Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Great Unwashed Shall NOT Outwit You, Part I

Last week I received one of those super-patriotic mass e-mails urging the gullible to write “In God We Trust” on envelopes because the US Postal Service refuses to use the national motto on stamps or postmarks. I replied to “all recipients” that I thought they should instead write a sentence from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.

Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son….There is trust in God, but no following of Christ. (Cost, 64)

Responses from two of the recipients to me were as enlightening as they were hostile.

FIRST: Aethiests [sic] are trying to take over this country and the only reason “In God We Trust” needs to be written on the back of envelopes and everywhere else it can be written.

My response to him was, “So trusting god is a political, not a spiritual activity?”

SECOND: As for me forwarding this, any one I email to would think I was over the wall.

My response to her was, “You all are dedicated to the civil religion of the United States that makes no spiritual demands on anyone but simply makes people feel good because they are a part of society, not because they have any real understanding of the Christian faith.”

This e-mail nonsense comes, of course, from the assumption that "in God We Trust" expresses something fundamental about the United States (namely that we are a "Christian" nation). And that mis-assumption starts, usually, with the Declaration of Independence. It is a commonplace in most legitimate scholarship that the D of I does not establish "christianity." However, I have never seen any writing that takes this commonplace idea a step farther: the so-called “religious” language of the D of I is, in fact, inconsistent with the teachings of the New Testament (one might say the language is antithetical to the Hebrew scriptures, with their emphasis on absolute monarchy and rape and pillage and slavery and God’s “choosing” one people over all the rest—none of that has much to do with “equality” or “nature”). I am sure this inconsistency is an idea someone has written about, but I cannot find those writings (I would be happy to be enlightened).

Here’s a beginning discussion of what I mean. It is long and complicated and not scholarly—and, in the end, probably doesn’t make much sense. But it’s a first attempt, so bear with me.

The first (and perhaps most often quoted) “religious” language in the Declaration of Independence is the phrase “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Using Strong’s Concordance of the King James Bible (the KJV was the one the colonists knew, of course), one finds that the word nature occurs twelve times. The word Nature’s does not occur; hence the phrase Nature’s God does not occur. For Biblical literalists, this should raise an alarm (it does not, however, seem to phase the "inerrancy" crowd). Nature’s God is not a Christian (at least not a Biblical) term.

Jefferson meant something other than any “Christian” concept of either “nature” or “God.” As Frank Lambert explains:

Jefferson professed to be a Christian, but, according to most Protestant confessions of faith, he was not. Indeed, as John Murrin has noted, Jefferson and many of the other prominent Founding Fathers were what some today call secular humanists. The modem definition of that term includes three components: 1) elevation of human reason above divine revelation, 2) human solutions to human problems, and 3) ethical relativism.
[J. M. Murrin, “Religion and Politics in America from the First Settlements to the Civil War,” in Religion and American Politics , ed. M. A. Noll. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990:19-45]

Clearly, Jefferson qualified on all three counts, but especially on the first. Jefferson did indeed give precedence to reason over revelation in determining truth. In his oft-quoted advice to Peter Carr, he urged his nephew to “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, he must approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” [Works of Jefferson 5:324] Jefferson believed that nothing, including biblical teachings and clerical pronouncements, should be accepted as authoritative without being subjected to reason and the laws of nature. He insisted that the Bible be read as one would read any other book. And when scriptural passages “contradict the laws of nature,” they should be treated as similar claims would be if encountered in “Livy or Tacitus.”
[Frank Lambert. “God - and a religious president ... (or) Jefferson and no god”: campaigning for a voter-imposed religious test in 1800.” Journal of Church and State 39:4, 1997. 769-789]

That Jefferson and company meant something they all understood when they used the term Nature’s God is obvious. That their meaning has little to do with any Christian concept either of nature or of God (or with many 20th-century Americans' ideas of what he meant) is also obvious from Jefferson’s own writings.

[For further discussion—without any real answer to the question it poses—see David J. Voelker’s, “Who Is Nature’s God?” The Hanover Historical Review, 1:1, 1993.]

