Calvin Coolidge has long been one of my favorite presidents, based upon biographies I have read, his renown for executive restraint and fealty to Article II of the Constitution, and his whimsical penchant for pulling pranks on staff members – as Paul Johnson notes in his sweeping book, Modern Times, Coolidge would ring the bell for staff and then jump and hide under his desk.
He isn’t as widely revered and regarded as much more active presidents and abusers of executive authority, and that is a shame, because it validates American respect for the bully pulpit at the expense of valuing the freedom of the individual. It is also a shame in that it ignores Coolidge’s meaningful contributions to the American ethos, including his writings on the Spirit of Christmas. As the Acton Institute blog notes, Coolidge provided several narratives on the transcending value of Christmas as a defining moral and spiritual essence that Americans should follow for all time. The most succinct of this prose occurred in his 1927 Christmas address to the nation, quaintly delivered as a hand-written snapshot in newspapers.
To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things there will be born in us a Savior and over us all will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.
Further, in a 1930 Syndicated column, Coolidge would further state that:
Every day has been numberless times a birthday. Only a few are widely celebrated, for it is not the event of birth but what is done in after life that makes a natal day especially significant. For many generations, Christmas has been joyously observed wherever there has been a vestige of western civilization, because on that day was born one who grew to be the only perfect man and became the saviour of the world. No other fact, no other influence in human experience, has compared with the birth and life of Christ.
Down through the ages He was borne the name of Master. He gained that everlasting title not by the use of any material force but by demonstrating the moral and spiritual power of mankind.
Jesus’ birth on earth, quite simplified, was this – mercy and peace brought through a divine deity to earth. Let us all endeavor to have this spirit of peace and mercy forevermore.
I recently had the pleasure of hearing Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna: O Nata Lux” by the Los Angeles Master Chorale on my holiday station of choice, WQXR (their specially set up, focused, and temporary holiday channel, to be precise. However, I do regularly tune in to their traditional channel). Having performed a Lauridsen piece as a member of a high school chorale, I immediately recognized the composer’s touch for the Latin liturgy delivered in an ethereal acapella without having to look up the composer name. This piece’s sereneness and holiness is worshipful, and the lyrics are in praise of Jesus’ birth on earth and its significance.
The song speaks directly to and honors the transcendent act of peace, mercy, and salvation of the deity who became flesh for our sake. The translation from Latin to English reveals the simple yet powerful narrative.
O nata lux de lumine,
Jesu redemptor saeculi,
dignare clemens supplicum
laudes precesque sumere.
Qui carne quondam contegi
dignatus es pro perditis,
nos membra confer effici
tui beati corporis.
O Light born of Light,
Jesus, redeemer of the world,
with kindness deign to receive
the praise and prayer of suppliants.
You who once deigned to be clothed in flesh
for the sake of the lost,
grant us to be made members
of your blessed body.
This rendition is as close to the WQXR rendition that I can find. It may be of the same recording.
Talk about the ultimate premortem, I found this article by one of my favorite authors, columnists, and bloggers, Arthur C. Brooks an insightful thought experiment in imagining life as if it is almost over for you. The crux of the article and mental exercise is that there is a great amount of dissonance between the actions that what we as individuals know makes us highly satisfied and the decisions we actually make as it relates to what we spend our time doing. Brooks states:
In fact, most people suffer grave misalignment. In a 2004 article in the journal Science, a team of scholars, including the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, surveyed a group of women to compare how much satisfaction they derived from their daily activities. Among voluntary activities, we might expect that choices would roughly align with satisfaction. Not so. The women reported deriving more satisfaction from prayer, worship and meditation than from watching television. Yet the average respondent spent more than five times as long watching TV as engaging in spiritual activities.
If anything, this study understates the misalignment problem. The American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, in 2014, the average American adult spent four times longer watching television than “socializing and communicating,” and 20 times longer on TV than on “religious and spiritual activities.” The survey did not ask about hours surfing the web, but we can imagine a similar disparity.
Thus, the imperative is for us to stop wasting time and make better decisions with our present moments. Perhaps regular exercises in thinking earnestly about the dreadful prospect of only having a year left to live will provide an aid in helping us make better choices and paradoxically make us happier.
A recent Wall Street Journal article on the Gideons International reminded me of the special reverence and esteem I have always held for the organization. I can vividly recall Gideons showing up year after year at my rough and tumble lower class junior high school, patiently handing out their colorful mini Bibles to students that for the most part were either indifferent, walking past without looking up, or outright mocking. Still, these men would come back the next year to perform this duty. They were not there to preach or pass judgment, they were there with a simple mission to pass on the enduring legacy of handing out one of the oldest printed books known to man, a book that they believed held the most important lessons to the meaning of life.
A few years later, I would gain a better appreciation for the work of the Gideons. I was 17 years old and six days removed from high school graduation. I found myself in an overnight stay in Amarillo, Texas for final steps at the Military Entrance Processing Station prior to departure for basic training for the Army National Guard out in Fort Benning, Georgia. This was my first step in my military and college education journey, the two being inextricably linked in my life given that the military is how I paid for my undergraduate studies at Texas A&M and I spent four years as an Army officer after graduation. All that being said, a 17 year old spending his first true night alone knows nothing of what the future really holds and has a rather potentially toxic mixture of emotions of excitement and trepidation competing for outlets and attention. I recall that after a day spent at the processing station returning to my room to discover that the man staying in my room, who must have shipped out that day en route to his own basic training for the Navy, had stolen the $100 I had in my bag meant to last me the couple of days in Amarillo. Lonely, broke, disabused of the naive notion that there would be nothing but honor amongst military men, and holed up in a shady motel on the remarkably dirty and seedy Amarillo Boulevard, I spent a bit of time reading the Gideon Bible in the drawer. The reading gave me a great sense of encouragement on my last evening as a free man. I can therefore say that the unglamourous and hidden work of the Gideons provided aid and comfort to me personally. I wonder how many others out there have found some comfort from a Gideon’s Bible in a time of dire need? Traveling on the road can be a remarkable experience for the clarity that it can provide an individual for deep thought and a forced time away from distractions. It is during those times that people can be prone to despair. Thus, the Gideons provide a remarkable service, even if it does not create the same level of fanfare as other forms of global missions.
My youthful crucible was by no means the last time I would have direct exposure to the work of the Gideons. Recently, and almost two decades after my hotel experience, I had the pleasure of attending a morning Gideons meeting with my Grandfather’s chapter in the small farming community of Plainview, Texas. The event was simple enough: mostly middle-aged and older men meeting to eat breakfast burritos, drink coffee, talk about the weather, rib each other (as men age, I suppose that they never grow out of the boyhood tactics of questioning one another’s intelligence and/or manhood), and to discuss the business and financial matters of the chapter. True to the nature of the group’s mission, this was a group of men gathering to lift up their families, communities, the American nation, and the world up in prayer. Most importantly, this particular chapter was meeting to discuss their plans to provide weekly church service coverage for prisons throughout the surrounding area. Each week, the farmers, doctors, and retirees of this Gideon’s chapter go throughout the surrounding area to provide comfort and succor to those amongst us in most need of love and meaning. My grandfather is one who heads out to a prison on just about a weekly basis, providing an example of the dedication the Gideons have to God’s work that is safely out of the limelight, but directed at those most in need. Whether it is handing out Bibles to school students on the wrong side of town, placing Bibles in hotels, or ministering to locked up and forgotten prisoners, the Gideons do a lot of the work that remains firmly out of the public eye and directed at those most in need of reaching. This makes the Gideon’s hidden work all the more important and worthy of support from Christian communities.
This holiday and festival season gives us a time to pause and reflect on all that we are grateful for. For those of the Christian faith, the season is a remembrance of the bounty we have been granted but not necessarily deserved as well as a celebration of a central tenet of the faith: the birth of Jesus Christ on this earth. Indeed, many of us have much to be thankful for, and it is proper to pause and reflect on these things in a spirit of modest gratitude. This season has given me a great amount of reasons to think on those that have much less reason to celebrate, chiefly in that this season I have been exposed to an inordinate amount of friends and acquaintances that are facing personal loss or dealing with unspeakable and hard to understand tragedies. Indeed, a sense of fairness and justice would indicate within our hearts that people should die old after a life well-lived, that marriages that began with such harmony and joy should not end abruptly with one party seemingly going off the deep end, or that parents should not have to suffer the loss of a child in the prime of their life, that children should not starve or suffer, or that children should not be abused by heinous adults that have guardianship over them. And of course, there are the senseless acts of violence that we seem increasingly subjected to, with domestic terrorism at home with the drumbeat of lone-wolf attackers of schools and theaters and the depravations of ISIS and the jihadist attacks that continue apace, most recently in Paris and Beirut. Aside from evils that befall us in the form of human hands, there are the seemingly random forces of nature that destroy human civilization as well as life. The Indian Ocean tsunami a few years ago that killed hundreds of thousands is a case in point.
What is a person to make of such tragedies? Indeed, the fact that human evil and random suffering from natural forces exists is one of the hardest criticisms leveled at faith to intellectually rebut. The argument that evil and human suffering disproves God’s existence can follow trains of thought that a Creator that is powerful but creates evil in the world and allows it to happen can’t possibly be good, or further if such a creator exists that can’t stop evil, then he must not be powerful. It is recent events that compel my authoring my own beliefs on the subject matter. As a preface, longtime friends won’t confuse me with someone that deals frequently in matters of theology or metaphysics, as I tend to gravitate towards fields one might group into rationalistic aims. I have long not considered myself a theologian qualified to wade into such matters and have long left this sort of discourse to the “experts.” Alas, I was recently reminded by a pastor in my church at Texas that, “everyone is a theologian, they just differ on their views and how good they are at defending them.” Recent events make me feel compelled to record my own views on the critique of human evil and suffering invalidating belief in God, if for nothing else to consolidate into one place for my own historic viewing on the subject. If it so happens to help someone also grappling with this topic, then all the better.
Beginning with the concept that a good God could never allow evil, I draw upon the writings of C.S. Lewis, who focuses on the concept of free will. In his chapter titled, The Shocking Alternative within the wonderful book, Mere Christianity, Lewis discusses why evil is allowed to exist and as the title chapter belies, why the alternative to evil existing is a ‘shocking alternative’ while also subtly pointing out that evil is not actually in God’s will. Within the chapter, Lewis uses one analogy of a parent that knows their children must learn to tidy their room. The parent’s will is that the children learn to be self-sufficient, which is a necessary condition of eventual life as an adult. The conditions that the parent has duly set in place create the conditions for the child to grow and learn, but also creates the conditions for the child to leave an inkwell turned into the carpet, forever staining it. The latter event is hardly the parent’s will, but their designed framework did create the conditions for that to event to be possible.
This type of freedom to choose wrong or right is the order of human nature. We have free will. We can go wrong or right. Thus, free will has made evil possible, but instances of evil are hardly in God’s will. So the question becomes why did God give us free will? Lewis’s answer is that, “…because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating.” Further, Lewis elaborates on how remarkable we are as a creation – we have the great power to do good as well as evil through our remarkable composition, “The better stuff a creature is made of – the cleverer and stronger and freer it is – then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong.”
All of this begs the question of what God did do in order to mitigate our descent into unchecked evil. Lewis points out that he left us with a conscience that is powerful in determining right from wrong whether we are Christian or not and he sent Jesus as the ultimate bridge between God and Man, so that those that follow him would have an even greater reason to do good and vitiate evil wherever it is found.
This then gives the reader something to ponder on the nature of evil, but what about random natural forces, accidents, and disease that maim and kill or take lives from us much too soon? There is little logic or solace that I can provide save for what has been previously offered – that a fallen world based upon free will is also going to have its natural forces that are allowed to move and occur and that will inevitably impact us all. If there is any solace that can be given, it is in the sense that the Christian views the life perspective in terms of immortality rather than the short time we spend on earth. As the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, “Time is short. Eternity is forever.” Indeed, when viewed in this perspective, a few short years on this earth will pale in comparison to a life of joy spent in eternity, and perhaps how we respond to tragedies in the short run will provide the mark of our character. Will we collapse in the face of tragedy? Will our faith wane due to the personal impact of tragedy? Or will we remain strong in the hope and knowledge of immortality? Will we use this tragedy to help others that have also been impacted by similar tragedies? Bonhoeffer’s own life experiences makes the quote above quite appropriate and show the mark of character, as his was a life that ended in the prime of his career. At the relative young age of 39 and at the height of his theological writings and impact, and while engaged to be married, Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for taking part in a plot to kill Hitler. Even before that fateful decision, Bonhoeffer took courageous vocal stances against the evils of Naziism.
Even within this lifetime, time can heal much pain and give us great perspective on evils and sufferings. While we may fail to ever truly understand them or comprehend them, or indeed praise God for them in this lifetime, there are some of those that we can see from the vantage point of time passed as useful for refining us into who we are as people. Sufferings can make us equal parts more modest, patient, empathetic, loving, prudent, wise, courageous, and divining. I don’t mean to indicate that this is always the case, and indicating to someone in the throes of pain that the tragedy is somehow God’s will or that they will learn from it in the long run is as insensitive as it is theologically unsound. I only mean to indicate that the passage of time can have both healing and a positive effect on one’s outlook. Even when events are too painful for us to bear or understand, the Christian faith provides the example of Jesus, who himself endured tremendous sufferings in his own death on the cross. Thus, if nothing else, we can point to a Creator that can wholly enter into and empathize with our deepest moments of despair. This concept is echoed in Tim Keller’s Reason for God in which he states that, “Christianity alone among the world’s religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture, and imprisonment.”
