Martin Luther King on mankind

In the light of my recent foray into the charge of racism in relation to the genealogical Adam hypothesis, a reader sent me a sermon by Martin Luther King on the nature of man. It doesn’t mention race at all, nor Adam, come to that. But there are some insights well worth drawing out, perhaps partly because of a tenuous link to the former post arising from King’s association with the history of civil rights in relation to race.

I confess that, at the time of his public fame and shameful murder, as a white, non-political English kid I was not greatly impressed with his importance. In fact, I subsequently became somewhat irked at the way he became a progressive icon – I remember a play in a local liberal church in which “the death of the King” was about a martyrdom to which the death of Christ was added in small print as a parenthesis. But then, I was not (and am not) a black American whose situation in life he transformed. Mythicising our heroes is only natural (So happy birthday to ya).

King was, of course, a fallible human, not a mythical being. But this sermon, preached way back in 1954, though only a short address to a real and very ordinary congregation, demonstrates the timelessness of sound doctrine. Details aside, its core could have been preached last week, or by one of the Church Fathers. The main task of preaching is to impress upon us something old, rather than to astound us with something new. In point of fact, the sermon’s organising structure, the double-nature of man as both an animal being and a spiritual being, reminded me immediately of a quotation from Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century:

It is dangerous to make man see too clearly his equality with the beasts without showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him see his greatness too clearly, apart from his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. Man must not think that he is on a level either with the beasts or with the angels, nor must he be ignorant of both sides of his nature; but he must know both. (Pensées, VI 418)

In case you’re interested, from his text in Psalm 8 he draws similar conclusions to my own treatment of it in the series I did on The Christological Creation back in 2012.

A key thing I noticed about his twofold division of man is that, although King says nothing about the origin of man either in its biblical imagery or evolutionary science, he nevertheless has something to contribute in that context.

It is notable that in first addressing the importance of seeing mankind’s physical animality, he doesn’t in any way treat this as a problem, but instead stresses the need for the due recognition of meeting our physical needs. This originally addresses his time more than ours, for then much Evangelical Christianity had somehow become persuaded that the gospel is only about the salvation of the soul (seen as spirit), and that the body is something to be despised or even escaped after death.

That kind of “quasi-platonic gnosticism” he (in rather unjust shorthand, perhaps) distinguishes as “Greek” thinking, as opposed to “Hebrew”. But such oversimplification aside, the point is valid – any gospel that does not seek to better the physical and social conditions of people is less than the gospel. Our bodies are as much the concern of God as our spirits. Dr King’s dichotomising of man may, perhaps, tend to draw attention away from our created unity, but actually he assumes that unity in his critique of pietistic neglect of the body and of human society and politics.

InsulinHexamerIn transitioning, after that,  to the spiritual aspect of man, in which, he says, lies man’s greatness, he briefly mentions the old adage that the chemical constituents of a man are worth less than $1. This was always a little misleading (carbon or sulphur may be cheap, but in 1954 a single bottle of insulin would have cost over double that – now it costs in the hundreds, which is progress for somebody I guess). Yet his point is completely valid for all those nowadays who dismiss man in materialistic terms as “a fortuitous cosmic afterthought” because “biology took away our status as paragons created in the image of God” (Stephen Jay Gould, 1995, 1977):

Can we explain the literary genius of a Shakespere in terms of 99 cents? Can we explain the artistic genius of a Michelangelo in terms of 99 cents? Can we explain the musical genius of a Beethoven in terms of 99 cents? Can we explain the spiritual genius of Jesus of Nazareth in terms of 99 cents? Can we explain the ongoing processes of our own ordinary lives in terms of 99 cents? My friends, there is something in man that cannot be calculated in materialistic terms.

This underlines his point that the greatness of man – and to King that includes both his capacity for goodness and his capacity for evil – arise from that spiritual (and therefore, we may deduce, non-biological) aspect of man. That, at least in principle, potentially separates the biological origins of man from his exceptionalism, subject to what Scripture teaches on specifics. In that regard, Adam’s genealogy is accorded importance in the Bible, but the idea of Derek Kidner and other Reformed thinkers that everything associated with the federal headship of Adam could have been transferred to the rest of mankind other than physically is entirely possible.

