Feature 07.03.2024 7 minutes

Go Fourth!

In God We Trust

A reminder on our nation’s birthday that opportunities for greatness unfold in an expanding Now.

I’m not sure when the last Independence Day was when America’s future was so in doubt. I am sure I’m hardly alone in this. Many millions of Americans, regardless of ideological proclivity, genuinely fear for the future of the country. But few have a clear sense of exactly what’s going to happen. A meta-fear, driven by the disorienting pace of technological advancement and the transference of so much of life into cyberspace, is setting in: worry that not even our experts in forecasting can properly assess how much we know or think we know—where our baseline of anxiety even ought to be set. Outlandish scenarios seem as plausible as quotidian ones. We are, so many of us, like the village idiot rushing from fortune teller to fortune teller in search of the real future.

The only people projecting real confidence about their predictions are the self-anointed futurists. But even this crowd is riven by disagreement about the one thing—ever-smarter AI—that appears most frighteningly certain. Maybe AI advancement will taper off instead of becoming godlike! Maybe the taper has already begun! Maybe we just can’t know!

Almost a decade ago I started work on my first book, The Art of Being Free, a consideration of Alexis de Tocqueville’s assessments of America’s soul and the democratic spirit. Since then, my conjectures of an American change of regime into a so-called pink police state have all too sadly come true. So I have a certain stake, and I hope a certain credibility, in the futurism debate. As someone whose accurate prognostications paid out in some modest predictive capital, I am here today to spend it on a simple message. Stop trying to determine the future. Stop listening to those who do. Focus on what’s happening now.

This approach will help strengthen the spirit amid today’s profoundly unsettled feeling, which Tocqueville expressed so well so long ago. At the outset of Democracy in America, he described a sensation of going backwards over the falls. Around the midpoint, he bemoaned the inability of philosophers, despite their great intellect and thousands of years, to agree on much of anything, even about the most fundamental things concerning human beings. In the first case, Tocqueville indicated the limits of human feeling or passion to guide us; in the second, the limits of human thought or intellect.

These limits quietly afford us a clue to the puzzle of how exactly to focus on the present. Philosophy, science, technology, engineering, psychology—all these things have converged in our era on the obsession with obtaining absolute knowledge of information in “real time,” as it happens. In some tactical sense all that effort has yielded remarkable results. Digital surveillance and manipulation of data has scaled to dizzying heights. Yet that very scale has led to reality overleaping the ability of ourselves or our machines to consume, process, and analyze it, driving the current arms race to manufacture machines that might finally achieve an absolute understanding of what is—in order, of course, to know, once and for all, what will be.

It is in this project, the one that alone can justify all the frenetic activity and expense, that our colossal efforts are falling short. The future is becoming radically harder to predict, not easier. Fundamentally this is because the scientific method is incapable of substituting for what we might advisedly call the spiritual method in experiencing and understanding what is, as opposed to what was or will be. As many saints and sages since Christ walked the earth have carefully taught us, that is because what is cannot be laid bare by reason—nor by our senses or passions. What is really going on is a happening within the heart of each one of us, and what is happening there is spiritual: occurrences secret and invisible to outside probes of intellect or imagination, which at best can only approximate or suppose what often only God (that is, not even ourselves) knows to be the case about us in particular.

This may all sound a bit obscurantist to the average Enlightenment enthusiast. But concrete examples are, in fact, found within America’s founding documents and official mottos. And it is there that I hope Americans look this Independence Day when reflecting on the spiritual import of their political identity.

I offer two particular examples. Many Americans are still reflexively familiar with the Founders’ characterization of our anthropological condition: endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. So much is said here. How much of it do we remember to really believe?

  • Our God is not simply our supervisor or master, but our creator. Is not the life-giving mystery of creation an unceasing, perpetual act, akin to “holding up the world” on His shoulders, but, instead of just the world, all that is, beyond all limit of greatness or smallness imaginable or comprehensible by any man or machine?
  • Every instant and aspect of all that we are personally and together is fashioned by our Creator in such a way that we can understand ourselves to have been endowed by Him with certain features—features which betoken far more than mechanical competence or mathematical precision. There is no taking away our most distinctive endowments without taking away our life itself. That these endowments are inseparable from our existence betokens great care, something we would have to try to strain to describe—unconvincingly—without using the language of love. Transgressing these endowments transgresses against us ourselves.
  • Yet we ourselves are physical, material beings, beings whose flesh is, let’s just say, disinclined to behave in our Creator’s own manner. It must be ardently, even fiercely disciplined for us to even begin to attain in the smallest measure to the standard of love and live-giving spirit set by our God. Our physical endowments are decidedly finite. Godlike command over material existence is, even now, tremendously, almost infinitely distant from us and our devices. We can barely even reliably command our own bodies, or the matter we hold in our hands. This radical limitation is at the heart of our inability to know, predict, or create “the future.” All that happens, God does or allows to be done. Our attitude in response to this reality can only be one of trust or distrust. Given our limitations, our prospects under a distrustful attitude are dim.

Which brings us to the second example, which also contains within it all that can be said of the above. It is the simple phrase in God we trust. How much of that pregnant saying do we remember to really believe?

These matters exist, and decide the course of our lives, in the secret spiritual chambers of the heart. Our gratitude should be immense that our Founding creed still calls us to their account. Vastly more important than the prognostications of our gurus, brahmins, and panjandrums is what is already going on right now in the hearts of the American people—not just those whose turn it is to be held up to special attention in the media mirror of the public panopticon, but in all our hearts, perhaps especially the hearts of the young. Many “elites” would pay incredible sums or do incredible violence to penetrate into the secret hearts of the young, and no doubt they have done so in the past, albeit, no doubt, to quite limited effect. There is no laying bare by the hands of men—or machines—the secrets of our hearts.

What is happening right there, right now, will prove decisive to America’s future. Not the polls. Not the votes. Not the machinations. Not the machines. It might take a while, longer than many of us, unaided, quite have the patience to wait. But it will happen, whatever it is.

This is hardly a call to inaction. It is, rather, a call to remember that the time and the place for spiritual action—silent, deep, decisive—is always now, and always here. That, for all our total dependence on our Creator, here in our brief time on Earth, we might remain slave to no man or machine.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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