Thursday, March 16, 2006

Frazer Speaks:

A few months ago, I was involved in a little debate on Worldmag's blog on the religious beliefs of our Founders. Readers know that I endorse the work of Gregg Frazer whose research sheds much light on the "Christian v. Deist" controversy and offers a sort of nuanced, middle ground of Truth.

I just noticed that Frazer left a comment on the thread. Here is what he wrote:

I saw my name and dissertation mentioned in your discussion and thought I should weigh in.

First -- I am an evangelical, born-again Christian and probably about as conservative theologically as you could imagine. I believe in the literal interpretation of Scripture -- including, for example, a literal six-day creation.

Second -- Having studied in depth the stated beliefs of eight key Founders, I have concluded that they were not Christians OR DEISTS, but "theistic rationalists." Theistic rationalism is a kind of mean between Christianity and deism. It is a hybrid belief system mixing Protestant Christianity with natural religion and rationalism -- with rationalism as the trumping element when the other two disagree. The eight men I studied were: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris.

Third -- I plan to write an article this summer demonstrating that Jefferson & Franklin were not, as is routinely believed, deists. The problem we encounter is that the only two categories or "niches" that have been used are "Christian" or "deist." So, everyone is crammed into one of those categories whether or not he fits. Another significant problem comes from categorizing someone based simply upon his denominational affiliation.

Fourth -- As I said, I only studied the eight listed above, but I became convinced through tangential study that John Jay and John Witherspoon were Christians. There may be others. My point was that those most responsible for the Declaration (Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin) and for the Constitution were theistic rationalists and neither Christians nor deists. The Right and the Left are both wrong.

I am glad that Professor Rowe is planning to order my dissertation, as all of the primary evidence one could want is there. Mine is the first comprehensive study (as far as I know) of all that these eight said about their beliefs. Most "studies" pick and choose convenient quotes in order to advance a pre-determined agenda. Since theistic rationalism is a mixture of Christian and natural religion tenets, one can find isolated quotes to support either side of the Christianity vs. deism argument. Taken in total, though, they don't add up to either.

None of my dissertation committee members believed my thesis when I began -- after my defense, they said the evidence was "overwhelming."

Well, that's enough from me as an introduction.


DSH said...

Fundamentalist Christians cannot be taken seriously, because they don’t take themselves seriously. For the sake of argument, let’s take their central precept, “The Bible is the literal, inerrant Word of God, which alone is sufficient for salvation” and see how they themselves don’t take their own precept seriously, indeed, they get it wrong at one of the most critical junctures of their faith. Any reader of the New Testament would be hard pressed to deny the importance of Jesus’s “last supper.” Each of the four evangelists mentions it, Saint Paul mentions it twice, John the Evangelist spends a lengthy pericope on its religious and spiritual significance (Chap. 6), and Luke mentions it in the Acts of the Apostles.

The “Last Supper” is theologically very complex. It’s the meal that Jesus had with his apostles before he is crucified. It’s not certain whether the meal actually occurred on the Jewish Passover, but that is more than suggested, and for good reason. (The Jewish Passover commemorates God’s angel “passing over” the Jews as it kills all the Egyptian first-born as a sign of God’s liberation of the Jews from Egyptian slavery. So the Passover is central to Jewish identity and to Jesus’s identity.) The “last supper” is also the beginning of Jesus’s Passion: His death and resurrection (i.e., the Pascha, or Christian Passover). And I want to suggest that the “last supper” is no less central to Christian identity than it is to Jewish identity. But fundamentalists give it little or no importance. The question is not, Why not? but, How can you not?

At this last meal, Jesus’ takes bread and wine and “consecrates” them as his Body and Blood. Jesus’s language is ostensive denotation: “This is my Body;” and “This is my Blood.” No simile is interposed. Moreover, he commands his apostles to “Do this in memory of me.” In the Gospel according to John, the evangelist spends a lengthy pericope (Chapter Six) on Jesus’s message: “I am the Bread of Life.” “Unless you eat this Bread and drink this cup, you have no life in you.” Pretty heady stuff! I’m cutting to the chase, but John really elaborates. Luke, in Acts of the Apostles, tells us that the first Christians continued steadfast in the apostles teaching and fellowship, “the breaking of bread,” and the prayers. Saint Paul admonishes the Christians in Corinth not partake in the memorial supper cavalierly, or it brings condemnation on one’s self (see also, 1 Cor. 10:14-23).