Although King does not refer to Genesis directly, he does attribute this greatness in man to the image of God, which is of course a Genesis 1 concept. One interesting insight is that he describes that image not in terms of any “reflection” of God in the makeup of man, so much as in his appointment and capacity for relationship with God. Now in truth there must be some overlap there – in that something in man (such as his rationality, his will etc) must correspond to equivalent capacities in God if there is to be any relationship. The actual biblical phrase is image and likeness”. But the emphasis on God’s appointment of man to his relational role is sound.

It certainly accords with my (more recent) theological understanding of “image” in terms of humanity’s being the only image within the cosmic temple of God described in Genesis 1. In a temple, there is nothing about an idol which actually resembles deity (which is why idolatry is forbidden to Jews and Christians) – its importance lies in its being designated ritually as the physical representation of the god. The image of God in mankind achieves that in reality, through the creative energy of God. Biology has no more to say about that than carpentry has about the sacredness and power that some statue has to a pagan worshipper.

By locating man’s capacity for greatness in the spiritual aspect of his nature, King thereby clearly shows sin to be a product of the supernatural will, rather than the natural animal:

Animals follow their natures. But man has the power of acting upon his own nature almost as if from without, of guiding it within certain limits, and of modifymg it by the choice of meaninful ends. Man can be true or false to his nature. He can be a hero or a fool. Both possibilities, the noble and the base alike, indicate man’s greatness.

Two implications follow from this, in connection with and contrast to many evolutionary understandings of the world. The first is that since it is man’s unique greatness to be, like God, possessed of a rational will, this itself is what alone gives the possibility of evil. In that case the common idea in theistic evolution of inanimate nature being “free” from God’s despotic control, so that evolutionary outcomes might fall outside God’s will and even (according to those like Ken Miller, Karl Giberson, or Francisco Ayala) be positively evil, must be mistaken. Augustine rightly recognised that evils must arise from wills.

Secondly, it also follows that (as King clearly shows) human sin cannot be regarded as a product of the “selfish” biology of evolution, as so many evolutionary theologies have claimed since the nineteenth century. It is not the created animal part of our natures that is “red in tooth and claw” and needs quelling by God-given reason. Rather, as Genesis teaches, it is our higher, rational nature that is the source of sin, and hence of not only physical death (in a creature intended for eternity) but spiritual death. So sin is, as has always been taught, a fall from innocence to be corrected, not a primordial shortcoming to be improved:

Whenever a man looks deep down into the depths of his nature he becomes painfully aware of the fact that the history of his llfe is the history of a constant revolt against God “All we like sheep have gone astray” Every nation, every class and every man is apart of the gonewrongness of human nature. Of all the silly, sentimental teachings which have ever characterized any generation the denial of human sin is one of the worst.

Perhaps you will, like me, regard Martin Luther King’s teaching on man as bread-and-butter fare, theologically. If so that is actually to the good. His diagnosis of man’s condition is what the Bible teaches, and what the gospel of Christ has always addressed. Inasmuch as that diagnosis is tragic (whether that is judged in the pastoral and personal terms King uses in the sermon, or in the light of world events like the civil rights movement of the sixties or the culture wars now), understanding how man is created causes us, like King, to say, “Man is not made for that.”

I suppose it was partly this understanding of human greatness – the greatness we owe to our creation by God himself, however it came about – that made Martin Luther King such a powerful force for good, and which generated the reaction of hatred that led to his murder. Last word to him:

“What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast crowned him wth glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands, thou hast put all things under his feet. All sheep and oxen, yea and the beasts of the field, the fowl of the air, and the fish of sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the sea.” This is man’s kingly prerogative. Who this afternoon will rise out of the dark and dreary valleys of sin and evil, realizing that man’s proper home is in the high mountain of truth, beauty and goodness, yea even where God the eternal dwells forever?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Martin Luther King on mankind

  1. swamidass says:

    Well done Jon. I want to send you more of his stuff, though I know you do not typically take requests.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks Joshua. I see you posted a link to this piece on BioLogos, and there are already “matters arising” from that I want to post about, as well as some other themes knocking at the door.

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