Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Newest Debate Influenced By East v. West Coast Straussianism

This time the two players are Robert Reilly, batting for the West; and Patrick Deneen, batting for the East. Both are traditional religiously conservative Roman Catholics.

The issue is how the politics of the American Founding -- philosophy and theology included -- squares with "Christianity" (scare quotes meant to denote all of its inherit meanings).

Adam Seagrave joins the conversation.

There are too many points for me to address in a brief blog post; so I will choose to focus on one by Professor Deneen:
... Indeed, inasmuch as for Locke the first form of property is ownership of our own selves, protection of expression of selfhood is a predictable form of how our “diversity in faculties” is likely to find expression. And, as his 1792 essay on property makes clear, Madison’s understanding of property as exclusive possessions of individuals, which includes not only external wealth but also opinions and belief, is extensively the same as the Lockean view.

Reilly claims that Locke and Madison—in distinction from Hobbes and Machiavelli—are part of a continuous tradition that reaches back to ancient and Christian philosophy. However, one would be hard-pressed to find a justification of res publica from pre-modern thinkers that rests on the claim that protection of private differences is the “first object” of republican government. The classical tradition—expressed, for instance, in the writings of Aristotle or Aquinas—encouraged public-spiritedness, self-rule, concern for the common good, and cultivation of virtue as the essential elements of a polity or republic. While classical thinkers also recognized differences (and the potential for factions) as a major challenge, they commended the harmonization of differences and cultivation of virtue rather than promoting pursuit of private differences as the best avenue of avoiding political division. Indeed, the ancient Greeks reserved the word idiotes to those mainly concerned with private things. Classical thinkers encouraged the formation of small-scale regimes over large ones as more likely to promote participation in a shared common good. Aristotle argued for a limit to acquisition, believing that excess was as dangerous to civic and personal virtue as deficiency.

In calling for a large and extended republic, a relatively small political class whose ambition would promote national greatness, and a citizenry with a main focus on private pursuits, both Madison and Hamilton were cognizant that they were building a nation based on a new science of politics, as Hamilton readily acknowledges in Federalist 1 and 9.
I agree with Deneen that Madison, Hamilton, following Locke were positing something "new" that broke with the "classical" tradition that traces from Aristotle, whom America's Founders lauded, to Aquinas, whom they didn't.

However, the Lockean liberal tradition was one of a number of different core ideologies that made up the the synthesis of the origins of the American founding. Perhaps the "civic republican" ideological thought found in such thinkers as Harrington resonates more with the classical tradition from which Locke and Madison broke and adds balance to the perspective, especially to those who laud the classical tradition and wish to find more of it in the American founding. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

What is the Judeo-Christian Tradition?

I saw John Fea link this a little while back. I think the term to describe the political theology of the American Founding is as problematic as any other competing ones. To hear George Washington tell the narrative, yes Jews and Christians worshipped the same God. But so too did Muslims and unconverted "Great Spirit" worshipping native Americans.

A taste:
The inclination to incorporate Jewish thought into the fabric of society is noble and important, especially in light of political history. But some scholars point out that “Judeo-Christian,” unlike the term “Abrahamic,” can also serve to exclude other religious minorities, such as Muslims — which can have unwelcome implications. The term “Abrahamic” is more inclusive because all three major monotheistic religions trace their lineage to the figure of Abraham.
Personally I think "generic monotheism" gets at the political theology of the American Founding. But if the "generic" part makes it too weak, Dennis Prager's "ethical monotheism" will do.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Articles From Mark David Hall and Thomas Kidd

Check out this new article by Mark David Hall at the ISI site discussing how the "Deism" dynamic of the American Founding has been exaggerated. A taste:
But even if the Founders discussed above were all clearly deists, what would that say about the founding generation? Consider for a moment the background and experiences of these men. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were wealthy Anglican plantation owners. Hamilton was born and raised in the British West Indies, and Paine was born and raised in England. In an era when few people travelled internationally, Jefferson and Adams spent significant time in Europe, and Franklin lived most of the last thirty-five years of his life in Britain and France. Needless to say, these men are not representative of late-eighteenth-century Americans.

When one turns from these few select Founders to the broader constellation of men and women who played significant roles in winning American independence and creating America’s constitutional order, the proposition that the Founders were deists becomes impossible to maintain. ...
Hall does solid work. Though no one's scholarship is perfect. But to (admittedly) "nitpick," Hall then lists a bunch of "orthodox Christians" that outnumber the "deists." He includes Abigail Adams in his list of orthodox Christians. She wasn't. She just as militantly rejected the Trinity as did her husband.

