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Guest billmc

A few months ago, we had a valuable and meaningful discussion on this forum concerning the "problem of theodicy," the theological problem that evil and suffering exist in a world wherein it is thought that an all-powerful and all-loving God is in control, or at least active. While for some people (not on this forum, but just in general) this "problem" may only be a theological one - something to be discussed about in seminary, or in the halls of religious academia, or written about in theological tomes - I was affected deeply by it. After all, having been a Christian for 40 years, I believed that God is loving and omnipotent. But I also couldn't deny the evil I have seen throughout human history and even in my own heart if I looked deep enough. I found that the "answers" offered to me by traditional Christianity just weren't satisfying to me. They not only didn't satisfy my head (make sense), but they didn't satisfy my heart (seem very compassionate). So I began to search, as I have been able to do since discovering PC, different viewpoints on this problem.

 

Now, I'm not about to say that I have found THE answer to theodicy. Besides, in my life whenever I find one answer, nine more questions pop up. smile.gif What I did find in my explorations, though, was a perspective on it that really comes down to, are we asking the right question? That perspective lead me to consider the possibility of another "wisdom tradition" that actual sprang from Christianity that, IMO, does reframe, not only the theodicy problem, but our whole notion of God and how God interacts with us and our world.

 

This "wisdom tradition" is what I call classical deism. And, generally speaking, many of the ideas behind it are found in the book by Thomas Paine, "The Age of Reason." I don't intend to analyze the book here. What I would like to do is to take a personal look at how this "wisdom tradition" speaks to me and invite anyone else interested into the conversation. So I'll just touch on some key things from a few chapters in the AOR that really spoke to my heart. And, to me, that's what this is about - deism is not a set of beliefs, it is a way to live, a "wisdom tradition." Like all wisdom traditions, it offers us viewpoints as gifts. We can reject them, think about them, accept them, or modify them. They call us to see things in a different way than we have before. And I find that attractive.

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Guest billmc

In the AOR, chapter 1, Thomas Paine, considered by many to be one of the Founding Fathers of the US, wrote:

 

"I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy."

 

His statements here are basically the sum total of the classical deist tradition. While they don't have a formal creed such as the Nicene or Apostle's Creed, they do value Paine's words here as crystalizing what deist "believe." They believe in one God. I would consider this God to be the Creator or the Mind or, perhaps as Tillich and Spong put it, "the Ground of Being." I tend to think of God as more of a Mind than anything else, considering the structure and organization and harmony of the Universe. As esthetically beautiful as it is, I can't hold Da Vinci's "Old Man in the Sky" image in my head or heart in any meaningful way. Beyond believing in one God, deists are reticent to try to describe this God. Why? Because this God is not fully known by any of us (God's transcendence) and because we tend to worship our own descriptions of God. Spong says, though I don't think the phrase originated with him, "If horses had gods, those gods would look like horses." Deists don't tend to think of God as A being or even a supreme being, but as being itself, a notion very common to many progressive Christians.

 

But, perhaps like many or most religions, deists seek to experience oneness or unity with the Creator. We don't enjoy arguing over whether God is with, accessible to, or in everyone. Perhaps most of us are panendeists. :) We would rather discuss our experiences of that oneness. And for many of us, this experience of oneness (or religion) boils down to recognizing, as the framers of our Constitution said, that all men (and women) are created equal. This not only gives us certain "rights" as human beings (or allows us to recognize them), but it takes us beyond claiming our rights to actually doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

 

I, for one, can appreciate a religion or wisdom tradition that is this simple. Believe in one God. And demonstrate that believe in God by valuing what God has created. Recognize the worth of it. Appreciate it. Make it better if possible. Don't harm it through injustice, cruelty, or ambivalence.

 

In Paine's distillation of deism, he doesn't mention Jesus. He will later. He does mention what Jesus taught and what Jesus did. But he makes no statements as to worshipping Jesus as God. Therefore, IMO, deism is probably not Christianity, even though it did grow out of it. But it is monotheistic (or monodeistic) and does focus on the things that Jesus said would mark the kingdom of God. And I find this in harmony with my own beliefs about my own personal religion.

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Guest billmc

Paine starts chapter 2 by saying, "Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet; as if the way to God was not open to every man alike." I appreciate his underlying assumption: the way to God or the experience of God is open to every person to the same degree. For most of my life, being in Christianity, Jesus was considered to be my mediator between me and God. And then my pastor was my mediator between me and Jesus. While the church leaders did encourage a "personal relationship with God through Christ," the structure of the church was very heirarchal and reinforced to me the notion that the elders and the pastor were always "closer" to God than I was. In my life, this fostered a constant sense of guilt, always feeling like I was "falling short of the glory of God" and never where I should be with God.

