January 19th, 2017
In this week’s Backstory, The inaugural address, of life inaugurated, and how silence augurs well for something salutary.
There was no precedent for what he was about to do–no template to appeal to as some security that what they were attempting had warrant for confidence.
Many had called for him to be addressed as, “Your Most Benign Highness,” or “His Majesty the President.” They had no other lexicon from which to adopt a commensurately noble moniker. But George Washington thought those grandiose titles unbefitting one so humble as he, and moreover too evocative of the imperious monarchy this new nation had fought at such great a cost to escape. Simply “President” would do.
But on April 30th, 1789, this newly elected Chief Executive stood before members of the House and Senate and gave the first inaugural address.
To read his words–to hear them recited–is to gain insight into the heart of the man, the weight of the office, and how the latter had come to hold sway over the former.
His command of the language–sophisticated without ostentation–bespeaks more than learnedness, but moreover a cultivated capacity of deep attentiveness to things great and small.
The formidable anxiety he unapologetically concedes in being tapped for this post, in part because there was no prior example for it, denotes his intuitive sense of the magnitude of the responsibility now laid upon him.
His frequent appeals to the hand of Providence, both in the formation of such an unlikely republic and in the necessary direction of that nation’s pursuits, demonstrate his belief in the inarguable premise (now either considered suspicious or taken for granted) that any talk of rights, liberties, and dignity must appeal to notions transcending merely personal or pragmatic interest.
And his unambiguous resolve to ensure his motivations for presiding derive not one whit from an interest in private gain but only the public good prove well his clear sense that the office is finally and fully one of service.
As the first Commander-in-Chief, Washington set both a tone and an example of what it means to command the respect inherent to the office.
As Americans we have a right–rather, a responsibility–to hold accountable our newest Chief Executive to the high standards of the office he now holds (as we would with whomever held it).
As Christians we are equally enjoined to pray that both the weight of the responsibility attendant to the Presidency and the influence of no less than God–an influence Washington could hardly deny and did gladly affirm in his address–would imbue him with the same dispositions demonstrated, as well as the same priorities outlined, by his inaugural predecessor some two hundred years ago.
And it is that latter identity that bids us take seriously the former, in the sense of seeing to our nation’s welfare, having seen ourselves as the immeasurable beneficiaries of a grace that can only propel us to service–for friend and foe.
Meanwhile we’re holding our own “State of the Church” address this Sunday during 2nd hour. We hope you’ll all stick around to hear us reflect on the year past and sketch some broad aspirations for 2017. We also plan to make a little time for your questions and comments about what you’ll hear. Furthermore, we’re canceling elementary and youth Sunday School so all our covenant kids can listen in, and ask questions, too.
In the passage in Isaiah we explored last Sunday, the prophet is appealing to Israel’s already well-cultivated theological imagination to make the case that not idols, not power, and not even the celestial bodies can be compared to the God from whom they all owe their very existence. His words largely fell on deaf ears, but ears not unfamiliar with the categories of which he spoke.
Today you can speak like Isaiah till you’re tongue burns of fire, but few will listen to you with any measure of interest or credibility. That’s patently obvious because the modern imagination has in large part sloughed off a prior set of commitments to belief in divine agency. Appeals, then, to an unparalleled Intelligence accounting for the existence of all things remain hopelessly problematic given how the locus of true knowledge has been reduced to what can be verified through a particular mode of inquiry–what we call the scientific method. Now, only that which can be testable and reproducible is admitted as genuine truth. As God cannot be held up to that kind of investigation, God is omitted from consideration at the outset.
