According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Deism (or, Natural Religion) of Some of America's Founding Fathers

Our “founding fathers” - Christians or what?

by Roger Olson
posted November 13, 2011

Recently I’ve been delving once again into deism, or what is more appropriately called natural religion. (Deism has come to have connotations of belief in a distant, uninvolved and even uncaring God. That wasn’t true of all who have been lumped together as deists. [The] real sine qua non of “deism” was a belief in natural religion, not a doctrine of God.) I’ve been re-reading Locke (a precursor), Toland and Tindal (among others). These men thought they were Christians. Well, there’s some doubt about what Tindal actually thought, but let’s say they all considered themselves Christians–probably “of a higher order” than those around them.

My mind began to wander and wonder about those who claim publicly that most, if not all, of our republic’s founding fathers were orthodox Christians, if not evangelical Christians. I’m not going to name any names here, but if you pay close attention to this controversy I think you can figure out some of the people I might be referring to.

There are writers and speakers, conservative evangelicals all (so far as I know), claiming that even Thomas Jefferson was a “real Christian.” I don’t see them or hear them talking about Benjamin Franklin much. Maybe they don’t consider him one of our founding fathers. Or maybe they would say he’s the exception that proves the rule. In any case, writings and video recordings by these people are being used in numerous home schooling situations. I have had students who came out of a home schooling situation who thought, on the basis of some of these books and videos, that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and all the others were good Christians by which they meant something similar to what we would today call evangelical.

What I wonder is whether these writers and speakers really believe the things they are saying and writing or whether they are intentionally misleading people.

My uncle, a retired denominational leader, called me to ask me about something he heard one of these writers (who is also a frequent speaker at churches and conferences and even political events) say on a Christian talk show on a Christian television network. According to my uncle, the man claimed that “Jefferson’s Bible” (The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth) was created by Jefferson to have a handy, abbreviated version of the four gospels to give to Native Americans to evangelize them for the gospel. He denied that Jefferson “cut up” the New Testament to cut out the supernatural or offensive sayings of Jesus–as “liberals” claim. My uncle genuinely wanted to know what I, as a church historian / historical theologian, thought about that.

It didn’t take much research to discover that Jefferson himself explained why he created the so-called “Jefferson Bible” (now published by the Unitarian publishing house Beacon Press) in letters to friends, especially John Adams. In a letter about The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth dated 1813 Jefferson compared the portions of the gospels he cut out and pasted into his book to diamonds separated from dung. He left no doubt that, while he admired Jesus, he did not agree with everything Jesus said or did. He ended his book with Jesus’ death and omitted the resurrection. Most, if not all, of the miracles were also left out.

I reported on Jefferson’s 1813 letter to Adams to my uncle who was shocked and dismayed. He said to me “I wonder what [he named the man he saw and heard on the Christian television program] would say about that?” I wonder, too.

There is no doubt that SOME of the founding fathers were orthodox Christians, but to claim that all or even most of them were is simply stretching the truth.

Some of these writers and speakers quote from various proclamations and prayers of founding fathers as if those actually expressed their own personal beliefs. Anyone who has paid careful attention to even more modern presidents and their religious rhetoric should know that presidents (and other government officials) sometimes sound more religious in public than they really are. And, yes, like Toland and Tindal, even the most secular of the founding fathers considered themselves Christian in some sense of the word. But just because they talked about God, the Bible and Jesus in glowing terms hardly justifies claiming them as ones “of us” (evangelical Christians).

My point here is not to get into the details of the religious lives of the founding fathers; that has been done in many volumes. The problem is that it is increasingly becoming apparent that some of the most popular ones are simply unreliable; they promote a revisionist history that appears to be blatantly dishonest.

Why can’t the founding fathers have been simply good men? Why do we have to claim they were orthodox, even spiritual Christians to hold them in high esteem? And why not just pick out the ones who really were orthodox Christians, such as apparently Patrick Henry was, and hold them up as “our heroes?”

Sloppy and/or revisionist history is not becoming of any Christian; it pays no real compliments to God or the founding fathers. In the end, when home school young people get to college (unless they go to one of two or three schools that specialize in promoting revisionist history about the founding fathers) they will be disillusioned and wonder whether anything they were taught was right. Better to be honest and real and let the chips fall where they may than pretend and then be exposed as a fake scholar who promoted blatant falsehoods. That only results in broken trust and sometimes lost faith among young people.

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Some Personal Observations

R.E. Slater
December 30, 2011

I have included the article below from the Smithsonian Magazine on Thomas Jefferson's strange form of Deism to show that we as followers of Christ are no less prone to subtracting from (or adding to) the Word of God in our daily lives as we pick-and-chose which of God's words to listen to and obey. A large part of this past year's blog has spent many hours showing the many ways that modern day Christianity delimits God's wondrous word spoken to both the Church and the world-at-large as we argue over doctrines of Universalism, Heaven and Hell's entrance requirements, various forms of biblicism and the resulting folklore interpretations that we prefer to adhere too, and so on and so on.

