Truth, though it may long be submerged, tends to surface again. We are witnessing now the recovery of the sacred, of transcendence, under the impact not of any divine disclosure but of secular events.

During the era of “paperback theologies” in the sixties, some of us were tempted to wonder whether secularity had not entrenched itself to the point that “sacred” would shortly be a meaningless category. It is perhaps ironic that a theologian who, scarcely a decade ago, declared that the term “God” was dead and who implored an end to “God-talk” has in recent months called upon us to look for traces of transcendence. It does not reduce our feeling of surprise that Paul van Buren has so far reversed himself that he now encourages us to look in the secular for hints and traces of this kind.

It is noteworthy also that Volume IX of the series “New Theology” makes a place for the same theme, the quest for transcendence. Contributors to this volume seek for intimations of “the sacred” in the diverse experiences of peoples as they strive for “peoplehood” or group identity. Among the chapters, none is more direct in its thrust than that by Samuel E. Karff with the intriguing title: “Jewish Peoplehood—a Signal of Transcendence.” Rabbi Karff finds elements of “the sacred” in both religious (orthodox) and secular (liberal) Judaism, with each element reinforcing the conviction that God is actively at work in our world.

Such discoveries must upon occasion strive for recognition against the spirit of the times. For example, the secularist mood has no need for a “God who acts” in history, and may indeed find the very suggestions of such to be perverse. Yet some are perceiving in today’s events reinforcement of this thesis.

It is true that acknowledgment of the transcendent (we use the term in a broad sense to connote the presence and/or operation of that which is above man and human action) may lead to perplexities, and even to ironically inconsistent conclusions. Perhaps it may also seem that God’s actions appear at times to be bifocal and ambiguous. Far from producing despair, this fact should serve to challenge and to fascinate us.

One of the most recent examples of spiritual serendipity has been that of the rediscovery of the role of confession and of contrition as preconditions for forgiveness. This has surfaced in much of the discussion of President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. With an urgency seldom seen in religious journalism, a chorus of voices has insisted that only an advance public act of contrition would justify the granting of executive clemency.

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An Associated Press article quoted several clergymen—Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic—who agreed that, in the words of George Cornell, the author of the article, “President Ford’s pardon of Richard M. Nixon was not in keeping with the way forgiveness works in a religious sense.” Rabbi Robert Gordis is quoted as saying that President Ford’s “act does not meet the requisites of forgiveness in religious tradition.”

This is no doubt true of mainline Jewish tradition. It has unquestionably not been a point of insistence upon the part of many Protestant clergymen, whose affair with existentialist modes of thinking and with the neo-universalism of “theologies of acceptance” is a matter of record. It will be salutary in the extreme if Protestantism in general recovers the largely submerged message of repentance as a condition for acceptance with God.

It is by no means clear why many who oppose the presidential pardon (and the writer includes himself among those for whom the pardon of Mr. Nixon does raise genuine problems) are so insistent that draft evaders shall be accepted back into our national life without any required acts or gestures of contrition or restitution. True, some point to the difference between amnesty and pardon. But the distinction is merely technical—unless it be urged that deserters and draft resisters have violated no law.

A more moderate view at this point would be, it seems to this writer, to recognize deep ambiguities in all matters touching the relation of transgressor to law and justice. Whether or not the factor of Mr. Nixon’s health should be weighed heavily in any judgment here, certainly the elements of personal inconvenience and sacrifices for consceince’ sake should not be regarded lightly in the case of expatriates. Yet it seems reasonable that at least some gesture toward established order, such as is implied in the oath of allegiance, should be required.

Time’s essay entitled “The Theology of Forgiveness” (Sept. 23 issue) indicates the interest of the secular press in this question. There, as in segments of the religious press, the question of a double standard of justice was given prominence. Roger L. Shinn is quoted as observing rightly that “what bothers so many is that the demand for justice and punishment applies to the poor and the weak, and mercy applies to the powerful.”

While this point is well taken, we need to discount seriously the anguished and fanatical cries of some sentimentalists, that “equality before the law died on September 8, 1974.” Regretfully we must admit that inequities of this kind seem built into our American system of justice. To cite what may seem a minor example: when a boy playing ball in the street breaks a plate-glass window, he (or his father) pays for the damage. But so far as this writer has heard, no Ivy League student has been compelled to pay for windows broken as he and his peers “in service to a higher law” “trashed” entire streets.

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The presidential pardon does indeed raise questions, but it is scarcely a sudden and unique instance of “exceptional” justice. If it appears to be a case of unreasonable softness, it is not the only such instance. And whether the demands of compassion were sufficient to justify it is a matter for continuing debate.

There remain yawning gaps in the information that the American people, long deceived and kept in the dark, have received about the cover-up in Washington. It is to be hoped that the presidential pardon does not prevent a full disclosure of Watergate’s turgid mysteries. Certainly as a people we deserve to have at least some of our national anguish relieved.

Meanwhile, may we not, as evangelicals rejoice that the message of repentance as an essential prerequisite for pardon is being rediscovered and re-emphasized? Should it not gratify us that this truth, so long obscured, is being given a new push from a secular direction?

Perhaps a paradigm for the view that evangelicals ought to have concerning the “theology of repentance” as it is emerging from secular considerations may be found in the New Testament. Why not, in the spirit of Philippians 1:18 and 19, rejoice that for whatever reason, repentance is again being preached?

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