Philip wrote this book “for those who live in the borderlands of belief.” Now republished under the title A Skeptics Guide to Faith. Philip counts himself as a fellow skeptic. Perhaps you are a seeker but know you are far from home. Perhaps you are a finder, but not too sure what you have found. I would strongly recommend this book. Philip is a skeptic and a seeker as well as a very good writer. Sometimes, like Lady Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I say Philip “doth protest too much, me thinks.” But keeping in mind that he is writing for those who have not yet stepped into eternal life or have stepped into it but still struggling, this book is for you.
The book is broken into three parts:
Part 1 – What are we missing? – In this part of the book Philips talks about how a reductionist approach has caused us to miss the grander purposes in life. The chapters include Life in Part – emphasizes what we are missing with our reductionist view of everything; Rumors – talks about the hints all around us that point to something more; Paying Attention – encourages us to pay more attention to the less obvious; God loveth adverbs – expands on the Puritan proverb “implying that God cares more about the spirit in which we live than the concrete results;” and Designer Sex – expands on our obvious obsession with sex and how that affects us.
Part 2 – Signs of disorder has chapters entitled: Out of Order – addresses the question “Why is the world such a mess?”; A Word Unsaid – addresses the question “What happened to the idea of sin?”; The Good Life – attempts to define human flourishing; and The Gift of Guilt – addresses the positive role that guilt plays in our lives
Part 3 – Two worlds has chapters entitled: Why Believe? Earth matters; which both address what their title implies; Eyes of Faith – addresses the role faith plays in finding what we are missing; Practicing the Existence of God – addresses what a life lived knowing God can look like; and Stereoscopic Vision – applies Augustine’s “City of God / City of Man” vision to our daily lives.
I have read many of Philip Yancey’s books over the years and have appreciated all of them. My respect for Philip went up greatly when I sent him an email in 2009 about a significant math error in one of his articles for Christianity Today. He was talking about the effect of hyper-inflation on a third world country. He said that, for the current inflation rate in this third world country, if you had one million dollars on Monday it would be worth $1.58 on Tuesday. In fact, you would have $158. Even with the correct math, it was a helpful example. Philip was gracious and exercised “humility before the data.” He corrected it in the on-line version of the article even though he still didn’t get the math.
In this book summary, I am going to provide only quotes from each of the chapters. The quotes may seem disjointed because in this summary (unlike others) I have not attempted to capture the author’s flow. Generally Philip does that masterfully.
Part 1 – What are we missing
Chapter 1 – Life in Part
Every ant knows the formula of its ant-hill
Every bee knows the formula of its beehive
They know it in their own way, not in our way,
Only humankind does not know its formula
With this poem, Philip kicks off Part 1 chapter 1 setting the tone of the book – we don’t know the formula for living.
Here are quotes from Chapter 1
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed. Albert Einstein
[in a] region named Tierra Del Fuego by Magellan’s explorers, [the explorers] noticed fires burning on the shore. The natives tending the fires, however, paid no attention to the great ships as they sailed through the straits. Later, they explained that they [the natives] had considered the ships an apparition, so different were they from anything they had seen. They lacked the experience, even the imagination to decode evidence passing right before their eyes. … What about us? What are we missing? What do we not see, for lack of imagination or faith?
In modern times, it seems, as science casts more light on the created world, its shadows further obscure the invisible world beyond.
No society in history has attempted to live without a belief in the sacred, not until the modern West. Such a leap has consequences that we are only beginning to recognize. We now live in a state of confusion about the big questions that have always engaged the human race, questions of meaning, purpose and morality. A skeptical friend of mine used to ask himself the question, “What would an atheist do?” in deliberate mockery of the What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) slogan. He finally stopped asking because he found no reliable answers.
Jacques Monod bluntly states the modern plight: “Man must learn to live in an alien world that is deaf to his music and is as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings or his crimes … Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance.”
Yancey claims that this reductionist mentality leads:
- To a dilution of pleasure – he quotes Darwin saying that he could no longer stand poetry
- To a lack of love of beauty – he quotes Lenin who wanted no flowers in his room. “I cannot listen to music too often. “ Lenin attended a Beethoven sonata “It makes me want to say kind, stupid things and pat the heads of people.”
