[New lecture, May 31, 2011]          

Who gets it?  Naturally!

The Protestant Legacy

At the Diet of Worms, Luther based his stand on two important criteria of truth: scripture and evident reason.  Popes and councils can and do err, he maintained: and, in fact, Catholic tradition and practice had drifted so far away from the original gospel that much would have to be stripped away before true religion could emerge again.

But relying on scripture and reason to reform the church proved a more complicated affair than Luther supposed, and, unsurprisingly, Protestant reformers—all aiming of course to create a “New Testament” church, ended up at quite different places with Lutherans, Anabaptists, and Calvinists all arriving at very different conclusions on doctrine and practice.

Likewise, it’s unlikely that Luther anticipated the ugly and bloody conflicts among “Christians” that rose up in the 16th and 17th centuries, conflicts that tended to discredit the gospel itself: how could those who called themselves Christians do such horrible things one to another?

And Luther certainly did not anticipate the way in which the mind-set he advocates would create an intellectual undercurrent that, while it could in fact lead to a Christianity closer to what Christ and the Apostles intended, might undermine not only Christian faith, but faith in reason itself. 

The broad way: Locke and the latitudinarianism

For a time, England avoided the bloody religious conflicts of the Reformation.  The Anglican Church created by Henry the VIII was potentially unstable.  Since the king was the head of the church, this meant that every time the ruler changed, the church changed as well.  Under Henry’s son Edward, England swung in a Protestant direction and Catholics were persecuted.  When Henry’s daughter Mary took over after her brother’s short reign, Protestants were persecuted.  But when Mary was replaced by her sister Elizabeth, religious tensions died down for a bit.  Elizabeth adopted a policy of what eventually came to be called latitudinarianism: accepting within the Church of England a wide range of acceptable beliefs, and then refusing to tolerate the extremists on either the Catholic or Protestant side. 

The latitudinarian policy of Elizabeth worked well for a time, but it began to break down during the reign of Elizabeth’s successor (James I) and broke down completely under James son Charles I.  In 1642, a religious civil war broke out in England.  Charles lost his throne and his life, and, for a time, a group called the Puritans took control, a Calvinist sect that had as its goal stripping away everything associated with Catholic tradition—including things like Christmas!

After the Restoration of the Stuart monarchs (1660), religious tension remained high in England, but, eventually, the latitudinarian model won out, and, partly as a result, England managed to avoid some of the bloody struggles of continental Europe. The term latitudinarianism itself was initially a derogatory term, used to dismiss a group of 17th century scholars called the “Cambridge Platonists." Here’s a good Encyclopedia Britannica summary:

They denied that ritual, church government, or detailed dogmas are essentials of Christianity. To be a Christian is to participate in divine wisdom and to be free to choose whatever forms of religious organization prove helpful. The width of their tolerance won them the nickname “latitude men”; and they were often condemned as Unitarians or atheists because they stressed morality so far above dogma.  

Now the description here would apply to John Locke who was certainly influenced by the Cambridge Platonists.  However, Locke was not a Platonist but an empiricist.  What difference that makes, I’ll get to later.  For now, it’s sufficient to understand that the religious policy Locke advocated, a latitudinarian policy of religious tolerance, won out both in England, and, even more in America when, a century later, our nation was created. 

Toward a an entirely reasonable relgion: the rise of Unitarianism and  Deism

The idea that latitudinarianism could easily undercut Christian orthodoxy was well founded, and it’s amazing how quickly Locke’s advocacy of a “mere” Christianity led to a religion of “mere” reason.  Locke had argued that Christianity contained some truths that were in accord with reason, some that were above reason, but nothing at all that was contrary to reason.  But what about the “above reason” ideas?  Why don’t we reject those too, accepting from Christian tradition only what is in accord with reason?

In 1692, John Toland, building on the ideas of Locke, published a book called Christianity Not Mysterious: not an explicit rejection of Christian teaching, but enough of a challenge that the book was actually burned in public by a hangman!  

