Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, December 5, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Burial and the Christian worldview: What does Scripture tell us about rituals that take place after someone dies?
Death is such a major fact of human existence, and human life is such a remarkable gift that every single society and civilization throughout human history has had some kind of rite or ritual in order to mark death. The more significant the life, the more public the life, the greater the public interest in that kind of rite, that kind of ritual. In our case, we're looking today at a state funeral for a former president of the United States. Now before we go further into what a state funeral represents, let's just ponder for a moment what a funeral represents.
A funeral is a particularly Christian tradition. It is rooted in the experience of ancient Judaism. We don't have specific kinds of funeral rites, but we do have plenty of abundant biblical evidence about burial customs. That leads to some very interesting worldview observations. Well, just consider this. Not too long ago on The Briefing, we talked about the state funeral in Thailand for the late Thai king. We talked about the fact that it was a $70 million cremation.
It was a state cremation that was based upon a huge funeral pyre, and the official understanding of the Thai government was that this cremation in public was necessary for the king to advance to a further, more developed state of consciousness in his next life. This was a state funeral to recognize the liberation of the Thai king's spirit from his body. The Christian understanding is exactly the opposite in almost every way. For one thing, the Christian biblical understanding is not of cycles of history. History is a giant wheel that just turns around again and again.
It is not made up of an understanding of reincarnation in previous lives from a lower state to a higher state based on karma, or from a higher state to a lower state based upon what might be described as a negative karma. Instead, the Christian worldview understands history as a line, a linear progression, past, present and future. We understand the beginning is rooted in the doctrine of creation when as the scripture says, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Then you have the end of the story. It's not the end of the story as in it's all finished. It is instead the end of time, the end of temporality in the kingdom of God and in heaven where we come to understand the total rule of God.
Again, you're talking about a line in the understanding of history. You're talking about past and present and future. You're not talking about a great cycle that comes back again and again and again. The difference in the burial patterns between the Christian funeral and the Thai cremation also have to do with the fact that we do not believe that the human spirit is trying to be liberated from the body. We don't believe that the body is negative material. We believe it too is an indication of God's creative purpose. He made us out of the dust and then he breathed life into us, when you're thinking about the creation of Adam.
Thus, you are looking at the fact that human dignity means that we are, as the scripture indicates according to Christian understanding, a psychosomatic unity. We are body and soul together. Furthermore, not only do we not believe that our spirit, our soul is yearning to be liberated from the body. The scripture clearly teaches that in eternity, Christians will be embodied. We will have a resurrection body, even as Christ right now has a resurrection body. In 1 Corinthians 15, when the Apostle Paul speaks of Christ as the first fruits of those who will be raised, he points to the fact that as Christ right now has a resurrection body, so will those who are in Christ on that day also receive a resurrection body.
We're talking about a fundamentally different kind of funeral tradition because we're talking about a fundamentally different underlying worldview.
State funerals: What are they, where did they come from, and why do we recognize them?
There are some other fundamental issues of worldview significance before we even turn to the particulars of the funeral in Washington, D.C. today. Throughout the Jewish and the Christian tradition, there has been a very clear understanding of the priority of burial rather than something like cremation. This is based upon the Christian understanding that the body is itself God's creation. It is to be treated with respect. Furthermore, there's the understanding that one day there will be a resurrection. Now that doesn't mean that bodies that are destroyed cannot be resurrected.
They certainly will be. It's a matter of respect. Thus, wherever you have found Christianity traditionally, you have found very clear, very well understood practices of burial. But now let's switch to speaking explicitly about what's going to be taking place in Washington, D.C. in what is known as the National Cathedral today. At 11 o'clock today, the formal service will begin for President George H. W. Bush, but it is called a state funeral. Now that's really interesting. Most Americans probably think that simply means a very formal funeral. But actually, the very expression, state funeral, is ladened with significance. What kind of significance?
Well, the most important issue when you declare a state funeral is the fact that the state, in this case, that means the government of the United States, is officially hosting the funeral. Now that's a rather interesting and rare position in which the United States government is found this morning, officially hosting a funeral. Now why would that be the case? We simply have to note that in more than 200 years of our nation's existence, today's funeral in the National Cathedral is only the 19th state funeral in the history of the United States of America. They are extremely rare events in the nation's history. The first of them wasn't held until 1841 and it was the state funeral for the late president William Henry Harrison.
