Saturday, January 14, 2017

Brayton, Fischer, Washington & Me

Check out this post by Ed Brayton that references comments by Bryan Fischer on George Washington and religion. It also mentions me.

This links to Fischer's original words. One thing is for sure: George Washington was pro-religion. There is smoking gun evidence for this. There is a world of difference however between "religion" on the one hand, and what Fischer understands to be "Christianity" on the other.

Religion is a genus of which Christianity is a species. And Fischer's Christianity (like for instance President Obama's or the Pope's) is a further subspecies. Fischer's error is that he conflates Washington's genus with Fischer's own subspecies.

President Washington didn't have a problem with the then conservative Christian clergy (the ones who tried to sniff Jefferson out as an "infidel"). However, GW didn't seem to have a problem with any religious sect, provided they weren't Tories and that their faith yielded moral practice.

Given the contentious nature of the debate, we have to draw our conclusions carefully. We know GW believed in a warm Providence and was, as noted, pro-religion. I suspect, for instance, that on the nature of future punishment, he was a universalist. I don't have any smoking gun quotations to prove it for certain. However, he did give John Murray's Universalist Church the highest regards he gave to any other sect. But admittedly many of those other sects that earned his imprimatur were not universalist on the matter.

Likewise with the Trinity, I don't see GW as an "orthodox Trinitarian" Christian. However, he never bitterly ridiculed the orthodox doctrine like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams did. He did give props to an address by the Arian Richard Price which was pro-unitarian. And in that address Price discusses the importance of granting rights to "religion" and not "Christianity."

As Price argues:
From the preceding observations it may be concluded that it is impossible I should not admire the following article in the declaration of rights which forms the foundation of the Massachusett's constitution:
'In this state every denomination of Christians demeaning themselves peaceably and as good subjects of the commonwealth shall be equally under the protection of the law, and no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.'
This is liberal beyond all example. I should, however, have admired it more had it been more liberal, and the words, all men of all religions been substituted for the words, every denomination of Christians.

It appears farther from the preceding observations that I cannot but dislike the religious tests which make a part of several of the American constitutions. In the Massachusett's constitution it is ordered that all who take seats in the House of Representatives or Senate shall declare 'their firm persuasion of the truth of the Christian religion'. The same is required by the Maryland constitution, as a condition of being admitted into any places of profit or trust. In Pensylvania every member of the House of Representatives is required to declare that he 'acknowledges the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration'. In the state of Delaware, that 'he believes in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God blessed for evermore'. All this is more than is required even in England where, though every person however debauched or atheistical is required to receive the sacrament as a qualification for inferior places, no other religious test is imposed on members of parliament than a declaration against Popery. It is an observation no less just than common that such tests exclude only honest men. The dishonest never scruple them.

Montesquieu probably was not a Christian. Newton and Locke were not Trinitarians and therefore not Christians according to the commonly received ideas of Christianity. Would the United States, for this reason, deny such men, were they living, all places of trust and power among them?

Monday, January 09, 2017

My Biggest Criticism of Dr. Gregg Frazer's Thesis

Gregg Frazer's book is current again if for no other reason than his bete noire Bill Fortenberry has once again taken to writing about it. (On Frazer on John Adams parts I, II, and III).

One note of criticism that I don't see as apt is that Dr. Frazer is reading his personal definition of Christianity into what it means to be a "Christian." But that's not what his thesis argues. Frazer is an evangelical fundamentalist of the Calvinist stripe (though I think he believes in 4 of the 5 points).

His thesis on the other hand is a late 18th Century American ecumenical Trinitarianism -- lowest-common-denominator -- from the major churches including lots of non-Calvinists and those whose theology differs from his. Roman Catholics, High Church (liturgical), non-Calvinistic orthodox Anglicans get to be "Christians." So do orthodox evangelical Baptists of the free will Arminian stripe.

When I presented at Gordon College in front of him and a group of notable scholars, I endorsed the book with qualification. One of the biggest criticisms -- and I'll say right now it's the biggest -- is the lack of attention paid to Richard Price (and a few others, but the lack paid to Price is the most notable). Frazer argues the Socinian Joseph Priestley as a sort of "guru" for the political theology of the American Founding. But the Arian Price should have gotten just as much ink. Priestley and Price as leaders of a cohort that actually has a name: Club of Honest Whigs. They are also sometimes referred to as "dissenters" on theological issues.

The lowest-common-denominator consensus I referred to above was a consensus among the prevailing theological authorities. That is, such consensus excludes dissenters. The tradition was started by St. Athanasius and continues to this day. I'm no expert on C.S. Lewis, so I'm open to correction. But I understand even he posited that one must believe in certain orthodox Trinitarian minimums in order to qualify as a "mere Christian."

But this understanding did indeed exist, as an historical matter, in late 18th Century America. And unless I missed this in reading his book, none other than Richard Price offers a smoking gun quotation on its existence, that if used would have strengthened Frazer's case.