Particularly a problem for those who were trying to find a “reasonable” Christianity was the doctrine of trinity: and the critics of latitudinarianism turned out to be right to an extent.  The champions of reasonable religion ended up, once again, challenging the Nicene formulation on the nature of the godhead.  Ironically, the initial Unitarians tended to combine their search for a reasonable religion with extreme Biblicism, rejecting Trinitarian thinking, not solely because it was unreasonable, but because it was extra-Biblical. But the Unitarian movement’s rejection of extra-Biblical dogma led to a rejection of all dogma, and the typical Unitarian today believes—well, just about anything they want.

But, for the most part, the 18th century quest for a reasonable religion seldom went to so far as to deny all of Christian tradition.  More common: the adoption of a religious philosophy that we call Deism.

Deism kept certain elements of traditional Christianity that seemed reasonable.  Belief in God seemed reasonable: supported by things like the "first cause" argument and the "argument from design."  Christian morality seemed reasonable as well: do unto others as you would have them do unto you makes logical sense.

But the Deists didn't like aspects of Christianity they considered superstitious.  They didn't believe in Satan or demons.  They didn't believe in miracles (which, by definition, are above reason).  They didn't like priests or religious rituals.

Thomas Jefferson is an excellent example of the Deist philosophy.  Jefferson came up with his own version of the New Testament in which he kept the things that he liked and eliminated the things he didn't.  Things like the parables and the Sermon on the Mount were things Jefferson loved.  But the virgin birth, the miracles of healing, the resurrection--all those things had to go.

But is belief in these things really so contrary to reason?  And are there not things that John Locke (not to mention Thomas Aquinas) considered “above reason” that reason itself might suggest we should believe?  One who argued along these lines was the English bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752).

The unreasonableness of Deism: Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion

The selections from Butler’s The Analogy of Religion in the Bush anthology (Classic Readings in Christian Apologetics) suggest some solid reasons for not taking the Deist approach and automatically rejecting “above reason” evidence, especially the evidence of miracles.

Both the Old Testament and the New Testament contain accounts of miraculous events.  Should we simply assume that no such events could take place?  On the contrary, says Butler, the burden of proof is on the other side.  If reliable witnesses report miracles, we should accept their accounts unless there is good reason to the contrary.

The fact that the apostles and other early were ready to sacrifice their lives is evidence that they truly believed the miraculous nature of the events surrounding Christ and in their own lives.  True, fanatical individuals will sacrifice their lives for all sorts of crazy ideas. But is that the kind of men we are dealing with here?  Reading the New Testament epistles shows men of a very different sort: sober, thoughtful, logical men—not irrational zealots.  One might have reason for doubting the testimony of (say) an alcoholic hobo if they claimed they saw a miracle.  But if a respected school principal made the same claim, one would have to take it a bit more seriously.  And if the equivalent of an entire college faculty made similar claims, one would almost have to be convinced.

 On the subject of fulfilled prophecy, too, Butler makes an exceptionally important argument against Deist disbelief.  The Deists had objected that the alleged fulfillment of prophecy was a trick similar to that used by the old Greek/Roman oracles.  The oracles never gave straight answers, using obscure symbolism that could be interpreted many ways.  Croesus asks the Delphic oracle if he should attack Cyrus.  He is told that, if he does, he will destroy a great nation.  Delighted with the answer, he attacks—and soon finds himself a captive of the Persians.  What had gone wrong?  Well, the oracle explains it hadn’t lied.  He had destroyed a great nation by attacking—his own!

Butler admits the obscurity of some of the Old Testament prophecies.  He also admits that some of the alleged prophecies of the coming of Messiah had had earlier fulfillments, and were originally talking about something quite different.  Isaiah’s comments about a virgin conceiving may well originally have been meant to apply to something else.

But, says Butler, the very nature of the prophetic voice is that it is *not* directed only toward immediate circumstances.  Prophecy may have partial fulfillment at one time, and a greater fulfillment at a later time.  Just because the “abomination of desolation” spoken of by Daniel can be applied to Antiochus Epiphanes’ desolation of the temple does not mean it can’t also be fairly applied to the later Roman destruction of the temple.

