Friday, August 22, 2008

John Adams' Ultimate Statement of Rationalism

This exists in his 1813 letter, written in the context of Britain's repeal of a law that made it a crime to deny the Trinity, John Adams writes this to the militant anti-Trinitarian, Thomas Jefferson:

We can never be so certain of any prophecy, or the fulfillment of any prophecy, or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle, as we are from the revelation of nature, that is, nature's God, that two and two are equal to four....This revelation had made it certain that two and one make three, and that one is not three nor can three be one....Had you and I been forty days with Moses on Mount Sinai, and admitted to behold the divine glory, and there been told that one was three and three one, we might not have had the courage to deny it, but we could not have believed it.


Adams says even if the doctrine of the Trinity were revealed to him with Moses on Mt. Sinai, he still wouldn't believe it because man's reason proves 1+1+1=3 not 1. That is the penultimate example of reason trumping revelation. [Do you think it's a little bit arrogant too?]

Adams also says the same theory -- "the laws of Nature and Nature's God" -- which gives America its principles upon which it erected its government also reveals Nature's God to be unitarian!!! I could offer quotes that demonstrate the unitarianism of Jefferson and Franklin as well. And they together made up a majority of the drafting board of the Declaration of Independence. We could say that the Declaration of Independence refutes Trinitarian Christianity. But there's a problem isn't there? There were many Trinitarian Christians in the nation who supported the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution and Constitution. And they didn't understand Nature's God this way.

The problem is easy avoided by being vague and refusing to identify the attributes of God when publicly invoking Him any more than 1) He exists, 2) He created us and grants us rights, and 3) will Intervene to do Justice. This is what American Civil Religion is all about.

26 comments:

Pinky said...

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Interesting and to the point.
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In contrast, what rights does the God of the Bible "grant" to human beings?
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Any?
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Matt Huisman said...

I don't want to get too sidetracked here, so I'll just recommend to you Galatians 4:1-7.

I'm not sure I want to go down this road either (don't want to give Jon too much ammo), but can you name one unalienable right granted to you in the Constituion?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Matt,

We are going to get to this in the future when I post on the debate between Harry Jaffa on the one hand and Robert Bork and Lino Graglia on the other.

Pinky said...

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Matt asks, "...can you name one unalienable right granted to you in the [Constitution]?"
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It will also be interesting to read about the debate Rowe mentions.
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But, I can come up with several rights as defined and connoted in the Constitution.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, Jon, I find Adams' attempts at theology to be arrogant and sophomoric.

When one leafs through the King James Bible and pronounces that to be the sum of "Christianity," ignoring 1700+ years of Christian thought [now 2000], one will come to some very suspect conclusions.

As many religious fundamentalists do today, BTW.

bpabbott said...

I'm feeling a bit impatient today, so I'll "toss the gauntlet" ;-)

Matt asked: "[...] can you name one unalienable right granted to you in the Constituion?"

There are *none*. The constitution does not grant rights it prohibits government from infringing upon specific rights ... the absence of other specific constraints does not imply that the founders thought it OK for the government to infringe upon other rights. For that reason Madison originally held that a Bill of Rights was unnecessary.

For a better explanation than I am prepared to give see Freedom Daily: Do Our Rights Come from the Constitution? and Oregon Catalyst: Does the Constitution Grant Us Rights?.

Pinky said...

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Not to belabor the tangent; but, here are some definitions of the word, grant, as a verb:
▸ verb: transfer by deed ("Grant land")
▸ verb: bestow, especially officially ("Grant a degree")
▸ verb: let have ("Grant permission")
▸ verb: give on the basis of merit ("Funds are granted to qualified researchers")
▸ verb: allow to have ("Grant a privilege")
▸ verb: be willing to concede ("I grant you this much")
▸ verb: give over; surrender or relinquish to the physical control of another
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Maybe we could say that the Founding Generation granted the rights--guaranteed in the Constitution--to us for as long as succeeding generations are able to hang on to them.
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Pinky said...

Would someone please post the HTML code for creating a link?

bpabbott said...

Pinky: "Maybe we could say that the Founding Generation granted the rights--guaranteed in the Constitution--to us for as long as succeeding generations are able to hang on to them."

Pinky, the point is that founders did not view "rights" as granted. They are pre-existing ... or God given.

The Constitution granted powers to the government. None of those being the power to grant rights ... However, the Constitution does explicitly state that the government may not infringe upon rights.

The question is; What constitutes a "right" in the minds of the founders? ... the answer may be that their individual opinions don't matter since *they* didn't grant rights. Thus, "rights" may be absolute, but determining what they are is subjective.

This is the area where the debate will be interesting.

bpabbott said...

Pinky, Here's a reference for creating links.

<a href="url">Text to be displayed</a>

Pinky said...

If I am being led to believe that this blog is open to a discussion regarding rights and where they came from, I'm ready to give it a go.
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But, I thought that would be a tangent.
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Was I wrong?"

Pinky said...

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BTW, thanks for the code.
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bpabbott said...

Pinky: >>If I am being led to believe that this blog is open to a discussion regarding rights and where they came from, I'm ready to give it a go.<<

I think it needs to be framed correctly. The founders hoped/intended our rights to be safe guarded from tyranny by our government, but they did not enumerate them.

The founders believed the what our rights were is revealed by reason (perhaps influenced by scripture).

For me the most interesting question is; how subjective are "rights" and is it reasonable to interpret "rights" differently today than during the revolutionary period?

Note that I don't think this inquiry to deviate from the intended subject matter of this blog, but admit is does deviate from the subject of Jon's post.

