For Michael C. D. McDaniel (1929-2003)
by George Anastaplo
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath passed away a glory from the earth.
–William Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality
From Recollection of Early Childhood”
These remarks are dedicated to the memory of Michael C. D. McDaniel, our colleague for more than two decades in this annual Lenoir-Rhyne College Hickory Humanities Forum. It was during this period that he was chosen to serve as a Bishop for the North Carolina Synod in the Lutheran Church of America.
He told us, upon the announcement of his elevation, that he was advised by one of his University of Chicago Divinity School professors, Joseph Sittler, that he would (as a Bishop) never again eat a bad meal, sleep in an uncomfortable bed, or hear the truth. Of course, it is not only someone in authority who may find it hard to learn the truth of a matter, especially any truth upon which much may ride.
We must wonder, as we discuss our readings in the Living with the Past collection, what truth there is to tell about the past and its significance. The past does keep changing, and not only in the sense that it is constantly being added to. Our grasp of the past is, to some extent, constantly made and remade by us.
Indeed, we can be led to wonder what, or how much, of any past we are interested in is fixed or permanent, however it may happen to appear to us. We can also be led to wonder how much we select, shape, and repeatedly reshape our past, sometimes without recognizing that we are doing so. Or, as I heard an Oxford historian (Diarmaid MacCulloch) say a couple of nights ago, “The past is another country.”
Our past here, as participants in the Hickory Humanities Forum, includes fond recollections of Michael McDaniel as a friendly, eminently cheerful human being. Those (such as his ever-resourceful wife) who, in his closing years, lovingly ministered to him in his relentless afflictions, know that cheerfulness could sometimes be in short supply in his daily life. Even so, much is to be said for recalling, and in effect restoring, the cheerfulness which was so characteristic of the demeanor we were privileged to know here at Wildacres, something anticipated in lines from Oliver Goldsmith about another lover of music: “Cheerful at morn he wakes from short repose, Breathes the keen air, and carols as he goes.” (The Traveler , in H. L. Mencken, A New Dictionary of Quotations, p. 162) Goldsmith himself was said by Samuel Coleridge to do “everything happily,” something that could be said of our Michael McDaniel as well. (See Samuel Coleridge, Table Talk [Routledge, Bollingen Series; Princeton University Press, 1990], vol. II, p. 38.)
It can be instructive, with a view to furthering our discussions this weekend, to review what Michael McDaniel did in trying to deal with challenges to that understanding of the Past relied upon, for one reason or another, by the Church that he served. Particularly instructive here is the University of Chicago doctoral dissertation he finished in 1978, Evolution in American Lutheran Thought, 1860-1925: A Historical Account and a Theological Reflection. The evolution of life on earth, as developed by Charles Darwin and his disciples, seemed to many mid-Nineteenth Century Christians to threaten the foundation of their belief not only that God had created the human race in “historical” times but also that He had entered into a special relation with a part of the human race, providing thereby the basis for a decisive Divine Incarnation among human beings.
After all, the Bible had been long believed to provide an authoritative, fairly simple (however stupendous) account of how the earth and all living things on it had come to be. Both that long-accepted history and the long-accepted science seemed to be called into question by what Darwin and his partisans were proposing.
Other major religious bodies seem to have been threatened far less than Christianity was by the Darwinian challenge. Islam, for example, is said to be less rooted in a historical account than is the Judaism upon which Christianity immediately depends. And Hindus, with their doctrines of serial reincarnations, seem to be far more open than are the Biblical religions to the interconnectedness of human and other animal life. We can be reminded by our David Grossman story, “Momik” (in his See Under: LOVE volume), of the chronology traditionally associated with Genesis and its sequel: that is, the 1959 date, “by the other [that is, our Western] calendar” is equated with the years 5317 of the Creation” (which was said by some to place the beginning in 3358 B.C.).
Of course, some did argue in the course of the Darwin controversy, as many Believers are inclined to do today, that there was no real conflict between Faith and Science. Such an argument does suggest that those who saw their faith threatened by the Darwinian revolution did not properly understand either their Faith or the developing sciences. This is an argument which can point out that the authors of various books in the Bible simply assumed, in telling their essential stories, the accepted history and sciences of their day: the essential stories are what mattered, not the science and history which happened to be used from time to time (almost as various languages are) to make the telling of the story more interesting and thus more effective. We, for example, do continue to speak of the sun “rising.”