- Us to see ourselves as a product of the “selfish gene”
- Us to use religious words about nature – Naturalists still use the words “sacred” “hallowed” “immortal”
“I believe that with the loss of God, man has lost a kind of absolute and universal system of coordinates, to which he could always relate everything, chiefly himself. His world and his personality gradually began to break up into separate, incoherent fragments corresponding to different, relative coordinates.” Vaclav Havel
We live in dangerous times and face urgent questions not only about the environment but also about terrorism, war, sexuality, world poverty, and definitions of life and death. Society badly needs a moral tether or “system of coordinates” in Havel’s phrase. We need to know our place in the universe and our obligations to each other and to the earth. Can we answer those questions without God?
Chapter 2 – Rumors
“What if earth be but the shadow of heaven?” John Milton
Again the quotes from this chapter:
What Americans leaned on that day [9/11], and are learning still, is that sophisticated moderns have not renounced transcendence but rather replaced it with weak substitutes. Unlike past generations, many are unsure about God and an invisible world. Even so, we feel the longings for something more.
Nature is exquisitely tuned for the possibility of life on planet Earth: adjust the laws of gravity up or down by one percent and the universe would not form; a tiny change in electromagnetic force and organic molecules will not adhere. It appears that, in physicist Freeman Dyson’s words, “The universe knew we were coming.” To those who know it best, the universe does not seem like a random crapshoot. It seems downright purposeful – but what purpose and whose?
A society that denies the supernatural usually ends up elevating the natural to supernatural status. ….C.S. Lewis uses the phrase “sweet poison of the false infinite” to describe this same tendency in the human species. We allow substitute sacreds, or false infinities, to fill the vacuum of our disenchanted world..
[God] delights, it seems, in using trees, flowers, rivers, automobiles, friends, enemies, church buildings, paintings in order to announce his presence or to work out his purposes. . . . There is something crude in the depiction of God intervening directly in the play . . . interrupting the speeches of the other actors and upsetting the stage. How much more tantalizing the God who hints and lurks and cajoles hiddenly through and around the actors, even unbeknowst to them. It is the humble God who chooses so to act. –Robert E. Barron
C.S. Lewis sensed in our longings not just rumors but “advanced echoes” of that world. Flashes of beauty and pangs of aching sweetness, he said, “are not the thing itself: they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard.
I began to listen to my own longings as rumors of another world, a bright clue to the nature of the creator. Somehow I had fallen for the deception of judging the natural world as unspiritual and God as antipleasure. But God invented matter, after all, including all the sensors in the body through which I feel pleasure. Nature and supernature are not two separate worlds, but different expressions of the same reality.
“The whole life of the good Christian is holy desire.” St. Augustine
The Jewish scholar and revolutionary Simone Weil memorized George Herbert’s poetry, especially the poem “Love;” to repeat to herself as a way of fighting off migraine headaches. … to her own surprise the poem became a prayer: “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.” She felt at that moment of intense physical pain “ a presence more personal, more certain, and more real than of any human being.”
Here is that poem (not in the book):
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’ 15
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.
My natural desires, I now see, are pointers to the supernatural, not obstacles. In a world fallen far from its original design, God wants us to receive them as gifts and not possessions, tokens of love and not love themselves. I have learned to pray, following Augustine, not that my desires be quenched or taken away, rather that my scattered longings be gathered together in their Source, who alone can order them.
C.S. Lewis once made the observation that the tug of two worlds in humans could be inferred from two phenomena: coarse jokes and our attitudes towards death. [Comedians] make jokes about excretion and reproduction. … These two “unnatural” reactions hint at another world. In a way unique to our species, we are not fully at home here.
Chapter 3 – Paying Attention
If the soul could have known God without the world, the world would never have been created. Meister Eckhart
Too late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and so new. St Augustine
Celtic spirituality speaks of “thin places” where the natural and supernatural worlds come together at their narrowest, with only a thin veil between them
Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.
Our very bodies react when we pay attention. At Orchestra Hall I leaned
forward, moved my head from one side to the other, cupped my hands behind my ears, closed my eyes. Simone Weil says, a poet encounters beauty by intensely fixing attention on something real. So does a lover. Can I do something similar in the inner life with God. I need not always search for new insights, new truths; “The most common place truth, when it floods the whole soul, is like a revelation.”