Even as a casual reader, I think I gets message that the Supper, whatever it is, is obviously very important. Even if one does not ordinarily take the Bible literally, one would be hard pressed not to take these passages literally. The absence of simile is significant. This commemorative meal is more than just an ordinary meal; it seems more than a commemorative meal. According to most Christians, by participating in the meal, one participates in the very mysteries of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection (again, the Pascha, or Christian Passover). And by eating the bread and drinking the cup, one literally eats Jesus’s Body and drinks his Blood until he comes again. Again, it’s more than suggestive, it’s literally true. And, I don’t think my “literal” reading of the “last supper” is foreign to Christianity. The early Christians were accused of cannibalism over it. The central act of Christian worship in both Eastern and Latin Christianity today, which has its aetiology in Jesus’s time, is the “eucharist,” or the “last supper.” If one attends today’s Catholic Mass or the Orthodox’s Divine Liturgy, the central act of worship is re-enactment of the “last supper.” Okay, I think I get it, others seem to get it, so why not the fundamentalists?

With all the “obvious” literalism and ostensive language, why don’t Christian fundamentalists take either the command or the identity seriously? In probably the most perverse twist, they’ll take the Creation account in Genesis literally, but not the literal significance of this extraordinarily central meal. Ditto, the Flood. The Diaspora. Everything, BUT the Last Supper. Even if one reads these passages metaphorically, which I admit is plausible (more than plausible, I think), one simply cannot deny its symbolism, significance, and centrality. But not for the fundamentalists. They rarely, if ever, do as commanded, and to what is commanded they don’t give much importance. Even if I read these repeated accounts as purely symbolic, metaphorical, and figurative, they can’t, because it is contrary to their fundamental thesis that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God. It’s simply amazing that this meal is of little importance to them. It’s not just odd, it’s a complete contradiction of their own thesis.

I began by identifying six biblical references to this imperative by Jesus, and that number alone should be a source of consternation. If only one verse identified this act as important (e.g., being “born again”), maybe its salience is not so significant. But the opposite is true. Both the narrative and imperative to act are anything but obscure or insignificant. If Jesus is God Incarnate, and if God Incarnate says “Do this,” I think I’d take this command pretty seriously, even if I did not take it literally. Oddly, I can accommodate a figurative reading of the Creation, the Flood, even the Resurrection, but I have an immensely difficult time taking the Supper figuratively: The ostensive language, the imperative, its focus, its soteriology, and number of references seem to override a figurative interpretation. But fundamentalists do not regard the Bible as figurative; they regard it as literal, literally, in apparently all cases, save this one?

Even more problematic for the fundamentalist is trying to make sense of 1 Corinthians 11:23-32, if these Supper references are not literal. In what possible sense can Saint Paul mean “do this” in “an unworthy manner,” and you, “will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord?” Obviously, it makes no sense if the context is referring to a one-time, past event that no longer repeats or deserves comment; Corinthian Christians were “doing this,” participating in the meal, in a less than stellar fashion, and Saint Paul was anything but pleased. So the imperative by Jesus is vindicated by actual practice of the early Church in the Bible (see also, Acts 2:42). And, in what possible sense can Saint Paul mean, “you will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord,” if “doing this” isn’t more than a symbolic ritual? Why would it “bring judgment against themselves,” who partake in an unworthy manner? How can something fundamentally symbolic or basically figurative bring such condemnation? Obviously, it can’t.

So, the Supper cannot be figurative, cannot be just a metaphor, and cannot be just a one-time, historical-bound act that Jesus did with his apostles, never to be repeated again. But the language of the Gospel already tells us that. Even more stupefying, here I am making the case for literalism (the fundamentalist’s case), by applying their rule, that they themselves don’t take literally. To the fundamentalist, yes, everything else is literal, but in the one exemplar case of literalism, no, it’s figurative. But how can anything be figurative, if your thesis is that the Bible is “the literal and inerrant word of God and is alone sufficient for salvation?” So the whole artifice comes crumbling down around them because they lack the confidence of their very own thesis at one of the most important junctures of their Book.

