Friday, July 24, 2015

The God of Benevolence

One of the claims made, among elsewhere, in Dr. Gregg Frazer's book is that the God of the American Founding (what he terms "theistic rationalism," but could be termed differently) was more benevolent than the God of "the commonly received ideas of Christianity" in late 18th Century America.

Benevolence was one of the "lenses" through which America's key Founders viewed God. Indeed, Robert J. Wilson III's book entitled The Benevolent Deity: Ebenezer Gay and the Rise of Rational Religion in New England, 1696-1787 features the influential unitarian theologian Gay as one of the first leaders of this theological movement. (Gay doesn't get the press for Americanist theology that do like-minded slightly later theologians Revs. Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy, because he turned out to be a Tory.)

"Rationalism" was another lens through which Dr. Frazer claimed the key Founders viewed their Deity. Hence, America's God wasn't that of late 18th Century biblical Christianity, but something more humanistic and rationalistic (the idea is it's American "man's reason" that changed the Christian God's features).

That's quite a contentious claim, but one in which I believe has a degree of merit. There are some lesser included claims that are not so contentious. One is to stress the benevolent nature of the deity, part of the zeitgeist of the American Founding. This contrasts with the nature of the god of Calvinism, i.e., the god of Jonathan Edward's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

So for instance, Benjamin Rush was influenced by the lens of God's benevolence when he rejected Calvin's God and in turn Rush's conversion to Arminianism terminated with the belief in "the salvation of all men" where the unsaved experienced "future punishment ... of long duration." Yes, this "Christian-Universalism" accepted punishment for the unsaved. Indeed, even the "non-Christian" deists believed in the existence of a deity and the future state of rewards and punishments.

But Rush was no deist. He was an Arminian orthodox Trinitarian Christian who believed all men would eventually be saved through Christ's universal as opposed to limited atonement. In so doing Rush expressed faith that God's benevolent nature would ultimately prevail against other competing aspects of His persona. And he did so without converting to "theistic rationalism/unitarianism/Christian-Deism," whatever we term it.

And with that I mention the God of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was no rationalist. To the contrary he was a mystic, who posited trippy theological notions. But his God was benevolent. Indeed, what I've seen from Swedenborg's testimony, his God could win a benevolence contest among the various extant theological ideas in 18th Century Christendom.

[To remind readers of the relationship of Swedenborg to the American Founding see here and here.]

But like even the deists, unitarians, and universalists in 18th Century Christendom, Swedenborg didn't believe everyone automatically got the same Heaven at death (Swedenborg was way too smart to believe in something that simplistic).  He wrote a book called Heaven and Hell (not this Heaven and Hell, but I'd love to merge the two concepts) describing his nuanced understanding of such.

You often hear Arminians say things like "people choose to send themselves to Hell," but that begs the question of what the nature of Hell is really like. People choose to send themselves to eternal conscience torment worse than the holocaust or being confined to solitary in a prison for eternity?

The response is something like "no, people know what they are rejecting, and therefore the eternal conscience torment they get is their choice not god's." The Calvinists are stuck with the notion that god chooses to Elect and thus send folks to Hell for all eternity.

Rather Swedenborg's notion of Hell is more like C.S. Lewis' assertion that the doors of Hell are locked from the inside. Which again, begs the question, what could the nature of Heaven & Hell be like that would lead individuals to make such a choice? No one will choose to be burned, waterboarded, or in a state of maximum security prison-like solitary confinement for all eternity. See contemporary Mixed Martial Arts; people will "tap out." And a god who would send anyone much less than the majority of human souls there for all eternity could hardly be seen a "benevolent Deity." 

Swedenborg provides specific answers. People choose Hell because they get more pleasure from sinning than not. The God of Benevolence permits this eternal choice. People in Hell because of their willful choices actually flourish better there than they would in Heaven. Indeed they could only flourish in Hell not in Heaven. In Hell people can choose to love themselves but not others, and make a partnership with each other not unlike a partnership of thieves like in "The Sopranos."

