February 10, 2019
Mid-January I went duck hunting with my cousins, my son, and some friends—three hunts in two days with six or seven guns each time, over rice and in flooded timber. We saw some ducks, and worked a few, but no one ever fired a shot. It was a bad season from Missouri south: too warm for too long up north and way too wet down here.
January 20, 2019
Inside, in church, today is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. Outside across America, this is a weekend for honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inside, we listen to Isaiah: For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn. Outside, we listen to King, who for his people’s sake would not keep silent, and for his country’s sake was restless to the end. Inside, we reckon with Israel, the ancient people who struggled with their high call. Outside, it's our turn to do the same.
Tolstoy said happy families are alike and unhappy ones are different. That is probably about half-right. Though ancient Israel and modern America are worlds apart, our pain in one respect is similar to theirs. It is the anxiety of having fallen short of a high call, of disappointing something, someone, that we hold dear.
America’s call rings out from the sacred text of the American experiment. The Declaration of Independence says why the new country would be exceptional among nations: race, language, and geography don’t define us, nor unite us. Love of freedom, with acceptance of the truth that all are equal, does.
That was Abraham Lincoln’s take on American uniqueness. The Constitution was the how of the American experiment, the Declaration gives the why. Immigrants from anywhere and emancipated slaves could hear in the Declaration principles that rise above ancestry and nationality. As Lincoln put it in 1858:
“When they look back through that old Declaration of Independence. . . They find that those old men say ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men . . . and they have a right to claim it as though they were . . . flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.[i]
That quote was from Allen Guelzo’s book Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. It was “the promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” as Dr. King unforgettably declared underneath the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. “We have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said, holding America’s feet to the heat of its founding flame.
When I think about what makes King’s prophetic message so importantly distinctive, two qualities stand out. First, was his devoted belief in the inherent value of what he called human “personality,” by which he meant what Thomas Aquinas meant by soul. People add up to something more than the sum of our separate parts. Second, was King’s conviction that black and white folks need each other to rise to our potential.
[i] Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Kindle edition, loc. 2664)
January 06, 2019
Forty years ago this spring, my life’s direction veered towards a vocation in the priesthood. By that September I was enrolled in seminary, a postulant for Holy Orders. A year from now, next January 4, I turn sixty-five. The following day, the twelfth day of Christmas, is a Sunday. On that Monday, I will retire.
We had a funeral here two days after Christmas. For the service I chose a reading I had never used at a funeral before, from Lamentations, chapter 3.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
December 25, 2018
Lo how a rose e'er blooming
This Christmas I have roses on my mind. Rosie was born four weeks ago Thursday—our first grandchild. Rosie is short for Rosamund, from the Latin Rosa Mundi, “Rose of the World,” whose birth we celebrate tonight.
Lo how a rose e'er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung
Of Jesse’s lineage coming
As seers of old have sung.
In our house, the day prior to Rosie’s birth felt to me a little bit like Christmas Eve: calm, quiet, expectant. Modern obstetrics being what they are, we knew tomorrow was the day. Over at Rosie’s parent's house, the atmosphere was busier and on the father’s side more nervous. Rosie’s father’s name is Christoph which like his daughter’s echoes Christmas. Christoph means “Christ-bearer.”
Christoph’s birth might not have happened. Somehow, Julie and I managed to get married without first discussing children: would we have them or would we not. On our wedding day, right here, on my side of the aisle, the complacent assumption was that we would of course. I would found out that the new Mrs. Keller harbored reservations. The reasons why are none of your beeswax—but they were weighty. Constitutionally, in marriage, a decision to have a child requires a unanimous vote, so my wife’s uncertainty was also mine. Now I imagined two distinctly different futures: through the door to the left was life with children; through the door to the right was life without.
Living with uncertainty on big questions takes a little faith, and I had some—about average faith, I figured, for a young man who had been raised in church by faithful parents. In college, I realized I had above average faith compared to peers from other backgrounds.
