Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Novak on the Founders' God:

Michael Novak's latest installment in his dialogue with Joseph Ellis about the Founders on Religion is up. His post summarizes an argument Novak made in his book On Two Wings. What Novak does here is try to find ways in which the Founders' God parallels the Biblical God but "differs from earlier pagan religions, from Islam, and from 18th century deism." He essentially plays a "glass is half-full/half-empty" game. He writes:

First of all, Biblical religion holds that the Creator is intimately concerned with the inner conscience of human beings (the principle Jefferson draws on in his Statute for Religious Freedom); and also that in reply to our prayers ("ask and you shall receive"), the God of the Bible "interposes" his divine action into the affairs of men, the rise and fall of nations, and even the inner thoughts and inspirations of human individuals.

Secondly, the Biblical God "who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time" (Jefferson). He invited us into friendship with Him -- the friendship of free women and men, not slaves. As William Penn put it, if friendship, then freedom. From this insight flowed the Liberty Bell of Philadelphia. Thus, biblical religion conceived of history as a long-term effort to bring human freedom into fruition across this planet ("Go teach all nations"). As the historian Lord Acton wrote, the history of liberty is coincident with the history of Judaism/Christianity.

In other words, the Biblical God is "the god of liberty." It was for liberty that the Creator made the world. It is by giving humans liberty that He made them "in His image." Unlike the Greek Fates, the Biblical God is sovereign and free; unlike the Muslim Allah who is pure will (over-ruling reason and law), the Biblical God is the light that suffuses the intelligibility of all natural and human law, and all individuals and events. The Biblical God lives liberty through, not license, but self-government under law: "Confirm thy soul in self-control/ Thy liberty in law."

Problems with Novak's thesis: First, Novak only attempts to see how the Founders' God parallels the Biblical God, i.e., the Founders' God was not some remote watchmaker God but an active personal God, the Biblical God is an active personal God, hence the Founders' God is the Biblical God. But we could just as easily ask how the Founders' God differed from the Biblical God. For instance, the Founders' God clearly was unitarian, not Trinitarian in His attributes; He didn't damn anyone to Hell for eternity (just punished the bad temporarily); He was more concerned with works than faith; and though He was, as Novak notes, "concerned with the inner conscience of human beings," He was apparently not a jealous God as He granted men an unalienable right to worship false gods or no God at all (contrast that with the First Commandment). The Founders' God was viewed through the lens of "benevolence" and "rationality"; those parts of Scripture which confirmed God's benevolence and rationality were, accordingly, legitimately revealed; those parts of Scripture which conflicted with these notions (for instance, like God's jealousy, His wrath, His Triune nature, some of His more outlandish miracles) likely were "error" or not legitimately revealed.

So after seeing the full picture and asking how the Founders' God was both similar to and different from the God of traditional orthodox Christianity, then ask whether the Founders' God was "Biblical." The best answer for the affirmative would be yes, He was, but with a caveat: The Founders' God was "Biblical" minus everything written in the Bible conflicting with the findings of man's reason, which was designed to be supreme. See Jefferson taking his razor to the "unreasonable" parts of the Bible or Adams asserting even if he were on Mt. Sinai with Moses and God revealed the doctrine of the Trinity to him there, Adams still wouldn't believe it because man's reason dictates 1+1+1 = 3, not 1.

The second problem with Novak's thesis is that it disregards the universalism with which these Founders were so concerned. Novak essentially tries to argue: The Founders God was "Biblical" but not Allah, not Deistic, not the God of this or that pagan religion. The Founders asserted just the opposite. Their rational unitarian God was, according to them, the God of all. He was the (unitarian) Christian God, Jehovah to the Jews, Allah to the Muslims, "the Great Spirit" to the Native Americans, and so on and so forth. John Adams managed to "find" this monotheistic God in the religion of the Pagan Greeks and Romans and the Hindus. Now one can argue, whatever they asserted, the Founders' God differed in His attributes from Allah, and the rest of the pagan gods. But, He likewise differed from the triune God of the Christians!

See for instance this quotation from Adams in his letter to M.M. Noah, July 31, 1818:

"It has pleased the Providence of the first Cause, the Universal Cause, that Abraham should give religion not only to Hebrews but to Christians and Mahomitans, the greatest part of the modern civilized world."

Here Adams makes it clear that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worshipped the same God as all have "religion."

