OUR BETTER OR BITTER ANGELS?

I have always been a big fan of Abraham Lincoln. I had the rare privilege as a Boy Scout to hike the Lincoln Trail, a 15 mile route from New Salem, Illinois to Springfield, retracing Lincoln’s steps when he traveled from his home to the state Capitol. I grew up proud to be a Republican because it was the “Party of Lincoln,” the great emancipator.

But in my golden years I have begun to wonder if Lincoln made some major mistakes in dealing with the problem of racism that has divided our country from its inception. One of my most recent quarrels with our 16th president came to the surface this week when our Ohio Governor, Mike DeWine quoted Lincoln’s appeal to “better angels of our nature.” DeWine was using that rhetorical device to plead with Ohioans to comply with scientific advice with regard to the COVID pandemic.

I was curious when Lincoln used that metaphor; so of course I googled it and discovered it was in his first inaugural address on April 4, 1861. Here’s the full sentence: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Lincoln was dealing with a deadly situation as we are today and was appealing to the southern states for unity, something still fatally lacking in our country today. Lincoln’s appeal failed big time as the Confederates fired on Ft. Sumter just 8 days after his reference to our better angels, launching the deadliest war in U.S. history.
From what I have witnessed in person and on the news Gov. DeWine’s appeal to our better angels will fare no better. Which leads me to this question: Are there any/enough better angels of our nature then or now to believe human nature is redeemable? I have long been a proponent of the concept of Imago Dei, namely that we humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). But the more I see of human nature the more I wonder about that theological affirmation. Human inhumanity to each other and to the rest of creation is so rampant today and in all of human history that it is hard to make the argument that we are created in God’s Image unless God is as evil and selfish and short-sighted as we humans.

I don’t want to go down that road; so I ask myself where did the concept of humankind being a little less than the angels (Psalm 8:5) or the earlier affirmation in Genesis come from? The answer of course is from humans! I believe in the historical-critical school of thought when it comes to biblical interpretation. I do not believe our Bible was dictated by God but is a collection of inspired writings by fallible human beings who were recording their experience with the unnamable mystery we call God. So if human authors are declaring that humans are created in the image of God, might there be a bit of a conflict of interest? Would an indicted criminal get to testify as his/her own character witness in a trial? Of course not. How might our creation story differ if it had been written by an elephant or a dolphin, for example? Might we feel and act differently if some other species claimed they were told to “be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth?” (Genesis 1:28). By the way, that’s the only commandment we humans have actually obeyed! Might the whole notion of Imago Dei be at the root of humankind’s selfish and not better angels? I’m not sure where to go with that for my own theology, but it intrigues and troubles me.

As a student of rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion, I am also troubled when I find myself arguing with a great orator like Lincoln. I understand that the metaphor of better angels is intended to be aspirational rather than descriptive, but from a critique of rhetorical effectiveness based on practical results Lincoln bombed (pun intended), and I believe DeWine will also, both with deadly results. We humans unfortunately seem to require external agents of enforcement to whip our better angels into line. We need someone to hold us accountable for our behavior which differs from being responsible, i.e. to do something like wearing masks not because it’s mandated but because it is the right thing to do.

Which brings me to my second argument with President Lincoln. I have read a great deal about and many biographies of Lincoln, and I am always impressed with his wisdom, political skill and courage. His commitment to preserving the union at all costs was the driving force behind his political agenda. His more famous second inaugural where he pleaded the case for “binding up the nation’s wounds” might have been more likely if he had lived, but we will never know as that task was left to lesser mortals. But what, I wonder, if Lincoln’s whole purpose of preserving the union at any cost was mistaken? Perhaps the cost of that union has been too dear? Not just in terms of those killed in the Civil War, but also in the continued strife in our country over issues of race 160 years later and counting?

The issue of slavery has been divisive in our country from day one. The framers of the Constitution had to tie themselves into knots, counting a slave as 3/5 of a person and claiming “all men are created equal” while most of them owned other human beings, all to reach a tenuous compromise to even create our nation. Those divisions have never been resolved and can be seen today in the unbelievable battle not just over race but in the culture wars at every level, including the unbelievable battle over wearing masks.

What if instead of one Un-united States of America we had admitted there were two irreconcilable countries from the beginning? What would our history look like? That is a purely speculative question since we can’t go back 144 years and start over, and I also realized that even as I write this I am painting myself into a corner I do not want to be in. My two nation notion would mean that the Confederate States of America would have been a nation based of slavery, and that is not morally acceptable. Am I just weary of the battle and tired of the better angels losing? Perhaps. I certainly am tired of our history of resorting to violence as a means to resolve cultural and political differences, and my biggest fear is that is where we are headed in the great Red vs. Blue political cataclysm we seem to be rushing headlong into.