Regarding the html code .... I was expecting a link from you ... my anticipation grows ;-)

Tom Van Dyke said...

The question of "rights" is way overdue, and I'm very happy that our favorite commenters have identified it as the nub. Well done, sirs.

As has been fleshed out in this discussion, the D of I asserts the existence of certain "human" rights, the Constitution [Bill of Rights in particular] simply prohibits the federal government from infringing on them. Two very different dynamics.

Again, a tip o'the brim to those here gathered. I cite Dennis Prager once again, that he values clarity above agreement.

Matt Huisman said...

There are *none*. The constitution does not grant rights it prohibits government from infringing upon specific rights ...

Unless, of course, "We the People" deem otherwise. We can toss the 1st Ammendment anytime we want, no?

This is why some of us say that it matters who those people were at that (or any) time.

bpabbott said...

Tom, regarding Dennis Prager, he's written quite a bit. Can you provide a like to an article on this subject?

TiA

bpabbott said...

Matt: "Unless, of course, "We the People" deem otherwise. We can toss the 1st Ammendment anytime we want, no? This is why some of us say that it matters who those people were at that (or any) time."

I'm not sure who you refer to as "some of us" ... who else do you speak for?

Regarding your speculation, I agree the people of the revolutionary period were free to amend the constitution and they did.

The people of following generations were free to amend the constitution as well. When they did they never restricted the application or interpretation of rights, but expanded them (I'm ignoring the 16th & 18th amendment).

12: Improved individual representation in Presidential elections.
13: Abolished Slavery
14: Requires states to provide equal protection under the law to all persons within their jurisdictions.
15: Prohibits restricting of voting rights based upon race.
17: Provides for the direct election of Senators by the people of a state (improved individual representation).
19: Prohibits restriction of voting rights based upon gender.
20: Clarifies terms of Presidents, senators, etc.
22: Term Limits.
23: Provides voting rights in Presidential to residents of D.C.
24: Prohibits poll tax (poor & impoverished may vote also).
25: Succession to the Presidency.
26: Standardized the voting age to 18.

(descriptions are largely copied from Wikipedia)

You words appear (to me) to imply a general perspective of the population that is not supported by the facts.

Have I misunderstood your position?

Matt Huisman said...

When they did they never restricted the application or interpretation of rights...

But they could have. Every right mentioned in the Bill of Rights (or subsequent ammendment) can be repealed. This would seem to exclude them from meriting being called 'unalienable'. The fact that you happen to like the various ammendments is more a credit to 'the people' than it is to the Constitution.

[BTW, TVD's Prager reference is just a general quotation - he'd rather that people understand each other than pretend to agree.]

bpabbott said...

Ben: When they did they never restricted the application or interpretation of rights...

Matt: But they could have

But they did not.

Matt: Every right mentioned in the Bill of Rights (or subsequent ammendment) can be repealed.

But they have not.

Matt: This would seem to exclude them from meriting being called 'unalienable'.

'unalienable' is used in the DOI in a descriptive not proscriptive manner. There is no universal authority for such descriptive language. We mush each apply our reasoned minds to decide for ourselves.

Thus that previous generations have not decided to re-amend the constitutions restraints upon infringing of specific rights gives some evidence regarding their opinion of the propriety of the Constitution's protections of liberty.

In any event, (imo) it is due to this vagueness that an enumeration of rights is needed.

Jonathan Rowe said...

This definitely anticipates the Bork v. Jaffa stuff which I should put up soon. Bork in "Slouching" notes the "rights" in the Constitution are "alienable."

Pinky said...

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I like to "grant" myself certain privileges that, otherwise, others would not allow me to possess.
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In this particular sense, I believe we can safely say that the U.S. Constitution "grants" a set of rights to the people of the United States of America.
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That's why I listed the definitions of the word, grant, as a verb.
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Chris said...

Obviously the DoI does not refute Trinitarianism, since Trinitarianism makes frequent use of singular God-language. In fact, it doesn't even refute most polytheistic systems, since many Hindus, Buddhists, and other polytheists see their many gods as an expression of a single, essential principle or deity. Nor does it exclude atheists, who have been known (as in the case of Ernst Troeltsch) to use the concept of "God" as a proxy for our shared humanity. American civil religion is really broad enough to accommodate many of the world's belief systems.

Incidentally, I believe "quintessential" would be a better word-choice for the thread title than "penultimate", which means second-to-last.

Tom Van Dyke said...


Incidentally, I believe "quintessential" would be a better word-choice for the thread title than "penultimate", which means second-to-last.


Sharp fellow, this "Chris", albeit a bit pedantic.

But so am I. ;-[D>

Matt Huisman said...

Sharp may not be the half of it if its true that he was accepted at Wheaton College with an openly Christian Pluralist perspective.

I guess once you allow dancing, anything goes;)

Chris said...

haha! Actually, I wasn't sure where I stood theologically when I applied for Wheaton. On my application I disagreed with their inerrancy clause and the bit about the Bible being "the Word of God", but didn't go any further than that. Only since then have I really decided on Christian pluralism. So don't write Wheaton off yet. I suspect it will remain a Fundamentalist stronghold for some time yet... ;)

cornelia said...

In referencing Gal.4 - Isn't it important not to confuse the rights of an heir. Heb. 11:13-16 states our inheritance is in different country(a heavenly one) and we are strangers and aliens here. We need to be careful to impose a biblical meaning from a secular document. We must always hold all things to the light of scripture. Not try to make them fit just because they invoke the name of God.