Be that as it may, we can see in the McDaniel dissertation the vigorous efforts made by Lutherans, between 1860 and 1925, to reconcile their faith with the emerging sciences, and especially with the biology and the history upon which their faith had seemed to rely.
The Scopes Trial of 1925 (in Dayton, Tennessee) is used to date the last dramatic effort by those who had been mounting rearguard actions for more than six decades against the Darwinian advance. Not only had much of the Old Guard died out by then, but also the Scopes Trial dramatized and thus exposed to the public view the dubious twistings and turnings upon which some of the Faithful had considered themselves obliged to rely. (I mention in passing that in recent decades much seems to be tacitly conceded to the Darwinians by the “Fundamentalists” among the Faithful, if only by their recourse to “Scientific Creationism,” which can be understood as an effort to invest a critical article of an age-old faith with the trappings of a now-respectable modern science. I also mention, as a reminder of how recent some of this history is, that my wife and I once saw John Scopes [1900-1970] at the University of Chicago.)
Instructive passages, from the decades of discussions of the Evolution problem for Christianity, are provided in the McDaniel dissertation. I now draw on two pages from the central chapter of the dissertation, “Evolution and the Bible.” These pages suggest the sorts of things said by the contending parties in this controversy.
Our pages are introduced by the observation, “Although . . . the entire bulk of commentary from the Lutheran Standard [one of many Lutheran periodicals examined] on the issue of the Bible defended the position that the Bible consists of dictated, inerrant propositions, one hundred percent correct and sufficiently comprehensive to serve as a textbook of science, a single article–signed, simply, Mahan–which breathed quite a different spirit, somehow found its way into the pages of . . . the Standard” (Lutheran Standard, Columbus, Ohio, vol. 23, p. 2 [December 15, 1863]):
. . .As to secular and earthly matters, the gratification of curiousity or the acquisition of mere knowledge, we are not so sure that the Bible was intended for our instruction. The time of man upon the earth, like the age of the earth itself, is a question of human science. To science we may leave the solution of the problem. And, in the meantime, while the question is still in doubt, while investigations are going on that may confirm or may dispel the theories now current on the subject, it is not wise to commit the Bible to more than it positively and undoubtedly affirms. Where it speaks, we bow to it implicitly. Where it is silent, we bow also, but in humble expectancy, waiting for more light. [McDaniel Dissertation, p. 167]
These sentiments, voiced by a Lutheran, were of the kind that centuries of thoughtful Roman Catholics must have wished had been taken to heart by their Church during the notorious campaign against Galileo. (See, for example, Frances D’Emilio, “Torments of Inquisition Not That Common, Vatican Says,” Chicago Tribune, June 16, 2004, sec. 1, p. 6. See, also, Richard S. Westfall, Essays on the Trial of Galileo [Vatican Observatory Publications, 1989].)
There then follows in the McDaniel dissertation one of its most intriguing passages (Dissertation, pp. 167-168):
Fine as these [Lutheran Standard] sentiments are, it is probable, however, that no other article in the early period surpassed one which filled twenty-five pages in the October, 1861, issue of the Evangelical Review for its extraordinarily open and constructive spirit. While the author [A. Essick] denies that there is a “purely human element” in the Bible, he also rejects a literal interpretation- -especially any such “monstrous absurdity as that God created the earth originally with all the visible marks of antiquity.” [Volume 13, page 182, October 1861] This would make God the creator of a “vast depository of lies.” Essick’s solution is the same as that preferred by Moore and Sternberg- -that the “days” of creation symbolize great epochs. With the breathing of life into man, God’s “sphere of action was transferred from the kingdom of nature to the kingdom of Grace.” [Ibid., p. 194]
We can see here the lengths some defenders could go on behalf of what was taken to be the most literal reading of the Bible. Thus, it had been argued by some, that an omnipotent God could have fashioned, “only yesterday,” an earth which included fossils which seemed to be millions of years old. It is this suggestion that was evidently rejected by some Lutherans as a “monstrous absurdity.” A more sophisticated approach here, on behalf of Believers, is one which has God creating the world, billions of years ago, with its formative powers inherent in it, including the capacity for evolving life. (The Pope suggested, in 1996, that however evolution developed, there was at a critical stage a miraculous creation of the human soul.)
