Monday, August 11, 2008

The Founders, Religion, and Context

Context is everything. I see the Christian America side as utterly misunderstanding context when they quote the key Founders in favor of their thesis. Yet, when I offer brief quotations invariably I get accused of the same thing; or in the absence seeing the entire passage, folks skeptical of my ideas refuse to believe my conclusions in the absence of seeing the context.

I believe context is clearly on my side; but ultimately it's in the eye of the beholder. Right now, I am going to post a link to an entire letter of John Adams' -- to Thomas Jefferson, December 25, 1813. What follows will be Gregg Frazer's exegesis of the letter. This way all readers can check Frazer's interpretation with the original and hopefully will conclude that he is being faithful to context. The letter is one of Adams' clearest explications of "theistic rationalism" or "unitarianism." Yet, it also contains a quotation that the Christian America side loves to quote out of context. Dr. Frazer originally explained the context on this Internet forum. The context of the debate is a brief quotation found in that letter where Adams finds "Christian principles" in Hinduism and essentially says Hindus worship the same God as Christians. As Adams put it:

Where is to be found Theology more orthodox or Phylosophy more profound than in the Introduction to the Shast[r]a [a Hindu Treatise]? “God is one, creator of all, Universal Sphere, without beginning, without End. God Governs all the Creation by a General Providence, resulting from his eternal designs. — Search not the Essence and the nature of the Eternal, who is one; Your research will be vain and presumptuous. It is enough that, day by day, and night by night, You adore his Power, his Wisdom and his Goodness, in his Works.”

A Christian America apologist could hope that the quotation could be explained away in context. But, rather the context demonstrates Adams was a theistic rationalist who believed most or all religions, including Hinduism, worshipped the same God as Christians. As Dr. Frazer wrote to a "Christian America" apologist:

Re the Adams Hindu quote: the only way FOR YOU to understand Adams’s quote is to “ASSUME” what he clearly did not mean (if one knows the context — which I do). In context, he has just said: “Philosophy, which is the result of reason, is the first, the original revelation of the Creator to his creature, man. … no subsequent revelation, supported by prophecies or miracles, can supersede it.” [the latter refers, of course, to the Bible and its inferiority to philosophy] He goes on to say: “Philosophy looks with an impartial eye on all terrestrial religions” and then talks about the Bible further. About the Bible, he then says: “such parts of it as I cannot reconcile to my little philosophy, I postpone for future investigation.” He then talks about Joseph Priestley (his spiritual mentor) and about various religious systems he and Priestley have encountered, including Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Plato, the Brahmins, and then the Shastra — and the quoted commentary on the Shastra. A paragraph later, he says “these doctrines, sublime, if ever there were any sublime, Pythagoras learned in India, and taught them to Zaleucus and his other disciples.” Earlier in the same letter, he said: “The preamble to the laws of Zaleucus, which is all that remains, is as orthodox as Christian theology as Priestley’s ….” This is critical because Priestley is Adams’s (& Jefferson’s) spiritual mentor and because the laws of Zaleucus were supposedly handed down to pagans from Athena! SO YOU SEE THAT HE SPECIFICALLY INCLUDED CHRISTIANITY IN THE COMPARISON! Further, if a set of laws supposedly handed down from Athena 600 years before the birth of Christ can be considered “Christian” — what real meaning does the term have for Adams? See, you have to find out what THEY meant by the terms they used.

I reproduced this except at Positive Liberty and a reader, skeptical of Dr. Frazer's interpretation, quoted out of context from that very letter, the passage that the Christian Nation crowd loves to quote. Adams did indeed write:

I have examined all, as well as my narrow Sphere, my streightened means and my busy Life would allow me; and the result is, that the Bible is the best book in the World. It contains more of my little Phylosophy than all the Libraries I have seen: and such Parts of it as I cannot reconcile to my little Phylosophy I postpone for future investigation.

The Christian Nation crowd usually stops after "best book in the world," because what comes next begins to belie the message they want to read into Adams' sentiments -- that he was a Christian who believed the Bible infallible. But, again, the context, demonstrates otherwise. As Dr. Frazer put it:

Re Adams’s comment about the Bible...: he declares the Bible “the best book in the world,” but that doesn’t change the fact (as he has just asserted) that it does not supersede philosophy. Indeed, he says it is the best BECAUSE it contains more of HIS philosophy than any other — not because it is inspired or infallible — but because it agrees with him! Then, having established that the Bible does not supersede philosophy and having determined that it is the best book BECAUSE it “contains more of my little philosophy” than any other, he says that there are parts which he cannot reconcile to his philosophy — which means they’re wrong! They cannot supersede philosophy and what is best is HIS philosophy.

