Sunday, September 20, 2015

Historic Traditional Christianity and Dueling

I mentioned this topic in my last post where I discussed Alexander Hamilton's death. As most readers know, I endorse the scholarly consensus holding that though Hamilton always seemed to have believed in God, he wasn't an orthodox Christian (what some folks define as a "real Christian") until the end of his life, after his son died in a duel.

Before that he was, pick your term: 1. a nominal Christian; 2. a "Christian-Deist"; 3. a "theistic rationalist."

Some challenge this scholarly consensus. I remember one fairly articulate, learned blogger who did, criticizing me in particular; but he seems to have exited the blogsphere years ago.

When so challenged, of course, we must return to the primary sources and carefully read them. Indeed, perhaps so closely that we memorize them.  When looking for "details" we may sometimes focus on one or more (often what we are looking for) and ignore others. We should not ignore the points the other side makes, but do our best to answer them.

However, interestingly, sometimes relevant points exist right there on the page that neither side addresses and thus get lost.

In 2010, at First Things Joe Carter linked to a post of mine on Hamilton's death, where that above mentioned blogger critical of me showed up in the comments section and challenged my (after more reputable scholars') analysis.

That means we must read the original writings of Bishop Benjamin Moore [Episcopalian] and Pastor J.M. Mason [Presbyterian], the two ministers from whom Hamilton sought communion when near death after being shot. 

The blogger who criticized me asserted,
Rev. Moore hesitated to give Hamilton the communion. He did not deny it, he hesitated; according to his own letter, he wanted to give the dying man time to reflect, so that he did not take the Lord's Supper in haste.
Okay. Hamilton was dying, immediately within if not days, hours (for all they knew). And Bishop Moore did indeed say he wanted "to avoid every appearance of precipitancy in performing one of the most solemn offices of our religion...." I had to look precipitancy up in the dictionary. It means "undue hastiness or suddenness." Moore then said "I did not then comply with his desire."

So yes, this was an initial denial. The blogger could term it a "hesitation" only because Moore ended up relenting and giving Hamilton communion.

The blogger also said something about Moore "want[ing] to give the dying man time to reflect...." That's where we ignored the part about how dueling violates Christianity. So Moore said to Hamilton:
I [Moore] observed to him [Hamilton], that he must be very sensible of the delicate and trying situation in which I was then placed: that however desirous I might be to afford consolation to a fellow mortal in distress; still, it was my duty, as a minister of the Gospel, to hold up the law of God as paramount to all other law: and that, therefore, under the influence of such sentiments, I must unequivocally condemn which had brought him to his present unhappy condition. He acknowledged the propriety of these sentiments, and declared that he viewed the late transaction with sorrow and contrition. I then asked him, "Should it please God to restore you to health, sir, will you never be again engaged in a similar transaction? And will you employ all your influence in society to discountenance this barbarous custom?" His answer was "That, sir, is my deliberate intention."
 Moore ended his address with:
Let those who are disposed to justify the practice of dueling, be induced, by this simple narrative, to view with abhorrence that custom which has occasioned an irreparable loss to a worthy and most afflicted family; which has deprived his friends of a beloved companion, his profession of one of its brightest ornaments, and his country of a great statesmen an a real patriot.
 Let's then turn to Pastor J.M. Mason. The blogger who criticized me, again, wrote:
Rev. Mason (who, with his father, had been close friends with Hamilton since Hamilton's youth) was not allowed to administer the communion to his friend because the church forbid him, under any circumstances, to administer it privately.
Yes it's true that the Presbyterians like the Episcopalians had strict rules relating to the administering of communion with which Hamilton apparently was unaware and that lead to Hamilton's clumsy Christian death. But there's more to the story.

The blogger also has Mason's account of Hamilton's death archived at his site. In addition to letting Hamilton know that church rules forbade him to administer communion privately, Hamilton's sinful conduct of dueling was discussed:
This last passage introduced the affair of the duel, on which I reminded the General, that he was not to be instructed as to its moral aspect, that the precious blood of Christ was as effectual and as necessary to wash away the transgression which had involved him in suffering, as any other transgression; and that he must there, and there alone, seek peace for his conscience, and a hope that should “not make him ashamed.” He assented, with strong emotions, to these representations, and declared his abhorrence of the whole transaction. “It was always,” added he, “against my principles. I used every expedient to avoid the interview; but I have found, for some time past, that my life must be exposed to that man. I went to the field determined not to take his life.” He repeated his disavowal of all intention to hurt Mr. Burr; the anguish of his mind in recollecting what had passed; and his humble hope of forgiveness from his God.
Being about to part with him, I told him, “I had one request to make.” He asked “what it was!” I answered “that whatever might be the issue of his affliction, he would give his testimony against the practice of dueling.” “I will,” said he. “I have done it. If that,” Evidently anticipating the event, “if that be the issue, you will find it in writing. If it please God that I recover, I shall do it in a manner which will effectually put me out of its reach in the future.”
The Christian Observer in 1805 gave a review of Mason's Oration on the Death of Hamilton. The review not only slams Hamilton's UNCHRISTIAN conduct of dueling, but also slams Moore for not being critical enough of Hamilton's unChristian conduct that led to his death.

