Friday, October 24, 2014

Star Wars & Culture

George Lucas, in both the original and the prequels, based some of his fictional sci-fi fantasy concepts on aspects of various cultures that exist right here on this Earth. You don't have to be a Star Wars aficionado to appreciate this.

In the first three originals, Lucas did this very cleverly; in the prequels, somewhat crudely.

There is a lot of "Asianness." Darth Vader in a samurai like outfit. Light-sabers as samurai like swords. Yoda as an ancient wise Sensei. And of course the philosophy of "the force" is quite Taoistic.

Yet, there's also some Greco-Romanism there too. A theme of Star Wars is how noble "republics" transform into ignoble "empires."

This is what happened to Rome. And this relates to my study of the American Founding in the sense that the Founders had an affinity for noble republican Rome and its caution against the imperial tyrants, i.e., "Caesar." 

So here is another Star Wars analogy: The noble Stoics as the Jedi, the ignoble Caesars as the Sith. And indeed from my study of the Stoics, the Caesars basically killed or otherwise persecuted the last of them out of existence (i.e., what the Sith did to the Jedi).

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Throckmorton: "Barton and Barna: If We Don’t Do Something We Didn’t Do Before, We’re Doomed"

From Warren Throckmorton here. A taste:
There is nothing new about this. This is the same Christian nationalist doctrine Barton has pushed for decades. Unless we do something we didn’t do before — make Christian doctrine the “center of our process” — then we are doomed as a nation. This simplistic prescription is based on a tendentious reading of history which is nothing new for Barton. For instance, Barton says the Constitution quotes the Bible verbatim. This, of course, is not true but is consistent with the faulty reading of history Barton wants us to believe. If he can get us to believe we once had the evangelical God at the “center of our process” and once self-consciously operated “in strict accordance with His principles,” then Barton has leverage to press these concepts today as political objectives.
David Barton has apparently co-written a book with George Barna. Is this the same George Barna who is a respectable Christian market research guy? If so, what on God's green earth possessed him to co-write a book with a figure as tarnished as Barton?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Kidd: "Does the Bible Prohibit Revolution?"

From Thomas Kidd here. A taste:
My graduate students and I recently read James Byrd’s terrific Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution. This book is a treasure trove of information about how the Patriots and Loyalists actually used the Bible during the Revolution. The most surprising fact I learned from the book is that Romans 13 – in which Paul commands submission to the “higher powers” – was the most commonly cited biblical text in Revolutionary America. This passage, alongside a similar passage in I Peter 2, are precisely the texts I might have imagined that Patriots would have avoided. How does one “honor the king” while engaging in revolution?

Brayton Calls Out Billy Graham

Check out Ed's remarks here. A taste:
... Franklin’s motion for prayer was ignored by the other attendees at the Constitutional Convention and that prayer he proposed, to bring together the two fractious sides, never took place. So his claim that this convention was “based on prayer” is absurd. Indeed, one could just as easily argue that it was based on drunkenness,...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What's Horsa to him, or he to Horsa?

That's a question to which Bradley J. Birzer alluded in our last post. Wayne Dynes answers and it is not pretty. A taste:
... Yet Jefferson’s interest in the Saxon heritage went far beyond matters of philology. He held that the forward movement of British settlement in North America was a continuation of the original migration of Hengist and Horsa. It was all part of the vigorous expansion of a superior group of people. Jefferson even went so far as to suggest that the form of government being adopted in the emerging United States represented a restoration of the sublime Anglo-Saxon principles. It was now North America that represented these verities, not a corrupt England under the rule of foreign monarchs.

Thomas Jefferson held that the basis of the common law was shaped in the immediate aftermath of the arrival of Hengist and Horsa in the mid-fifth century. Since England was not converted to Christianity until two centuries later, the common law is by definition pagan.

Bradley J. Birzer: "Virgil: Forgotten American Founder"

Check it out here. A taste:
The American Founders ... were as much in line with Cicero, for example, as they were of John Locke or Baron Montesquieu. Sadly, though, while historians and scholars have readily found innumerable (or sort of) references to the thinkers living rather near (relatively speaking) to the founders, they have forgotten those who seem more at a distance. It is comparatively easy to show paraphrases from Locke. It is far more difficult to determine exactly where Horsa fits into it all.


