September 09, 2018
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
What does it mean to call a truth “self-evident”?
Questions like that, I take to Thomas Aquinas, and with a click or two, I had his answer. In the first few pages of the Summa Theologiae Aquinas asks if the truth that God exists is self-evident. The answer will be that it is to God but not to us. In the answer, he works with two different ways to hold a truth self-evident. Here is the first: “Those things are said by us to be self-evident the knowledge of which is naturally within us.”
Some do say that knowledge of God is naturally within us. Aquinas disagrees:
“It must be said that a general and confused knowledge of God’s existence is naturally infused within us, for God is our beatitude and we naturally desire beatitude. What a person naturally desires she naturally knows. This is not to know God’s existence specifically, however. . . [because] many think the perfect good of humankind, called beatitude, is wealth, some imagine it to be pleasure, and so on.”[i]
Beatitude means happiness. Striking, that our desire for happiness shows up early in both the Declaration of Independence and the Summa Theologiae. According to the Declaration, the right to pursue it is part of our endowment. Rather than “rights,” Aquinas thinks in terms of “goods.” Desire for the good of happiness is natural to us—part of our endowment. Both the source and final goal of that desire is God. The pursuit of happiness puts us on the scent of God. However, we are easily thrown off the scent by wealth, pleasure, power, etc. We are in the woods and on the hunt, but too often found barking up the wrong tree. So, by that first definition, the truth that God exists is not self-evident: close, but no cigar.
Here is the second definition, which is the one I more easily remember: “Those things are said to be self-evident the truth of which is obvious once the meaning of the words is clear.” (For example: “Liars can’t be trusted.”) With the truth that “God exists” this isn’t so. As we know, someone may know the meaning of those words and doubt their truth.
So is it the case with “All men are created equal”? I don’t see how. For that statement to be true, there must be a Creator, meaning God. If God is not self-evident, to that extent the whole statement is in question, is it not? So we can know the meaning of the words “created equal” and still doubt their truth.
[i] Thomas Aquinas, ST 1a Q2, Article 1. Objection 1 and its reply.
Lucky for us, self-evident truths are not the only kind. After Thomas Aquinas decided that the truth that God exists is not self-evident, he went on to ask if it is empirically demonstrable. His answer to that was “yes.”
Beyond the fact that God exists and is the world’s Creator, Aquinas did not think that the highest truths of God are either self-evident or empirically demonstrable. These are mysteries that it takes a little faith to see. It takes faith in Christ to see, for example, that God is love, and that Love is three-in-one and one-in-three. This is why our creeds begin with “We believe.”
In his first draft of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson did not hold his truth to be self-evident, nor did he describe it as empirically demonstrable. He called it sacred.
We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men are created equal . . .
It was Benjamin Franklin who suggested the change to “self-evident.” Sacred sounded preachy to Franklin and he didn’t like that. Poetically, I’m with Franklin, but Jefferson’s draft was closer to the truth. The truths that “God is love” and “All men are created equal” are similar. We have some inborn appreciation for them, but it is too easily confused to call it knowledge. There are strong arguments for both claims, but to hold either of them takes a little faith.
All people are created equal. We believe that here.
About equality and faith, the Epistle of James has important things to tell us. About faith, at first, it looks like James might be arguing with Paul.
In Galatians, Paul had written: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” James seems to dispute that when he says “faith by itself if it has no works, is dead.”
I don’t see a disagreement between Paul and James. Paul himself disagreed with some of his interpreters and it is those same interpreters James is contradicting. What does it mean that we are saved by grace through faith? Paul and James agree it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter what we do and how we live. The intimate connection between faith in Christ and works befitting faith was self-evident to Paul. It is obvious because in the life of Christ the meaning of faith is clear. Christ was a worker. We are saved by faith in one whose works are wonderful.
Paul’s mind was philosophical. Faith and works to him were dialectical—the truth of each is embedded in the other. Einstein said religion without science is blind, while science without religion is lame. For Paul, works without faith are blind, faith without works is lame. That is “dialectic.”
James was impatient with philosophy. While Paul was reading Plato after school, James was lifting weights in the gym. Reading James is a ride on the Straight Talk Express. Dialectic? James rolls his eyes: “You can ask Paul about dialectic. I’ll keep it simple: faith without works is bunk.