The C.O. piece also examines Hamilton's Statement on Impending Duel with Aaron Burr and from their perspective demolished it. Hamilton's account was (my words, paraphrasing) I went to the duel to protect my honor, but would not shoot at Burr. So Burr took advantage of the situation and killed him. But the Christian Observer didn't buy Hamilton's self serving explanation.

 They wrote:
It is regard to reputation then which induces him to violate the strongest obligations of religion and morality. It is true that this regard to reputation is clothed in the honourable guise of an ability to be in future useful. But are we to do evil, or to yield to a prejudice which we know to be both absurd and sinful, that we may have the power of doing good afterwards! 
The C.O. then declares such a notion the doctrine of "expediency" and slams it. They continue:
A real Christian, who judges only by the plain rules of scripture, would have felt little difficulty in the case which so much perplexed General Hamilton. He would have decided at once that the practice of dueling is sinful; and therefore, whatever the consequences might be, he would not sanction it. If, by following this course, his character should suffer ever so greatly in the estimate of the world, still he must obey God rather than man, and abide by the consequences with the fortitude of a martyr. ... 
Very interesting. Obey God not man. Acts 5:29. I'm used to dealing with that chapter and verse when "man" is earthy government that a believer ought disobey. Here "man" is simply popular opinion represented in notions of "earthly honor." And the "consequences" the believer is to deal "with the fortitude of a martyr" is not a governmental punishment which for the martyr was often death, but rather an injury to "honor."

But to tie this back to the context of Hamilton's twice being denied communion only to have one of the ministers (the Episcopalian Bishop Moore) relent and serve Hamilton communion, the elephant in the room was the inconsistency between the practice of Hamilton's dueling and the practice of Christianity.

I stand by my assertion that Hamilton was a newbie orthodox Christian at death. However, the issue for the ministers was that given he engaged in this unChristian practice of dueling, they doubted he was a "real Christian" deserving of communion.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

AFA's Rusty Benson on "What Is a Christian?"

See here. His answer:
  1. I Peter 1:23 – “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever,”
A Christian is a person who has been “born again,” that is, radically and supernaturally changed by God. In the Old Testament (Ezekiel 36:26) this change is described like this: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
  1. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 – “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
A Christian is one who is so gripped by Christ’s love that he dies more and more to any other person, thing, or idea that would compete for his allegiance. 

  1. Luke 15:21– “And the [prodigal] son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”
Romans 7:24 – “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” 

When he first repents, a Christian sees himself in the words of the prodigal son. Though he progresses in the Christian life, he never outgrows his need for Christ and the gospel. In fact, a Christian’s sense of his unworthiness grows as Christ becomes greater in his eyes. 

  1. Matthew 21:10 – “And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, ‘Who is this?’”

Though none can fully understand this mystery, a Christian believes that Jesus is God in the flesh and his only Savior. Like Thomas the apostle, a Christian proclaims that Jesus is “my Lord and my God!”
 (John 20:28)
  1. 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

By faith, a Christian trusts that Jesus fully paid the penalty of sin due each of us and perfectly satisfied God’s justice. It’s a transaction in which Jesus willingly takes the punishment for a Christian’s sin; the Christian gets Jesus’ perfection.

  1. 1 John 3:1a – “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!

    A Christian never gets over the wonder of God’s love for him and mercy given to him through Christ. He is forever overwhelmed at the miracle of his own salvation.
This is an interesting standard that the author notes is influenced by some notable orthodox Protestant theologians. As it relates to the American Founding, the problem for the AFA (who seem very sympathetic to a "Christian America" view of the Founding) is that none of the key Founders (the first four Presidents and Ben Franklin) was, according to this standard, a "Christian."

And Alexander Hamilton (arguably a key Founder) wasn't a Christian until the end of his life, after his son died in a duel (and after Hamilton did his "work" as a Founder).