Swedenborg teaches God is so benevolent that when souls choose to send themselves to Hell to compete and connive with one another and thus get "hurt," God's angels will come to Hell to comfort such hurt souls much like a loving humanistic authority figure (parents to little children, owners to pets) would seek to comfort wayward subordinates.

Thus, living a life or eternity of such chosen sin will not lead to the real happiness that those who choose otherwise experience. We can make this choice before we die. And indeed, after we die and get more information as to ultimate reality on the other side (the period of sorting things out). The unsaved will stay in hell for as long as they choose. Will they choose to stay there forever? We can't yet answer.

For the source of my understanding of Swedenborg's teachings see this.

Throckmorton on Carter

See this post from Warren Throckmorton on Robert Carter III. It's from 2012 and written in the context of answering a claim by David Barton. I'm linking to it now because I have my radar up on the Swedenborgians. A taste:
 Regular readers of this blog will know that Robert Carter wrote what he called a “deed of gift” that set in motion the largest emancipation of slaves in the United States prior to the Civil War. Carter’s deed listed 452 slaves to be emancipated throughout the remainder of Carter’s life. To see parts of the six page deed, click here. ...

Monday, July 20, 2015

Stephen Klugewicz: "The Forgotten First Emancipator"

Check it out here. A taste:
After reading Andrew Levy’s The First Emancipator, the story of Virginia aristocrat Robert Carter III (not to be confused with his grandfather, Robert “King” Carter), I can no longer blithely make excuses for slaveowning Founding Fathers who refused to free their slaves. Motivated by the egalitarianism of his religious beliefs—a combination of Baptist and Swedenborgian theology—Carter in 1791 quietly issued his “Deed of Gift,” which provided for the gradual emancipation of his 452 slaves. ...

Robert Carter, then, stands as the personification of the inconvenient truth that emancipation, even on a large scale, was entirely feasible in the United States, at least at the turn of the nineteenth century. In this way, his life serves as an indictment of the civic gods of America—Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee—who did not free their slaves during their lifetimes. ...

John Hargrove's First (1802) Sermon

Hat tip to Bill Fortenberry for finding and uploading Swedenborian John Hargrove's first sermon delivered to the President and Congress.

In it you will not find the trippy teachings of Swedenborg. But you do find an honest comparison between the prevailing doctrines in orthodox Christianity and what the New Jerusalem Church teaches. They were not orthodox on among other doctrines the Trinity and the Atonement.

You do see there, the notion (I'm not sure if original to Swedenborg) that God never gets "angry" (yes I put that term in scare quotes). Many objections could be offered like "but what about Jesus and the money lenders." The response is the Bible doesn't say Jesus got angry with them, rather merely that He drove them out.

So yes, you can "straighten someone out" even to the point of pulling the trigger without getting angry or upset (that is if you have achieved such perfection). To be not upset means to be in control. Likewise anger and fear, insofar as we understand the biological response to them are opposite sides of the same coin: Fight or flight. Stress. Part of the lower animal nature.

So saying God gets angry is to me necessarily like saying "God gets scared" or "God gets stressed."

One recent response I've dealt with was proof texting "but God says He gets angry." Yes there are translations of verses and chapters of scripture that use that word to describe how God feels. My response is that the word "anger" is not the properly translated term for the reasons I noted above. It's not what humans experience when they get angry (when their heart races and their face turns red, etc.). It's something in principle different.

See the link below from a modern Swedenborgian teacher on why there is no such thing as "righteous anger."

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Swedenborg, the Ultimate "Cosmic" Theologian

In the future look for me to say much more on Emanuel Swedenborg. When one learns about his ideas, one might be tempted to write him off as a crank. Well, he was very smart; I've seen estimates of his IQ at the 200 level. I know that doesn't demonstrate he wasn't a crank as a lot of brilliant people are crazy. Indeed, Swedenborg's testimony led folks to question his sanity.

Whatever Swedenborg's legacy we don't write off Immanuel Kant (another really smart fellow). And Kant -- the man who coined the term "Enlightenment" -- took Swedenborg's ideas very seriously. He seemed obsessed and fascinated with them, and had a love hate relationship with them.

