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Horror Vacui

Written by: on September 3, 2020

“If you have excess order, you still have order, but if you have excess liberty, you have chaos.” Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History

In Taking America Back for God; Christian Nationalism in the United States authors Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, with the use of “large scale quantitative data”, unfold the many dynamics of Christian Nationalism. By exploring multiple cultural areas, they come up with four categories of people when looking at Christian Nationalism. The first group are Rejecters; those who believe that politics and Christianity should never be connected. They do not believe the United States was founded on Christian principles. The second group are Resisters; those who are undecided about religious symbols in places but are opposed to the United States being declared a Christin nation. The third group are Accommodators; those who are usually the opposite of Resistors. They are undecided about the United States being called a Christian nation but believe Christian principles should be promoted. They lean toward the idea that the United States was founded on Christian principles. The final group would be Ambassadors, those who are completely supportive of Christian Nationalism believing Christian principles should be promoted and that the USA is a Christian nation.[1]

One question that often arises in books on Christian Nationalism is whether or not the United States was founded on Christian beliefs. Historians and individuals stand on both side of this debate; each one with their historical support.167 years passed between the time the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock (1620) and the ratification of the Constitution (1787). Is it possible that a great number of influences played a role in the writing of the Constitution and the 1st Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion? There is little consensus on the beginning of the Enlightenment period. French historians would place the majority of the period between 1715 and 1789. One of the pivotable outcomes of the Enlightenment was the liberation of both scientific and philosophical thought from religion. With this liberation came the desire to restructure and eliminate the influence of old ideas. As a result, both Europe and America started to apply this mindset politically.[2]  The desire to confront the relationship between science, philosophy and theology led to many theological debates. Out of these debates came the concept of “rational belief” that held the view that all Christian truth needed to be factually proven.[3]

The Enlightenment wasn’t the only influence removing religion from politics. There was a deeper broader religious influence that needs to be considered when looking at the writing of the 1st Amendment which prohibits Congress from establishing a single national religion or preventing one from exercising their faith. Martin Luther’s teaching on the “priesthood of all believers” – an idea that was central to the Reformation – brought with it the empowerment of the Individual Christian to interpret scripture. The “priesthood of all believers” not only gave the individual the right to interpret scripture but to raise questions about the church’s teaching, along with going directly before God in prayer without the assistance of a priest.[4] Along with the influence of Martin Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” came the influence from the dissenting Protestant groups that immigrated to the early American colonies. Religious liberty, the assurance that all denominations had equal representation before the law, became the cry of the day.[5] Born out of this mindset came a form of disestablishment created both by Protestant dissenters and the Enlightenment influenced thinkers that were founders of the American Constitution. Religious people pushed for the disestablishment of the state church concept and the assurance of equality for all religions. This factor along with a diverse immigration led to an acceptance of a pluralism of Christian denominations and other beliefs in early America.[6] The 1st Amendment was most likely a product of many influences, but three key factors played a major role: the doctrine of secularization born out of the Enlightenment, reformed theology, and a young nation’s influx of religious pluralism.

I don’t recommend to viewing life through a single lens nor viewing history from that same lens. Is it possible that we are afraid to utilize multiple perspectives for fear of losing our own? Do other perspectives destroy our understanding of history thus destroying our present understanding of reality or does it have the ability to enrich our understanding? Should the influences on the founding of the United States alter one’s faith? Does the crux of American Christianity rely on the influences of the First Amendment? I am a true believer that nothing grows in a vacuum. The physics theory Horror Vacui; the idea that nature abhors a vacuum implies that according to the laws of nature any empty and unfilled spaces are unnatural and the universe seeks to fill all voids. A vacuum by definition is space devoid of matter.[7] It so happens that there is a form of art also called Horror Vacui which is oriented around the fear of empty spaces. The intent is to fill up the entire canvas leaving no empty spaces behind. Empty spaces have a level of value. Perspective is often improved when space is left unfilled. Reading a book without margins, punctuation and spaces between words becomes an environment for misunderstanding. Can a lack of space around opinions create the same environment?

                  [1]Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God; Christian Nationalism in The United States, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 41-50

[2] Jonathan I. Israel. Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity and the Emancipation of Man 1670 – 1752, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 6, Accessed March 14, 2020, ProQuest ebook Central.

                   [3] Jonathan I. Israel, 65-73

[4] Nicholas P. Miller, The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 2.

                    [5] Nicholas P. Miller, 152.

                    [6] Nicholas P. Miller, 4-8.