According to the above test, only "born again" Christians who believe in the "Incarnation" are "true Christians." Likewise the list intimates other doctrines like Sola Fide and the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement as part of the definitional mix.

Unitarians, by their nature deny the Incarnation, and by necessity the "satisfaction theory of the atonement." (This is why we can say some unitarians have an "unorthodox" understanding of the "atonement," while others just reject the atonement).

Militant unitarians J. Adams and Jefferson, for instance, rejected both the Incarnation and the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement (Jefferson rejected the atonement and Adams may have held to an unorthodox understanding of the doctrine).

Franklin didn't seem to accept the Incarnation when, at the very end of his life answering Ezra Stiles' question on who Franklin thought Jesus was. Tellingly, after informing Stiles he had "Doubts as to [Jesus'] Divinity," Franklin doesn't identify Jesus as Savior/Messiah/or Son of God (all things compatible with and believed by various forms of then existing unitarian Christianity), but rather as someone whose "System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see;..."

So Franklin was no "born again" or "evangelical" Christian. In fact, when, in 1752 discussing the particulars of religion with a "born again" evangelical leader, that figure, George Whitefield, recognized Franklin at that time was not "born again" and tried to convert him:
... As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity, I would now humbly recommend to your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and study the mystery of the new-birth. It is a most important, interesting study, and when mastered, will richly answer and repay you for all your pains. One at whose bar we are shortly to appear, hath solemnly declared, that without it, “we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”...
Likewise, George Washington and James Madison were no evangelical, "born again" Christians. Both, though they often expressed their devout belief in Providence, did not talk about Jesus or evince belief necessary to pass Rusty Benson's biblical standards. Both may have been like Jefferson and J. Adams, unitarians. But they left little on the public record relating to belief in doctrine beyond endorsement of more general concepts like warm Providentialism.

If George Washington was orthodox (I don't think he was, but don't necessarily rule it out), it was in the Anglican tradition, which does not teach the necessity of being "born again." Indeed, the latitudinarian tradition of the Anglican Church offered much latitude on matters of "doctrine," even transcending orthodox Trinitarian belief.

This is a point Dr. Joseph Waligore makes on "Christian-Deism." Waligore's "Christian-Deists" like Dr. Gregg Frazer's "theistic rationalists" (and those terms are arguably six and one half dozen of the other) seemed quite comfortable in the latitudinarian wing of the Anglican (and then Episcopalian) Church.

Attempts to make James Madison into an orthodox or evangelical Christian invariably relate to out of context statements made while very young to William Bradford. For more on the context, see this classic article by James H. Hutson. As noted, Madison, like Washington, could be sphinx like in refusal to put his specific doctrinal beliefs (as opposed to endorsement of generic warm Providence) on the table.

But attempting to latch onto the young Madison's letters to William Bradford as smoking gun proof is thin gruel. And there is much in Dr. Hutson's article that provides helpful understanding of context (testimony by, among others, Bishop William Meade, James Ticknor, and Rev. Alexander Balmaine who said Madison's political association with those of "infidel principles" either changed or made him suspicious of the "creed" of orthodox Christianity which Madison was coming out of).

Finally, Alexander Hamilton. He clearly had some kind of "born again" experience or return to the faith after his son died in a duel. When dying, after he himself was shot in a duel, he sought communion in two orthodox Churches (the Episcopalian and Presbyterian ones) and was initially denied both because of:

1. his lack of established track record as a "Christian" (he had not engaged in Christian communion* with EITHER of the churches, but when dying, these were the ones with whom he sought communion; if Hamilton were an established Christian communicant, with "imperfections," but still one who worked it out with the church with whom he was in communion, the strange clumsy situation of asking for but being denied communion by two ministers only to have one mercifully relent and administer the holy sacrament would not have occurred); and

2. his un-Christian like conduct engaging in a duel which was condemned by the faith.

By the way, I have never given serious thought on the relation of the practice of "dueling" (which seems to exist in a much less civilized way today with things like gang shootouts and even fist fights) to "Christianity," but note BOTH of the orthodox ministers in the churches with whom Hamilton sought communion (again, the 1. Episcopalian and 2. Presbyterian) condemned the action as sinful, made a personal issue out of it, and thus knowing Hamilton would soon meet his maker and concerned with his soul demanded he repent of this conduct which led to his death.

