Wednesday, December 13, 2017

James Stoner on Thomas West's New Book

See here. A taste:
West’s failure to distinguish political philosophy from political theory makes it too easy for him to dismiss competing interpretations of the Founders’ work and its vulnerabilities. We who teach in the field often elide the terms when we describe what we do to our colleagues in political science, on the one hand, and to those in the departments of philosophy on the other. But in speaking of the political theory of the Founding, West dodges the question of its relation to the account of natural rights and natural law in political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

He uses Locke from time to time to clarify and elaborate the Founders’ theory, as I say, but he backs away from him whenever the Founders did not agree with his conclusions. This prompts one to wonder, did the Founders pull back from logical implications they did not want to face, or did they find Locke’s theory philosophically inadequate?

West can only refute the amalgam theory—the view that the Founders drew on philosophically distinct and therefore philosophically incompatible political philosophies or fundamental traditions—if he can show that the Founders dismissed Locke for theoretical reasons, not just to avoid facing the practical consequences his principles demanded (for example, permitting divorce). The argument of Leo Strauss in the first place, and his successors such as Harvey Mansfield and Thomas Pangle, is that there are aspects of Locke’s political philosophy, not least its deep indebtedness to Hobbes’ philosophy, that lead eventually but inexorably to the materialist individualism and anomie of our current predicament—in other words, toward a crisis of liberalism—and that insofar as the Founders invited Locke into their homes and made his theoretical framework their own, they risked undermining their handiwork.

In short, if the Founding is Lockean, it is no amalgam, but it is unstable, carrying with it untoward Lockean consequences. If it is only partially Lockean, it might avoid the bad consequences, but would do so by being less pure (by being amalgamated). To be less abstract: The weakening of the family, enormous economic inequality, and maybe even eventual recourse to executive predominance arguably follow from Lockean political philosophy even if none of this is what the Founders had in mind.
See also this comment which links to how West has responded to a similar criticism. A taste, quoting West:
“In regard to the decline of our current world… our world is the way it is not because of the Founding, but something else that happened in the last two hundred and some years… if you look at the history of western countries in the 1960s, all of them went through the exact same metamorphosis, almost at the same moment. And so, countries for example like Germany and Britain, that have long had establishment of religion, official churches and all the things that the Americans didn’t do all had that exact same thing. There was immediate institution of no-fault divorce throughout the world in the 1970s in almost every country, immediate institution of barriers on employers in terms of their freedom of contract with their employees. There was a complete collapse of sexual mores throughout the Western world all at once, whether it was New Zealand, Australia, Germany, England America.

This is not due to the Founding Fathers, I can assure you of that… Nietzsche’s diagnosis of what’s wrong with us- that’s where you need to go to understand our current situation. It’s a psychological malady that is a profound indication of a deep dissatisfaction in the Western soul now that it has gotten rid of God, now that it has gotten rid of nature, and reason- it has gotten rid of all meaning in human life. It has put us exactly in the situation.. Tocqueville worried about, where we’re living in the present moment. That’s where we are, and that is not something that the Founding Fathers can be blamed for, and I also agree to some degree that is something the Founding Fathers can’t help us solve, that’s something we’re going to have to solve ourselves.”
I think it's absolutely true that this was an international phenomenon that affected Western culture in general, not just America in particular. Certain folks might operate with blinders and assume since America isn't Europe, let's look for particular American villains to blame -- Alfred Kinsey, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Abbie Hoffman, etc. -- and ignore Europe. The Straussians by the way don't do this and for good reason. They understand the ideas came from continental Europe and migrated their way to America.

I like their analysis much more than that of those who fulminate against "cultural Marxism." But at least they too understand that the "Frankfurt school" whom they blame for cultural Marxism are Europeans whose thought (as well as some of their people) came to America.

I don't think however, what's quoted above from West adequately answers the claim he tries to refute. Here's why: America was founded as a liberal democracy, arguably the first modern one. Lockean ideas began in Great Britain; but GB still was no modern liberal democracy if for no other reason than they still had a throne (monarchy) and altar (state established church), things liberal democracy were meant to if not abolish, defang.

By the 1960s all of the nations in Western Europe were, like America and France, liberal democracies. Indeed, America and France influenced them in becoming such. So yes, these nations are Lockean, because they followed America and France. Yes, many of those nations, like Great Britain still had both monarchies and state established churches as they do to this day. But they are "defanged"; they are titular. As liberal democracies, they have to be.

But before these nations became liberal democracies, those institutions were not titular. There is only one area where Western state established churches and monarchies still have power, and that's that they have money. And money is power.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Russell Moore on Kidd's Book on Franklin's Religion

Thomas Kidd's book on Ben Franklin's religion was one of Russell Moore's favorite books of 2017. Check out Moore's brief review here. A taste:
I’ve long said that the cultural Christianity around us often resembles the religion of Benjamin Franklin rather than that of his friend and contemporary George Whitefield. ...