Since then, there have been state funerals only in this order. In 1850, for former President Zachary Taylor. In 1865, perhaps the most famous state funeral of the United States, for the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. In 1868, for Thaddeus Stevens. In 1881, for James Garfield. In 1901, for William McKinley. Both of those late presidents, Garfield and McKinley, assassinated. The Unknown Soldier of World War I in 1921. Warren G. Harding, president in 1923. William Howard Taft, both a former President of the United States and Chief Justice of the United States, in 1930. General John J. Pershing in 1948. Notice there was an 18 year span there.
Another 10 years later, there was a state funeral for the Unknown Soldier World War II and Korea. In 1963, the most famous state funeral in the United States for more recent years and that was after the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Douglas MacArthur, another general, in 1964. Herbert Hoover, former president, in 1964. Dwight David Eisenhower in 1969. Lyndon Johnson in 1973. Ronald Reagan, one of the most observed of all state funerals in the United States, in 2004. Gerald Ford in 2006. George H. W. Bush in 2018. Notice these are only 19 state funerals in the entire history of the United States on America. Who's on this list? Well, for the most part, presidents of the United States.
Current provision for state funerals in the United States is that they will be extended to presidents, former presidents, and president-elects of the United States of America. Then there is the rather ambiguous phrase "for anyone else for whom the sitting president judges it is right," but you'll simply have to note, that almost never happens. Others on the list include generals such as John J. Pershing and Douglas MacArthur. We simply have to note, of all the thousands of generals that have served the United States Armed Services, only two of them have received state funerals for being generals.
That probably would've been extended to Dwight Eisenhower had he only be a five star general, and of course, Supreme Allied Commander in the European theatre in World War II, but his state funeral was actually extended because he was a former president of the United States. Other than that, you are looking at a very rare event. In 1868, the state funeral for a member of congress, Thaddeus Stevens, and then in 1921 and in 1958, the state funerals held in largely symbolic terms for Unknown Soldiers of World War I, World War II, and Korea. But this raises a very interesting question, why of all those presidents from George Washington until William Henry Harrison was there no state funeral? It's not because the nation didn't revere George Washington and so many other of those presidents. It's for at least two very different reasons. In the first place, there was no particular historical president in the United States whatever was invented for the life of George Washington as president was by definition the very first time any such thing had ever happened. Tied to that is the fact that in America during the late 18th and throughout much of the 19th century, there wasn't much of a way to hold a state funeral. There simply wasn't a way of getting national attention in that sense. But there was a more important issue, there was a more historical factor, and that was this.
In the early experience of the American Republic, the very idea of a state funeral looked hauntingly royal. It seems to harken back to a monarchy, to the kind of absolute rule that the American Revolution sought to end, not to perpetuate. Instead of a state funeral for president George Washington, there was a federally declared period of national mourning. That continued for more presidents until William Henry Harrison's funeral in 1841. At that point in 1841, Americans had a president for a state funeral, but how many presidents have died since 1841? The answer is far more than received a state funeral. Why did they not receive a state funeral?
The answer to that is many of them were buried where they died or they were taken to their birthplace and the funeral was more orchestrated by family than by the state, especially by the national government. There were periods of national mourning, flags were lowered to half staff. There was an understanding of the solemnity of a death of a president or a former president, but there wasn't a state funeral. At least it wasn't customary. This began to pick up in 1850 with Zachary Taylor, and most importantly, in 1865 with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. That's where so many of the practices that we will see today are actually rooted, right down to the furniture holding President Bush's casket.
That was furniture that was first made for the state funeral of President Abraham Lincoln. But that then takes us to something else and that was the nation's trauma immediately after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. What happened then was that the former first lady, the widow of the president, Jacqueline Kennedy, made the decision and gave the instruction that the state funeral for the assassinated president in 1963 was to follow in almost every respect the state funeral for the assassinated Abraham Lincoln back in 1865.