Oh, I have never hoped to be wrong so much before. I do hope and pray that our better angels will emerge victorious, but I know they will not if we surrender to the pessimism eating at my soul. I believe, Lord, Help my unbelief. (Mark 9:24)

Musings of a Curious Introvert

inherit the wind
I am not by nature a curious person. Until recently I did not see that as a big problem. What sparked my interest in curiosity now is two-fold: 1) the Peace Ambassador Training I just participated in raised the issue a few weeks ago in two sessions, one on Nov-violent Communication and one on bridging cultural divides. The point was that curiosity is necessary for not being judgmental and fearful of things or people we don’t understand. Asking questions is an important part of active listening so others feel that one is genuinely interested in them, respectful of their point of view and willing to try and understand where they are coming from. The essential qualities for transforming a situation on an interpersonal or international level are self-awareness, nonjudgment, and curiosity. The speakers acknowledged that this is not a natural way to be for many of us and requires effort and courage. Especially in our polarized society, we need to remember that the basic human need is not to be right but to be heard and respected. To create a safe place for that kind of communication people need to know that we are willing to stay in connection with them, even if we disagree.

I can’t speak for extroverts, but I know for this introvert that kind of behavior feels risky. If I have to ask for information it means I have to admit I don’t know everything and I can’t figure it out in my own head. It means admitting that I need other people, and that means outgrowing the two-year old inside of me that still wants to say “do it self.”

2) My wife frequently comments on my lack of curiosity, e.g. when I fail to ask doctors important questions about my medical conditions, or when I am content to be unaware of what’s going on in the lives of friends and family members. She is much more of the “inquiring minds want to know” school while I often subscribe to the “ignorance is bliss” philosophy of life. I have often used my introverted personality as an excuse for not being curious, but when the Peace Ambassadors from the Shift Network made such a strong case for the value of curiosity to be a peacemaker, I got curious enough to explore that issue further.

My first question was why curiosity often has a negative connotation and that resulted in a quick Google search of the phrase “curiosity killed the cat.” I will summarize what I found but if you are curious and want more information the sites quoted from below are: http://www.phrases.org.uk/ and http://www.knowyourphrase.com/. The familiar proverb that curiosity can be fatal for felines began with a slight but very significant difference. “The ‘killed the cat’ proverb originated as ‘care killed the cat’. By ‘care’ the coiner of the expression meant ‘worry/sorrow’ rather than our more usual contemporary ‘look after/provide for’ meaning. That form of the expression is first recorded in the English playwright Ben Jonson’s play Every Man in His Humour, 1598: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” One of the actors in that play was a chap by the name of William Shakespeare, and he borrowed the phrase for a line in “Much Ado About Nothing;” and the phrase stayed in that form for 400 years.

“The proverbial expression ‘curiosity killed the cat’, which is usually used when attempting to stop someone asking unwanted questions, is much more recent. The earlier form was still in use in 1898, when it was defined in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: ‘Care killed the Cat. It is said that a cat has nine lives, but care would wear them all out.’” That same year, the earliest of the precise current form of the proverb in print is from The Galveston Daily News, 1898: It is said that once “curiosity killed a Thomas cat.”

The original phrasing seems to recognize the well-established negative impact of worry on the human spirit and body. Even felines with their nine lives can worry themselves to death. I get that, but why the switch to curiosity? I found no hard evidence to satisfy my curiosity about that question but I agree with The Phrase Finder, http://www.phrases.org.uk/ site when it says the phrase is “usually used when attempting to stop someone asking unwanted questions.” Anyone who has experienced a toddler’s persistent asking “why?” about everything from observing a stranger’s behavior to why the sky is blue understands that motivation.

When she was just learning about the differences in male and female anatomy our then three-year-old’s favorite question when seeing a male out in public was “Does he have a penis, Daddy?” Her curiosity didn’t kill any cats but it did create some embarrassing situations.

But stifling curiosity has much more serious ramifications, and while discouraging some curiosity may be for good reasons, e.g. sticking a metal object into an electric socket to see what happens, when we overgeneralize and frown on all curiosity the negative consequences outweigh the benefits.

Christian theology has been a major contributor to negative attitudes toward curiosity. As early as 397 CE Augustine wrote in “Confessions:” that, in the eons before creating heaven and earth, God “fashioned hell for the inquisitive”. John Clarke, in Paroemiologia, 1639 suggested that “He that pryeth into every cloud may be struck with a thunderbolt”. In Don Juan, Lord Byron called curiosity “that low vice”. That attitude is easily traced back to the dangers of temptation and resulting sin with its roots in the Genesis 3 account of the fall because of humanity’s access to the “knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). It is interesting to note that the explanation of the tree’s appeal comes from the serpent, not from God. God just said, “Don’t eat from that tree.” It’s the serpent who convinces Eve they can become wise “like God, knowing good and evil” if they disobey and partake.