John Adams once wrote that the “Aeneid is like a well-ordered Garden, where it is impossible to find any Part unadorned or to cast our Eyes upon a single Spot that does not produce some beautiful Plant or Flower” [Source: Meyer Reinhold, Classica Americana: The Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States (1984), 232].

Virgil’s influence went well beyond his story, The Aeneid. His Georgics as well as his Eclogues influenced the founders as well.


One direct and obvious example of Virgil’s influence can be found on the 1782 Seal of the United States,...

Christianity & Self Sacrifice

This was a post from 2008 that I am proud of. A taste:
Jim Babka's recent comment to one of my posts brought to mind just how much Christians -- even those who purport to believe the Bible infallible -- differ on the proper interpretation of specific doctrines. Sometimes the differences don't really matter; sometimes they do. I asserted Christianity teaches self-sacrifice. Babka replied: "Christianity is not about self-sacrifice, but living for a higher cause. The distinction is important." I await his explanation. When you google the terms “Christianity” and “self-sacrifice” you see there is a strong current in biblical Christianity that teaches this is what Christianity is about.

Dr. Gregg Frazer's thesis teaches Christianity is about self sacrifice. Indeed, he sees tension between that and the idea of “enlightened self interest” or “self preservation” as put forth by Locke et al.

I’ve come across a number orthodox Christians who don’t like [this] interpretation ... of biblical Christianity precisely because it’s so similar to how Rousseau and Nietzsche characterized Christianity (before Marx) as a temporal opiate and hence something where tyrannical rulers can make Christians into good slaves. Yet, I find this interpretation of Christianity to be authentically biblical and well within the tradition of orthodox hermeneutics. After all, Nietzsche and Rousseau weren’t shabby thinkers. ...

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Men Who Lost America [?]

Don't miss David Moore's excellent interview of Andrew O’Shaughnessy on The Men Who Lost America (Yale, 2013), hosted over at Tommy Kidd's groupblog, The Anxious Bench. A few riffs that caught my eye:

[To Look Inside, click HERE]

Moore:  It seems incredible that the British lost the Revolutionary War given their military superiority.  Many have concluded that it must have been due to incompetent leaders, but you want to challenge that popular notion, correct?

O’Shaughnessy: This is correct.  The idea that it was lost by incompetent leaders is most apparent in movies and the popular media which have much greater influence on public opinion than books.  It even permeates popular history and college textbooks. It should be said that such images were if anything more common in Britain.  It is a curious thesis because it diminishes the achievements of patriot leaders in winning the war. 

Moore:  Your chapter on George III rehabilitates him in a big way.  There is much to like about King George III.  Among other things there is his character and intellectual curiosity.  Do you think his legacy among Americans will change as more is learned about him?

O’Shaughnessy: The reader will indeed find many attractive qualities in George III. George III was not a tyrant who was responsible for the policies that led to the American Revolution.  He had little to do with colonial policy.  However, after the Boston Tea Party, he became the leading war hawk and may actually have helped to perpetuate the war by several years.  He wanted to continue after Yorktown.  It was revelation to me that he felt so passionately that Britain would cease to be a great power if it lost America.

Moore:  What were the views among Parliament with respect to the Boston Tea Party?

O’Shaughnessy: The Boston Tea Party helped to unify all parties in favor of punishing Massachusetts.  It was regarded as violation of private property and an overt act of civil disobedience.  It should be remembered that many future patriots disowned the radical behavior of Boston.  Benjamin Franklin even offered to compensate Britain.

Moore:  In speaking about the French Revolution, Lord North predicted the “anarchy and bloodshed which will soon overwhelm that unhappy country.”  What gave him the ability to make such a prediction?

O’Shaughnessy: Lord North was not alone in predicting the blood baths of the French Revolution.  It was Edmund Burke who most famously predicted that it would end in dictatorship in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Burke is often seen as a father of modern conservatism because of his belief that society should change organically rather than radical change which would destroy the fabric of the state.  

North was fluent in French and had spent time in France.  He was an admirer of Burke although the two had been opposed on the subject of the French Revolution.   He was also a product of his class and society who feared the egalitarian and leveling tendencies of the French Revolution.  It should be remembered that even the patriots rarely used the word democracy but rather spoke of republicanism. The former was associated with anarchy.

Moore:  Cornwallis was willing to pay for various war expenses out of his own pocket.  Not only does this showcase his generosity, but does it not also demonstrate how convinced he was that the British were on the right(eous) side of the war?

