tendency towards individual spirituality set the new America apart from the trends of the larger western world.  Obviously influenced by the great movements in Europe of scientific method, rational thought, and humanism,  the founders nevertheless imbued their new constitution with the very first article of its constitution assuring no interference or bias of the state with religion, to vaccinate the new country against the orthodoxy of an overbearing state apparatus.    Europe, however, caught on the same wave of the Enlightenment, had no individually driven core faith  to suppress its inevitable excess.  The French Revolution surged into post belief rationalism, its Declaration of the Rights of Man devolving into a Reign of State Terror, destroying elements of faith as shackles of orthodoxy, establishing the State as the new authority, the Citizen as its soldier, and even the old calendar eliminated for its reference to a belief system antithetical to the regime.  A year Zero was proclaimed, with its implication of a force greater than the human intellect, and the negation of all past belief systems.   A post Christian world was thus born in Europe and the rattled concept of faith has been under attack ever since.  Over time the churches have emptied.  Anti-individual movements such as communism and its less threatening but equally demanding cousin globalism have installed their new religions, the war on values and virtuous behavior, the elevation of Nature as a God in Climate Change, and the denigration of any path that does not achieve equality of outcome.

Each time America looked into the world of a post Christian Europe, it resolved to restore itself.  These cleansing movements, known as the Great Awakenings, are laid out beautifully in Paul Johnson’s epic one volume history A History of the American People .  The most significant renewals, occurring in the first and last portions of the nineteenth century, were  reactions to the progressive oppression of “science” and “progress” on the concept of individual belief.   Common people spontaneously gathered to hear and experience the word and power of faith and virtue in an ever more secular and faithless modern world.   As a larger civilized post christian world threw off the restraints of virtue, Americans restored it time and time again as a core foundation of who they were, and what they wanted to be.  Through the epic battles to expunge slavery and achieve civil rights, the mantle of a greater belief system then practical reality drove a continuous improvement process.  Virtue as cleansing faith stoked the painful purifications, the central core of American spirituality was emoted in Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free
While God is marching on.

The Great Awakenings occurred spontaneously and from below, requiring no organized  religion to drive the yearning for a life restored to fullness through faith.  Our current time, so fully immersed in the material wants and needs of generations never before so free from want and need, has left us vulnerable to those who still hold value in a belief system, no matter how tainted the belief system is with violence and prejudice.  The Islamist looks with disdain upon the lack of core belief of the west, with empty cathedrals, absent morals, paucity of virtues,  and lack of willingness to defend their civilization.  The migrant Islamists wall themselves off from such rudderless lives and demand the dispassionate state support them,  while they await the inevitable collapse of the cratered society that no longer respects itself.

With the strange events of the past year in Western society, perhaps a Great Awakening is again beginning to form and a sense of individual dignity and purpose will surface.  A society that can not define a greater good, can not survive a progressive bad.  To believe in something more than oneself, and to see one’s self as redeemable, is the essence of the Easter miracle.  It requires no regulation or doctrine for guidance, only faith in the message of redemption in a virtuous life.  As the philosopher C.S. Lewis proclaimed:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen:        not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

Happy Easter.

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