 

What Paine is saying is that God truly is no respector of persons, that God does not play favorites with human beings, revealing truth to some and hiding truth from others. If we speak of God in human terms, what God wants us to know and how God wants us to act is evident to each and every person if that person will stop and consider it. We can know something of God's power by observing our Universe, at the Laws of Nature, around us. And we can know what God, as our Creator, expects of us as creations by looking at the Laws of Morality within us. We need no mediator.

 

To me, this doesn't mean that we can't benefit from the writings and life examples of others. Indeed, I think we do. But these people are fellow human beings, fellow travelers seeking the truth just as we are. This is quite a different role than a mediator who sets himself or herself up as the sole channel for truth or interpretation of truth.

 

Paine continues, "Each of those churches shows certain books, which they call revelation, or the Word of God. The Jews say that their Word of God was given by God to Moses face to face; the Christians say, that their Word of God came by divine inspiration; and the Turks say, that their Word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from heaven. Each of those churches accuses the other of unbelief; and, for my own part, I disbelieve them all." As is evident in Paine's statement, he doesn't believe that any human writings come from God. Again, this goes back to his belief that God doesn't not play favorites and that God is not hidden.

 

This is, again, an important idea to me. There is, to me, a balance to talking about "God-stuff." On one hand, I'm not a pantheist that says that God is the sum total of the Universe, that if the Universe didn't exist, God wouldn't either. God is, to me, transcendant and more than the Universe. In this aspect, yes, much about God is a mystery. God is unknown, not because he hides himself, but because of human limitations of understanding and experience. A horse can't describe what it means to be human. Likewise, we, as humans, should be very humble about claims that we make about God. We know so little. We are only on the cusp of knowledge at this point and what little we do know tempts us to destroy one another and/or our world.

 

On the other hand, though much about God is unknown and ineffable, we can and should say something about God. What can we say? This is where what Paine says rings true with me. The revealed religions claim "special knowledge" of God that God has personally revealed to only certain people at certain times. God essentially does play favorites and he reveals himself slowly and temptingly like a stripper enticing someone to get to know her better. God plays with his creations to see if they can guess who he is and what he desires. But he only plays with a few of them. The rest of us are relegated to either stumble around in the dark or to take the word of the mediators.

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Paine continues, "But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it."

 

This is another important concept that Paine focuses on to help us understand how religion, for better or worse, works. If God is in the "revelation" business, actively revealing parts of truth or reality only to some individuals at some points in history, then such "revelation" is a communication from God to that person (or persons) alone. To everyone else, that revelation is only hearsay. I have met many people in my life that have claimed that God spoke to them concerning this or that situation. Generally speaking, I have no problem with the claim as long as it affects only their life. But when they claim that their revelation applies to me, I then have to examine what they claim more closely.

 

While I was in Bible college, a certain young lady claimed that God spoke to her while she was in prayer one day, revealing to her that I was God's will for her marriage partner. While she seemed to be a decent person and not unattractive, I had had no such "revelations." God hadn't "spoken" to me about her at all. Why should I accept her claim as God's truth? There was no doubt that she believed it. In fact, when I told her that I had not received any such revelation, she responded that I should continue praying until God revealed the truth to me. In reflection, is it possible that she was right? Possible...maybe. But probable? With all the problems that our world has, does God specialize in supernatural genetic experiments? Is that really credible? I think not. If he does, there are certainly a lot of problems with his experiments given the high rate of miscarriages and birth defects.

 

I no longer believe that God has such a "will," a "perfect will" of one and only one path that a person should choose. If our Universe teaches us anything, it is that variety is the spice of life and that diversity is almost infinite. There is, I believe, structure inherent in our Universe, structure that leads to life. But that structure also leads to diversity, not to sameness. And this is the problem that I also have with the revealed religions -- their goal is sameness. They use one person's or book's revelation to try to enforce sameness and conformity.

 

Again, if these people (or their followers) were to admit their humanity - and, therefore, fallibility - I would respect them more and be more open to their point-of-view. But as soon as they make claims to absolute truth, to being inerrant and infallible (usually accompanied with threats of hell for not believing in them), they have shown their hand and demonstrated the banckruptcy of their whole "belief system." As soon as an appeal to external authority is made - whether to the Pope, to a prophet, or to a book - it is an appeal to hearsay. It is saying that we don't trust our Creator to be good enough to make truth available to all his creation. And it is saying that he plays games with us. I, for one, don't buy it.