*On the matter of communion, we all know how central that doctrine is to Roman Catholics. The Founders, however, with rare exception, were affiliated with the Protestant Churches. And Protestantism being Protestantism, they can appear all over the place. The two churches with whom Hamilton sought communion seemed to have viewed it with fundamental import: a. as the Episcopalian Benjamin Moore who ultimately administered Hamilton communion put it, such was "one of the most solemn offices of our religion"; and b. said the Presbyterian John Mason, it was "a principle in our churches never to administer the Lord’s supper privately to any person under any circumstances.”

But to tie Hamilton's faith to the original article, Rusty Benson intimates that Donald Trump isn't a "real Christian," but Trump attempts to give a fig leaf of cover to being one. Hamilton's "Christianity," before his son died, likewise appears such. Hamilton, very talented statesman he, had all of the prideful, arrogant, obnoxious, egotistical, narcissistic bluster, and sexual improprieties associated with Trump.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Bible Can Be Hard to Interpret

Because often the principles deduced from it involve more than just one "proof text" but synthesizing a number of different texts to produce a harmonious result. See here for Joseph Farah's article entitled Should Christians always obey government? And then he proceeds to try to refute the claim of Bible believing Christians who teach Romans 13 demands this.

But he knocks down a straw man. Even the thinkers who have the most fundamentalist approach on Romans 13 (Drs. John MacArthur and Gregg Frazer) don't claim this. Rather they claim SUBMISSION to the civil legitimacy of government is absolute. (That means rebellion is categorically forbidden).

Of course, they understand the competing verses and chapters of scripture like Acts 5:29 that say when the two conflict obey God not man. And the principle they deduce from putting the verses and chapters together is if government is ordering you to do something that the believer in good conscience thinks "sin," then disobey government. BUT, accept the civil legitimacy of the process when government comes along and punishes you for it.

Don't rebel or try to overthrow it. Rather work within the confines of the positive law for a solution, if you can get one. If not, then you'll just have to accept your punishment like a good martyr.

I did note when I presented at Gordon College on Dr. Frazer's book (which holds, among other things, that the American Revolution -- as all revolutions do -- violated Romans 13 and the rest of the Bible), that if objective truth can be found outside the four corners of the Bible, that could change the understanding. (New principles need to be synthesized in with the competing verses and chapters of scripture.)

Among others, the "Patriotic Preachers" (many of them unitarians and natural law believing rationalists) discovered a right to revolt against tyrants in nature via the use of reason. These preachers believed in a theistic natural law. That is, the God who authored scripture also authored the principles of nature discovered by reason. So after finding a right in nature through the use of reason to rebel against tyrants, they then went to the competing verses and chapters of scripture with that truth and added a new element into the equation. This resulted in an understanding of Romans 13 where rebellion against tyrants was permitted.

Samuel West for instance, addressing the claim that the ruler St. Paul instructed believers to submit to was the pagan psychopath Nero, asserted that the right to rebel against tyrants was so clear a teaching that Paul might actually have meant Romans 13 to be satire.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Reason & Revelation (and Something Else)

See this article by Hadley Arkes celebrating the life of Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. wherein he notes:
But the deepest question for Fr. Schall, and political philosophy, is that question of reason versus revelation. And that is the question that he and I use to ponder in walks through Georgetown. My late professor Leo Strauss thought there was a benign standoff here, for reason could not deny revelation, nor revelation refute reason. But as Fr. Schall noted, both revelation and reason emanated from the same source, and they were accessible only to the same kind of creature.
Yes that's the operative question for those who follow closely the teachings of Leo Strauss (and his followers). "Reason" is the secular, "revelation," the sacred. The twin foundings of Western Civilization. Reason, Athens; Revelation, Jerusalem. For those who might consider yourselves proudly secular pagan, it's your Western Civilization too, tracing back to Athens.

Though I do worry whether in our attempts to conceptualize we may be creating a false dichotomy. For those who are religious, if one is, say, a Roman Catholic, one has not just "reason" (from Aristotle-Aquinas) and "revelation" (the 73 books of the canon), but also tradition and the Magisterium. Likewise, Wesleyans have a Quadrilateral.

Recently I reflected on the insufficiency of reason and revelation, not because I, like what Strauss feared (and indeed perhaps what he esoterically believed) endorse a post-modern notion that objective notions of truth potentially ascertained by the two are in fact unobtainable. Rather, that the two, by themselves or together are in fact incomplete.

I think of my meticulous examinations of the writings of America's Founder (and tremendous thinker) James Wilson. And the arguments I have had over what his words really meant and stood for. When I wrote
Scottish Common Sense philosophers, many of them theistic and Christian of diverse, questionable orthodoxy spoke of internal conscience as a necessary truth testing monitoring mechanism (beyond what the Bible says in verses and chapters and what the external canons of reason and logic can prove and test for)
I was thinking of Wilson and some of the thinkers who influenced him.  The context of my disputes has been how did Wilson view "revelation" (on the one hand) v. "reason" (on the other). But when one examines some of the "proof quotes" without looking further for context, one might miss that Wilson isn't dealing with two concepts, simply.

