Sunday, December 25, 2016

Bruce Frohnen on Walter Berns on America's Political Theology

This article from 2006 is actually about much more. But I focus on what I put in the title. Walter Berns, a Straussian, is one of the folks who turned me on to studying America's political theology in detail. Many of the key passages in Berns' book Making Patriots are discussed here.

Before I get into Frohnen's discussion, I will report what I see as the weakest part of Berns' thesis. As I quoted in this article I wrote for Liberty Magazine (that was published a number of years after I submitted it to them), Berns posits "Nature's God" was non-interventionist. Reading the works, indeed the personal letters where they were free to speak their mind, of the three heterodox thinkers responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence -- Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams -- we see each believed in an active personal God.

On the other hand, a more challenging thesis is how compatible the rights grating God of Nature is with the God of Christianity or Judaism, etc. As Berns wrote:
We were the first nation to declare its independence by appealing not to the past but to the newly discovered “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and this had (and has) consequences for patriotism. Whereas the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob imposed duties on all men (see Exodus 20:1-17), “Nature’s God” endowed all men with rights; and, whereas the God of the New Testament commanded all men to love God and their neighbors as themselves (see Matthew 22:37-40), Nature’s God created a state of nature in which everyone was expected to take care of himself and, as “America’s philosopher” said (see John Locke, Treatises II, sec. 6), take care of others only “when his own preservation comes not in competition.” And so long as he remains in the state of nature, he has the right to do what he is naturally inclined to do, and what he is naturally inclined to do is not to take care of others. To say the least, he is not naturally inclined to be a patriotic citizen.15
Indeed, again quoting Berns, "where does the Bible speak of unalienable or natural rights, or of the liberty to worship or not to worship as one pleases?"*

The notion of natural rights was discovered in "nature" through "reason," not from the texts on the Bible. And Christendom had a fairly long tradition of incorporating essences founded in nature through reason, as Aquinas incorporated Aristotle. Still, Berns' thesis is that what was now being incorporated through "reason" was not "traditional" or "old" (as Aristotle was), but rather something "new." 

Frohnen, moderately critical or Berns' thesis, agrees somewhat:
Even when Aquinas (following Augustine) stated that an unjust law seems like no law at all, he did not then recommend revolt in all instances, instead advising submission where too much unrest would flow from opposition. The fragility of social order, and the dangers of disorder, demand caution in seeking reformed institutions or policies.
*The purpose of this post is simply to highlight some of the key issues. For an extensive analysis, you will have to read Frohnen's entire article. However, I will put one of Frohnen's footnotes under the microscope and quibble with it. It's footnote 18 and it relates to Berns' assertion quoted above on the right not to worship:
I would note, here, Berns’s insertion of the “right” “not to worship as one pleases,” which is found nowhere in the Declaration or elsewhere in our tradition. 
It's true the Declaration never explicitly invokes "liberty of conscience." But it does explicitly invoke an unalienable right to "liberty." As Berns notes in the book, of all the rights that "liberty" might encompass, conscience, as it was understood,  was without question (that is, not subject to argument) the most "unalienable." So yes, "liberty of conscience" is part of the Declaration's teachings.

And Jefferson, in a public writing (indeed, one that got him in trouble with the then forces of religious correctness), "Notes on the State of Virginia," describing the radical unalienability of conscience stated:
But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
This is what Berns refers to when he noted natural rights doctrine necessarily teaches a right not to worship as one pleases. 

Merry Unitarian Christmas

A tradition continues. See here.

Merry Christmas from the Moon

Remembering the important things, as these men did, seems longer ago and even farther away with each passing year, and to some, even more silly. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all those here gathered: May we smile today, give thanks, and be inspired in the coming year to perpetuate their silliness...

It was on Christmas Eve 1968 that the astronauts of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, became the first of mankind to see an earthrise from the orbit of the moon, and looking back on us, they spoke these words:

Anders: "We are now approaching lunar sunrise. And, for all the people back on earth, the crew of Apollo 8 have a message that we would like to send to you...

"In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness."

Lovell: "And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day."

Borman: "And God said, Let the waters under the Heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas: and God saw that it was good."

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth."

It is good. God bless us, every one.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

BBC/Ambrosino on how contact with aliens might affect theology

From Brandon Ambrosino here. A big taste, taking us back to the late 18th Century:
Thomas Paine famously tackled this question in his 1794 Age of Reason, in a discussion of multiple worlds. A belief in an infinite plurality of worlds, argued Paine, “renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air”. It isn’t possible to affirm both simultaneously, he wrote, and “he who thinks that he believes in both has thought but little of either.” Isn’t it preposterous to believe God “should quit the care of all the rest” of the worlds he’s created, to come and die in this one? On the other hand, “are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation” had their own similar visitations from this God? If that’s true, Paine concludes, then that person would “have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of deaths, with scarcely a momentary interval of life”.