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In chapter 3, Paine begins writing about Jesus Christ. As I've mentioned, deism grew out of Christianity, primarily as a good reaction to the Enlightenment. Some Christians, faced with the scientific and epistomological methods of the Enlightenment, retreated into a very conservative or fundamentalist viewpoint, attempted to draw a line in the sand and said that science and reason had no place in the realm of religion and the spiritual. But other Christians felt that all truth was God's truth and held that there was no barrier between the sacred and the profane. They even claimed that science and reason were one of God's gifts to humanity to help us understand our Universe and ourselves better. They felt like God had established certain laws that held creation in balance and that it made no sense for God, whom they considered to be logos, or logical or rational, to violate these laws in order to, essentially, put on a magic show. This viewpoint of God and of reality affected how they perceived Jesus of Nazareth.

 

Concerning Jesus, Paine writes: "He was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years before, by the Quakers since, and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any."

 

Paine's view of Jesus speaks for itself. He held Christ in high regards. But he goes on to say something that many liberal and progressive Christians believe to be the truth:

 

"Jesus Christ wrote no account of himself, of his birth, parentage, or anything else. Not a line of what is called the New Testament is of his writing. The history of him is altogether the work of other people."

 

And further:

 

"The story [the miracles of Jesus' virgin birth, resurrection, and ascension], so far as relates to the supernatural part, has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it. Who were the authors of it is as impossible for us now to know, as it is for us to be assured that the books in which the account is related were written by the persons whose names they bear. The best surviving evidence we now have. respecting this affair is the Jews. They are regularly descended from the people who lived in the time this resurrection and ascension is said to have happened, and they say 'it is not true.'"

 

I, for one, agree. Either what Jesus taught was true or it was not. I don't require a "magic trick" to substantiate that he was God in order for me to believe his teachings. In fact, the "magic tricks," IMO, make him and his teachings less believable, not more. Paine may have been the first "historical Jesus" scholar. In fact, the following paragraph sounds as if it could have come from Dominic Crossan himself:

 

"That such a person as Jesus Christ existed, and that he was crucified, which was the mode of execution at that day, are historical relations strictly within the limits of probability. He preached most excellent morality, and the equality of man; but he preached also against the corruptions and avarice of the Jewish priests, and this brought upon him the hatred and vengeance of the whole order of priest-hood. The accusation which those priests brought against him was that of sedition and conspiracy against the Roman government, to which the Jews were then subject and tributary; and it is not improbable that the Roman government might have some secret apprehension of the effects of his doctrine as well as the Jewish priests; neither is it improbable that Jesus Christ had in contemplation the delivery of the Jewish nation from the bondage of the Romans. Between the two, however, this virtuous reformer and revolutionist lost his life."

 

Paine's point, and the view of most deists, is not that Jesus is to be sidelined, but to be understood within his own context and culture before the Church enshrined him as God and began worshipping him. Therefore, most deists are not Trinitarian. They believe in one God, not in "one God composed of three Persons." This, of course, puts them outside of most Church orthodoxy. And Christianity, right or wrong, is known for worshipping Jesus as God. Therefore, at least to me, deists are not classical or orthodox Christians. Are they progressive Christians? Who's to say? But they do hold to one God and that Jesus taught truth that reflects this one God and the way that we should, as God's creations, related to one another.

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In chapters 4 and 5, Paine writes about the "person" of Satan and how Satan becomes, in the Christian myth, almost equal to God in power and presence. I won't go into all the details but suffice it to say that Paine believes that Satan is the necessary background upon which the story of Christianity, that God has to sacrifice himself in order to save humanity, is played out. Without the myth of all humans and all creation being given over to Satan, there is nothing and noone for Jesus to "save us" from, or so popular Christianity tells us.

 

Paine is amazed that we humans find this myth to be, essentially, the best story we know. For much of Christianity, the best story we know has to do with God committing suicide because it was the only way to rescue us. Paine and other deists look at the marvels and mysteries of creation, at the sheer beauty (and sometimes terror) of being alive and being able to experience being itself and wonder why this myth anchored in blood and death has endured so long. This doesn't at all mean that deists hold to a Pollyanna view of the world. We tend to be realist, endeavoring to see things as they really are while admitting that none of us has perfect vision. But we don't blame evil on a mythological figure or upon our ancient ancestors (in Adam and Eve). Evil, for many deists, is selfishness run amok, our instinct to survive playing itself out over and against the welfare of others. I don't mean to say that evil is simple or an easy problem to solve. Science and reason can be used for the cause of evil just as easily as they can for the cause of good. But deists tend to want to take the responsibility for their own actions instead of blaming their wrongdoings on Flip Wilson's "devil" or on "the Fall" or on Adam and Eve's sin. When Jesus issued his call for repentance, he was not telling people to blame Satan or Adam and Eve for their own actions. Instead, he called them to look within their own hearts for the seeds of selfishness that could grow there.

