Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Counterfeits of Faith

The language of faith is like the supply of money. Print too much currency and it begins to lose its value.

We’ve all heard of grade inflation. Getting an “A” no longer means much when professors begin to hand out top marks indiscriminately, to mediocre students.

The theory of inflation applies to religious vocabulary, as well. When every campaign speech ends with the stock phrase, “God Bless America,” the invocation begins to cheapen. Surely the commandment about not taking the Lord’s name in vain is partly intended to prevent overuse of the word God. The “G” word has to be used sparingly—otherwise we tend to forget that “God” is not God’s name so much as our human name for the un-nameable mystery behind existence.

But the admonition to not take God’s name in vain isn’t just intended to prevent over-use. It’s also supposed to stop mis-use. When politicians profess their Christian commitment at every whistle stop, the language of reverence and prayer, which ought to turn our minds toward the transcendent, becomes just another gimmick for gathering votes. This isn’t like inflation. It’s more like counterfeiting, dealing in false currency.

Maybe that’s why the Founders rarely spoke of their religion on the political rostrum. They didn’t want to pander, or use sacred words and deeds to attain profane ends.

George Washington, for example, during his first term as President, was scolded from the pulpit of Christ Church in Philadelphia by the rector there, James Abercrombie. Abercrombrie upbraided Washington in front of the whole congregation for refusing to partake in communion, and questioned the “unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations, who uniformly turned their backs on the Lord’s Supper.” Washington’s reaction was simple; he stopped going to services on Sundays when he knew the eurcharist would be celebrated. As our first President explained to a friend, “as he had never been a communicant, were he to become one then, it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal, arising altogether from his elevated station.” Washington probably refrained from participating in communion because he never fully believed in all the doctrines of the Anglican Church, and didn’t wish to make himself a hypocrite. But regardless of his convictions, he didn’t want to parade his religion to evoke public admiration for his piety. That would be a false use of religion—a counterfeit of real faith.

Interestingly, Washington rarely used the “G” word in his public pronouncements. It’s an example today’s politicians might study and emulate—if they want to restore the value of theological language.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Famous Last Words

Deathbed utterances reveal a lot about a person. Legend has it that when the Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen was close to the end, an attending physician tried to give comfort. “General Allen, the angels are waiting for you,” the doctor offered. Known for his fiery iconoclasm, Allen snorted, “Waiting are they?“God damn ‘em, let ‘em wait!”

What of other revolutionary founders? Were their thoughts focused on psalms or other traditional consolations of religion? John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both expired, famously, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Their minds were occupied less with cherub choirs than with the role they’d shared in winning America’s liberty. “This is the Fourth?” Jefferson asked, in a state of semi-consciousness. Far north of Monticello, John Adams was also slipping from the world with the words, “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” not knowing his old friend had expired just a few hours earlier.

Ten years later, in 1836, James Madison was close to death. Encouraged to hang on a few more days to make a glorious exit like Adams and Jefferson (and like President James Monroe, a Revolutionary War hero who had died on July 4, 1831), Madison refused the stimulants that might have prolonged his life, preferring to depart on his own schedule. At breakfast, his niece noticed him looking rather odd and asking if anything was the matter. “Nothing but a change of mind, my dear,” and he was gone.

George Washington died a rather painful death, slowly asphyxiated by an acute inflammation of the airways. “I die hard,” he told his doctors, “but I am not afraid to go.” His longtime secretary and companion Tobias Lear, who was at his side, expressed the wish that the two of them might meet in heaven one day, but Lear was too honest a reporter to suggest that the General reciprocated the hope for reunion in the hereafter. Harboring a morbid and irrational fear that he might be put into the earth prematurely, Washington instructed, “Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead. Do you understand?" "Yes, sir," the doctor replied. Then came Washington’s parting words: "'Tis well.” Practical to the end.

Ben Franklin had his daughter Sarah nearby. When she remarked that he looked uncomfortable, lying on his side, the old patriarch responded, “A dying man can do nothing easy.” Years before, as a young man, he had penned his own epitaph:

The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ'd) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.

