What Lincoln Believed

America has always been the problem. Too ideological. Too independent. Too sure of itself.

The trouble started early. The rebellion which became the United States claimed for itself “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”. Well! To the modern mind, that’s getting off on the wrong foot, and a pitiful foundation upon which to build a nation. As we teach our children, nature has no purpose, no law, and no God.

And how radical those early Americans were! Consider this: “And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” You would think that JFK, who was far from a religious prude, would have outgrown the idea that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights”, but he had not, for the good reason that — having endured the tragedies of world wars and witnessed the insatiable lust and inhumanity of communism — he and his audience understood what governments do. They gather power, and power corrupts.

The distinctiveness of America is rooted in its view of nature and nature’s God. It is an optimistic view of our value as humans and a pessimistic view of our trustworthiness. It is the curious idea that, as C. S. Lewis wrote, “Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit-immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
We find ourselves in a new place, we Americans. There is a new orthodoxy forming in our culture, as dogmatic and intolerant and violent as any crusade, and it’s sure about this: The old Americans were wrong; Washington and Lincoln and Truman and Kennedy and the rest, and anyone else who still believes in nature’s law and nature’s God. The crusaders claim America as if they had made it themselves and fiercely reject the humble genius of those who did make it.

Lincoln said, quoting Jesus, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”, and our house is divided, the new orthodoxy against the old. The crusaders grow impatient because the old Americans are stubborn in their ways and still too numerous to ignore. Thus, the current debate on borders.
Legal immigration makes new Americans, people who promise to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America”, people who “take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.” Legal immigration strengthens America.

Illegal immigration, or unenforced borders, reduces America to a location, and not a nation. It accomplishes through transportation the same thing crusaders accomplish (much more slowly and at greater expense) through education: the severing of reverence for the idea of America. It is politics by other means.

The world has been blessed by America, a nation too ideological, independent and confident for the modern mind. But the truths we once held are no longer self-evident. We reject the idea of a creator who makes men equal or gives them inalienable rights. We are surrounded by howls of rage from those who hate what we have been and believed. Well, let them hate. What Washington and Lincoln and Truman and Kennedy and all the rest believed, I believe.

Image: Emptiness of the Soul
Albert György – Ginevra

Sincere But Mistaken Things

The story is told of a sincere but mistaken king who wanted, more than anything in the world, to honor his God. This story begins with great joy, as the king and many thousands of people are singing and dancing and celebrating with all their might. But something terrible happens and the story ends badly. An apparently innocent man dies. The king becomes angry and afraid of the God he had wanted to honor.

It is this way with sincere but mistaken things.

There was, it turns out, a different procedure required for doing what the king wanted to do: “No one but the Levites may carry the ark of God”. Well, that’s puzzling. Nothing in the king’s pure heart suggested the need for such a procedure. Were the descendants of Levi, for whom this and every other priestly duty was reserved, somehow better people than all their neighbors? More sincere or capable or beautiful in spirit? Not likely.
Do you know why the men and women of every other tribe were excluded? I don’t. Perhaps you can explain how a God of love and justice would tolerate this discrimination, let alone require it? I can’t.

If it happened today, it would be a job for hermeneutics because, when our sense of propriety collides with scripture, we hold faithfully to the inspiration and inerrancy of our feelings, whatever the scripture says. There is not much room for a God whose ways are not our ways; not much confidence that – though disagreeing with us – he might still be wholly good.

We in the Church have painted ourselves into a corner. We say that God can create the universe, but we don’t think he can write a trustworthy book. We dismiss scripture when it expresses uncomfortable ideas, but we claim to revere Jesus, who is revealed in the same book.

We are not leading the culture toward confidence in God. We are following the culture toward confusion about God. We are a #MeToo church, tottering behind and barely distinct from our angry and writhing culture, and nearly as skeptical regarding God’s designs for men and women and sexuality.
Is there room in our minds and hearts for a God whose ways are not our ways?

In the story, the mistaken king and his dejected mob drag home, shocked and confused by God’s angry response to their sincere efforts. But after the king broods for a while, he does something peculiar. He looks in God’s book and learns about the Levites. Three months later, the nation gathers once more, singing and dancing and celebrating with all their might as the ark is safely carried to Jerusalem.

Is Anything Simply True?

A bulky robot trots stiffly across the lawn, pauses before an obstacle then clears it with an awkward jump. A computer-generated voice on the telephone negotiates an appointment for a haircut. We watch the demonstration videos and stare, amazed.

It has been a big week for technology news and there are several miracles here. First, that we have – through the expenditure of great genius and motivation and resources – produced machines that move and talk a little bit like humans. Second, that the earth – possessing no genius or motivation or resources – produced the humans who made the machines.

It is not quite safe to think about that. We believe two contradictory things and those things must be kept apart or awkwardness ensues. It is perfectly respectable to say that our own complexity is the product of luck and muck and time. On the other hand, no one throws parts in a box, shakes it for a while and expects an assembly to emerge. As we have all learned to our sorrow, life does not work that way. Luck does not do work. Luck does not make machines.

It is uncomfortable to think contradictory thoughts, so we don’t. We build mental fences to keep our hard-fought experience away from our fragile theories.

I read an editorial yesterday that wondered if anything is simply true – true for everyone. Subjectivism is a popular theory these days and many people liked what she wrote. I don’t know the author, but I suppose that she has a car, and perhaps a spouse, and maybe even children. If so, she probably believes in stop lights and is confident that other drivers do, too. Very likely, she believes in hunger and is anxious to prevent it in those who depend on her. As a successful person, I think she must believe in kindness, and probably takes care to encourage and protect those around her.

In fact, she believes that many things are simply true and she expects that other people should believe those things, too. Without shared truth, we could not live together in peace.

