Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Novaks on Ellis on the Founders:

Michael and Jana Novak have responded to Joseph Ellis' thoughts on the Founders and Religion on the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog. (See my thoughts on Ellis' post.) In particular, they don't like Ellis' use of the phrase, "pantheistic sense of providential destiny," to describe Washington's God. They write:

Finally, it is really not possible to demonstrate from Washington's public decrees that the Providence to whom he asked his army and fellow citizens to pray was "pantheistic." On the contrary, his public prayers as commanding General and as President expected Providence to favor liberty and thus, though both prayed to the same Providence, the American cause over the British. He expected his God -- and the nation -- to "interpose" his divine action in the course of the war, and in the later course of American history.

And just as the American Founders held that the natural rights they declared belonged not solely to them but to all humankind, so the God to whom they prayed did not belong solely to them, but is the Almighty Lord of all, who sits in judgment over this nation and others. President Washington did not scruple, in his eloquent message to the Hebrew Congregation of Savannah, to identify the God "Jehovah" who led the Jewish people in Israel, with the Providence who led Americans through their founding period.

I think "pantheistic" aptly describes not just Washington's, but the other key Founders' God. Though It was, as the Novaks' note, a particular type of pantheistic Providence; theirs was an active personal God, indeed one who favored political liberty and frowned upon tyrannical leaders (not exactly attributes of the Biblical God, who doesn't seem concerned with political -- as opposed to spiritual -- liberty; and Paul admonishes Christians to follow civil magistrates, even secular, pagan, and arguably tyrannical ones like Nero, the leader to whom Paul told Christians to obey in Romans 13).

The Founders' God was, however, universalistic. Various peoples of various religious traditions, even those outside the "Judeo-Christian" one, worshipped the same God who goes by many different proper names. And it was customary for the Founders to use the proper name for God with which the addressees would feel most comfortable. The only time Washington ever, to my knowledge, named God "Jehovah" was in one address to the Hebrew Congregation of Savannah. Twice however, I have counted Washington used the proper name "the Great Spirit" -- here and here -- for God, but only when addressing American Indians.

In sum, if "pantheistic" can mean an active, personal, universalistic God, then such a term accurately describes the God the key Founders like Washington worshipped.


Jim Babka said...

Jon, I think you might be misunderstanding what the "pan" portion of pantheist means. Spinoza was a pantheist. So also was Einstein.

Generally pantheism means that the deity is the universe itself. God is everything, says the pantheist.

It is logically impossible for a deity of pantheist nature to be "personal."

Jonathan said...


Under one understanding of pantheism, you are right. And if that's the only definition, then it would be improper to label any of these Founders this.

I checked online dictionaries before posting this and found the term "pantheistic" also can be used to describe the syncretic universalism that these key Founder believed in.


"2 : the worship of all gods of different creeds, cults, or peoples indifferently; also : toleration of worship of all gods (as at certain periods of the Roman empire)."

Jim Babka said...

Interesting. If you read me that definition first, I would've called that POLYtheism.

Jim Babka said...

Let me say one more thing I've never said publicly before. It refers to how I know this stuff.

Provisionally, I happen to be a panentheist. I'm not married to that position, having just recently (within the last year or so) come to that opinion, but I think it makes the most sense given the evidence available to me both as an observer of nature and a believer.

A theist would say, a transcendent God exists. God is over everything. This is traditional Christianity.

A pantheist would say, an immanent god exists. God is part of everything.

Yet many Christians believe that it is God in whom we live, and move, and have our being... that God is omnipresent.

I'm not trying to go all Anselm on you here, but the greatest possible being and the most PERSONAL being would be both immanent and transcendent.

Orthodox (Eastern variety) embrace a form of panentheism. All Process Theologians are panentheist. So too are an increasing number of Wesleyans and Openness Theologians.

I came to this position as a result of studying origins. Evolution is the best explanation for our natural history. One of the top five biggest reasons Christians tend toward rejection of evolution in favor of Intelligent Design or so-called Creation Science is that they believe in creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). This is extra-Biblical and thus, open to debate within orthodoxy.

Process Theologians counter the purveyors of ex nihilo, and embrace panentheism as part of their argument. In other words, something always existed with God.

This view has additional ramifications to things like the problems of pain and evil (theodicy), but I share all this only to show how it was I knew that the way Ellis is using pantheism is probably sloppy, at best, and more likely, wrong.

Jonathan said...

That's a fascinating theory Jim. As my religious beliefs mature, I could see them maturing in that direction.

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