March 24th, 2016
Envy is as old as humanity. Cain is only our first biblical example.
But like at no other time in human history, envy may be the vice to which modern man is particularly given.
Andrew Delbanco wrote a short book not so long ago entitled The Real American Dream in which he looks at the history of this country, from its founding until the present time, through the lens of what most animated the hope of its people. Delbanco sees three main periods of American history, each with a particular object of its overarching hope.
Given what largely spurred the European settlement of North America you can probably guess that Delbanco first sees religion–in particular Christianity–as that orienting idea that offered the pioneers, the Founders, and the first several generations of “Americans” their abiding hope. What formed the interpretive grid through which all else was understood was that God was for them, with them, and Who allegedly went before them to help establish a new nation on which life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness might be encoded
into its very fabric. Even without perfect uniformity of religious belief among this new constituency–there was wide variety of religious perspectives among even the Founders–the idea that Providence was at work in and through them organized the ethos of that nation “set on a hill,” as John Winthrop, future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, would famously intone.
But as\s America became a more diverse population, with an increasing admixture not only of new ethnicities but new religious perspectives; and as the sectarian strains of American denominationalism would preclude the burgeoning nation’s collective hope from coalescing around any single religious vision, God was not so much dismissed from the national conscience, as He was marshaled in the service of what became a new beacon of hope: the Nation. With unabated aversion to any state religion, but with continued affinity for appeal to the transcendent realm to organize their moral lives, civil religion–that interest in forging a vibrant society with the help of an increasingly indefinable but no less acknowledged Divine presence–came to be what most inspired Americans. A nation under God would be worth cultivating, worth fighting and dying for even. Not what our country might do for us but what we might do for our country would represent a real and deep-seated mentality that offered the sort of energy and enthusiasm once kindled by convictions concerning Divine Providence.
But again, as this nation which once conceived itself of having an aura of manifest destiny, and which had prevailed mightily in wars against tyranny, began to show some of its true colors; when America the beautiful came to reveal some of its underbelly; the national mystique which had been akin to a Divine mystery gave way to another beacon of collective and personal hope. Delbanco argues that once both God and Nation had been found lacking, the self became the ultimate source of hope. As he writes, “hope has narrowed to the vanishing point of self alone.”
If we could not count on God to alleviate all harm and ward off all enemies foreign and domestic; and if the Nation could not be trusted to act with the kind of integrity and resilience we’d hoped it would; then perhaps the discovering, the ordering, and the refining of our very selves would serve as a sufficient reason to get up in the morning.
But Delbanco does not advocate for this new shift in hope so much as lament it. He unapologetically concedes that, despite Americans’ turn inward, “the most striking feature of contemporary culture is the unslaked craving for transcendence,” even acknowledging that “the deposited ideas of Christianity and civil religion are still the bedrock of our culture, whatever intellectuals may think of them.”
He finds resonances with some of Alexis de Tocqueville’s much earlier observations of American culture which noted “a strange melancholy in the midst of abundance.” The 19th century French historian’s views continue to have currency because, as Delbanco writes, “while we have gotten very good at deconstructing old stories (. . .religion. . .nationalism. . .) when it comes to telling new ones, we are blocked. . . . We live in an age of unprecedented wealth, but in the realm of narrative and symbol, we are deprived. And so the ache for meaning goes unrelieved.” As a sort of summary of the author’s disillusionment he writes:
From the comfort of the academy, we look at our past and are quick to say that a culture with too little freedom and too much brutality was a bad culture. But 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 their body forever young, is no culture at all?
So how does all this argue for the assertion made at the beginning of this post that we are given to envy like at no other time? Delbanco extrapolates a new, or at least accentuated, habit among people who inhabit a culture in which the self’s glory has become the pinnacle of existential importance.
Borrowing from a notion uttered as early as the 1930s, Delbanco argues “the modern self tries to compensate with posturing and competitive self-display as it feels itself more and more cut off from anything substantial or enduring.” In other words, when nothing outside the self can offer us a connection to something that provides meaning, we must look to the self to create that meaning. If our self becomes that kind of tool, then no wonder we are comparing ourselves and jockeying for significance among a world of selves. All the while fearing we are not what our neighbors “are,” and either driven to get there or despairing that we can’t. That’s the grist for envy.
Great. So envy is as prevalent as pollen in the spring air. What’s to curtail, so to speak, our soul’s histamine response that erupts with envy?
Given how modern life has sought to move God increasingly to the margins of our thought, our discourse, and our moral imagination; and how our propensity for envy would seem to rise proportionally with the narrowing our hopes to the flourishing of our selves; there is perhaps no greater need for contentment as the antidote to envy’s affliction.
Lindsey Tollefsen is a mother and homemaker in Kentucky who recently wrote of what are particular and practical steps to that elusive contentment. She defines contentment as “believing that a good and kind Father is intricately working out the details of our lives, which results in a deep peace and quietness and strength in our souls.” He who is content is “happy with their whole story, with every little detail of what God is doing with them and with their life. But it does not mean that they ignore the pain.” Envy makes us long to be in someone else’s story. Contentment helps us find hope in the one we’re in. You can read her meditation on what contentment is here. But it’s her practical steps toward cultivating contentment you won’t want to skip past. (HT: Theopolis Insitute)
Contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.
The Scriptures trade in stone. Do a simple search between Genesis and Revelation and you will find hundreds of references and dozens of uses of stone. And not just in practical ways. Stone bears a number of metaphorical and theological meanings, many central to our understanding of God and what it means to live before Him.
That’s why this Good Friday we’ll let its rich and varied use frame our consideration of Jesus’ darkest but finest hour.
And you won’t just hear stone referred to. You will hold one in your hand. You will feel its texture and consider its weight. But all so that you might let it awaken you to particular meanings it may have for you as it relates to what Good Friday and this whole Holy Week signify.
Come join us if you can Friday night at 6pm. Childcare will be available.
We’ve given our attention to the vices that most steal our life. How do we really incline ourselves to the One who came to rescue us from them, and did so by suffering the assaults of vicious men?
Prepare yourself for some of the pointed language for which Luther is (in)famous–but also for some clear instruction on how reflection on Good Friday is meant to work for us in our efforts against vice:
Does pride attack you: behold how your Lord was mocked and disgraced with murderers. Do unchastity and lust thrust themselves against you: think how bitter it was for Christ to have his tender flesh torn, pierced, and beaten again and again. Do hatred and envy war against you, or do you seek vengeance: remember how Christ with many tears and cries prayed for you and all his enemies, who indeed had more reason to seek revenge. If trouble or whatever adversity of body or soul afflict you, strengthen your heart and say: Ah, why then should I not also suffer a little since my Lord sweat blood in the garden because of anxiety and grief? That would be a lazy, disgraceful servant who would wish to lie in his bed while his lord was compelled to battle with the pangs of death. Behold, one can thus find in Christ strength and comfort against all vice and bad habits.
Finally, on Resurrection Sunday we conclude our series on the vices by seeing how the Gospel “flips the narrative” on our conventional way of thinking about vice and virtue. We’ve liked being cryptic in our hints about how Sunday’s message will unfold. So here we let one of the earliest recordings of Gershwin’s famous “An American in Paris” be your prelude for our day of Celebration.