On this matter of children, my faith was neither neutral nor dependent on a certain outcome. My hope was specific: the passage to the left was what I prayed for. But through either door, faith, hope, and love abide. I believed that. I had been taught it here. As the years went by, no children in sight, life was good at home.
One day, walking by Julie sitting in an armchair working yarn and needles under lamplight, I asked, just making conversation, what she was crocheting. It was none of my beeswax, she let me know, not looking up, but I peeked and saw it was a little teddy bear. The door on the left cracked open. Through the door and down the road our family would add Christoph, Mary Olive, Laura, John, and, on November 27, Rosamund.
December 09, 2018
The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
He will baptize you with God.
Who is speaking? John the Baptist, who “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee,” received the word of God and went out to tell the world about it, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” we are told.
How powerful was he? Plenty. John was a prophet, and prophets have been thought to speak for God. “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” Amos chapter three, the seventh verse. Prophets see or hear what God is doing, it is said. They fascinate us that way.
I have an odd little book by a respected Catholic theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar. (Imagine trying to make it through first grade with that name.) The book title is A First Glance at Adrienne Von Speyr. Dr. Adrienne Von Speyr was a physician or whom Father Von Balthasar had served as spiritual director and confessor, through the course of many years
Here is how the book begins.
“This book is an eyewitness account… It is not intended as publicity or propaganda, but rather as a source of objective information. I cannot prevent anyone from questioning the veracity of my statements. There will be people with a personal interest in finding them to be false, for whom ‘nothing can be which ought not to be.’ There will be many others who will at once attempt to ‘illuminate’ the entire matter through the methods of depth psychology and so make it supposedly understandable or who will dismiss it all as completely ‘out of date’ and therefore neither interesting nor credible. Finally, there will be those who will be very annoyed about a charism[i] – should it prove to be a charism – which does not conform to the conventional trends in Christianity today. To all these persons I must say in advance that (in the sense of 1 Cor 4:1f) their opposition does not trouble me, for, when I state the facts known to me… I am simply doing what I must do…”[ii]
Well, that’s got my attention. What sort of doubtful, annoying, or otherwise objectionable information is Von Balthasar preparing his readers to encounter? Here goes:
[i] Charism means “divine gift.”
[ii] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, A First Glance at Adrienne Von Speyr (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1968), 11.
November 25, 2018
Grace to you and peace from him who is, and who was, and who is to come.
That salutation is from John, in the book of Revelation. The one who is, and was, and is to come is God; God, to John, means Christ, in whom God lived within the universe of his own making. We call God’s life on earth the Incarnation. “The Incarnation,” Thomas Aquinas says, “is the exaltation of human nature and the consummation of the universe.”[i]
The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.
That pronouncement was Carl Sagan’s opening line in Cosmos, his famous 1980 book and public television miniseries. His student Neil DeGrasse Tyson repeated it in his recent update of the series. Cosmos, word for word, replaces God, suggesting science replaces faith in God. “Scientism,” we call that.
Modern science began in 1543 when Copernicus gave evidence the earth is not the center of the universe. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was the title of his study. In 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, followed twelve years later by The Descent of Man.
Approaching the hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s second book, Jacques Monod, a founder of molecular biology and winner of the Nobel Prize, published Chance and Necessity, “a philosophy,” he said, “for a universe without causality.” According to Monod, “the ancient covenant is in pieces; man, at last, knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged by chance.”[ii]
That isn’t true. Man does not know that; nor does woman. Scientism plays a pair of fours like they were aces.
In John, the Gospel, Jesus says to Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not from this world.” Pilate had challenged him: “Are you the king?” That would put Jesus and Pilate in the same arena, competitors like Sagan did with God and cosmos. Jesus rejects the false equivalence. “My kingdom is not from here,” he says. “So you are a king,” replies Pilate, missing the point. Like Sagan, Pilate sees only to the limit of his own expertise, in his case politics, where one king and one king only is the rule. Jesus indicates that with respect to him, to God, this rule does not apply.
