A denial of our creatureliness leads to a denial of the various ways we are indebted and gives rise to the autonomous individual. Autonomous individuals are marked by ingratitude, for their faces are turned unstintingly toward the blinding light of progress, and they cannot recognize either limits or debts. Such people live on borrowed capital just as a nation, blinded by consumption, lives on money borrowed from future generations. The ungrateful person (and the ungrateful society) is characterized by hubris, which seeks to dominate reality by a sheer act of will. But such a will to power necessarily entails expansion as the uncertainties of reality press in from every side. The ungrateful person or society cannot get the question of scale right because the human question is so badly answered.
In contrast, the grateful person (and society) recognizes dependencies on every level. Such a person is characterized by humility, which gives birth not to the urge to dominate but to the desire to preserve that which has been passed down, that which has been tended and cultivated, that which has and will produce fruit. In short, grateful people are stewards. They understand that they are part of a chain, a succession of responsibility. They grasp that their stewardship is not solitary but bound to a long line of stewards, stretching back in time. Indeed, grateful people understand themselves as members of a community of stewards, and among this membership are the living, the dead, and the yet to be born. Such people can rest in the mystery of existence, the goodness of community, and propriety of a scale suited to human beings.
This is from Mark T. Mitchell’s “Politics of Gratitude.” I find Mitchell’s writing intriguing, both in this book and over at The Front Porch republic. He writes in a simple and modest manner, a form to match the content of much of his writing. As I said, the only quibble I have is his consistent suggestion that the modern ills of individualism and personal autonomy owe to the Protestant Reformation, suggesting further that something like the Roman Catholic Church is an institution good for cultivating the virtues of community, authority, place, modesty, and restraint.
But how anybody can read the confessional statements of Reformed Protestantism and conclude that the Reformation helped give modern society individualism and the atomization of society?
Belgic 31: We believe that ministers of the Word of God, elders, and deacons ought to be chosen to their offices by a legitimate election of the church, with prayer in the name of the Lord, and in good order, as the Word of God teaches.
So everyone must be careful not to push himself forward improperly, but he must wait for God’s call, so that he may be assured of his calling and be certain that he is chosen by the Lord.
As for the ministers of the Word, they all have the same power and authority, no matter where they may be, since they are all servants of Jesus Christ, the only universal bishop, and the only head of the church.
Moreover, to keep God’s holy order from being violated or despised, we say that everyone ought, as much as possible, to hold the ministers of the Word and elders of the church in special esteem, because of the work they do, and be at peace with them, without grumbling, quarreling, or fighting.
Belgic 36: We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.
For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.
And being called in this manner to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, the civil rulers have the task, subject to God’s law, of removing every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship.
They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.
And the government’s task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word.
Moreover everyone, regardless of status, condition, or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word, praying for them that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways and that we may live a peaceful and quiet life in all piety and decency.
And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.
WCF 20.4: And because the powers which God has ordained, and the liberty which Christ has purchased are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ has established in the Church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the Church. and by the power of the civil magistrate.
WCF 23.4 It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, does not make void the magistrates’ just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted, much less has the Pope any power and jurisdiction over them in their dominions, or over any of their people; and, least of all, to deprive them of their dominions, or lives, if he shall judge them to be heretics, or upon any other pretence whatsoever.
I’m not sure of Mitchell’s own religious affiliation, but the impulse to ascribe what is bad in modern society to the Reformation just seems like the mirror error of the neo-Calvinists ascribing whatever is good in modern society to the same (perhaps even all the way back to the advent of Christ). Conservative Calvinism seems to take a very different view and interpretation of history that isn’t quite as religiously loaded as either a pro-Catholic or neo-Calvinist take.
On a lighter note, a hopeless GenXer, every time I pick up this book to read or pass it by as it lays on the bed stand or coffee table or wherever I last set it, I can’t help but have this song play in my head for at least the next fifteen or so minutes: