When in the course of human events it becomes necessary . . . . Part 2
Since we are still within the octave of July 4th, Independence Day, I’d like to stretch the thoughts offered last Sunday about the dilemma facing the founding fathers in early July 1776. Last week we mentioned the logic followed by John Dickinson for NOT signing the declaration – cogent reasons for remaining within the British Empire. His reasons did not prevail because his fellow members of Congress had already been influenced by another list of reasons, quite logical, laid out by Tom Paine in the same year. I won’t go into all of them; just offer a taste:
1. It was absurd for an island like Britain to rule a continent like America.
2. America was no longer British; its population was already composed of people from all over Europe.
3. Remaining a part of Britain would only drag America into unnecessary European wars . . . and so on.
What I’m saying is that the members of Congress were faced with the logic of Dickinson (don’t sign) and the logic of Paine (sign). But was logic enough to do the trick? Does mere reasoning get us anywhere? Look at Hamlet: to be or not to be! Both options lead us to a fork in the road where we might be stuck – either/or; should I or shouldn’t I. After all the founding fathers were children of what we call the Age of Reason. One was not to be moved by fantasies, gambles, emotions, old myths. As far as the Bible being a motivator, the Age of Reason had dismantled that for over a century. A rational person couldn’t be motivated by such a book of fairy tales. I mean Thomas Jefferson produced a version of the Gospels that left out all the miracles, virgin birth, walking on water . . . He felt the only useful stuff in the ancient book was the Sermon of the Mount, the ethical, quasi-rational content.
And yet I think the reason the founding fathers got past any indecision, the fork in the road proffered to them by Dickinson on the one hand and Paine on the other, was a glimmer, a vestige, a trace of our civilization’s biblical heritage. They felt (and did not just think) that in declaring independence they were riding upon the wave of what they blandly called “providence” – they clung to the idea of a Creator, as in: We hold these truths to be self evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our biblical heritage insists that history has a destination and, still sensing that, these men felt the declaration of independence to be a step toward that destiny, the improvement, the salvation (if you will) of the world.
But what I ask is: How much more profoundly would they have been moved to overcome that rational fork in the road, if they had not only been moved by a bland notion of “providence” but had let their imaginations be exposed to the graphic drama, the poetry of Scripture as in God’s call to Abraham to leave his father’s house to go to the land he would show him; God’s call to Moses to confront an earlier King George III to demand liberty, then cross a sea and wilderness en route to a Promised Land; Jesus’ constant invitation to “Come, follow me”; his challenge made to Peter to walk on water – contrary to all common sense, all logic?
In the long run, it is not reason, logic alone that moves our will to act. It is our drama, stories, especially our longstanding biblical story that appeals to the whole of our mind and imagination, our whole being, to cross one horizon after another – with faith, hope and even love. The Bible teaches us that history, collective and individual, has a meaning, that we are en route to a maturity that encompasses freedom and justice and even grace. In that context July 4th indeed becomes something to sing about.