Saturday, February 20, 2010

Competing Definitions of "Deism" and "Christianity"

During America's Founding era, and today, "Christianity" and "Deism" didn't have univocal meanings, part of what makes the "Christian Nation" debate tough but interesting.

A friend emailed arguing for a broader definition of "Deism." Indeed, scholars have used terms like "warm Deism," or "Providential Deism" to describe the religion of Washington, Franklin, etc.

Thomas Jefferson, from what little he wrote on Deism, seemed to endorse a very broad understanding of Deism, that is belief in one God. He wrote of the "Deism" of the Jews.

In an 1803 letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Jefferson wrote:

II. JEWS. 1. Their system was Deism; that is, the belief of one only God. But their ideas of him & of his attributes were degrading & injurious.


1. [Jesus] corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.

According to Jefferson, Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, Christians are all "Deists," because they all worship one God. Well...maybe not Trinitarians because they worship three gods. :)

Jefferson's understanding of "Deism" is arguably too broad to be meaningful. And, also arguably, an understanding of "Christianity" that holds anyone who calls himself a Christian (even if an agnostic or an atheist) is too broad to be meaningful.

Scholars can also unfairly play the broad/narrow game to unfairly claim the religion of the American Founders for the side they desire.

As I wrote on Secular Right's website comment thread:

... One unfair thing scholars from both sides do is read one term broadly and the other narrowly to try and “capture” a Founder for each respective side.

The broad understanding of Deism includes belief in an active personal Providence. The broad definition of Christianity includes anyone who call himself a Christian or is formally/nominally associated with a Christian church.

The narrow definition of Deism means belief in a non-intervening God. The narrow definition of Christianity requires strict adherence to the orthodox Trinitarianism found in, for instance, the Nicene Creed.

Broadly understood, the “key FFs” (the first 4 Presidents, Ben Franklin and a few others) were both “Christians” and “Deists.” Hence David Holmes’ term “Christian-Deism” to describe their creed. Narrowly understood they were neither. Hence terms like “unitarianism” or “theistic rationalism” to describe this creed.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I think the real problem of today's discussion is much deeper than "warm deism"...or a "personal Providence". That view is affirmed by evangelicals, and conservative Protestantims.But, believeing such is also an exclusive claim to revelation, which is irrational commitment.

The underlying philosophical question is whether Chrsitianity is a philosophy or a commitment. Commitment is what the conservative want to demand, because of their belief in a personal God, versus the "cold evolution of chance" or the , impersonalability of "god" or "no god at all".

One can argue 'god' because of "limits to reason", but what difference is that argument from the "god of the gaps"? Humans just give credence to "god" for whatever is not understood scientifically?

I think that the Founders understood Christianity as a philosophy. And political philosophy was of importance in their understanding of "faith". The "separation of Church and State" protected the right of religious freedom/difference.

Today should be no different. Political freedom should allow for religious freedom.

The Dali Llama stated that he wanted "religious freedom" but he not say "political freedom". He understood that religious freedom is "untouchable" by scientific these convictions are "beyond the realm of science". Therefore, he does not entangle himself with political philosophy, but with religious freedom, which affirms "human rights" under individual or a sect's conscience/values.

Ray Soller said...

Jon, If I know anything about your friend, it wasn't that he was simply asking "for a broader definition of 'Deism'." He was asking why the belief in a non-interventionist god was being used to circumscribe what deism, in its historical context, was meant to be. As far as I can tell, this approach is the same as saying that deism implies a belief in evolution. Now, If Thomas Paine or Jefferson, for example, had said that they believed in a "watchmaker god" that had no involvement with his creation, then I can understand. Otherwise, the "watchmaker god" appears to be an anachronism.

Daniel said...

Do you have a sense of the origin of the definition of "Deism" as belief in a God who started it all with no active involvement thereafter? In the 20th century, that was the accepted definition. In the 18th, it seems to be much more slippery. As with many definitions: "Christian", you have noted, but also "atheist".