Mrs. Kennedy had the instinct to go back to the state funeral for Abraham Lincoln understanding that that was, if anything, at the time the high watermark of the American understanding of what a state funeral should be. That's why in almost every state funeral thereafter for a president or a former president, it has been the service and the ritual of the funeral of Abraham Lincoln that has been perpetuated. Something else you need to note about a state funeral. Remember, this is a funeral hosted by the state, hosted by the government, in this case, the federal government, is that they are essentially military affairs.
The actual conducting of the funeral in that aspect is going to be undertaken today by the military district of Washington, D.C.. That's a very important part of American history as well. The American military units assigned to the defense of the American capital and remember when all of this began. You're talking about the Civil War. You're talking about Abraham Lincoln as the assassinated president. Those very same units now throughout history are the ones who will be responsible for the military dimensions of President Bush's funeral today.
What the National Cathedral tells us about America's history and national identity
But that then raises a very interesting question, how would the United States government by constitutional mandate, a secular government, host a service that isn't actually secular? This points to some of the conundrums throughout the American experience, including the fact that President Bush's funeral is going to be held, like so many others, in the building, the gothic building, known as the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.. How is it that United States as a secular state in the sense of no establishment of religion actually so often refers to a building as a National Cathedral? There's a long history here.
That history goes back to President George Washington who envisioned a great national church in Washington, D.C.. That's not what he knew the name of the city was going to be, but in the nation's capital. He believed that a great national church should be a part of the general plan. Why? Because a great government would need a great church in order to solemnize its most important occasions. Now, of course, Washington never saw the National Cathedral, but congress did give authorization for the National Cathedral all the way back in 1893. In 1893, congress agreed for a charter for a cathedral that would be known as the National Cathedral.
But it's not just any cathedral. The official name of the cathedral is the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington. Well, what kind of diocese? The Episcopal Diocese. So, we have the awkward situation in which congress in 1893 gave a charter to a cathedral that is actually a cathedral of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Washington, D.C.. Later, it has also become the seat of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church throughout the nation. How is it that this one church, this one denomination, was given the privilege of a congressional charter for a building that has become known as the National Cathedral?
Well, here's what it points to. It points to the fact that the WASP Supremacy, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Supremacy, that so marked American culture, especially when you're looking at 1893, the largest number of government officials would have been at the top of that denominational social hierarchy, and that would have meant that they were Episcopalians. Thus, the Episcopalians had inordinate influence, and furthermore, they also had the capital and the wealth to plausibly build something that would be as grand as the National Cathedral. The Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul is even now the second largest church building in all of North America.
The French architect Pierre L'enfant, hired by George Washington to design the nation's capital as an impressive city, came up with the idea also following Washington's lead of a great church for national purposes. The idea then and the idea when the charter was given in 1893 by congress is that the church that would be built built not on the federal architecture, the classical Greco-Roman architecture that you see in the official buildings of so much of Washington, but rather in the gothic style on Mount St. Albans, on the highest point of the entire district. The idea was that it would be an American equivalent to Westminster Abbey in London.
Now, of course, Westminster Abbey is the very seat of royal religion in the United Kingdom. It has been identified with the kings of England going all the way back to Edward the Confessor. You're talking about more than a millennium of Christian history. The United States was seeking to build upon that tradition, even emulating that architecture in what will become known as the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.. Just as so many affairs of state take place in Westminster Abbey, similarly, so many affairs of state with a religious significance have taken place in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.. That then raises some huge theological questions.
What kind of service? What kind of scripture? What kind of hymns? What kind of liturgy? What kind of a structure will be followed in a funeral that is officially a state funeral with the government of the United States of America serving as hosts for a former president of the United States, now deceased? What will be read? What will be said? Who will speak? In what context will all this be given? Will the be scriptures be from the bible, from the Holy Bible, the Old and New Testaments? The answer is almost assuredly yes.
The answer to the question why is because not only is that an Episcopal cathedral, but the president who's being honored, the deceased president, was also the most famous Episcopalian himself in the United States right up until his death last Friday. So that's fitting. There's another very interesting irony here, a little historical fact that I think almost no one in the mainstream is likely to understand, but at least listeners to The Briefing will know it as you observe the funeral today in the National Cathedral. The National Cathedral was authorized by congress in 1893. It was not finished in its construction until 1990.
