Thursday, July 30, 2009

Samuel West, Reason & Revelation

Probably one of the most contentious assertions of Dr. Gregg Frazer' PhD thesis on "theistic rationalism" as the prevailing political theology of the American Founding is the tenet of "theistic rationalism" that holds while some of the Bible is divinely inspired and while reason and revelation by in large agree, all apparent contradictions between the two must be resolved in favor of "reason." Hence, "reason trumps revelation." Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in their private letters say this in no uncertain terms. I think we could probably add Ben Franklin to the list. He promoted "rational Christianity," doubted the Trinity, admired the "unitarian dissenters" in England like Joseph Priestley (considered unitarians "honest" and "rational") and in one letter stated certain things in the Bible are IMPOSSIBLE to have been given by divine inspiration. Likewise the Rev. Joseph Priestley, a key influence on the American Founders, held the "plenary inspiration of the Bible" to be one of the "corruptions of Christianity."

But there was something more subtle going on as well. American unitarian patriotic preachers like Revs. Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, and Samuel West, while they purported to hold both reason and revelation in high regard, didn't go around explicitly claiming "reason trumps revelation" (as far as I have read). However, I think one could argue this is what they DID in their hermeneutic approach to the Bible. In their political sermons, they would first assert things like the law of nature as determined by reason is God given and consequently immutable. When posed with theological issues, in particular submission to tyrants, they would look first NOT to the Bible, but rather to nature/reason for the answer. Once nature/reason determined the TRUTH on the matter, they "found" confirmation in the Bible, even if they had to adopt an odd hermeneutic in order to make "reason and revelation" agree. Thus, they may not have said: "The Bible is partially inspired and fallible; reason trumps revelation." But I think one could argued they PROCEEDED as though this were the case.

With that, let's examine one of Rev. Samuel West's sermons on revolution. West, along with fellow unitarians Mayhew, Cooper, Chauncy and others, promoted the revolutionary cause and they were key in securing its success.

From West's Election Day Sermon. First, West makes it clear that discoveries of reason are at least as viable as scripture:

Now, whatever right reason requires as necessary to be done is as much the will and law of God as though it were enjoined us by an immediate revelation from heaven, or commanded in the sacred Scriptures.

Next West asserts scripture or "right revelation" cannot contract "reason" or the "natural law."

A revelation, pretending to be from God, that contradicts any part of natural law, ought immediately to be rejected as an imposture; for the Deity cannot make a law contrary to the law of nature without acting contrary to himself,–a thing in the strictest sense impossible, for that which implies contradiction is not an object of the divine power.

He then imports wholly a-biblical Lockean “state of nature” teachings -- discoveries "found" in "nature" -- as decisive on the matter:

That we may understand the nature and design of civil government, and discover the foundation of the magistrate’s authority to command, and the duty of subjects to obey, it is necessary to derive civil government from its original, in order to which we must consider what “state all men are naturally in, and that is (as Mr. Locke observes) a state of perfect freedom to order all their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any man.” It is a state wherein all are equal,–no one having a right to control another, or oppose him in what he does, unless it be in his own defence, or in the defence of those that, being injured, stand in need of his assistance.

Had men persevered in a state of moral rectitude, every one would have been disposed to follow the law of nature, and pursue the general good. In such a state, the wisest and most experienced would undoubtedly be chosen to guide and direct those of less wisdom and experience than themselves,–there being nothing else that could afford the least show or appearance of any one’s having the superiority or precedency over another; for the dictates of conscience and the precepts of natural law being uniformly and regularly obeyed, men would only need to be informed what things were most fit and prudent to be done in those cases where their inexperience or want of acquaintance left their minds in doubt what was the wisest and most regular method for them to pursue. In such cases it would be necessary for them to advise with those who were wiser and more experienced than themselves. But these advisers could claim no authority to compel or to use any forcible measures to oblige any one to comply with their direction or advice. There could be no occasion for the exertion of such a power; for every man, being under the government of right reason, would immediately feel himself constrained to comply with everything that appeared reasonable or fit to be done, or that would any way tend to promote the general good. This would have been the happy state of mankind had they closely adhered to the law of nature, and persevered in their primitive state.

Thus we see that a state of nature, though it be a state of perfect freedom, yet is very far from a state of licentiousness….

After establishing the state of nature/man’s reason as the decisive standard to which any truth must conform, West concludes:

The doctrine of nonresistance and unlimited passive obedience to the worst of tyrants could never have found credit among mankind had the voice of reason been hearkened to for a guide, because such a doctrine would immediately have been discerned to be contrary to natural law.

After answering the question using reason and Lockean theories, Samuel West then looks to the scriptures for support, already having his mind made up as to what the final outcome must be. The proof texts are Romans 13 and Titus iii which seem to instruct believers to submit to and obey the civil magistrate even if tyrants:

This account of the nature and design of civil government, which is so clearly suggested to us by the plain principles of common sense and reason, is abundantly confirmed by the sacred Scriptures….in Rom. xiii., the first six verses: “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers; for there is no power but of God. The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation; for rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For, for this cause pay you tribute also; for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.” A very little attention, I apprehend, will be sufficient to show that this text is so far from favoring arbitrary government, that, on the contrary, it strongly holds forth the principles of true liberty. Subjection to the higher powers is enjoined by the apostle because there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God; consequently, to resist the power is to resist the ordinance of God: and he repeatedly declares that the ruler is the minister of God. Now, before we can say whether this text makes for or against the doctrine of unlimited passive obedience, we must find out in what sense the apostle affirms that magistracy is the ordinance of God, and what he intends when he calls the ruler the minister of God.

We see West using “context,” and his a-biblical presumptions to explain away these proof texts. He ends up concluding “that the apostle Paul, instead of being a friend to tyranny and arbitrary government, turns out to be a strong advocate for the just rights of mankind….” Or in other words, Paul really meant we do have a right to revolt against the magistrate, the seemingly opposite of what he said. Do keep in mind that the ruler to whom Paul told believers to obey was not some “godly” ruler, but the pagan psychopath Nero. West addresses that point:

I know it is said that the magistrates were, at the time when the apostle wrote, heathens, and that Nero, that monster of tyranny, was then Emperor of Rome; that therefore the apostle, by enjoining submission to the powers that then were, does require unlimited obedience to be yielded to the worst of tyrants. Now, not to insist upon what has been often observed, viz., that this epistle was written most probably about the beginning of Nero’s reign, at which time he was a very humane and merciful prince, did everything that was generous and benevolent to the public, and showed every act of mercy and tenderness to particulars, and therefore might at that time justly deserve the character of the minister of God for good to the people,– I say, waiving this, we will suppose that this epistle was written after that Nero was become a monster of tyranny and wickedness; it will by no means follow from thence that the apostle meant to enjoin unlimited subjection to such an authority, or that he intended to affirm that such a cruel, despotic authority was the ordinance of God. The plain, obvious sense of his words, as we have already seen, forbids such a construction to be put upon them, for they plainly imply a strong abhorrence and disapprobation of such a character, and clearly prove that Nero, so far forth as he was a tyrant, could not be the minister of God, nor have a right to claim submission from the people; so that this ought, perhaps, rather to be viewed as a severe satire upon Nero, than as enjoining any submission to him.

The first point — the epistle was written during the beginning of Nero’s reign when he was “nicer,” not towards the end when he was a tyrant — strikes me as invoking hair splitting context to reach a desired result.

The second point — if Paul said this when Nero was indeed acting tyrannical, he must not have meant it! — shows West’s willingness disregard scripture which disagrees with reason.

But in any event, the question that I ask is what is Rev. West actually DOING in his interpretation of scripture. Is he substituting his "own" judgment derived from "reason" for what's actually written in scripture. Or is his "reasoned" interpretation of scripture consistent with the idea that the whole of the Bible is inspired (I suppose with parts that the Holy Spirit meant not to be taken seriously, but as satire, where the text of the Bible could mean the opposite of what it apparently on the surface teaches).

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Where the Action is At

I just noticed this lively Christian Nation debate thread at my friend Ed Brayton's blog. One person there I think has already been banned from the site. But, he is trying to do better today and not engage in what Ed Brayton has termed "ignorant ravings." He has his hands full there.

George Washington v. Fundamentalists

On the Swedenborgs. From a modern fundamentalist website:

Swedenborgianism is also known as The New Church, the Church of New Jerusalem.

Founder: Emanuel Swedenborg, born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1688. Died in 1772. Of course, members of this group deny that Emanuel Swedenborg is the author of the religion, but will admit that it draws it primary theology from his writings.

Headquarters: No single headquarters. The North American headquarters is located in Newtonville, MA.

Membership: 25,000 to 50,000 world wide.

Doctrines: Denies the Vicarious Atonement, the Trinity, and deity of the Holy Spirit. It holds to Christ as divine. All religions lead to God, though all are not equally enlightened. One of its goals is to bring the world together under a new religious understanding. It teaches a need for Christianity to undergo a rebirth — according to Swedenborgian interpretations. The Bible is the inspired word of God with two levels: the historical and the deeper spiritual one. Regarding the Trinity, a Swedenborg pastor said, "The Christian trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are aspects of God just as soul, body, and activities are aspects of each one of us."

There is no personal devil. Instead, the devil is the personification of human evil. Hell is corrupted human society. The Scriptures are best interpreted through the writings of Swedenborg. Angels go through cycles of purity of character where they are sometimes closer and at other it times further from God. Swedenborg stated that the Acts and Epistles were not inspired as are the four Gospels and the Book of Revelation. There is no physical resurrection. After death, a person becomes an angel or an evil spirit. Angels are not supernatural creations of God. Position in the afterlife is based on "the kind of life we have chosen while here on earth."

At a person’s death, his mind falls asleep for three days in a place called the world of the spirits. Afterwards, he awakens and encounters spirits who’ve died before hand who help him adjust to the afterlife.


Origins: Emanuel Swedenborg was born on January 29, 1688 (died 1772) in Stockholm. His father was a Lutheran minister. Emanuel was very bright and had an inquisitive mind. He was particularly interested in science and religion. In the former, he was recognized as an expert in geology and he also studied astronomy, cosmology, and physics. In 1744 he was stricken with a severe delirium which seems to have affected his mind for the rest of his life since many trance states were attributed to him as his life progressed.

In 1745 he had a vision where loathsome creatures seemed to crawl on the walls of his room. Then a man appeared who claimed to be God. This apparition said that Emanuel was to be the one who would communicate the teachings of the unseen realm to the people of the world. He would be the means by which God would further reveal Himself to the world.

Publications: Arcana Coelestia: The Earths in the Universe. The 35 volumes of writings by Swedenborg.

Comments: This is a dangerous mystical non-Christian religion. Its denial of the Trinity and the Holy Spirit, the vicarious atonement, and rejection of Acts and the Pauline epistles clearly set it outside of Christian orthodoxy.

From George Washington:

To the members of the New Church at Baltimore.


It has ever been my pride to mind the approbation of my fellow citizens by a faithful and honest discharge of the duties annexed to those Stations to which they have pledged to place me; and the dearest rewards of my Services have been those testimonies of esteem and confidence with which they have honored me. But to the manifest interpretation of an over-ruling Providence, and to the patriotic exertions of United America, are to be ascribed those events which have given us a respectable rank among the nations of the earth. --

We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. In this enlightened Age & in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man's religious tenets, will not forfeit his protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining & holding the highest offices that are known in the United States.

Your Prayers for my present and future felicity were received with gratitude; and I sincerely wish, Gentlemen, that you may in your social and individual capacities, taste those blessings which a gracious God bestows upon the Righteous.

G. Washington

And yes, the Swedenborgs of GW's day, after Swedenborg himself who, like the Mormons, claimed additional revelation, believed, more or less, what the fundamentalist website reproduced.

This is what Wiki said of ES:

At the age of fifty-six he entered into a spiritual phase in which he experienced dreams and visions. This culminated in a spiritual awakening, where he claimed he was appointed by the Lord to write a heavenly doctrine to reform Christianity. He claimed that the Lord had opened his eyes, so that from then on he could freely visit heaven and hell, and talk with angels, demons, and other spirits. For the remaining 28 years of his life, he wrote and published 18 theological works, of which the best known was Heaven and Hell (1758),[4] and several unpublished theological works.

How this might help an "originalist" interpretation of the religion clauses: Whether Washington was personally saying he had no problems with the theology or just being "diplomatic," one thing is clear: He tells the Swedenborgs they are covered under the US Constitution's "religion clauses."

There is debate as to what exactly was protected under the original federal Constitution. The term "religion" is used generically in Art. VI and the First Amendment. Some Christian Nationalists suggest it meant "Christian sects only." I disagree for a number of reasons. However, the issues in this case are, 1) what is "Christianity"? 2) is Swedenborgianism "Christianity"? And then 3) proceed with your conclusions under the irrefutable premise that whatever Swedenborgianism is, George Washington held it to be equally protected with all of the other "sects" under the US Constitution's laws.

Why John Locke Likely was a Unitarian

Professor John Marshall of Johns Hopkins University explains why John Locke likely was a unitarian. As an authoritative expert on the matter, Marshall is about as top notch as it gets.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

John Locke on Romans 13

Paul the Apostle's Epistle to the Romans, Chapter XIII:

"Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation."

This passage was and is the most troublesome political passage in the New Testament, and was responsible for literally millions of words exchanged on the question of political liberty. Men like John Calvin took it as an absolute prohibition against anything resembling revolution or revolt against even the meanest of rulers.

John Locke's treatment of Romans 13 is pretty straightforward: Christians are not exempt from obeying lawful authority just by virtue of being Christian. They have to obey the same laws as everybody else.

On what is "lawful authority," Locke says Paul the apostle "is wholly silent, and says nothing of it," because for Paul or Jesus "to meddle with that, would have been to decide of civil rights, contrary to the design and business of the Gospel"---which of course was the business of salvation, of preparing for the next world, not this one.

Locke notes that it was Paul's intention and prudence, that such "sauciness, sedition or treason" was, in those times of Roman "insolent and vicious" rule, a "scandal to be cautiously kept off the Christian doctrine!" [The exclamation point is Locke's.]

Founding era preacher William Ellery Channing made a similar argument about why the New Testament didn't explicitly ban slavery: "a religion, preaching freedom to the slave, would have shaken the social fabric to its foundation, and would have armed against itself the whole power of the state."

Jesus didn't preach violent revolution, that his church would be arming itself against the whole power of the state. Indeed, we recall that many were disappointed he wasn't that kind of Messiah.

Therefore, sayeth Locke, the "lawful authority" question must be decided by worldly standards, to be "determined by the laws and constitution of their country."

And so, if a legal argument to separate from Britain's constitutional monarchy could be made---and indeed the 27 grievances in the Declaration of Independence like "taxation without representation" was such an attempt---then there was no theological impediment per Romans 13 to such a separation.

Further, Locke asserts "the doctrine of Christianity was the doctrine of liberty," using for his example that Christians were "freed" from observing the "Mosaical" law.

In other words, Locke is dispensing with any supernatural argument that unlawful rulers should be obeyed because it's God's will because Romans 13 says so. According to John Locke, it doesn't.

From Locke's A paraphrase and notes on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, Romans, and Ephesians, p. 367

[ HT to Ben Abbott for the above citation and link.]

Abbott on Locke, Reason & Revelation

Longtime American Creation reader Ben Abbott sent me this post on John Locke, Reason & Revelation. Ben is a smart guy and close reader of our blog. He's learned a lot from us and we in turn can learn from him:

Regarding John Locke's opinion of reason and revelation, chapter XVIII of Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is titled "OF FAITH AND REASON, AND THEIR DISTINCT PROVINCES".

The first first few paragraphs for this chapter are quoted below.


1. Necessary to know their boundaries. -- It has been above shown, First, That we are of necessity ignorant, and want knowledge of all sorts, where we want ideas. Secondly, That we are ignorant and want rational knowledge, where we want proofs. Thirdly, That we want general knowledge and certainty, as far as we want clear and determined specific ideas. Fourthly, That we want probability to direct our assent in matters where we have neither knowledge of our own nor testimony of other men to bottom our reason upon.

From these things thus premised, I think we may come to lay down the measures and boundaries between faith and reason; the want thereof may possibly have been the cause, if not of great disorders, yet, at least of great disputes, and perhaps mistakes, in the world: for until it be resolved how far we are to be guided by reason, and how far by faith we shall in vain dispute, and endeavor to convince one another in matters of religion.

Faith and reason what, as contradistinguished. -- I find every sect, as far as reason will help them, make use of it gladly; and where it fails them, they cry out, it is matter of faith, and above reason. And I do not see how they can argue with any one, or ever convince a gainsayer, who makes use of the same plea, without setting down strict boundaries between faith and reason, which ought to be the first point established in all questions. where faith has any thing to do.

Reason therefore, here, as contradistinguished to faith, I take to be the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions or truths, which the mind arrives at by deduction made from such ideas which it has got by the use of its natural faculties, viz. by sensation or reflection.

Faith, on the other side, is the assent to any proposition, not thus made out by the deductions of reason, but upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God in some extraordinary way of communication. This way of discovering truths to men we call revelation. [...]

Locke expresses the opinion that the devout are eager to apply reason ... except when reason fails them. At which point Locke observed they may assert that their claim is a matter of faith and above reason.

But, what is the proper province of reason? What of revelation? By what means are the provinces for reason and revelation deterined? Finally, by what means is the claim of revelation judged? These questions are addressed by this essay by Locke.

In the 2nd paragraph of section 2, with prepositions and non-essential parts removed by me, Locke says;

"Reason [...] as contradistinguished to faith, I take [...] to be the discovery of [...] truths, [...]."

Here, Locke mentions faith, but not revelation. However, in the 3rd paragraph Locke defines the word "faith" to be synonymous with revelation. Although with better prose, essentially Locke says;

"Faith [...] we call revelation."

If the essay were to end here the short of it would be; Reason is superior to revelation in the discovery of truths. However, Locke's argument isn't so simple.

This chapter of Locke's essay contains the sections enumerated below.

  1. Necessary to know their boundaries.

  2. Faith and reason, what, as contradistinguised.

  3. No new simple idea can be conveyed by traditional revelation.

  4. Traditional revelation may make us know propositions knowable also by reason, but not with the same certainty that reason doth.

  5. Revelation cannot be admitted against the clear evidence of reason.

  6. Traditional revelation much less.

  7. Things above reason.

  8. Or not contrary to reason, if revealed, are matter of faith.

  9. Revelation, in matters where reason cannot judge, or but probably, ought to be hearkened to.

  10. In matters where reason can afford certain knowledge, that is be herkended to.

  11. If the boundaries be not set between faith and reason, no enthusiam, or extravagancy in religion, can be contradicted.