So is faith without equal respect for rich and poor. At James’s church, evidently, people bowed to money and to the poor they turned their backs, as though they were invisible. (When they did see them, they were rude.) James is appalled.
My brothers and sisters: Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our Lord Jesus Christ?. Has God not chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom he has promised to those who love him?
Julie and I recently watched “Pride and Prejudice,” the series, on Masterpiece. Watching television and at movies, I am used to seeing obnoxious priests. Of that lot, Jane Austin’s vicar, Mr. William Collins, wins the blue ribbon. He lives near Rosings Park, a magnificent estate. Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Rosings Park attends Mr. Collin’s parish church. For a man like Mr. Collins, the word “obsequious” was coined. He slobbers over Lady Catherine.
Speaking of his own psyche, C.S. Lewis once described it as “a zoo of lusts, a nursery of fears, a bedlam of ambitions, and a harem of fondled hatreds.” Maybe there is a little Mr. Collins buried deep down in most of us, ready to flatter and fawn. It could also be that many of our psyches also harbor Mr. Collins’s opposite, a little mini-Robespierre who, come the revolution, would turn on Lady Catherine and march her to the guillotine.
As the healthy alternative to Robespierre and Mr. Collins, the Bible gives us James to set us on the straight and narrow. All are created equal: self-evident or not, that truth is evident in Christ and must be made evident in church. Proverbs 22, verse 2: The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.
Shelby Foote once listed things that growing up he had loved about the south. One was: “a rich man had to call a poor man mister.” Dignity didn’t come from money, it was innate—unalienable. Respect didn’t come from money either, it was earned by character and hard work. Proverbs 22, verse 1: A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.
Discussing the rich, James gets mad. “Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme?” Maybe, but not necessarily. James’s description brings Lady Catherine of Rosings Park back to mind, who was that awful. She expected underlings to fawn and flatter and when they didn’t it was she who would get mad. But the rich can be taught—that is evident in scripture. Zacchaeus listened to God and learned, and so did Moses, Esther, Solomon, and Abraham.
Martin Luther King’s last sermon was at National Cathedral, a wealthy congregation. It is not what you’ve got that matters, he preached to that crowd—whether you have a little or a lot it is what you do with it that counts. King recalled the story of Lazarus, the beggar, and Dives, the rich man who ignored him. When both men died, Dives went down and Lazarus went up. From below, Dives called up to Abraham and begged for help. This is Dr. King:
Now Abraham was a very rich man . . . the richest man of his day, so it was not a rich man in hell talking with a poor man in heaven. It was a little millionaire in hell talking with a multimillionaire in heaven. Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich. Dives didn’t realize his wealth was his opportunity . . . . He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible.
James and Dr. King agree that taking practical steps to help the poor is a rich man or woman’s duty. James: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food and one of you says: ‘Go in peace’: what is the good of that?” King: Dives went to hell because “he was a conscientious objector in the war on poverty.” These warnings and admonitions make me nervous, and they should. Hearing scripture keeps us on our toes. That is one of the reasons coming to church on Sundays is important. The first part of being teachable is showing up for class.
It is important to be teachable. Even Jesus was teachable, as we see from this morning’s gospel. A gentile woman begs him for help and he rebukes her with an ugly word. “It is not fair to take children’s’ food and throw it to the dogs,” he says. Today that kind of talk would start a fight and twitter storm. She retorts: Can you not be nice to dogs? That touches something in him. Until that moment it had not been evident to Jesus that Gentiles and Jews are created equal. Now he sees it and he heals her child.
Through this story, we are reminded that as Christians we affirm both the full divinity and the full humanity of Christ, with the full truth of each embedded in the full truth of the other. (Again: a dialectic.) In this episode, the humanity of Christ is paramount, his divinity embedded. Jesus does what we do at our human best—he listens, thinks, and learns. That was God’s aim in becoming fully human: to show us how to live—and learn.
King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.
In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”
So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.
What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.
Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.
When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”
If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”
“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.
Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”
For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:
Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.
That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?
Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.
SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’
For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.” Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.
In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me. (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”
For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”
Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.
Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.
By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.
We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.
We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.