August 19, 2018
Where Do We Go from Here? was the last full book by Martin Luther King, Jr. In reading him this year, one thing I have found is that his arguments are often dialectical. Start a train of thought with opposites––freedom and service, for example––then find the truth of each embedded in the other: in service is our perfect freedom. Hegel, the philosopher, was the master of that way of thinking.
In Where Do We Go from Here? Dr. King’s eye is on the plight of northern black folk trapped in urban ghettos. Having fought so hard against legal racial segregation in the south, now he is hearing calls by blacks that blacks should separate themselves from white society, to preserve their racial solidarity and protect their culture. The separatists view America as incurably hostile to blacks. Rather than American, they stand on their African identity. African or American? Those are the opposites King frames, and he writes this:
The Negro is the child of two cultures –Africa and America. The problem is that in the search for wholeness all too many Negros seek to embrace only one side of their natures. Some seeking to reject their heritage, are ashamed of their color, ashamed of black art and music, and determine what is beautiful and good by the standards of white society. They end up frustrated and without cultural roots. Others seek to reject everything American and to identify totally with Africa, even to the point of wearing African clothes. But this approach also leads to frustration because the American Negro is not an African. The old Hegelian synthesis still offers the best answer to many of life’s dilemmas. The American Negro is neither totally African nor totally Western. He is Afro-American, a true hybrid, a combination of two cultures.[i]
Faithful life is also dialectical. As Christians, we are children of two worlds. The scripture writers pair opposites to name them: time and eternity; earth and heaven; flesh and spirit; life in Adam/ life in Christ. I am not talking about church and state, or secular and sacred. I am talking about this world, this life, all of it, punctuated with a beginning and an end––and life with different punctuation.
Karl Barth called the first “the old world of Adam . . . the world of history, time, people, and things.”[ii] Barth’s words remind me of the last words of my favorite novel, All the King’s Men, when Jack and Ann, finally married, leave the gulf coast:
We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among trees as soundlessly as smoke. But that will be a long time from now, and soon we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of time.[iii]
[i] Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go from Here? Kindle edition, p. 54-55.
[iii] Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men.
When Jesus says “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” it recalls a going out like that––out from his Father’s house and into the convulsion of the world; out of eternity and into the awful responsibility of time.
The old world of Adam is “the world we know.” How do we know it? By sight, sound, smell, taste, and feel––and because we read it in the paper and watch it on the news. It comes at us in email tsunamis and nonstop tweets. It pleases, scares, provokes, amazes me. I’m not tired of it yet.
The new world of Christ is now embedded in it. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” he says. “Whoever eats of it will live forever.” His mortal body feeds us with eternal life. Sunday communion is the meeting ground, opposites visibly, audibly, and tangibly united to remind us how much more there is to life than meets the eye. “The new world is no other than the old world, which has been overcome in Christ,” said Barth. Like an electric surge, this charges our old world with new meanings. St. Paul called it “the weight of glory.”
About that, C.S. Lewis wrote this:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people.
And now the question: Is it true?
Barth said every church in the world should have that question carved in stone above the door, because, if so, it absolutely changes everything.
Can we believe in God?
Having quoted Robert Penn Warren, C.S. Lewis, and Martin Luther King, now I am going to quote myself from the conclusion of my study of Christian faith and evolution. In that field, the challenge to faith’s believability is front and center. At the end, I faced Barth’s question: Is it true?
This was me, writing not as a preacher but a scholar.
Sometimes when a Christian is asked, “Is it true?” we hear the answer, “Well, it ought to be”—and so it should. We ought to live secure under the protective arm of a benevolent and omnipotent Creator, who loves and enjoys us and makes us free, who can and will deliver us from evil. It ought to be true that in the justice of God, we find mercy, and in his mercy, justice. In other words, it ought to be that our world is overcome in Christ. The notion that this is so is both beautiful, and good.