Quotations like this:
Reason and conscience can do much; but still they stand in need of support and assistance. They are useful and excellent monitors; but, at some times, their admonitions are not sufficiently clear; at other times, they are not sufficiently powerful; at all times, their influence is not sufficiently extensive.
And this:
These considerations show, that the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supercede the operations of reason and the moral sense.
The larger, more contentious teaching I get from Wilson (and the thinkers he followed) is that "revelation" was designed to complement the discoveries of "reason" AND "the senses" (or "conscience"). That is "reason and the moral sense" trump "revelation."

(Indeed, that the 2nd above quoted passage, and not what he wrote prior, summarizes Wilson's thoughts demonstrates such was what he was ultimately getting at.)

The lesser included, less contentious claim is that 1. revelation, 2. reason and 3. something else ("the moral sense," "conscience") are all incomplete without one another but necessary to work together to find the clearest understanding of truth.

So it's not a matter of "reason" v. "revelation." But a third thing beyond them both. Like revelation, reason is something that can be taught and tested for externally. The conscience or moral sense is something internal.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Trying to Make Sense of David Barton's Word Salad

I'm going to try and do a more serious analysis of David Barton's observations of the Kim Davis issue.

Below is my more glib analysis:
[America is] a democracy and a republic. Revolutionary France called itself a republic. France also recognized a "higher law" -- a theism to undergird its principles to which they appealed; they simply -- like America -- re-envisioned this monotheistic God to be more "revolutionary." And this is one reason why many American Christians at the time supported the French Revolution and saw it as a continuation of the American.
Okay, so first Barton claimed the difference between revolutionary America and France is that America was founded to be a "republic," France a "democracy."

This is false. The terms "democracy" and "republic" accurately describe both founding era America and revolutionary France. The terms are not mutually exclusive. And yes, America's Constitution promises each state a "republican" form of government. Revolutionary France, likewise termed itself a "republic." (That is they didn't say, "we are a democracy, not a republic.")

(For more on why America is both a "democracy" and a "republic" see Eugene Volokh's post here.)

Second, Barton intimates a feature that distinguishes democracy and republic is that democracy is "the will of the people," republic is "higher law" (which Barton apparently conflates with his understanding of "the Bible").

I think a kernel of truth lies underneath Barton's confusion. Democracy, in its rawest sense, does mean "majority rule," at its worst "mob rule," something arguably more present in the French Revolution than the American. Both the late 18th Century American and French systems sought to pay due respect to "the will of the people." And both believed in limits on such. Small r "republican" checks on the "democratic, majoritarian" process. Such "republicanism" means certain structures are built into the system that operate as as check on raw democratic majoritarian rule.

And those "checks" don't necessarily have anything to do with "higher law." Rather they are things like the checks and balances built into the American constitutional structure, the separation of powers, and the fact that it's elected representatives as opposed to "the people" themselves who write the statutes. The people elect the representatives to "do their will." And most of the time, hopefully, the "will" of both converge.

But not always. When "the people" are subject to fanatical passions, America's founders hoped the will of the more elite refined elected representatives would temper those passions.

Barton's misrepresentations relate more to the nature of unalienable rights. The "liberal" qualifier in the concept of "liberal democracy." If we were a pure "direct democracy," then majority would always win. But that's not our system. Rather, majority wins sometimes, most times in fact. But not always. Certain rights are antecedent to majority rule. Those are the small l "liberal" rights with which a small d "democracy" must deal.

That's one "republican" check on the democratic process, among many, in the kind of "democratic-republic" that both America and France in the late 18th Century were founded to be.

There is no easy answer for determining, in politics, which principles the majority gets to "win on" and which principles are antecedent to majority rule. Harry V. Jaffa termed this dilemma the "Crisis of the House Divided."

("All men are created equal" + the rational truth that blacks are "men," that is "mankind" or human beings = slavery has got to go; but the Constitution makes compromises with the institution of slavery. The Declaration + Constitution put together = an anti-slavery Founding and Lincoln securing a promise America's Founders made but could not or did not keep.)

One way in which to "settle" the issue as to which rights are "liberal"--  that is, antecedent to majority rule -- is tie them to God. This is what Barton intimates distinguishes the American Founding from the French Revolution. 

