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.