Easter was the beginning of a process of discerning a new reality in the world.Easter morning is filled with delight: bright colors, delicious foods, happy scenes of bunnies, and egg hunts. Above all, for those who are Christian, we are called to celebrate the joy of the resurrection of Christ from death to new life. The contrast between Good Friday and Easter could not be starker: with the quick turn of the calendar, we move from desperate sadness to unmitigated celebration.
It was not this way in the ancient Christian liturgy. Easter was the beginning of a process of discerning a new reality in the world. It was an entire season lasting five weeks, during which time the dramatic realization of what happened and what it implies for the world unfolds in stages, like spring itself. You can see it in the texts of liturgy and hear it in the chanted music from the first millennium.
Spring Dawns Slowly
Initially, on Easter morning, there is not unmitigated joy, but rather an awe that approaches a kind of fear: the man who was dead is said to be alive again, which seems to lend credibility to those who said he was not a false prophet but rather the son of God.
Listen to the melody of the Easter morning entrance song from the old liturgy, which isn’t celebratory but awe-struck and slightly frightened.
What does this imply about the crucifixion itself, and what does this ask of those who stood aside as Jesus was put to death at the bloody hands of the civic authorities?
In the second week after Easter, the ancient liturgy observes people’s dawning realization of the truth they have witnessed, and are thereby drawn by a sense of awe to a new faith, brought into the community of believers one person at a time. In the third week, you experience the first cries of joy, and in the fourth, the celebrations consist of new songs, songs that depart from tradition and introduce a new age. By the fifth, the experience of elation is completely unleashed and proclaimed to all the world.
Life Moves Fast
But in modern times, the entire experience is put on fast-forward. Traditionalists regret this, but it is a defensible change that keeps track of the dramatic cultural shifts between the first millennium and the second. In the first, very few people experienced anything like what we call material progress today. The population barely grew and life was characterized by an unchanging tedium of survival.
In the second millennium, over the course of hundreds of years, humanity experienced the first signs of the possibility of life improvement, longer and better lives even within a single generation, and modernity dawned with the gradual unfolding of freedom and the accumulation of material capital. Sickness and death gave way to health and life as a reasonable expectation.
So, in this sense, it makes sense that stories about ourselves and even the past would speed up as well. Whatever it is today, we want it now and in the most time-efficient form of delivery possible. A website that sticks is abandoned. A book that is too long is not read. Even a sermon in church that drags on tempts people to leave their pews and find a better way to spend the hour.
We have come to believe that life is about more than preparing our souls for eternity; it is about finding great experiences within the structure of time itself. Hardly anyone even questions this notion today. We carry it with us constantly. Our impatience with tedium is palpable.
With the advent of capitalism, humanity experienced a realization of dreams that had been materially inaccessible throughout most of history.This is a cultural change in us wrought by capitalism, and it is nothing to regret. The existence of “time preferences” – that we want to have what we desire sooner than later – is what might be called a Kantian category of action. It is baked into our choices as human beings. The material world either accommodates us or it does not. With the advent of capitalism, humanity experienced a realization of dreams that had been materially inaccessible throughout most of history. We are today surrounded by its blessings in ways we don’t fully appreciate.
It Needs to Happen Now
Let me just relay a story from this morning, which you might find trivial but is actually glorious.
I woke this morning determined to get my oil changed. Now, when my father was my age, he had to do it himself. There were no places where you can go and be in and out in 10 minutes. I, on the other hand, know that this is possible now, without fuss and without an appointment.
So I started driving, letting my mobile app guide me to the closest place and with full confidence that I could achieve my goal. I got my oil changed for $39 and they added fluid for my power steering, which fixed a whirling sound I’d been hearing. Then I got my car washed and the guy fixed my glove compartment that kept falling open. Somehow he just knew what to do, and he did it just to be nice.
Then I went to a car parts store and got some wipes that made my car smell great, and also some touch-up paint – yes, they happened to have the right color – that took away some scrapes on the paint. I did all this just by driving around and meeting nice people and engaging in beautiful commerce all designed to make my life better. I met fascinating, talented people and saw my life improve in real ways through human labor, courtesy, and commercial activity.
No matter how much we get, and however soon we get it, there is still something in us that aches for more. This is the way mornings should be. But of all the mornings in world history, it has only become possible to live this way in 0.00000009% percent of them (not scientific, but you get the point). But instead of celebrating how easy our lives are, what do most people do? They grumble about the traffic. They complain that they had to do this at all. They get upset that they are not otherwise at the office or languishing at home or huffing and puffing at the gym.
No matter how much we get, and however soon we get it, there is still something in us that aches for more. This too is a defensible impulse because it is that longing in us that causes us to act to make the world a better place through entrepreneurship, risk-taking, working hard, saving, and generally having the option as consumers to buy what it is that capitalists are selling us. So long as we are free in action and choice, our disgruntlement becomes a motivating force for improving the world.
Politics Is a Different Matter
And yet, there is one space in life where wanting more sooner does not redound to our benefit. It is within the political sphere. We listen to candidates sell their nostrums and go to the voting booth to buy what they are selling. Then we are shocked when it turns out that they cannot and will not deliver on what they say. Then we do the same thing two years and four years later, never learning the lesson that the political marketplace doesn’t really exist to serve us but rather to serve an institution that, in so many ways, exists outside the sphere of social action. The state is different, radically different, from the marketplace.
Because of this tendency to want more as soon as possible and to speed up life to accommodate our wishes, people tend to fall for charlatans in political life. Some dude comes along promising to make us great and we go for it, even if what he says makes no sense. Another person says he will deliver justice, equality, fairness, and goodness through taxing, regulating, spending, and war, and people figure that they will “spend” their vote and take the chance that it is true.
Growing in Liberty
Liberty is not something you can buy. It is something you must build through intellectual courage and hard work.True maturity in political action requires two mental steps. First, we have to decide what it is we want. The burden of the liberal tradition has long been to convince people that the best possible world for us comes through voluntary action within a social setting we create for ourselves, and not from the imposition of someone else’s plan from the top down. Second, we have to cultivate patience that working for the long-term goal of humanity requires commitment, slow growth of intellectual communities, the persuasion of public intellectuals, and deep investment in an idea.
This is the only way it can work. Liberty is not something you can buy. It is something you must build through intellectual courage and hard work. It cannot be granted to you by a politician. It doesn’t even come from politics alone. The work of liberty is a cultural act, extended from the sphere you can control and working outwards to change the intellectual fabric of society.
The work of liberty unfolds over time like the dawn of spring itself, or the unfolding of Easter in the ancient Christian liturgy. What is possible in this world is a slow realization, born first of awe, then turning to a new consciousness, unfolding in gradual celebration, and culminating in a message to the entire world. Liberty is what allows us all to cast off the old world of authority and imposition and sing a new song of freedom the world over.