Neither a borrower nor a lender be

It all comes from you, it all belongs to you.

(Pastor Rick Warren’s inaugural prayer.)

The Christian world-view holds that all human virtues are a loan from God.  The secularist responds: “Quite the opposite.”  Compassion, love, and mercy are human predicates; we confer them on God. Human beings are the sole source of meaning in the world; history is our story, not God’s story, as Rick Warren has it. 

Many believers assume that this human-centric sense of life must lead to nihilism.  “Secular humanism  . . . founders on its own perception of the meaninglessness of human life,” writes Michael Novak in No One Sees God.  I’m puzzled by this stance.  The world is awash in meaning, more than anyone can possibly take in.  I don’t need God to be slain by the exquisiteness of Don Giovanni or a Chopin nocturne.  If life’s beauties, conflict, and cooperation leave believers looking elsewhere for significance, it is they, not skeptics, who live in an empty world.

But Warren’s speech reminded me of one important power of religious rhetoric that is not easily replicated in a secular setting: divine petition. 

“Give to our new president Barack Obama the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity,” Warren said.

Such public pronouncements are not mere empty gestures.  We cannot take the continued strength of our values for granted; they need to be reinforced in public as well as private settings.  Invoking God as the external source of those values is rhetorically and grammatically efficient; we can direct our wish towards someone with the power to grant it.  One could rewrite Warren’s optative to remove its purported target—“May our new president Barack Obama possess the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity”—and perhaps that does the trick.  The rewrite, which is a common enough form, does raise the question, however, who we think will fulfill our hope.  In truth, it is the president himself who alone possesses the power to act with humility, integrity, and generosity, but saying so directly in such a setting is a bit awkward.  Maybe it is enough to simply express the hope for such noble behavior in a general way, thus putting the stamp of  public approval on the values being affirmed. 

But there is another problem.  Without officially-designated God-channelers, who should issue such public blessings?  Can one public official do so for another?  We have decided that preachers carry the moral authority to speak for the whole; it’s not obvious to me who stands in their place without the concept of God.  These are social problems, not theological ones.  But I find them puzzling.