This is an article from Thomas Kidd published in Baylor Magazine on Ben Franklin. Kidd also does solid work. A taste:
... The text of the unamended Constitution is notably secular, save for references like the “Year of our Lord” 1787. But the lack of religion in the document does not mean the topic went unmentioned.

Several weeks into the proceedings, the octogenarian Benjamin Franklin proposed that the meetings open with prayer. “How has it happened,” he pondered, according to a copy of the speech in Franklin’s papers, “that we have not, hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our Understandings?”
We've heard the story and seen the quotation from Franklin at the Constitutional Convention many times. They were deadlocked and Franklin suggested that they pray. He did so using language that suggested belief in an active personal God.

So I often see Christian nationalists framing the issue as though, "see even the supposed 'deist' Ben Franklin was prayerful."

But here is the funny thing. We are assuming Franklin is the less than fully orthodox outlier, as the Christian nationalists narrative suggests he was the least conventionally religious man in a room full of devoutly orthodox Christian men who were writing a Constitution based on biblical principles.

So look at what Franklin wrote about the men in this room. From Kidd's article:
Even stranger, few convention attendees supported the proposal. A couple of devout delegates seconded his motion, but it fizzled among the other participants. Franklin scribbled a note at the bottom of his prayer speech lamenting, “The Convention except three or four Persons, thought Prayers unnecessary!”
As noted above the Constitution's text is secular. Likewise the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention quote the Bible little if at all for the propositions contained in the Constitution.

And what does it say about a room full of mostly, or with a few exceptions, "orthodox Christian" men that they thought prayers unnecessary to resolve their deadlock? 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Ben Franklin on the Ten Commandments and More

So I never inquired before on quotations from Ben Franklin on the Ten Commandments. After a little research I can only find one. Interestingly, American Creation's Tom Van Dyke's 2009 post came up in my search which aptly noted that the context of the quotation was Franklin acting the part of a "dirty old man."

In a flirtatious letter to Madame Brillon de Jouy, née Anne-Louise Boivin d'Hardancourt (March 10, 1777), Franklin states there are actually 12, not 10 Commandments.
People commonly speak of Ten Commandments. I have been taught that there are twelve. The first was increase & multiply & replenish the earth. The twelfth is, A new Commandment I give unto you, that you love one another. It seems to me that they are a little misplaced, And that the last should have been the first.
Chris Rodda's "Liars for Jesus" (Volume I) also references this quotation on page 423. She notes that Christian Nationalists who look for and cherry pick quotations to fit their narrative don't use this one.

Interestingly, I also found in Rodda's chapter on Franklin (11 in her book) a letter that deals with the Deism controversy. Franklin admitted that he was a "thorough Deist" when younger but soon abandoned that creed.  In 1728, in his early 20s, Franklin thought the God of the Universe was a Deistic, impersonal Creator who created a personal God that rules our solar system, one he would worship.

By the end of his life, I doubt Franklin continued to believe this. Where he ended up was belief in an active personal God but without endorsing any orthodox doctrine. Rather, the doctrine he did endorse was morality and doing good to our fellow man as the central purpose of all valid religions. And that Jesus -- about whose divinity Franklin had "doubts" -- was the greatest moral teacher.

Franklin had a friendship with the evangelical preacher George Whitefield. Whitefield tried and failed to convert Franklin to his creed. Rodda uncovers a letter from Franklin to Whitefield (Sept. 2, 1769) where, aged 63 at the time, Franklin addressing the doctrine of Providence, again, sounds like some kind of Deist:
I see with you that our affairs are not well managed by our rulers here below; I wish I could believe with you, that they are well attended to by those above; I rather suspect, from certain circumstances, that though the general government of the universe is well administered, our particular little affairs are perhaps below notice, and left to take the chance of human prudence or imprudence, as either may happen to be uppermost. It is, however, an uncomfortable thought, and I leave it.
Well America won the then brewing revolutionary war that was the subject of Franklin's 1769 letter to Whitefield. Franklin's speech as an old man at the Constitutional Convention reveals belief in a Providence who more actively personally intervenes in man's affairs.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

What's a Cult Anyway, Part II

Roy Masters presents himself as a Messianic Jew and a Bible believing Christian. He's not a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, which I suppose makes him Protestant by default. Masters is a "new" teacher in the sense that he innovated a certain theological understanding and attained a group of people who follow his comprehensive teachings.

