Monday, May 21, 2007

Summer Reading:

Google has digitized Joseph Priestly's A History of the Corruptions of Christianity. This book gives explicit detailed insight into the unitarian theology of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin who explicitly credited Priestly as their spiritual mentor. These men also used the term "corruptions of Christianity" to explain what it was about modern Christianity with which they disagreed. In short, those corruptions as defined by Priestly were the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and plenary inspiration of scripture. In long, read the book.


Tom Van Dyke said...

From Priestley's Letter to the Jews:

"From your nation God has made choice of his prophets, by whom he has revealed his will, not to yourselves only, but to all his offspring of mankind. By Jesus Christ and his apostles, who were all Jews, he has taught his will to the whole world, calling upon all men everywhere to repent (Acts. 17:30), not that they may share in your peculiar privileges and honors here, but that they may obtain immortal happiness, together with all the virtuous of your nation, hereafter."

These Christians never give up, do they? Even when they become Unitarians...

(Full text here:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah, Jon, Priestley is a most promising line of inquiry.

If we posit that Jefferson accepted Priestley, what we're left with is
not secular rationalism. That describes Aristotle just fine, who saw God as creator, a First Cause, but an indifferent one. (And Aristotle was, by most accounts, rational.)

No, what we're left with, as described here, is Christian Deism.

One may focus on the theological differences with orthodox Christianity, but we see Jesus as unique in history (ibid.), not just one of many:

According to the Unitarian-Universalist Christian Fellowship, "Unitarian Christians do share some common beliefs. Most believe in a personal God and a personal savior in his Son the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Most Unitarian Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God and not God Himself (second part of the Trinity). Jesus never referred to himself as God in the Bible, only as the Son. Unitarians believe that this reference means that Christ is not the same as God, but is of God and in God. Unitarian Christians believe that God became "incarnate" in Jesus as the Christ, That God joined with mankind in Jesus Christ (incarnation). Most Unitarian Christians think that belief in Jesus Christ begins the process to salvation and transcendence toward God. Most Unitarian Christians believe in Christ's resurrection, but believe that it is still a mystery, not yet fully understood or explained by science or logic, only in belief (phenomenology). Unitarian Christians cannot explain it, but many of us continue to base our lives and beliefs upon it as do other Orthodox Christians."

Close enough for rock'n'roll. You got yer perfect Jesus, yer Savior (more on that later, I bet), God revealing Himself to man (not in that roundabout Aristotelian way), yer salvation in "I Am the way and the truth and the life," and Priestley out there carrying out the Great Commission to spread the Good News (see his outreach to the Jews). Evangelical even, you might say.

Recognizably Christian. Before this, I thought of the prevailing winds among the key Founders as Kumbaya writ large, but Priestley's differences with the orthodox Christianity of his day appear to be merely doctrinal, which is to say sectarian.

Which is why it's doctrinal/sectarian that "church" means as in "separation of church and state." Adam Smith has a lovely riff against the legal monopoly of doctrine (and thereby the C of E, I reckon). He thought that faced with competition, churches would work harder to derive the Truth rather than bend it to their own self-perpetuating ends. Clever fellow, that Smith.

But the separation of religion itself from our polity? Preposterous. Metaphysics, religion, whatever. Back in the day, no self-respecting philosophy would be permitted to go its merry way with addressing the possibility of the transcendent.

For instance, Aristotle and Plato differ on several essential things, but no one would deny they're in the same ballpark. I did download the Priestley book you linked to, and leafed through it---it's a highly theological work, and far more complex than Jefferson and Adams' letters. A pity the folks of their day were relatively unacquainted with my pal Aquinas. Priestley might not have come around to his Trinitarianism, but he and Thomas would have recognized they were in the same ballpark.

Jefferson and Adams would have sat in the audience. In the back, catching every third word or so...