Thursday, January 5, 2012

Enlightenment Deism

Dr. Joseph Waligore has published online some of his what I see as very important research clarifying what the "Enlightenment Deists" believed in.

A taste:

While almost all scholars continually assert that the God of the Enlightenment deists was a remote, uninvolved, watchmaker God that generated no love or warmth in people, none of these assertions are true. A majority of the deists thought God or the angels performed miracles; many of them prayed fervently to a God they adored; some even went into raptures of ecstasy at God’s wonderful benevolence. Some of them believed God or the angels protected people from danger by putting thoughts into people’s minds warning them of danger. Many believed the devil might perform miracles, and so any possible revelation backed by miracles had to be examined to be sure it was not done by the devil. A significant number of them viewed themselves as sincere Christians who spent their lives explaining where and why orthodox Christianity had strayed from Jesus’ simple message. A few were more interesting or featherbrained (depending on your perspective): one believed an angel had given him the key to interpreting prophecy, another said he received a sign from God to publish his first book, and another believed in reincarnation. Enlightenment deism was not modern secularism, or even a halfway house to it; the deists were preaching a religious alternative to orthodox Christianity that they hoped the world would embrace. Their piety and theology has been neglected, but it is due to our misunderstanding of it and not their theology’s lack of interest or influence on our culture’s intellectual history.

The entire article is worth a careful read. I’m not sure if I am comfortable calling this “Deism”: but Waligore’s point is that many of the folks we think of as “Enlightenment Deists" actually believed THIS. If it's proper to term this Deism, it's certainly a form of "Christian-Deism" as David L. Holmes termed it.

14 comments:

bpabbott said...

My view of Deism of the 17/18th centuries has a lot of overlap with Christianity, minus the doctrine.

At the same time, I'm curious when Deism became synonymous with the absent watchmaker.

Ray Soller said...

Good question. I'd like to know the answer for that too.

Here's a snippet from the article Watchmaker Analogy where Wikipedia cites William Paley, Natural Theology (1802):

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (...) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (...) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.[end snippet]

Paley doesn't put God in the "absentee" category. His analogy is an argument from "intelligent design." The idea that God is not physically present in the same room as the watch may be implicit in Paley's analogy, but the idea that a creator-god needs to periodically intervene by rewinding the clock or be reseeting the hour and minute hand is not excluded either.

The notion that the God of America's civil religion doesn't fit the absentee mold is expressed by Robert N. Bellah in his 1966 essay Civil Religion in America:

The God of the civil religion is not only rather "unitarian," he is also on the austere side, much more related to order, law, and right than to salvation and love. Even though he is somewhat deist in cast, he is by no means simply a watchmaker God. He is actively interested and involved in history, with a special concern for America.

The God of the civil religion is not only rather "unitarian," he is also on the austere side, much more related to order, law, and right than to salvation and love. Even though he is somewhat deist in cast, he is by no means simply a watchmaker God. He is actively interested and involved in history, with a special concern for America. [end Bellah quote}

So, as a rough first guess I'd say that the idea of an absentee watchmaker god emerged somewhere between 1802 and 1966.

Mark in Spokane said...

Jon,

Thanks for posting this. Great historical support for the simple fact that the Deists during the Founding Period were not simply a manifestation of watered down religion, but were an actual religious tradition that believed in the intervention of the supernatural in the natural world. In this respect, the Deists of the Enlightenment were much more in agreement with the orthodox Christian perspective than they are with many of their modern admirers.

Great post -- as always!

Jason Pappas said...

Quite an eye-opener. I conceived of deism as the "absentee watchmaker god" but obviously an active god that works through rather than around natural law is a possibility I didn't consider. Odd, that I didn't since I knew of the Stoic conception of God and the Stoic influence during the Enlightenment. Great read ... and quite enlightening.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If it's proper to term this Deism, it's certainly a form of "Christian-Deism" as David L. Holmes termed it.

I'll go one better, Jon. Although "Judeo-Christianity" is a term only from the 20th century---never used in the Foundi9ng era, esp since there were so few Jews thereabouts---it's accurate. It leaves out the question of whether Jesus was "the Christ," esp divine, God, the #2 in the Trinity, etc.

But George Washington equated the "Providence" of the Founding with Jehovah in his historic letter to the Jews of Savannah:

May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, and planted them in the promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven, and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.

The God of these "deists" was the Jehovah of the Old Testament. The Founders did not invent a new God in the name of The Enlightenment. They kept the old one.

Mark in Spokane said...

Excellent point, Tom, and one that is consistent with Washington's statement in the Circular Letter of 1783 about the "Divine Author of our religion" -- a veiled reference to Jesus, from the way Washington lists the Divine Author's virtues.

bpabbott said...

I do think there is less distance between Deism and Christianity than than most understand.

I also think that there is very little overlap between Deism and Orthodox Christian doctrine. Specifically the Nicene Creed. There is equally little overlap between Christianity and the modern Deists' divine, but absent, watchmaker.

The features of deism are listed in Wikipedia. The God of Deism embodies things like supreme being, divine watchmaker, grand architect of the universe, nature's god, father of lights and (imo) providence, "right makes might", etc.

