Someone get Jonathon Edwards on the phone

Is it really possible Tom Wright doesn’t know why Americans ask him about hell?

He’s so swift in his judgements about America (what has gotten into him lately?) – and now Americans – as though he is completely clueless about why. Any American teenager who has studied American history or American literature for five minutes knows the answer.

We – even now, even after all this time – we are the children of the Pilgrims. We are the children of the Puritans. We are the children of New England. While the religious fervor of our Puritan founders may have waned, our need to know whether we are in the “elect” has not diminished. Americans have inherited the examined life of our Puritan mothers and fathers, we consistently and constantly examine our lives to know if we are in the elect, secularized though it may be now. Why do we put all our bad news on public cable systems and broadcast them all over the world – we must confess our sins, that we might not be doomed but in fact be saved. We examine our life privately as individuals and publicly as a nation – will we be saved?

This has a secular meaning now, but it’s woven into the fabric of American culture. That N.T. Wright seems to be totally unaware of this significant part of the American character and history is quite frankly astonishing.

In fact, this element of our culture may be one of the most significant differences between America and England. They have stamped out the memory of their own Puritan history (and with good reason), but we have not. Our Puritan history was tempered by southern Jeffersonianism, just as strong and significant in shaping the American culture – that is, we can start again, we can return to the Garden, we can remake ourselves and start all over again, the New Adam.

American culture is founded on a hybrid of Puritan Jonathon Edwards and Enlightened Thomas Jefferson and what is surprising is that for all our learning, all our immigration of other cultures and creeds, still – after all these years, the force of our Puritan founders still runs deep like a river through our cultural life all the way to this day when Rob Bell dares to call the question.

Thursday, May 26
I have a dream

In the comments below, James writes, “We should not have engaged the issue of hell, as a Christian community, as we did. There was something very wrong about this debate.”

That is true, the reaction to the publicity for the publication of Rob Bell’s new book illustrated that again, this issue runs deep, but not just in our religious life, but also in the public sphere. Mercy seems to be missing from the shelves.  The “rush to judgment” was swift, and there seems to have been little time in the rush to consider why Rob Bell hit a nerve.

Bishop Wright appears to take the tack of “why all the fuss?”  He sadly dismisses the question, but not without issuing his own judgement in the process.  Why are Americans so concerned about hell (and why perhaps Bell did write his book)?

The fact remains, as Wright aptly observes, that Americans do consider hell more than he does.  In doing so he fails to grasp that this observation is integrated into the fabric of our society.  The Great Awakening in part is based on the premise that if we do not turn to God we are damned.  This causes a society to transform itself – by both liberal and conservative by the way.  It is the engine that pushes the train forward, that we may not be damned, but may be saved.  If anyone wants to understand America, this is key.

What I find fascinating about any kind of “damnation” – be it religious or secular – is that it continues to be such a force in our political and cultural landscape today.  It comes from both the religious and political left and the right, the differences being not that there is no damnation, but what criteria is identified to justify being condemned. Wright is naive if he thinks he can just sweep away the question with the wave of theological hand, dismissing those childish Americans with their preoccupation about hell. 

We can argue the theological underpinnings about whether hell exists or does not exist or who may or may not actually be there.  But the point here is that there is a strong concept that there are consequences of justice that if we do get it wrong we are condemned.

This is so deeply, deeply embedded into the American character that to dismiss it with a pontificating wave is just quite simply incredulous.  It would be one thing if Bishop Wright had never been to the United States or spent his entire career locked up in a tower, but the fact remains he has come across the pond on many occasions and since he might fashion himself inclined to care about justice issues he might want to consider digging deeper and ask the question Why rather than shut down the conversation as being irrelevant.

Of course it’s relevant – the concern with the environment is one thing, but another quite frankly is the entire issue of race and slavery.  America to this day is haunted by its slave-owning past.  Whatever the Dream might posses for new generations, there is still this ghost of slavery that permeates our national life even to this day. 

Martin Luther King Jr.‘s genius, for example, was to appeal to the dream of something more, but he still appealed to the dream inherited by our Puritan ancestors – the Dream of the Promised Land.  But if we are not deemed worthy to walk into the Promised Land, it is then inferred we are condemned.  And that shame, that sentence of condemnation continues to haunt our society.  Dr. King appealed to the spiritual implications that if we did nothing to change our society to one where “one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” we too would be like those horrific racists who blemished this land with their sin.  The implication is that if we do not do this, if we do not partake in the Dream of the Promised Land, we are doomed.  If there is no hell – secular or religious, then why work so hard to change the world in which we live? 

Are we progressing toward some secular “New Adam” as Jefferson may have dreamed, a natural new aristocracy of the great – Americans do seem to continue to look for the perfect man, the perfect leader and if one is lacking, that too is broadcast from the housetops.  But at the same time, it is not still the Promised Land that we journey toward, knowing too that if we don’t make it, if we are found with “sin the camp” we expose it for all the world to see on CNN or in The New York Times so that we might be found worthy and be saved.

In England, the Puritans of course temporarily overthrew the Monarchy (and of course, Oliver Cromwell then finally became a despot king of sorts himself). But in America, we temper our secular Puritan fervor with a native optimism so clearly articulated in recent years by Ronald Reagan.  That optimism tempers the searing and often cranky eye of judgment that we experience in our harsh assessments of our cultural experience.  But that optimism was severely tested by 9/11.

Is 9/11- that one act – done more to shift the landscape of American society than any other single event in modern American history?  Was it not catastrophic?  Did it in many ways reveal that Jonathon Edwards‘ warnings are ingrained – or were ingrained – into the conscience of a nation even if we don’t remember why:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. – From Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

The implication is there, if we can’t seem to grasp why we are so worried – not just for the safety of our nation, but our own corporate salvation.  9/11 was like a visible picture of hell in real time, one that we all who witnessed that day in person or in television, yes, in real time will never forget.  The questions that are raised from it – are we safe, are good, are we blessed, are we saved are not so easily answered.  From the recent “economic downturn” it appears that many thought there was no longer any sort of interior moral compass to compel people to do good and thus apparently shut their eyes turned revered financial institutions into Darwinist casinos banked by the indebtedness of the naive and the stupid.  Will those bankers go to hell?  Will the debtors go to hell?  Why should they worry if there is no hell?  If there is no hell, is there no justice?  And if there is no justice, then what compels us to do good?

I wonder if the characteristic American optimism is in some ways based on the inherited certainty of hope that this country is indeed “in the elect,” that it is “the Promised Land,” the “City on the Hill,” and that if you can make it here, you will not be “some loathsome insect over the fire,” but be redeemed.  You are free here to do good.  We sing of that great land in our national hymns and we believe.  But what if all is not well?  And what if there is no hell, after all – then does that mean there is no Promised Land after all?  If there is no hell and everyone gets to go, then why do we work so hard? 

Again, these ideas are couched in the religious terms of the New England settlers, but they are translated today into secular American thought.  The Puritan investment into the American culture runs deep, but it is not without consequences.  They may have passed on their robust commitment to work and a future hope, but that commitment also carries forward to the ashes of 9/11 and reveals the fear of judgment from that day, that it all was just a dream after all and judgement is upon us, or worse, Hitchins is right.  There is no God.

And so we turn to N.T. Wright for an answer.