He does not, however, wish to be seen as "New Age," or as a "cult leader." Rather, he asserts he falls squarely within the "Judeo-Christian" tradition. His comprehensive packaging of his theological teaching is indeed novel. However, I would argue the vast majority of the components of his teachings can be traced to earlier traditions in Christendom, many of them "dissenting" or "eccentric" traditions.

So here is what he believes, or claims to believe:

1. The God of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

On matters of biblical canon, I think he follows the Protestant canon (book of 66) with questions as to whether the Song of Solomon is inspired. If that book is, he rejects the sexualized reading of it. He may well believe some of books rejected by Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions are inspired. I saw him quote the Gospel of Thomas in one of his lectures as though it were inspired. That may make him some kind of Gnostic (sorry Eric Vogelin fans).

2. The mystical tradition of Christianity. 

I don't know whether there is a connection between Gnosticism and Christian mysticism. But Roy Masters' devotee David Kupelian explicitly notes that tradition as authoritative:
Then there’s the famous 16th century Catholic priest, Saint John of the Cross, who authored the Christian classic “Dark Night of the Soul” and others. He said this: “Love consists not in feeling great things but in having great detachment and in suffering for the Beloved” (that is, for God). And this: “If you purify your soul of attachment to and desire for things, you will understand them spiritually. If you deny your appetite for them, you will enjoy their truth, understanding what is certain in them.” This is a mystery. We spend our lives coveting and acquiring the possessions and relationships we think will make us happy. And here we’re being told that to find true happiness, we must somehow forsake these very desires. How? And more importantly, why?

By the way, for his efforts at religious reform, John was imprisoned by religious authorities and flogged publicly every week, only to be returned to isolation in a tiny cell barely large enough for his body.

And what about Jean Guyon, the 17th century French author of many Christian books including “Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ”? She gently nudges believers in the direction of “retreating inward, and seeking after tranquility of mind” in order to do all things “as in the Divine presence.”
 3. A view of "the God within" and revelation that is like what old school Quakers taught. 

This may also parallel the above mentioned non-Quaker mystical tradition of Christianity. It's about being still and listening to your conscience in order to channel and truly understand revelation from God. Those Quakers were the group who focused most seriously on the 3rd Person in the Trinity -- the Holy Spirit -- as God who gets inside of man and speaks directly to him. Without it, no one will ever truly understand what the Bible means and how to properly put it together. It will just be citing verses and chapter of word blather.

Likewise Masters, after these Quakers teaches the Bible is NOT the "word OF God," rather the "word FROM God." True revelation is wordless! It's a wordless word that one receives in a state of stillness. Then, after channeling this "understanding," we do our best to put it into the imperfect words of language. The understanding precedes the language words.

This is how Quaker Robert Barclay put it in 1675:
Nevertheless, because [the Scriptures] are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners. Yet because they give a true and faithful testimony of the first foundation, they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty: for as by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know them, so they testify, that the Spirit is that Guide by which the saints are led into all Truth; therefore, according to the Scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader.a Seeing then that we do therefore receive and believe the Scriptures because they proceeded from the Spirit, for the very same reason is the Spirit more originally and principally the rule, according to that received maxim in the schools, Propter quod unumquodque est tale, illud ipsum est magis tale: That for which a thing is such, that thing itself is more such.
Yes, the "fountain" is the truth; the scriptures are not "the fountain," but rather a declaration of the "fountain." As we will see below, Roy Masters doesn't believe in the Trinity; but he does believe in the Divine. When I first read the above quoted passage by Barclay it reminded me of what Masters teaches. The divine within precedes the written Word and is instructive. Because the scriptures testify to that primary wordless fountain of truth, that is what justifies the words of scripture as valid and true. Not vice versa. Don't put the cart before the horse. The scriptures are the cart, not the horse.

(Before the Internet was invented Masters once noted "Bibles" are just books of paper, the inherent quality of which is no greater than toilet paper, fit to wipe your ass with. It's not the paper; it's not the print that is holy.)

4. Arianism

Masters does not believe Jesus is God, but rather the Son of God. The Son of God is NOT God the Son. Jesus was there "In the Beginning," (first born of creation). And Jesus is the "Word of God." But English translations improperly state that the Word OF God "was" God. Rather, like Scripture itself, the "Word of God" (Jesus) was "from God," not God Himself. So John 1:1 should be translated as saying "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was FROM God."

