Saturday, November 21, 2009

What Greece, Rome, and Christianity Didn’t Give Us

That's the title to Jason Kuznicki's very interesting new post at Cato Unbound.

Here is the passage on how Christianity is not necessarily the source of modernity or the "liberal democracy" that America's Founders established:

Many point to Christianity as the historical force that challenged the ancient world’s inegalitarianism. There is quite a bit of truth to this, but it’s possible to push the case too far. Many ideas that are crucial to the modern political synthesis are nowhere to be found until the seventeenth century at the earliest, and even during that era, the far more typical Christian politics was not John Locke’s, but that of the lesser-known Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux and court preacher to Louis XIV. Bossuet’s Politics Drawn from Holy Scripture made the case that the most natural Christian polity — indeed, the only properly Christian polity — was an absolute monarchy, because the king was an image of God on earth. Christianity certainly taught that there was an inherent dignity to all people, regardless of social station, but it was quite reluctant to challenge the idea of social station itself.

This hits upon an important point: Just about all of us agree that divine right of kings shouldn't be reestablished, that religious liberty is a good policy idea, that heretics shouldn't be burned at the stake and so on. Christendom has come to embrace these ideas (indeed, as far as I know, the first to do so). But the text of the Bible itself and the historic practice of the Christian faith don't clearly demand any of these things.

In other words, divine right of kings, the failure to recognize religious or political liberty, the burning of heretics at the stake (as Calvin did to Servetus) -- all of these are arguably just as authentic expressions (arguably perhaps MORE authentic expressions) of Christian political theology than "republican government," "inalienable rights," "religious liberty," and so on.

28 comments:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I really like what he says here:
"Egalitarianism rightly understood is an agnosticism about human potential, and a willingness to be convinced. This is an approach to work and technology that is exceedingly difficult to find in Rome or Greece, or indeed anywhere before the modern synthesis arose."
This statement acknowledges that there is human potential, but human potential must be developed, honed, and/or productive. This is the basis of a capitalistic society, isn't it?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, one can argue that, as Sir Robert Filmer did about the divine right of kings in his Patriarcha, but it was the Catholic philosopher/theologians, the "Schoolmen" ["Scholastics"], especially Francisco Suarez and Robert Bellarmine, upon which Algernon Sidney and John Locke built their refutations of it, for example:

http://www.constitution.org/as/dcg_102.htm

It's not that Christian thought necessarily leads to liberal democracy and human rights, but neither does philosophy.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thank you also, for the other article on the film. You make an excellent point, that Christianity is what it is and can further or defame human individual freedom and human rights.

But, I do agree that consent of the governed is a very important point that some branches of Christianity do not affirm, as their very theological understanding of God and society forbids such "heresy". I think the Greek Fathers were more "soft" of human deprivity, weren't they?

And I applaud your point that any discipline or subject can be biased in a certain direction.

Good character has nothing to do with belief systems. But, bad character can justify their behavior by bad belief systems.

King of Ireland said...

Jon,

I think the best example I can give you to illustrate that there have been two general kinds of Christianity that compete and both use scripture to back them.

The Southern Slave Owners and teh Northern Abolitionits fought a Civil War over whose version of what the Bible said would win out. The KKK uses the Bible to elevate one person or group above the other. They look at the Jewish race and how God favored them and say that the white race replaced them.

It is really two views of God. To keep this from going Theological again(Tom has a point that the History can be lost if we always go down the Theology road)lets just look at the two broad groups in History. I think the one group is obvious and talked about a lot. It is the Divine Right dogmatic group. The other is not talked about as much.

Tom has tried to show more than once a line of reasoning from Aquinas forward that found its way to Jefferson and company throug Locke. The only question is whether this line of reasoning is Christian.

Based on these discussions I put that I am a "Rational Christian" under religion on my Face Book page. Reason has a big place in al this I am just trying to figure out how much.

I think it is this type of Christianity that changed this world. It came in opposition to the Dark Ages crap based on control. We are headed back to Feudalism gradually. Walmart and companies like it are no better than the landed class in the Dark Ages. We woke up and this ended in a modern society with a middle class.

It is shrinking by the day. I think it was Hayek that wrote the road to serfdom. But that could get us off topic.

Pinky said...

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Uh, wasn't being burned alive at the stake done to give the audience a view of what it will be like in hell for them if they don't give in to the authority of the Christian Church in Rome?
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Jonathan Rowe said...