Still, there are some human sufferings that we will fail to see perspective on or that time will fail to heal completely. There are admittedly some things in this life that we are exposed to that seem so profane and so tragic that we will fail to grasp them. Our human faculties may fail to completely reconcile them or in our human frailty, we may fail to see what possible good can come from them, and this can grievously wound our sense of human order and thus our faith. For this, I can only think that just because we fail to see the good in sufferings does not mean that the good is not there. Further, I am drawn to the writings of Dostoevsky, who ironically uses the conflicted agnostic character Ivan in the book The Brothers Karamazov to declare,”
“I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”
What are the practical implications of all of this? One is to not descend into inescapable despair and loss of faith in the face of tragedy while affording ourselves the proper time and feelings of mourning. Unfortunately, evil and sufferings are part of this world and are a necessary component of a free will and allowing us to develop the highest form of love for our fellow man and God. A further implication is to view mankind in terms of immortality and that our time here is remarkably short – we must be busy about serving and loving our fellow man, and using trials and sufferings to those aims wherever we can. When confronted with friends and family that are going through their own tragic circumstances, we need to pray for them to receive comfort and grace, pray with them for healing, mourn for them, and mourn with them. As Matthew 5:4 indicates, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Bonhoeffer indicates that part of this mourning is reflective of the evil that exists in this world and suffer from it. Finally, in this season, I would submit that it is proper to focus on our spiritual and relationship blessings and that it is misguided to speak too much in the presence of others of material ‘blessings.’ I have come to the conclusion that material gains probably matter but little to the things of God, and can even detract from them, particularly if we interpret their gain as God’s favor and the converse, their absence as a sign of his lack of favor. The life and experiences of the apostles on earth, that ended with penury and in most cases death would indicate that God’s desire for our lives can often involve endured hardships. This is the concept embodied in Bonhoeffer’s costly discipleship rather than the soft and weak cheap grace that seems to be embodied in many modern day practitioners of a prosperity gospel. We need to be exceedingly careful not to indicate to those around us that our new house, our large salary, or new car are somehow favors from God. There is a extremely fine line between gratitude, which is appropriate, and self-centered gloating that seems to indicate we have a higher worth or value than others. I would argue that God is often closer to us and more concerned with our tragedies and the tragedies of those around us than with our comfort and ease. In essence, we have a faith based on comfort in the face of tragedies, an immortality that can help us draw timeline perspectives, and a faith that exhorts us to love our fellow man as we love God, meaning we can draw on our tragedies to empathize with and love others. I part with I Corinthians 13:13 – So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
We are certainly passing through a transformational transition stage in which the cultural plurality will transition from what has predominantly been one of Protestant dominance and belief to one that will increasingly erode into an ever diffuse plurality of non-affiliated people who hold some nominal religious belief as well as an increasing percentage of agnostics and atheists.
Even in an age of religious dominance, Jefferson was right to stress religious freedom as a foundational plank of individual liberty – namely the freedom from coercion of government or coercion of fellow man.
As Meacham (who wrote the seminal biography of Thomas Jefferson) notes, Jefferson made his case for religious liberty not only in secular but also in theological terms when he states:
“Almighty God hath created the mind free…no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”
Jefferson argued, essentially, that if God Himself did not compel obedience, then no man should try to enforce what the Lord chose to leave as matters of free will. The “Holy Author of our religion,” wrote Jefferson, as “Lord both of body and mind . . . chose not to propagate it by coercions on either.”
I really enjoy the closing points Meachem makes on moderation throughout this transition and to remember the value of liberty and freedom of conscience for both those of a religious bent, like myself, and those of a secular bent:
In what is likely to be a tumultuous period ahead, it seems important to remember that our Founders had it right: religion is a matter of choice, not coercion. Believers should be on guard against self-righteousness; secularists should take care not to fall prey to smugness. “America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose,” Obama said last week. “We urge every country to recognize religious freedom as both a universal right and a key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future.” That’s a message worth heeding not only on January 16, but every day.