O’Shaughnessy: Cornwallis had actually opposed the policies which led to the war in America.  He was one of only six members of the House of Lords to vote against the Stamp Act.  However, he was very much the professional military man who believed he should obey orders regardless of his personal feelings. 

Moore:  You rightly mention the stellar character of George Washington.  No one is perfect of course, so I am curious what you think about him not helping Paine out later on when Paine had helped Washington so much?

O’Shaughnessy: The change of attitude towards Paine was largely because of his atheism and his book The Age of Reason.  Paine was a permanent revolutionary who supported the opposition to Washington in the 1790s.  He was much more radical than the general and famously derided the president in an article which made the breach permanent.  

Washington fell out with those revolutionary leaders who joined the Republican opposition to his government in the 1790s.  It was a bitterly partisan decade not least because each party believed that it alone represented the true spirit of the American Revolution.  They thought that their opponents would destroy America.  It is a lesson for us today because the country has been enriched by both these traditions even though they were often in conflict.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Bradley J. Birzer: "Happiness: Did the Greeks and the Founders Share a Definition?"

This is a very interesting article by Bradley J. Birzer in "The Imaginative Conservative." Though I'm not sure I "get" it.

The thesis of the article seems America was Cicero's country not Aristotle's. America's Founding had a strong "Greco-Roman" component (however they "re envisioned" that heritage). And yes, if you draw a distinction between the Greeks and the Romans, it was the latter who more influenced the American Founding than the former.

The author is also aware that Thomas Jefferson, in "his famous letter of 1825 to Henry Lee," claims Aristotle as one of the four principle sources of the Declaration along with "Cicero, Locke and Sidney.”

But then, like a scholar with a thesis, Birzer explains away the import of that quotation.

(It's possible, as Birzer notes, to draw a distinction between the "Founding" or "Foundings" as represented by the Declaration and by the "Constitution." John Locke, for instance, profoundly influenced the Declaration in the sense that Jefferson quoted part of Locke's Second Treatise on Government and the Patriotic Preachers likewise quoted Locke for the principles of revolution in the face of Romans 13; but Locke's influence on the Constitution is debatable. Perhaps Aristotle was like Locke in this sense.)

Here is nice passage from Birzer's article:
When James Wilson, one of only six men to sign the Declaration as well as the Constitution, and a future member of the U.S. Supreme Court, gave his famous lectures at what is now the University of Pennsylvania in 1790 and 1791, describing the meaning and philosophy of the American founding, he offered an almost purely Ciceronian vision of Natural Law and Natural Rights. Though he draws upon Aristotle here or there, he constantly refers back to Cicero, though his Cicero is, admittedly, more mythologized than real. As with John Adams, the two revered Cicero, focusing almost exclusively on the Roman’s Stoic ethics.
Note the lead to Birzer quoting George Washington's first inaugural address:

"When Washington famously submitted the following on April 30, 1789, he did so much more as a Roman than a Greek:
"There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people. (First inaugural address)"
This article, to me, smacks of the logical fallacy of the "false-dichotomy"; yes Washington thought of himself more as a Roman Statesman than a Greek; but did not one system of thought lead to the other? And how is Aristotle incompatible or in any way not complementary to Cicero?

Likewise the notion that there is an "indissoluble" connection between virtue and true happiness is, as far as I understand him, Aristotle's Ethics 101. (Groundhog Day was a wonderful representation of that teaching.)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Waligore on Frazer's Thesis

In this same article Dr. Joseph Waligore takes on Dr. Gregg Frazer:
Gregg Frazer is the best-known scholar trying to exclude thinkers like the Christian deists from being considered Christian.  Frazer asserts that in the eighteenth century there was a remarkable unanimity about the basic core content of Christianity.  These core, defining doctrines were clearly listed in the official creeds of the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations.  According to Frazer, these central doctrines were the Trinity, original sin, Virgin Birth, Jesus’ bodily Resurrection, hell, justification by faith, the atonement, and the inspiration of all of Scripture.  Frazer maintained belief or non-belief in these doctrines constituted a clear dividing line in the eighteenth century between Christians and infidels.   He thus declared that thinkers like the Christian deists I am discussing should not be called Christian as they were considered infidels by all their contemporaries.[lviii]
Frazer is focused on eighteenth-century American thinkers, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.  By my definition given earlier that Christian deists were deists who dedicated their theological writings to restoring pure Christianity, I would include both of these thinkers as Christian deists.   (Elsewhere I argue that both Jefferson and Franklin were influenced by English Christian deists.)[lix]  Frazer says the thinkers I am calling Christian deists considered themselves Christian based on their ‘own definition of Christianity, which did not comport with the way every major church defined it.’  He goes further, saying these thinkers ‘appropriated the word Christianity and attached it to a belief system that they constructed and found more to their liking than authentic Christianity.’  He concludes by saying these thinkers ‘rejected Christianity.  Consequently, it is improper and misleading to include a form of the word Christian in a term for those whom I describe as theistic rationalists.’[lx]