I conclude my extracts from these quite instructive pages in the McDaniel dissertation with the following observations by its author (Dissertation, p. 168):
After numerous suggestions as to how the Christians might regard current science, Essick states [in 1861] that he does not “stake [his] faith in the Bible upon the success of any of these attempts [such as the “great epochs” suggestion about the “days to harmonize its content with science. . . .We only maintain. . .the possibility of reconciling the two records.” . . . Thus, while there was a majority who felt that in any apparent conflict between the Bible and science the fault surely lay with science, there was a clear witness in this early period [the 1860s and 1870s] that the fault might lie, instead, with the interpreter, be he scientist or exegete.
The planted-“antiquities” explanation had meant, in effect, that no evidence would ever be considered significant that in any way seemed to question what the Bible seemed to say about virtually anything. (Consider, from antiquity, the Tertullian approach: “Certum est quia impossibile est.”) Related, at least in spirit, to the repudiated planted-“antiquities” approach is an argument which dismisses today even the most solid of scientific findings as “merely theories.”
However all this may be, the struggle was once seen as that between science and revelation, a struggle which had much at stake. Signs of this struggle are noticed throughout the McDaniel dissertation. But in our own lifetown it is more apt to be said, especially by educated people, that science (or philosophy) and revelation (or theology) deal with two quite different realms to which human beings somehow have access. And each of these realms, it can be further said, may be substantially independent from the other. Thus, one can find many arguments today to the effect that there is not really any conflict here. Has this always been so- -or is this an argument developed once the challenges of the scientific projects became virtually impossible either to ignore or to overcome?
Biblical accounts which seem, in one way or another, to be at variance with scientific accounts are now more apt to be regarded as poetic, metaphorical, and the like. Such stories can be treated not as “historical” but as “parables.” These stories can include those about the Garden of Eden, about Jonah and the Whale, and about the tribulations of Job. Westerners have long been accustomed to regard in this way the distinctive sacred stories from other peoples, such as the Mesopotamian story of Gilgamish and the stories about the Hindu divinities. And in the West itself, this can be said as well about such stories as that found in the Myth of Er (in Plato’s Republic) and in Homer’s accounts of the gods.
It can even be said, among commentators of a “modernist” inclination, that it does not really matter whether even Moses ever existed or whether the Exodus from Egypt ever took place. On the other hand, there is the language of the First Commandment which proclaims, “I am the Lord thy God who brought you out of the land of Egypt . . .” It does seem, to the typical reader of both the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Bible (the texts which we know as the Old Testament and the New Testament) that historic events are depicted and depended upon there. This may be seen, for example, in the opening chapter of the Gospel of Matthew where the line of Jesus is taken back (through David) to Abraham.
The more “liberated” Believers can be heard to argue these days that the Bible should be respected not as the source of historical or scientific insight but rather as the authoritative source of moral teachings and wisdom. But, it can be wondered, whether such teachings and wisdom should also be put to the test of reason and to a disciplined understanding of human nature? If the Bible is not regarded as revelation, in the old-fashioned sense, then should it be regarded as an expression (through the prophets) of an instinctive awareness of, as well as the kind of reasoning about, the Good? But, as such, should the teachings of the Bible be continuously assessed in the light provided by that understanding of human nature and of natural right found in authorities such as, say, Aristotle and Immanuel Kant? It may even be wondered to what extent the teachings of ancient Greek thought, implicit in the very language of the New Testament, find expression in the ministry of St. Paul, if not of Jesus himself–and, as such, do they remain subject (especially for the sake of sound politics) to the critique to which the teachings of even the most exalted mortals are subject?
