Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Faith and Superstition

“He makes grass grow for the cattle, 
and plants for man to cultivate, 
bringing forth food from the earth: 
wine that gladdens the heart of man, 
oil to make his face shine, 
and bread that sustains his heart.”

I must confess to never having been much of a fan of Benjamin Franklin. What’s worse, I may well have colored the attitudes of hundreds of students with my own skepticism. His Autobiography is a classic, the first of its genre and a textbook in the deism of his day; but it carries an arrogance that’s tiring—“listen, my children, to what I did,” Franklin seems to say. “If you want to know how to live, watch me pull up my own bootstraps.” It feels almost condescending. Something about the Autobiography, for all its testimony to virtue, seems, well, insincere.

Phillip Dray’s, Stealing God’s Thunder, investigates Franklin’s scientific interests, his experiments with electricity generally and lightning specifically. Dray’s study of the man has made me less skeptical of him, perhaps because it makes him less self-centered. He was a nobody in the scientific circles of his age, uneducated and unknown—and from the backwaters of the American colonies; yet he dedicated himself (once nearly dying in the process) to understanding the electricity of the heavens because, as Dray says, “little or nothing was known about lightning, whose true nature was shrouded by superstition.” Lightning seemed the finger of an angry God.

It’s not difficult to understand how people could see lightning and thunder as manifestations of God’s hand in our lives. Lightning turns night, literally, to day—and kills people, often in bizarre (and therefore scintillating) fashion. Thunder shakes us like earthquakes. It’s almost impossible not to cower. The Greeks thought Jupiter hurled lightning bolts, but the shock and awe of a big thunderstorm makes just about everyone fall back to final defenses—the will of God.

Enter Franklin. Lightning has nothing to do with some kind of God, he asserted. We need only understand some rudimentary physics to understand its play across the heavens. As Dray makes clear, Franklin “stole God’s thunder.” After Franklin, the kind of lightning he saw fly over the New Jersey shore of the Delaware River lost some force because it could be no longer seen as the spears God flung from his heavenly throne.

Now listen to Charles Spurgeon: “. . .do but watch with opened eye and you shall see the Lord walking through the cornfield.” Spurgeon could have been in Iowa. I know exactly what he means in this aside on Psalm 104:14. I love the sentiment. It’s here in these verses, after all: grass, wine, oils, breads—they are what God does. Taste a glass of wine and you’ve tasted something of God’s own hand. I’ve seen God in a cornfield, I swear.

When I’m seeing him in that way, I believe I’m seeing his world through the eyes of faith. Still, I’m thankful for Franklin, who, flying a kite in the rain, took God right out of a storm. Go figure.

The difference is the distance between superstition and faith, but then those very words almost always have tentative definitions, depending on who’s using them when.

What I know is this. When we get storms out here on the Plains, they play richly in the wide-open spaces above our land. And even though I know how lightning works, that knowledge doesn’t stop me from glorying in the pageant. Do but watch with opened eyes, I might say, and you shall see—even today, 200 years after Franklin—the Lord himself in the heavens above.

To me, at least, that’s not superstition; that’s the faith of Psalm 104.

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