Five hundred years ago the Renaissance scholar Pico della Mirandola delivered an oration that defined the role of humanity in creation. After God had created the animals, all the essential roles had been filled, but “the Divine Artificer still longed for some creature which might comprehend the meaning of so vast an achievement, which might be moved with love at its beauty and smitten with awe at its grandeur.” To contemplate and appreciate all the rest, to revere and to hallow, to give mute creation a voice of praise—these were the roles reserved for the species made in God’s image.
Isaac Luria, a Hasidic mystic of the eighteenth century, proposed a system known as zimsum to explain the existence of suffering and evil as well as how God relates to his creation. To make room for the material world, God had to pull himself back and concede space, the space necessary for something other than God to exist. God poured his own essence in the form of light into holy vessels, which in turn would pour it down on the creation.
God’s voluntary withdrawal, however, made possible the emergence of opposing forces, including evil. A cosmic catastrophe occurred, introducing confusion into creation. Some of the sparks of God’s light returned to their source; what remained within the broken vessels, or “husks,” fell onto every animal, vegetable, and mineral part of the world. The resulting creation, said Luria, now shields God’s holy light, hiding it from view. Or, in another metaphor, creation retains the “smell” of God as a wineskin retains the smell of wine. Skeptical, unseeing people can even deny that God exists. Believers have the task of releasing the holy sparks from the husks. We do so through a process of “hallowing,” and all of us have a part to play in this process.
…hallowing is a deliberate, ongoing process. I do not gain a new set of supernatural eyes that enable me suddenly to see the world with perfected vision. Every day, every hour, every moment, I must exercise my calling to hallow God’s creation, whether it be leather-back turtles in Costa Rica or the irritating kid next door who peppers my yard with golf balls. Holy sparks are potentially trapped in every moment of my day, and as God’s agent I am called to release them.
John Calvin urged his followers to heed a “universal rule, not to pass over, with ungrateful inattention or oblivion, those glorious perfections which God manifests in his creatures.”* To abide by that rule requires a training of spiritual senses akin to how naturalists develop their physical senses.
[We must] hold every isolated thing in high regard whatever their use, to treat them gently, to take care of them well whatever their age. It leads us to become part of the holiness of the universe by recognizing each and every element of it as a spark of the Divine…. We are part of a holy universe, not its creators and not its rulers. God has done the creating, God does the judging, and God waits for us to realize that…. Everything we are, everything that is said to us, everything that happens to us is some kind of call from God. In fact, everything that happens is God’s call to us either to accept what we should not change or to change what we should not accept so that the Presence of God can flourish where we are…. Finding God is a matter of living every minute of life to its ultimate. Joan Chittister,
We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe…. We have seen more than we let on, even to ourselves. Through some moment of beauty or pain, some subtle turning of our lives, we catch glimmers at least of what the saints are blinded by; only then, unlike the saints, we go on as though nothing has happened. To go on as though something has happened, even though we are not sure what it was or just where we are supposed to go with it, is to enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for. FREDERICK BUECHNER
Chapter 4 – God Loveth Adverbs
For three things I thank God every day of my life: thanks that he has vouchsafed me knowledge of his works; deep thanks that he has set in my darkness the lamp of faith; deep, deepest thanks that I have another life to look forward to—a life joyous with light and flowers and heavenly song. HELEN KELLER
The Puritans had a saying, “God loveth adverbs,” implying that God cares more about the spirit in which we live than the concrete results. They sought to connect all of life to its source in God, bringing the two worlds together rather than dividing them into sacred and secular.
This God, says Smedes, liked elegant sentences and was offended by dangling modifiers. Once you believe this, where can you stop? If the Maker of the Universe admired words well put together, think of how he must love sound thought well put together, and if he loved sound thinking, how he must love a Bach concerto and if he loved a Bach concerto think of how he prized any human effort to bring a foretaste, be it ever so small, of his Kingdom of Justice and peace and happiness to the victimized people of the world. In short, I met the Maker of the Universe who loved the world he made and was dedicated to its redemption. I found the joy of the Lord, not at a prayer meeting, but in English Composition.
