Thursday, February 26, 2009


Last night I officiated the Ash Wednesday service, marking the beginning of Lent. I've done a number of these, but this particular liturgical holiday is always amazing to me. Jessica wrote a post about why it's so meaningful to her on our joint blog, The Parsonage Family. I share many of her feelings.

I guess this particular year was extra special since it was the first time Kate got to participate in the imposition of ashes. Smearing a cross of ashes on my 1 month old daughter's forehead and telling her to remember that she is dust was quite surreal, and not just because she has no concept of dust, mortality, or even self yet!

In a very strange way, it was comforting to perform this ritual that reminded us that Kate is mortal. Normally parents don't like to think about the fact that their children will one day die like everyone else. But it serves to counter-balance the tendency that all parents, especially parents of babies, have where we assume that our child is the center of the universe and that the fate of Western civilization hangs on whether we follow every proscribed step and make our child the most functional human being that ever lived.

Jessica, Kate, everyone I have ever known and loved, and I are all just tiny specks in the grand scheme of the universe. And yet we are deeply loved and cherished by God. That means we are freed to pursue our dreams and to do everything we can to make this world a better place. If we fail, the sun will still rise tomorrow, and if we succeed, all the better.

Let us remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Thoughts on Lincoln/Darwin Day

Today is the 200th anniversary of the births of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Call it a nod to the infinite nature of the universe actualizing the one in a million chance that two significant historical figures are born on the same day (OK, "Dumb and Dumber" fans, say it with me: "So you're saying there's a chance!"), call it the result of some cosmic alignment that will result in tons of births nine months from now, call it whatever you like, but these are two significant figures who deserve some consideration.

What strikes me about both Darwin and Lincoln is how they have become such transcendent figures in the years following their deaths that the actual persons get lost in our rush to define their legends. Both men are claimed as icons by those advocating all kinds of different causes, so much so that they have practically become blank screens upon which we project our hopes, fears, ideals, biases, etc.

Charles Darwin has become a superstar from people like Richard Dawkins with agendas that could legitimately be described as "evangelically atheist". Darwin has also become a convenient straw man for those who wish to use him as a via negativa argument for their notions of biblical innerrancy. 

The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. Darwin believed in God, was a member of the Church of England, and is buried in Westminster Abbey; but he did not have any major commitments to the theological controversies of his day, so how much less would he care about the theological controversies of our day where his name so frequently comes up?

Abraham Lincoln is rightly viewed as the "great emancipator", but the fact that he enacted policies that were highly progressive for his day does not necessarily mean that he would support policies that those of us who consider ourselves progressive advocate today. We can't simply say "Lincoln would have agreed on (policy X)" as a factual proof when it's just conjecture. Perhaps it's because of Lincoln's hagiographic portrayal as the paragon of progressive virtue that some scholars have began to push back and show us the "real
Lincoln. Some of these scholars have described him as a "partisan hack" and a "white supremacist", the latter due to the fact that he advocated for the federal government paying to relocate emancipated slaves to a colony in the Caribbean where they could build their own nation. 

The truth is that while Lincoln was certainly progressive for his day, he had to have been relatively centrist or he couldn't have been elected President. His notions about the fundamental superiority of one race over another were hardly uncommon in his day, and they didn't prevent him from seeing African-Americans as human beings and realizing that slavery was a moral wrong.

The debates over the legacies and legends of men like Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln show us lots of things about who we are as a society. One of the important lessons we learn from these debates is that we have to be very careful not to judge people who lived in the mid-nineteenth century by early twenty-first century standards. These men were formed by the times in which they lived, with all their vices and virtues. The fact that each of them in their own way helped to shape the course of history, thus helping define the times we live in, does not obscure the fact that Darwin and Lincoln were men of their time. 

Future generations will no doubt judge us to have been correct about certain things, and unbelievably wrong about others. If we hope to be given a fair hearing by history, then we should set the example and do the same for our own historical giants.

Update: On "The Colbert Report" tonight, Stephen interviewed a scholar who has written a book comparing Lincoln and Darwin as historical figures. I'll catch the replay later and link to the book. It sounded like an interesting read.