... Kidd portrays a dying Franklin in a room with a painting of the Matthew 25 scene of Jesus dividing the sheep from the goats at his Judgment Seat: “What was going on in Franklin’s mind, as he gazed at God separating the saved and the damned? To the end, Franklin’s faith was enigmatic. It was clear that by the end of his life, he affirmed God’s Providence, and God’s future rewards and punishments. But after a lifetime of questions…doubts still lingered. He had sought to live by a code of Christian ethics. But had he fully lived up to them? The doctor believed that those who enter heaven must do so by their virtue. But he knew that the Calvinist questioners saw this as false hope. No one merited salvation by their goodness, they said. They thought Franklin was wrong. He thought they were wrong. And so, Franklin waited, with ragged breathing, eyes fixed on the painting.”

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Benjamin Rush on "Sects"

I don't think I've ever shared this quotation. There was a prevailing zeitgeist of religious correctness that dissenters of the era bucked. The "Athanasian" divines held that folks who didn't believe in among other things the Trinity weren't "Christians" whatever they called themselves.

Benjamin Rush, a Trinitarian Universalist, wasn't one of those religiously correct folks. His universalism made him a dissenter.

Below is the quotation from July 18 1792:
There is a propensity in all sciences to simplify themselves and to ascribe that to one which should be divided among many causes. For example, how few sects honor Father, Son and Holy Ghost in religion as they should do. The Socinians honor the Father only; the Catholics the Saviour chiefly, and the Quakers the Holy Spirit above both; how few include all the ends of our Saviour's death in their belief of the Atonement; each contends for one end only while six or seven other ends are clearly revealed in the Scriptures; many exalt one power or one set of powers only in the mind instead of all, many confine religion to one power only instead of applying it to all. The Episcopalians to the understanding, the Methodists to the passions and the Quakers the moral powers.
Socinians, Catholics and Quakers each were controversial in their own right. That Rush includes Socinians as a "Christian" sect demonstrates his sympathy with the dissenters and against the orthodox forces of religious correctness that would deny them such label.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Kathryn Gin Lum: "Damnation, American style: How American preachers reinvented hell"

I missed this, published at Salon in 2014. The author has an academic book on a subject that is of interest to this blog. A taste:

Among the many congratulatory letters George Washington received after assuming the presidency was one from “the Convention of the Universal Church, assembled in Philadelphia.” “SIR,” it began, “Permit us, in the name of the society which we represent, to concur in the numerous congratulations which have been offered to you.” The letter reassured the president that “the peculiar doctrine which we hold, is not less friendly to the order and happiness of society, than it is essential to the perfection of the Deity.” One of its signers, Universalist minister John Murray, had known Washington since serving as a chaplain in the Revolutionary War. The minister and his second wife, Judith Sargent Murray, had even stopped to dine with the Washingtons on their way to the Convention. Thanks in large part to their efforts, universal salvation was no longer an obscure creed espoused by a scattered few. Now the Convention sought to establish Universalism as a recognized, socially responsible faith.
Washington responded favorably. “GENTLEMEN,” he began, thanking them for their well-wishes, “It gives me the most sensible pleasure to find, that in our nation, however different are the sentiments of citizens on religious doctrines, they generally concur in one thing: for their political professions and practices, are almost universally friendly to the order and happiness of our civil institutions. I am also happy in finding this disposition particularly evinced by your society.” Such affirmation of the Universalists’ civic friendliness, from none other than the first president of the newly United States, must have gratified the Convention. They were well aware that other Protestant clergy, especially the Calvinists, disdained their “peculiar doctrine.”