I had occasion recently to be reminded of how “modernist” thinkers have “liberated” themselves from dependence on the Bible as it was once understood by the Faithful. A distinguished Jewish scholar was so liberated from dependence upon the past of the people of Israel that he could confess himself to be indeed unconcerned about whether Moses had ever existed or whether the Exodus had ever taken place. Those of us in his audience who wondered about the propriety of such a repudiation of a dependence upon the apparent Past got unexpected support from someone in the same audience who reported that he, as a member of a “human rights” group, had recently witnessed (with a rabbi officiating) a non-surgical ceremony which had been substituted for the traditional circumcision of a Jewish boy. Such a substitution was justified on grounds both of the dictates of medicine and of the need for consent by the patient. It was most instructive to observe how disturbed our speaker was upon learning of this innovation, a speaker who had not been at all concerned about any restatement of the Past which could exclude even the likes of Moses. One could be reminded of the lapsed Roman Catholic who might vigorously deny that there is any God even as he insists that Mary is His mother.
What, in short, is the understanding of the Past which could leave the Biblical stories substantially discounted even as an allegiance is insisted upon to an identification and to practices which have long seemed to depend upon such stories?
We can return to the plight of Nineteenth Century Lutherans and other Christians who considered themselves very much threatened by what the Darwinian reconstitution of the Past suggested. Human evolution was almost unthinkable for many, for it did seem to subvert their inherited ability to think about human actions and to assess human standards, perhaps suggesting doubts about the immortality of the human soul even as it posed questions about what is truly divine.
And yet, as the McDaniel dissertation records, mainline Christians have somehow come to terms with the new biological and geological sciences. Much of that biological science is, in effect, drawn on in the medical services upon which we so much depend; much of that geological science is, in effect, drawn on in the extraction of the oil upon which we so much depend. These, and the like, dependencies are all around us- -with their implications barely noticed.
How much had changed during the century since the Evolution controversy erupted is suggested by something that was very much “in progress” in 1978, the year that Michael McDaniel finished his dissertation. The Pioneer 10 spacecraft had been launched by NASA in 1972; in 1973 it had reached Jupiter from which it could be “slingshotted” into a course that would take it out of our solar system. Thus, it was anticipated that by 1990 it would pass the orbit of Pluto and move into interstellar space.
What is particularly revealing, for us, about the Pioneer 10 craft is the plaque attached to it, a plaque which (as depicted in my handout) purports to explain to Others on a distant planet where and how this craft had originated. That is, the designers of the plaque assumed that there may be rational beings elsewhere in the universe, beings who could happen upon the craft many tens if not hundreds of thousands of years from now. (We can, during our discussion period, talk about some of the information provided in the plaque, information about the Past of the craft itself if it should be “found” some day. See, on the plaque referred to here, Richard O. Fimmel, James Van Allen, and Eric Burgess, Pioneer: First to Jupiter, Saturn, and Beyond [Washington, D.C.; NASA SP-446, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1980], pp. 248-50.)
Two aspects of this plaque should be immediately noticed by us in the light of what we can learn from the McDaniel dissertation. First, it seems to be taken for granted that there may be rational beings of a very high order who have evolved elsewhere in the Universe. But, it should also be noticed, this is “said” in a “message” being transmitted as part of a United States government project. And, it should be further noticed, there do not seem to have been any public protests registered about such a “message” being sent out under government auspices, despite its remarkable presuppositions. This is to be compared, for example, to the furor stirred up recently by the display of the Ten Commandments in an Alabama courthouse.
In short, times do seem to have changed, at least in some circles, including those in which most of us move.
The implications of the Pioneer 10 plaque are remarkable enough. But consider, in our effort to come to terms with the very meaning of the Past, what has been announced as discovered since the Hubble Space Telescope and other devices have gone into operation in recent years. It is now taken, as virtually gospel-truth by the experts, that there have been some fourteen billion-plus years since the so-called Big Bang. Some scientists evidently regard that as the moment of the creation of the Universe- -but is it not at least as likely to be, if there was indeed a Big Bang (with all the matter in the universe collected in what is called a “singularity”), that this event was “no more” than a radical reversal in cycles, following upon a Big Crunch which had itself been preceded by a Big Bang, and so forth? But, no matter, there are now at least fourteen billion years taken for granted (in some quarters) as part of our Past.