From an address that George Washington strongly endorsed, Price stated:

"Newton and Locke were not Trinitarians and therefore not Christians according to the commonly received ideas of Christianity."

Frazer argues on behalf of those "commonly received ideas of Christianity" at the time and against which Price dissents. 

On a personal note, I'm with Price. But I write this to observe the reality of the historical dynamic.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Lund: "Rousseau: Radical philosopher, political conservative"

From Nelson Lund guest blogging at Volokh. A taste:
Rousseau was the first great philosophic critic of Enlightenment liberalism, which was itself founded on a rejection of classical political philosophy. The greatest division in ancient thought arose between those who took seriously the search for the naturally right political order and those who regarded political life as fundamentally unnatural or merely conventional. Modern liberal thought began to demolish this distinction by attributing to all men certain natural rights and then taking as the task of political philosophy the discovery of those conventions that will best protect those rights.

Rousseau raises some serious doubts about certain aspects of liberal theory and about the wisdom of relying on abstract principles like natural rights and natural freedom as the basis for a political order. His rhetorical fire has led a long line of political conservatives to denounce him. If we pay more attention to the subtle complexity of his thought than to his frequently jarring rhetoric, we can avoid snap judgments that reflect our impatience rather than Rousseau’s foolishness.
Very interesting. But as we can tell from the context of the quotation, very contentious as well.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Nelson Lund on Rousseau

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Nelson Lund is sharing his cutting edge research on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His first post is entitled Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Not a nut, not a leftist, and not an irresponsible intellectual. And his second is Rousseau on human evolution: vindicated by modern science.

From his first:
Rousseau was the first great philosophic critic of what we call the Enlightenment, without being a defender of the ancien régime. Right from the start, he was seen by his critics as a mad father of mad fantasies. The leading philosophers of the French Enlightenment treated their former friend and colleague as a deranged traitor. He was seriously persecuted by governments and clergymen in both Catholic and Protestant parts of Europe, and celebrated after his death by those who made the French Revolution.

Political conservatives, whether of a classical liberal or traditionalist orientation, have generally found Rousseau repulsive and dangerous, and his admirers tend to be on the political left. One striking exception to this generalization is Alexis de Tocqueville, who said that Rousseau was a man (along with Montesquieu and Pascal) with whom he spent time every day.
And from his second:
The deepest root of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opposition to Enlightenment political thought can be traced to his views on the state of nature, which are set out most openly in his “Discourse on Inequality.” For modern social contract thinkers such Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the state of nature is the condition in which people like us find themselves before governments are instituted or where they have stopped operating. Rousseau believed this was extremely misleading because it assumes that what we are now we are by nature.

For Rousseau, the nature of man is not an observable phenomenon. Instead, it is something that lies hidden beneath layers of characteristics acquired through our social lives, including the most important of all social institutions, human speech. The true state of nature is the condition men were in before being shaped by social life into the strange and unique animal that we are.
A bit on terminology: The way I understand it, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau were three greatly influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. They were "moderns." Nietzsche was not a modern. Rather he started post-modernity. H, L & R each were also united by the discursive theory of "state of nature," social contract and rights. But each also had profoundly different visions of that common ground.

America's founding was Lockean. The big bureaucratic state as it currently exists is Hobbesian.  And to the extent that Rousseau engaged in an egalitarian critique of Hobbes and Locke, the way the state currently redistributes wealth and provides safety nets can be credited to his vision (and the earlier Anglo-republicans like Harrington).

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Bruce Frohnen on Walter Berns on America's Political Theology

This article from 2006 is actually about much more. But I focus on what I put in the title. Walter Berns, a Straussian, is one of the folks who turned me on to studying America's political theology in detail. Many of the key passages in Berns' book Making Patriots are discussed here.

Before I get into Frohnen's discussion, I will report what I see as the weakest part of Berns' thesis. As I quoted in this article I wrote for Liberty Magazine (that was published a number of years after I submitted it to them), Berns posits "Nature's God" was non-interventionist. Reading the works, indeed the personal letters where they were free to speak their mind, of the three heterodox thinkers responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence -- Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams -- we see each believed in an active personal God.

On the other hand, a more challenging thesis is how compatible the rights grating God of Nature is with the God of Christianity or Judaism, etc. As Berns wrote:
We were the first nation to declare its independence by appealing not to the past but to the newly discovered “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and this had (and has) consequences for patriotism. Whereas the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob imposed duties on all men (see Exodus 20:1-17), “Nature’s God” endowed all men with rights; and, whereas the God of the New Testament commanded all men to love God and their neighbors as themselves (see Matthew 22:37-40), Nature’s God created a state of nature in which everyone was expected to take care of himself and, as “America’s philosopher” said (see John Locke, Treatises II, sec. 6), take care of others only “when his own preservation comes not in competition.” And so long as he remains in the state of nature, he has the right to do what he is naturally inclined to do, and what he is naturally inclined to do is not to take care of others. To say the least, he is not naturally inclined to be a patriotic citizen.15
Indeed, again quoting Berns, "where does the Bible speak of unalienable or natural rights, or of the liberty to worship or not to worship as one pleases?"*

The notion of natural rights was discovered in "nature" through "reason," not from the texts on the Bible. And Christendom had a fairly long tradition of incorporating essences founded in nature through reason, as Aquinas incorporated Aristotle. Still, Berns' thesis is that what was now being incorporated through "reason" was not "traditional" or "old" (as Aristotle was), but rather something "new." 