While Swedenborg's theology is extremely complex, I will try to simplify it in a nutshell: He was a self understood "Christian," coming from the Lutheran tradition, who believed in the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments. He believed the "Father, Son & Holy Spirit" were equally divine, but different modes of one God. Thus, he wasn't an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, but a modalist.

He also rejected Sola Fide, and like the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and others, believed in justification through some mysterious process of faith, grace and works. 

Oh, and he also claimed to have visited the afterlife and described what it's like there. Indeed in vivid detail. And that testimony, as far as I can tell, is taken by his followers to have divine revelatory authority along the lines of the Old and New Testament. That's obviously where his ideas cause controversy.

On salvation, Swedenborg was not technically a universalist, but perhaps could be termed a "modified universalist." On a personal note, I don't just reject the notion of Hell as described by Jonathan Edwards in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" as false, but, as a doctrine, I believe it as pernicious as the worst of what radical Islam offers.

On the days I am a believer, I consider myself a "universalist." But as a believer, I still hold to the doctrine of a future state of rewards and punishments.

It's either "Heaven or Hell," one of the other -- one thing perfectly awesome, the other, worst than the worst someone can experience on Earth (like the Holocaust) forever. This strikes me as not only an overly simplistic false dichotomy, but as mentioned above,  renders such idea of Hell no more respectable than the theology that motivated those 19 hijackers to do what they did on 9/11/2001.

But that doesn't invalidate the concept of future punishment,  Hell, what have you. We want folks punished in the future for the bad they do to others. Hitler, Stalin, serial killers? Yes. (And even them, no, not forever.) But the Jews who simply didn't accept Jesus as savior but committed ordinary sins like lusting for someone who isn't your spouse or stealing a candy bar from the lunch room? And Hell is worse than the holocaust, but for eternity?

This is crazy (in my opinion), something which I could never believe in or respect. It's, again, as an idea, in Mohammed Attaville.

But Swedenborg didn't see Hell that way. Rather he saw it in a way that I independently, doing a thought experiment, concluded was just (as much as I despise the above mentioned notion of Hell). It has to do with Aristotle's notion of Eudaimonia; or as George Washington put it,
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, ...
In other words, Hell for the unsaved is like Ground Hog Day. In fact, Heaven and Hell may be the same place! Being in God's Presence for all eternity with His rules. Follow them, and you'll be happy. Break them, and you won't. Do as much smoking, drugging, gaming, hedonistic pleasure pursuing and conniving you want and see how happy it gets you.

That's more or less the notion of Hell I get from Swedenborg. As CS Lewis put it, the doors of Hell are locked from the inside. And no wonder so many folks would choose to stay there for so long, perhaps forever.

Recently, for the first time in my life I attended a funeral at a Swedenborgian Church.  There were the traditional citing of verses and chapters of scripture and singing of traditional hymns like "Amazing Grace." But the minister then cited Swedenborg's writings as seemingly something on par with the Old and New Testament.

It was a very nice sermon, and pleasant, peaceful experience for me.

As it relates to my interest in the American Founding, 1. George Washington wrote the "New Church" (Swedenborgian) and let them know whatever rights the US Constitution grants to "religion" the Swedenborgs were equally entitled to them. And 2. Thomas Jefferson, as President in a context when ministers were invited to preach to the newly formed Federal Government, invited John Hargrove to preach the doctrines of Swedenborg to Congress.

[No, Jefferson was not a secret Swedenborgian. Rather, I think his motive was, if I have to sit through sermons that preach doctrines in which I don't believe, you people should have to do the same. Open your minds a little.]

But let's finally get to the "cosmic" nature of Swedenborg's ideas. He like a lot of the "Christian" figures in the 18th Century pondered the newly understood nature of the stars and universe and concluded such were teaming with intelligent life. Aliens? Angels? Spiritual beings in the cosmos that may have material form? What's the difference?