Am I the only one who thinks this is just plain nuts? We can go outside the text to validate my observations (e.g., Catholic and Orthodox practice; Justin Martyr, 130, etc.), but I am deliberately staying within the text, since the fundamentalists believe “sola scriptura” (scripture alone). And it’s all right here. When the fundamentalists can answer this peculiarly odd feature of their exceptionalism, maybe I might take them more seriously. But talk about getting things wrong! And it’s not a minor issue. It’s literally perverse. If they ever come around to being sensible, I will still have problems taking anything too literally, but if the fundamentalist thesis is that the Bible is the (1) literal, (2) inerrant (3) word of God, (4) sufficient for salvation, I think they need to take themselves more seriously and believe it. They don’t. And for all the damage they do “in God’s Name” by taking a verse here, a verse there, and making substantial that which is inconsequential, and making tangential that which is clearly significant, would cause me, if I were a Christian, to share Andrew Sullivan’s ire. Take, for example, John 3:16. One verse that mentions being “born again,” and compare that to all these other references to the Supper. But from fundamentalists’ perspective one would think being “born again” permeates the Gospel; it doesn’t. One verse! Important, obviously. But compared to the Supper, how? Am I the only one who thinks they’ve completely missed the point? And, I am not a Christian!

I don’t like the appearance of “judging others” (see, Romans 2, which by the way, I do take seriously), but the fundamentalists are as antithetical to the Gospel as any other heretic, for in the final analysis, that is what they are. By using their own criteria, they themselves fail. And who established that criteria, anyway (hardly an insignificant question)? That they often just “don’t get it,” should not strike any of us as odd. But being inconsistent, I’d think even that they might understand. But most important, that they seriously misrepresent Christianity is something Someone else will have to judge.

K.E.B. said...

Interesting post...

You said, "They rarely, if ever, do as commanded, ["break the bread"] and to what is commanded they don’t give much importance..." and, "Even if I read these repeated accounts as purely symbolic, metaphorical, and figurative, they can’t, because it is contrary to their fundamental thesis that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God. It’s simply amazing that this meal is of little importance to them. It’s not just odd, it’s a complete contradiction of their own thesis."

Why do you say that Christians rarely do as commanded, or if they do that don't give it much importance? Where are you getting that from?

DSH said...

Good question, because I obviously was not clear. Christians do get it. Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans (the overwhelming majority of Christians) not only get it, they do it. The only ones who don't get it, in the most bizarre twist of logic and violation of a rule, are the Fundamentalists.

I thought I made that clear:

"The central act of Christian worship in both Eastern and Latin Christianity today, which has its aetiology in Jesus’s time, is the “eucharist,” or the “last supper.” If one attends today’s Catholic Mass or the Orthodox’s Divine Liturgy, the central act of worship is re-enactment of the “last supper.” Okay, I think I get it, others seem to get it, so why not the fundamentalists?"

Indeed, all these other Christians not only get it, it's central to their lives. The Mass, Divine Liturgy, and Eucharist (all names for the Supper) are their central act of corporate worship, identity, and literally their spirituality. And they have "gotten it" since antiquity (e.g., the "cannibalism" remark). All these Christians do believe the words "This is my Body" and "This is my Blood" as literally as anyone could.

Yes, I might think it possibly figurative, but then I don't take the maxim "the Bible is the literal and inerrant Word of God which alone is sufficient for salvation" as even coherent. But Fundamentalists do! The key word is "literal." Only Fundamentalists have this maxim, which is take the Bible literally, which they most readily do, EXCEPT in the one instance that historic Christians have always taken literally (even though they are not literalists).

Attend a Fundamentalist service. See if anything like the Supper occurs as commanded. It just doesn't. And maybe the few that "may" do it once a year or so, don't take it literally. If I didn't have that maxim, maybe I could slough "this" off as merely figurative like some Christians (a very small minority). But other Christians don't have this maxim, and if anything is literal to them, THIS is it. But the Fundamentalists, who take everything else literally, don't take this literally. It's simply not just odd, it's bizarre.

And the most bizarre feature is not just that other Christians take it seriously and literally and do it, it's that not doing so violates the Fundamentalists very own maxim, a maxim no other Christian takes seriously, but the Fundamentalists do. And so, I don't think it's a big leap to conclude that if they don't take themselves seriously, why should anyone else (regardless of the fact that others do take this seriously and literally).

But I think a bigger claim is in order: If a Fundamentalist can get "this" so totally wrong, why should we even think they get anything right?

Anonymous said...

I would be very careful about putting people in boxes. I have found a wonderful little book called "Understanding Your Bible" by S. Craig McDonald that has given me greater insight into such questions. Grace and peace be with you, and may the Lord bless you as you humbly seek His truth.