If one argues that "Allah" possesses different attributes than the "Biblical" God, one could just as easily argue that the Christian God possesses different attributes than the Jewish God. Indeed, while the Christian God is triune in nature, the Jewish God, Allah and the Founders' God are unitarian in nature. Consider this quotation from Adams to Mordecai Noah, March 15, 1819:

I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation. For as I believe the most enlightened men of it have participated in the amelioration of the philosophy of the age, once restored to an independent government & no longer persecuted they would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character [and] possibly in time become liberal unitarian Christians for your Jehovah is our Jehovah & your God of Abraham Isaac & Jacob is our God.

Notice how Adams remarks both that he and the Jews worshipped the same God -- "Jehovah, the God of Abraham Isaac & Jacob," but that his God was aptly described as that of "liberal unitarian Christianity." Hence, from an outer level of generality, all theists worshipped the same God -- "the Providence of the first Cause" -- but from an inner level of specific attributes, Adams' (and the other key Founders') God was unitarian, not Trinitarian, benevolent, not wrathful and jealous, and above all rational. In sum, on specific matters, the Founders' God was their God -- benevolent, rational, and unitarian; and He differed not just from Allah, the God of the strict Deists, and the god(s) of the rest of the pagans, but He also differed from the God of the Jews and the God of orthodox Christians.

My final problem with Novak's thesis is that he imports an "a-biblical" attribute into the "Biblical" God and hence tries to credit the Bible for one of the attributes of the Founders' God which clearly the Enlightenment created. Novak was quoted above as saying "the Biblical God is 'the god of liberty.' It was for liberty that the Creator made the world." The God of the Founders, no doubt, was pro-political liberty; Novak nicely quotes Jefferson as stating the God "who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time." The problem is the Biblical God seems wholly unconcerned with political, as opposed to spiritual liberty. Tory minister Jonathan Boucher correctly noted: "The word liberty, as meaning civil liberty, does not, I believe, occur in all the Scriptures." Thus, the notion that men have a God-granted right to political liberty is wholly a creation of Enlightenment, not Biblical, theology. As Novak's fellow conservative Catholic scholar, Robert Kraynak, once put it, the theory of liberal democracy as put forth by Jefferson et al. "needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be." In other words, the Biblical God is not as liberal or democratic as the key Founders made God out to be. Or at the very least, those attributes cannot be gleaned from the text of the Bible.


Jim Babka said...

Regarding the Commandments One and Two (of the Ten)...

Jon, you've come back to this point several times during the period I've been reading your blog: That the God of the Bible doesn't value human liberty (or at least have much to say about it) and as evidence, you cite these two commandments not to have any other gods before the true God nor worship idols.

I don't want to take on the entire argument for God valuing liberty here. Someday, when I have the time and resources, I hope to do that as a book. But for now, the commandments question should be addressed.

Referencing Luke 19, Romans 4, Galatians 3, and Hebrews 2, we learn that children of Abraham are those who worship and serve the God of the Bible (I'm being very general here because this is a blog comment).

Therefore, commandments were to the Children of Abraham. Those who are "pagan" are not under those commands in the same day-to-day way Children of Abraham are (although each of us will someday give an account). Each of us has a will, and like Adam and Eve, we can use or misuse our will for good or bad purposes. But that does not elevate these commandments to the level of coercive government.

The fact of the matter is the Creator has given us all liberty. This is self-evident. No one is struck down for failure to put God first and avoid idol worship (which broadly means living for or devoted to things in this world). Were that the case, most church going folk would be zapped dead! LOL.

But the believer cannot serve something over and above God. Jesus Christ, as well as the Apostle Paul, made clear that the commandments really were two. Love God (1-4) and Love your Neighbor (5-10). This was spiritual instruction, successful living instruction even, necessary to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God -- of which the Hebrew people were an example of what was to come. Love, as Paul explains in I Corinthians 13, is the highest of Christian virtues.

The first two commandments are not instructions for civil government and has no obvious applicability to the question of whether or not God gave us liberty. I understand your point, but I don't think this particular argument has any validity.

Keep up the good work!

Jonathan said...


Always appreciate your comments Jim.

Emmie said...

It's interesting though how 'friendship' and liberty is connected. And how the Biblical God grants us friendship only to 'free men and women' and not to slaves. Is he implying that we have a choice to 'make friends with God'?