These considerations bear on the question of its truth. According to an Anglican tradition going back at least to Richard Hooker, the pure reasonableness of our arguments and inferences is not the only applicable criterion. For Hooker, the goodness and beauty in our ideas of God have a proper part in our believing; or rather, judgments regarding the good and the beautiful create a perspective within which judgments regarding the true are to be made, with probability still our guide. John Henry Newman would think along similar lines. Insofar as faith (in its intellectual aspect) consists in probabilities, and “since probabilities have no definite ascertained value,” faith, for Newman, must also live in the desire for that which it confesses.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the goodness or beauty of a metaphysical proposal establishes its truth. But in our situation, there is manifestly more than one reasonable way of accounting for and interpreting our world, and that fact leaves us with a choice, a decision, about which is the best ultimate explanation. The universe is open . . . to various interpretations, religious and not. The fact that it is open in this way is, of course, a relevant consideration, a piece of data in its own right. What kind of God would create a world where both faith and unbelief are plausible, and with what purposes in view?—a God who loves the world, and who intends to win the world by love. It is not difficult to name ways that this condition—the room left for doubt—might serve valuable purposes because it would certainly seem to be a necessary condition of freedom. The gospel of Jesus Christ could not have happened in a universe where the purposes of God were manifest to an extent that Peter could not have been tempted to denial, nor Judas to betrayal. There being room for doubt is a condition of the possibility that God would win the world by love.
In this situation, we can make sense of Karl Barth’s otherwise odd contention that, in lieu of arguments, God persuades us by being beautiful. God has provided “that he should be attractive to the natural man and worthy of his love . . . and . . . he has done this simply by giving them joy, and given them joy by being beautiful.” The beauty of God is no abstraction. It is as concrete as a grateful woman moved to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair (Luke 7:37–38). In the towns where Jesus went, it was God’s beauty that drew the crowds.
The goodness and beauty of God in Christ are the poetry and music in believing. Science and history figure in as nuts and bolts, because they also point in God’s direction by the logic of abduction. This form of logic always goes from A to B to C, starting with a surprising fact and ending with a suspected explanation. Abduction never offers proof. It points to likely possibilities.
We are given the surprising fact (A)that we exist, and in a world of mathematical order and bountiful value, but also a world of inescapable pain, a world that seemingly unfolds according to a blend of fixed principles and historical contingencies. If, however, (B)—the Christian faith in God as known in Christ were true, then A would be a matter of course. Hence, we conclude (C) there is reason to suspect that Christian faith in God is true. This is the essence of an abductive inference to the Christian doctrine of Creation.
In this study, we have seen that evolutionary science has changed some things about the Christian faith, and it has certainly posed a set of interesting new questions and challenges to it. Nevertheless, it has not changed the fact that the churchgoer confronted by the question, “Is it true?” will have grounds to answer, at a minimum, “There is reason to suspect it is.”
One could argue that, on the basis of the material we have considered in these pages,the case is really much stronger than that. To do so would miss the essential point, however, which is that the case is already more than strong enough to bring us face to face with the ancient invitation: “Come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21). This is the form in which we, as creatures who can know and will, encounter the divine appeal to our responsibility and love; and, consistent with what we know of God’s intent, we should expect no more. We know the inference could never be strong enough to compel assent, for that would mean the end of freedom.
My argument may have shaded into preaching, but my point is also academic. If it is true, as Anglicans believe, that God created the world and guides it to a purpose; and if that purpose is realized in the fulfillment of a covenant of fellowship between humanity and God; then theology as an inquiry into God and God’s relation to the world will only be able to deliver a degree of certainty that accords with such a purpose. And at the limit of its inquiry, it will discover an invitation to a covenant of fellowship with God, and the life of a disciple.End quote.
So instead of proof, we see a likely possibility. Beautiful and good, it beckons.
That was me the scholar. Now I will preach.
Here is food, let’s eat.
“Come follow me,” he says, from eternity into history, round trip.
 With a tweak, nip, and tuck or two.
 I draw here from Paul Avis’s subtle exposition of the part that reason plays in Hooker’s understanding of theological authority. For Hooker, faith, hope and love each has their own object: truth, goodness, and beauty, respectively. The object of faith is the “Eternal Verity,” the riches of wisdom now disclosed in Christ. The object of hope is the “Everlasting Goodness” by which “Christ doth quicken the dead.” The object of love is that “incomprehensible Beauty which shineth in the countenance of Christ.” In that light, as Avis explains, Hooker links scripture, reason, and tradition, and sets them together “within a perspective created by aesthetic and moral judgment, a cultivated sense of what is fitting in particular circumstances.” Paul Avis, Anglicanism, and the Christian Church: Theological Resources in Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 62–65.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, trans. T.H.L. Parker, W.B. Johnston, Harold Knight, J.L. M. Haire (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957), 666.