The words expressed the gentle irony with which Franklin faced many questions of faith. He and America’s other founders confronted death calmly and matter-of-factly. None were dogmatic (or very certain) about whatever mystery might come next.

While our Founders had varied beliefs about immortality, their energies centered on this world. Wherever else they might survive, they live on in the institutions and ideals they passed dow

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Church Teachings Abducted By Aliens?

Vatican astronomer Father Gabriel Funes announced that extraterrestrials may be everywhere, the BBC reported this week. “Just as there are multiple forms of life on earth, so there could exist intelligent beings in outer space created by God. And some aliens could even be free from original sin,” according to the news source.

For similar statements four centuries ago, the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was immolated in Rome’s Campo di Fiore.

Bruno was ahead of him time. By 1698, when the astronomer Christiaan Huygens published his book Cosmotheoros, further entitled The celestial worlds discover'd: or, conjectures concerning the inhabitants, plants and productions of the worlds in the planets, belief in alien civilizations was becoming commonplace. Educated people in the Enlightenment realized that the universe was so incomprehensibly large that human beings could not possibly be alone.

So Ben Franklin theorized in his Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion that the cosmos must contain a ‘chorus of worlds’ populated by a multitude of beings, some inferior and others superior to our own. Could all these stars and satellites have been created by a single deity? Franklin was of the opinion that the universe must have been created by committee. No one power could have managed it.

The new view of the heavens was stretching traditional notions of divinity in strange, unexpected directions. John Adams asked if the deity who created the immensity of “Newton’s universe” could be so small, so petty, as to condemn any creature to hell? “I believe no such thing!” he declared.

“What are we to think of the Christian system of faith,” Tom Paine wondered, “that forms itself upon the idea of only one world?” The notion that the Almighty, “who had millions of worlds equally dependent on his protection, should quit the care of all the rest, and come to die in our world, because, they say, one man and one woman had eaten an apple” appeared to Paine a “solitary and strange conceit.”

Astronomers now guess there are millions of billions of planets scattered across the universe. The Founders in their day realized that the old story of salvation—God taking human form to visit the third rock from the sun—could not be literally true in a cosmos teeming with extraterrestrial life. Theology would never be the same.

And the Vatican is still trying to catch up.

Friday, May 2, 2008

National Day of Prayer?

May 1 was the National Day of Prayer.

Note: the Founders weren't averse to prayer. Benjamin Franklin famously proposed that each session of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia open with a petition to the Almighty, a motion the delegates rejected (Alexander Hamilton quipped the delegates didn't require any "foreign aid.") But few of the Founders would have been comfortable with the narrowly sectarian focus of a National Day of Prayer.

The National Day of Prayer was established by law in 1952. It was the height of the Cold War, when Congress was anxious to counter the perceived threat of "atheistic communism." This was also the period when the phrase "under God" entered the Pledge of Allegiance (in 1954), and when Congress adopted the phrase "In God We Trust" as the nation's official motto (in 1956). The Founders would have been uncomfortable with all this legislation.

Today, volunteers for the National Day of Prayer are required to subscribe to a strict doctrinal confession: "I believe that the Holy Bible is the inerrant word of the Living God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only One by which I can obtain salvation."

That's a far cry from Franklin's non-dogmatic faith. Old Ben said of Jesus that "I have some doubts as to his divinity" and, far from regarding the Bible as inerrant, actually re-wrote the Lord's Prayer to make it shorter and make the King James version conform to what he considered better English.

"From our standpoint, we feel that our nation was founded on Christian principles," said Brian Toon," a spokesperson for the National Day of Prayer, "and that's our basis for the making the day Judeo-Christian."

But whatever Mr. Toon thinks, the Founders intended the United States to be a land where people of all faiths were welcome--not just Christians. In this country, Jews, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists alike are free to proclaim and practice their beliefs. That why religion flourishes here as nowhere else on earth, and why people of differing spiritual views have managed for over two hundred years to co-exist as equal citizens, in friendship and in peace.

That's the American way.