The theologian Urs von Balthasar suggests that we think of ourselves as being engaged in a “theo-drama.” We accept that we are but actors in the play, not the director, and in fact we must listen carefully to the whispered stage directions. In a good play, even the most minor characters serve a purpose essential to the plot, and in the drama on this planet the unique role that is mine only becomes clear as my life unfolds. We succeed by following the counsel of the director, who alone knows how each part fits into the whole.
Do not forget that the value and interest of life is not so much to do conspicuous things … as to do ordinary things with the perception of their enormous value. PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN
Chapter 5 – Designer Sex
It is precisely because of the eternity outside time that everything in time becomes valuable and important and meaningful. Therefore, Christianity … makes it of urgent importance that everything we do here should be rightly related to what we eternally are. “Eternal life” is the sole sanction for the values of this life. DOROTHY L. SAYERS
Part Two – Signs of Disorder
It is not we alone, it is not the house, It is not the city that is soiled, But the world that is wholly foul. T. S. Eliot
Chapter 6 – Out of Order
Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. SIMONE WEIL
In short, if there is another world out there, shouldn’t this one give more evidence of it? Obviously, a great rift has opened up between the ideal world Christians describe as God’s creation and the world we actually inhabit. We stand at the edge of a precipice and peer into a fog for guidance. Some enthusiasts wave their arms and point, convinced of a reality beyond eyeshot, but the rest see only the milky white of clouds. Christians explain the rift with a three-letter word, “one little, flat, deadly word that covers a lifetime,” as novelist Evelyn Waugh put it. [sin]
” There are two ways to get enough,” said G. K. Chesterton; “one is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.”
Chapter 7 – A Word Unsaid
Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained. G. K. CHESTERTON
Something in me recoils against that word sin… Yet who can doubt that the world has undergone a kind of breakdown, the cosmic counterpart to a psychological breakdown in an individual. As a species we have lost a sense of self and of meaning, and we struggle to put life together in a coherent whole. A sly, chronic disease prevents us from relating to creation and each other, let alone God, as we should.
Malcolm Muggeridge expressed the subtle danger of sin this way: Christianity … does not say that, in spite of appearances, we are all murderers or burglars or crooks or sexual perverts at heart; it does not say that we are totally depraved, in the sense that we are incapable of feeling or responding to any good impulses whatever. The truth is much deeper and more subtle than that. It is precisely when you consider the best in man that you see there is in each of us a hard core of pride or self-centeredness which corrupts our best achievements and blights our best experiences. It comes out in all sorts of ways— in the jealousy which spoils our friendships, in the vanity we feel when we have done something pretty good, in the easy conversion of love into lust, in the meanness which makes us depreciate the efforts of other people, in the distortion of our own judgement by our own self-interest, in our fondness for flattery and our resentment of blame, in our self-assertive profession of fine ideals which we never begin to practice.
At various times, the church has hammered away at “original sin” while ignoring the presence of an original grace in which God provide the cure for sin even before it occurred. That risky act of rescue – “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” – lies at the heart of Christian belief.
[According to Walter Lippmann writing during World War II] human nature includes what he called ice-cold evil; “The modern skeptical world has been taught for some 200 years a conception of human nature in which the reality of evil, so well known to the ages of faith, has been discounted … We shall have to recover this forgotten but essential truth – along with so many others that we lost when, thinking we were enlightened and advanced, we were merely shallow and blind.”
The liar’s punishment is not being able to believe anyone else. George Bernard Shaw
It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us: it is the very sign of His presence. C. S. Lewis
Chapter 8 – The Good Life
God may reduce you on judgement to tears of shame
Reciting by heart
The poems you would
Have written had
Your life been good – W. H. Auden
Evil is unspectacular and always human
And shares our bed and eats at our own table – W. H. Auden
Chapter 9 – The Gift of Guilt
When other people commit them [sins], you are startled, But when you commit them yourself, they seem absolutely natural – Elspeth Huxley
Part Three – Two Worlds
Chapter 10 – Why Believe?
Talk show host Larry King was once asked the question, “If you could select any one person across all of history to interview, who would it be?” King answered by saying that he would like to sit down and talk with Jesus Christ: “I would like to ask him if he was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me.”