I respect the robotic accomplishments demonstrated this week – the tenacity and tough, independent thinking required to learn how things work. Our thinking about the creatures who inspired and produced the robots should be that way, too – grounded in logic and experience and open to all of the data around us.


Tashlan at Calvin

In “The Last Battle”, C. S. Lewis tells an exciting story.  Narnia is invaded.  The intruders lack strength to take the land by force but try something else.  Instead of defying Aslan, Narnia’s divine but long-absent leader, the Calormene invaders make a theological appeal — the appeal often called syncretism — and claim that Aslan has ordered the invasion.

The elegance of the plan is self-evident.  Why destroy a weapon that can be turned to your advantage?  The beloved Aslan, it is said, “never does turn up, you know.  Not nowadays”.  He has been gone for a long time.  He became a subject for interpretation, and re-interpretation, and finally became irrelevant.  “All that old idea of us being right and the Calormenes wrong is silly.  We know better now.” 

The modern American reader feels right at home in the story.  For many, Jesus is such a figure, a divine leader who does not seem to show up in any very tangible way, whose traditional defenders seem dated and silly.  His whole religious enterprise is creaking with age and reeking of cultural faux pas.  We may have believed the whole story once, but we know better now.

What, then?  We might discard him entirely, of course, as Judas did, but there is something about Jesus, as there is something about Aslan in Lewis’ story – something undeniably good that might still be rescued from the undesirable accretions of history and, well, from the increasingly embarrassing Christian scriptures.

We don’t want to completely discard Jesus, especially those of us in Christendom.  We like Christmas and Easter, our sacred traditions and noble ideas.  But we also like things that Jesus did not like.  And so, syncretism: the attempt to glue together the parts we like, whatever their source.

While attending a recent conference at a Christian college, I noticed an example of such gluing.  I picked up the campus newspaper and came upon an editorial titled “Aslan in the name of Tash”.  In it, the author references the story I mention here and says that Lewis therein “commends a character for worshiping ‘Aslan in the name of Tash’, essentially worshiping God, but in all appearances, by practicing an entirely other religion.”  The article concludes that “it can certainly be true and honest for me to say with my Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers there is one God and to affirm words of the Qur’an and Torah.”

I’m sure the author’s intentions were good, perhaps expressing her concept of humility, but I think the article misses an important point.  It is the evil character in Mr. Lewis’ story who says “The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing.  Tash and Aslan are only two different names for you know Who.”  Lewis tells us the story to tell us that this is wrong. 

Tash is not Aslan.  The “one God” of the Qur’an is not the “one God” of the Bible.  At the timid suggestion that Emeth, the honorable Tash-worshiper, was received because, after all, “thou and Tash are one”, Lewis says, “the Lion growled so that the earth shook”.

I think Lewis was right.  Jesus is not a concept that we can somehow break free from the rest of scripture and glue to our favorite ideas from other sources, manufacturing our own little Tashlan.  If Jesus is real at all, he changes our understanding of sex and religion and a hundred other things, including the scriptures that reveal him to us.

The “Aslan in the name of Tash” article prompted a (to my mind, very sensible) letter to the editor.  For this, the reader was chided: “I do think that you, as one espousing whatever Christianity means to you, ought to be more careful in your estimations of the validity of other faiths.  Writing off an entire tradition because it does not affirm the identity of Christ seems like an overreaction.”

I don’t know what the reader felt about this response, but it strikes me as just the sort of thing that Tashlan would like. 

The Argument of Windows

It can be dangerous to look out the window. A quick glance is safe – to check the weather, maybe, or to see who is pulling into the driveway. But it’s a different thing to really look at the world, as you might look at a picture or a page in a book – to look carefully, thinking about what you see.

It is a strange world, outside that window. If you watch long enough, you might see something terrible but, of course, that’s the exception, or we would not make windows. Most of what we see through them – the trees and sun and birds and the million leaves of grass – is wonderful. Literally: objects of wonder, beautiful and important in ways we sense but don’t fully understand. Their existence feeds something in us, and so we make windows.

But there is a danger in looking out the window, a slippery slope that leads from beauty, which happens in nature, to wonder, which happens in us. Our sense of wonder at the beauty around us suggests that there is something powerful and purposeful at work in the universe, something benevolent before which we might be quiet and from which we might draw comfort.

Through the centuries, most humans have hurtled down that slope, seeing no reason not to. But it is different in this century, and especially in this generation. Great minds have found a reason to refrain from wonder and an explanation of the world that puts us in no one’s debt. They have found our creator, and his name is luck.

In our age, wonder is becoming a false religion and even beauty a dangerous illusion. There is no power at work in the universe, they say. No purpose, no benevolence – and no malevolence, either, for there is only matter, and matter knows nothing of good or evil. There is nothing alive that did not spring by luck from muck. Nothing to thank. Nothing to admire. Nothing to revere.

They know this, they insist, though it seems odd that they can know anything. If, as they say, our brain is also an accident – if our mind is a little raft of thought sensations floating on a restless sea of blood and tissue and nerve endings – why trust it? What, in their view, inspires confidence that there is such a thing as truth, or that such a peculiar instrument could know it?

Still, they are sure they do know the truth and they shout down anyone who disagrees. They know there are no Gods or morals, or even girls or boys. And nothing, it seems, can stand against the force of their knowing and shouting. It is a world without truth, except for their truth.

Well, all right, but they should be wary of windows, which have defeated many great minds before theirs. It is a strange world, outside those windows, full of beauty and elegance and complexity that our science is still trying to understand. Even an innocent person, trying her best to believe their story, might look out a window and lapse into wonder, or even ask herself why, for all our proud knowing, we cannot make even an amoeba. If building a living world is so easy that luck can do it, why can’t we?