KOI,

You make some great points: I started off this inquiry trying to debunk Christianity's influence on the American Founding, thinking all the Founders were Deists and my views have changed as I've discovered the truth of history.

One thing that actually stands in the way of me personally embracing some kind of Christianity is that I want to be objective in how I define and understand "Christianity" and its influence on history and the American Founding.

It is debatable just how Christian Aristotle, Thomas, and Locke's ideas are. There certainly is a thread. And for most of Christendom they were the dissidents. The dominant powers justified Divine Right of Kings as the authentic expression of Christian political theology.

Again as noted, were I to convert to Christianity it would be the kind that accepts the Truth of Darwin's evolution. And I don't see myself ever believing in eternal torture or agony as a default desert of man. I suppose it's possible (anything is possible, even that those 19 highjackers were doing God's will and got rewarded with their virgins). But I think the fundamentalist view of Hell is about as bad and unacceptable a truth as the 19 highjackers getting their virgins.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Pinky,

Yet John Calvin "Pope of Geneva" had Servetus burned at the stake for preaching unitarianism.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Let me note I understand Thomas' teachings did become dominant earlier on; however whatever it was in him (or the other Catholic thinkers) that might have led to the idea of "rights," "republicanism," "liberal democracy," and whatnot was NOT dominant in RCism or Christendom.

The watershed began in the late 17th Century and reach its culmination in the American and French Revolutions.

King of Ireland said...

Pinky,

Tom has asked many several times to refrain from attacks on the belief systems of the Contributers here. Really anyone here. I know he is a Catholic to some degree and I think your comment about the Catholic authority was out of bounds.

I do not agree with all that the Catholic Church has done but blanket attacks like yours does not help the discussion. I am pretty much a free for all kind of guy about commenting on a blog so if I am having a problem with it it is a good sign that we should steer away from those kinds of attacks.

When Tom brings this up it is not to be a jerk. It is because part of this blog is to not needlessly offend people. There are other places to have it out over theological issues and personal views.

It is a fine line when theology is relevant to this debate and when it is not I understand but there is a line somewhere that has to be drawn or the level of discussion will cease to be at a high level.

Pinky said...

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I can't speak for Calvin any more than you can, Jon.

But, I do know that being burned alive at the stake was a form of execution designed to send the message of how that person would spend eternity. At the instant they expired in the fire, they awoke in Hell for an eternal continuation of their disobedience to God's appointed authority. And that was intended to scare the Hell out of the people who watched in the crowd of onlookers.
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Utterly disgusting.
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Angie Van De Merwe said...

Science was the "revolution" in philosophical thinking that changed "Chrsitendom". From the beginning, the Church has struggled to address this revolution, as science changed the view of "god" and "life" and the "human", everything....

So, when one talks about history, and not theology, then the history of "thinking" and 'knowledge itself" is at stake. What do we know, now do we know and what does that mean? These are questions that science and religion addresses. And what demands attention for the future of society, the world, and humanity, itself...

Our form of government affirms the value of the human and allows freedom of values to come to terms with ultimate values that define the 'human", which is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our government does not depend on "god" so much as "man" and man's leadership...

King of Ireland said...

Jon,

I think the two Revolutions were different in some important ways. One is that the Frech threw out Locke's theological arguments in the First Treatise and only translated the Second Treatise.

I think the American Revolution was different in this way. They did not throw out all religion in an attempt to thrown the tyrants out. I think the French threw out the baby with the bathwater. So did Luther and Calvin.

I think the Thesis idea I am going to pursue is if the ideas the Founders were educated in were enlightenment or more of a Witherspoon type of rational Christianity. I plan to do this to see if Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams were influenced by the Theological side of Locke in school. I bet they were.

They were making a legal argument in the Declaration toward interposition because they were denied their rights as Englishmen. This was a Christian argument. They had to get around ROmans 13. Even if they did not believe in it many of the people they needed did.

Romans 13 and how it is translated over time pretty much gives a good dividing line as to which side of the Christian historical fence one is on.

Finally, I would agree that this type of Christianity was always in dissent. That is until it mades it way to America! It also took hold of some influential parts of Europe like Salmanca Spain. I keep bringing up the whole Castile vs. Aragon idea becuase I believe the areas represent two types of CHristianity. The former one out in Latin AMerica and the latter one out in the US.

Pinky said...