Friday, November 17, 2017

Article on Winchester & Murray

I found this very informative article on Elhanan Winchester, a Baptist Universalist who influenced among others Benjamin Rush. It brings to mind Rush's quotation:
At Dr. Finley’s school, I was more fully instructed in those principles by means of the Westminster catechism. I retained them without any affection for them until about the year 1780. I then read for the first time Fletcher’s controversy with the Calvinists, in favor of the universality of the atonement. This prepared my mind to admit the doctrine of universal salvation, which was then preached in our city by the Rev. Mr. Winchester. It embraced and reconciled my ancient Calvinistical and my newly adopted Arminian principles. From that time I have never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men. My conviction of the truth of this doctrine was derived from reading the works of Stonehouse, Seigvolk, White, Chauncey and Winchester, and afterwards from an attentive perusal of the Scriptures. I always admitted with each of those authors future punishment, and of long duration.
Curiously, one name missing from Rush's list is that of the other most notable Universalist of America's Founding era, John Murray. The article sheds light on why that might be so [it relates to Murray's denial of temporary punishment in the afterlife]:
During the Revolutionary Era and Early Republic, the two leading universalists in America were Winchester and John Murray; the latter was a onetime friend of George Whitefield who eventually came to embrace the universalist views of a Welsh minister named James Relly. Both Relly and Murray had been pro-revival Calvinists prior to their conversion to universalist sentiments. In 1770, Murray relocated to America and spent the next forty-five years promoting the universalist cause from Virginia to New England. Murray met Winchester shortly after First Baptist Church of Philadelphia split over Winchester’s views. The two men became friendly acquaintances, and on August 5, 1785 Murray and Winchester founded a Universalist Society in Oxford, Massachusetts. ...
Though the two men were co-laborers for the universalist cause in the mid-1780s, they represented two distinct versions of universal restoration.42 Following Relly, Murray argued for what might be called a Calvinistic version of universalism that affirmed unconditional election and effectual atonement, but applied them to all of humanity. Murray argued that all people are presently reconciled with Christ, even if they do not know it, and are thus ushered into Christ’s presence upon their death. For Murray, conversion was about awakening to the reality that you are already saved; Christians are those who simply live in light of that reality.43 Murray denied that there would be any punishment for sin in the afterlife, believing that sin is punished temporally in the present life; this emphasis on temporal punishment marked a key difference between Murray and Winchester.
Winchester advocated a different understanding of universal restoration. James Leo Garrett argues Winchester built his cases for universalism around three key ideas: God’s love is his central attribute, Christ’s atonement is general in its provision, and salvation is inclusive of all people.45 Unlike Murray, Winchester argued for the necessity of post- mortem punishment as a means to reform unrepentant sinners and reconcile them to God. Eventually, all people would be purged of their sin and be saved. For Winchester, conversion was about resting in the saving work of Christ in this life and avoiding God’s just punishment of sinners in the next life.46 Though a universalist, Elhanan Winchester was in every other respect a mainstream evangelical.
I think that Winchester's view of "future punishment, and of long duration" probably predominated among then Universalists. However, one still can't discount Murray's influence during the American Founding.  In 1775, George Washington defended Murray as a chaplain during the revolutionary war when the "religiously correct" sought to disqualify Murray for the position because of his universalism.

Later, in 1790, responding to a letter co-written by Murray, Washington gave his props to the Convention of the Universal Church. Though I don't think this group privileged Murray's view of the afterlife over Winchester's (Winchester also, apparently played a leadership role in that group).

[The notes to Washington's letter to the Convention also interestingly detail George and Martha's social relationship with the Murrays.]

Still, one thing about Murray's view reported above, to me, sticks out as striking a very important note that resonates with classical and Christian thought of yesterday and today: "believing that sin is punished temporally in the present life[.]"

Of that era, most Unitarans, Universalists, Deists and so on, along with Jews, orthodox Christians and Muslims believed in at the very least the doctrine of an overriding Providence and future state of rewards and punishments. While Murray's view is consistent with Providence and a future state of rewards, what about the punishment part? Yes, there is punishment for sin, or for the more philosophically minded, violation of the natural law. But to Murray, it's more of a present punishment than a future one.

This is Aristotle's notion of Eudaimonia, that there is, as George Washington put it in his First Inaugural "an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness." Perhaps this explains why Washington could venerate Murray's theology.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Robert G. Brown on The Great Spirit

Robert G. Brown is, apparently a professor of physics at Duke University. He also has an interest in theology and has written on the Natives' "Great Spirit" whom, among others, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison invoked by name when speaking to the Natives and referencing God.

A taste:
The Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka, Gitchi Manitou of Native American cultures) is a beautiful example of a non-theistic belief in an active, personal, non-anthropomorphic Deity that is intertwined with the fabric of the Universe itself on the large scale and yet is personally engaged with the web of living things and the world on an earthly scale. These cultures are not completely homogeneous, and there are a variety of creation mythologies that need not concern us as (in my opinion at least) these cultures have always been aware that their mythologies are myths, that their legends are legends, that their sacred stories are stories, and thus they have avoided the curse of socially enforced orthodoxy or any sort of insistence on ``belief''. The myths themselves are intended and used as teaching stories that guide individual behavior in ways that support the individual and the community, not as metaphysical speculation. These religions also seem to lack the hellfire and damnation meme - the Great Spirit doesn't punish people for being bad, doesn't inflict eternal torment on people for ``not believing in It''. In these cultures, a life out of balance with the Great Spirit, with the earth, with the community is its own punishment.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Brookhiser on Wood's new book on Adams & Jefferson

Read about it in the New York Times here. Richard Brookhiser reviews Gordon Wood's new book on John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. A taste:
Silence fell between the two men. Abigail sent Jefferson a letter of condolence after the death of his daughter Polly in 1804, but their tentative correspondence almost immediately went nuclear. Friendship was finally restored through the efforts of Benjamin Rush, a colleague from the Continental Congress, who conducted a two-year campaign of exhortation, flattery and guile. Among Rush’s stratagems was telling Adams that he had had a dream in which Adams broke the ice by writing Jefferson. Adams finally did so on New Year’s Day, 1812. Enemies no more, the two corresponded until the end.