Monday, March 06, 2006

The Benevolence of God and Questioning Religious Dogma:

Kudos to Andrew Sullivan for quoting Jefferson on Religion and appreciating Jefferson's radical iconoclasm on religious questions.

I recommend anyone with a serious interest to delve into the Founders and Religion question. Both "the Founders were Deists" and "the Founders were Christians" sides are wrong; the Truth is far more nuanced and interesting.

Readers of this blog know that the key Founders, while they believed in a warm intervening Providence (thus, not what we typically think of as "Deists") seriously questioned and outright rejected the traditional dogmas of orthodox Christianity.

Were I to described the God of the Founders (Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, most likely Washington, Madison and some other key Founders) in one word, it would be: Benevolent.

Here is, once again, John Adams, whose religious beliefs I find far more appealing than the religious right who often invoke him. In a letter to Lousia Catherine Adams, November 11, 1821:

Question 1. Is this stupendous and immeasurable universe governed by eternal fate? 2. Is it governed by chance? Is it governed by caprice anger resentment and vengeance? 4. Is it governed by intelligence wisdom and benevolence? The three first of these questions I have examined with as close attention as I am capable of & have decided them all forever in the negative. The 4th I have meditated with much more satisfaction & comfort to myself & decided unequivocally in the affirmative & from this last decision I have derived all my system of divinity.

Note Adams and the other key Founders categorically rejected eternal damnation, (though they did believe that bad people would be punished temporarily) because a benevolent God wouldn't damn anyone, much less the majority of the human race to Hell for eternity.

Calvin's God could not be the real God because our Founders presupposed God's benevolence. And Calvin appeared to worship a malevolent Deity.

Now, an Internet colleague of mine (a Harvard PhD in astronomy), in his 80s and a militant atheist would state that Adams (or I) am wrong to presuppose God's benevolence? Who is to say that if God exists, he isn't malevolent?

Should we presuppose God's benevolence? It's only by doing so that I reject the possibility that Bin Laden's God is the true God. And it's for that very same reason I reject the God of the Christian fundamentalists. Yet millions of people, many of them very smart and well educated, believe in both Bin Laden's God and Calvin's.

Me, I'm with Adams, Jefferson and the others. If God exists, He(/She/It) is benevolent, and any attribute of Him in which I might believe will be guided by that premise.


DSH said...

Sullivan, in adopting a correspondent's position, certainly brings the matter into broader relief. But for all the clarity, abiguity was compounded.

Sullivan has been attacking biblical fundamentalists, which he labels "Christianists." (He's been attacking Muslim fundamentalists, too, but less incisively, because it's not his schtick.) He's an avowed Roman Catholic, and he dislikes what's being done by "Christianists" under biblical authority to his sensibility of Christianity. (Disclosure: I'm an atheist, but if I were a Christian, Catholicism -- Anglican, Roman, or Eastern -- would appeal the most.) So, I empthize with Sullivan: Fundamentalists, IMHO, have totally distorted the Christian message, and if I were a Christian, I'd be pretty upset over what's being done in its name. But then, Roman Catholicism is not the paradigm of innocence, either. But let's leave all that behind and just deal with Sullivan's complaint.

For those who don't understand what fundamentalism is, here's a concise description. It subscribes to the belief that the Bible (Hebrew and Christian Scriptures) is the literal, inerrant Word of God. Literally. Some have gone as far to think Jesus spoke King's English and that the Bible was written in King James' time. That's how preposterous some of them are. Fundamentalists believe that everything written in the Bible is literally true, including Balaam's donkey talking (I won't dwell on it).

Jesus, of course, wrote nothing. In fact, we're not really sure who wrote what in the New Testament. Many scholars have noted the significant difference between the synoptic evangelists (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and the proto-evangelist John. The former never claim Jesus as divine; the latter definitely does. It makes for interesting conversation.

Then, there is the Pauline gospel. This might strike some as strange, but indeed the letters attributed to Saint Paul (Pauline) have a totally different quality to them from the evangelists. Indeed, it's almost two totally different messages. But for whatever reason, "Paul's" epistles were singled out early as the benchmark of Christianity. For perspective, the earliest writings are at least 30 years after J.C., the latest writing maybe 200 years later. So, maybe a few of the authors actually knew J.C., but most did not. No one is really sure. Certainly, Saint Paul had only a derivative expiernce after J.C.'s resurrection while on the road to Damascus; his acquaintance with J.C. is totally derivative. The so-called "catholic" epistles may actually have been written by J.C.'s disciples, especially James, Peter, and John. Again, no one knows. But textually, the catholic epistles are much closer to the teachings of J.C. than the Pauline.

An important fact: Saint Paul apparently claimed "apostleship" for himself, although technically he doesn't fit the definition. But unlike the other "apostles," Paul was an evangelist to the Greeks and Romans. The others largely remained in their Jewish centers. Known as the Apostle to the Gentiles, even though Paul is thoroughly Jewish, his message apparently caught on in Greece and Roman territories, while the "others" remained provincial. This alone is why Paul became such a figurehead.