I have a physicist friend who doubts the evidence. “The worst physics is better than the best metaphysics.” He insists. Matter, you can count on. You can measure and quantify it and break it down into particles. Metaphysics deals with the unseen, that slippery world of first principles and invisible forces and regenerated souls. Yet the books he gives me on modern physics seem to me more metaphysical than anything I read in Williams James. [From his books] I learn that consciousness plays a key role in physical reality, that quantum events depend on an outside observer, that measuring the spin of one particle may affect the spin of another billions of miles away, … that parallel universes may exist which influence us in ways we cannot detect.
I once heard a woman give a remarkable account of achievement. … she gained renown in the male-dominated field of endocrinology. … At the end of her story she said simply, “As I look back, this is what matters. I have loved and been loved, and all the rest is just background music.”
To believe in the supernatural is not simply to believe that after living a successful, material, and fairly virtuous life here one will continue to exist in the best-possible substitute for this world, or that after living a starved and stunted life here one will be compensated with all the good things one has gone without: it is to believe that the supernatural is the greatest reality here and now. T.S. Eliot
Chapter 11 – Earth Matters
We see either the dust on the window
Or the view beyond the window
But never the window itself – Simone Weil
Chapter 12 – Eyes of Faith
One man succeeds in everything, and so loses all. Another meets with nothing but crosses and disappointments, and thereby gains more than all the world is worth. William Law
In early 2003 the New York Times magazine published an article by Harriet McBryde Johnson, a disability rights attorney who suffers from a muscle-wasting disease. She hunches over, makes uncoordinated movements, has difficulty feeding herself, and gets about in a power wheelchair. The article tells of her confrontation with Peter Singer, a professor of ethics at Princeton University, often called the most influential philosopher of our time.
Johnson debated Singer on behalf of an activist group called Not Dead Yet, for Singer proposes that parents should have the right to kill their disabled babies so they can replace them with non-disabled babies, who would have a greater chance at happiness. Before agreeing to the debate, Johnson reflected on the terrible plight of being “sucked into a civil discussion of whether I ought to exist.” Singer, an atheist, sees the issue in terms of the laws of nature and utilitarian philosophy.
Also an atheist, Johnson gropes for the best response and defends her right to live what Singer considers an “inferior” life. Johnson’s article—more, her very life—offers a passionate, witty, and compelling defense of her right to existence, contrary to the principle of survival of the fittest. At one point she wonders, “Am I a person of faith after all?”
Charles Darwin himself did not shrink from the logical conclusions of natural selection. As he wrote in The Descent of Man, “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to smallpox. Thus the weak members of civilized society propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”
As Charles Spurgeon, the British preacher … expressed it, “His [Jesus] glory was that He laid aside His glory, and the glory of the church is when she lays aside her respectability and her dignity, and counts it to be her glory to gather together the outcasts.”
Philip was a big fan of Jean Vanier. We have to understand that pure evil can exist in the middle of what appears to be a saint. And that is true of me as well as Jean Vanier. What he did in secret was pure evil while what he did in public was saintly.
The founder of the l’Arche homes for the mentally disabled, Jean Vanier, says that people often look upon him as mad. The brilliantly educated son of a governor general of Canada, he recruits skilled workers (Henri Nouwen was one) to serve and live among damaged people whose IQs register in the low double digits. Vanier shrugs off those who second-guess his choices by saying he would rather be crazy by following the foolishness of the Gospel than the non-sense of the values of our world. Furthermore, Vanier insists that those who serve the deformed and damaged benefit as much as the ones whom they are helping. Even the most disabled individuals respond instinctively to love, and in so doing they awaken what is most important in a human being: compassion, generosity, humility, love. Paradoxically, they replenish life in the very helpers who serve them.
Jesse Jackson tells the story of a visit to the University of Southern Mississippi. While touring the campus with the university president, he noticed a towering male student, six-feet, eight-inches tall, holding hands with a midget coed barely three-feet tall. His curiosity piqued, Jackson stopped to watch as the young man, dressed in a warm-up suit, tenderly picked up the midget, kissed her, and sent her off to class. The president explained that the student was a star basketball player. Both parents had died in his youth, and he made a vow to look after his sister. Many scholarship offers came his way, but only Southern Mississippi offered one to his sister too. Jackson went over to the basketball star, introduced himself, and said he appreciated him looking out for his sister. The athlete shrugged and said, “Those of us who God makes six-eight have to look out for those he makes three-three.”
