An optimist’s boast

My wife, Tammi, and I recently toured Independence Hall and other sites in Philadelphia related to the birth of our nation. Some were moving and all were interesting for one reason or another. In a small building beside Independence Hall was a quote from Thomas Paine, mounted on the wall, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” It stuck in my mind for days after.

Paine was a noted Enlightenment thinker, pamphleteer and radical in the 18th century. His best-known work, “Common Sense,” made a compelling case for American independence from England and had a profound effect on the colonies. His faith was Deist and he became known as an enemy of revealed religion after writing “The Age of Reason.” His stirring rhetoric made him very popular during our War for Independence. When he turned his words against the Bible and Christianity, his stock rapidly fell. Thomas Paine’s death was little noted and his funeral was not well attended.

The quote I saw in Philadelphia struck me with its optimistic hubris. The notion of beginning again is so foreign to this era. Understandably, it was easier to imagine in the earliest days of our nation. Our forefathers stood on the shore of a great, rich, undeveloped continent. The potential for building a new nation on ideas of law and liberty must have looked like a new beginning of human civilization to the more poetic people of that generation. In our day there is no great unknown land open to us. There is no nation where we may start from the foundation with new ideas that will deeply impact the world.

Back to Paine’s quote: did they have the power to “begin the world over again?” Do we?

Practically, I’d have to say “no” and “no.” The American experiment has impacted the whole world and usually for the good. But our 60-year involvement in the Middle East would indicate that we haven’t started the world over. Ancient rivalries and human traits are more persistent than our relatively brief history.

Additionally we’d have to admit that the succession of imperial wannabes of the 20th century thoroughly rocked the notion that progress and knowledge would correspond with peace and understanding. Starting over again would have to be effected on the micro rather than macro level. Transforming individuals is the only sense that the world can start again.

Our cultural optimism leads us to think that an insight or achievement will open the “age of Aquarius” for us all (dated cultural reference, ask your parents). That’s why we assume that every disease or bad behavior has a cure. It’s why these vague “the more you know” spots on NBC television bring comfort to some. We believe that we have the power and smarts to do whatever we set our minds to do.

As I said, there is a world that can be made new again. Institutions closest to the changes in individual lives can also be drastically changed by the impact of these souls. This, really, is the work set before most of us.

Christian homes are not the sad and broken thing Adam and Eve carried from the garden. The intimacy of the setting makes the influence of godly parents overwhelming. The Holy Spirit guards and guides those within so that this little world of the home is made over again.

Our homes are not immune to the influences of negative things but they can be fortified to an amazing degree. Yes, our calling is largely carried out in that place of turmoil beyond our homes but the fortress is where we rest, recover, and refit for the next day’s work.

Beyond the power of redemption to renew lives one by one, our families are the place where this change has the most impact. A family led by renewed people is itself renewed, begun again.

Our churches also can be places where the world is remade. Sadly, the proportion of Christians to non-Christians within the membership of our churches is much lower than within my home. This means the impact is dissipated some. The influenc

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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