Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Reason & Revelation, agreeing, disagreeing, and creating together:

I want to thank Sandefur for his discussions of my posts, as well as his comments on the origins of the Separation of Church & State. Personally, I would give the Enlightenment philosophers the most credit in getting this done. But there is no doubt that this doctrine has Christian roots as well and that Protestants starting “working” on this problem before the Enlightenment philosophers did.

From what I have been able to learn, the Protestant dissidents started talking about the need for separation of Church & State because they suffered the brunt of persecution. And men like Roger Williams did Yeoman’s work arguing exactly why a secular state would benefit Christianity and why, in his words, “No civil state or country can be truly called Christian, although the Christians be in it.” And my fundamentalist reader let me know that in 1614, before Locke was even born, dissident Protestant sects had written: "The magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, this or that form of religion, or doctrine; but to leave Christian religion free, to every man's conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions."

I think what was special about the Enlightenment was that it crafted a theory of political science that our founders followed, by “discovering” certain “truths,” ascertainable by Man’s Reason, unaided by Biblical Revelation, one of which was that we had an “inalienable right” to “liberty of conscience.” This theory put into practice, “solved” the theological/political problem that the Protestant dissidents were so (painfully) aware of. This is why Protestant dissidents were willing to work with Enlightenment rationalists in separating Church & State. These two groups together succeeding in founding America in a Godless and secular way much to the chagrin of the forces of “religious correctness,” President of Yale, the Reverend Timothy Dwight, et al.

But in order to solve the “political/theological” problem is was necessary to consign religion to the realm of the “private,” or “opinion.” We had to get the Churches off the backs of the state to get the state off the backs of the Churches in order to “ensure domestic tranquility” (as Walter Berns argues). The men of the Enlightenment did the brunt of the Epistemological work in getting these doctrines formulated. And protestant dissidents signed onto this plan, because they realized it would benefit them.

But I don’t want to make it look like I am giving short shrift to Christians. Yes, Christians started itching for a solution—calling for “religious tolerance” before the Enlightenment philosophers came forth with the theories of “rights” that acted as “trumps,” that demanded that government respect the rights of conscience and otherwise pulled the rug from underneath doctrines like Divine Rule of Kings (as Allan Bloom would put it).

Sandefur emailed me a very witty observation regarding Protestant calls for religious tolerance:

There's an old saying that it's no wonder that the loudest yelps for freedom come from the drivers of slaves, because they see slavery every day, and they know just how awful it is. I think the same is true of religious sects. Religious toleration was very largely the invention of Christians--but only those Christian sects that were on the bottom of the heap. As soon as they got on the top of the heap, they started cooing about the social importance of religion and saying that religious ideas should be regulated by the state, because now they were the state. I think it was Frederick Douglass who said that when we Anglo-Americans were on the bottom, they proclaimed that all men are created equal--but when they got to be on top, they changed their story.

Ain’t that the truth. Ultimately, Reason & Revelation cooperated to separate Church & State in the West. Leo Strauss notes that what makes the West what it is is the ongoing “conversation” between Reason & Revelation. They agree on some things, but disagree on others (And as Camille Paglia notes, we don’t want them to agree on everything or even on most things, just some things—the “disagreement,” the tension between Reason & Revelation, is something that we ought to value).

Many of the “traditions” and “doctrines” of the West are inseparable combinations of these two twin sources of civilization. Christians might argue “It comes from us,” rationalists might counter, “no we deserve the credit.”

Take deism for instance—the religious philosophy that was followed by many Enlightenment rationalists. I have heard it argued, by Michael Novak and others, that since deism believes in a monotheistic God, and since deists had Christian backgrounds, that the “Judeo-Christian” tradition should get the “credit” for it. Deism is based on what we can know of God based on Man’s Reason. And it was the Greeks who invented the concept of “Reason.” Then the Catholic Church, through Aquinas, adopted the teachings of Aristotle and we got and we got a “Christian” natural law. Then Locke, who professed to operate in the tradition of “Christianity” picked up the natural law from there and put more of a focus on Man’s Reason, separate from religious doctrine. Eventually the Enlightenment, through the use of Reason, rejected so much Christian orthodoxy that it ceased to be “Christian” anymore. What is known as “liberal” Christianity is simply the rejection of some “orthodoxies” because they don’t comport with “Reason.” Christians who rejected a fair amount of orthodoxies, but retained others, were known as “Unitarians,” around the time of the founding (and this evolved into today's very leftist Unitarian Church). Going beyond “Unitarianism” and rejecting even the notion of a God who intervenes at all is where we arrive at Deism. But we see how we start with orthodox Christianity, and through reliance on Reason, we begin to reject various orthodoxies, then we get to “liberal-Christianity/Unitarianism” and finally Deism. We begin with pure “Revelation” (orthodox Christianity) on one end of the spectrum and get to pure “Reason” on the other (deism). Many of our founders were somewhere in the middle, but I'd argue the most influential tilted heavily towards "Reason."

So when did political philosophy, or the formulators thereof, stop becoming “Christian”? It depends on who you ask—Jefferson was certainly a man of Reason and the Enlightenment, but even he called himself “Christian” at times. Fundamentalists tell me that if one doesn’t believe in the Trinity, then they aren’t real Christians. And Jefferson termed the Trinity to be “insane.” Locke, after Newton, denied the Trinity (Locke apparently became a “Unitarian” later in his life). And I’m pretty sure that Milton, whom Sandefur describes as, “a rather unimpeachable Christian” did too.

Let me close with Camille Paglia who gives a fascinating anecdote on the interplay between Pagan/Secular/Reason & Christian/Sacred/Revelation—how combing these two forces that will perpetually be “in tension” with one another results in the marvel of Western Culture—the greatest culture there ever was:

“And Michelangelo, adorning the Sistine Chapel with twenty homoerotic ignudi (nude Greek youths), made the most radical statement of the enduring duality of pagan and Christian in our culture.” Vamps & Tramps, p. 94.

(And yes, Michelangelo was homosexual!)


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