Editor’s Note: This essay is the first in a three part series that, in recognition of Fidelity Month, reflects on the importance of fidelity to God, our families, and our country. You can watch a recording of Public Discourse’s recent webinar on Fidelity Month here.
One of the most important sentences in the entire Western canon comes from Augustine. It is a statement written in the indicative voice that many are doubtless familiar with, given its ubiquity. From The Confessions, Augustine states, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” Though this sentence is an indicative statement of truth, it also assumes an imperative: we are meant to be in communion with God. For homo religiosus, knowing God is to be human at its fullest. We are to commune with God not because we seek our own supremacy, but because communing with God is what brings peaceful rectitude to the soul. Knowing God quenches our deepest desires to know the glorious and be known by the glorious.
The First Pillar
In the planning and execution for Fidelity Month, it became clear that dedication to God needed to be the first pillar of fidelity. This first pillar reminds us of an architectonic truth: whatever the goods of family, community, and nation represent, their intelligibility must be ordered and understood by what created them and, in turn, best illuminates them: God. The “ordo amoris,” or “order of loves” spoken of in the Christian tradition, insists on the inherent goods of family, community, and nation as ends to be pursued for their own sake. The love they are given, however, is proportionate to the love they are owed. But we owe God our highest affections because it is He who has made us. As we come to know God and conform ourselves to His divine plan, fullness of being comes into view. Scripture deems the knowledge of God as a resplendent good that colors every other experience of our humanity. As Psalm 36:9 states, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.” Communion with God is what lights our path (Psalm 119:105). If we shall not walk in darkness, we must turn ourselves to the light (Isaiah 9:2; John 8:12).
Never more than now is the time ripe to rededicate ourselves to God. It’s what our culture needs most. With religion on the decline, it should come as no surprise that mental health appears more statistically volatile than ever before. Excise or trivialize the most important foundation of a person’s existence—their relationship to God—and it is to be expected that humanity’s sense of balance and purpose would be torn asunder.
Furthermore, in an age of cascading “identities” on endless offer, knowledge of God bequeaths a right and definitive knowledge of the self. Christian theology has a rich tradition of delineating the relationship between epistemology and anthropology, insisting on their essential unity. The two subjects ask: how do we know who we are? Theologians believe that philosophy on its own cannot adequately answer this question. In John Calvin’s Institutes, his famous opening lines sought to demarcate how knowledge of God spills over into an accurate knowledge of the self. For Calvin, they are inextricably bound in a helix-like structure. As Calvin says:
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while they are joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves” (Acts 17:28). For quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being shares in God’s own being. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself.
Here Calvin restates that architectonic truth: God is the font of all meaningful knowledge. Apart from him, we fumble around in the darkness. We cannot explain the obligations that beset us without God as the source of those obligations. As Vladimir Solovyov once remarked, “Men descended from apes, therefore we must love one another.” This is the dilemma of modern man, who craftily detects “facts” but cannot muster objective “values” without reference to the infinite.
Liberty under Law
As Psalm 100:3 declares, “Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” This indicative is followed by an imperative: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!” The imperative is followed by an enveloping promise: “For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100:5). As we know God as our Creator and praise Him, we exult in His promised love and goodness to us.
Economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell has explained two rival accounts of understanding reality and the cosmos: A “constrained” versus an “unconstrained” vision of the universe. For Sowell, the ways in which individuals can understand their place in the cosmos are a binary between accepting the givenness of an ineluctable moral order—one bounded by truth, order, and obligation—and endless plasticity, wandering, and subjectivity. Man, wont as he is to choose the path of least resistance, is prone to think that living according to passion, desire, and appetite are the summum bonum of existence. In a biblical cosmology, recognizable desires that are present—among them desires for friendship, knowledge, beauty, sexual intimacy, and one’s patrimony—are subsumed within a broader horizon of intelligibility, one of constraint and rightly ordered fulfillment. In the Christian account of the human person, there is only “liberty under law” not “liberty above law.” The Psalmist captures such sentiment in Psalm 119:45: “And I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts.” Here, the Psalmist affixes flourishing to a sense of limitation and obligation, grounded ultimately in friendship with God.
Now, more than ever, we must assert that infidelity to God is what plagues Western man and that what stands as his greatest need is fidelity and right relationship to Him. Without that sure foundation provided by a divine guarantor, the value, responsibilities, and duties that attend to individuals are mere contrivances; they need to be secured to a divine ontology not subject to the vicissitudes of human passions. In other words, Christianity provides the social order with what someone like the non-Christian political theorist Vàclav Havel longed for but could not find—a “Cosmic Anchoring,” a foundation that orders existence, something that political orders hostile to God cannot supply on their own. Christian anthropology, and its emphasis on the human person bearing God’s image, forever changed the equation for the significance of the individual—the human became definitively suffused with moral meaning. With Christianity, as historian Larry Siedentop writes, “Individual agency acquires roots in divine agency.”
We must know God to know our relationship to our family, to our community, and our nation. Nothing made, including the virtues of political community, can be fully understood apart from their ultimate foundation in God. Individuals need God. So do the nations. Democratic virtues that we take for granted as necessary to the American project—among them respect for human dignity, human rights, and the rule of law—all find their origins in Christianity. Outside of Christianity, each concept exists as a vapor hanging in thin air.
So, as we begin this inaugural Fidelity Month, we recommit and rededicate ourselves to God. You were made to know God. He is your ultimate happiness. Knowing God is not a rejection of creaturely good. It is vantage point that allows us to enjoy creaturely good as intended “from the beginning” (Matt. 19:4–6). We are made for an eternal joy that no temporal good, despite what good they do indeed provide, can fully satisfy. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “If a transtemporal, transfinite good is our real destiny, then any other good on which our desire fixes must be in some degree fallacious, must bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy.”
What does rededicating ourselves to God mean practically? At the risk of oversimplifying matters, we need not make the practical more complex than it needs to be. Perhaps there is a gnawing sense of emptiness that besets you. Maybe you have tried living according to instinct and appetite; maybe that has resulted in what Scripture refers to as “chasing the wind” and “vanity.” As Augustine says above, the sense of emptiness and lack of direction that plagues every human heart is how the law written on the heart tells us to return to God. Empty bottles, one-night stands, and hollowed-out pill containers cannot elide the reality of the conscience, however hard you may try. Come to God. For the non-Christian, “fidelity to God” may mean coming to know Him for the first time. If that is you, there are churches in your community that will be there to share with you the good news of God’s love for you in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
For practicing Christians, fidelity to God may mean recommitting ourselves to the practices that habituate us into deeper relationship. Even when we do not feel like it, we must read our Bibles and pray as a ritual reminder that the first thing about each of us is our ultimate end, not our temporal end. Contemplating God’s works in His Word is good for you. We must go to church, catechize ourselves and our families, and love each other.
As a Christian, I believe the fullest and final revelation of God comes in the person and work of Jesus Christ. I am always grateful for Christ, but the more I grow in understanding human nature—in all its resplendent wonders and spectacular failures—I grow in gratitude for Christ and how He is sufficient in ten thousand ways. The sufficiency of Christ is all the sweeter and more essential to the soul, for He alone is our highest good (Mark 10:18).