Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Boston Globe: "‘Nature’s God’ by Matthew Stewart"

Here. A taste: 
The book is a pleasure to read, its often surprising conclusions supported by elegant prose and more than 1,000 footnotes. Stewart’s erudite analysis confidently rebuts the creeping campaign of Christian nationalism to “ ‘take back’ the nation and make it what it never in fact was.” The next time someone like Jerry Falwell asserts that the United States is “a Christian nation,” he’ll have to answer to “Nature’s God.’’  
The United States, Stewart writes, was in fact founded by a “club of radical philosophers and their fellow travelers” who were known as deists in their day and today would be called “humanists, atheists, pantheists, freethinkers, [or] Universalists.” “America’s revolutionary deism remains an uncomfortable and underreported topic,” writes Stewart, and in his view the Revolutionary leaders — famous men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, as well as “Forgotten Founding Fathers” such as Thomas Young, one of the organizers of the Boston Tea Party — are themselves partly to blame, since for the most part they veiled their religious unorthodoxy for fear of condemnation.

Franklin, for example, urged his friend Ezra Stiles not to “expose me to Criticism and censure” by making his deistic beliefs known. George Washington, who refused to kneel in church or to take communion, simply declined to answer when asked by clerics whether he believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. “[T]he old fox was too cunning for them,” his friend and fellow freethinker Jefferson noted approvingly.

32 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

These "sophisticated" guys insisting on a Founding deism are just as wrong at the "Christian nationists" they sneer at.

http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Founding-Fathers-Were-Not-Deists-John-Fea-02-02-2011.html

Bill Fortenberry said...

That's an interesting choice of an extract, Jon. Like the rest of the article, and presumably Stewart's book, it is riddled with errors. There was a different portion of the article, however, which caught my attention:

But this was not “the fictitious, meddling deity of the religious imagination but . . . nature itself or the universe comprehended as a whole. It is a way of talking about God long after God is dead.” This is Nature as God, the “presiding deity of the American Revolution.”

Is this an accurate representation of Stewart's claim? If so, he couldn't be further from the truth. The phrase "nature's God" has a lengthy literary history linking it to the God of the Bible, and the two laws, that of nature and that of nature's God, were firmly established in the American mind as being the set of laws discoverable by reason and the set of laws found in the Bible. This was explained by both Blackstone and Wilson among many, many others.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I agree that there are problems with Stewart's book; I'm simply posting every review of it I see.

The history of "Nature's God" is actually more complex than what either Stewart OR YOU make it out to be.

"Nature" defines as discoverable through reason not revealed by the Bible. Therefore, LONAONG is a double invocation of reason. Likewise Blackstone and Wilson, as I have already pointed out, didn't have the same views of reason v. revelation. (Wilson never deprecated reason or subordinated it like the Tory Blackstone did). Finally, as Gary North pointed out it's not even clear if Blackstone meant what he said when he uttered the "proof quote" that Christian Nationalists like to cite.

jimmiraybob said...

Has anyone commenting on the book actually put in the effort to read the book? It's really not that difficult and it comes in at less than 600 pages.

Regardless of whether Stewart gets everything "right" - and anyone that's ever undertaken the task of writing knows what to make of this, it's a well composed book with intellectual heft and is a wealth of historical information on the transmission and reception of radical ideas of equality and democracy and God and Nature. Ideas that did in fact influence many of the founders and that are in fact excluded from a good deal of the historical narrative - especially, and for good reason, the narrow and selective Christian nation narratives.

This is a book that deserves better than to restrict commentary to mere slinging stuff at interviews.

Stewart, just like a philosopher would, spends a fair amount of time on ideas and the changing philosophy of mind, self and cosmos during the Enlightenment.

If you're not equally familiar with Stewart's thesis as you are with the religious influences weighing in during the founding then you only have, at best, half of the story. Nature's God is a very good start to a much broader understanding of our western intellectual tradition.







jimmiraybob said...

And yes, I am reading the book.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Well, I discovered that the Google preview includes the page from Stewart’s book which was quoted in the Globe article. On that page, Stewart quotes Thomas Young as saying:

That the religion of Nature, more properly stiled the Religion of Nature's God, in latin call'd Deus, hence Deism, is truth, I now boldly defy thee to contest.