Now just remember, looking at the medieval age, it often took centuries, multiple centuries, to build the great cathedrals of Europe. It didn't take centuries to build the National Cathedral, but being built with the traditional stone cutting of the gothic cathedrals, it did take 97 years. It tells you something that the commitment was made to build this cathedral. It took just three years less than a century to build. The final stone in that magnificent gothic building was set by George Herbert Walker Bush, who was then the sitting president of the United States.
The false promise of civil religion in a secular age
But theologically, we also have to note that this will be not only an Episcopal service in what's really an Episcopal cathedral. It is not only going to be in accordance, at least much of it, with the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer in its order. It is also going to be a massive demonstration of what is known as civic or civil religion. That is the religion of a state. It is the religion of patriotism. It is the religion of national history. It is a religion in the sense that it is more than simply a set of truth claims. It's what takes place when a nation itself and the significance of the nation arises to some kind of common almost theological. Sometimes even explicitly theological meaning. There are going to be many, many people in that cathedral, members of congress, officials of the government, invited guests.
There are likely to be representatives very visible of the different religious groups in the United States. It is likely actually upon closer examination to be a display of a certain amount of very obvious religious and theological confusion. That's the great risk of civil religion. If the government of the United States is going to host what amounts to a theological occasion, it's likely to at least in part mess up the theology. You're likely to see some of that in the service today. We have been told that the lead eulogy for the event is going to be given for the 41st President of the United States by the 43rd President of the United States, his son, former President George W. Bush.
There are, of course, some evangelicals and orthodox biblical Christians in the Episcopal Church, but the reality is that honesty compels us to indicate that they are vastly outnumbered by those who are at least led by a vowed theological liberals. When you're looking at the National Cathedral, again officially the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, you are looking in many ways at a beautiful building, a stunningly beautiful building, and historical building that is also the epicenter of great theological confusion and sometimes outright heresy in the United States.
An example of that kind of confusion is reported in The Washington Post yesterday in a story in which the provost of the National Cathedral, the Reverend Canon Jan Naylor Cope, said that it is the blending of the secular and the sacred in the National Cathedral that makes it the appropriate place for this kind of presidential funeral. One of the statements made by the provost of the cathedral is this, "Whether we are religious or not, in moments like these, we lift our eyes to a belief in something larger than ourselves." What I hope she said is that it inspires us to our better selves to what President Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."
Well, that just about summarizes the kind of official confusion that at least will be on evidence in the funeral today. When you have the provost of the cathedral beginning a statement celebrating this by saying, "Whether we are religious or not, in moments like these, we lift our eyes to a belief in something larger than ourselves," well, there you have in many ways the problem of civil religion. Sometimes civil religion can rise no higher than to say, "There must be some kind of supreme power in the universe. There must be some kind of deity. That deity must be well disposed to us as a nation and we should invoke that deity, whoever, whatever that deity is on a massively important occasion such as this."
Events like this serve to remind Christians that no one is going to find salvation through civil religion. That is simply not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But we also understand that there's something very important about what it means to be made in God's image to know that even a secular government and multitudes of secular people just as the provost oddly indicating in this statement can't avoid being religious in some sense in the face of death. In that very sense, we thus understand that civil religion is probably indispensable to the state, but we also understand it is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ and it cannot possibly save.
We can look, however, oddly enough at the fact that the gospel may shine through at some points in this service today. How so? Well, it is likely to shine forth in the readings of scripture. It might come clearly through some of the prayers that are ordered by the Book of Common Prayer. But most likely, you are going to hear biblical truth in the hymns. It's very sad to note that in many liberal churches, the only place truth still is to be found is in the reading of scripture and in the singing of hymns. I wanted to talk about these issues today on The Briefing because most Americans when they hear the phrase "state funeral" just think that means big funeral or perhaps formal funeral.
I want listeners to The Briefing to understand that what we are watching is massive in its importance, rare as a historical occurrence, and there are so many dimensions that aren't going to be mentioned in the mainstream media that thinking observant Christians should watch for and understand. The fact that today's funeral is only the 19th state funeral in the history of the United States of America should have our attention. I want to encourage listeners to The Briefing, and if possible, listeners with their children and families, to watch the funeral in order to mark one of those historical occurrences that Americans should remember and for American Christians should be the occasion for thinking deeply about what is said and what is not said.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You could follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.