Further, the accumulation of Old Testament prophecies over the centuries created certain expectations beyond the original intent of any one prophet, and the fulfillment of the whole package of expectations is actually greater evidence that a specific forecast/prediction of any single event might be.

And, speaking of the centuries, Butler advances also another argument for Christianity, an argument from moral history.  The Bible, says Butler, gives us a moral history of mankind, a history that begins with unfallen man, describes the fall and its effects, and includes a long series of ups and downs in a kind of redemption history.  Is it really possible to deny the fallen state of mankind?  Is it really possible to deny that the promise to Abraham that in his seed “all the world should be blessed,” is largely fulfilled through Christ and the church, e.g., that the spread of Christianity marked a long-predicted moral reform?

Further, says Butler, it is here that the real issue lies.  Those who argue against Christianity are not doing so mainly for legitimate intellectual reasons.  The real battle is a moral one, an unwillingness to live by Christian standards:

If this [Butler’s previous arguments] be a just account of things, and yet men can go on to vilify or disregard Christianity, which is to talk and act as if they had a demonstration of its falsehood; there is no reason to think they would alter their behavior to any purpose though there were a demonstration of its truth.

Men love darkness, says the Apostle John, because their deeds are evil.  But is there really so much “light” available that those who disbelieve have no excuse?  The Apostle Paul said that there was, appealing to natural theology, the idea that certain truths about God should be evident from creation itself.  William Paley (1743-1805) builds on this argument in both of your Burns anthology selections, Natural Theology and A View of the Evidences.

No sleeping on his watch: William Paley

The Burns anthology introduces Paley with an amusing anecdote about his college days.  Paley shows up late for classes when he bothers to show up at all, sleeps until noon, and, by and large is nothing but a slacker.  One day, a friend woke him at 5:00 a.m., and called him a fool to be so wasting his opportunities, saying he didn’t want to associate anymore with such a lazybones.  Paley, stung by the rebuke, does a complete turnaround, apparently becoming an outstanding student, professor, and textbook writer.

Paley is most famous for his elaboration of the argument from design, an argument says that the order we see in the world around us is sufficient evidence of a divine creator whether we have any other evidence or not.  Paley’s defense of the argument from design is his famous “watchmaker” argument—an argument that is probably familiar to you. Stumble across a watch with all its intricate workings and you’ve got clear evidence for an intelligent watchmaker, even if you never meet the watchmaker yourself.

Now before I read the selection in your Burns anthology, I had seen the watchmaker argument many times referred to, but never read it for myself.  And, as it turns out, the argument involves a lot more than just an analogy in support of the argument from design.  For one thing, Paley uses his analogy to show that imperfections in the running of the watch wouldn’t weaken at all the watch’s evidential value in pointing to the existence of a watchmaker.  Also important, Paley is defending the ability of the common man to understand things his “betters” tell him are beyond his grasp.

Neither, lastly, would our observer be driven out of his conclusion, or from his confidence in its truth, by being told that he knew nothing at all about the matter. He knows enough for his argument: he knows the utility of the end: he knows the subserviency and adaptation of the means to the end. These points being known, his ignorance of other points, his doubts concerning other points, affect not the certainty of his reasoning. The consciousness of knowing little, need not beget a distrust of that which he does know.  

Generally missing also in the cartoon version accounts of Paley’s argument is the way he connects the argument from design to the first cause argument.  Suppose one somehow was persuaded that the watch one found was not directly produced by a watchmaker, but came from other watches.  Ultimately, there has to be a beginning of the chain: a watchmaker to get the whole series moving in the first place.

Also missing from the cartoon version accounts is Paley’s example of the eye as an example of the “found watch.”  He comments at length about the way the eye uses principles similar to that of a telescope, but in a much more complex way.

Now could all this be the product of chance as the atheists of Paley’s time insisted?  Paley argues at length that it could not be.

What’s interesting is how many times Paley advances precisely the arguments that, fifty years later, Darwin will use to undercut the argument from design—and then rejects them utterly!  It seems to me likely that Darwin, in a way, owes a great debt to Paley.  Paley advances possible arguments for the natural world as a product of chance, and then concludes that they aren’t valid. Darwin makes those same arguments—and tries to show that they are!