Stewart quotes Young further as clarifying what he meant by the "Religion of Nature's God" by directing people to, "Pope's little Essay on Man," so let's take a look at the context of Pope's famous line about "Nature's God."

See the sole bliss Heav'n could on all bestow!
Which who but feels can taste, but think can know:
Yet poor with fortune, and with learning blind,
The bad must miss; the good, untaught, will find;
Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
But looks thro' Nature, up to Nature's God;
Pursues that Chain which links th' immense design,
Joins heav'n and earth, and moral and divine;
Sees, that no Being any bliss can know,
But touches some above, and some below;
Learns from this union the rising Whole,
The first, last purpose of the human soul;
And knows where Faith, Law, Morals, all began,
All end, in LOVE OF GOD, and LOVE OF MAN.
(emphasis in original)

Now, I’ve claimed that the phrase “Nature’s God” was well established as a reference to the God of the Bible while Jon has claimed that this is a reference to a god “discoverable through reason not revealed by the Bible,” but notice the last two lines of the quoted section. These lines are a reference to Matthew 22:37-40:

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

If Pope was referring to the words of Scripture as accurately depicting the first and the last purpose of the human soul, then it would seem to follow that the God whom he described as “Nature’s God” was indeed the God of the Bible. In fact, Pope actually admitted this himself in his commentary on these lines. In order to explain what he was referring to, Pope wrote:

(instead of adhering to any sect or party, where there was so great odds of his chusing wrong) that then the benefit of gaining the knowledge of God's will, written in the mind, is not confined there; for standing on this sure foundation, he is now no longer in danger of chusing wrong, amidst such diversities of Religious; but by pursuing this grand scheme of UNIVERSAL BENEVOLENCE in practice as well as theory, he arrives at length to the knowledge of the REVEALED will of God, which is the consummation of the system of benevolence. (emphasis in original)

http://books.google.com/books?id=MKk_AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA108

Here we have Alexander Pope himself stating that he was describing the man who begins searching for God through an application of his own reason to the things of nature that he observes around him thus discovering a “scheme of universal benevolence.” Then Pope explained that if this man were to further pursue this idea of universal benevolence, his path would eventually lead him to the “Revealed will of God.” Thus Pope assures us that he was indeed referring to the Scriptures in the final two lines of the above quote and, consequently, that he was referring to the biblical God when he spoke of “Nature’s God.”

Bill Fortenberry said...

This understanding of Pope’s statements is consistent with Bolingbroke’s comments about this idea in a letter that he wrote to Pope, Bolingbroke said:

You will find that it is the modest, not the presumptuous enquirer, who makes a real, and safe progress in the discovery of divine truths. One follows nature, and nature’s God; that is, he follows God in his works, and in his word.

And lest we doubt that Bolingbroke was here referring to the Bible, we should note that he further explained that:

They [the fathers of the Christian church] had a much surer criterion than human reason, they had divine reason, and the word of God to guide them, and to limit their enquiries ... Christians ... made a very ill use of revelation and reason both. Instead of employing the superior principle to direct and confine the inferior, they employed it to sactify all that wild imagination, the passions, and the interests of the ecclesiastical order sugested. This abuse of revelation was so scandalous, that whilst they were building up a system of religion, under the name of Christianity, every one who sought to signalize himself inthe enterprize, and they were multitudes, dragged the scriptures to his opinion by different interpretations, paraphrases, and comments.

http://books.google.com/books?id=FoArAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA344

Here again, we see that when Bolingbroke discussed “nature’s God” with Pope, he was referring to the God of the Bible and not merely to a nebulous god which is discoverable by reason apart from revelation. By the way, we can also see in this statement that Bolingbroke viewed revelation to be superior to reason.

In addition to Bolingbroke, we could look also at William Warburton who wrote a defense of Pope’s essay. In this defense, we can see that Warburton and his opponent DeCrousaz both recognized the above segment of Pope’s essay to be a reference to the God of the Bible. Here is what Warburton wrote:

That then the Benefit of gaining the Knowledge of God's Will written in the Mind, is not there confined; for that standing on this sure Foundation, he is now no longer in Danger of chusing wrong, amidst such Diversities of Religions; but by pursuing this grand Scheme of Universal Benevolence, in Practice, as well as Theory, he arrives at length to the Knowledge of the revealed Will of God which is the Consumination of the System of Benevolence...