5. The Holiness Doctrine

This is something that Masters has gotten a lot of flack for. The media has said he claims to be "sinless." No. He claims rather that he DOES NOT SIN. But he used to before he was saved (as the Bible says no human except Jesus is "without sin"). This is exactly what evangelical revivalist Charles Finney posited. And Matthew 5:48 and I John 3:8-10 are the scriptural justifications for the doctrine.

6. An Augustinian View of Sex.

Masters believes, after Augustine, celibacy and chastity are the ideal. I'm no expert in Augustine and Masters' teachings here are a bit difficult to understand, but I try. Masters thinks that the "begetting"of the human species is somehow mysteriously tied to the fall of man. Sex is only appropriate between a married husband and wife. But even there it falls short of the ideal. Orthodox Protestants believe, if you are married most anything goes, even contraception. Catholics believe if you are married, as long as the sex is Thomistic, anything goes. Masters believes it's immoral for a man to be addicted to sex with his wife.

If a man is addicted to sex with his wife, it's a sign of not being saved. Indeed, if a young man is already saved, he, like Jesus and St. Paul, wouldn't need to get married, because he would have, out of his holiness, transcended his sexual desires. And part of the salvation process is for a married man to transcend his sexual desire for his wife and treat her like a father treats his daughter. (Similar to how Roman Catholic dogma says men and woman who aren't married in the eyes of the Church must live as "brother and sister" until they are. Masters uses the "father/daughter" analogy).

Along the way, while a man is getting saved, that's when children incidentally happen in the context of marriage. Masters is almost 90 and has five children and many grandchildren (and I think great grandchildren). Yet he brags about how he hasn't had sex with his wife in I think around 50 (or more) years.

7. Judeo-Christian meditation as essential for salvation. 

This is where Masters gets accused of being "New Age" and or "Eastern." You can listen to the meditation exercise here. There is no funny sounding mantra. However, it does sound like something from the meditation/mindfulness movement, which has eastern origins. The mindfulness way of life, I should add, also parallels Stoicism, which is a Western philosophy.

Masters argues his meditation is, unlike all the others, "Judeo-Christian" because it anchors you to the God of the Bible. Sure there are seeming similarities to Eastern teachings. But as the Stoic example demonstrates, sometimes different cultures come to the same or similar conclusions through different channels.

But the other meditation exercises are dangerous because they in a sense "work" like his does, but without anchoring you to the God of the Bible, which is what is special about his. Masters argues that being in a state of stress -- fight or flight, anger or anxiety -- is less than ideal, and signals an unsaved state. His meditation exercise supposedly makes you immune to stress. You don't get angry or experience anxiety, no matter what happens.

Buddhism and other Eastern meditation exercises also promise something similar. But the difference is, by being anchored to the God of the Bible, the meditator will not sin. On the other hand, the Eastern meditator are anchored to nothing. So they can get immune to anger and fear, but go on sinning with a big grin on their face, like the Cheshire Cat.

A psychopath is someone who can do wrong without a sense of guilt. It's the difference between a stressed out angry compulsive person who does harm and feels guilt (not a psychopath) and someone in a calm and blissful state who can stick a knife in an innocent person and sleep peacefully that night (a psychopath).

Indeed, Buddhist monks score high on the psychopathy index.  It doesn't mean they are horrible people. Rather that they are calm and peaceful. So if they did choose to do wrong, they would feel peaceful about it. No guilt. Their meditation helps to anesthetize real and necessary guilt feelings. Masters claims his helps men to stop sinning and once they cease sinning entirely, they feel no guilt because there is nothing to feel guilty about.

There is a lot more to Mr. Masters' teachings, but I think the above captures 7 key points. I don't necessarily agree with everything he says. Rather I view him like Immanuel Kant viewed Emanuel Swedenborg. Kant had a love/hate fascination with Swedenborg.

But as a civilized gentleman, I'm trying to be fair. One thing about Mr. Masters' teachings that bother me is his theology is extremely politicized. Public figures Jesse Lee Peterson and the above mentioned David Kupelian are devotees. And they teach moral truth is on the side of the political Right. The extreme socially conservative Right.

My opinion is if there is a God, His truth transcends politics.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

What's a Cult Anyway?

A while ago, I introduced the notion into discussion forums populated by many evangelical Christians that the driving political theology of the American Founding, adhered to by certain "key Founders" -- leading lights, if you will -- was something halfway between Deism and orthodox Christianity. Some folks in these forums responded that such to them, sounded like a "cult." (Others simply wished to deny that what I reported was accurate.)