 

Paine believed that there is a better story that we could tell about ultimate truth. But, as is still much the case now, many Christians believed that the Bible was the source of ultimate truth. So Paine proceeds in the following chapters to discuss the Bible and why, in his opinion, the Christian scriptures are not reliable as ultimate truth about God, ourselves, and our universe. I will attempt to hit only the high points that really stood out to me.

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Out of all the religious concepts out there, pantheism and deism make the most sense to me. Deism to me resolves many of the theological problems and contradictions that traditional theism is often burdened with like the problem of evil. It makes perfect sense to me that if a supernatural sentient god exists which created the universe that this god would be unconcerned with the affairs of humanity. I think Paine brings up a very good point that the way many Christians treat prayer makes it seem like the Christians are the ones trying to control God at their whim rather than the other way around, with how Christians pray for rain when it's sunny but then pray for sunshine when it rains and can't seem to make up their minds. If God does exists, I think our current religious interfaith conflicts would be even worse if God did reveal his existence to us. I mean, just look at how much violence and intolerance that religious extremists cause because they're fighting to control the truth about God. Imagine how much worse it would be if God was revealed to humanity and religious believers started fighting with each other even more intensely to control the power of God. Human beings have been shown to act recklessly and immoral when they get too close to absolute power so I don't see that it should be any different for God.

 

I'm surprised Paine got so much about the bible correct that has since been confirmed by secular biblical scholarship, especially given that Paine didn't have access to a bible when he wrote the Age of Reason. Like I was impressed Paine got it right that Moses didn't write the Pentateuch, that not all of the letters attributed to Paul were written by him, and that the historical Jesus likely never intended to die and this was a post-Easter invention created by the later Christians. Paine's dissection of atonement theology is spot on and I like the almost crude and sarcastic humor he uses when criticizing it. I also like Paine's almost paradoxical statement that orthodox Christianity as popularly understood would be an insult to God. I have to wonder if Paine would have been a progressive Christian in our time or a New Atheist. On the one hand, Paine was highly critical of organized religion and his sarcastic style of debating is similar to the New Atheists in a way. On the other hand, Paine has a deep spiritual belief in creation as proof of God's existence, he strongly believes in the teachings of Jesus, much of his views of the bible is similar to the Jesus Seminar, and he has a great deal of respect for the god of creation.

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Paine has a deep spiritual belief in creation as proof of God's existence, he strongly believes in the teachings of Jesus, much of his views of the bible is similar to the Jesus Seminar, and he has a great deal of respect for the god of creation.

 

I appreciate your input on this, NG. I think your assessment of Paine is spot on - he believed in a Creator God and held to Jesus' highest teachings. Of course, as you've said, he was highly critical and criticizing of the Bible and the Church, often employing very humorous sarcasm to make a point. But I sense that at the center of his considerations about religion is the notion that God does not play or play favorites with humanity.

 

As a side topic, I'm still trying to work out whether Paine believed that God is, as many Christians claim, love. Do you have any thoughts on this? Do deists believe that God is love or loving?

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I haven't read much deist literature other than Paine. I only know deists believe in a supernatural god who created the universe but then left the universe alone. The analogy I know that's popular with deists is the analogy of the watchmaker. I think deists don't generally try to apply personality traits to the deist god other than indfiference because the deist god is unknowable. I think most deists at least believe the deist god is certainly more humane than the god of fundamentalism. All the deists I've known didn't believe in hell and believed everyone went to the same place when we died.

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I haven't read much deist literature other than Paine. I only know deists believe in a supernatural god who created the universe but then left the universe alone. The analogy I know that's popular with deists is the analogy of the watchmaker. I think deists don't generally try to apply personality traits to the deist god other than indfiference because the deist god is unknowable. I think most deists at least believe the deist god is certainly more humane than the god of fundamentalism. All the deists I've known didn't believe in hell and believed everyone went to the same place when we died.

 

Much of deism rings true with me, NG. Some of it doesn't.

 

One area in which I suppose my views are different from many deists is in this notion of how involved God is with creation. One idea, the typical supernaturalist one, is that God created the design of the universe and then violates that design occassionally. God breaks the laws he created either to prove that he is God or to answer the prayers of certain people.

