Thursday, February 12, 2009

God and a Man Named Abraham

This being the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln, I came across a recent article on Lincoln’s religious beliefs that ends with this quote,

Lincoln believed God was the author of his life and history," said Jack Van Ens, a Presbyterian pastor, historian, and actor. "God drew out the plot and allowed Lincoln to punctuate the sentences.

The quote is an ironic end to a story that discusses Lincoln’s less than formal relationship with organized religion and the battle among Believers and non-Believers to define Lincoln’s beliefs in their favor. Giving the last word to one participant doing just adds a note of finality that I don’t think the article supports.

I don’t have a stake in this debate but it does interest me. Lincoln was a true wordsmith and some of his most profound words came from his spiritual beliefs; from his soul as well as his intellect. When I hear his words and reflect on the ideas underlying them, I recognize “the better angels” of religious faith: justice, compassion and sacrifice. I do not see the false gods of power, organization and control which have devalued religion throughout history.

What I know of Lincoln’s spirituality is limited but I do know that he was a man of his times. His times accepted the old doctrines of literal Scripture because that was the literature for most people. The explosion of scientific knowledge and mass distribution of information and ideas of the 19th century had not yet happened when Lincoln and his contemporaries began their careers. Unlike many of his contemporaries, though, Lincoln did not require a church or minister to understand the world and his place in that world.

Lincoln’s gift, in my opinion, was his ability to transcend the limitations of his times, to understand how the old certainties were no longer quite so certain, to realize that new knowledge and realities required new thinking. His intellectual suppleness is evident in his changing attitude toward slavery and its African-American victims. What started and the recognition of the inherent unfairness of a “you work, I’ll eat” system evolved, with reluctance, toward recognizing former slaves’ political and civil rights. No part of this evolution is inconsistent with the ideals of any religion.

Lincoln’s spirituality surpasses religious belief. It is the humility of a man who knows that, however powerful or exalted by others, he is human and prone to error and greed. Knowing this, he seeks other wisdom. Lincoln sought that other wisdom from many sources but at heart, that wisdom was a sense of right and justice that did not allow one man to exploit another.

Of course, that’s just my view, written to appropriate the Lincoln icon in accord with my own beliefs. Like all the others, I guess.

I do, however, take exception to the idea that God was the author of Lincoln’s life and history (or anyone else’s for that matter) and all he did was punctuate. Randomness and human agency are major drivers in life and history and, unless I am willing to believe in a heavenly being directing all that chance and all those human motives, I cannot believe in that god-written script. The idea has merit, though, in acknowledging the limits of human power and ability. I fully acknowledge and understand those limits. Knowing those limits, I recognize why Lincoln is exceptional among American presidents.



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