When the Arc of the Universe Bends Toward Chaos


Genesis 18:1-10a

Psalm 15

Colossians 1:15-28

Luke 10:38-42

Prayer of the Day: Eternal God, you draw near to us in Christ, and you make yourself our guest. Amid the cares of our lives, make us attentive to your presence, that we may treasure your word above all else, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“[Christ] himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17.

The divine word, “Let there be” pulled together out of nothingness an ordered universe and continues holding it together against the destructive pull of chaos. The breath of God animates the cosmos as it is guided by God’s parental providence toward the end were “God is all in all.” I Corinthians 15:28. That, of course, is a statement of faith. It cannot be verified empirically. But I hasten to add that its being a statement of faith does not mean that it is irrational. Trinitarian faith is the lens through which disciples of Jesus look out upon the universe and make sense of its terrifying beauty, mystery and potential. It is not the only lens through which one might view this thing we call “reality.” Those who stand upon other platforms looking through other lenses may well see things differently and make observations of which we are incapable. Genuine Trinitarian faith welcomes knowledge and understanding from whatever source it may come, whether that be scientific research, literary or artistic expression or the teachings and reflections of other religious traditions. Greater knowledge and understanding do not threaten, but deepen such faith.

That being said, faith does not always comport with life as one experiences it. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is known to have said on more than one occasion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He was paraphrasing a longer and perhaps more modest quote by abolitionist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker who 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.” See “The Truth About the ‘Arc of the Moral Universe,’” Huffpost, January 18, 2018. Many of the of the biblical witnesses express the same confidence. “I have been young,” says the psalmist, “and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging bread…The righteous shall be preserved forever…The righteous shall possess the land and dwell upon it forever.” Psalm 37:25-29.

Other biblical witnesses testify, however, that they have indeed seen the righteous forsaken. The prophet Habakkuk cries out,

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
   and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
   and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
   and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
   strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
   and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
   therefore judgement comes forth perverted.” Habakkuk 1:2-4.

Like the psalmist, the prophet also expresses faith in God’s ultimate justice, though in spite of rather than because of what experience has taught him. Habakkuk 2:1-5. Habakkuk “walks by faith and not by sight” as Saint Paul would say. II Corinthians 5:7. That is how I find myself walking these days. I have always disavowed the “progressive” label because I don’t believe in progress-at least not in the sense of its inevitability. The hard fought gains of women, people of color and LGBTQ+ folk in securing basic human rights can be wiped out in a single day-as our Supreme Court has taught us. The rule of law and the constitution are proving powerless against a party now driven by a narcissistic megalomaniac and a court stacked by reactionary justices who, not to put too fine a point on it, lied their way through confirmation into their high office. We might well be witnessing the twilight of American democracy, to say nothing of the peace that has held in Europe for the last seventy years. In the midst of all this dissolution, the call to believe that all things hold together in Christ Jesus seems like a mighty big ask.

Yet it is this sort of faith that carried Israel through four hundred years of slavery, centuries of foreign military occupation and seventy years of exile. It is the kind of faith that has seen the church through the rise and fall of empires, revolutions, pandemics, persecution and social change. In spite of history’s erratic course, people of faith maintain that our world is, in fact, going somewhere. We are on a pilgrimage toward “a city which is to come.” Hebrews 13:14. Faith in this hope has sustained Israel and the church in the darkest of times. Our current position in history appears to be yet another such dark time. We are being challenged to believe that God has “the whole world in his hands,” even as it appears to be falling into the abyss.

If there is an arc bending toward anything hopeful, it has often been difficult to discern. So perhaps the arc is not the best of metaphors one might use in speaking about the hope for God’s just and peaceful reign “on earth as in heaven.” Rather than a relentless progressive march toward a better world in which “every round goes higher, higher,”[1] our journey is rather one of false starts, wrong turns, dead ends and missed opportunities held on course nevertheless by a God who will not give up, will not let go, will not stop working redemptively with whatever messes we make to nudge us closer to a new creation.

None of this is to say that what we do or refrain from doing makes no difference because, as our Lutheran Catechism teaches, “God’s kingdom comes without our prayers-” or anything else from us. It matters that our failure to restrain capitalistic exploitation of our environment is leaving for our children a poorer, less biologically diverse and more toxic planet. It matters that God no longer has nineteen beautiful children and two wonderful teachers from Uvalde, Texas to work with. It matters that, regardless how things turn out on the battlefield in Ukraine, the seeds of hatred, resentment and distrust planted in the course of that conflict will continue between two closely related peoples for generations. No, we cannot stop God’s kingdom from coming. But we can certainly make things a lot more difficult for God and deprive God and God’s kingdom of much that is true, beautiful and good by our self destructive resistance. Perhaps that is as close as we can come to imagining what it means to be in hell: living for eternity with full knowledge and understanding of all that could have been but was not. That is why, after telling us that God’s reign comes without our prayers, the Catechism goes on to say, “but we pray that it might come among us.”

Here is a poem by Langston Hughes describing what it might be like to cling fast to a word urging us forward when everything seems to be sliding backwards.

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor—


But all the time

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners,

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light.

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now—

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Source: The Collected Works of Langston Hughes  (c. 2002 by Langston Hughes; pub. by University of Missouri Press (BkMk Press)). Langston Hughes (1902–1967) was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

[1] From the spiritual, “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”

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