Wednesday, November 8, 2023

The Arc of the Universe

In a sermon entitled “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” given at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Dr. King used this quote many times in his ministry, including during the march from Selma in 1965. Barak Obama liked it so much that he had part of the quote woven into the carpet in the Oval Office.

King was paraphrasing an earlier abolitionist preacher. The original words were spoken by Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister from Lexington, Massachusetts. Parker was an influential transcendentalist who studied at Harvard Divinity School. In an 1853 sermon Parker said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

I prefer Parker’s words over King’s and Obama’s abbreviated versions. It is more nuanced. Like Parker I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. My eyes see even less than Parker’s. These days it is difficult to see justice advancing on earth. The arc of American history seems to be bending in the opposite direction. Democracy is waning. Justice is threatened. Truth is discarded for worldly power. American Christianity is devolving into power politics.

For those reasons I do not see the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice in our time. If it is, the curvature of the arc is far longer than I can see. Sometimes I wonder if the universe has a moral bent at all. Perhaps the Yin-Yang symbol of Chinese culture is a better metaphor than the arc. Good and evil, moral and immoral, justice and injustice, fighting with each other - or perhaps dancing with each other - in never-ending cosmic balance.

Yet my Christian tradition teaches that the One who created and guides the universe is just. The Hebrew prophets proclaimed it fiercely: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Jesus proclaimed it. Yet Hebrew and Christian peoples have not often lived justice. The same with our Abrahamic cousins, the Muslims. Modern prophets who live and proclaim it - like Martin Luther King – are voices crying in the wilderness.

Still I have hope, even though “seeing through a glass darkly,” as the apostle put it. As Parker said, “I can divine it by conscience,” not by sight. Though God’s people are unjust, God will remain just. Though they be unfaithful, God remains faithful. Though religious people “kill the prophets and stone those sent to them,” as Jesus observed, God still longs to “gather them together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

Perhaps the Yin-Yang symbol is best interpreted as God and humans fighting with each other for as long as time will last. Yet all religious traditions say that time will not last forever. There is an end to time. For those with eyes to see, that time is now. 

Time is an illusion when seen from Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is here now according to Jesus.  If there is no time, there is no arc of time to bend one way or the other. Eternity is now, and Eternity is Love. God is Love. True Love is true justice.  May the arc of God’s people bend toward divine justice.

1 comment:

ernest boyer said...

Thank you for another thoughtful and insightful post. I learned much. I have often used MLK's quote on the moral arc of the universe. It's quite important to me actually. I also admire Theodore Parker, and yet I never knew that the quote began with him. I agree with you. I like his version better. It acknowledges the very real ambiguity of all this and expresses an uncertainty that I feel as well. (I also don't think I knew -- or else I forgot -- that Parker went to Harvard Divinity School, where I went too.) These are rich reflections for our dark times, a real gift, and it came just when I needed it. Blessings, Ernie