Frazer’s argument for the exclusion of the Christian deists from Christianity, and from using the name Christian is based on the churches’ creeds establishing a strong dividing line between Christian and non-Christian in the eighteenth century.  These creeds, however, did not actually perform this function in the eighteenth century.  For example, in the most important English church, the Church of England, the church’s beliefs were legally encapsulated in the Thirty-nine Articles, and every minister had to subscribe or say he believed in these articles.  These articles clearly state that the doctrines Frazer mentions were the official doctrines of the Church of England.  The problem for Frazer’s argument, though, was that during this time there were two main factions in the Church of England, and they had very different ideas about what subscribing to these Articles meant.  One faction of the church’s clergy, the conservative, tradition-minded High Church faction, said that subscribing to the Thirty-nine Articles meant believing in the traditional doctrines that Frazer mentions.  The other faction in the Church of England, the Latitudinarians, did not agree.

The Latitudinarians emphasized reason and natural religion as well as the Bible.  When scholars refer to an English clerical Enlightenment in which the ministers emphasized reason and science, they are primarily thinking of the Latitudinarians.  Many of the Latitudinarian ministers were prominent figures in English science: one Latitudinarian, Joseph Glanvill was a major apologist for the Royal Society and New Science; another, Samuel Clarke, was a collaborator with Isaac Newton on his scientific and mathematical works.  As proponents of science, the Latitudinarians had a very positive attitude towards reason.  One prominent Latitudinarian minister, Richard Bentley, said the Latitudinarians were “as much concerned” as the deists “for the use and authority of reason in controversies of faith.” He thought reason so supported Christianity “that the Christian religion is so far from declining or fearing the strictest trials of reason, that it every where appeals to it, is defended and supported by it. . . .”[lxi]   The Latitudinarians also had a very positive attitude towards natural religion.  One Latitudinarian bishop, Dr. Sherlock, identified Christianity with natural religion, saying, “the Gospel was a Republication of the Law of Nature, . . . which was as old as the Creation.”[lxii]

Many Latitudinarians, because of their emphasis on reason and natural religion, no longer believed in the doctrines contained in the Thirty-nine Articles.  They even openly announced that subscribing to the Thirty-nine Articles did not mean they believed in the doctrines the articles said were the official church teachings.  One of the Latitudinarian bishops, Gilbert Burnet, with the blessing and encouragement of many other Latitudinarian bishops, wrote a long book explaining the Latitudinarian way of interpreting the articles.[lxiii]  Burnet said the articles were deliberately written in such a way they “can admit of different literal and grammatical senses.” He wrote that people could interpret the articles to contain the beliefs Frazer describes.  But he also wrote the articles could be interpreted in a sense which contradicted some of its traditional doctrines.  Burnet said that this meant people who did not agree with the traditional doctrines “may subscribe the Article with a good Conscience, and without any Equivocation.”[lxiv]

Leaders of the High Church faction accused Burnet, one of the foremost bishops of the Church of England, of heresy.  In 1701, they even convened a formal investigation of his book by a committee of the lower house of convocation.  The committee charged Burnet’s book with endorsing positions that were “contrary to the true meaning of them [the articles] and to other receiv’d doctrines of our Church.”  They argued his methods of interpretation stripped the creeds of any authority and encouraged people who did not agree with the creeds to subscribe to them.  They further charged that Burnet’s subordination of revelation to reason and natural religion logically led to deism.[lxv]
The High Church faction was unable to have Burnet declared a heretic,[lxvi] and they were unable to force the Latitudinarians to accept that subscribing to the Thirty-nine Articles meant agreeing with the traditional church doctrines.  In fact, Burnet’s book became mandatory reading in the eighteenth century for future ministers during the process of their ordination, thus ensuring that future ministers of the Church of England were exposed to the Latitudinarian way of viewing the articles.[lxvii]   A German visitor to England at the end of the eighteenth century, Gebhard Friedrich Wendeborn, described the results of the ministers’ exposure to Burnet’s views.  Wendeborn said he heard that a great part of the English clergy were inclined to the heresies of either Arminianism or Socinianism.  He said these ministers did not resign as they wanted a minister’s salary, and ‘they have even bishop Burnet for an advocate, who is of opinion, that every one who subscribes to the Thirty-Nine Articles, has a right to interpret their meaning as he thinks proper, and consistently with his private opinions.’[lxviii]