                    [7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum                                    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_vacui_(physics)#History

 

About the Author

mm

Greg Reich

Entrepreneur, Visiting Adjunct Professor, Arm Chair Theologian, Leadership/Life Coach, married 39 years, father and grandfather. Jesus follower, part time preacher! Handy man, wood carver, carpenter and master of none. Outdoor enthusiast, fly fisherman, hunter and all around gun nut.

9 responses to “Horror Vacui”

  1. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Greg,
    “Is it possible that we are afraid to utilize multiple perspectives for fear of losing our own?” This is scary territory, especially for those who like life to be simple, clean cut, tidy. Simple history, theology, politics makes for less disruption in one’s small world. But upon entering the larger world, disruption is sure to happen, as the various perspectives are voiced. Having a handle on the various perspectives doesn’t necessarily require us to release our previous beliefs. Various perspectives bring a richness, a beauty to what we believe-even if it alters those beliefs to different degrees. The beauty of the margins, the white space, the vacuum, is that it allows space to ask the questions and wrestle with content. It’s never really empty, its just waiting for something new to fill it. But isn’t that the fear, that people aren’t sure what exactly will fill the space? How do we create space around opinions and beliefs in a healthy way? And how do we fill it in a way that doesn’t trigger a fight or flight response?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Darcy & Greg.

      This is where I wanted to press in as well. I’m wondering about how we are able to grow more spacious in our understanding of theology, history, etc. while maintaining some semblance of civil conviction.

      To lean too far into “spaciousness” could result in no conviction. To lean too far into “conviction” often results in rigid fundamentalism. There’s a balance to pursue…would you agree?

      • mm Shawn Cramer says:

        Volf attempts to put words to this with the call to maintain porous boundaries of flexible identities. These porous boundaries are rooted in the Trinity who maintain unique identities but mutual indwelling.

      • mm Greg Reich says:

        Jer and Darcy,

        I think the challenge comes when we hit points of impasse. Though their is room of agreement for all religions and opinions to unite around, especially around civil issues there is also a great many distinctions and absolutes that come with every religion. Many Christian denominations have learned to come together on the common theological beliefs that make up Christianity despite other doctrinal practices and beliefs. With world religions I think we can unite on common civil issues like racism and human sanctity but there will always be distinctive theological religious differences. I have a number of acquaintances that are of different world religions and though we enjoy one another’s company and unite in business and social issues we all understand our foundational religious beliefs and personal convictions will always keep us separate to a point. In areas of religion there will always be a certain level of rigidity present due to personal convictions. I believe there are different levels of common ground and unity. Unity at the basic level is possible without total agreement when it focuses on a common purpose. The value of just the right amount of space allows us to see ways of maneuvering to find that common ground. The key may be in the understanding that to cooperate on common civil issues is not always a forsaking of ones religious beliefs. I lean toward the mindset; where I can agree unite; where I disagree respect and honor but backup and yield to the space.

  2. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Thanks for the introduction to a new Latin phrase. I’m going to chew on this. My mind immediately goes to classic contemporary churches that must have music playing while the preacher comes on or off stage. Heaven forbid (literally with horror vacui!) we have some silence, a pause, in the service.

  3. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Greg, you raise some good questions. I wonder if part of our fear of using multiple lenses is that we may find our understanding of the events around us is wrong. The hero of one’s story could just as easily be the villain of another. When I look through that alternative lens, I may find that I’M the villain and no one wants to come to that realization. I’m reminded of Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground” and the narrative that they narrator was stuck in for so long. He didn’t realize he himself was his own villain and continued to justify the actions he took toward himself and toward others. It was only in the end when he comes to this realization that he writes, “I don’t want to write from underground anymore.”

    A new perspective is needed, but isn’t always wanted. I wonder what happens when Christian Nationalists wake up one day and say to themselves, “I don’t want to write from this perspective anymore.” The awakening can be rude, but it’s in that space that we see finally see things for as they are.

    • mm Greg Reich says:

      Perspective if anything allows us to find a level of deep understanding even if it doesn’t change our minds. Once the box is opened whether our opinions change or not we are never the same. My college degrees haven’t changed many of my deepest biblical conviction, in many ways the more I read more liberal views and other peoples opinions the deeper my biblical convictions become about certain things. I believe by looking at multiple perspective mine will either be solidified, broadened, and strengthened or totally changed. If it is changed then my first opinion didn’t have as much validity as I thought.

  4. mm John McLarty says:

    It concerns me how little history people today really know or understand. Your example of length of time between the first to settle in America and the drafting of the US Constitution is perfect. We know the highlights, but fail to realize how much of history is between the lines and how those moments led to the moments decisions we remember. A limited and narrow view of history is an smooth path to reactionary and fear-based actions because it conveniently leaves out larger perspective, along with more nuanced and challenging aspects of the conversation. There are few campaign slogans to be found there!

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