[15:32] This kind of abrupt but total adoption of another cultural identity—even if little more at times than a sort of fantastic version of that identity—is something of which Americans are sometimes uniquely capable. Perhaps this is because to be American is to be the deracinated child of some other land or people or several other lands and peoples. Our own national identity is quite often a sort of bright, garish, fabulous surface that we spread thinly over forgotten depths. Our national narrative is essentially an idea, never fully realized, of course, but able to keep us born aloft above an abyss of immense historical oblivion. To be truly American in the most extreme way would be to be a kind of Proteus, capable of becoming just about anything. And that may amount to a kind of cultural genius. I’m not criticizing it. [16:37]
[20:56] This is after all a chief danger America poses to all cultures alongside the promises it makes. It is not merely a place but also an ideology. It’s not just a physical landscape much less an ensemble of shared memories and legends. It’s a nation, more constructed than cultivated, built around a political and social project always somewhat in flux but also more or less relentlessly oriented toward a future generated out of its own native ideals and values rather than out of any traditions it might have inherited from the past lines that its peoples left behind in coming here. Moreover, it intends the future not only for itself but also, in a distant and inevitable sense, for peoples everywhere. This is the great experiment of a democratic Republic. And in that sense American is not only an ideology but something, at times, for some, approaching a religion with its own sacred writ, its founding fathers, its radiant escatolgocial visions, its hymns and prayers and benedictions. And it has its special national values, many of which, …being essentially Libertarian in form (in the American sense of Libertarian), are at times rather hard to reconcile with aspects of the gospel that seem fairly foundational. But it’s a stupendous and beguiling reality as well—enormous and seductively grand and gloriously improbable. [22:28]
[34:19] America has a singular power for refashioning things in its own image and to do so with an almost irresistible energy. It’s part of the appeal and, for much of the world, part of the terror that America represents. [34:34]
[35:10] For good, America’s admirable and wonderful ethnic diversity and pluralism. …On the bad side, America’s idolatrous adoration and sanctification of free markets, the really disgraceful dereliction of responsibility for social welfare that this does perpetuate to the justifiable distaste of the rest of the developed world. One really does have to live in an American bubble not to see how bad it is. [36:04]
[36:27] In a sense the great dream or romance of America is the prospect of a people without a history. A humanity that has, as none before it ever did, escaped the prison of memory. Hence, though there is nothing like a distinctive American civilization, perhaps. There definitely is a distinctive American Christianity. It tends to be something fluid, scattered, fragmentary, fissile, either mildly or exorbitantly heretical. But it can nevertheless justly be called the American religion, and it’s a powerful creed. It’s for one thing a style of faith lacking admittedly in beautiful material forms or coherent institutional structures not by accident but essentially. Its inexpressiveness in the civic form, I mean of just beautiful civic spaces, is a consequence not simply of cultural privation or frontier simplicity, of modern utilitarianism or some lingering Puritan reserve toward ecclesial rank and architectural ostentation but also a profound and radical resistance to outward forms. It is in its purest form—which we’ve seen flare up at various times in the history of the country—its Great Awakenings so to speak—a religion of the book, private revelation, oracular wisdom, even emotional rapture, sometimes wonderful emotional rapture. It’s not one of tradition, hierarchy or public creeds.
Even where it creates intricate institutions of its own, creates large temples tends to do so on its own terms in a void, in a cultural and ideally physical desert at a fantastic remove from all traditional sources of authority or historical validity or sometimes even good taste. Probably, Mormonism is an example. It just couldn’t happen anywhere else. New religions begin, they don’t begin like that, except in America: I mean, just overturn the entire universe and start again from the beginning.
In one sense, this isn’t at all surprising. American was born in a flight from the Old World’s thrones and altars, the corrupt accommodations between spiritual authority and worldly power, and the confusion of reverence for God with servility before princes. As a political project in its own right, the United States was the first Western nation explicitly founded on principles requiring no official allegiance between religious confession and secular government. We tend to forget, we’re the first layiscist nation.