If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully—the life you save may be your own—and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love. The world says, Get, and Jesus says, Give. In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under the cross than under a delusion. “We are fools for Christ’s sake,” Paul says, faith says—the faith that ultimately the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men, the lunacy of Jesus saner than the grim sanity of the world. FREDERICK BUECHNER
Chapter 13 – Practicing the Existence of God
… for this was all thy care –
To stand approved in sight of God,
Though worlds judged thee perverse – John Milton
At one hearing [of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa at the end of apartheid] , a policeman named van de Broek recounted an incident when he and other officers shot an eighteen-year-old boy and burned the body, turning it on the fire like a piece of barbecue meat in order to destroy the evidence. Eight years later van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. The wife was forced to watch as policemen bound her husband on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body, and ignited it. The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond. “What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?” the judge asked. She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial. His head down, the policeman nodded agreement. Then she added a further request, “Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.” Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing “Amazing Grace” as the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn. He had fainted, overwhelmed.
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle. W. H. AUDEN
Chapter 14 – Stereoscopic Vision
I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve. ALBERT SCHWEITZER
C. S. Lewis, who died the same day as John F. Kennedy, delivered a sermon in Oxford entitled “Learning in Wartime” as England was bracing itself for a prolonged war with Nazi Germany. He addressed a question that must have troubled all the students at Oxford in those days: How could they be expected to concentrate on subjects like classical Greek and mathematics and medieval English literature when the country, indeed the world, was facing such a crisis? “Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?” he asked. Gently, Professor Lewis reminded the students that a crisis such as war merely aggravates the situation in which we always find ourselves. For of course none of us knows when life will come to a sudden end; war merely increases the immediate odds. The question is not whether literature is worth studying in wartime but whether literature is worth studying at all. The wise person lives in awareness of time and eternity both, a dual citizen of the city of God and the city of this world.
In his memoir of civil rights days, God’s Long Summer, Charles Marsh tells of a most unusual political encounter involving Fannie Lou Hamer and Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s running mate in 1964. Hamer, known to locals as “the lady who knows how to sing,” grew up as one of twenty children of an illiterate cotton picker. She courageously signed on to register black voters in Sunflower County, Mississippi, and was beaten senseless by local sheriffs. She eventually died from her injuries, but not before leading an alternate delegation from Mississippi to replace the lily-white slate of delegates at the Democratic Convention. President Johnson, wanting no negative media coverage to taint his nomination, sent Humphrey, the distinguished Senator from Minnesota and later a presidential candidate himself, to negotiate with Hamer. “What are you seeking?” he began, the opening gambit in any political negotiation. “The beginning of a New Kingdom right here on earth,” replied Hamer, a devout Christian. Humphrey, taken aback, began to explain his predicament. He had impeccable civil rights credentials and would personally champion her cause in the White House, but an ugly scene at the convention could threaten the Democrats’ chances in November. Couldn’t she quietly withdraw her public demands and work with the party ticket behind the scenes until they got elected? Having survived beatings in a Mississippi jail just for registering voters, Fannie Lou Hamer had little feeling for the nuances of national politics. She replied: “Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs for trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County. Now if you lose this job of Vice President because you do what is right, because you help the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, everything will be all right. God will take care of you. But if you take [the nomination] this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace or any of those things you talk about. Senator Humphrey, I’ m gonna pray to Jesus for you.”
A slave in South Carolina reported that slave owners forbade his church to sing, “One of these days I shall be free / When Christ the Lord shall set me free.” In a wordless protest, the tune became a favorite for slaves to hum as they worked, especially as the prospect of freedom seemed more and more likely. Booker T. Washington recalled that as the day of emancipation grew near, music grew bolder and louder in the slave camps, reverberating late into the night. “True, they had sung those same verses before, but they had been careful to explain that the `freedom’ in these songs referred to the next world, and had no connection with life in this world. Now they gradually threw off the mask; and were not afraid to let it be known that the `freedom’ in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world.”
I hope you have been as moved by these last stories as I have been.