Consider what Swedenborg wrote when discussing his experiences with the "the spirits of the earth Mercury":
I was desirous to know what kind of face and body the men in the earth Mercury had, whether they were like the men on our earth; instantly there was presented before my eyes a woman exactly resembling the women in that earth; she had a beautiful face, but it was smaller than that of a woman of our earth; her body also was more slender, but her height was equal; she wore on her head a linen cap, which was put on without art, but yet in a manner becoming. A man also was presented to view, who was more slender in body than the men of our earth are; he was clad in a garment of a dark blue color, closely fitted to his body, without any foldings or protuberances: it was given to understand, that such was the form of body, and such the dress of the men of that earth....
 Sounds to me like Swedenborg met himself some Nordic Whites

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

D. G. Hart: "When Did Christian America End?"

Check it out here. A taste:
The odd wrinkle to Christian readings of the American revolution is that the United Kingdom was a Christian nation. Presbyterians were the established church in Scotland. And King George was head of a church that claimed George Washington as a member (and he was an orthodox Christian, you know). Plus, it seems that King George III wasn’t all that bad a king.

What the United States did was to establish itself without a Christian church. Advocates of a Christian America may not like the language of the separation of church and state, but what the United States did in comparison to Europe and 1500 years of history (and even compared to France where Napolean eventually made Roman Catholicism the established church) was to create a nation without a state church (at the national level — hello) and that prohibited religious tests for holding office. That also meant the churches (except for Congregationalists in New England) had to pay as they went on the basis of their own creative schemes for finding parishioners and persuading them to give (till it hurts — I mean, tithe).

Monday, July 13, 2015

MRFF, "Spiritual Rape" & Roger Williams

Check out Chris Rodda's newest piece here. A taste:
In his 1643 pamphlet Queries of the Highest Consideration, Williams wrote (emphasis added):
"And oh! since the commonweal cannot, without a spiritual rape, force the consciences of all to one Worship, oh! that it may never commit that rape, in forcing the consciences of all men to one Worship, which a stronger arm and sword may soon (as formerly) arise to alter."
In his 1644 book The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, he wrote:
"A Soule or spiritual Rape is more abominable in God's eye than to force and ravish the bodies of all the women in the world."

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Stewart on the Founders' Cosmic Beliefs

A few days after I wrote my piece on cosmic religions, I see Matthew Stewart had a similar piece on the matter. I didn't read Stewart's book. His article could have been based on the research found there. A taste:
If these peace-loving aliens were a threat to anything, it was to theology. John Adams put his finger on the problem as a young man in a diary entry from 1756. Given the near-certainty of alien life, he reasoned, Evangelical Christians must either condemn our extraterrestrial brothers to everlasting perdition or suppose that Jesus shows up on an endless number of planets in ever-changing alien incarnations. Thomas Paine later made the same point in print, rather more caustically: “The person who is irreverently called the Son of God, and sometimes God himself, would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of death, with scarcely a momentary interval of life.”
There are a lot of sightings of strange objects in the sky. I often wonder if not only have we been visited by them, but if we are their projects. If they do exist and are visiting, it needs explaining why they aren't sharing their technology like zero point energy and cures for diseases like cancer. One reason is it would be too "disruptive." Likewise if they are that much more advanced then they have presumably knowledge of the origins of reality. That would disrupt or perhaps clarify "religion."

Perhaps the recorded miracles of old were simply uses of advanced alien technology. From Thor:
Erik Selvig: I'm talking about science, not magic.
Jane Foster: Well, "magic's just science we don't understand yet." Arthur C. Clarke.


 Thor: Your ancestors called it magic...
[Thor skims through a book on Norse mythology]
Thor: ...but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Arnhart: "Did Leo Strauss Think that Liberalism's Success Denied the Need for Esoteric Writing?"

Check out Larry Arnart's post here. A taste:
...  On the one hand, Strauss seems to agree with the pre-modern view that esoteric writing is necessary and desirable because of the natural conflict between the philosophic life of the few and the moral, religious, or political life of the many.  On the other hand, Strauss seems to agree with the modern view that in a liberal or open society, there is no natural conflict between the philosophic life and the practical life, and therefore esoteric writing is unnecessary and undesirable.
Thoughts: I believe esoteric writing is still used in modern open society because of the "meet the old boss, same as the new boss" dynamic. Small l "liberal" society turned out to be not as "open" and "liberal" in the ideal for everybody as might have been imagined or desired.