And yet there are some scientists who in the course of their inquiries, and with no commitments to any belief in divine agency, have nevertheless come to detect evidence that bespeaks something other than randomness as that which accounts for the complexity and majesty of all we survey. A recent article in the New York Times entitled, “Can evolution have a higher purpose?” cites one Dr. William Hamilton who finds in the trajectories of life’s development certain features which imply a kind of agency involved. By agency he means (I think) a kind of directedness of which pure accident doesn’t adequately explain. So what’s his explanation for these features? Perhaps something equivalent to what religious people speak of as divinity, or perhaps some alien intelligence who bestowed to our neck of the universe the raw materials for what became life as we know it (the latter is no new idea, popularized if not conceived of by Thomas Watson some half a century ago.) Listen to his honest musings.
As you hear in both Hamilton’s explanation, and read in the rest of the article from which it comes, scientists aren’t turning in droves to religious faith–at least not as a consequence of unearthing the evidence that dislodges some of their faith in pure chance as the mode of development in the universe. There are other possibilities for explaining these ostensibly directed trajectories–at least according to the methods of their inquiry. But the fact that those not looking for (some not even wanting to find), yet finding, potential evidence of non-random influences shaping developmental processes means the modern impulse to foreclose on the possibility of an otherworldly Presence just makes for bad science. We’re reminded of the philosopher Thomas Nagel and avowed atheist who finds that impulse so contrary to the principles undergirding science that he once said:
. . .the empirical arguments [theists] offer against the likelihood that the origin of life and its evolutionary history can be fully explained by physics and chemistry are of great interest in themselves. . . . Even if one is not drawn to the alternative of an explanation by the actions of a designer, the problems that these iconoclasts pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.
Isaiah enjoined Israel to look up. Those like Dr. Hamilton, while not animated by the same goal, are enjoining scientist and non-scientist alike to look deep. There may be More there than meets the eye.
(Erratum: we erroneously stated Sunday that the Hubble Space Telescope has helped astronomers calculate that there are approximately 2 trillion stars in our universe. The article in The Atlantic actually stated there are approximately 2 trillion galaxies. We regret the error and tip our hat to Brad Keating for the correction. —Ed.)
Finally, we ended the sermon appealing to Thomas Merton’s sobering warning about refusing to acknowledge the need for fallow space in our daily living:
If we strive to be happy by filling the silence of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth. If we have no silence, God is not heard in our music. If we have no rest, God does not bless our work. If we twist our lives out of shape in order to fill every corner of them with action and experience, God will seem silently to withdraw from our hearts and leave us empty.
Four hundred years before Merton, Blaise Pascal exposed an unwelcome development in his day that anticipated its further development in ours:
Anyone who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself. So who does not see it, apart from young people whose lives are all noise, diversions, and thoughts for the future? But take away their diversion and you will see them bored to extinction. Then they feel their nullity without recognizing it, for nothing could be more wretched than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.
(That quote came from a commendable article that assembles commentary not just from the revered French philosopher, but also the likes of a bawdy but deeply insightful comic as well as our go to authority of choice on things literary and aesthetic, Alan Jacobs.)
So what happens when one refuses to give in to incessant diversion and reclaims that fallow space, thereby remembering that God is in fact, Father, Almighty, maker of heaven and earth? It may well lead to a new way of seeing all that He has made, and loving it regardless. Here, a poem from Angela Alaimo O’Donnell entitled “The Still Pilgrim Considers a Hard Teaching” (HT: Prufrock)
Not just love but cherish it, this world—
from the Latin, carus, to the French, cher—
meaning dear, meaning costly, beloved—
meaning hold to your heart, handle with care,
this world, from Old English, weoruld,
meaning human race, meaning age of man,
this world, meaning our earth and her heirs,
meaning all of us, here, now, if you can—
the suicide bomber, the killer cop,
the war-worn refugee at the door,
the racist, the rapist, the shooter and shot,
the filthy rich and the dirty poor—
this world, ever ancient and ever new,
not just love it, but act like you do.
We may properly despise what proceeds from one like us. But when we let the silence reconfirm to us that there but the grace of God go I, will we not find a reason to let love lead us to listen first, speak well and respectfully, and act with all due courage, diligence, and haste–all the while restraining our impulse to mesh the man with his message, no matter how erroneous or outrageous it is?