Friday, May 18, 2007

Founding Thought in Action:

World Magazine Blog links to a story on the increasingly generic benedictions given at college campus graduations. Some orthodox Christian ministers refuse to play ball and won't deliver such addresses when invited. For instance, John Parker and the Medical University of South Carolina. Parker believes such inclusive prayers dishonest and nauseating.

If the prayers are offered at a private religious college, it makes sense that they would be doctrinally specific depending on the school's creed, i.e., Jewish prayers at Jewish schools, Catholic prayers at Catholic colleges, etc. etc. However, if the schools are public and secular and if they are to have prayers at all, they should be as generic and inclusive as possible.

This is exactly what our key Founders did when they made public supplications to God. After all, they weren't speaking for a particular Church, but for the entire country/federal government. If you look at the systematic way that the first four Presidents spoke of God, it was invariably generic and philosophical. Even Justice Scalia recognized this. And indeed, they believed that all religions about which they were aware were valid ways to God and that included not just Christianity, but Judaism, Deism, Unitarianism, Islam, Hinduism, Native American Spirituality, and Pagan Greco-Romanism. God is Jehovah to the Jews, Allah to the Muslims, the Great Spirit to the Native Americans. And these are different names for the same generic "Providence" they worshipped. Though, as theological unitarians, they didn't believe that Jesus was God, rather that he was a great moral teacher who may have been a man (Socinian) or some kind of divine being created by and subordinate to God (Arian).

This may not be sound theology, but it is what the key Founders believed. As Tom Van Dyke pointed out, their benevolent rational unitarian deity is closer to the Biblical conception of God than to the Muslim, Hindu, Native American, or the Gods that the Greeks and Romans worshipped. That makes sense given they were brought up in and lived in a Protestant context.

Their untarian deity may have been closer to the Biblical conception, but they still changed Him enough that He was arguably a different creature, notably unitarian, not Trinitarian, and more sober and rational, less wrathful and vengeant.

Plus, apt to the above story, I think their conception of God, helped:

1) Make religious freedom for non-Christian religious easier psychologically for them to deliver. While certainly one can be an orthodox Christian, believing just one way to God, and desire full civil religious rights for non-Christians, if all religions lead to the same God, since they are all "sound," they are easier to tolerate. After all, if we tolerate a religion that will lead people down the wrong path, how many souls could be lost forever? And this is exactly the logic that kept the sects persecuting one another from the very beginning of Christendom until the Founders and philosophers they followed shifted the paradigm. This is exactly, for instance, why Rutherford believed it was just for Servetus to be burned at the stake.

2) Lead America to being a haven for all sorts of non-Christian religions. "Jews Turks and Infidels" abound in America precisely because of what our key Founders personally believed about religion and the national public policy they originally set forth.


Tom Van Dyke said...

As you acknowledge, Parker has somewhat of a point when it comes to the sectarian origins of private institutions. One should not feel embarrassed about speaking about Christ in a chapel with a cross on it, nor feel an obligation to skip Him over.

I'd not be insulted if I heard about Allah or Vishnu in an appropriately dedicated chapel.

But the larger point, about generic benedictions in the public square, is at the heart of the matter, per Ben Franklin's American "civil religion." I would cringe on behalf of my Jewish friends if Parker started his intended prayer "O Lord Jesus Christ our God..."

If Parker felt the need, in a non-sectarian milieu, to testify for Jesus Christ as God, anyone in the audience who had a theological disagreement with that "Truth" would be well within his own needs to get up and disagree, or at least walk out.

We, as a society, don't need that noise. We've done everything we can to get around it.

Now we might discuss Mr. Franklin's "civil religion," that America has some established culturally Christian/monotheistic foundation, and that appealing to the gods or The Goddess---whoever she might be (or perhaps....SATAN??!!!), might likewise be an unnecessary provocation in the public square. But that would needlessly complicate things, eh?

What I would say is that God is our cultural baseline. If a Jewish friend is over, I say grace in some universalist fashion. Of course.

But it's "through Jesus Christ Our Lord, Amen" if an atheist pal is over. He'll roll his eyes at saying grace to begin with, so, in for a penny, in for a pound.

Jonathan said...

Personally, I'm not offended at explicitly sectarian professions said in my presence. But then again, very little offends me. If I am at someone's house who is a Christian and they want to pray in Jesus name, I'll hold hands and close my eyes.

I remember when I was young -- less than 10 -- going over to my friends house whose father was a minister. And they prayed before every meal. I was quite surprised by the experience given that our family had never done such thing. I thought it was nice that they thanked God for my presence at the table, and still wouldn't be offended at such sentiment. (And, in turn, around the same age, my father took us to see his first rated R movie -- Stripes.)

But such would irk me if it were a public school or any kind of public institution which purports to speak for everybody.

I have a lot of religious students and I try never to step on their toes when they comment in class. Though, I do sort of "act" a little like our Founders. I slightly criticize the more extreme versions of any religion. For instance, I've told them I don't believe in the literal tale of the Tower of Babel. I rail against the extreme stuff in Islam, and then stress that many if not most Muslims say this is not the authentic verison of their religion. But then I pretend like all religions are true, without recognizing that they each make incompatible claims against one another. For instance, I pretend like Gabriel might have revealed the Koran to Muhammad or Moroni might have revealed the book of Mormon to Joseph Smith, to make it seem as though I "respect" these different traditions.

Religious issues don't come up much in my classes. Though, there is a chapter on culture in the International Business Class I teach which deals with it in detail.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Your points are well-taken---when in Rome, etc. But Parker's planned "benediction" was more like a commercial. It would be like making my dinner guests listen to the Nicene Creed before I let 'em eat.

Starfire said...

It's kind of tricky, isn't it? Religionists generally feel their specific creeds are the right way to address God, yet we are in a diverse society, so how to speak publicly? The Biblical
God comes across as pretty different and much more specific than a 'philosophical God', but that's not to say they aren't ultimately the same thing, seen from different perspectives. Seeing the forest for the trees kind of thing. Still, making generalised statements may be hard for some people to feel comfortable with, as they feel they are being insincere by doing so. It's kind of a compromise- if people from various faiths are present it's much kinder to be ecumenical about it and it's better than not talking about God at all (leaving aside the views of atheists!)

For me, there really are good points in many religions and, more so, there may well be divine revelations in scriptures across the world; so it's not a problem. As for people who are too fundamentalist about it to accept that possibility... well, I just won't have them over for tea!