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KOI writes, [Pinky's] comment about the Catholic authority was out of bounds."
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Come on, KOI, get real. Are we here to learn history or are we here to protect the sacrosanct? Stating historical truth cannot be out of bounds in any search for understanding. I am not blinded by taboo.
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Would you rather I quoted Fathers Spraenger and Kraemer, S.J. from their Malleus Malifacarum?
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Jonathan Rowe said...

King I follow you until you write:

They were making a legal argument in the Declaration toward interposition because they were denied their rights as Englishmen. This was a Christian argument. They had to get around ROmans 13. Even if they did not believe in it many of the people they needed did.

While the DOI/AR fits with interposition/rights of Englishmen as an "outcome" it is impossible to square some of the revolutionary rhetoric with interposition. Interposition is not revolution. The DOI -- at least parts of it -- call for revolution.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You cannot "sell" me on the historical without connecting the philosophical...and the philosophical is scienctific understanding in the disciplines.

Power was exerted, as it always is, to usurp another individual's right. The history of social groups has also progressed beyond 'communalism". The Catholic Church was formed by this type of power structuring.

Today, America still stands for human rights in individuality.

The premise of our Bill of Rights was the fact that we were identifying with becoming a "people who consented" to form together a more "perfect union. There was no co-ercion is the Framers minds, as this was the point of the DOI in the first place.

Pinky said...

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I think it is a mistake to frame the Founding of our nation with such an overly intellectualized focus on Locke and other noted philosophers.
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I recommend Shain's reader, "The Nature of Rights at the American Founding and Beyond" where you will be exposed to a great amount of evidence about the Founders' motivations. They were, after all, deeply immersed in the culture of a very strict Reformed Protestant society.
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Angie Van De Merwe said...

Pinky,
Religious freedom was a PART, but not the WHOLE form of the Revolution. The leaders did give the Protestant Reformers a "right to assembly". But, America is not a Christian Nation, as the Puritans understood "a Christian Nation".

There is NO HUMAN RIGHTS if there are no INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS. MOBS are ruled and moved by ideas, which the Framers USED for their purposes of forming a government that would be REPRESENTATIVE!!!

I do not believe in the supernational "PROVIDENTIAL GOD" of the Puritans. And the Framers didn't either. They believed in "moral order" as they formed the government in the Constitution. We are equal under law, and since the ammendment to protect against slavery, we are individuals who are ALL free to do as they please Under law!!

No organization has a right to usurp the individual's conscience. This is a basic human right, which can only be individually assessed, as organizations are formed by leaders and assented to by the individuals who become members. There is no co-ercion in this stucturing, such as was in the type of governing that was in the Puritanical commonwealth...

Tom Van Dyke said...

King of Ireland has represented my take very well. And I agree that bringing up the Inquisition every time Roman Catholicism is mentioned is poisonous to the discussion. It's analogous to playing the Hitler Card. Phil.

It is debatable just how Christian Aristotle, Thomas, and Locke's ideas are.

The problem, Jon, is that once this line of thought is declared not authentically Christian, the Enlightenment jumps in as the last man standing---to take all the credit for human rights and liberal democracy. It's a false dichotomy.

King of Ireland's remarks on John Locke's First Treatise are 100% on point with my mention of it being a refutation of Filmer's Patriarcha, which itself was written in rebuttal to the theologians Suarez and Bellarmine against the divine right of kings. It's quite a smoking gun.

And I also find his point that the armageddon that was French Revolution being at least partly attributable to not having the more theological First Treatise on hand is danged interesting.

King of Ireland said...

Jon,

From what I have read(I am a novice on some of this and read things and do not always have the time to verify) the argument that the Founders made against the King at the beginning was that he was violating their rights as Englishmen.

I read somewhere that they knew that Parliment had not backed them up on this argument and had decided to strip them of their rights under English law. It is then that they went toward the more universal argument for "inalienable rights". It is right in line with the same strategy that Hooker( I think it was Hooker) used during the English Civil War.

These were classical Christian arguments. It was the more "rational" branch of Christianity. Augustine had a tremendous influence on the Western World especially anywhere Calvinist ideas went. He seems to have had a more "gnostic" outlook that the world was evil. This would lead to a Buddhist/Hindu type desire to flee from it to the "spirit world".

But their is another school of thought that understands that the world and us as humans are fallen but still valauble. You see many Christians quote Jesus saying that we are not of this world. These same people ignore his call to pray to the Father that Heaven come to earth.

It is two views of God. They lead to two very different outlooks on life. But both are Historically and Theologically Christian.

