I am honored to be here tonight, and I thank my friend Cal Thomas for the invitation. I am, as you have heard, a child of the Episcopal Church—which is, at the moment, rather like saying I was one of the first to book passage on the Titanic.
Ah, for the days when our theological crises were about running out of olives and ice. I like to think my presence here this evening is an outward and visible sign of your grace, and I am grateful for your hospitality.
I am also a child of the South, and though I might not admit this back home, whenever I come to Washington I feel a certain thrill when I see the Lincoln Memorial, a monument to the triumph of union over disunion, order over chaos, liberty over slavery.
And I always recall the story of the young Lincoln, running for Congress back in Illinois against a great evangelist of the day. One day during the campaign Lincoln went to one of his opponent’s revivals. At a climactic moment the evangelist raised his arms and cried, “Everyone who wants to go to Heaven, stand up!” Everyone did, except Lincoln, who kept his seat. Noticing this, the evangelist said: “Mr. Lincoln, where do you think you’re going?” And Lincoln replied, “Well, I’m going to Congress.”
How to get to both—Congress and Heaven, or, more broadly, how to exercise earthly power while holding fast to one’s faith—is a perennial conundrum, and no doubt one all of you wrestle with here in a temporal capital. We have no lasting city, but seek the city which is come, says the Epistle to the Hebrews, but that can be difficult to bear in mind amid the getting and spending of the moment.
The question before us may well define the history of the era: How can American believers conduct ourselves at home and tell our story abroad in ways that will advance liberty, fair play, and peace—that will, ultimately move us closer to what Churchill called the “broad, sun-lit uplands”?
Big questions—the biggest, really, short of the coming of the Kingdom. Some commentators have done very well of late with books arguing that the evils of the world can be laid at the feet of religious feeling. It is fashionable to think of the religious as simple and the atheistic as sophisticated. In this view, those who believe are superstitious, while those who disbelieve are to be congratulated for overcoming what one might call—just might—“the God delusion.”
I decline to accept the assertion that because I believe, I am deluded. I am no preacher, no paragon of faithfulness. Far, far from it. I am, instead, someone who has been blessed beyond measure—by a loving family, by caring priests and teachers, by selfless friends and generous colleagues. To whom much is given, much is expected, and so here are some thoughts of one to whom much has been given—one who is undeserving but grateful.
I am many things. Chiefly I am a sinner, and I have done things which I ought not to have done and left undone those things which I ought to have done—and, in the words of the General Confession of my tradition, “there is no health in me.” I am prone to cleverness and to glibness. Blessed with a wonderful education, I live in constant anxiety that I will fall victim to intellectual pride, turning my gaze inward, where it should not be, rather than training it outward, where it should be—outward toward my wife, and to my children, and to my friends, indeed, to all sorts and conditions of men—and, beyond them, to God, the Father Almighty, our beginning and our end.
Pride, we are taught, goeth before a fall, and pride begins, I believe, when we start to think that we, and we alone, have it all figured out. Whenever I am tempted to think in such terms, I try to remember the words of First Corinthians, in which Saint Paul, citing Isaiah, wrote: “‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.’”
At the heart of our story, the Christian story, is how God thwarted evil and death through the drama of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The essence of the gospel is, we all know, redemption, but it is also about reversal—about bringing life from death, light from darkness, victory from defeat, strength from weakness.
And it is about love and kindness and communion amid the tragic reality of a fallen world. In the brush of my wife’s hand, in the big, beautiful eyes of my children, in moments of affection and grace with friends, I believe I am glimpsing the divine—small, tiny hints of the glory and light and warmth that will one day envelop us when, at last, God makes all things new.
John Keble once advised young priests that they should not strive to be original in the pulpit, for the message of God in Christ is timeless, and needs little elaboration. Keble’s point has always reminded me of an old—and true—story from my ancestral parish in Tennessee. A future Bishop was a young curate to the then-Rector, himself a future Bishop. After the curate had given a particularly dramatic reading of the gospel at the 8 o’clock mass one Sunday morning, the pair returned to the sacristy, where the Rector said to the curate: “You know, son, just read the lesson. You didn’t write this stuff.”
It is true, he had not written this stuff, but in the words of the New Testament I think we may find sufficient reason—and I use the word “reason” advisedly—to take our stand against those who would belittle belief. Let me be clear: I am not a literalist, nor am I an evangelical. I do not have what many people I know and respect have: what is called “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
For my part, I believe in the historicity of the biblical story—that is, that the God of Abraham formed a covenant with the people of Israel and that, in the first century in Judea, a son of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, offered his followers a story of salvation that involved a human atoning sacrifice and a physical resurrection—a series of events, grounded in time and space, that, mysteriously and in ways veiled from complete human understanding, have effected the forgiveness of sins and have promised the gift of eternal life.