 

Another idea, which perhaps many or most deist hold to, is that God created the universe and then essentially walked away from it to, I guess, do other "God things." This is the watchmaker view; God wound things up and then is no longer involved on any level.

 

While my own view leans towards the deist view, but there is, IMO, a missing component to the deist view. In the watchmaker analogy, there is nothing of the watchmaker in the watch except the design. The watch and the watchmaker are two entirely separate entities. The watch's design may point to a watchmaker, but the watch is not part of the watchmaker. In my view, which might be called "panendeism," the watch is part of the watchmaker. God has created the universe inside himself. Therefore, God doesn't "intervene" from without, but influences from within. Therefore, if we were to talk of God addressing the issues of hunger or poverty in our world, then because we are part of God, we MUST talk about how WE ourselves address the issues of hunger and poverty in our world. We don't say that God is uninvolved, because it is God's "DNA" in us that makes us aware of the deficiency and causes us to consider what we should and can do about it. But we certainly don't wait for God to "intervene" from outside of the universe (or outside of us) to make a difference. If God is going to intervene in this world, he does so from WITHIN this world, not from outside of it.

 

And I think you're right about deist being reluctant to put "personality traits" on God, to attempt to create God in our image.

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Pandeism makes a lot of sense to me as well and I have a lot of respect for it although my own views tend to lean more towards naturalistic pantheism. At the same time, I also can understand the more common concept of deism with God as a separate non-interventionist god. Creationist apologists argue that the universe is too perfect to have come into existence through an accident and posit a perfect god as the answer to explain how a perfect universe could exist. But then they turn around and argue that this same perfect god had to intervene in this supposedly perfect natural world in order to perform supernatural miracles to improve the world like flooding the Earth to correct his mistake of creating humans or sending his son who is also his father to die in a sacrifice in order to appease himself. Either the natural universe is a perfect creation of god and needs no further divine intervention or it is an imperfect creation that needs God to perform miracles to improve it but I don't see how one can have it both ways.

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In chapter 7, referring to what he calls "true theology", or what I might call the truth about God, Paine begins talking about how we got the Bible. He states:

 

"These books, beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelations, (which, by the bye, is a book of riddles that requires a revelation to explain it) are, we are told, the word of God. It is, therefore, proper for us to know who told us so, that we may know what credit to give to the report. The answer to this question is, that nobody can tell, except that we tell one another so. The case, however, historically appears to be as follows:

 

When the church mythologists established their system, they collected all the writings they could find, and managed them as they pleased. It is a matter altogether of uncertainty to us whether such of the writings as now appear under the name of the Old and the New Testament, are in the same state in which those collectors say they found them; or whether they added, altered, abridged, or dressed them up.

 

Be this as it may, they decided by vote which of the books out of the collection they had made, should be the WORD OF GOD, and which should not. They rejected several; they voted others to be doubtful, such as the books called the Apocrypha; and those books which had a majority of votes, were voted to be the word of God. Had they voted otherwise, all the people since calling themselves Christians had believed otherwise; for the belief of the one comes from the vote of the other. Who the people were that did all this, we know nothing of. They call themselves by the general name of the Church; and this is all we know of the matter.

 

As we have no other external evidence or authority for believing these books to be the word of God, than what I have mentioned, which is no evidence or authority at all, I come, in the next place, to examine the internal evidence contained in the books themselves."

 

I think Paine's assessment of how the Bible was "assembled" is spot on. Not only don't we know who really authored the 66 books in the Bible (Protestant version), but we don't know who the people were that voted on which writings were to be in the Bible and what criteria they used to make their decisions as to what books to accept and what books to reject.

 

In the rest of the chapter, Paine alludes to many of the OT stories that we, as moderns, find to be either nonsensical or immoral. His conclusion is that with the kind of things the OT focuses on, do these matters and opinions really reflect the views of the omnipotent Creator of the universe? Paine's answer is no. So is mine.

 

There are some interesting stories in the OT. And there is some wisdom to be found there. But nothing that, IMO, would qualify as the "inerrant, infallible very words of God." God is, IMO, bigger.

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Billmc,

 

Must say that I smiled at your words concerning the Deist idea that the Divine creates and sets it all in motion, then just walks away to do other "God Things"!! One wonders what they could possibly be...............answers, please, on a postcard....

 

But yes, such is my own reticence in considering the Deist position. It seems to suggest the line from Walt Whitman, something about.....

 

I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person,

My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.

 

The deist "god" just seems to "lean on a cane and observe", and as far as theodicy is concerned, this could never be adequate. All in all I do find the whole deist position too rational - with suffering, the only "answer" is to share it, open to it. To think we have an "answer" that can "explain" it , given our faith in a loving Divinity, is to preclude giving our true existential answer of sharing in it.