Still, as bad as today's ideological and political tyrants in liberal democracies may be, the context in which the pre-moderns needed to write esoterically was far worse. Back then, those who bucked the line could be, not just fired from their jobs or have their reputations ruined in respectable society, but burned at the stake or otherwise forced to leave the nation-state.

So I think of John Locke for instance, someone the Straussians have notoriously analyzed for his "esoteric" sentiments. They claim he was an esoteric atheist. I don't believe this. Locke exoterically claimed to believe in God, be a Christian, that "Jesus was Messiah" (and that was his test for lowest-common-denominator "Christianity"); but he never claimed that one must believe in doctrines like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, etc. to be a "Christian."

Now, I DO think Locke was up to something esoterically, exactly what, we can never be sure. Personally, I don't believe Locke was an atheist but a secret unitarian or Trinity denier. That is, if I could go back in time and pin Locke down with truth serum and ask him "do you believe in the Trinity and Incarnation" I firmly believe his answer would be "Absolutely not. In fact, I deny these doctrines."

Instead, Locke just studiously avoided putting his specific cards on the table as it related to those doctrines. When a critic of his said his refusal to assert orthodox Trinitarian doctrines as part of the necessary minimums for what it means to be a "Christian" necessarily meant he denied the Trinity and was therefore a "Socinian," Locke replied that nothing in his writings clearly denied the Trinity. (He simply didn't affirm the doctrine.)

The problem for Locke is that if he wanted to deny the Trinity, it was illegal in England at that time for him to so do; England like the rest of pre-Englightenment Christendom would, at worst, execute heretics (including those who denied the Trinity). Locke also left the England in exile for Holland because of the controversial nature of his ideas.

I'm no fan of political correctness, but how many Americans today feel they need to and ACTUALLY DO leave the country because of their ideas? That's the context in which Locke not only existed but the politics of which he attempted to transcend in favor of something more tolerant, open and "rights oriented." Small l "liberalism." What Locke helped to establish.

Monday, July 6, 2015

An Attack on Scholars

Check out my new post at Ordinary Times. A taste:
... And indeed, I just verified the footnotes and sources on pages 72-74 of The Search For Christian America. They are all accurate as is their assertion “The God of the founding fathers was a benevolent deity, not far removed from the God of eighteenth-century Deists or nineteenth century Unitarians.”
One caveat, if “Deism” is understood as the cold, distance watchmaker, it would be misleading. However the God of the 18th Century American and English “Deists” was chiefly “Christian-Deism.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine describing a cold, non-intervening watchmaker as “benevolent” as the authors do (and the Founding Fathers did). Further, the God of the nineteenth century Unitarians (at least for most of that century) was understood as a “Christian” deity with a consequent denial of the Trinity and affirmation of unorthodox understandings of biblical texts and doctrines.

The Phony Quotations Strike Again

I used to call them "David Barton's phony quotations." He did write an article that half-assed attempts to correct the record [I linked to the newest version of the article which I just read and which attacks Dr. Gregg Frazer whose work I have followed closely for years]. I'm not going to pin them on him anymore, however.

I've been doing this for over a decade now and it seems these quotations aren't going away. Here is the latest use from WordNetDaily head honcho Joseph Farah:
Too many Americans have become convinced that we can, as a nation, have it both ways – denying God and still somehow hanging on to our liberty, prosperity and security. It just doesn’t work that way.