But there is even more to be reckoned with here, leaving us to wonder not only where and when we are but even who or what we are. I have had occasion recently to ask separately several astrophysicists, “How firm is the figure of one hundred billion galaxies in the Universe that you people talk about?” The answer I have gotten, again and again, is that that figure is quite firm, as a lower limit- -that is, with many more galaxies yet expected to be found.
It is well to be reminded here that most of us, just like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein before us, grew up with an awareness of only one galaxy in the universe- -and that was the galaxy which we (like the people in the Bible) could see in the Milky Way, the galaxy in which our own solar system is to be found. And, it is further said, there are in our galaxy alone, which is regarded as medium-sized, one hundred billion stars.
Does not this remarkable, virtually unbelievable, expansion of our Universe pose an even greater challenge to Biblical revelation, as traditionally understood, than evolution theories? The Hindus, with their very old stories about a universe millions upon millions of years old, may not be troubled by such numberings. But the scope of what is now believed by the experts about the extent, both in time and in space, of the universe does seem radically different from that grasp of things that seems to be taken for granted in the Bible. Aside from the effects on our received religions in the West, should all this make us wonder about how seriously we here on Earth can take our lives, our communities, and our intentions and efforts?
All this has come to light in a relatively short time, much of it during the generation following the McDaniel dissertation. In fact, it was suggested in 1980, “We are really only twelve generations away from Galileo and his first crude look at [Jupiter]. Twelve generations later, we are actually there [with the Pioneer 10 fly-by] measuring many of the characteristics of the planet itself.” (Fimmel, Van Allen, and Burgess, Pioneer: First to Jupiter, Saturn, and Beyond, NASA SP-446, p.80) Still another way of putting all this is to say that we have expanded our knowable past from the Biblical scope of the two hundred or so human generations once derived from Biblical calculations to the seven hundred million (if not many more) generations down to our day offered us by contemporary astrophysics. We can thus see, again and again, that that grasp of the past we must live with is hardly secure.
Chance may very much affect the kind and amount of evidence available when the authoritative revelation for a people or a “civilization” is laid down. Chance may also affect what can be done with the evidence that does happen to become available. (This is nicely indicated in that intriguing movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy.) Care has to be taken not to make too much of the coincidences one does come upon, something which occurred to me recently as I heard a scholar connect a sacrifice in the Odyssey to a reference in a Hittite fragment of some five hundred years before. ( I presume to interject here the suggestion that the most useful recent introduction to the Iliad and the Odyssey is a charming book, Homeric Moments, by our longtime colleague, Eva Brann.)
It is now easily assumed, as is reflected in the Pioneer 10 plaque, that there is likely to have developed elsewhere in the universe, independent of our own development, rational beings on other planets. It is probably almost impossible, whatever UFO enthusiasts may like to believe from time to time, that human beings will ever make contact (while still alive) with any other rational beings elsewhere (except, of course, with any angels that we may encounter).
On the other hand, it may be possible some day to happen upon evidence of living things elsewhere. This evidence could come in the form, say, of something detected in a meteorite which lands on the Earth. Also, we may even be able, some day (or, at least, it seems to me), to detect the atmosphere of a planet in another solar system, an atmosphere which includes traces of material associated only with the activities of living things. (Similarly, if the global warming we hear so much about is in fact produced by living things on the Earth, that could let “others” know that there have been living things on this planet. Thus, our global warming could some day serve as a signal from us to others who are many light-years away. The experts do not yet agree, by the way, about whether any atmospheric conditions can be produced only by living things.)
However all this may be, we can come to sense that we have access, even if only by chance, to a tiny fragment of what could be our relevant past.
Again and again we are induced to wonder who we are and what can be known- -and how. We have seen, if only briefly here and there in these remarks, how the religious revelations that are inherited by a people can be adjusted to conform to scientific discoveries from time to time. We have also seen, if only in passing, that there may be a tendency, in such circumstances, to transform a revealed religion into a natural religion.