It’s not seeking wisdom that’s the problem; it’s trying to be like God. We are not like God. I have long been enamored with the other creation story in Genesis 1 where God creates humankind in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), but of late the overwhelming forces of human evil and cruelty in the world have forced me to seriously rethink what that doctrine of Imago Dei means. The divine spirit is within all of creation. It’s part of our genetic makeup, but that spirit has to be nourished to even begin to tap its potential. And curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge to be the caretakers and stewards of creation and of each other, seasoned with a healthy dose of humility, are all part of our human responsibility. (See my post from 12-13-15, “Fear of Knowledge.”)

My own experience with education and my family of origin was heavily influenced by the cat killer curiosity mentality. I didn’t learn to do any critical thinking till I got to grad school, and yet I was always praised as an excellent student. Why? Because I knew how to play the school game. I am blessed with a good ability to memorize, and I learned early on that “learning” what the teacher wanted on tests was the path to success in our educational system. Obedience to the rules kept me out of trouble at home and at school because I learned quickly to be accountable for what was expected of me. But there is huge difference between being accountable and being responsible. Responsibility requires critical thinking, adjusting to situations and applying knowledge and principles to new and unfamiliar circumstances. It means asking the right questions and pursuing where they lead rather than just obeying or repeating what we have been taught to do.

That reality struck me hard when I turned 18 and got ready to leave the safety of a well ordered, structured environment. My parents had always made it very clear what the rules were in our house and what was expected of us. Rarely did I test those limits but magically on my 18th birthday I was told it was now up to me to make my own decisions. It’s like handing the car keys to a kid and saying “here, you’re old enough to drive now” without providing any driver’s education.

When I got ready to enroll at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio some of our church members discouraged me because that school had a reputation for being too liberal. There was too much freedom of thought and curiosity there. But faith is strengthened by doubt. Our spiritual muscles or intellectual ones are strengthened by being exercised, just like other muscles. I didn’t know any of that 45 years ago. I wasn’t curious enough to ask good questions about the college and seminary I chose to attend. I went to Ohio State University and MTSO because they were close to home, i.e. not too far outside my comfort zone. Would I make different choices today about my education knowing what 69 years of life experience have taught me? Probably, but I am forever grateful for the grace of God or dumb luck that led me to both of those places where curiosity and inquiry were instilled in me.
Do I sometimes wish I could go back to not being curious? Sometimes I do because life was easier when the boundaries of my world were smaller and less filled with ambiguity. But curiosity is like toothpaste, you can’t put it back in the tube.

The other reason curiosity and non-violent communication seem especially important to me right now is the divisive and hateful tone of the political process in this country. It seems more and more people on both sides of the political spectrum are talking/yelling at each other and not much active listening is going on. Our instant gratification attention spans are much to blame. Curiosity takes time and a willingness to dig deeper than catch phrases, sound bites, and campaign slogans. Curiosity asks questions like what does “Make America Great Again” or “Hillary for America,” or “Feel the Bern” really mean? Curiosity requires working at understanding, not just reacting emotionally to grandiose promises.
Honest curiosity is not taking short cuts or settling for easy answers to complex problems. The Gospel of John (8:32) says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” But that truth isn’t free and curiosity is the price tag.

One of my favorite quotes from literature about critical thinking and curiosity comes from “Inherit the Wind,” by Lawrence and Lee. The play depicts the Scopes evolution trial, but at a deeper level it’s about freedom of curiosity. Henry Drummond tells the following story near the end of the play in Act III to encourage the young teacher, Bert Cates, who is on trial for teaching evolution, to never lose his curiosity and zeal for seeking the truth. It’s about a toy horse in a department store window.

“I was seven years old, and a very fine judge of rocking horses. Golden Dancer had a bright red mane, blue eyes, and she was gold all over, with purple spots. When the sun hit her stirrups, she was a dazzling sight to see. But she was a week’s wages for my father. So Golden Dancer and I always had a plate glass window between us. But—let’s see, it wasn’t Christmas; must’ve been my birthday—I woke up in the morning and there was Golden Dancer at the foot of my bed! Ma had skimped on the groceries, and my father’d worked nights for a month. I jumped into the saddle and started to rock—And it broke! It split in two! The wood was rotten, the whole thing was put together with spit and sealing wax! All shine and no substance! Bert, whenever you see something bright, shining, perfect-seeming—all gold, with purple spots—look behind the paint! And if it’s a lie—show it up for what it really is!”

They say cats have nine lives, but we have only one; and this introvert is planning to use his one to look beneath some paint and show things for what they really are.

p.s. If you’re curious about the picture at the top, that’s a much younger me playing Bert Cates in “Inherit the Wind”.