Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Let me begin by expressing my admiration for all the fine recent posts. They all deserve a much wider audience. One way to get that, Kate remind us, is to click the facebook like when you read a post. That even goes for the author of the post. Carl’s musical knowledge would charm just about anyone over forty who’s not tonedeaf and flat-souled, and so it shouldn’t be limited to the 93 Americans who identify themselves as postmodern AND conservative. I apologize for not posting more—I have deep thoughts about the American Idol result and the absolutely brilliant and in-the-closet conservative HBO series GIRLS, which I hope to share with you soon. Meanwhile, he’s a long and self-indulgent DRAFT of an episode in my series on American Cartesianism. It is a reflection our friend Ross Douthat’s claims about the BAD RELIGION of Americans.

The most common and truest criticism of Douthat’s book is that it slights the fact that America has always been a nation of heretics. And there’s nothing wrong with as long as the heresies sort of balance each us out. Better to be heretically but genuinely Christian—to be, for example, an Evangelical—than not to be Christian at all. (That’s why the Americans, at this point, are better than the Europeans. [Porchers or MacIntyreans take note. Mr. Ceaser’s account of American exceptionalism, of course, does.])

It’s the distinctive greatness of our country to have been devoted in a variety of distorted ways to the truthful, Christian conception of the person. The distinctive danger to our nation’s greatness, as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, is the rejection of Christian or personal theology altogether with the theology of pantheism. Douthat’s chapter on “the God within” is, appropriately, a Tocqueville-inspired polemic against the degrading and futile lullaby of pantheism, but he is curiously weak in understanding why pantheism is the seductive democratic theological temptation opposed to the truth about our liberty or greatness or irreducible individuality.

For America’s most wonderful and effective theeological balancing act, look to our Declaration of Independence. Our Declaration is hardly a coherent theological whole. It gets its greatness by being a compromise between the Deistic and more Calvinist members of Congress. The compromise is between the impersonal or, better, unrelational God of nature of the modern philosophers—particularly John Locke—and the personal, judgmental, providential God of the Puritans. By reconciling the God of nature (or, better, the God of Descartes) with the God of the Bible, our Declaration can be called a kind of accidental Thomism, although that result was intended by neither of the parties of the compromise.

The Declaration’s theoretical core—the product of the minds of Jefferson and Franklin— is, as Douthat notices, the Deism of John Locke. There’s a Creator, but he past-tense. He’s no longer actively engaged in our lives. He’s indifferent to each of our personal existences, although he is somehow the source of personal or individual existence. God made us free or somewhat unnatural persons, who have to institute government to free ourselves from our fearful discontent with our natural existence. The teaching of the Creator, which we discover through reflecting on who we are by nature, is to escape from nature in the name of securing our inalienable rights.

Our Creator did, rather mysteriously, endow us singularly self-conscious and contingent beings with these rights, but it’s up to us to figure out how to protect our naturally precarious lives and liberty on our own. And we certainly weren’t made to be happy, and that’s why we’re stuck with pursuing happiness on our own. God is happy by being just as he is, and so are, Mr. Darwin reminded us, the other animals. It’s the being God mysteriously stuck between God and the other animals who is driven away from nature toward divinity through his rational and industrious efforts who is unhappy with who he is or what he’s been given The very definition of man in the Declaration is the being with rights. That means each of us is not defined by relational duties characteristic of other social or gregarious animals . Nor are we defined by the loving concern displayed by the God who became man, died for our sins, and still actively offers us redemption from our sinful misery.

According to Douthat, our Founders’ Jeffersonian Deism had its source in “men who found the idea of ultimate mystery offensive.” They viewed themselves in overcoming the contradictions in Christianity—especially the one between the personal Creator and impersonal, necessitarian nature—by depersonalizing God. God becomes “the First Cause,” an “unmoving and unmoved” clockmaker who started the mechanistic process that is Newtonian nature going. Douthat’s characterization confuses Deism with pantheism, with a form of “sexed-up atheism.” It seems to have been true that privately Jefferson understood himself as an Epicurean, or a serene atheist who lives beyond hope and fear in a way that might be confused with Buddhism or pantheism. But his public, Lockean theology of the Declaration is supposed to inspire in men and women the very opposite of serenity now. The Declaration is all about change—not only political but technological—free persons can believe in and achieve for themselves.

Locke thought that the theology of the Bible was superior in its understanding of both God and man to than those of Plato and Aristotle. The God of the Bible reveals himself to himself and others through is active creativity. The man created by Locke’s God does the same. For Jefferson and Locke as much as the Bible, there’s the mystery of personal identity—the “I”—who can’t be integrated into mechanical nature. And the “I” to bound to other “Is” only through contract and consent. The free person, as the Bible says, is infinitely valuable and irreplaceable. That’s why his connections with others are inalienably justified only in terms of his rights—with who he is as a free person or individual in mind.

The theology of Locke is a Christian heresy—but it is a Christian heresy. The Deistic Creator doesn’t appear a living, giving person to the persons alive right now. But he is, mysteriously, created a world in which persons would come into being and exercise their freedom. Arguably, he hides himself as a person so that we can do as much as possible on behalf of our personal idenities for ourselves.

That personal focus explains why American Lockeans and more orthodox Christians allied against every modern effort to reduce particular persons to expendable parts of some civic, natural, or Historical whole. That personal focus is based on a Christian discovery about who we are. Locke and Tocqueville, I think, agree that a proper understanding of personal reality depends upon the egalitarianism of the incarnation, on our equal liberation—as men and women—from biological and political determination. We see the influence of this Lockean/Christian understanding in Douthat’s determination that religion in America not be reduced to a civil theology—to degrading lies about our divine significance as a nation for beings who are citizens and nothing more. Our Lockeans and our orthodox Christians also stand together against the various forms of Darwinianism—against any comprehensive explanation of what we are that reduces each of us as species fodder. Both orthodox Christianity and the heretical theology of Jefferson’s Declaration are based on the self-evident premise that each free person is real, unique, and irreplaceable.

The central, “Socinian” heresy of the Lockeans is the denial of the Trinity. Locke was able to assimilate much of Christian doctrine into his strange theology, and, for the most part, that which he could not assimilate he ignored. The aggressive component of his Deism was anti-Trinitarian. As our current pope explains so well, the mystery of the Trinity reconciles the logos that is Greek monotheism with the idea of loving relationality that is the distinctive characteristic of the Christian God. God is one in being but three in persons. He relates to himself, mysteriously, interpersonally—the way he relates to us. The idea of the Trinity corresponds to the Christian discovery of the personal logos that is God, each of us made in his personal, relational image, and the ground of being. The personal God is rational, erotic, and personal in ways that can’t be reduced to the Aristotelian idea of God as pure mind or the materialistic idea that all is pure body or pure mechanism.

A common interpretation of the Declaration is that “Nature’s God” refers to the God of the philosophers and scientists as opposed to the God of the Bible. Nature’s God, from that view, replaces a personal God. Revelation is replaced by reason. But Locke and Jefferson view us all as free persons, and so not as simply part of nature. The God who created free persons in some way or another—in addition or in opposition to nature—must be a person too. The mystery of the personal identity each of us experiences makes room in Locke for belief in a real Creator, and it certainly is a personal refutation of those self-forgetting thinkers who claim that all is necessity.

There’s more, of course . . .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles