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.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Locke writes:

Revelation must be judged of by reason.

Here's where the modern interpreters misunderstand him, using their understandings instead of understanding him as he understood himself.

Locke does not say that reason decides whether God ever spoke to man directly, and that speech is recorded in the scriptures.

For Locke, that is a given, where to the modernist [or even perhaps Jefferson], that baseline presupposition is in doubt. Which is fine, but it is not Locke.

For Locke, "revelation must be judged of by reason" applies to its interpretation, or even at a stretch, that some parts may be adulterated by man and are therefore not infallible.

But "revelation must be judged of by reason" must be taken with the baseline that there is a God, and he spoke to man and it's recorded in the scriptures.

Even if the modern revisionists are correct, that it was social pressure that induced Locke to explicitly say he believed Jesus was the Messiah, and when he wrote

[L]aws human must be made according to the general laws of Nature, and without contradiction to any positive law of Scripture, otherwise they are ill made.

he didn't really mean it---even if that is true---the Americans took Locke at his word, that he did. The idea of civil laws that conflicted with scripture was unthinkable in the Founding era, unless you have some quote that says otherwise. I've never seen one.

And no, Jon, Gandhi wasn't remotely a Christian in this, the true sense.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Heh. Ghandi didn't behave in a "Jesus like" manner?

Jonathan Rowe said...

The idea of civil laws that conflicted with scripture was unthinkable in the Founding era, unless you have some quote that says otherwise. I've never seen one.

I think it depends on what you mean "conflict with scripture." The whole idea of religious liberty is that you have a legal right to break the first tablet of the Ten Commandments.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Re laws that conflict with scripture or the dominant religion of the people, those are never a good idea. But, again, I think it depends on what we mean by "conflict with scripture." Certainly abolishing religious liberty for Christians would count.

The Bible is hard work and whether something really "conflicts" with scripture depends almost entirely on one's reasoned interpretation of scripture. A commenter at Positive Liberty made an apt observation on the passage:

I really like the Locke quote above by the way. He’s not saying that revelation and reason are opposed, which is simplistic (and lazy), but that one interprets the other. In fact, I’d say that even when fundamentalists think they are being faithful to revelation, they are really just using their reason to bring themselves to the conclusion that the revelation is to be trusted. We all use reason every second of the day.

Calvin, using his "reason" certainly thought publicly denying the Trinity "conflicted with scripture" and ought not be permitted.

Jim Babka and many of his evangelical friends who are more fundamentalist than he is have signed on to the libertarianism which permits all sorts of things that violate scripture. They don't want government passing laws that say "scripture is wrong and that's why we tolerate X -- hence there is a right to do X which contradicts scripture." But they'd much rather government just leave it alone unless it involves force or fraud.

They would note, using their reason, this doesn't "conflict with scripture." Other more politically conservative evangelicals, using their reason, disagree.

J said...
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J said...

I agree with a "limited scope" reading of the passage from the celebrated Enthusiasm essay. In that essay, Locke was, I suspect, addressing the charismatics and zealots of the time--most likely fire and brimstone, Falwell or Hagee types--if not say David Koreshes ( for example was the Revelator a Koresh?? I suspect Jefferson thought so). The framers had similar concerns about zealots, I suspect ( Madison also penned something on enthusiasm, I believe). That said, I think Locke was, if not quite a Hobbesian naturalist, secretly a doubter, but did at times put on the Bill clinton-believer act. Then, apart from Berkeley, all the anglo-empiricists seem fairly "heterodox" as y'all say, and containing naturalist elements (Hume included--some mistake Hume for a cartesian skeptic, but he does not doubt Newtonian naturalism---he merely pointed out that supposed natural laws are not logically necessary). Vulgar, as the Straussians would probably say.

In that passage Locke's not exactly saying all claims of revelation (as in scripture taken as a whole) should be --ala Hume, or a later Humean like Carnap--dissected or rejected because they are not supported by evidence, or because they contain supernatural elements (and really a supposed miracle isn't a logical contradiction per se, however bizarre).

I don't agree, however, with Locke's sort of limiting, and for most part would, if ever asked, defend Hume's points contra-inerrancy (the uniformity of experience, unreliable testimony, other explanations, the "fork" so forth), however unsettling or non-PC they may.

All of this may be a bit trite, but given AC's insistence that Locke was sort of the intellectual force--if not spiritual--of the framers, the discussion has some significance.

(another thing--thanks for link but comments attached to a posts generally aren't the greatest examples of a person's writing. It was written in probably three or four minutes but does seem a bit colloquial and sketchy. It's no big deal, but whatevs)

bpabbott said...

"[L]aws human must be made according to the general laws of Nature, and without contradiction to any positive law of Scripture, otherwise they are ill made."
-- Locke

Locke qualifies his statement with the word "positive". With that, Locke implies it is up to human reason to make the distinction between a positive law and a negative one.

Tom Van Dyke said...

J, I've read that Hume is credited with discrediting [if not destroying]
deism as a defensible philosophy, basically that there's no empirical evidence for "natural religion" either.

Hence, deism was pretty much dead by 1750 or so, before the Founding era, Tom Paine notwithstanding. In fact, Paine wrote from France that he was trying to save them from atheism, where the continental [not Scottish] Enlightenment was leading.

Thought this one might be in your ballpark, your thoughts are solicited.

J said...

Hume dismisses the Watchmaker argument, saying it's not a relevant analogy. Does he succeed? I don't know-.

I'm not always comfortable defending Hume; it's like someone defending Bobby Fischer the chess master. Fischer may have been a great chess player, but as a person had some definite shortcomings, including his political views. Similar for Hume, who was a great logician and analyst really (at least until say Frege and Russell appeared), and rather eloquent scribe, but not such a great person.

Some modern theologian could bring up the "fine tuning" material, but at the very least Hume seemed correct in terms of pointing out that the analogy was hardly necessarily true. Fossils, or say skeletons of T-rex seem rather complex and even evidence of Design of some type, though I'm not sure we would grant godliness to any Designer of T-rex (or millions of years of sharks, insects, plagues so forth). I can appreciate a deistic POV to some extent, but I don't think it's that plausible, but more akin to human's awe at the natural world.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, I/we don't really get into whether God exists or not---the topic is simply history. And it's not terribly helpful whether Hume was a jerk or a saint, except how it affected the reception of his ideas. [For instance, Paine's jerkiness didn't help his cause.] Just thought you might know Hume's contribution to the debate back then.

J said...
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J said...

AS I pointed out, Hume did argue against a Watchmaker-like analogy (I believe that's from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion), and thus opposes Deism (or design, so-called), though Paley's was writing after Hume's death. It's been a few years since I've read the section in question, but his main point seemed to be that nature is not a machine, and that the analogy was therefore not relevant. Something--organic life--could come from nothing, from very simple beginnings. Countless species have gone extinct as well (or are poorly designed), so any putative Designer (designers??) has some competency issues.

I didn't just "ad hom" Hume. And really, his counterarguments might be questioned. For one he was not aware of the Big Bang (or the rise of evolutionary thinking). But he does bring out a few key issues.