Pinky said...

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Here is what I responded to: "Pinky, Yet John Calvin 'Pope of Geneva' had Servetus burned at the stake for preaching Unitarianism."
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I'm sorry your feelings were hurt; But, if there are taboo subjects that cannot be discussed at this site, perhaps someone had best post a list of proscriptions.
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What I wrote was appropriate to what Jonathon brought up.
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For those that missed it, I mentioned the fact that burning at the stake was a particular form of execution authorized by the church designed to show people what being in Hell was like.
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How does that ever get to be anything about Hitler?
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Pinky said...

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Angie wrote, I do not believe in the supernational "PROVIDENTIAL GOD" of the Puritans. And the Framers didn't either. They believed in "moral order" as they formed the government in the Constitution.
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Did you mean, supernatural?
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Having just finished Gordon S. Wood's, "The History of Rights in Early America", along with some other pertinent essays, I think your comment might be true in part. But, it misses the more important factor that the Framers [Founders?] DID believe in a supernatural omnipotence and, further, that there would be some sort of a personal judgment made of each person's life outside of temporal reality. It does appear--whether I like it or not--that Puritan Christianity had penetrated the Revoolution-Era thinking so that ALL Americans accepted its values in a fundamental way. To say America was not a Christian nation in a societal sense is blind sided.
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That has NOTHING to do with whether that culture was good or bad or in between. It's just the way things were--period.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Phil is correct. There's not a single Founding father who didn't believe in divine providence. Even Thomas Paine mentions it!

Angie, do you actually read this blog? For all our diverse POVs, there's never been disagreement on divine providence because the evidence is overwhelming.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The Jews were not in agreement as to "eternal life". The Greeks formed their ideas about eternity and science based on their speculations...not what we know of science today.

Since the Founders were in the "train of history" that had begun to recognize science in the way we understand it, then they had a "formula" through the Greeks and their understanding of "cause and effect" in science that helped them in creating America's foundations.

Society, or the average American, does evaluate things based on "tradition", as this is what they understand and have been taught. But, change elements have occurred throughout history that have challenged the status quo's view. We see this today in our government's attempt to revolutionize American government, to be more compliant with globalism.

So, is we ever get to the bottom of what the Founders really believed, does it matter, as to today's needs in society? I think that to protect the values of freedom, we must protect the Constitution. As "law" replaced theocratic God. God interevened in society through the law.

Some would believe that law was reflective of the "moral order", others would believe that it reflected God's law in the 10 Commandments...but I don't think they agreed. It may have sounded like it..

Tom Van Dyke said...


So, is we ever get to the bottom of what the Founders really believed, does it matter, as to today's needs in society?


If you don't know how a house is constructed, if you start tearing out beams willy-nilly, you're going to find the ceiling on your head.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Tom,
Your comment was unfair, as you left out what I added about our Constitution and our laws.

We don't know for sure what the Founders were thinking or believing for sure, but we do have things they have written. The Constitutions being of primary importance in what they wanted and how they viewed "good government'.

There is much written as to what good government is, and the Constitution upholds the values that the Founders thought was of importance in "good government". That is all we need to know, isn't it?

And when something comes up that stretches the Constitution, then the Supreme Court has been approved by the Founders to follow through with interpreting what was the law's intent...

Tom Van Dyke said...

That all depends on whether the limit of our discussion is only the Constitution. there was also federalism, which much of the governing of everyday life up to the states.

Further, as the Constitution is re-interpreted over the years, it's fair to ask whether judicial reinterpretation is really the government unilaterally rewriting the social contract.

Both parties must agree to a re-writing, not just one. Otherwise, it's tyranny.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Federalism does invest more in local politics, which represents the people. This is a good thing.

But, on the other hand, how is a "small and ingrown community" where neopotism is inevitable, going to be held accountable for indiscretions concerning 'civil rights"? I believe this is a pivotal issue concerning our individual liberties and holding indiscretions at a minimum...

Tom Van Dyke said...

Federalism does invest more in local politics, which represents the people. This is a good thing.

Hmmmmmm. Pinky, I think you're having an effect around here even if we haven't mainpaged you yet.

Angie---

But, on the other hand, how is a "small and ingrown community" where nepotism is inevitable, going to be held accountable for indiscretions concerning 'civil rights"?

is also bold & beautiful, and lays out the conundrum well.

I knew we keep you around here for some reason.

;-)