A review of the entire chapter, indicates that Locke does place limits upon the province of reason. For example, in section 7 Locke writes;

"7. Things above reason. -- But Thirdly, there being many things wherein we have very imperfect notions, or none at all; and other things, of whose past, present, or future existence, by the natural use of our faculties, we can have no knowledge at all: these as being beyond the discovery of our natural faculties, and above reason, are when revealed the proper matter of faith. Thus, that part of the angels rebelled against God, and thereby lost their first happy state; and that the dead shall rise, and live again: these, and the like, being beyond the discovery of reason are purely matters of faith; with which reason has directly, nothing to do."

Here Locke makes the point that reason has nothing to do (pro or con) regarding notions that are beyond the discovery of our natural faculties.

Then in section 8, Locke clarifies the point in section 7 by asserting that reason is the means to judge what qualifies as a revelation.

"But yet it still belongs to reason to judge of the truth of its being a revelation, and of the signification of the words wherein it is delivered."

In section 9, Locke discusses the practical limits to reason's province.

"Whatever proposition is revealed of whose truth our mind by its natural faculties and notions, cannot judge that is purely matter of faith, and above reason."

And then in section 10, Locke again clarifies that reason is the means to judge what qualifies as revelation.

"Whatever God hath revealed, is certainly true; no doubt can be made of it. This is the proper object of faith: but whether it be a divine revelation or not, reason must judge; which can never permit the mind to reject a greater evidence to embrace what is less evident."

In the final section of the chapter, section 11, Locke warns against not respecting the distinct provinces of reason and revelation, and warns of how religion may suffer in the absence of reason.

"If the provinces of faith and reason are not kept distinct by these boundaries, there will, in matters of religion, be no room for reason at all; and those extravagant opinions and ceremonies, that are to be found in the several religions of the world, will not deserve to be blamed. For, to this crying up of faith, in opposition to reason, we may I think in a good measure ascribe those absurdities that fill almost all the religions which possess and divide mankind. For men having been principled with an opinion that they must not consult reason in the things of religion, however apparently contradictory to common sense and the very principles of all their knowledge, lave let loose their fancies and natural superstition; and have been, by them, led into so strange opinions and extravagant practices in religion, that a considerate man cannot but stand amazed at their follies and judge them so far from being acceptable to the great and wise God, that he cannot avoid thinking them ridiculous and offensive to a sober, good man."

Thus Locke argues that reason is preferred when it is reasonable to apply it, and that revelation is to be judged reasonable before accepting it. In this, I do not find that Locke is saying "reason trumps revelation", but that within its provice, reason is the preferred means of discovery, and that the guardianship of faith is part of the province of reason.

Fea on the Barton & Marshall Controversy

John Fea has an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle on the David Barton, Peter Marshall Texas Public Education history controversy. A taste:

Both Marshall and Barton suggest removing Anne Hutchinson from the curriculum. Marshall describes her as a woman who “didn't accomplish anything except getting herself exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for making trouble.”

The conservative reviewers are not happy that Texas students are learning about Cesar Chavez, a Mexican-American labor leader and civil rights activist. Marshall's report states that Chavez “is hardly the kind of role model that ought to be held up to our children as someone worthy of emulation.”

Of course, a strong argument could be made for the inclusion of both Hutchinson and Chavez. It could even be advanced from the perspective of the Christian faith that Marshall and Barton hold dear.

Hutchinson, for example, boldly stood before John Winthrop and defended liberty of conscience in matters of religion. Chavez's labor activism was informed by his Catholicism.

But there is a bigger issue at stake here. It goes beyond the debate over who is “in” and who is “out.” It is the place of history in a school curriculum.

The study of history develops civic awareness and provides us with heroes from the past that we can look up to. This is the kind of history that Barton and Marshall want to promote. This kind of search for a useful past makes sense. Our natural inclination is to find something familiar in history — something that affirms our own convictions in the present.

Historians know, however, that not all of the past is familiar or useful. Not all of the past serves our present-day agendas.

Yet we must study it.

Moncure D. Conway on Washington's Religion

As you can see the dispute over the Founding Fathers' religion has been going on for some time. Even though the letter was written to the New York Times in 1897, the points are still apt. Moncure Conway was a freethinker who did some notable scholarship on George Washington's religion, in particular his lack of Christian orthodoxy.

Even though Conway terms Washington a "Deist," the evidence he then cites, while it does point away from Washington's orthodox Christianity, also somewhat belies the notion that GW was a strict Deist. For instance, Deists don't tend to think any of the Bible is a "benign light," yet unitarians and "Christian rationalists" do believe parts of scripture are benign and enlighted, and it's only those parts in which they tended to believe. Conway also terms Washington a Socinian. Socinians are not Deists, but Unitarians who believe Jesus was not God but 100% man on some kind of divinely inspired moral mission. The 1783 Circular to the States to which Conway refers was not written in Washington's hand but was signed by him. It refers to Jesus as "the Divine Author of our blessed Religion," and if unitarian, seems more Arian, which believes Jesus a divine but created and subordinate being, than Socinian, which views Jesus as only human. This and in one other public address to Delaware Indians, neither written in Washington's hand, but both signed by him, are the only two places Washington discusses the name or person of Jesus at all! This makes it a little tough for those of us who want to with certainty place Washington in a religious box. James Madison and a number other of Washington's contemporaries noted, other than believing in an active personal God Washington seemed not to have formed definite opinions on Christian or other theologies. So it's entirely possible that whereas Jefferson and others actively disbelieved in doctrines like the Trinity, Washington was agnostic on those matters. In any event, let me reproduce the passage where GW appeals to revelation for authority, one of the few places he does so. It is done in an enlightenment rationalistic context:

The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society. At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be intirely their own.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mayhew, Locke, and Political Theology of The Founding Era Pulpits

This post will resume my quest to respond to some of the arguments of Dr. Gregg Frazer regarding Romans 13. Nonetheless, in an attempt to more align my thoughts with the unique character and format of this blog I have modified my quest that was stated in my last post to attempting to explain why many Clergy at the time of the Revolution:

1) Did not believe that the Declaration of Independence was rebellion against God.
2) Believed that the Bible seemed to uphold the duty of the Christian to submit to theinstitution of government but also allowed(and perhaps demanded)resistance to tyranny in certain circumstances. 3) Validated the THEOLOGICAL and philosophical ideas on government of Shaftesberry and Locke in their pulpits; whether they mentioned them by name or not or agreed with their views on salvation or not.