But revolutionary France too tied their liberal rights to God. In fact, all three of France's "Declaration of the Rights of Man, like America's "Declaration of Independence" appealed to a generic deity as the ultimate guarantor of liberal rights, antecedent to majority rule.

This should surprise not as America's Declaration of Independence greatly inspired the French Revolution and its author, Thomas Jefferson, went to France and assisted in the writing of their Declaration of the Rights of Man, fomenting the French Revolution.

Barton seemingly intimates the theistic "higher law" that undergirds liberal rights in America's system is, unlike that of the French Revolution, from the God of the Bible. But America's Declaration of Independence doesn't claim this. Instead, it appeals to a God in four places [1. Natures' God; 2. Creator; 3. Divine Providence; 4. Supreme Judge of the World] without ever explicitly identifying such God as the Christian one, or quoting verses and chapter of Scripture. The revolutionary French documents do more or less the same appealing to the generically defined "Supreme Being."

During the Founding era, the term "nature" especially as it relates to religion means discovered by reason as opposed to revealed by God in sacred scripture. As it were, the phrase "laws of nature and of nature's God" is a double invocation of reason. Yes, I would say, America's Founders like the French Revolutionaries believed in a higher law as ascertainable by reason.

Christians, yes, after thinkers like Thomas Aquinas believe in such and make "reason and revelation," properly understood work together. And the principles of the  French Revolution are compatible with such. This is why so many Christians of apparent orthodoxy like Ezra Stiles supported the French Revolution and saw it as a continuation of the American.

The Kind of Religion/Christianity I Do Endorse

My last post may have left the impression that I am a simple agnostic. I don't define myself that way; in fact, I have a hard time defining my faith. But I thought I'd elaborate a bit more here.

In order to get to what I do believe I first have to note what I reject and my reasons for such.

Over a decade ago, I discussed Christianity with a young evangelical fundamentalist type. He seemed a real nice fellow but offered a lot of stock, unconvincing reasons for his faith. One reason was, he claimed, the "lack of contradiction in the Bible."

Really? I did a bit of digging and found pages like this and now this. Now, the cursory apparent contractions in the Bible do not mean the good book, properly understood, really contradicts itself. I learned a good, rich, sophisticated hermeneutic can explain those contradictions away like an iron can smooth out creases in wrinkled pants.

The hermeneutic -- if it's sound -- will well use principles of logic and synthesis. Some Protestant Sola Scriptura types are fond of saying "Bible interprets Bible." One certainly must take the different (often more than two) verses and chapters of the Bible, put them together and extract non-contradictory principles from them.

But here's the 800 pound Gorilla: Even the most learned, well synthesized, non-contradictory understanding of the 66 books of the Bible don't lead to one "obvious" result. Rather, competing verses and chapters, synthesized pursuant to the canons of logic and rationality can produce results that blatantly contradict one another.

Indeed, potentially limitless understandings abound and arguably have led to thousands of different sects. And the differences aren't trivial either. (Or at least those who adhere to the contradictory results don't view the differences as trivial, but things worth going to war over).

So, for instance, the doctrine of the "atonement." It's either limited or it's universal. It can't be both. (Or at least Western logic holds it can't be both). Fundamentalist Protestant Sola Scriptura types differ. And both assert "I believe this because the Bible teaches it." The Bible apparently goes both ways on the issue.

This also illustrates there is no such thing as "Sola Scriptura." It's never "the Bible alone." It's always "the Bible plus." In the case of "Sola Scriptura" Protestants, it's at least, plus the "human reason" of the interpreter. (It could be plus a lot of things -- the magesterium, tradition, etc.)

And it's not just the doctrine of the "atonement." It's in fact, every single letter of TULIP and lots of other verses and chapters of scripture that present this problem. It's one reason I reject "rationalism" as a mechanism for solving the problem; as valuable a tool it can be, the method of the Bible + rules of reason to make sure the texts work with one another, lead potentially to such numerous contradictory understandings.

The top down approach to biblical understanding on the other hand solves this problem.  The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are the two main players here. And indeed, I think this dynamic is a good argument on their behalf. But they still have to convince that they are who they claim to be: The "true Church" that traces back to Jesus. I'm not convinced, if for no other reason than they both can't be right. Both can argue each other to a Mexican Standoff regarding such exclusive truth claims. Were I convinced, I'd join the one who convinced me.