A quote from James Madison is very relevant here: “We have staked the whole future of the American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future … upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”

He chose his words carefully, and they were accurate and to the point.
The problem is Madison never said it. It's a fake quote. America's Founders -- notably the Founders who played leading roles like James Madison -- did engage in God talk and spoke of "blessings" and "Providence" and so on. However, they tended to be much more general in how they described God.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Tim Holcombe: "Why The American Revolution Was A Mistake"

Food for thought, here. A taste:
If an American could compare the liberties he enjoys with those of a pre-Revolutionary War colonist, he might well wish to find the nearest time machine and switch shoes. And wearing those shoes, perhaps he would have opportunity to read the words of Thomas Jefferson, with the ink barely dry on the Declaration of Independence:

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.

In penning these words, Jefferson became the liar of the century. His assessment was verifiably false, yet his words have had resounding historical impact.

The colonists actually had a sweet deal, particularly with taxation. The total burden of British imperial taxation was about 1% of national income, and no higher than 2.5% in the southern colonies.

How’d ya like rates like that now, American?

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Happy Birthday, America

Two terrific pieces from legal scholar and Volokh Consprirator Randy Barnett, What the Declaration of Independence Really Claimed and The Drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

Enjoy and a happy 4th to all.

Submission & Obedience

I have a new post at Ordinary Times, part of which I excerpt as it relates to an issue central to the ethical implications of America's Declaration of Independence -- what I have blogged about for many years. A taste:
[L]et’s lay a foundation. Both Jesus and St. Paul gave believers instruction on how to make peace with a secular civil government whose principles didn’t perfectly line up with theirs.

When St. Paul said in Romans 13 “government” was a minister of God that believers ought to honor, obey and submit to, the ruler to whom he instructed believers to submit was the pagan psychopath, Nero. Jesus, of course, said “Render unto Caeser….” And the Caeser to whom Jesus said to render unto also wasn’t much of a good guy either.

Yet lines were drawn. Obvious lines. If “man” (including government) tells you to disobey God, then obey God and disobey man. Never are believers instructed to revolt and overthrow government. Simply disobey. Jesus never revolted against Caeser or called on His people to so do. Indeed, He seemed to tell Pilate his most unjust act of crucifixion had civil legitimacy from above.

Jesus did disobey and drove the money lenders out of the Temple, a sacred place.

CNN: "Was America founded as a Christian nation?"

Check out the responses from multiple contributors. Below is a taste from one of them -- our friend John Fea:
It is true that the founders, by virtue of the fact that they signed the Declaration of Independence, probably believed in a God who presided over nature, was the author of human rights, would one day judge the dead and governed the world by his providence.

Those who signed the United States Constitution endorsed the idea that there should be no religious test -- Christian or otherwise -- required to hold federal office.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Cosmic Religions

That's the title of a new post I have at "Ordinary Times."

Here is a taste insofar as it relates to the American Founding & Religion:
But Franklin soon abandoned such strict deism. He desired to worship a more personal God. So his next stop — where he attempted to reconcile Enlightenment with worship of a personal God — was something quite cosmic, indeed proto-Mormon. As he described it in 1728:
When I think thus, I imagine it great Vanity in me to suppose, that the Supremely Perfect, does in the least regard such an inconsiderable Nothing as Man. More especially, since it is impossible for me to have any positive clear Idea of that which is infinite and incomprehensible, I cannot conceive otherwise, than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no Worship or Praise from us, but that he is even INFINITELY ABOVE IT.

I CONCEIVE then, that the INFINITE has created many Beings or Gods, vastly superior to Man, who can better conceive his Perfections than we, and return him a more rational and glorious Praise. As among Men, the Praise of the Ignorant or of Children, is not regarded by the ingenious Painter or Architect, who is rather honour’d and pleas’d with the Approbation of Wise men and Artists. .
It may be that these created Gods, are immortal, or it may be that after many Ages, they are changed, and Others supply their Places. .

Howbeit, I conceive that each of these is exceeding wise, and good, and very powerful; and that Each has made for himself, one glorious Sun, attended with a beautiful and admirable System of Planets. .
It is that particular wise and good God, who is the Author and Owner of our System, that I propose for the Object of my Praise and Adoration. .
Note that Franklin, for the rest of his life articulated belief in an active personal God, but never repudiated or retracted the above “cosmic” sentiment. (I’m not sure, however, whether he continued to believe in such.)