It is a curious fact that whenever God speaks to our hearts we immediately begin to decipher what we have heard from our competing philosophies of life experiences. And it is a wonder at all that God is able to communicate with us through the noise of our lives. We see this with Adam and Eve's re-interpretation of God's first words to them by inquiring "Has God said?..." With Abraham's debate with God whether to proceed from Ur of the Chaldees into the strange, wild lands of the West; his furthering questioning of God concerning his wife Sarah's married status to himself when approached by a intriqued King of her beauty; and later, with her barrenness as Abraham provides substitutions to God's plan by helping God along in the dispatch of His promises of becoming a father to all the nations [sic, of faith]. We again read of this in Moses' many experiences, such as when he strikes the Rock twice in his anger with God, and in the frustration of his leadership experiences with God's people, Israel. With King David's clear instruction to honor the Lord God in his life as ruler of Israel. And even with the OT prophets, both major and minor, and with the Apostles of Christ themselves in the NT.

Time-and-again we humans sing out in our willfulness whether to believe and obey God's word to us. When God speaks it seems to come each-and-every-time like a new thing to our disbelieving hearts to test us, try us and sort us out. Only praise can be given to our God whose loving persistence and faithful patience sifts and purifies us through our failures to rightly hear and obey His word spoken to our hearts and souls and spirits until the scales fall off our blinded eyes, and our deaf ears again hear heaven's music proclaim "I AM that I AM." It is with but humbleness and a stumbling spirit that we may seek the Divine and know His almighty and mysterious ways. Praise God for His faithfulness to those to whom He would re-birth, re-create, re-new, re-surrect and re-claim! Amen.

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How Thomas Jefferson Created His Own Bible

by Owen Edwards
January 2012

Thanks to an extensive restoration and conservation process, the public can now see how Jefferson cut and pasted his own version of the Scripture

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Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson believed that his version of the New Testament distilled "the most sublime
and benevolent code of morals which has never been offered to man."

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Thomas Jefferson, together with several of his fellow founding fathers, was influenced by the principles of deism, a construct that envisioned a supreme being as a sort of watchmaker who had created the world but no longer intervened directly in daily life. A product of the Age of Enlightenment, Jefferson was keenly interested in science and the perplexing theological questions it raised. Although the author of the Declaration of Independence was one of the great champions of religious freedom, his belief system was sufficiently out of the mainstream that opponents in the 1800 presidential election labeled him a “howling Atheist.”

Jefferson bible
Thomas Jefferson created his own gospel by taking a sharp instrument to existing copies
of the New Testament and pasting up his own account of Christ's philosophy.

In fact, Jefferson was devoted to the teachings of Jesus Christ. But he didn’t always agree with how they were interpreted by biblical sources, including the writers of the four Gospels, whom he considered to be untrustworthy correspondents. So Jefferson created his own gospel by taking a sharp instrument, perhaps a penknife, to existing copies of the New Testament and pasting up his own account of Christ’s philosophy, distinguishing it from what he called “the corruption of schismatizing followers.”

The second of the two biblical texts he produced is on display through May 28 at the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH) after a year of extensive repair and conservation. “Other aspects of his life and work have taken precedence,” says Harry Rubenstein, chair and curator of the NMAH political history division. “But once you know the story behind the book, it’s very Jeffersonian.”

Jefferson produced the 84-page volume in 1820—six years before he died at age 83—bound it in red leather and titled it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. He had pored over six copies of the New Testament, in Greek, Latin, French and King James English. “He had a classic education at [the College of] William & Mary,” Rubenstein says, “so he could compare the different translations. He cut out passages with some sort of very sharp blade and, using blank paper, glued down lines from each of the Gospels in four columns, Greek and Latin on one side of the pages, and French and English on the other.”

Much of the material Jefferson elected to not include related miraculous events, such as the feeding of the multitudes with only two fish and five loaves of barley bread; he eschewed anything that he perceived as “contrary to reason.” His idiosyncratic gospel concludes with Christ’s entombment but omits his resurrection. He kept Jesus’ own teachings, such as the Beatitude, “Blessed are the peace-makers: for they shall be called the children of God.” The Jefferson Bible, as it’s known, is “scripture by subtraction,” writes Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University.

The first time Jefferson undertook to create his own version of Scripture had been in 1804. His intention, he wrote, was “the result of a life of enquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system, imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions.” Correspondence indicates that he assembled 46 pages of New Testament passages in The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. That volume has been lost. It focused on Christ’s moral teachings, organized by topic. The 1820 volume contains not only the teachings, but also events from the life of Jesus.

The Smithsonian acquired the surviving custom bible in 1895, when the Institution’s chief librarian, Cyrus Adler, purchased it from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, Carolina Ran­dolph. Originally, Jefferson had bequeathed the book to his daughter Martha.

The acquisition revealed the existence of the Jefferson Bible to the public. In 1904, by act of Congress, his version of Scripture, regarded by many as a newly discovered national treasure, was printed. Until the 1950s, when the supply of 9,000 copies ran out, each newly elected senator received a facsimile Jefferson Bible on the day that legislator took the oath of office. (Disclosure: Smithsonian Books has recently published a new facsimile edition.)

The original book now on view has undergone a painstaking restoration led by Janice Stagnitto Ellis, senior paper conservator at the NMAH. “We re-sewed the binding,” she says, “in such a way that both the original cover and the original pages will be preserved indefinitely. In our work, we were Jefferson-level meticulous.”

“The conservation process,” says Harry Rubenstein, “has allowed us to exhibit the book just as it was when Jefferson last handled it. And since digital pictures were taken of each page, visitors to the exhibition—and visitors to the web version all over the world—will be able to page through and read Jefferson’s Bible just as he did.”

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions.

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