Official church creeds fail to give a clear dividing line between Christian and non-Christian for members of the Church of England.  Creeds also fail to give this clear dividing line in the eighteenth-century Presbyterian Church.  Frazer is right that the Westminster Confession of Faith was the official creed of the Presbyterian Church.   However, in the early eighteenth century, the Presbyterian ministers in England decided that their ministers no longer had to agree with this creed.  After one prominent Presbyterian minister was accused of preaching Arianism, in 1719 the Presbyterian ministers held a synod in London at Salters’ Hall to discuss whether it should be required that all ministers believe in the Trinity.  The synod decided this important belief, and every other belief in the Westminster Confession, should not be required of English Presbyterian ministers.  Instead, all Presbyterian ministers were free to believe and preach whatever they thought the Bible contained.  As a result of the synod at Salters’ Hall, one scholar said, “the majority of Presbyterians were on the side of rejecting the authority of the Westminster Confession and the 39 Articles. . . .”  After this time, Arianism became an acceptable and even popular opinion among the Presbyterian ministers in England.[lxix]

Waligore: How the Christian-Deists understood themselves

More from Dr. Joseph Waligore here:
Thomas Morgan (d. 1743) was a former minister who later became a doctor and a writer.  Morgan labeled himself a Christian deist, and said Christian deism was the ‘original, real, and indisputable Christianity,’ which ‘was preach’d to the World by Christ and the Apostles.’[ix]  Matthew Tindal (1653?- 1733) was a lawyer, a writer, and was elected to a fellowship at Oxford.  He wrote several times that people with his ideas were ‘true Christian Deists.’[x]  Thomas Amory wrote theological novels in which his characters had extremely complex theological discussions.  He is forgotten nowadays, but he was well known in the eighteenth-century and was compared by one reviewer to Shakespeare and Richardson.[xi]  As I quoted at the very beginning of this paper, Amory thought true Christianity was deism, and he called himself a ‘Christian deist.’[xii]

Waligore: "Christian deism in eighteenth century England"

Dr. Joseph Waligore's article on "Christian deism in eighteenth century England" was just published online in the the International Journal of Philosophy and Theology. You can view it online at his website here. There's lots of great stuff. I'll highlight:
The key to seeing how Christian deists could claim to be both Christian and deist is realizing that their deism was not a form of Enlightenment rationalism; these deists did not emphasize science and reason to such a degree that they denied any true religious feelings. ...

As will be discussed in detail later, I have shown that almost all of the well-known English deists believed in an active God who did miracles and revelations.   The majority of these deists even believed in continuing direct divine inspiration or the belief that God led people through signs or placed thoughts in people’s minds.  Thus a deist should not be defined as someone who believes in an inactive, distant deity.  A better definition of a deist is a thinker who believed in God, but used reason to prove that clerical Christianity was wrong about God’s nature and the way God related to humanity.  The vast majority of deists said natural religion was the true religion and thought it had more authority than the clerical interpretation of the Christian revelation.   (Natural religion, or the religion of nature, is the religion people can arrive at through natural means alone, without supernatural revelation.)   ...

[A] Christian deist is defined as a deist who not only said he was restoring pure Christianity, but also showed his commitment to this project by focusing his theological works on his interpretation of Christianity.  This definition makes it more likely that only thinkers who sincerely considered themselves Christians are included. This paper focuses on three eighteenth-century English thinkers, Thomas Morgan, Thomas Amory, and Matthew Tindal. ...

All three of these writers emphasized knowing God by reason, and used reason to examine traditional Christian doctrines.  They attacked the clerical interpretation of Christianity and argued for total freedom in religious matters.  They did not agree that Jesus taught the traditional Christian doctrines of the Trinity, original sin, or the atonement. ...