 

I agree about the Divine as the "ground of being" - rather then "a being" as such. As "a being" "he" becomes an object among other objects, and seems to demand an act of will to believe in "him", and - at least to my mind - only succeeds in creating an idol.

 

Merton - again! - contrasts the Cartesian mindset that sees ourselves as subject - and our own self awareness - as absolutely primary, with this idea of the ground of being. Such an idea starts "not from the thinking and self-aware subject but from Being, ontologically seen to be beyond and prior to the subject-object division." Such a "ground" offers another type of consciousness to us, one that "assumes a totally different kind of self-awareness from that of the Cartesian thinking-self which is its own justification and its own center. Here the individual is aware of himself as a self-to-be-dissolved in self-giving, in love, in "letting-go", in ecstacy, in God......."

 

Merton ends by saying that "God is not considered either as Immanent nor Transcendant but as grace and presence, hence neither as a 'center' imagined somewhere 'out there' nor 'within ourselves'." We encounter the Divine not as Being but as Freedom and Love.

 

Anyway, all the best

Derek

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I agree about the Divine as the "ground of being" - rather then "a being" as such. As "a being" "he" becomes an object among other objects, and seems to demand an act of will to believe in "him", and - at least to my mind - only succeeds in creating an idol.

 

I'm with you on this, Derek. As deism did grow out of Christianity, it was theistics in its thinking. God was still envisioned as a "being" who observed creation from the outside to, perhaps, see how well his experiment would go.

 

But like many Progressive Christians, many deists (though certainly not all) are not thinking of God (and experiencing God) in non-theistic terms. Technically, they call this panendeism (aren't words fun?) where everything is in God but God doesn't directly intervene. Contrast this to panentheism where everything is in God but God does intervene in response to prayer, his will, etc.

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In deism's favor, I like that it encourages personal responsibility on individuals. Many times some Christians who believe in supernatural theism shrug off their responsibilities to take care of the planet. After all, this world isn't their home and some Christians believe it's blasphemous to think humans could destroy God's creation because only God can destroy it. Since in deism God isn't a deus ex machina who can sweep in at the last minute to save the day, it is up to individual people to care for God's creation. Also, many dogmatic forms of supernatural theism treat God as an abusive parent who manipulates and blackmails his children to keep them under its control but to show real love, a parent should be able to let their children grow up and make their own choices. I like how in deism God doesn't try to keep humans under its control but allows its creation to make their own life choices and take responsibility for their own actions. I also like how deism encourages people not to hold a single dogmatic image of God in their mind by avoiding giving God personal attributes.

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Guest billmc

I agree about the Divine as the "ground of being" - rather then "a being" as such. As "a being" "he" becomes an object among other objects, and seems to demand an act of will to believe in "him", and - at least to my mind - only succeeds in creating an idol.

 

(Okay, let me try this response again. The medicine I'm on for my epilepsy really messes up both my grammar and my ability to double-check it. Sorry.)

 

I'm with you on this, Derek. As deism did grow out of Christianity, it was theistic in its thinking. God was still envisioned as a "being" who observed creation from the outside to, perhaps, see how well his experiment would go.

 

But like many Progressive Christians, many deists (though certainly not all) are NOW thinking of God (and experiencing God) in non-theistic terms. Technically, they call this panendeism (aren't words fun?) where everything is in God but God doesn't directly intervene. Contrast this to panentheism where everything is in God but God does intervene in response to prayer, his will, etc.

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Guest billmc

In deism's favor, I like that it encourages personal responsibility on individuals. Many times some Christians who believe in supernatural theism shrug off their responsibilities to take care of the planet. After all, this world isn't their home and some Christians believe it's blasphemous to think humans could destroy God's creation because only God can destroy it. Since in deism God isn't a deus ex machina who can sweep in at the last minute to save the day, it is up to individual people to care for God's creation. Also, many dogmatic forms of supernatural theism treat God as an abusive parent who manipulates and blackmails his children to keep them under its control but to show real love, a parent should be able to let their children grow up and make their own choices. I like how in deism God doesn't try to keep humans under its control but allows its creation to make their own life choices and take responsibility for their own actions. I also like how deism encourages people not to hold a single dogmatic image of God in their mind by avoiding giving God personal attributes.