In a nutshell: if Christian salvation is only possible to creatures whose worlds have experienced an Incarnation from God, then that means God’s life is spent visiting the many worlds throughout the cosmos where he is promptly crucified and resurrected. But this seems eminently absurd to Paine, which is one of the reasons he rejects Christianity.

But there’s another way of looking at the problem, which doesn’t occur to Paine: maybe God’s incarnation within Earth’s history “works” for all creatures throughout the Universe. This is the option George Coyne, Jesuit priest and former director of the Vatican Observatory, explores in his 2010 book Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological Implications.
“How could he be God and leave extra-terrestrials in their sin? God chose a very specific way to redeem human beings. He sent his only Son, Jesus, to them… Did God do this for extra-terrestrials? There is deeply embedded in Christian theology… the notion of the universality of God’s redemption and even the notion that all creation, even the inanimate, participates in some way in his redemption.”
There’s yet another possibility. Salvation itself might be exclusively an Earth concept. Theology doesn’t require us to believe that sin affects all intelligent life, everywhere in the Universe. Maybe humans are uniquely bad. Or, to use religious language, maybe Earth is the only place unfortunate enough to have an Adam and Eve. Who is to say our star-siblings are morally compromised and in need of spiritual redemption? Maybe they have attained a more perfect spiritual existence than we have at this point in our development.

As Davies notes, spiritual thinking requires an animal to be both self-conscious and “to have reached a level of intelligence where it can assess the consequences of its actions”. On Earth, this kind of cognition is at best a few million years old. If life exists elsewhere in the Universe, then it’s very unlikely that it’s at the exact same stage in its evolution as we are. And given the immense timeline of the existence of the Universe, it’s likely that at least some of this life is older, and therefore farther along in their evolution than we. Therefore, he concludes, “we could expect to be among the least spiritually advanced creatures in the Universe.”

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Modern Left Rejects the Founding Principles... does much of today's Republican Party as well, to be honest [including one Donald Trump]. The "general welfare" is too ensconced in the national fabric to ever pull the rug out from those whose survival has come to depend upon it.
But once upon a time, all but widows and orphans were expected to rely upon themselves.
Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1

Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin
16 June 1817

You will have learned that an act for internal improvement, after passing both Houses, was negatived by the President. [James Madison, the "Bonus Bill" of 1817.]

The act was founded, avowedly, on the principle that the phrase in the constitution which authorizes Congress "to lay taxes, to pay the debts and provide for the general welfare," was an extension of the powers specifically enumerated to whatever would promote the general welfare; and this, you know, was the federal doctrine. Whereas, our tenet ever was, and, indeed, it is almost the only landmark which now divides the federalists from the republicans, that Congress had not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but were restrained to those specifically enumerated; and that, as it was never meant they should provide for that welfare but by the exercise of the enumerated powers, so it could not have been meant they should raise money for purposes which the enumeration did not place under their action; consequently, that the specification of powers is a limitation of the purposes for which they may raise money.

I think the passage and rejection of this bill a fortunate incident. Every State will certainly concede the power; and this will be a national confirmation of the grounds of appeal to them, and will settle forever the meaning of this phrase, which, by a mere grammatical quibble, has countenanced the General Government in a claim of universal power. For in the phrase, "to lay taxes, to pay the debts and provide for the general welfare," it is a mere question of syntax, whether the two last infinitives are governed by the first or are distinct and co-ordinate powers; a question unequivocally decided by the exact definition of powers immediately following. It is fortunate for another reason, as the States, in conceding the power, will modify it, either by requiring the federal ratio of expense in each State, or otherwise, so as to secure us against its partial exercise. Without this caution, intrigue, negotiation, and the barter of votes might become as habitual in Congress, as they are in those legislatures which have the appointment of officers, and which, with us, is called "logging," the term of the farmers for their exchanges of aid in rolling together the logs of their newly-cleared grounds.

Friday, December 9, 2016

It's Almost 2017

And the phony Christian Nationalist quotations are still with us.

If folks like Joe Farah don't want to get labeled "fake news," they should stop making these mistakes, even as they have been called out many times before for this particular one.

A taste:
“We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments.”

– James Madison

Now that we have a president-elect who seems to understand how government that tried to do too much ends up doing nothing but harm, wouldn’t it be nice if he learned about and talked about the very best kind of government – self-government?

America’s founders knew all about it.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sources on Right to Pursue Happiness

Friend of American Creation Bill Fortenberry listed some philosophers who influenced the American Founding with links to their understanding of what the phrase "pursuit of happiness" meant to them. It was noted that John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding invoked "pursuit of happiness." Interestingly, the Locke's famous "life liberty and property" derived from his Second Treatise on government.

Here is a link to Locke's specific use. Here are some other philosophers' use of that phrase: 1. Bolingbroke; 2. Joseph Priestley; 3. Shaftesbury; 4. Joseph Addison.

The deck of those four or five seems to be tilted in favor of the thesis that it was certain "key" or elite figures who possessed more heterodox ideas that were in tension with those of the more orthodox powers that be.