The sermon that has been the center of this dialogue is the most famous of this period: "Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to Government Powers." It was preached by a man named Jonathan Mayhew and his core theme was that "rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God." For this to be true then the more absolute interpretations of Romans 13 and the extreme doctrines that came with them had to be proven wrong. In short, Mayhew was out to disprove the interpretations of the Bible that lead to the doctrine of the "Divine Right of Kings."

The following is the crux of his argument against a more absolute interpretation that seeks to argue that people must submit to tyrants no matter what they do:

"For what can be more absurd than an argument thus framed? “Rulers are, by their office, bound to consult the public welfare and the good of society: therefore you are bound to pay them tribute, to honor, and to submit to them, even when they destroy the public welfare, and are a common pest to society, by acting in direct contradiction to the nature and end of their office.”

Mayhew is pointing out the inherent contradiction of what Paul would have to be saying if the more absolutist interpretations are to be believed. To interpret this the way loyalists of that day and Frazer do, one would have to believe that Paul was saying not only did we have to submit to people who were obviously violating clear biblical mandates about the duties and obligations of civil rulers but that we had to pay honor to men who were killing people for their own pleasure! Thus, unless one believes that honor is due a tyrant then the first verse of Romans 13 can not mean what they say it does. Either submission does not mean what they say it does or what we are to submit to means something different than what they say it does. In other words, if Frazer and the loyalists are wrong then Paul would seem to be talking about the institution of government in general and not tyrants.

Another sermon of the era, preached by a man named Abraham Keteltas, seems to shed more light on the thoughts of the time on this matter. It was called "God Arising and Pleading His People's Cause." It more or less was stating that God was with the people of the Revolution and was pleading their cause because it was his cause. One would probably ask, If God ordains all authority and the leaders are his anointed then how could the fight of the common people to secure their rights from a King be God's cause?

I think Keteltas sheds great light on this with this excerpt:

"God commanded the Israelites, saying, ye shall not oppress one another. Leviticus 25, 14–17. When the ten tribes had revolted from Rehoboam, because of oppression, and when Rehoboam and Judah went out to fight against them to bring them back to subjection, God sent his prophet to Rehoboam and Judah, saying, ye shall not go up, nor fight against your brethren! 1 Kings 12, 24. God declared to Abraham, I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee. See also 1. Chron. 16, 22, compared with Psalm 105, 15, where Jehovah is represented, saying, touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm: i.e. God’s anointed people, and not kings, because it is said in the preceeding verse, he suffered no man to do them wrong, yea,he reproved kings for their sake.

If this is to be believed, then God's anointed people can be kings and common folk alike. This would seem to indicate that what God ordained to be submitted to was something different than a tyrant King and possibly just the institution of government itself intimated before.

This brings me to a question that gives us insight into the reasoning behind the Frazer/Loyalist argument:

"If Romans 13 does not mandate subjection to wicked, ungodly, tyrannical rulers -- what sense did it make to the addressees of the letter? What sense did it make to those for whom the letter was written and to whom it was sent -- Christians living under Nero?"

Since this is not a new debate and to bring this discussion into line with the history of this debate lets allow for the fact that Frazer is not just questioning my theologicaland philosophical line of reasoning when it comes to government. He is questioning a line of reasoning that goes back to Locke, Shaftsberry, and possibly some of thescholastics. I put theological in bold face because it seems that most want to read Locke's Second Treatise and ignore his First Treatise. The first is filled with biblical arguments against the Divine Right of Kings and the second is his philosophical views that are grounded in his theology. Thus, if true, this line of reasoning that Frazer questions is based on a theological argument not a non-theological enlightenment one. In other words, Frazer and company will have to answer the question and stop changing the subject by calling everyone who disagrees with them "Theistic Rationalists."

Thus, I will attempt to answer this question as one who is a modern heir to the theological line of reasoning that Locke and others applied to civil government. With that said, a simple look at the History answers Frazer's question. According to several sources I read, Paul wrote Romans in either 54 AD or 56 AD. Since Nero took office in 54 AD it would seem like this question/argument would destroy the whole "Paul wasreferring to good government/institution of government line of reasoning" thatMayhew and company used. As I mulled this over yesterday I assumed that Frazer knew his history so I began to doubt Mayhew's whole line of reasoning.

However, after many hours of reciting story after story in the Bible that would seem to contradict the loyalist/Frazer absolute interpretation, I decided to check the history this morning. As it turns out, this is either a foolish question by Frazer or there is something about the History of this I do not know. If it is the former then this is really a non-question because Nero did not start his persecution until around 64 AD or at least 8 years after Romans was written. Simply, one of Frazer's strongest arguments turns out to be paper thin. Nero's persecution seems to have no bearing at all on what Paul wrote which leaves the door open for the argument that says that Paul was talking about submission to the institution of government in general not to unconditionally to tyrants.

Another argument that Frazer uses against the Lockean style of theological reasoning about civil government is that while there are examples in the Bible of men disobeying authority they should never cross the line into resistance or rebellion. When asked what the difference is because they both seem to be NON-SUBMISSION and a violation of Paul's admonition in Romans 13:1, Frazer responds that submission and obedience are two different things. He states that one can disobey an authority and still submit himself to that authority. He adds that we should only disobey if that authority asks us to do something that God commands us not to do.

The following question was posed as a challenge to me:

"You have not responded to my EVIDENCE for the difference between "subjection" and "obedience." I gave you the Greek meanings of the terms and showed you how they are consciously separated in Titus 3:1. You just keep saying they're the same thing -- do you have any EVIDENCE to support your view?

Titus 3:1 states:

"Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good.

I have two thoughts on this. The first is that if submission is absolute in Romans 13 then obedience is absolute according to Titus 3:1. In other words, Paul is telling Titus to tell the people to submit to AND obey the authorities. He adds obedience in this passage to the submission in Romans 13. So this verse actually destroys Frazer'sargument that submission is absolute and obedience is conditional. If Romans 13 is absolute then Titus 3:1 has to be as well. Inversely, this would mean that if obedience is conditional then submission must be as well which contradicts Frazer. If I am right there is no way Romans 13 says what he says it means. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. Accordingly, we need to look for another explanation.

This brings me to my second thought on this verse. Paul seems to hint at the type of governments he is talking about when he tells the people to be ready to do "good" in their obedience and submission. This seems to go right along with the stream of theological reasoning as handed down by Shaftsberry and Locke that Paul is talking about the institution of government in general should be submitted to and obeyed. How could they possibly be ready to do "good" by carrying out the commands of a lunatic like Hitler? There has to be more than meets the eye to this right?

Well it seems that there is. In fact, I found a copy of Locke paraphrasing Romans on line last night. I think he can answer for himself as Frazer's line of reasoning continues:

"How can the proper interpretation of a passage of Scripture change based on how it is applied or misapplied? Did God not have a particular message? Did He not know what He was saying -- it depends on how people use it? How could the people to whom the message was originally given know what God wants them to do, since they cannot see into the future to see how men misuse the passage?"


"And St. Paul had taught them, in his epistle, that all Christians were free from Mosaic Law. Hence corrupt and mistaken men, especially Jewish converts, impatient as we have observed of any heathen dominion might be ready to infer that Christians were exempt from subjection to the laws of heathen governments. This he obviates by telling them that all other governments derived the power they had from God as well as that of the Jews, though they had not the whole frame of their government immediately from him as the Jews had."

I think his thoughts are self explantory but I think it would be helpful to expound on a couple things. First, is that this kind of interpretation would be consistent with the rest of Romans and epistles in general in that they are often written in response to letters from the people with specific questions and usually to deal with some sort of false teaching that was going on. When Locke uses the phrase "impatient as we have observed of any heathen dominion" refering to the Jewish converts, it would seem that he was referencing other parts of the letter. Accordingly, since most of the letter was written to stress that the Jews were no better than the Gentiles(a common theme in Paul's letter) this would seem to jive. Secondly, from other things I have read, it seems that the people he was writing to were mainly Jewish converts.

In response to Frazer, it would seem that the message that God seems to want to convey according to the theology of Locke, Mayhew, Keteltas, is clear and consistent. It is also specific and relevant to the people of that time as Frazer demands it be. They see that God wants all men to submit to and obey the institution of government itself even if one is a Jew and the government of Gentile. It would seem that they all thought this was as simple as Paul validating Gentile government. It might be possible that he was essentially stating that "all governments, not just Jewish ones, are ordained by God." Also, I think that the fact that Romans 13 was misapplied in the "Divine Right of Kings" is important in that often that is the smoking gun that the the theological interpretation behind the philosophical stance is as flawed as the stance itself. This would seem to be whether Frazer thinks this is relevant or not.

I would also state that some of the doctrines least friendly to liberty were constructed on the shaky foundation of theological interpretations that seek to apply a specific exhortation to a specific people at a specific time and make it universal.(Modern Day Domionists) The best example I can give is Paul telling people it is better not to get married in one letter and in a later letter telling windows to get married if they are going to be busy bodies. Either he changed his mind or there are missing pieces we do not understand because he was addressing a specific audience and more than likely specific questions we are not privy to. I think some of his exhortations to women fall into this trap as well when used to make universal dogma. This can be avoided if we look beyond the surface of what the text seems to indicate to the whole counsel of scripture. We have to realize that there is often information left out of the text of the letters because it would be redundant to the people who are receiving the letter. Thus, a possible reason that "including Non-Jewish" was omitted to give context.

Well enough said. I hope I have done a credible job representing the theological and philosophical ideas on government that were passed on from Shaftsberry to Locke and that made it into numerous pulpits in colonial America during the time of the founding. I know that this dialogue kind of turned into what Tom would call a "intramural battle" of competing doctrines at times. However, I do not want people to lose sight of the three most important points that these posts have tried to make:

1. Many of the Christian philosophical ideas on civil government from the Founding Era are grounded in a stream of theology that is taken from the text of the Bible.

2. That this stream of theology and philosophy on civil government preceded the enlightenment.

3. That to state that these preachers' ideas were shaped more by Enlightenment Philosophy than Christian Theology is wrong.

I part with a quote in response to the charge of number three above from David Barton that I do believe is TRUE:

"While such charges certainly reflect the personal views of these critics, they definitely do not accurately reflect the extended theological debates that occurred at the time of the American Revolution. In fact, contrary to Dr. Cornett's claim that the Founding Fathers turned to Enlightenment rhetoric for validation of the American Revolution, the topic of civil disobedience and resistance to governing authorities had been a subject of serious theological inquiries for centuries before the Enlightenment. This was especially true during the Reformation, when the subject was directly addressed by theologians such as Frenchman John Calvin, German Martin Luther, Swiss Reformation leader Huldreich Zwingli, and numerous others."

Maybe Barton is right about some things. Oh and least someone try to use the old "they are all Theistic Rationalist" lines of thinking, Ketelas was an orthodox as they come judging by the first half of his sermon that was quoted above. From a lot of the reading I have done about Locke I think he was orthodox and liberal. The trouble most have in reading him is that he separated doctrine regarding salvation(Where at first glance he seems Orthodox)from doctrines on civil affairs.(Where he is obviously Liberal) I think we would be wise to do the same and avoid the pitfall of labeling everyone a "Theistic Rationalist" that disagrees with the loyalist/Frazer line of reasoning.

The Problem with Out of Context Quotations

Here is a newish article by Wallbuilders entitled: The Founding Fathers on Jesus, Christianity and the Bible. The first person David Barton turns to for evidence is John Adams, the second President of the United States. The quotations Barton reproduces follow:

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.1

The Holy Ghost carries on the whole Christian system in this earth. Not a baptism, not a marriage, not a sacrament can be administered but by the Holy Ghost. . . . There is no authority, civil or religious – there can be no legitimate government but what is administered by this Holy Ghost. There can be no salvation without it. All without it is rebellion and perdition, or in more orthodox words damnation.2

Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company: I mean hell.3

The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity.4

Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited. . . . What a Eutopia – what a Paradise would this region be!5

I have examined all religions, and the result is that the Bible is the best book in the world.6

Okay, taken at face value, many an evangelical, the Bible is the infallible Word of God, type would think "John Adams was one of us." What Barton doesn't tell us is for his entire adult life Adams identified as a Unitarian. Adams rejected original sin, the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement and eternal damnation sometimes bitterly and mockingly so. And towards the end of his life Adams got even more heterodox, elevating man's reason so far over revelation that he noted if God Himself revealed the doctrine of the Trinity to him with Moses on Mt. Sinai, he still wouldn't believe it because man's reason proves 1+1+1 = 3 not 1. And asserting exotic world religions like Hinduism and Zeus worship teach "Christian principles."