Frohnen, moderately critical or Berns' thesis, agrees somewhat:
Even when Aquinas (following Augustine) stated that an unjust law seems like no law at all, he did not then recommend revolt in all instances, instead advising submission where too much unrest would flow from opposition. The fragility of social order, and the dangers of disorder, demand caution in seeking reformed institutions or policies.
*The purpose of this post is simply to highlight some of the key issues. For an extensive analysis, you will have to read Frohnen's entire article. However, I will put one of Frohnen's footnotes under the microscope and quibble with it. It's footnote 18 and it relates to Berns' assertion quoted above on the right not to worship:
I would note, here, Berns’s insertion of the “right” “not to worship as one pleases,” which is found nowhere in the Declaration or elsewhere in our tradition. 
It's true the Declaration never explicitly invokes "liberty of conscience." But it does explicitly invoke an unalienable right to "liberty." As Berns notes in the book, of all the rights that "liberty" might encompass, conscience, as it was understood,  was without question (that is, not subject to argument) the most "unalienable." So yes, "liberty of conscience" is part of the Declaration's teachings.

And Jefferson, in a public writing (indeed, one that got him in trouble with the then forces of religious correctness), "Notes on the State of Virginia," describing the radical unalienability of conscience stated:
But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
This is what Berns refers to when he noted natural rights doctrine necessarily teaches a right not to worship as one pleases. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

BBC/Ambrosino on how contact with aliens might affect theology

From Brandon Ambrosino here. A big taste, taking us back to the late 18th Century:
Thomas Paine famously tackled this question in his 1794 Age of Reason, in a discussion of multiple worlds. A belief in an infinite plurality of worlds, argued Paine, “renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air”. It isn’t possible to affirm both simultaneously, he wrote, and “he who thinks that he believes in both has thought but little of either.” Isn’t it preposterous to believe God “should quit the care of all the rest” of the worlds he’s created, to come and die in this one? On the other hand, “are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation” had their own similar visitations from this God? If that’s true, Paine concludes, then that person would “have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of deaths, with scarcely a momentary interval of life”.

In a nutshell: if Christian salvation is only possible to creatures whose worlds have experienced an Incarnation from God, then that means God’s life is spent visiting the many worlds throughout the cosmos where he is promptly crucified and resurrected. But this seems eminently absurd to Paine, which is one of the reasons he rejects Christianity.

But there’s another way of looking at the problem, which doesn’t occur to Paine: maybe God’s incarnation within Earth’s history “works” for all creatures throughout the Universe. This is the option George Coyne, Jesuit priest and former director of the Vatican Observatory, explores in his 2010 book Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological Implications.
“How could he be God and leave extra-terrestrials in their sin? God chose a very specific way to redeem human beings. He sent his only Son, Jesus, to them… Did God do this for extra-terrestrials? There is deeply embedded in Christian theology… the notion of the universality of God’s redemption and even the notion that all creation, even the inanimate, participates in some way in his redemption.”
There’s yet another possibility. Salvation itself might be exclusively an Earth concept. Theology doesn’t require us to believe that sin affects all intelligent life, everywhere in the Universe. Maybe humans are uniquely bad. Or, to use religious language, maybe Earth is the only place unfortunate enough to have an Adam and Eve. Who is to say our star-siblings are morally compromised and in need of spiritual redemption? Maybe they have attained a more perfect spiritual existence than we have at this point in our development.

As Davies notes, spiritual thinking requires an animal to be both self-conscious and “to have reached a level of intelligence where it can assess the consequences of its actions”. On Earth, this kind of cognition is at best a few million years old. If life exists elsewhere in the Universe, then it’s very unlikely that it’s at the exact same stage in its evolution as we are. And given the immense timeline of the existence of the Universe, it’s likely that at least some of this life is older, and therefore farther along in their evolution than we. Therefore, he concludes, “we could expect to be among the least spiritually advanced creatures in the Universe.”

Friday, December 09, 2016

It's Almost 2017

And the phony Christian Nationalist quotations are still with us.

If folks like Joe Farah don't want to get labeled "fake news," they should stop making these mistakes, even as they have been called out many times before for this particular one.

A taste:
“We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments.”

– James Madison

Now that we have a president-elect who seems to understand how government that tried to do too much ends up doing nothing but harm, wouldn’t it be nice if he learned about and talked about the very best kind of government – self-government?

America’s founders knew all about it.