Roy Clouser on American National Character

Is There an American National Character?

Is There an American National Character?

There’s an old joke that goes like this. In heaven, the French are the cooks, the English are the police, the Italians are the lovers, and the Germans organize everything. In hell, the English are the cooks, the French are the police, the Germans are the lovers, and the Italians organize everything.

These are, of course, merely generalizations that do not excuse prejudging others on the basis of their ethnicity. But there is an element of truth in each generalization that makes the joke funny.

Many years ago, as a student, I had an opportunity to live in Europe for a while and heard a lot of criticism of the US. Almost daily I heard: “the U.S. is like this;” or “the U.S. always does that;” “what the U.S. really wants is such and such.” And inevitably the general characterizations always struck me as wrong. I often felt like interjecting: “No, that’s not us!” Usually, however, I held my peace.

But incidents such as those started me thinking. How would I circumscribe the national character of the U.S.? Is there really an overriding National feature that is uniquely American? After pondering that question for quite a while, it seemed to me that there is such a characteristic and that its nature helps explain why it is so often misread as something else. I find that overriding characteristic in the US is extreme competitiveness. That, needless to say, is often mistaken for hostility. What comes across to people not raised with this American ethos is “We will beat you at anything. It doesn’t matter whether it’s war, business, productivity – and charity as well!” And this is usually taken to imply that Americans think they’re better than everyone else.

Nowhere else that I have been in all the years since that first European stay (15 countries and counting), appears to be so clearly infected as the US with the belief that: for any issue whatever, everyone is either a winner or a loser and there can only be one winner.

Now there surely are circumstances under which it’s appropriate that we are called upon to do our best and have our best judged by comparison to everyone else’s best; in games, for example. But there is a huge difference between playing a game for fun, and playing a game as though our personal worth (and that of our opponent) hangs in the balance. There is also a difference between trying to do one’s best in the work that earns our living, and doing one’s best to make everyone else look inferior. The difference, in each case, is precisely the core of the Christian ethic: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The commandment of love works for the whole of life, while “win at all costs” is a disaster in a marriage, a family, a school, a church, a charity, and, yes, even in a business.

One of the best-known defenders of the ethic of competition was the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. It was his position that all people are naturally in competition with everyone else all the time and in every respect. That is what he called everyone’s “natural” condition. He described this condition in a phrase he made famous: homo homini luipus(man is a wolf to man). Hobbes saw nothing ethically wrong with that condition, though he had to admit that it made life “solitary, poor, nasty brutish, and short.”

But the Christian religion sees plenty wrong with that condition and depicts it as the consequence of sin. Instead of “defeat your neighbor in everything” Christ demands that we love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. Rather than seeing all of life as a contest and every person a winner or a loser, it sees our lives as properly lived when we obey God’s calling

for us – whatever that may be. Instead of esteeming only those who are in the public eye as “real people,” our dear Lord’s example showed that we are to consider ourselves the servants of all.

John Calvin once eloquently summed up the Christian attitude this way:

            Therefore, lest all things be thrown into confusion by our folly and rashness, [God] has assigned distinct duties to each [person] in the different modes of life. And that no one may presume to overstep his proper limits,

He has distinguished the different modes of life by the name of callings.[Everyone’s] mode of life, therefore is a kind of station assigned to him by the Lord, that he may not always be driven about at random… free from the impulse of rashness, he will not attempt more than his calling justifies, knowing it is unlawful to overleap the prescribed bounds.

He who is obscure will not decline to cultivate a private life, that he may not desert the post at which God has placed him… The magistrate will more willingly perform his office, and the father of a family confine himself to his proper sphere. Everyone in his particular mode of life will, without repining, suffer its inconveniences, cares, uneasiness, and anxiety, persuaded that God has laid on the burden.

This too, will afford admirable consolation, that in following your properc alling, no work will be so mean or sordid as not to have splendor in the eye of God. (Institutes, III, x, 6)

Can God change His mind

Infinite Number of Universes

Miracles

 

Every time this topic is raised, I cannot help but think of a classic remark by the Reformation theologian, John Calvin. And thinking of it is always disturbing because I’ve not been able to relocate it since reading it long ago. But somewhere Calvin remarks:

If the Bible contained no miracle stories, people would say “How  can we believe this is God’s Word? If it were, wouldn’t God have done miracles to attest that it is?” But the Bible does contain miracle stories, so people say: “How can I believe this? It has miracle stories in it!”

A few years ago, the noted skeptic, Michael Shermer, reported an experience for which he still cannot think of any explanation: a non-working radio that had belonged to his wife’s grandfather in the ‘70’s suddenly played love songs for them on their wedding day in 2014. By that time, it had lain unused for over 15 years, and has never played again despite all efforts to get it working. Nevertheless, in reflecting on that event, Shermer still affirms his commitment to what sounds like physical determinism:

 This is another way of saying – as I have often – that there is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is just the natural and the normal and mysteries we have yet to solve with natural and normal explanations. *If Shermer really does mean to affirm that all things have only physical causes, then there are several things that are seriously amiss.

One is that Shermer makes the quoted statement in the context of attacking the claim that miracles prove God exists. But that is a straw man since it is certainly not the Christian position. Jesus himself said that even if he performed a miracle right in front of those whose hearts were hardened against God, they would not believe. In an earlier essay on this Blog, I pointed out that the biblical idea of the relation between belief in God and miracles is the reverse: for those who already believe in God miracles can be confirmed, but they do not entail that God exists.

For those who believe in God no proof is necessary; for those who don’t, no proof is possible. That’s because belief in God’s reality is based on experiencing God, not on proving He exists.

Another problem with Shermer’s confession of faith quoted above, is that it requires that human choices and judgments are also completely the result of physical causes, so that there is no such thing as freedom of judgment or choice. This is called determinism. If determinism is correct, then human choices, too, must be determined by antecedent physical causes. But in that case, nothingis ever freely chosen. The first obvious consequence of this position is that it makes no sense to hold anyone responsible for what they do. Some determinists accept this consequence and affirm that no one ever really is responsible in any significant sense. But they fail to realize that it is not only freedom of choice and responsibility that is destroyed by their determinism, but freedom of judgment as well. That position, however, is a self-imploding disaster. For if all judgments are forced on us by physical causes, then nothingis ever really believed for reasons.

That would have to include not only all of science, but also Shermer’s confession of faith in determinism. That, too, would likewise have to be forced on him by antecedent physical causes just as are all other beliefs held by all other people.

In short, determinism undermines itself. If it is true, it could never be known to be true; it could only be believed because physical causes had accidentally come together so as to force its advocates to believe it. On the other hand, if determinism really is a rational judgment held for reasons, then determinism is false: not all events, beliefs, and judgments are the accidental by-product of the confluence of purely physical causes, because some are decided on the basis of weighing evidence (including self-evidence) and coming to reasoned conclusions.

Roy Clouser, PhD

Blog Philosopher-in-Residence

Prof. Emeritus

The College of New Jersey

* From “Do anomalies prove the existence of God?” originally published on Slate.com as part of a Big Idea series on the future of religion.