That's why you have to examine the WHOLE of what a Founder believed, not cherry picked selected quotes, taken out of context which mislead. This kind of clarification is utterly absent from Barton's presentation of the evidence.

James Freeman and King's Chapel

A little history written in 1873 by Henry Wilder Foote on how the first Episcopal Church in New England became the first Unitarian Church in America:

Soon after this time, Mr. Freeman began to feel, scruples concerning those parts of the service which expressed or implied a belief in the doctrine of the Trinity. As he said, long after, "There was a certain concealment practiced before about the Trinity. Fisher (of Salem) has a singular way of satisfying his conscience. He was asked how he could read the Athanasian creed when he did not believe it. He replied, 'I read it, as if I did not believe it.' These are poor shifts. Mr. Pyle being directed by his Bishop to read it did so, saying, 'I am directed to read this, which is said to have been the creed of St. Athanasius, but God forbid that it should be yours or mine.' Another man had set it to a hunting tune and sang it. These, I think, would hardly satisfy the conscience of a truth-loving man." Nothing could have been more remote from his own character.

To the growing clearness in Mr. Freeman's opinions on this doctrine, various circumstances probably contributed. First, it was in the very air of the times and the place, as is shown by the way that similar opinions spread in Boston a little later. And then, the favorite authors whose writings he was reading, — particularly Dr. Priestley, of whom he was a life-long admirer, — were strongly anti-trinitarian. His friendly relations also with the Rev. William Hazlitt, an English Unitarian minister, who visited Boston in the autumn of 1784, doubtless had a considerable influence on his mind.


Mr. Freeman, says Dr. Greenwood, "became more and more convinced that the doctrine of the Trinity was unscriptural and untrue, and more and more uneasy in reading passages of solemn devotion in which it was assumed as a Christian truth. It was a season of great mental trial. . . . He communicated his difficulties to those of his friends with whom he was most intimate. He would come into their houses, and say, 'I must leave you. Much as I love you, I must leave you. I cannot conscientiously perform the service of the church any longer as it now stands.' But this little remnant of Episcopalians loved him, as well as he them, and did not wish to let him go. At length it was suggested to him, 'Why not state your difficulties, and the grounds of them, publicly to your whole people, that they may be able to judge of the case, and determine whether it is such as to require a separation between you and them, or not?' The suggestion was adopted. He preached a series of sermons in which he plainly stated his dissatisfaction with the trinitarian portion of the Liturgy, went fully into an examination of the trinitarian doctrine, and gave his reasons for rejecting it. He has himself assured me that when he delivered those sermons, he was under a strong impression that thy would be the last he should ever pronounce from this pulpit. . . . But he was heard patiently, attentively, kindly. The greater part of his hearers responded to his sentiments, and resolved to alter their Liturgy and retain their pastor.

. . . "Thus did Mr. Freeman, by following the dictates of his reason and conscience, become the first preacher in this country of what he held to be a purified Christian faith; and thus, through the means of his mental integrity and powers of exposition, did the First Episcopal Church in New England become the First Unitarian Church in the New World.["]

This went down circa 1786.

I reproduced this passage in part because I want to stress the dynamic that it should be utterly understandable that Founding era men who disbelieved in the Trinity could worship in Trinitarian Churches, having nowhere else to go or otherwise being wedded to the churches in an "institutional" sense. Indeed there were unitarian ministers in Trinitarian churches, some of whom "reformed" them into Unitarian churches.

Hopefully that above passage will shed light on what it felt like to be a dissenter in a Trinitarian Church who had to put up with hearing and in some cases begrudgingly reciting orthodox doctrines in which one didn't believe.

Friday, July 24, 2009

John Locke, Liberal "Christian"

I've closely read much of John Locke's religious writings. He no doubt, wrote in such a way to purposefully frustrate a close reader trying to figure out his intent. Many of his writings were anonymous. And he spent much of his life running from the law, leaving England for the Continent. He on the surface claimed to be a Christian, that Jesus was the Messiah and the Bible was divine revelation. He also excessively used "reason." And appeared to set reason v. revelation against one another in such a way that his thesis contradicts itself. As a commenter at American Creation put it:

Lockean theological rationalism itself deconstructs itself. Locke claimed "Revelation must be tried at the Court of reason," or something didn't he?? That raises the problem of historical authenticity, miracles and status of other faiths--not to say the problem of justifying the existence of a God a posteriori.

That pleasant Lockean empiricism gives way to Humean concerns, and Hume pretty much reduces ju-xtian scripture and theology to a strange historical footnote via a few paragraphs in the Enquiry. Believe if you will, but never mistake your religious belief for rationality itself (or as supported by evidence).

The followers of Leo Strauss have noted this and other contradictions in Locke's writings and conclude he was a Hobbes imbibed secret atheist trying to deconstruct revealed Trinitarian Christianity.

You can read Locke's Essay on Human Understanding, Chapter 14 where he discusses reason v. revelation here:

14. Revelation must be judged of by reason. He, therefore, that will not give himself up to all the extravagances of delusion and error must bring this guide of his light within to the trial. God when he makes the prophet does not unmake the man. He leaves all his faculties in the natural state, to enable him to judge of his inspirations, whether they be of divine original or no. When he illuminates the mind with supernatural light, he does not extinguish that which is natural. If he would have us assent to the truth of any proposition, he either evidences that truth by the usual methods of natural reason, or else makes it known to be a truth which he would have us assent to by his authority, and convinces us that it is from him, by some marks which reason cannot be mistaken in. Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything. I do not mean that we must consult reason, and examine whether a proposition revealed from God can be made out by natural principles, and if it cannot, that then we may reject it: but consult it we must, and by it examine whether it be a revelation from God or no: and if reason finds it to be revealed from God, reason then declares for it as much as for any other truth, and makes it one of her dictates. Every conceit that thoroughly warms our fancies must pass for an inspiration, if there be nothing but the strength of our persuasions, whereby to judge of our persuasions: if reason must not examine their truth by something extrinsical to the persuasions themselves, inspirations and delusions, truth and falsehood, will have the same measure, and will not be possible to be distinguished.