But let us once more hear Mr. DeCrousaz: "We are brought (says he) at length to the Truths of Revelation..."

...The Poet, in the last Place, marks out [from l. 342 to 363] the Progress of his Good Man's Benevolence, pushed thro' natural Religion to revealed, 'till it arrives to that Height, which the Sacred Writers describe as the very Summit of Christian Perfection.


http://books.google.com/books?id=w4ZaAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA171

Now we have heard from Pope, Bolingbroke, Warburton and DeCrousaz all agreeing that the phrase “Nature’s God” is a reference to the God of the Bible. I have not read any of Thomas Young’s writings to determine if he realized that Pope was speaking of the Christian God, but if he did not, then that was certainly an error on his part. Pope used this phrase in its standard sense as a specific reference to the God of the Bible and not to a god “discoverable through reason not revealed by the Bible.”

Tom Van Dyke said...

Blogger Bill Fortenberry said...
Well, I discovered that the Google preview includes the page from Stewart’s book which was quoted in the Globe article.


And I suffered reading through numerous reviews [with direct quotes] and an interview transcript [all direct quotes].

But no, unless you shell out $25 for his shitty book and read it cover to cover, you're not entitled to an opinion.

Screw that. If his publisher sends out free copies so we read the reviews, and he does interviews to get people to buy the book--plus free Google previews--after wasting an hour [I have] on his BS we're entitled to cut our losses.

He got a better hearing than he earned. I only hope the anti-David Barton "guardians of truth" expose this puppy for what he is.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Mr. Fortenberry, I will repeat the term "Nature" defines as "discoverable by reason" as opposed to revealed by man directly from God.

The figures you discuss both Bolingbroke AND Pope are "Deists." I don't know as much about Pope as I do Bolingbroke, but among the latter, it's not controversial that Bolingbroke was a "Deist."

If there is a kernel of truth in your observation it's that the "English Deists" tended not to be pure, strict deists but what Drs. Waligore and Holmes call "Christian-Deists" or Dr. Frazer terms "theistic rationalists."

If Bolingbroke believed that ANY of the Bible was revelation in a God speaking to man sense, he had no problems throwing large parts of it out (he probably threw out more than Jefferson) because his own reason told him to.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I am not disputing your definition of "Nature." I am disputing the claim that "Nature's God" is nothing more than nature itself. And regardless of our disagreement on the religion of Bolingbroke, the fact that he referred to "Nature's God" as being the God of the Bible is undeniable. It is nearly impossible to prove from the text of Bolingbroke's famous letter that he is referring to anything else. I suspect that this is why authors like Matthew Stewart tend to truncate Bolingbroke's statement. In fact, Stewart very shrewdly avoided quoting Bolingbroke's statement at all, and he limits his reference to "Nature's God" in Pope's essay to a mere two lines from the poem.

Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
But looks thro' Nature, up to Nature's God;

"True piety," in other words, consists in the scientific study of nature, not in adherence to any private, sectarian faith.

The phrase "Nature's God" also appears in one of the letters that Bollingbroke sent to Pope, composed before the Essay was but published long after. Bolingbroke undoubtedly drew support for the intuition, if not the phrase itself, from his encounters with Shaftesbury and Locke among others. Whatever the actual and unrecoverable chain of direct and personal influences -- and even allowing that they might well have drawn their inspiration directly from those glowing stars and blossoming trees without need of elaborate metaphysical treatises -- those two philosophers and their many allies were simply decorating an idea that emerged in antiquity, was present in the work of Bruno and Vanini among others, and was most perspicuously articulated by Spinoza. To cut a long story short: "Nature's God," the God of Thomas Young and the presiding deity of the American Revolution is another word for "Nature."
(pg 183)

This is an example of incredible ignorance at best and far more likely an intentional attempt at deception.

jimmiraybob said...

Bill Fortenberry - ...Bolingbroke, the fact that he referred to "Nature's God" as being the God of the Bible is undeniable."

Have you cited this here before? Can you point the interested observer to Bolingbroke's specific statement?

Bill Fortenberry said...

