Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I Can No Longer Say I've Never Been Anywhere! Reflections on a Last Night in Scotland and an Exciting New Undertaking

Gentle Reader, I apologize for my lack of posting in recent months.  Life has dealt a succession of interesting twists and turns that have kept me from my self-imposed task.  I thank the many who have expressed their appreciation for this blog, and I hope to begin writing more regularly as time permits.  As time permits....and therein lies the story!

I was given, out of the blue, a very generous gift to pursue a PhD.  This was something I had dreamed of doing one day, although I sensed no particular purpose in doing it --there are a multitude of PhD's out there, and it is hardly a resume-enhancer in our day and age.  A ministerial colleague, himself an excellent historian and preacher, asked me why I would consider this.  My answer was nothing other than I feel called by God to do it.  The story is interesting --a phone call that began "Have you ever considered pursuing a PhD...and ended with, well, you'd better consider it over the next few days!"

So begins the adventure --one that took me to the beautiful Highlands of Scotland, and a few lovely days with brothers in Christ in Dingwall at Highland Theological College.  Why Scotland?  Quite simply, the UK PhD is the only degree that makes it possible to continue in ministry without stopping to pursue the degree full-time, and I do not feel the compulsion to lay ministry aside for several years.  Beyond that, though, the UK PhD is geared towards mastery of one's particular subject, versus the broader North American degree.  The goal, it seems to me, is to make you a good thinker, researcher, and developer of arguments, which will then extend against the pursuit of all knowledge.

An interesting feature of the UK PhD is that one must present, and have accepted, his topic before he begins.  This could be daunting, but there is one figure who has intrigued me for years and has not received much scholarly attention beyond biography, and that is Benjamin Morgan Palmer, who pastored the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans for nigh half a century.  He was an interesting man in interesting times --his public ministry began in 1840, and ended with his death after being struck by a streetcar in 1902.  Most of his works have been kept in print, as has the compelling biography of his life by T. C. Johnson.

Palmer is fascinating and tragic both on a personal and intellectual level.  He buried his young son, three daughters and his wife, leaving him only one child for his consolation and care in his old age.  He was regarded by his contemporaries and adversaries as the premier pulpiteer in the South.  An ardent defender of "the spirituality of the church," a doctrine which states that the church ought not intermeddle in the kingdoms of this world, he preached a secession sermon from his own pulpit, and wrote several vindications of the South in the most prestigious theological journal of Southern Presbyterianism.

Yet, it would be too easy to write Palmer off as a bigot, a more erudite and refined Sam Bowers for the privileged class.  All human beings are far too complex for a simple thesis.  He remains of perennial interest because the issues that he faced never seem to go away in our world.  I am thinking, generally, of the recurrence of the theory of multiple human origins --polygenesis-- that human beings did not descend from one primordial pair, Adam and Eve, but rather, perhaps, differing tribes of pre-humans.  This theory is not new.  It was propounded by in many other ways admirable Christian scientist and professor Louis Agassiz.  He, among other scientists, propounded the thesis that those of African descent were not merely another race from caucasians, but an entirely different species.  It must be noted that Agassiz was not a Southerner, nor even an American, but a Swiss and a professor at Harvard.  It is not difficult to see how this view would be popular in certain segments of the South, and it led to the anti-literacy laws and maltreatment of the slave population.

Palmer and others (Thornwell and CC Jones notable among them) rejected this and argued vociferously against it.  When the law forbade teaching slaves to read, they simply disobeyed it.  Some of their ideas on race were troglodytic, but they resisted and argued publicly for the preservation of slave marriages, for teaching slaves to read, and, most notably, for the continued efforts to evangelize the slave population. No story is simple.

The reason why? They took as their starting point, not the current science of the day, but the Word of God --polygenesis was wrong because Genesis was right.  Their Scripture told them that God had made from two parents all the races of man --one race might, in their (wrong) estimation, bear the curse of Ham (or Canaan), but the slave was a "man and a brother" nonetheless.  Palmer, upholder as he was of the racial inferiority of blacks, and the beneficence of the slaveholding South, saw that, in the great dawning of the new kingdom, those who were last might indeed become first --the tables might turn and the slave become the master.

This is not to suggest, of course, that the modern proponents of polygenesis are racists, but it is instructive that ideas have practical consequence.  Darwinism birthed social Darwinism, scientific observation birthed polygenesis which undergirded the unjust social order.  God's Word, which does not condemn a racially-blind servitude, was sadly used to justify a slavery in perpetuity based on race, and yet the inherent contradiction of that view began to fray as the church began to own the truths of its own theological anthropology.

All of this is of continuing relevance to the church today --should the church be activist in terms of its engagement with the world?  If so, what should that activism look like and what forms should it take?  What does equality in Christ among those of different social standing look like?  Where might the Spirit take us next?  How does the portion of the church (I would say "the true church") that views God's word as normative and determinative, see the Spirit expanding its vista in this regard, as opposed to the portion of the church which has "advanced beyond" the strictures of God's Word in terms of the acceptance of an egalitarianism of lifestyle and gender roles?  All questions with which all faithful pastors, denominations and Christians will continually grapple till Christ returns.

Well, this blog took a different turn than I intended!  I am sure it is deep weeds in terms of reading, so, if you've made it thus far, be encouraged --the PhD thesis is 100,000 words, just be grateful you're not reading that!