Enough history/context. The fact is that Christian Scriptures were never a significant issue, until the Reformation. Many of the pre-Reformation Christians mentioned the "apostle's memoirs" (i.e., Scripture), but they were equally engaged in non-scriptural exegesis. Saints Augustine (West) and Chrysostom (East) were the dominant writers, and most writers cited them as often, if not more often, than "scripture" itself. According to the dominant paradigm, Christianity after Christ was totally in the "hands" of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Because it was a "spiritual" awakening, not a deontological one, the Spirit moved over believers to adapt the J.C. message to the particular time and place. Prior to the Reformation, Christianity was "evolving" towards the Kingdom. Therefore, nothing was static, it was constantly being reinvented as the Church (community of believers) evolved through time. While some things became codified and ritualized, the basic thrust was "development." Indeed, one of the greatest Christian tracts was by John Henry Newman (19th C.) known as "The Development of Christian Doctrine." Process, not stasis, was the the impetus. Thus, to become "locked" onto a certain time and place, while helpful as an anchor, wasn't meant for the whole ship afloat. The Church, as protype of the Kingdom, was advancing the cause in each generation. Scripture and the Theologians were "rocks," but not anchorages. The Church had a mission to fulfill, moving forward, not backward, in time.

Enter the Reformation. Two men, Martin Luther and Jean Calvin, saw a "ship afloat." The original message had gotten so confused and tangled that these two men decided to go back to the "originals." For them, the Theologians and other writers did not matter; what mattered was "Scripture." Only the Divine Word of God could rescue this Titanic. Almost everything else was discarded. The supreme irony is that Christendom, until that point, really hadn't codifed a "Christian Scripture." Several councils and synods, not to mention the Theologians, had referred to these texts, but highly ambiguously. Yes, the "apostles' memoirs" were a critical point of reference, but not the whole ballywack. The Church, after all, was ontological, while "scripture" was derivative. Even more derivative was the Theologians' commentary. Only within the context of Church did the Gospel and Epistles have any sense, and even then, they might be a point of reference, but the Church was "moving on" toward the Kingdom, while text was a a time-bound thing. "Going back" to the "originals" did not make a lot of sense. The New Covenant was on a mission, viz., the Kingdom. If the originals shed light on it, great; but, don't get caught in the details for the thrust of history.

In defense of Luther and Calvin, the Church really had lost contact with the Gospel. A reformation was definitely in order. But Luther and Calvin did not know how much of "this" or "that" to take outside of the original, so the original (though hardly original) became supreme. But what really was the original? No one really knew. So, Luther and Calvin decided that "Scripture" was the bedrock, and everything else had to be seen through its prism. Problem: No one had exactly defined what "Scripture" was. It wasn't total confusion, but some "writings" were considered "inspired," others not. Augstine and Chrysostom had their lists of inspired writings, Rome had its, and others had theirs. Was Jerome's Latin translation of Hebrew and Greek writings in the 4th C. Scripture, or was it something else? After all this time, and numerous ecumenical councils, no one had defined or delineated what actually was "Christian Scripture." It was generally agreed that certain writings were inspired, but not much beyond that. Maybe, the Council of Orange in the 4th C. had answered everyone's question with its list, but no one was certain. (One of the first tasks of the Counter-Reformation Ecumenical Council of Trent in the 15th C. was to give a definitive list.)

So Protestantism was born because the original message had been obscured, and in deciding the locus of J.C.'s teachings, Protestants decided Christian Scripture was the "sole authority" for what is Christianity. Anything "not proveable" by Scripture was to be discarded. Of course, Luther and Calvin had to first decide what constituted "scripture," and they looked to Jerome's translation of "inspired writings" as the fulcrum. (The Protestant "Scriptures" differ slightly from the Ancient "Scriptures," primarily with regard to the Old Testament. Luther had his contempt for James' epistle, because it didn't comport with his interpretation of Pauline doctrine, but in the end he simply "marginalized" James's epistle, rather than excised it.)

Disclaimer: "Fundamentalism" takes different forms. When referring to Christian fundamentalism, it means simply that the Scriptures alone, which are literal and inerrant, are the true Word of God, and everything else can be discarded.

"Historical" Christians, those whose roots go back to apostolic times, can be fundamentalists, but not in the sense that Sullivan is using it. For most people, "fundamentalism" in Christianity means taking the Bible (Christian Scripture) literally and inerrantly no matter what.

I know I've already overstayed my welcome, so let me now cut to the chase. Taking a book as "God's literal and inerrant Word" is just plain silly. And almost all that do this have no idea how, when, where, and why "Scripture" came about. Maybe Muslims believe the Quran fell from the sky, but there's no question of "human involvement" with regard to Christian Scripture. And, since most of the New Testament writers did not even have direct contact with J.C., nor were they convulsed into paroxysms of divine ecstasy, the human component of Christian Scripture, coupled with its tattered history, makes belief in a written work as "God's literal and inerrant Word" just a tad bit extreme. "Inspired," is what mainline Protestants and Catholics believe, but the "gospel" truth which would overthrow science, commonsense, and decency is just a little over the top. Jesus did not speak King's English, in fact he wrote nothing at all in his native Aramaic, or in any language. Who the other writers are we just really don't know, but no serious Christian believes that God dictated a book in King's English to save the world. And, even if one adopts the Protestant disposition toward these writings, "sola scriptura," that doesn't entail that everything outside scripture is untrue, rather that what's written in them is "sufficient" for salvation. That's hardly the same claim, extraordinary as even that is. Finally, catholics have a singular point that simply cannot be denied in light of the above: Without the ontology of the Church, something as obviously derivative as "scripture" makes no sense at all. It's only in the context of a believing community that such "inspiration" takes its form and is shared with others. Jews are similarly disposed, for exactly the same reason. That fundamentalists actually think a collection of "inspired" human writings trump everything else, including human experience, is simply untenable. That they do it in "God's Name" causes a great deal of believers more than a little angst. I'm entirely sympathetic. Sadly, Pentecostal "Christianists" are on the increase, and Rome elected one of its most reactionary Popes. It's just not a good time be a Christian.

Jonathan said...

Great comment. I'll post it tomorrow. Feel free to comment as much as you want. Maybe I should make you a guest blogger.