Here is another answer which has the same effect as the resolving of things into chance; which answer would persuade us to believe, that the eye, the animal to which it belongs, every other animal, every plant, indeed every organized body which we see, are only so many out of the possible varieties and combinations of being, which the lapse of infinite ages has brought into existence; that the present world is the relict of that variety:  millions of other bodily forms and other species having perished, being by the defect of their constitution incapable of preservation, or of continuance by generation.  

But, moreover, the division of organized substances into animals and vegetables, and the distribution and sub-distribution of each into genera and species, which distribution is not an arbitrary act of the mind, but founded in the order which prevails in external nature, appear to me to contradict the supposition of the present world being the remains of an indefinite variety of existences; of a variety which rejects all plan.  The hypothesis teaches, that every possible variety of being hath, at one time or other, found its way into existence (by what cause or in what manner is not said), and that those which were badly formed, perished; but how or why those which survived should be cast, as we see that plants and animals are cast, into regular classes, the hypothesis does not explain; or rather the hypothesis is inconsistent with this phænomenon.

Now one might think Paley a dead-end in the Great Conversation, a man whose ideas have been thoroughly refuted by Darwinism.  I am not so sure.  It’s interesting to me that, before Darwin is even born, Paley poses so many questions not so easy for a Darwinist to answer. For one thing, Paley notes that chance rarely produces anything good as far as biology is concerned.  Chance may give is a wart or a mole or cancer: never anything nice or useful. Also, Paley notes that the orderly division into species doesn’t mesh well with chance development.  We shouldn’t see the clear breaks we do see, but all sorts of intermediate developments.

We may modify any one species many different ways, all consistent with life, and with the actions necessary to preservation, although affording different degrees of conveniency and enjoyment to the animal.  And if we carry these modifications through the different species which are known to subsist, their number would be incalculable.  No reason can be given why, if these deperdits [lost or destroyed beings] ever existed, they have now disappeared.  Yet, if all possible existences have been tried, they must have formed part of the catalogue.

Modern paleontologists have spared no effort to come up with the “catalogue” Paley calls for, but the fossil record doesn’t yet fully answer Paley’s objection.

Reason and faith reconciled—for the time being

By the end of the 18th century, the two sources of the “will to truth” we have been looking at, reason and the prophetic voice, had been reconciled once again—at least in England and the newly-born United States.  For the next century, a synthesis of scriptural truth and reason dominated intellectual life in England and America.  Butler’s Analogy of Religion continued to be a standard theology text and Oxford and Cambridge, and Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, and Dartmouth—all originally created to train Christian ministers—continued to be dominated by those who accepted both the authority of scripture and the value of a reason-based “question everything approach.”   John Wesley, the 18th century founder of the Methodist movement emphasized what has been called the Wesleyan quadrilateral (scripture, reason, faith, tradition)—an excellent example of the scripture/faith balance that typified 18th and 19th century Britain and America—and shows exactly how healthy a society such a balance can produce.

Reason unchained: France and the Philosophes

France certainly might have reached the same comfortable balance of reason and faith as England and the United States.  Montesquieu, one of the greatest French writers of the 18th century argued persuasively for ideas very much like those of Locke, calling for a separation of powers and religious tolerance.

But among too many French intellectuals, the Deistic tendency to emphasize “reasonable” religion wasn’t coupled with any true spirit of tolerance.  There was among them, not simply a reluctance to take part in religious rituals themselves, but desire to see the whole of the ecclesiastical structure of the church destroyed.

Now there were reasons for this.  The French church was filled with corruption. It was incredibly rich, in control of vast estates and the income of those estates.  That should have been good, since much of what we today associate with government was then the responsibility of the church.  Education, medical care, and relief for the poor were primarily church responsibilities.  But the vast wealth of the church wasn't devoted to this kind of thing.  Instead, high church officials (bishops, abbots, etc.) pocketed much of the money and lived like the nobles--which, in fact, many of them were.  This left the actual work of the church in the hands of poorly paid parish clergy who did their best, but seldom had the resources they needed.

