Yesterday’s devotional puts it another way. Why is Paul Ryan’s idea of the idea America was founded on inadequate? During his first speech as the presumptive Republican nominee for vice president, Paul Ryan stated that America was founded on an idea:
But America is more than just a place…it’s an idea. It’s the only country founded on an idea. Our rights come from nature and God, not government.
The inadequacy is reflected in the August 15 entry in Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey:
The two most important ways to protect our hiddenness are found in solitude and poverty. Solitude allows us to be alone with God. There we experience that we belong not to people, not even to those who love us and care for us, but to God and God alone.
Nouwen’s solitude and Locke’s state of nature are founded on the same idea: we are ourselves before God prior to becoming someone else’s someone — someone’s nephew, someone’s consumer, someone’s constituency, someone’s enemy, someone’s lifeline. Because the idea of unalienable rights comes from this existential notion, Ryan is on firm ground asserting that our rights come from God and not government.
But Locke’s state of nature is a necessary but not sufficient philosophical foundation for America. Nouwen’s entry continues:
Poverty is where we experience our own and other people’s weaknesses, limitations, and need for support. To be poor is to be without success, without fame, and without power. But there God chooses to show us God’s love.
Both solitude and poverty protect the hiddenness of our lives.
If solitude is akin to Locke’s state of nature, then poverty is akin to Jefferson and Lincoln’s notion that all men are created equal. The work of poverty, in whatever form it takes, brings us into solidarity with our neighbors. If we are not weak, we cannot relate to the weakness of others, and community is not possible.
The need for horizontal relationships as well as a vertical relationship is expressed in Jesus’ famous encapsulation of “all the law and the prophets” into two commandments instead of one:
Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Mathew 22:36 – 40, King James Version)
Ryan’s idea of our nation’s founding idea is one-dimensional – vertical. Lincoln’s assertion that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” is akin to Jesus’ formulation: it is both vertical and horizontal. The Declaration of Independence’s equality clause presumes Locke’s state of nature and our existential being before God, but it goes further. Ryan’s idea of the American founding, then, goes as far as “all men are created.” Lincoln’s idea of the American founding adds the “equal” and makes self-government possible.
° ° °
Confucius said, “I know why the Way is not pursued. The intelligent go beyond it and the stupid do not come up to it. I know why the Way is not understood. The worthy go beyond it and the unworthy do not come up to it. There is no one who does not eat and drink, but there are few who can really know flavor.”
The Doctrine of the Mean, chapter 4, from Wing-Tsit Chan’s A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, page 99.