Sunday, May 22, 2016

Christianity Wthout Orthodoxy: William Livingston Might Hold the Key

To unlocking a certain strain of the "Christian" political theology of the American Founding.

While William Livingston was associated with a number of different denominations, he described himself as "more than half a Quaker." He did a satire on the 39 articles of faith of the Anglican church which amounts to an attack on orthodoxy, creeds and clericalism. He also slammed the Athanasian creed which led me to conclude Livingston was a unitarian. But that might have been a bridge too far on my part.

Rather it's more of a reductio ad absurdum of the individualism of biblical Protestantism that leaves it up to him to decide on what the faith means. The concept of Priesthood of all believers. But unlike many evangelical Protestants of today who pick an understanding and then claim all true believers will understand "this" is what the Bible means, and then they endlessly squabble, Livingston understood his approach would naturally lead to dispute and he embraced that reality.

He didn't care what other people believed on the "finer" points of Christianity. That is, he didn't care about "orthodoxy." No need to squabble.

It also "fits" with the individualistic nature of Enlightenment liberalism. Garry Wills' book that dealt with the matter had many inadequacies. But one strength was it noted Quakerism and unitarianism as the kinds of faiths that "fit" the age of Enlightenment which birthed the American Founding.

At least "fit" from the from the perspective of prevailing intellectual thought, ideals, and so on. There were plenty of unthinking masses who belonged to churches with not just orthodox creeds, but orthodox ministers who may have defended them.

Livingston, for instance, became associated with the Presbyterians. But it would be a mistake to conclude he was a TULIP Calvinist who defended the creeds and confessions of that church. In fact, he rejected all of it.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Rather it's more of a reductio ad absurdum of the individualism of biblical Protestantism that leaves it up to him to decide on what the faith means.

Not absurd atall--it's a structural inevitability of Protestantism. The "co-founder" of Lutheranism, Philipp Melanchthon, saw Michael Servetus's questioning of the Trinity as a natural byproduct of Luther's rejection of the Catholic Church's "magisterium"--the authority to interpret the Bible and promulgate doctrine.

What I view as the analytical mistake is to credit "the Enlightenment" for what the Reformation wrought. The Enlightenment should be credited [blamed] for the French Revolution, not the American one. Where America let 1000 flowers of religion bloom, the French model aspired to stamp them out.

They put a naked chick on the altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, fer crissakes, and renamed it "The Temple of Reason." Hamilton was rightly appalled by the whole thing.

JMS said...

TVD - When it comes to the Reformation, you seem to only acknowledge its powerful ideas and ignore the bloody religious wars it unleashed, whereas with the French Revolution, you ignoring its noble ideas and focus exclusively on its violent and repressive repercussions. But you are right about a current of Reformation ramifications in the form of the early 18th century “Great Awakening.”

If I read Jon’s blogpost reference correctly (i.e., Gary Wills “Head and Heart”), while coming towards each other from opposite poles of the faith - reason spectrum, both the Great Awakening and the post-1740 ‘second wave” Enlightenment coalesced around challenging traditional thought and received wisdom, and both centered on individual experience.

The American Enlightenment was at least in one important sense a reaction against the religious wars of 17th century Europe. Hence the growing emphasis on “reason” as a governing principle for human life, rather than religious “enthusiasm” or established church tradition as noted in Locke’s influential “The Reasonableness of Christianity” (1695). The Enlightenment gave freer rein and a language to critique the hereditary privilege and power of social (religions) and political (governments) institutions.

Most orthodox American Protestants (like the devout Newton) accepted Newton’s theories, along with less orthodox Quakers, Unitarians, and ecumenical individuals like William Livingston. As historian John Ferling noted about Jonathan Lyon’s recent book (“The Society for Useful Knowledge”), “Nothing was more crucial to America's founding than the Enlightenment, and no one played a more important role than Benjamin Franklin in transmitting the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment to the wider public in the form of useful knowledge.” The Boston Globe reviewer added that what the Enlightenment contributed to the religious and political foundations of the American founding was “part of a slow shift from a tradition- and faith-based culture and body politic to one of rational skepticism, empirical investigation, and, ultimately, the idea of a democratic republic in place of an inherited [monarchical] aristocracy.”

Tom Van Dyke said...

Those are not arguments, they are assertions.

And I certainly do not minimize the hell that Luther unleashed with his rejection of the Catholic magisterium. Neither did he.

As for the hell of the French Revolution, that speaks for itself.