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August 09, 2015

For the past three weeks I have had debating on my mind. Along with Annie Burton and four smart, faithful, and sometimes sassy students from the Cathedral—Beth Dougherty, Katharine Edwards, Trevor Larkowski, and Sam Piazza—I spent a week at Sewanee with SUMMA: A Student Theological Debate Society. There, we worked at learning how to do what St. Paul admonished in his Epistle to the Ephesians: “speaking truth to our neighbors, not in bitterness and wrath and anger,” as is all too common in our society, but “with kind and tender hearts, in love.”

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln’s first step toward politics was through the Debate Society of New Salem, Illinois? He was a young store clerk with a tough-guy reputation: the champion rail-splitter who had whipped the town bully in a wrestling match. Shelby Foote writes that when Lincoln arrived at the debate club, at first the members “snickered at his looks and awkwardness,” but soon “they were admiring the logic and conciseness of his arguments. ‘All he lacked was culture,’ one [1] of them said.” Encouraged by his debating success, Lincoln ran for the state legislature in 1832.

Fast-forward to February 27, 1860, and Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech in New York City. Now he is running for President of the United States and he has come to give a speech on slavery. At that moment, the future of slavery was the subject of intense, national policy debate. The question was: as the nation expanded west, would slavery expand into the new territories?

Lincoln tells the Cooper Union audience that the policy question turns on the deeper moral point at issue. The underlying question is: Is slavery wrong? Speaking of southerners who were insisting that slavery be permitted in new states, Lincoln says:

“All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy.” [2]
What was wrong with slavery? According to Lincoln’s opponents: nothing. As evidence, they could cite authoritative testimony: both the Bible and the U.S. Constitution acknowledged and permitted slavery. Statistically, through much of the nation it was the voters’ will. When Lincoln had debated Stephen Douglas on this issue, Douglas had made popular sovereignty the central issue. Letting the people decide was of the essence of liberty and self-government, the utmost value in a democracy. On this point, even many in the north agreed with Douglas.

What was Lincoln’s rejoinder? In debate terms, he shifted the stasis, granting Douglas the value of popular sovereignty, but contending that in resolving this controversy it was not decisive. “The doctrine of self-government is right,” Lincoln said, but it could not be used to justify slavery. That was his claim.

What was his warrant? In debate terms, it was formal: a line of deductive reasoning beginning with a premise that Africans are human beings; in Lincoln’s words, that the Negro is a man.

“If he is not a man,” he says, “why in that case he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him but if the Negro is a man, is it not to that extent a total destruction of self-government to say that he too shall not govern himself? . . . If the Negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal,’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man making a slave of another.” [3]

It was simple logic. Grant that slaves are human; grant that humans are equal; then slavery is a logical contradiction and a moral wrong.

Then, Lincoln asks for faith. Many in the audience who would give Lincoln the argument are frightened at its implication: war. Lincoln’s response to that concern is solemn: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” [4]

This call to faith, courage, duty makes me think of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Specifically, I recall Harry’s friend Neville Longbottom, a young man standing in the castle rubble, thinking Harry dead, yet still defiant. Neville dares to challenge the all-powerful and evil Voldemort. Harry hadn’t died in vain, Neville says to Voldemort, who will surely kill him, “but you will, because you’re wrong.” Right makes might, as Lincoln puts it. That takes faith. Were it not for Lincoln’s courage in this faith, we would be living in a different country now. Thank God for the Debate Society of New Salem, Illinois!

Paul’s whole letter to the Ephesians sounds as though it had been written with our new debate society in mind. In a sense, it was. For example, listen to Paul’s blessing:

“[God] grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”

Harry Potter fans remember Neville Longbottom as a first-year, the clumsy butt of everybody’s jokes—including even Harry’s. Imagine Lincoln in 1832: socially awkward, rough. Abraham Lincoln and Neville Longbottom can both show  us what being strengthened in our inner being looks like. SUMMA is meant to be a means that happening in high school students. This Cathedral is meant to be a means of it happening in you.

St. Teresa of Avila described our souls as castles, with Christ dwelling in the center chamber, if invited. Let’s use that image as a way to think about ourselves.

By coming to church you are adding to your castle. New portraits line the halls: thinkers like Aquinas, Hooker, Barth, and Wesley. These portraits talk of things we wouldn’t know by watching Oprah, Fox News, or Game of Thrones. A pathway cuts across the courtyard, leading through what had seemed a wall, but which is in fact a door into the “strange new world” as Barth had called it, of the Bible. A bridge connects two towers, one called theology, the other science. Most castles nowadays don’t have this bridge, and yours is all the more valuable for that.

In SUMMA, we build a tool shed for the students and stock it with new equipment for sorting truth from falsehood. They learned about supporting claims with evidence and warrants, and to watch out for fallacies.

Whether we are sixteen years old, or eighty-six, we draw both from faith and reason to be strengthened in our inner being.

Paul also prays that the Ephesians will experience the power of spirit. This is the power that bathes the castle rooms in light in nighttime, and warms them in the winter.

The Spirit’s power is attractive, like a magnet. That is what Barth means when he says that God does not convince us to believe in him by effective argumentation, but rather persuades us by giving us joy, and gives us joy by being beautiful. If it were nothing else, the gospel would still be a beautiful story. I like it especially as Barth tells it, how God did not leave the world helpless in the ditch, passing us by as the priest and Levite passed by the man who fell among thieves on the road to Jericho. As his own Son he sent himself out as it were into the far country, earth, making our situation, our distress, his own.

Beauty is Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee, “and a large crowed kept following him because they saw the signs he was doing for the sick.” Beauty is Jesus walking on rough seas toward terrified disciples, reassuring them: “It is I. Do not be afraid.” When we are afraid, beauty comes as courage. When we grieve, it comes as hope. When we see need, it comes as love. One of my favorite hymns talks about it this way:

My song is love unknown, my savior’s love for me.
Love to the loveless shown, that we might lovely be.

The Spirit’s power is propulsive, like a fan. While the beauty of the gospel draws us in, the moral power of the gospel sends us out. Jesus tells his group: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” One Sunday in church my friend Pat Murray told us a story about Mother Theresa I hadn’t heard before. A reporter following her was watching as she helped a poor, sick man who had literally fallen in a ditch. The man was physically repulsive and possibly contagious. The reported said: “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” Mother Theresa looked up at him and said: “I wouldn’t either.”

Scripture promise that those who love the Lord “mount up with wings, like eagles.” (In debate, we call that a “figurative analogy.”) There is a song about this too, called “wind beneath my wings.” As the wind lifts the eagle skyward, so do courage, mercy, justice, in his spirit lift our spirits to the Lord, who is so beautiful, and reasonable, and good.


[1] Shelby Foote,The Civil War: A Narrative, volume I (Kindle Edition), 22.

[2] Need citation.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] Ibid., 32.