But I doubt, and to me doubt is a part of faith. Doubt is not unbelief; doubt is not cynicism. And when I doubt, I do not think I am being freed from the grip of a delusion. I see myself, rather, as following the ancient counsel of St. Paul, who told the Phillippians: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely … think on these things.”
Think on these things: do not be reflexively dogmatic, or blindly believing, but think—weigh the evidence, consider the possibilities. To pit faith against reason as Manichaean opposites is wrong-headed; as Chesterton once said, “Reason itself is an act of faith; it is an act of faith to suppose that our thoughts have any bearing on reality at all.”
Why do we believe what we believe? It is not because we tend toward fantasy; it is because we tend toward history, toward understanding how the past shapes the present and foreshadows the future. The historical instinct is fundamentally human, as fundamental, I think, as the religious instinct, with which it is inextricably bound up. For we believe, first, because of the stories we have been told and the traditions we have been given. We rely on a report from Cana, a scene from the Upper Room, a glimpse of Golgotha in that Jerusalem spring, an account—from the women, who had not fled—of an empty tomb, the testimony of those who believed they had seen something no man had seen before, or since: A body resurrected from the dead.
Fanciful? Perhaps, but we have no more reason to question the historicity of the major events of Jesus’ life than we do, say, Agincourt. For both we rely on accounts handed down over time, accounts embroidered and elaborated upon, but grounded in fact. For me, religion is much like history. So much of what we are told unfolded in the past we must take on faith. I was not at Agincourt, nor was anyone I know, yet I believe the essential story that an out-numbered King Henry V defeated a much more powerful French army. Witnesses wrote down what happened; the story was passed from generation to generation; and now, centuries later, I and most other people accept the basic account as fact, not fancy.
How did I, and they, arrive at such a conclusion? By the workings of reason: we absorbed the history, the testimony, and the tradition, weighed them, and decided that the preponderance of evidence suggests it is probable that things happened rather as the history, the testimony, and the traditions have it. The same kind of historical test can be applied to religion.
Forty years ago, Rabbi Abraham Heschel observed that “There are no final proofs for the existence of God, Father and Creator of all. There are only witnesses. Supreme among them are the prophets of Israel.” And, I would add, the apostles who experienced the living Jesus and who preserved the story of he whom the author of the Gospel of St. John called “the Word made flesh, full of grace, and truth.”
My point is no more or no less controversial or complicated than Shakespeare’s, when Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” To me, the secularist’s reflexive dismissal of the miraculous is as intellectually irresponsible as a believer’s blind acceptance. God gave us mind and heart, reason and faith. We must use all the gifts we have been given to the fullest, and remember the words of the Epistle of St. Peter: Always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you.
There is an old story about two friends who had known each other when they were young, one a Baptist minister, the other an Episcopal layman. They met after many years, and had a talk about faith; it was, it seemed, a lovely moment of ecumenical grace. As they parted, the Baptist said to the Episcopalian, “Yes, we both worship the same God—you in your way, and I in His.”
Yet one may hold fast but love those who disagree; believe deeply yet embrace those who believe differently. Such is the core of the gospel: to love God totally, and our neighbor as ourselves. To love God is to love his creation, all of it, from sinners to his Son; for how else can we know him, if we do not take him in full, the corrupted and the good? Richard John Neuhaus, priest and editor of the journal First Things, framed the matter this way: “There is a very big difference between tolerating others because nobody has the truth and being convinced of the truth that we are to love those with whom we disagree about the truth.”
Well put—and these words apply to anyone for whom the radical course of unconditional, forgiving love lies at the center of faith. And the love Jesus spoke of was not conditional, or selective, or exclusive. We are called again and again to humility, to realize that for now we only “see through a glass, darkly,” to understand that the first shall be last and the last first.
Whenever we think we have all the answers, remember the words Job heard out of the whirlwind: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” Where, indeed.
Let me close with a final thought. I do not want to live an unexamined faith. I want to question and poke and prod, to doubt like Saint Thomas—but, in the presence of convincing evidence, to fall with Thomas to my knees, and be thankful. For what, in the end, is our religion, but love for one another, and belief that once, long ago, upon a cross, a father committed the ultimate act of love, giving his son’s life for all others?
It is our fate and our good fortune, I believe, that you and I live in the shadow of that Cross, moving through the twilight, wandering the wilderness of this world, protected by the garden of the church, in the sure and certain hope that all will one day be well, on earth as it is heaven.
Jon Meacham, editor of “Newsweek” and an “On Faith” moderator, delivered these remarks to a pre-event dinner for media who covered the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 1