But hostility toward corrupt clergy led the “enlightened” thinkers of France to an anti-rational extreme.  Thinkers like Voltaire, who owed his fine education to the church, was totally ungrateful: there will be no peace in the world until the last nobleman is hung by the robes of the last clergyman.  Thus a man who textbooks often call a champion of “tolerance” helped lay the foundations for a real intolerance to organized religion.

Another of the “enlightened” thinkers attacking traditional faith was Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Like Voltaire, Rousseau also is a champion of a “tolerance” that doesn’t extend very far.  In his Social Contract, he calls for a new kind of society that will replace traditional Christianity with something different, something far more “tolerant.”  In fact, tolerance is one of the key doctrine of the new Civil Religion:

As for the negative dogmas, I would limit them to a single one: no intolerance.  Intolerance is something which belongs to those religions we have rejected.... Now that there no longer is not, and can no longer be, an exclusive national religion, all religions which themselves tolerate others must be tolerated, provided only that their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of the citizen.  But anyone who dares to say "outside the church there is no salvation" should be expelled from the state (Social Contract IV:8).

Note the limitations on religion.  First, it is not allowed to have anything in its doctrine "contrary to the duties of the citizen," i.e., that the government doesn't like.  Second, if it claims to be the way to salvation...out it goes: it's intolerant.  So, of course, in the name of tolerance, we don't tolerate anyone who really takes their religion seriously.

[This is part of what some call the paradox of tolerance, reflected well in Tom Lehrer's line, "There are people in this world who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that."]

Now perhaps one would think such speculations totally harmless.  Not so!  In 1789, a revolution broke out in France, and by 1793, the radicals had taken control.  Maximilian Robespierre led a movement that executed the king and turned France into a republic.  The dream was to create the kind of society dreamed of by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  And to get that society, many of the Revolutionaries thought it necessary to “dechristianize” France.  They began attacking everything associated with the church. They dressed donkey's put in bishops' robes,  forced priests and nuns to go through mock marriage ceremonies, and burned hymnals, Bibles and prayer books. They took over churches and called them "temples of reason," establishing what's called The Cult of the Supreme Being.  This religion affirmed belief in a supreme being, but, it many ways, its practices amounted to nature worship--or even a return to the old paganism.  In place of veneration of the saints, the services now focused on venerating the rose, hops, sorghum, etc.  The bread and wine of communion were now said to represent the flesh and blood of kings, so that even the "sacraments" supported republican ideas.

Not surprisingly, many didn't like these changes, particularly in the Bordeaux and Lyon regions of France.  In these regions, some were loyal to the Bourbon monarchs.  Others liked the constitution of National Assembly.  Most were loyal to the Catholic Church.  As a result, they resisted the Convention's changes, and this led to civil war in France.  This civil war, as most civil wars, was filled with atrocities.  It was particularly horrible because the Convention forces believed they were fighting to create a Republic of Virtue, that they had that chance that comes along once in a thousand years to create a good government, and that they were justified in doing anything necessary to create that government.

In some regions of France, they wiped out as much as 1/3 the population.  At least 200,000 Frenchmen were killed in these civil wars.  Treatment of non-combatants was horrible.  Children were routinely killed, women were raped and killed.  The victims’ bodies were frequently mutilated in horrible ways.  This was a deliberate use of terror.  The Convention forces performed "Republican marriages," they loaded barges with people and sunk them.  Women, children, and old people were forced to kneel by pits, shot, and shoved into the pits.

[The behavior of the Convention forces was not as bad as I make it sound in class.  No, it was far, far worse.  If you have a strong stomach, you might take a look at this description of Convention atrocities.]

Horrible as the events of the French Revolution were, this was only a foretaste of what was to come.  The French Revolution was only the first attempt at the wholesale and deliberate dechristianization of a nation.  Christian apologists would soon have to help take on a new challenge: attempts to exterminate the faith even more determined than those of Decius, Diocletian, and Galerius 1600 years earlier.