Locke also almost CERTAINLY was not a Trinitarian, but either a Socinian or Arian. When Locke posited his lowest common denominator -- the "essentials" of Christianity -- he simply said Jesus was the Messiah: No Trinity, no atonement, no orthodox doctrines. In other words his LCD included Arians, Socinians and Trinitarians -- they all believe Jesus was Messiah. He was accused of secretly peddling Socinianism. And his response was NOT "I am a Trinitarian," but rather a Bill Clinton-like "in my whole Essay, I think there is not to be found any thing like an objection against the Trinity...."

Remember during this time it was illegal to explicitly deny the Trinity in England and heretics potentially faced execution for doing so.

Let's leave aside the question of whether Locke were a secret atheist, which no doubt has huge implications for his teachings. What if Locke were simply a unitarian Christian who had a rationalistic method of supplementing the Bible with Truths whose essences are discovered in nature from reason?

Would that make him "not a Christian"? I think the answer is it depends on whose definition of Christianity use. While visiting a lecture at Princeton I discussed this issue with Princeton Professor Paul Sigmund and Jeff Morrison who was a fellow at Princeton's James Madison Program, but now teaches at Regent University. Prof. Sigmund, from what I understand, is a Christian and a political liberal. And he advocates religious based/Christian based arguments on behalf of liberal causes. He is a man of the "religious left" as it were. Jeff Morrison is a conservative evangelical. Morrison lectured on his new book about George Washington's political philosophy. And he noted that though Protestant Christianity clearly influenced Washington and that Washington was a lifelong Anglican/Episcopalian, the evidence that Washington was a "Christian" was ambiguous. Morrison noted this was because he believed one had to believe in the Trinity in order to be a "Christian" and the evidence for GW's Trinitarianism is ambiguous.

When I asked Prof. Sigmund's this question he noted his definition of "a Christian" was one who believed Jesus was a Savior or Messiah, something divinely special about him (even if it was just his mission not his person). That would mean Arians, Socinians AND Trinitarians [and in today's world Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses] are all "Christians." And indeed all of the early Presidents from Washington to Monroe, including Jefferson probably were "Christians." Sigmund calls Locke, in no uncertain terms, a "Christian" yet he also believes (following Johns Hopkins Professor John Marshall) that Locke was an Arian.

The irony here is that America's Founding could be said to have a "Christian" political theology if one takes a more theological liberal, ecumenical, approach to "Christianity." "Civil Christianity" would incorporate not just Trinitarianism, but the unitarian heresies, folks who deny infallibility of the Bible, but who still believe certain "essential" parts to be divinely inspired, perhaps folks like the Mormons who add additional revelation. "Civil Christianity" might EVEN term religions like Judaism, Islam and ANYTHING ELSE "Christian" if the citizen behaves in a Jesus like way. Ghandi, for instance, may be a "Christian" accordingly.

However to the largely evangelical promoters of the "Christian Nation" thesis -- folks who view the Trinity as CENTRAL to "Christianity" -- the "Christian Nation" thesis fails. It is such a wonder that they are the ones who promote the idea of a "Christian Nation" so vociferously.

The Unconfirmed Quotations Hit the Billboards

How embarrassing for the Christian Nationalists. When confronted with the fact that they just shelled out lots of $$ to erect a board of a fake quote, one of them responds:

Others carry the same message but with fictional attribution, as with one billboard citing George Washington for the quote, "It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible."

"I don't believe there's a document in Washington's handwriting that has those words in that specific form," Kemple said. "However, if you look at Washington's quotes, including his farewell address, about the place of religion in the political sphere, there's no question he could have said those exact words."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Refining the definition of deism used when discussing the Founding

I have finished up reading David Holmes's excellent book Faiths of the Founding Fathers. I appreciated his balance and attention to detail throughout, but I thought that one area of his analysis could have been more precise. He characterizes the major Founders as falling into three basic patterns: orthodox Christians, Christian deists, and non-Christian deists. While this might appear at first blushe to be a good way to categorize the religious views of the major Founders, at the end of the day I don't think it is helpful. While the founding era did contain its deists, the folks that Holmes describes are, for the most part, not really what moderns think of as deists when it comes to questions of theology.

Rather, the vast majority of the Founders were theists. The vast bulk of them believed, for example, in a God who is active in human affairs, who is to be worshipped and prayed to, who will judge each and every person after death, etc. Even the least religious of the major Founders -- Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson -- affirmed such a deity. This isn't a "watchmaker god" or some uninterrested deity a la the Roman philosopher Lucretius.

While there is no question that many of the Founders, and most of the major Founders, eschewed orthodox trinitarianism, their conception of God remained essentially theistic rather than deistic. To continue to refer to them as deists risks confusion in the minds of modern folks -- many of whom do not realize that the unitarian theology of many of the Founders was far more conservative than the term "deism" would indicate.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Journeys to Space: Ben Franklin to Neil Armstrong

Benjamin Franklin was a man ahead of his time. On the fiftieth anniversary of the moon walk, he might have asked, “What took you so long?”

In a letter to Jane Mecom dated 1786, he mentions an Italian Poet who gives an account of a voyage to the moon, “telling us that all things lost on Earth are treasured there.” Franklin quips that, if so, the Moon must hold a great storehouse of Good Advice.

The Italian author Franklin’s referencing is probably Cyrano de Bergerac, a freethinking philosopher who penned The Other World: The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon in 1657. In this story, the traveler’s first attempt at space travel involves tying various glass globes filled with dew to his torso; when morning comes and the dew rises, he begins to ascend toward the sun, but then begins to break the globes when his ascent becomes too fast and plummets back to terra firma. Eventually successful in reaching his destination, he discovers a world where the inhabitants live in cities built on wheels, equipped with giant sails and mechanical bellows to self-propel across the landscape. The rest of the account is equally fanciful.

Franklin records quite a different encounter with moon men in a fragment posted to the American Philosophical Society in 1768, where he details the experiences of one William Henry who lived as a captive among the Seneca Indians. On hearing that Europeans believe there is but a single God, the native chieftain objects: “You say there is but one great good Manitta. You know of no more. If there were but one, how unhappy must he be, without friends, without companions, and without that equality in conversation, by which pleasure is mutually given and received! I tell you there are more than a hundred of them; they live in the sun and in the moon; they love one another as brethren; they visit and converse with each other; and they sometimes visit, though they do not often converse with us.” As an avowed polytheist, Franklin was probably not shocked by the idea.

The idea of space travel—and of encountering the inhabitants of other spheres--has stretched the imagination throughout time. From Ben Franklin to Neil Armstrong, Americans will continue to explore the universe, in dream and reality.