See my previous comment.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"'I am disputing the claim that 'Nature's God' is nothing more than nature itself."

Some may claim that. In fact from what I remember both Madison and Wilson had quotations where they blended the two as though they were the same thing and said something like "Nature or more properly speaking the Author of Nature ...." But that's not what I claimed.

Rather it's that "Nature's God" is what we know about God from reason alone without the assistance of divine revelation found in sacred holy texts.

"And regardless of our disagreement on the religion of Bolingbroke, the fact that he referred to 'Nature's God' as being the God of the Bible is undeniable."

It is absolutely deniable considering Bolingbroke disbelieved in MOST of the Bible. He gave MOST of the Bible the same "credit" as "holy scripture" as what you give the Book of Mormon or the Koran.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Jon, if I speak of the dwarves of Tolkien and then say that I don't view the Silmarillion as one Tolkien's books, that does not mean that my reference to dwarves was really a reference to the seven dwarves of Disney's Snow White.

Daniel said...

I haven't read the book so I am qualified to comment on it. I am confused by some of the distinctions being drawn (and not drawn) both in the review and this discussion. "The God of the Bible", "Nature's God", and nature are overlapping terms but are not the same.

To say that "Nature's God" is the God who is discoverable through reason seems to be consistent with Enlightenment usage. Enlightenment thought demonstrates that this process can give us the God of the Bible, a modified version of the God of the Bible, or a completely different concept of God.

It is easy to find relatively orthodox Christians who agree that God is discoverable through reason although most agree that some aspects of God are knowable only through revelation. It is my impression that most Deists would have agreed that nature's God is the God of the Bible, with the caveat that the Bible can be incomplete, corrupted, inaccurate, or wrong.

But to say that "Nature's God" means nature is entirely different from saying it means a God who is discoverable through nature. Spinoza thought "nature" (or "the cosmos") was a mode of "the God of Nature". Does Stewart point to any clear statements of Founders who seemed to accept Spinoza's understanding of God? (as opposed to simply using similar language?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Bill,

I think a better example would be what if a reference were made to the "orcs" without crediting Tolkien. To which, one might observe: "that's unmistakably the orcs of Tolkien." But when those orcs then meet with with Lolth in an adventure, a more accurate reply might be "those are the orcs of Dungeons and Dragons."

Bill Fortenberry said...

No, Jon. That would not better example, for as I pointed out in a previous comment, Bolingbroke specifically credited the revelation given to the father's of the Christian church which, of course, was the Bible.

Jonathan Rowe said...

No it wasn't. "The Bible" is a canon of books most of which Bolingbroke didn't believe.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Really? So then, what was the revelation that was given to the father's of the Christian church?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Before there was a canon selected by a "Church" there was no Bible. The Church preceded the Bible. Jesus founded a church; he didn't write a Bible. They had tradition and certain sacred holy texts which would later make it into a Bible.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Daniel said...

Does Stewart point to any clear statements of Founders who seemed to accept Spinoza's understanding of God? (as opposed to simply using similar language?


That'll do for starters.

Next is how well the Founders were even able to understand such a complex thinker.

And this book argues

http://is.gd/mbNmK3

that Spinoza was quite the Hobbesian, entirely comfortable with the state dictating religious orthodoxy for the sake of peace and stability.

Bill Fortenberry said...

You're avoiding the question, Jon. The God that Bolingbroke referred to as Nature's God was the God that he viewed as giving revelation to the father's of the Christian church. What revelation do you suppose that Bolingbroke was talking about?

Daniel said...

TVD,
I wouldn't expect that many of the founders would have a full understanding of Spinoza [or that I ever will], but that doesn't mean they can't have absorbed and accepted major elements of his thought (or less complex versions of them).

I speculate about Spinoze because I can think of no other Enlightenment thinker who closely approaches pantheism. If pantheism is found in our Founding, I suspect his influence. If that is Stewart's claim, his book could be interesting. If his claim is simply based on the fact that "Nature's God" of the Founding sounds like Spinoza's "God of Nature", or that 18th century thought processed through Stewart's 20th century lens leads to atheism and pantheism, then I agree with your assessment.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Daniel, I've skimmed through the chapter entitled: "On the Genealogy of Nature's God," and most of it is based on speculations drawn from similar word usage. I would imagine that Stewart follows the same pattern throughout the rest of the book as well, and as I pointed out in my comments above, he has a tendency to truncate his sources to avoid statements which demonstrate that they did not hold to the view that he attributes to them.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Fortenberry: Tolkien did create the concept of the Orcs which were then plucked from that context, changed and put in a new world of Dungeons and Dragons.