So instead that leaves some kind of Protestant option. But I've already concluded Sola Scriptura and the notion of the Bible plus a reasoned understanding can't settle differences in understanding. As a libertarian individualist, I'm interested in taking the notion of Protestant individuality (Priesthood of all believers) to its logical conclusion. Each individual, appealing to his own conscience in good faith, decides for himself not only how to understand the books of the Bible, but also which books are inspired and whether there are errors in them.

The way in which it was determined the Bible has 66 books instead of 73 is complicated and there isn't a clear objectively provable reason to endorse one canon over the other. Martin Luther in fact, when he was cutting out books of the Roman Catholic Bible wanted to -- if I understand the story right -- cut into the 66 until his other friends in his movement stopped him. (Luther actually did a Thomas Jefferson to the Bible, or vice versa.)

The Book of Revelation, among others, almost made Luther's chopping block. Now, I think that book is poetically interesting and well worth reading and reflecting on. But it is so trippy in the way it is presented my conscience instructs that no general principles can be derived from it. The Gnostic gospels are more valuable for ascertaining general truth principles. (And indeed, the early church fathers, though they believed in sacred scripture, did not believe in the Protestant "book of 66." Once they actually formed the consensus in the late 4th Century, the councils settled on books that numbered in the 70s).

As noted above, I reject "rationalism" as a place to settle these issues because it can't. Religion, yes, must meet the test of rationalism. If science tells us that, for instance, evolution is true, then a rationalistic religion must explain itself to meet that test. Thomas Aquinas noted that if religion and reason appear to contradict one another you have either bad religion or bad science.

There is still, alas, something beyond citing verses and chapters of scripture and testing according to the rules of rationalistic philosophy. Something mystical. And the mystical is something the individual must experience for herself in order for this truth sense to be understood and validated.

Rational argument and empirical evidence will not prove these truths. You don't "win" the argument by getting the last word in. A lot of people seem to operate this way; but such feeling is actually a neurosis. Truth is what it is regardless of who gets the last word in or what masses of people believe in. And because neurosis is an imperfection, true religion ought liberate one from such.

That's one reason I don't think Luther got it right. He was too neurotic. Neurosis, anger, depression, chaos, addiction often yield valuable outcomes, indeed brilliantly so. People worry themselves into productive responsibility. That crazy depressed but brilliant romantic artist. The Black Swan. Nietzsche, if I understand him right (as the Straussians present him) thought this chaotic energy was key to formulating creative authentic values that make life worth living.

Of all the Christian sects, the Quakers come closest. They call the internal understanding "the spirit" from within speaking. (Though I don't like how they got their name. Religious truth should make us be still, not make us quake.) Scottish Common Sense philosophers, many of them theistic and Christian of diverse, questionable orthodoxy spoke of internal conscience as a necessary truth testing monitoring mechanism (beyond what the Bible says in verses and chapters and what the external canons of reason and logic can prove and test for). And there is also a long rich tradition of mysticism in Christianity that spans from Meister Eckhart to Thomas Merton.

For the forms of worship I endorse the Quaker's. The Roman Catholics are the most top down in their ecclesiology. The Baptists are the 2nd most decentralized of the notable sects. As my friend and co-blogger Brian Tubbs, a Baptist Pastor himself, explains why lunatics like the Westboro Baptist Church (and I would add, Steven Anderson) can call themselves "Baptists":
The reality is that Baptist churches are congregationally autonomous and largely independent from one another, even if they do cooperate together in a fellowship or denominational organization. Such cooperation is voluntary and grants absolutely zero oversight authority to the cooperative body. The chuches [sic] remain independent. And this means that anyone can start a church and call it “Baptist.” Phelps would’ve had a much harder time starting a Catholic, Methodist, or Presbyterian church, because those denominations are structured differently. The ease with which hateful crackpots like Phelps can coopt the name “Baptist” is why many Baptist churches are, in recent years, dropping the name “Baptist” from their signs (and, in some cases, from their official name altogether).
Baptists so believe in the Protestant concept of "Priesthood of all believers" that they have no "Reverends." But they do have often loudmouthed "Pastors," speaking from the front and telling the flock how properly to interpret the faith and what to believe.

The Quakers on the other hand, take the notion of Priesthood of all believers to its logical conclusion. No loudmouthed leader from the top or in front or above telling us how to properly interpret religious truth. Rather silence, with each individual congregant having equal rights to speak, when it moves them.

Maybe the individual speaking is right, or not. That's for each other individual to agree with to the extent it resonates with his or her own conscience.

The Adventures of David Barton and Glenn Beck

Wow, the two of them here look like they are on some kind of "caper." Secret agents with Barton riding in the back seat getting ready to rescue Kim Davis. See John Fea's post and Warren Throckmorton's.