After publication of The Origin of Species, an English bishop named Charles Gore gathered a group to think and write about questions Darwin’s science had raised for Christian faith.[iii] One of the group, J.R. Illingworth, wrote an essay titled “The Incarnation and Development.” It begins: “The last few years have witnessed the gradual acceptance by Christian thinkers of the . . . the theory of evolution. History has repeated itself, and another of the '‘oppositions of science [so-called] have “proved upon inquiry to be no opposition at all.”[iv]
[i]Lux Mundi, 186
[ii] Jacque Monod, (1972), p. 167, quoted in Southgate, p. 154.
[iv]Lux Mundi, 181.
November 12, 2018
Three widows are featured in our readings, including the woman in the story of the widow’s mite, as we used to call it. The “mite” was her tiny gift of all she had into the treasury, which Jesus counted higher than the big donations of the wealthy.
Our other two widows, Naomi and Ruth, are also poor. Theirs is a beautiful short Bible story with a harsh start and happy end. Naomi had been married to Elimilech, with whom she had two sons. Elimilech died. In Israel, the rain stopped, crops failed and there was famine. Looking for food, Naomi led her sons to the land of Moab. They settled there and the sons grew up to marry Orpah and Ruth, gentile women of that country. Then both sons died. Now there were three widows in one family with no children, no money, and no work. These were dire straits. Generously, Naomi urged her daughters-in-law to return to the safety of their own parents’ homes. Tearfully, Orpah said goodbye, but Ruth wouldn’t leave Naomi. “Where you go, I will go,” she vowed. “Your people shall be my people and your God my God.” Like the widow with her mite, Ruth offered all she had. Ruth’s great-grandson David would be king.
I still have the Bible this cathedral gave me as an ordination gift in 1982: New Oxford Annotated, expanded edition, Revised Standard Version. It is handsome, black leather bound, but also scholarly and full of expert notes. The notes to Ruth date the story’s composition. Like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it was written centuries after the events it describes occurred. By then, after David, Israel was divided and had been conquered several times, culminating in 587 when Jerusalem was sacked, the temple destroyed and the Jews were exiled to Babylon. In 538, Babylon was overthrown by Cyrus, King of Persia, who let the Jews go home and rebuild their city and temple. In scripture, the books of Isaiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah tell that story of return. Ruth was written at about the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah.
Now I quote the experts in my old ordination Bible.
Israel after the Exile developed tendencies in two opposite directions: on the one hand a major tendency to draw within herself and emphasize the exclusiveness of her election as God’s chosen people, and on the other hand a broad and liberal one which sought to make of her “a blessing in the midst of the earth (Isaiah 19:24), a ‘light to the nations.’ (Isaiah 49:6) Among the noblest monuments to the latter tendency are the books of Jonah and Ruth.
So the Bible embodies a debate: Should we be like this, or like that, to be faithful?
If we follow Thomas Aquinas, and here I do, this was not a conflict between good and evil, but between two variants of good. According to Aquinas, “whatever is of value, and can satisfy desire, is good.” [i] That is a definition of good without judgment. It would include things we would judge as bad, but Aquinas would say that, even with bad things, if we want them it is because there is something good in them to attract us. In the Book of Ruth, the Bible shows the goodness in Ruth, a foreign immigrant. In Ezra and Nehemiah, it lays the accent on Israel’s unique vocation.
October 28, 2018
Today is “Heritage Sunday,” a day to celebrate the lives and ministry of:
Seven parishioners who have been members of Trinity for seventy-five years or more: Martha Campbell, Lawson Deloney, Pete Maris, Ed Penick, Jr., Frances Mitchell Ross, J.D. Simpson, and Belle Spatz; and of:
Eight parishioners who have enriched our lives on earth for 90 years or more: Ted Bailey, Kathryn Bost, Joanne Cooner, Mary Fine, Adolphine George, Catherine Hepinstall, Bill Pumphrey, and Nell Stephens; and of:
Three parishioners who done both ninety years of life and seventy-five years of ministry at Trinity: Marguerite Gamble, Gordon Wittenberg, and Betty Terry; and of:
One organist and choirmaster, Charles Rigsby, long and well loved here and throughout the church in Arkansas.