Deism would exclude claims of the revealed word (the divinity of scripture), demagogy, dogma, and miracles such as virgin birth, resurrection. I'd expect faith healings, casting out of demons, etc. are also rejected, but that may just be a projection of myself.

The problem I see with associating the Deist God with Jehovah of the Old Testament, is that Deism rejects the Old Testament as divine.

At the same time, I do think it correct that the Deist, and Christians, (as well as Jews, and Muslims) are all worshiping the same basic concept of a God. The problem is what is a proper name for the God of our nation's founding? I also think the answer will vary depending upon context. My impression is that the God of the DoI contains no part offensive to Deism or Christianity, but that the God favored by society of the founding would be of a distinctly Christian flavor.

Mark in Spokane said...

Except that what moderns mean by "Deism" and what people at the time of the Founding meant by "Deism" are two different things. Read Ben Franklin's writing on religion, and it is quite clear that he believed in a providential deity who intervened in human affairs, who should be worshipped and prayed to, who would judge each person after death and provide rewards and punishments in the afterlife. And Franklin, keep in mind, was considered to be relatively non-religious in his day. Even Thomas Paine, who certainly was no friend to Christianity, had a far more orthodox theology than most modern Deists.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"The problem is what is a proper name for the God of our nation's founding?"

This is an issue. It has to has to with exclusivity or inclusiveness. An inclusive ecumenical Jehovah is fine, not an exclusive one. It's Jehovah; it's the Father; it's the God Muslims worship; it's also "The Great Spirit."

bpabbott said...

Mark, I agree. We should be careful to define / qualify the terms we use. If we are to allow those with the more extreme views define our terms we have no hope of arriving at a reasonable estimation of the truth.

The Nicene creed vs the absent watchmaker is simply a false dichotomy.

joseph waligore said...

Tom, you say "The God of these "deists" was the Jehovah of the Old Testament." While I can see why you would think that, a decent number of these deists had major problems with the Jewish conception of God. Some deists accepted the Christian revelation, but rejected the idea the Jews had a revelation. Thomas Morgan was the best known deist of this type.

It is also a mistake to identify the deist God with the Christian god. Many deists believed in an active
God but were not Christians. Their God can better be seen as a Stoic God than a Christian one.

bpabbott said...

From wikipedia's article on Stoicism: " Stoics were concerned with the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is in accord with nature. Because of this, the Stoics presented their philosophy as a way of life, and they thought that the best indication of an individual's philosophy was not what a person said but how he behaved.[2]"

Joseph, the description of Stoicism from Wikipedia does look apt to me.

Any idea to what extent Stoicism was studied by the founders, or more generally by those who attended institutions of higher education?

jimmiraybob said...

JW - "Their God can better be seen as a Stoic God than a Christian one."

Being a working stiff I've never had a chance to flesh this out, but it's an interesting accent to a line of argument that I was attempting in comments at this post:

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2011/12/would-american-founders-have-affirmed.html

When you read pre-Christian, Roman stoic sources there is an amazing similarity in expression with that of some of the founders, including GW.

When speaking of the Great Author, wonder-working Deity, nature's God, or our Creator, it just seems that more explicit reference is needed to tie it in with Jehovah or Christianity. Especially, when so many bedrock tenets of Christianity (both orthodox and heterodox) are rejected by a speaker or author.

As to Deism being about a blind watchmaker God, this never seemed to jibe with usage by the likes of de Toqueville or Jefferson with reference to the Jews:

"I should then take a view of the deism and ethics of the Jews, and show in what a degraded state they were, and the necessity they presented of a reformation. I should proceed to a view of the life, character, and doctrines of Jesus, who sensible of incorrectness of their ideas of the Deity, and of morality, endeavored to bring them to the principles of a pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes

Correspondence 375

"of God, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice and philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state."


- The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Definitive Edition, 1907 @ http://www.constitution.org/tj/jeff10.txt

Tom Van Dyke said...

Dr. Waligore:

Tom, you say "The God of these "deists" was the Jehovah of the Old Testament." While I can see why you would think that, a decent number of these deists had major problems with the Jewish conception of God. Some deists accepted the Christian revelation, but rejected the idea the Jews had a revelation. Thomas Morgan was the best known deist of this type.

Thank you, Dr. Waligore. I was referring to the "deists" among the Founders, Jefferson the exception, as I agree I've not found him ever accepting revelation in any form.


For instance, we have a passing reference by Madison to Dr. Samuel Clarke's work on metaphysics, which is similar to Aquinas'.

What I'm trying to say here is that the monotheistic God of the Founding is completely compatible with that of the Bible, as well as Clarke's or Thomas'.

The Stoics are in the neighborhood, but God is not necessarily the monotheistic one or incompatible with the Greco-Roman scheme.

I do hope you're reading this and will stop by our little blog now & then. I'm sure there were some deists who reconceived God from scratch, but in the American milieu, it was all of a fabric.

[Even Jefferson made God leading the Israelites out of Egypt his personal seal. Although I think he rejected revelation, even he might have held the door open for Jehovah.]