I, however, think that for Christians wondering what Jefferson meant is begging the question. The question for Christians is what is the place of nature in the New Testament. Following are the twelve uses of the word in the KJV (there are none in the Old Testament—nature seems to be a foreign concept in the Hebrew scriptures):

Romans: 2.14 – When Gentiles obey the law by nature, they are a law unto themselves
2.27 – Uncircumcision is by nature
11.24 – the olive tree is wild by nature (used twice in this verse)
12.26 – change the natural use for that which against nature
I Corinthians 11.14 – nature teaches that a man with long hair is shamed
Galatians: 2.15 – we who are Jews by nature
4.8 – them which by nature are no gods
Ephesians 2.3 – were by nature the children of wrath
Hebrews 2.16 – took not on him the nature of angels
James 3.6 – the tongue…setteth on fire the course of nature
2 Peter 1.4 – partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption…through lust

I am neither a theologian nor a Biblical scholar (nor even much of a linguist). However, it appears to me that the KJV does not in any way develop a theory of nature as a theological concept. In Romans, Paul is explaining the differences among being children of the “promise,” children of the “law,” and of children “grace.” None of his talk about nature in that book has anything to do with Nature’s God. That his use (at least as translated in the KJV) is foreign to us is demonstrated by I Corinthians, where he says a man with long hair is against nature (on the face of it, a man with long hair might be said to be in accord with nature; Mother Nature does not cut our hair for us or provide us with natural means to cut it). The other uses of the word in the Epistles have to do 1) with the nature of being Jewish or of being outside the promise, and thus “children of wrath,” 2) with Christ not taking on the nature of angels,” 3) with the fact that the “tongue” sets nature on fire, or 4) with the assertion that, once we are “partakers of divine nature” we have escaped lust. Whatever the Law of Nature and of Nature’s God, means, it surely does not have to do with any of those passages.

In the 18th Century, a New England Baptist preacher explained Nature this way:

The law of nature (or those rules of behavior which the Nature God has given men . . . fit and necessary to the welfare of mankind) is the law and will of the God of nature, which all men are obliged to obey. . . . The law of nature, which is the Constitution of the God of nature, is universally obliging. It varies not with men's humors or interests, but is immutable as the relations of things."

[Abraham Williams, Election Sermon, Boston 1762. A Sermon Preach'd at Boston Before the Great and General Court or Assembly of the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New-England, May 26, 1762. Printed by S. Kneeland, by Order of the Honourable House of Representatives.]

If that was, indeed, the common 18th-century understanding of the Laws of Nature, then one might well ask what that understanding has to do with the Biblical ideas of the “law” in the Hebrew scriptures or of “salvation by grace through faith” in the Christian scriptures. If “all men are obliged to obey” the same will of the (non-Biblical) God of Nature, then surely all people can simply know the will of God (and do it) and neither the Jewish nor Christian faiths are in any way necessary.

I think that’s what Jefferson believed. He wrote to John Manners in 1817:

The evidence of natural right, like that of our right to life, liberty, the use of our faculties, the pursuit of happiness, is not left to the feeble and sophistical investigations of reason, but is impressed on the sense of every man. We do not claim these under the charters of kings or legislators, but under the King of Kings. [Jefferson’s Writings 15:124]

In other words, the law of nature is “impressed on the sense” of all of us (Jefferson uses the Biblical-sounding "King of Kings" not for Jesus but for the God of Nature), and neither the revelation of Biblical faith, nor reason, the handmaid of the Enlightenment, is necessary to understand it—or follow it. I don’t know about your Christian faith, but that’s not what mine is all about. One can say that the United States is founded on Christianity only by avoiding or misrepresenting what Jefferson meant (and his colleagues in Philadelphia understood well enough to ratify) in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. He deliberately used non-Christian language.

And so back to Bonhoeffer and the U.S. Postal Service:

“There is trust in [Nature’s] God, but no following of Christ." (Bonhoeffer, Cost, page 64)