 

I concur, NG. Again, the point for me is not to either argue about or nail down concepts of God. My musings are much more pragmatic than just trying to find the "right things to believe." But I think the deists' notions of God are fairly close to what Bonhoeffer said about, "in a world filled with God, we live without God" (my paraphrase). In other words, as you have said, we don't look for a "sky hook" or for Superman to fly down from the sky to save the day. Although I believe there is both external and internal "evidence" for what I call God, I essentially live in such a way that I don't expect God to do anything other than what the natural order of the universe displays.

 

It all comes down to, as you say, taking responsibility for ourselves and our world. This, of course, in no way implies that we are omnipotent or that we can do everything. But it strongly suggests, IMO, that we are tied together and need each other to really make a difference. We can ALL do SOMETHING.

 

I also appreciate what you said about the images of God that we hold in our minds. I'm not at all worried about committing idolatry against the Bible-God. It is just that I know that we tend to become like what we worship or admire. I don't know if we can help it or not. But, for that reason, I would rather, if I must, conceive of God in character traits rather than in anthropomorphic images. I would rather think of God as being, or as love, or as life, or as potential, or even as being self- and universe-conscious. But, again, it is not about finding the perfect picture of God; it is about the kind of character I desire in my own life as a result of somehow believing in God.

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Seems to me that Bill and Neon make some excellent points about personal responsibility. Im not much of a philosopher nor a Deist, but what appeals to me about Deism is its association with the original invention of democracy in this country. There was more emphasis on men and women doing what they could to make a positive difference in their world rather than continuing to live under a distant dominating system like the ancient Israelites in Caesars empire.

 

Having grown up near Boston, being a huge admirer of John Adams (and being one of the many descendants of a Mayflower passenger, a Revolutionary war officer, etc) I hope the US government adheres to its roots in the truest sense. Rather than the misleading image the TEA party would have us adopt, its important to realize most of the founding fathers were Deiststhey did not believe the bible was literal fact, and would be totally opposed to right wing fundamentalists. The attitude of the age was one of enlightened reason, tolerance, and free thought. Its always easier to be a backbiting reactionary than a responsible leader.

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Guest billmc

It’s always easier to be a backbiting reactionary than a responsible leader.

 

And, for me, it is fairly easy to fall into that mode. The religion of my youth was very much backbiting and reactionary towards science, philosophy, rationalism, and pluralism. I've now changed my mind on many of those things, but I can still fall prey to the attitude of being reactionary.

 

Paine was, in his own way, very reactionary towards the Christianity of his time (which wasn't very progressive). He admits to this in the very beginning of the AOR from the relative safety of being essentially near the end of his career and life. His book, in reality, doesn't really have much good to say about the Christianity of his time. But then, how many of us can really move forward in finding or constructing a new paradigm or worldview without first acknowledging the short comings of our previous one and dismantling most or part of it?

 

This is something that is an ongoing process in my own life, trying to separate what I believe to be the chaff from the wheat. For me, it is not an easy thing to do. In my prior paradigm, I was basically given a complete package and told to believe it. Trusting authority figures and the longevity of church traditions, I believed the whole package (or most of it). When it slowly unraveled and then fell apart, I was faced with a choice; either walk completely away and look for an entirely different paradigm, or try to sift through the rubble for what was still meaningful, still valuable.

 

I have to be honest and say that the reactionary in me does sometimes simply want to walk away and follow in the footsteps of Harris or Hitchens. But there is also still much in me that finds value and meaning in some of the things from my old paradigm, especially when given the freedom to reinterpret them or understand them from another point-of-view.

 

This process will, I hope and trust, continue, probably until I am pushing up daisies. The AOR, though reactionary as a whole, has within it, IMO, the seeds of a more progressive Christianity. Paine held onto a belief in God (which was more the Mind behind the universe than the Bible-God) and to Jesus as a good person and teacher. And, as we have been discussing, he advocated a sense of human responsibility and respect for each other and for our world, something that the organized religion of his time (and also of ours) fought against, invoking the name of God and the person of Jesus in order to maintain their own power and line their own pockets. Have things really changed all that much? Ouch, there goes my reactionary side again. :D

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Guest billmc

I was agreeing with you, not criticizing.

 

I know that, Rivanna. I was just trying to say that as I sort through the things of my own journey, I would probably do better to focus on and write about the stuff worth keeping than the stuff that is not.

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Having grown up near Boston, being a huge admirer of John Adams (and being one of the many descendants of a Mayflower passenger, a Revolutionary war officer, etc) I hope the US government adheres to its roots in the truest sense. Rather than the misleading image the “TEA party” would have us adopt, it’s important to realize most of the founding fathers were Deists—they did not believe the bible was literal fact, and would be totally opposed to right wing fundamentalists.