Indeed, certain evangelical-fundamentalist circles define "cult" by adherence to doctrines that are not "correct" as they understand what the Bible "really" means. In other words, if you are not "doctrinally correct," you risk the "cult" label.

But there has to be more than that, right? Arminians and Calvinists disagree with one another, sometimes call the other "heretics," but do they throw around the "cult" label in their accusations? (Not a rhetorical question, rather one I really don't know the answer to.)

It could be that orthodox Trinitarian doctrine -- something to which Arminians and Calvinists both adhere -- is the "safe ground" that avoids the cult label (but not necessarily the "heretic" label).

But I have heard evangelical-fundamentalist types term "Roman Catholicism" a cult. But Roman Catholicism adheres to orthodox Trinitarian doctrine! Protestant evangelical-fundamentalists disagree with one another here. Many, sensible in my opinion, evangelical-fundamentalists, though they may disagree with Roman Catholicism and indeed, fear its adherents are not really "saved," understand it's not proper to label such a "cult."

Why? In addition to endorsing orthodox Trinitarianism, Roman Catholicism also happens to be the largest Christian denomination in the world. And arguably the oldest. In other words, it's "normative," historic Christianity.

What then? In addition to being doctrinally incorrect -- especially on areas like the Trinity -- for a sect to be relatively new and relatively small, might help to establish its status as a "cult." This is why, in the above mentioned circles, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnessism, among other creeds, qualify as "cults."

I still don't see why any of these criteria make "cult" status negative or wrong compared to the religious traditions that don't necessarily qualify for "cult" status.

Is it because of issues of "control"? All religions to some degree seek to control the behavior of their adherents. That's supposed to be a feature, not a bug. Fallen humans are by nature out of control and bound to cause trouble. "Religion" is something that is supposed to, for the sake of society and civilization -- at least according to George Washington in his Farewell Address -- keep them in line and make them into moral and productive citizens.

With that, see below a 35 year old video from CNN's "Crossfire" featuring one Roy Masters. The show terms Masters a "cult leader." On social media, Masters -- still alive at almost 90 -- frames it as a matter of the corrupt "media" smearing him. Masters is very conservative and integrates his political leanings into his theology. As such, the "media" establishment who tend towards the Left and have institutional biases against the Right, have not been kind to him.

After Masters posted this old video, many followers on his site made the expected comments on how the Left media establishment were characteristically smearing him then as they do today.

But they missed one important dynamic. CNN's "Crossfire" was a show that featured someone from the Left, and someone from the Right. The person on the Left who antagonized Masters was the late Tom Braden. I don't know much about him, and just learned that apparently he was the real life inspiration for the Dad from "Eight is Enough." The person on the Right was the late John Lofton, who was far more "conservative" than Masters, arguably to the Right of Attila the Hun. Lofton was a member of RJ Rushdoony's "Christian Reconstructionist" movement that sought to impose harsh Old Testament style punishments in today's civil society.

These "uber-orthodox" Protestant fundamentalist Christians like Lofton, as such, had no problem terming Masters -- who is not "doctrinally correct" according to fundamentalist Protestant standards -- a "cult leader." Lofton wrote, ironically, for the Rev. Moon owned "Washington Times" until he was fired for being too conservative for them.

Lofton said of Masters that he is “a false prophet and theological fraud.” I write of this because some of Mr. Masters' social media followers apparently thought these were two members of the Liberal media trying to smear him as a "cult leader."

They couldn't be more wrong, at least as it relates to the late Mr. Lofton.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

David Currie: "Opinion: The danger of David Barton's message"

From David Currie here. A taste:
I wear quite a few hats in San Angelo, and I love this community. I am writing this article as the retired executive director of Texas Baptists Committed and a longtime board member of The Interfaith Alliance in Washington, D.C.

I am deeply dismayed that reputable organizations have invited David Barton to speak to our community, because there is nothing reputable about the message he will bring. His message – which he has been proclaiming for over 25 years – is what I have fought against my entire career as a minister committed to upholding the truths of the Bible and as an American committed to the principles embedded in the U.S. Constitution. I firmly believe that religious liberty, as defined by our Founding Fathers, is the greatest single freedom ever adopted by a government.

David Barton very effectively twists the truth and presents quotes out of context and strategically selected partial quotes. He presents partial, twisted truth as absolute truth. The end result is a message that is an absolute lie – biblically, historically and constitutionally.