Friday, July 24, 2015

The God of Benevolence

One of the claims made, among elsewhere, in Dr. Gregg Frazer's book is that the God of the American Founding (what he terms "theistic rationalism," but could be termed differently) was more benevolent than the God of "the commonly received ideas of Christianity" in late 18th Century America.

Benevolence was one of the "lenses" through which America's key Founders viewed God. Indeed, Robert J. Wilson III's book entitled The Benevolent Deity: Ebenezer Gay and the Rise of Rational Religion in New England, 1696-1787 features the influential unitarian theologian Gay as one of the first leaders of this theological movement. (Gay doesn't get the press for Americanist theology that do like-minded slightly later theologians Revs. Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy, because he turned out to be a Tory.)

"Rationalism" was another lens through which Dr. Frazer claimed the key Founders viewed their Deity. Hence, America's God wasn't that of late 18th Century biblical Christianity, but something more humanistic and rationalistic (the idea is it's American "man's reason" that changed the Christian God's features).

That's quite a contentious claim, but one in which I believe has a degree of merit. There are some lesser included claims that are not so contentious. One is to stress the benevolent nature of the deity, part of the zeitgeist of the American Founding. This contrasts with the nature of the god of Calvinism, i.e., the god of Jonathan Edward's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

So for instance, Benjamin Rush was influenced by the lens of God's benevolence when he rejected Calvin's God and in turn Rush's conversion to Arminianism terminated with the belief in "the salvation of all men" where the unsaved experienced "future punishment ... of long duration." Yes, this "Christian-Universalism" accepted punishment for the unsaved. Indeed, even the "non-Christian" deists believed in the existence of a deity and the future state of rewards and punishments.

But Rush was no deist. He was an Arminian orthodox Trinitarian Christian who believed all men would eventually be saved through Christ's universal as opposed to limited atonement. In so doing Rush expressed faith that God's benevolent nature would ultimately prevail against other competing aspects of His persona. And he did so without converting to "theistic rationalism/unitarianism/Christian-Deism," whatever we term it.

And with that I mention the God of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was no rationalist. To the contrary he was a mystic, who posited trippy theological notions. But his God was benevolent. Indeed, what I've seen from Swedenborg's testimony, his God could win a benevolence contest among the various extant theological ideas in 18th Century Christendom.

[To remind readers of the relationship of Swedenborg to the American Founding see here and here.]

But like even the deists, unitarians, and universalists in 18th Century Christendom, Swedenborg didn't believe everyone automatically got the same Heaven at death (Swedenborg was way too smart to believe in something that simplistic).  He wrote a book called Heaven and Hell (not this Heaven and Hell, but I'd love to merge the two concepts) describing his nuanced understanding of such.

You often hear Arminians say things like "people choose to send themselves to Hell," but that begs the question of what the nature of Hell is really like. People choose to send themselves to eternal conscience torment worse than the holocaust or being confined to solitary in a prison for eternity?

The response is something like "no, people know what they are rejecting, and therefore the eternal conscience torment they get is their choice not god's." The Calvinists are stuck with the notion that god chooses to Elect and thus send folks to Hell for all eternity.

Rather Swedenborg's notion of Hell is more like C.S. Lewis' assertion that the doors of Hell are locked from the inside. Which again, begs the question, what could the nature of Heaven & Hell be like that would lead individuals to make such a choice? No one will choose to be burned, waterboarded, or in a state of maximum security prison-like solitary confinement for all eternity. See contemporary Mixed Martial Arts; people will "tap out." And a god who would send anyone much less than the majority of human souls there for all eternity could hardly be seen a "benevolent Deity." 

Swedenborg provides specific answers. People choose Hell because they get more pleasure from sinning than not. The God of Benevolence permits this eternal choice. People in Hell because of their willful choices actually flourish better there than they would in Heaven. Indeed they could only flourish in Hell not in Heaven. In Hell people can choose to love themselves but not others, and make a partnership with each other not unlike a partnership of thieves like in "The Sopranos."

Swedenborg teaches God is so benevolent that when souls choose to send themselves to Hell to compete and connive with one another and thus get "hurt," God's angels will come to Hell to comfort such hurt souls much like a loving humanistic authority figure (parents to little children, owners to pets) would seek to comfort wayward subordinates.

Thus, living a life or eternity of such chosen sin will not lead to the real happiness that those who choose otherwise experience. We can make this choice before we die. And indeed, after we die and get more information as to ultimate reality on the other side (the period of sorting things out). The unsaved will stay in hell for as long as they choose. Will they choose to stay there forever? We can't yet answer.

For the source of my understanding of Swedenborg's teachings see this.

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