This morning, as I exercised, I listened to Martin Luther King’s sermon “Paul's Letter to American Christians.” In it he goes off on the following trope:
“For many years I have longed to be able to come to see you. I have heard so much of you and of what you are doing. I have heard of the fascinating and astounding advances that you have made in the scientific realm. I have heard of your dashing subways and flashing airplanes. Through your scientific genius you have been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. You have been able to carve highways through the stratosphere. So in your world you have made it possible to eat breakfast in New York City and dinner in Paris, France. I have also heard of your skyscraping buildings with their prodigious towers steeping heavenward. I have heard of your great medical advances, which have resulted in the curing of many dread plagues and diseases, and thereby prolonged your lives and made for greater security and physical well-being. All of that is marvelous. You can do so many things in your day that I could not do in the Greco-Roman world of my day. In your age you can travel distances in one day that took me three months to travel. That is wonderful. You have made tremendous strides in the area of scientific and technological development.
But America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about "improved means to an unimproved end." How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.”-- http://www.mlkonline.net/christians.html
Now, this isn’t the only sermon in which he wonders at the scientific advances of his age (and how much more our own?). He is consistently impressed by skyscraping buildings.
As a caveat he calls on his listeners to move forward in thinking, in morality, in matters of the heart, to a point at which we truly match our physical sciences with the science of the spirit.
But, being influenced in my thinking by Paul, Augustine, and Luther I know humans are both dust and spirit. Even at the heights of our powers and even our morality there is a propensity to do evil.
And then I remember my own vision for the world. The closest thing I’ve ever written to a dream for the time I reside in. I re-write Genesis chapter 22 to speak to a time in which religion and violence have become, for some, synonyms:
“And Abraham weeps, and puts down his knife, and comes to his children and hugs them tightly. And he suggests that they bind themselves to an oath, saying, “Yours is a generation unlike mine. In my day only God could knock down the tower of Babel,” and he picks up the sacrificial knife off the ground, “now 19 men armed only with these can do similar. Sectarians have been unbound throughout Babylon, and it is in flames. Man’s consumption can cause a new flood and his bombs can bring Armageddon. Cuneiform tablets and riders on horses have been replaced with the keyboard and instant communication and so being respectful to one’s neighbor is now a global affair.” With that he throws the knife onto the altar, “Yours is a generation where individuals can impact the whole world as never before. You carry a responsibility that previously was the burden and pleasure of only the elites and the statesmen of the world. We have become god-like and never even noticed. The myth of redemptive violence, a myth I unwittingly have given to each of you, must be extinguished. So bind upon your hearts a promise to shake off the nihilism of violence.”—“Religiously Motivated Violence and the Akedah,” in An Uncomfortable Bit of Rope” page 92.
And I wonder if I am simply diagnosing, in more mythical terms, the same malaises of our age—simply pointing to the shadowy cloud that billowed from those sky-scrapping buildings instead of the fact that they scrape the sky. King, in the 50’s looked at technology with wonder and hoped for a morality to match. We, in this millennium, look with horror at our morality and don’t even realize “we have become god-like.”
The world King read he read in a prophetic way—projecting forward that which was to come, a mix of hope for what is and anguish for what will be. We, on the other hand, are living amongst the rubble and in the midst of the anguish, with only a peep of hope, like that faint feather resting in Pandora’s box.
So, the questions are: Is this continuity or discontinuity? Is the myth of progress, either moral or material, still something that is worth talking about? Or have we reached an age at which we may no longer reach for the heights of beauty, truth, honor, pity and compassion? Is the only question remaining the very question William Faulkner spoke against in his Nobel prize speech, “When am I going to be blown up?”