Again, the context of Adams' Dec. 25 1813 letter to Jefferson shows him to be not an orthodox Christian, but a theistic rationalist. If you are skeptical, check the context.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Rowe, this seems to be the proper time to disingratiate myself with you after your kind words for my recent post.

Here's what annoys me about the copious Adams-Jefferson correspondence on theology post-1809, after Jefferson [and Adams, of course] had left public office:

1) I have never seen a quote from John Adams that exhibits an understanding of comparative religion that exceeds a high school sophomore's. [The fragment from Zaleucus excepted, but after all, it's just a fragment. The blind squirrel scores a nut!]

Perhaps you know something that indicates John Adams had even the vaguest understanding of how Hindooism differs from Mohammedanism differs from Christianity. To me, he's a twit, theologically speaking, comparatively. All religions are equally true, goes the meme highly favored by sophomores. That's Joh Adams, a thesis in search of proof.

2) That the Adams-Jefferson correspondence takes place after each has left the presidency and left public life. What possible importance would the musings of their dotages be? They were out of the game.

3) That they kept their musings secret from the public not only when they were active in American politics, but even after they retired.

Jefferson sent the "Jefferson Bible" around to his friends privately, but never published it in his lifetime, after all.

Sounds like a familiar technique. There are thinkers, and there are politicians, and the twain seldom meet, and when they do, the result is often disastrous. Thinkers scrape the clouds; politicians seek the low but solid ground, to quote a fellow who must needs remain unnamed.

Jonathan Rowe said...

To me, he's a twit, theologically speaking, comparatively. All religions are equally true, goes the meme highly favored by sophomores.

You have to wonder about the "Flynn effect" in intelligence studies which holds that, as time goes on, even though humans have the same genetic material we are getting "smarter" in a raw IQ sense of the term. An upward drift! (What a great theory in favor of "progress").

A skeptic of the theory once noted that if you go back far enough everyone would be morons! Adams was supposedly a genius for his time (I read one article that estimated his IQ to be around 155).

You build upon the shoulders of those who came before you. And knowledge perpetually increases. The "brilliant" medical doctor Benjamin Rush used to bleed folks with leeches. And President of Harvard Jared Sparks went so far as to tear an original draft of George Washington's inaugural (I think it was) to pieces and disseminate those fragments to friends of his. And he was a cutting edge "historian" of his day. Indeed he was entrusted with the original Washington archives.

Lindsey Shuman said...

Ah yes, the wonderful "context" predicament. I like to think of it in a different way though. Instead of context how about perspective. For example, your perspective of the historical record leads you to believe one thing, while "Christian Nationists" have a completely different perspective.

This is a hard battle to fight, since none of us want to see things from another perspective.

Dan Atkinson said...

Jon Rowe writes the following:

"Context is everything. I see the Christian America side as utterly misunderstanding context when they quote the key Founders in favor of their thesis. Yet, when I offer brief quotations invariably I get accused of the same thing; or in the absence seeing the entire passage, folks skeptical of my ideas refuse to believe my conclusions in the absence of seeing the context."

This is the pot calling the kettle black.

Jonathan Rowe said...


What do you think of the rest of the post? Isn't my argument contained in this example a fair use of context?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, I don't call Adams a moron, just a twit. Such things are quite possible---even likely---once one's IQ approaches 155.

But I can believe the cavemen were morons. Look how long the human race took to come up with ketchup and rock'n'roll.

I know you're hunting bigger heads, Jon, but what did you think of the rest of my rebuttal? I think the context of Adams' and Jefferson's musings on theology [after they went back to the farm] are fair game.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well, re the second paragraph to your point #1 I think you have a point -- that arguably Adams' sentiments are not "good theology." My point though is chiefly to determine what it was they believed and ask whether it's consistent with historic Christianity and I've concluded, it isn't.

Maybe this is just a personal idiosyncrasy, but what I value most about their theology is not the way it debunks the Trinity or asserts that Hinduism and pagan Greco-Romanism is all the same as Christianity, but the way it rejects eternal damnation and what it sees as the utter mean spiritedness of Calvinistic Christianity. Like me, Jefferson and Adams hoped for a happy ending for most folks and I'd like to think that they met one.

Re your point 2, Adams and Jefferson both claimed to be lifelong Unitarians. While Adams may have been a bit more of a "pious" Unitarian earlier in his life, I don't see their opinions as having changed much.

And point 3, that they had to keep their theology secret is certainly and interesting and controversial nuance. You made a point earlier about how revolutionary teachings (ala Locke) are often subversive. Well, I see the key Founders' ideals, especially on religion as revolutionary and subversive, so much so that they had to tread carefully in their public speech and keep religious secrets. They weren't "secret atheists" as the Straussians might have us believe. They were, however, secret subversive heretics, in my opinion.