Seriously though, below is what I wrote on Facebook in response to Barton's strange blatherings:
We are a democracy and a republic. Revolutionary France called itself a republic. France also recognized a "higher law" -- a theism to undergird its principles to which they appealed; they simply -- like America -- re-envisioned this monotheistic God to be more "revolutionary." And this is one reason why many American Christians at the time supported the French Revolution and saw it as a continuation of the American.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Swedenborgs' Address to George Washington

I've written many times before on George Washington's classic address to the Swedenborgs where he lets them know whatever rights the federal Constitution grants to "religion" they are equally entitled to such.

But it's worth focusing on their address to him. Religious leaders constantly corresponded with Washington, praising him, seemingly both to try to smell him out and proselytize to him. Washington invariably responded with generic, inclusive head nodding language that affirmed his belief in a monotheistic Providence (as he does here).

They wrote:
An Address from the New Church at Baltimore, To George Washington, Esquire
While the Nations of the Earth, and the people of United America especially, have in their various denominations paid their tribute to the respectful deference to the illustrious President thereof, permit, for a Society however small in number, yet sincere they trust, in their attachment to offer up in the dawn of their institution, that mark of dutiful esteem which will become the new associations, to the Chief Magistrate of America.
We presume not, Sir, to enter into a reiterated panegyric of matchless virtues or exalted character, but assuming causes with effects, we are led to believe that you were a chosen vessel for great Salutary purposes, and that both in your actions and in your conduct, you justly stand one of the first disinterested and exemplary men upon earth. Neither in this address can we, was it expected, enter into a detail of the profession of our faith; but we are free to declare that we feel ourselves among the number of those who have occasion to rejoice that the word literally is spiritually fulfilling; that a new and glorious dispensation or fresh manifestation of Divine Love hath commenced in our Land; when as there is but one Lord, so is his name becoming one throughout the earth; & that the power of Light or truth and righteousness is in an eminent Degree, universally prevailing, and even triumphing over the powers of Darkness; when Priestcraft & Kingcraft, those banes of human felicity, are hiding their diminished heads, and equality in State, as well as in Church, proportionally to mind, are considered the true criterion of the majesty of the people. -- Oh! Sir, could we, without being charged with adulation, pour out the fullness of our souls to the enlightened conduct of him who stands chief among the foremost of men, what a volume of truth might we deservedly offer to the name of Washington, on the altar of Liberty uncircumscribed! Allow us, by the first opportunity, to present to your Excellency, among other Tracts, the Compendium of the New Church, signified by the New Jerusalem, as the readiest mean to furnish you with a just idea of the Heavenly Doctrines.
That the Lord Jesus, whom alone we acknowledge as "the true God & eternal Life," will preserve you long to reign in the hearts of the people, and lastly to shine as a gem of the brightest lustre, a Star of the first magnitude of the unfading mansions above, is the fervent aspiration of your faithful citizens and affectionate Brethren. Done in behalf of the members of the Lord's New Church at Baltimore, this 22d Day of January 1793 -- 37.
W.J. Didier
Secy. Protem
While they could not "enter into a detail of the profession of [their] faith," they still did proselytize for their unorthodox understanding of the Christian faith. They were modalists, believing the Father, Son & Holy Spirit were One Person, not Three Persons. While most modalists believe the three names are just three different titles or "modes" of One God, the Swedenborgs believed that One Person was Jesus Christ. (That Jesus wasn't just the "mode" of the Son; He was the "mode" of all three). 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Julie Ingersoll's New Book

John Fea has the information here. It's noteworthy in that it's being published by Oxford University Press. A taste:
David Barton is also the popularizer of a revisionist history of race in America that has become part of the Tea Party narrative. Drawn in part from the writings of Christian Reconstructionists, that narrative recasts modern-day Republicans as the racially inclusive party, and modern-day Democrats as the racists supportive of slavery and postemancipation racist policies. Barton’s website has included a “Black History” section for some time. Like Barton’s larger revisionist effort to develop and perpetuate the narrative that America is a Christian nation, the “Republicans-are-really-the-party-of-racial-equality” narrative is not entirely fictive. Some historical points Barton makes are true; but he and his biggest promoter, Glenn Beck, manipulate those points, remove all historical context, and add patently false historical claims in order to promote their political agenda. Barton appeared regularly on Beck’s show to disseminate his alternative reading of African American history, carrying with him, as he does, what he claims are original documents and artifacts that he flashes around for credibility.
(Those are Ingersoll's words, not Fea's.)