Among the matters that call for repeated reconsideration is what is meant by the Fall of Man, especially as developed by Christian theologians. May the notion of “the fall of man” represent one kind of response to an awareness of human mortality? And should all mortal reasoning beings, anywhere in the universe, also be regarded as inherently vulnerable and hence “fallen”- -and likewise in need of, or at least receptive to, being “saved” by some divine (that is, not-natural) agency?
What, I must wonder, is indicated, in Science Fiction stories and in such entertainments as Star Trek and Enterprise about such questions? I have never been much interested in these engaging diversions- -and so must count on what some of you have to report about what seems to be assumed there about these matters. Even if little or nothing is said explicitly in such television programs, what is there that seems to be taken for granted about these issues? And if we are “historically,” if not even naturally, Fallen, what may be usefully done about it? The Christian theologian may even be prepared to argue that the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection were intended to redeem all mortal reasoning beings everywhere and always.
The theologian has long distinguished himself from the philosopher- -that is, with the one relying primarily on revelation, the other relying primarily on the natural faculties. These two kinds of thinkers can differ as to the answers given to the question, Is the world we experience eternal? Perhaps another way of putting this age-old question is to ask, Why is there something instead of nothing?
Still another way of approaching these matters is to ask, in the spirit of our discussions this weekend, What is the past–or, at least, what is that past which can truly be meaningful for us? Particularly challenging for the philosophically-minded here is Martin Luther’s insistence that we are saved by faith alone, not by understanding. Our discussions, sadly, will have to do without the determined skepticism of John Fogarty, to whom my wife and I owe the memory of many an instructive trip from the Charlotte airport to Hickory.
Let us return, however briefly, to the Pioneer 10 plaque. For whom was the plaque “really” prepared? After all, the odds are more than astronomical against its ever being found, let alone “read,” by any reasoning being many thousands of years after it was launched.
In a sense, it can be argued, the plaque was prepared for us. “We” investigate thereby both how we see the human species and “where” we are in the Universe. Is this, then, an exercise in mere self-expression or in a salutary self-discovery?
It is recognized in the McDaniel dissertation that there are two principal avenues along the road to self-discovery. An awareness of sin can lead to that submissiveness which is redeemed by piety. An awareness of ignorance can lead to that wonder which is productive of philosophy. (See Dissertation, p. 625.)
Michael McDaniel, as a pious man for whom the form of Lutheranism in which he was originally nourished remained primary, described himself as always concerned to make sure that what he believed and taught was sound. (See Michael C. D. McDaniel, “ECLA Journey: Personal Reflections on the Last Forty Years.” Concordia Theological Quarterly, vol. 65, no. 2, pp. 99-100 [April 2001].) It can seem to the reader of his recently-published reflections that he could properly be more open to modern fashions in his dissertation than he could responsibly be as Bishop or as Bishop Emeritus. He had been warned, upon entering his sacred office, that he should not expect to hear the truth in the way that he had been accustomed. Perhaps there was also implicit in this advice the suggestion that he, in turn, would have to be cautious about the truths that he shared with others, especially when he came to confront innovations that were challenging the orthodoxy of his own day. Perhaps, indeed, he even came to see once again in the crises of his last years (which he lamented) the kind of controversy, of the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, however different in terms, that he had chronicled in his instructive dissertation.
Care should be taken not to make too much, in such lamentations, of what our Larry Yoder has called “a lover’s quarrel.” One remedy that the truly pious man has recourse to, when prone to despair, is that which Michael McDaniel provided in the closing paragraph of his dissertation’s preface, after having warned in effect that one’s defense of the faith one has happened to inherit should not be converted into little more than an “idolatrous” worship of a misconceived past. We find in the remedy he offers there something that can be of service, with appropriate adjustments, both to the theologian and to the philosopher (Dissertation, p. xix):
It is no surprise if the secular world, confused by scientism and misled into materialism, teeters on the brink of every tomorrow, peering fearfully into the abyss of black Fridays and bleak Saturdays; but how strange it is to see Christians laboring to defend old concepts against the surprising views of reality often uncovered through the achievements of human culture. Faith ought to expect- -within the deepest abyss- -the Easter surprises of grace.