On February 26, 2013, in partnership with The John Jay Institute, Cairn University was pleased to host Dr. Os Guinness on campus for a lecture on “Freedom and its Future: A European Appraisal of American Exceptionalism.” The lecture was followed by a short response from Dr. John Kurth of Swarthmore College and a question and answer time with the audience.
Dr. Guinness is an author, social critic, and Senior Fellow of the EastWest Institute in New York. Born in China and educated in England, Dr. Guinness is an admirer but detached observer of American culture today. Dr. Kurth is the Claude Smith Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College where he teaches defense policy, foreign policy, and international politics.
In his introduction, Alan Crippen ’83, Founder and President of the John Jay Institute, thanked Dr. Todd Williams, Cairn’s President, for hosting the event and noted how fitting it was for the two institutions to be exploring questions about the relationship of Christianity and public affairs together. “It’s appropriate that the John Jay Institute should be here at Cairn University this evening,” he said, “for the perennial questions about the relationship of Christ and culture, of religion and public life, of faith and politics, were seeded in my education here as an undergraduate. Since that time the pursuit of these questions has taken shape not only in my personal calling, but also institutionally in the founding, work, and vision of the John Jay Institute. So in a way, the Cairn University story is integral to the John Jay Institute story.”
Dr. Guinness’ remarks were rooted in his most recent book, A Free People’s Suicide, in which he evaluates the American conception of freedom both historically and in the contemporary age. He argues that the contemporary American view of freedom is unsustainable and calls his readers to consider what it would take to restore sustainable freedom.
“The most daring thing at the heart of the American experiment,” Dr. Guinness said in his remarks, “was that they could create a free republic that could remain free perhaps forever.” He went on to explore the foundational tasks of establishing a free society: winning freedom, ordering freedom, and sustaining freedom. “Today, the third is the most urgent of all; no one is discussing it. It is assumed that because America has power, it will last forever.”
Dr. Guinness also addressed the paradox of freedom: “The greatest enemy of freedom is freedom. It undermines itself, becoming permissiveness and license… All freedom requires restraint, yet the only restraint appropriate to freedom is self-restraint. Yet self-restraint is what freedom tends to undermine.” Dr. Guinness pointed out that the Founders understanding of freedom was much closer to the Jewish and Christian understanding of freedom that stresses both negative and positive freedom together, that is “freedom from…” and “freedom to…” He then noted, “Almost all American freedom today, conservative and liberal, is ‘freedom from…’ with no definition of what freedom is to be. The current form of American freedom is unsustainable.” He then went on to challenge the audience with how Christians should respond to this situation. In his challenge, he warned Christians to be careful about the talk of freedom without responsibility. “Freedom requires truth. It is not permission to do what you like, but the power to do what you ought.”
Dr. Guinness wrapped up his remarks by challenging the idea of American exceptionalism, a cultural mindset that tends to think that America is unique in the world and somehow better than other nations. He asked, “Why do we think that in a thousand years’ time, the Lincoln memorial will not be what the Roman ruins are today?…Your framers, with all their blind spots…wrote a brilliant first chapter, and many generations have written good chapters since then. Today, the chapter being written is going to be the most critical of all. The present generation’s answer is unsustainable and will lead inevitably to decline, but there is the possibility of renewal.”
Dr. Kurth’s response was a very much in accord with Dr. Guinness’ remarks, but he admitted to having a more pessimistic outlook for the future of America. His concern is that America is too far down the path into decline to allow for renewal. “Christians may have to endure, rather than influence society,” he said. He pointed to St. Augustine’s ideas of the City of God and the City of Man and asked, “Is it possible that the true Christian calling in the generations to come may not be to reform the American order, but rather to reconstruct and revive a Christian order within America – to be in America, but not of it?”
During the question and answer time, a Cairn student asked, “What practical steps can we take to continue sustainable freedom?” Dr. Guinness’ response was a call to Cairn students who are preparing to serve Christ in the church, society, and the world: “We each individually have to think these things through, but then corporately stand for a different way. We live in an age that is not just post-Christian, but is also post-secular. Christians are the last great defenders of human dignity, of truth, and of reason…Stand for these things within the sphere of your calling…Serve God’s purpose in your generation.”
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