Trinity’s heritage began with our founding on October 19, 1884, by Bishop Pierce. That start (a birthday of sorts) brings to mind something Karl Barth said about people. On the day we are born we have a present and a future, with no past. Thereafter, our past gets longer and our future shorter by the day. Barth wasn’t counting heaven, which is on a different clock. On our clock, Trinity has 134 years of past, which is a nice length—and, we pray, a much longer future.
One of our honorees, Betty Terry, owns a past reaching back to the 1920s. A week ago last Wednesday, October 17, her birthday, Betty’s great-granddaughter and namesake was born—Madeline Elizabeth Borné -Williams—whose future stretches forward to the 22nd century, easily. In the heritage of Trinity Cathedral, that is a powerful one-two punch.
One woman who would have been honored today, Jane Wilson, was buried from here on Monday. In Jane’s funeral, our heritage of faith wrapped her death in transcendent, hopeful beauty.
Heritage is treasure.
Consider Charlie Rigsby, at the organ. In Charlie at the age of 27, Dean Higgins saw energy and talent and hired him on the spot, bringing a musical life to this Cathedral the likes of which is seldom heard, not only but especially with children. The musical and spiritual seeds Charlie planted in lives going back to forty years ago continue to flower here, even as new seeds are being sown by Victoria, who is one of Charlie’s many protégés.
Heritage can be baggage too, of course. Our southern heritage is a glaring example. We southern states were on the wrong side in the Civil War, and again in the struggle after that for civil rights for black folk. From that bad history, we can’t hide. Shelby Foote, in a low moment in the sixties, said he was ashamed to be southerner—when for most of his life the South had been “the one thing [he] really ever loved.” “Good Lord,” he swore, “when I think what we could have been, the heritage we perverted!” Then he began to list things he long had loved about the south: “the misspent courage, the hardcore independence. The way a rich man always had to call a poor man “Mister.”[i]And that brings us back to treasure. As for me, even with the baggage, I would rather be from here than anywhere. I am speaking now both of the South and Trinity Cathedral.
October 22, 2018
“Pillar” had been the first word that came to mind for Jane: pillar of her family, pillar of the city and this church. But pillar is a dusty word, so I was going to add a pretty one: jewel. “And she was a jewel of a lady too.”
Then the Bible offered up a better word. Tuesday afternoon, Lisa was looking over the prayer book’s list of suggested readings for this service. For each suggestion, it gives a very short description. On the list was Isaiah 61. The description says: “to comfort all that mourn.” At that point, Tuesday, in all of us, mourning felt like shock. Lisa looked up. “What else does it say? Could you read the passage?” I went over to the shelf and picked up a Bible. Make of this what you will, but in my hands it fell open to Isaiah 61.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
“Oak,” there’s a word for Jane that blends the strength of a pillar and the beauty of a jewel. I have a particular oak in mind, a giant willow oak I love on Hawthorne Road: broad, rooted, vibrant, green. It covers the street. Watch it shimmer on a windy day.
I knew about Jane since I was twelve years old and moved to Little Rock. My source was her nephew Herbert Thomas III, who had reached out and befriended me. Herbert would tell me about Little Rock while beating me at tennis. “We’ll get two good snow days almost every winter. (By the way, its forty-love.)” He was proud of his cousin Frank who played for Hall, and in talking about Frank he would throw in compliments to Frank’s mother, Jane. Most grown-ups are invisible to teens, but Jane was not to Herbert.
For the next fifty years that truth about Jane didn’t budge an inch. Lisa mentioned it in passing Tuesday, that Jane was a feather in her grandchildren’s caps. When college friends would come to town, they wanted to hang out with Jane. Sophie said to Lisa: “Mom, I don’t know my friends’ grandmothers, but they all know mine!”
