Charles Biddle was a citizen of Philadelphia in 1776 and made this entry in his diary on July 4: “I was in the State House yard when the Declaration of Independence was read. There were very few respectable persons present.” Mr. Biddle was not the first nor the last person to be present for something but missing the point of what is going on. Had he been a little more attuned to the reality of that day he would have recognized one of the greatest statements ever made about the business of life. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
As a Christian I hear the clearest possible echoes of the intentions of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus in those words. As an American, I see what Lincoln would later call the “angels of our better nature” marking the proper path for our national endeavors. But like Mr. Biddle, I know it is possible to be in the presence of those words and miss what they are actually saying. Truths, even those that are that are self-evident, are not self-sustaining. Rights may be unalienable but that does not make them unmistakable. Noble ideas like noble people can age, atrophy, and go awry. Pause with me for a few moments and shine the light of the Gospel on the current realities of those most noble Fourth of July ideas.
The Declaration speaks of life. All life and each life is by any reckoning a gift, something for which we did not labor and cannot claim to deserve. All life and each life is a mystery, full of wonder yet bracketed fore and aft by the unknown. These facts of life are as self-evident and unalienable as any. Yet many of those who make our laws and who interpret them as well as other teachers and leaders who mold our national mind have, for reasons both good and bad and all well beyond the scope of this sermon, chosen to try to understand life without reference to the Giver of the gift or to the larger mysterious context in which it is found.
Secularism, living as if God were absent, is as much an un-provable faith statement as is religion in which people live as if God were present. It is because of blind faith in a secular state that many would close our national eye to questions of life’s origins, purposes, and ultimate ends. The answers to those questions are difficult as the history of religion well shows, but the they are beyond impossible for those who refuse to ask the questions in the first place. Trying to order our common life without reference to life’s origins, purposes, and ends is like trying to have a barbershop quartet with no one singing bass, to present art without a frame or war without purpose. It is like sport without scoring or hope without substance, birth without wonder or death without meaning. It is a foolish and dangerous lapse. Understanding life as a little thing scrunched between the dates on a tombstone is to distort it and leave it well short of its fullness.
To what degree are we as a nation intentionally limiting our concept of life? To what degree are our schools, families, communities, and individual minds avoiding reference to the Giver of this gift of life and the context of mystery in which it is lived? I do not know the answer but if I did I would know the degree to which we, like Mr. Biddle, are missing the point of what is going on.
The Declaration also speaks of liberty, an idea that is both noble and vulnerable. The virtue or vice of liberty hinges on whether we treat it as a singular or a plural right. If it is singular and refers only to my individual freedom, then it is just a fancy word for license, a political endorsement for greed. If liberty is a singular right, then the incredibly bad examples recently provided by the financial industry should be applauded. If liberty is singular, then the top earners in this country whose income has increased nearly four-fold since 1970 are just better at liberty than the rest of us. And date rape, racism, manipulation, abuse, seduction, hoarding, drug use, bullying, dishonesty, and graft are simple expressions of individual liberty. I will not ask for a show of hands but there are many in our country who understand liberty in just that way.
In spite of the apparent popularity of such crass individualism, liberty is not singular but plural. It is none other than God the Creator who bound us together in common cause and because of that liberty is a plural right, something we do together or not at all, available to everyone or no one. Liberty is something we have as a people, which is why generosity is a greater value than greed. Liberty as a plural right stretches sensitivity beyond the tribal settings of private clubs and into the far corners of the world. Liberty for all gives top earners the most responsibility along with the most perks. This kind of liberty makes respect, understanding, cooperation, compromise, affirmation, candor, clarity, protection, and integrity absolutes that are not to be set aside, which is what unalienable actually means.
The degree to which we have let the wide plural of liberty shrink into the narrow singular of greed; the degree to which liberty for all has been twisted into license for a few; the degree to which we have privatized the literal commonwealth of humanity is the degree to which we, like Mr. Biddle, are missing the point and the degree to which we are in danger of choking on the feast of life our God has set before us.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The latter right is like having a fishing license that tells us we can look for fish but does not guarantee we will catch any. The Declaration of Independence tells us we have a right to pursue happiness but it does not say we will necessarily find it or nor does it even suggest where we might look. The fact is that God has instilled an instinct for joy in each of us, a natural gravitation toward happiness and satisfaction. Jesus said that the reason he came among us was to share God’s joy with us and make our joy complete. You can see it at work from the nursery to the nursing home and everywhere in between. The pursuit of happiness is clearly one of the things that life is about. But like fishing it is not always successful and many go home empty handed. I do not know any way to guarantee finding happiness but I know a sure fire way to miss it.
Illusion is a popular fishing hole that has proven to be empty. I am not referring to fiction, make believe, or pretend, which are gifts of imagination. What I mean by illusion is grasping what is unreal in the life-cheating expectation that it will become real. That kind of illusion is most commonly found in advertising, which constantly whispers the lie that a certain product will make us glamorous or sophisticated or whatever. At its most deadly, illusion is the door to addiction, hiding each chilling step behind a flowery screen of euphoria. Illusion is what allows gamblers to believe that there are shortcuts to prosperity. It allows prostitutes and pornographers to convince us that we can have intimacy without relationships. Illusion is what we teach our children when we give them trophies for losing. Illusion is the political philosophy that thinks we can be a great nation on borrowed money or that we can make decisions in community without compromises. Illusion dangles the happy thought that the only thing better than instant gratification is constant gratification.
If God had a name other than God it would be Reality. And in that sense there is no true happiness apart from God, apart from what is real, apart from life as it is, life as it was created to be, life as it can be. Mr. Biddle missed his moment by looking at the wrong thing. How many among us frustrate our God-given, Declaration-affirmed instinct for happiness by looking in the wrong places?
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are noble ideas rooted in Scripture and given particular voice in our national beginnings: life, the Creator’s gift wrapped in mystery; liberty, a plural right shared in community; happiness, a function of reality. Noble ideas that Mr. Biddle managed to miss on first reading and many still miss after 235 more. But the ideas are still there for those who would lay them to heart.