Even if this had not been so, the ever great religious heterogeneity of America over the course of its history would surely sooner or later have made such an alliance absurdly impractical, and so in fact America was established as the first truly modern nation, consciously the first to dissociate its constitutional order from the political mythologies of a long and disintegrating Christendom and the first predominantly Christian country to place itself under, at most, God general providential supervision but not under the command of any of His officially recognized lieutenants. The nation began, one could be argued, from a place that other nations had not yet reached, and yet, when one considers the results of this odd apocalyptic liberty from history, it’s rather astonishing because, though it arose out of the end of Christendom, it somehow avoided the religious and cultural fate of the rest of the modern West. Far from blazing the trail into the post-Christian future, American went quite a different way, down paths that no other Western society would even tread or even know how to find. Whereas European society, in a varying speed but fairly uniformly, experienced the end of Christendom simultaneously as the decline of faith—as the church went, so one’s belief—in American the opposite happened. And here the paucity of institutional mediations between the transcendent and the imminent went hand in hand with the general, largely formless, and yet utterly irrepressible intensification of faith: rather than an exhaustion of religious longing, it’s revival, rather than a long nocturnal descent into disenchantment, a new dawning of early Christianity’s elated expectation of the Kingdom.
Now admittedly, I’m being overly general again. Just about every living religion has found some kind of home here bringing along with whatever institutional supports it could fit into its luggage. Many such creeds have managed to preserve the better parts of their integrity, and I’m not doubting that. …Still, I would argue, with a little timeridy perhaps, such communities exist here as displaced fragments of other spiritual worlds, embassies from more homogeneous religious cultures, and it is from those cultures that they derive their cogency. They’re beneficiaries of the hospitable and capacious indeterminacy of American spirituality but not its direct expressions. The form of Christianity most indigeous to America is one simultaneously peculiarly disembodied and indomidably vigorous. And its unity is one of temperament rather than of confession. At its purest, in fact, it strives to be free of memory and so of anxiety, towards a state of almost perfect timelessness apart from human affairs where God and the soul can meet and speak and affirm one another. Evangelicalism, for both good and ill, is the purest expression of this faith. It can lead to an absolutely invincible faith. It can lead also to absolutely invincible intellectual narrowness. Both things have to be taken into account.
Moreover, some forms of American Evangelical culture were not lacking tradition so much as cordially opposed to it on principal. What is tradition, after all, but man made history, and what is history other than exile from paradise? What need does one have of tradition when one has the Bible, that eternal love letter from Jeus to the soul, inerrant, unambiguous, uncorrupted by the vicissitudes of human affairs.
I actually have a great admiration for this, strange to say, at times. Not always—as I say, that’s a matter of taste. Joel Osteen would try the patience of anyone. But I mean in its most natural, organic and genuinely Christian expression, and with the great generosity of soul that accompanies it, still it assumes at times extreme emotive forms of total and unsullied reverie—a pure present of a beautiful world in which ingenious outcries and gestures bring forth instantly succor and substance. At its most intensely fundamentalist, so precipitous is its flight from the gravity of history into that Edenic eschatological rapture that it reduces all of cosmic history to a few thousand years of terrestrial existence and the whole of the present to a collection of signs urgently pointing towards the world’s imminent ending. [44:25]
[49:34] America …is a tireless and uncontainable engine of cultural transformation.
[51:25] So often the case within American religious movements, [they are] largely constituted by an imagined history in place of real history and a religious ideology in place of a living tradition.
Note: transcription of my own from portions of David Bentley Hart’s “Orthodoxy in America and America’s Orthodoxies.” This lecture was posted 2 Oct 2017 by The Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University (The 2017 Orthodoxy in America Lecture, Fordham University). This lecture was also printed as an essay in the book Theological Territories.