Asking whether Bolingbroke's God is the God of the Bible (or not) is like asking whether Gary Gygax's Orcs are Tolkiens Orcs.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Or for a closer analogy, asking whether Bolingbroke's God is the God of the Bible is like asking whether the Mormons' "God the Father" is the God of the Bible.

Mormon's God of Abraham traces directly to the God of the Old Testament and the "revelation" given to the early Church Fathers of the Christian Church.

Indeed, the Mormons, Jehovah's Witness's, Christian-Unitarians, Christian-Deists like Bolingbroke (as far as I understand the "Christian" component to his deistic theology), and now you, Mr. Fortenberry, make strikingly similar arguments and it's this:

God did reveal to man and this revelation continued on with Jesus and the early Church. But that church soon because corrupted. By the time the Nicene Creed was formulated, the damage was already done. And the Nicene Creed itself was a product of that corruption.

Now, since the Church who wrote the Nicene Creed is ALSO the Church who more of less formulated the biblical canon, it stands to reason that the canon itself (that is what orthodox Christians understand to be "the Bible") is itself corrupted.

Therefore, even though God did reveal to man in sacred holy texts, it's not "the Bible" simpliciter that is "the Word of God" because though "the Bible" may CONTAIN revelation, it's corrupted.

It is entirely arguable whether these folks: the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian-Unitarians, Christian-Deists, Bolinbroke, believe in "the God of the Bible" if the Bible is properly understood to be a particular canon of books selected by the Early Church (which is what it is).

Bill Fortenberry said...

Jon, let me suggest that you consider Bolingbroke's argument in defense of the Bible. You can find it in pages 353-361 of volume three of his works at this LiNM: http://books.google.com/books?id=vUSyllaj7H0C&pg=PA353

jimmiraybob said...

Bill Fortenberry - Pope actually admitted this himself in his commentary on these lines. In order to explain what he was referring to, Pope wrote:

"(instead of adhering to any sect or party, where there was so great odds of his chusing wrong) that then the benefit of gaining the knowledge of God's will, written in the mind, is not confined there; for standing on this sure foundation, he is now no longer in danger of chusing wrong, amidst such diversities of Religious; but by pursuing this grand scheme of UNIVERSAL BENEVOLENCE in practice as well as theory, he arrives at length to the knowledge of the REVEALED will of God, which is the consummation of the system of benevolence." (emphasis in original)

I believe that if you check more closely that the "Notes" are not Pope's words but a second party's comments, per the Title:

An Essay on Man by Alexander pope, Esq., Enlarged and Improved by the Author. Together with his MS. Additions and Variations as in the Last Editions of his Works. With the NOTES of William, Lord Bishop of Gloucester. Published MDCCLXIII (1763)

jimmiraybob said...

Bill Fortenberry - All end, in LOVE OF GOD, and LOVE OF MAN. (emphasis in original)

Now, I’ve claimed that the phrase “Nature’s God” was well established as a reference to the God of the Bible while Jon has claimed that this is a reference to a god “discoverable through reason not revealed by the Bible,” but notice the last two lines of the quoted section. These lines are a reference to Matthew 22:37-40:

This is your attribution since Pope makes no reference to Scripture or Christianity in the entirety of the poem. Similarity does not necessitate a direct reliance and the phrasing that Pope uses is entirely consistent with a Deistic reading.

Also, assuming that this one line is based on Scripture and not the contemporary Philosopher's discussions at the time, which certainly included a deity in exclusion of specific Christian reference and specifically associated with a God consistent with nature alone, is anachronistic and commits the Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc ("after this, therefore because of this") fallacy - mere temporal succession does not entail causal succession.

For the record, I am not arguing Pope's personal believes here.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Thank you, Jim. I must have missed the light text on my small screen. I've corrected the reference in my personal notes.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well done, JRB. Not easy to out-Fortenberry Fortenberry. Props.

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