“Oaks of righteousness”: What’s that? I still keep a big fat dictionary by my desk: Random House, 2nd edition, unabridged. I looked up righteous just to see what it would say. It means “cool,” and the opposite of cool. Literally, it means upright, virtuous, moral, as in “righteous indignation.” None of that is cool. But definition four reads metaphorical: “Righteous (slang): absolutely genuine or wonderful,” as in “some righteous playing by a jazz great.” Now righteous is the epitome of cool. Jane was all of it—righteous in the cool way, and also in the way that isn’t charmed by cool. She navigated by a higher star.
I also looked up growth stages in an oak tree. Google gave me six: sprout, seedling, sapling, mature, ancient, and decay. We never saw decay in Jane. She was ancient like the Willow Oak: powerful, majestic. Thinking back to “sprout,” she was born in 1926, the same year as Harper Lee. As a sapling, I could picture Jane as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her high school years were almost exactly those of World War II. She was mature, at 37, when John F. Kennedy was killed, and 42 when we landed on the moon. She raised three boys through the tumult of the sixties, and had what that took: ingenuity and spunk, wrapped up in love. At fifty-one, she suffered the death of Frank, Sr., her husband, and at seventy-five of Frank, Jr., her son. She was eighty-seven when she lost her second husband, Bob. According to an old song, “without a hurt the heart will hollow.” Jane’s heart was full.
October 07, 2018
In the winter of 1863, Union troops surrounding Vicksburg were themselves besieged by high water. Rains were “heavy and continuous,” U.S. Grant remembered. Because of war, the levees had been neglected and now they failed. Grant writes: “The whole country was covered with water. Troops could scarcely find dry ground on which to pitch their tents. Malarial fevers broke out among the men. Measles and smallpox also attacked them.[i] When word of the dismal conditions reached the north, there was hue and cry. Grant had not disclosed his strategy and no one could figure out what he was up to. Now soldiers were dying in their own camp. Much of the public and many in the press demanded Grant’s removal and replacement.
This is all reported in Grant’s memoir, which many say is still the best-written memoir any president has left us. It is at this point in the book that Grant tells readers one of his beliefs about leadership. He calls it a superstition, but it sounds to me like a pearl of wisdom.
Everyone has his superstitions. One of mine is that everyone should do his duty to the best of his ability where assigned by competent authority, without application or the use of influence to change his position. . . . I had no idea, myself, of ever having any large command, nor did I suppose that I was equal to one. . . . Having been selected, my responsibility ended with my doing the best I knew how. If I had bought the place or obtained it through personal or political influence, my belief is that I would have feared to undertake any plan of my own conception, and would probably have awaited direct orders from my distant superiors. Persons obtaining important commands by application or political influence are apt to keep a written record of [their] complaints and predictions of defeat. Somebody must be responsible for their failures.[ii]
In other words: if Grant’s being commanding general had been his own idea, he would be more inclined to doubt his best judgment and second-guess his own decisions. It was the fact that others had recognized his skill and judgment and called him to high rank that added strength to his convictions. Doing what seemed right to give his army the best chance to win the battle was his duty—and nothing less, or more.
I think about that, reflecting on my decades in the priesthood. It started with a call.
Growing up, I had heard my father talk about his sense of being called, a feeling he had had in college but deferred at the time out of a sense of his unworthiness. Then it was further deferred to serve his country in World War II, then again to help build a growing family business. His story was that one day after a business trip to a wine and dine weekend at the Kentucky Derby, he and my mother were on their way back from Lexington to El Dorado. At Memphis, he pulled the car off the road and the two of them sat in silence. Finally, mother said: “What’s wrong?” “I just can’t do this anymore, he said, almost shaking, and meaning by “this” running (as second-in-command) a big company—a job he was good at and took pride in, working with people he loved and admired. “I just feel that God is calling me to be a priest.” “OK,” my mother said and that was that.
[i] U.S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Kindle edition, p. 161)
[ii] Gant, Memoirs, 162.
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.