Thomas Jefferson was also a deist and he wrote his own version of the bible where he removed all the miracles of Jesus and just kept the teachings of Jesus. Horrifingly, the Religious Right in Texas is trying to eliminate Thomas Jefferson from history books literally.
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Guest billmc

In the next chapter (8), Paine writes:

 

"I now go on to the book called the New Testament. The new Testament! that is, the 'new' Will, as if there could be two wills of the Creator."

 

This is, to me, an interesting observation. Of course, the word "testament" could be translated as "will" or "covenant." But it still implies, if taken literally, that God is either doing something new or changing his mind. If the goal of the Bible was to testify that Jesus needed to be crucified in order that people could be saved, then why did God "send" him as soon as Adam and Eve sinned in order to solve the problem at the start? ;) Why 4000 years of Jewish history just to have, according to some, Jesus wipe it all out with a new will?

 

Some parts of the Christian religion tell us that Jesus' only purpose was to come as a sacrifice for sin, as a payment made to God (or to Satan) for the sins of the world so that humanity and God can be reunited once again. In this scenario, Jesus "takes our place" temporarily on the cross so that we can "take his place" in heaven with God when we die. This interpretation is often called "substitutionary atonement." About it, Paine has this to say:

 

"If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me. But if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed. Moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself. It is then no longer justice. It is indiscriminate revenge."

 

I think his wit and insight into this is quite keen. IMO, one person cannot pay for the sins of another (to use that language). I would take it a step further and say that the only way in which we pay for our sins is by reaping what we sow. But it is certainly not the case that Jesus was a true substitute and is suffering today in hell so that we can go to heaven. The notion of substitutional atonement, IMO, falls apart when examined for logical consistency.

 

This doesn't mean I disregard the death of Jesus. Quite the contrary. To me, his death proved his belief and life-style of self-sacrificing love. His death exposes our own human tendency to get rid of anything that threatens our own survival or sense of well-being. And, to me, it would make no sense for Jesus to tell us to carry our own cross or lay down our own lives if he was our substitute. Additionally, I think our sins are "forgiven by God" as we turn from them, not because of a blood sacrifice or because God's anger is somehow appeased. Besides, it makes no sense for Jesus to go around in the gospels forgiving sins if it was only his death that could accomplish it. God, IMO, has always been forgiving of us, has always allowed us innumerable second chances to learn to love one another.

 

I don't know if I will personally "stand before God" someday, like a criminal in a cosmic courtroom. I doubt it. But if I do, I don't want someone else taking my place. If God is going to deal with me justly, God must deal with ME, not with someone else. And I would certainly not like to think that the only reason I am "let go" is because God had to punish Jesus in my place. I don't punish one of my children for the shortcomings of another. And if I do punish, it is for correction, not for retribution or revenge. Surely the God who is big and wondrous enough to provide us with all we have doesn't need sins to be paid for or for his ego to be soothed by a blood sacrifice? Surely God doesn't solve the problem of human sin by commiting violence, does he?

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Thomas Paine was, like us, a product of his time and his understanding of the cosmos. We all live according to the light we have. In his time, many deists held that God was a perfect being and, therefore, the more perfect a thing was, the closer to God it was.

 

It is for this reason, as well as a few others, that Paine rejected the Bible as the "Word of God." He felt that it was too full of mistakes, scientific inaccuracies, superstition, and imperfections to be considered to be the very words of God. In this, I agree with him; the Bible, I don't believe the Bible is the words of God, but the words of men. But I doubt that I hold to quite the same view of God as perfection that Paine seemed to.

 

In chapter 9, Paine asks if God has spoken to humanity. And his answer is, yes, God has and God does - through creation. He writes:

 

"It is only in the CREATION that all our ideas and conceptions of a word of God can unite. The Creation speaketh an universal language, independently of human speech or human language, multiplied and various as they be. It is an ever existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God."

 

This notion really resonates with me. The better we understand our cosmos, the better we understand what we call God. Why? Because the cosmos reflects reality - it is really there. And, as Paine says, it is observable to everyone to some degree. It doesn't require the kind of faith that revealed religions do, trusting in what one person or one book says about the nature of reality, often quite at odds to what another person or another book says.

 

 

To me, the other benefit of this view is that it allows for progress. We, as 21st century humans, certainly understand the cosmos better than people of the first century did. We know that God is not a human-like being that lives "up", just beyond the clouds. The first Russian in space confirmed this for us. We know that the earth is not flat and that if you go to the highest mountain, you cannot see all the kingdoms of the world. The cosmos has changed little since the first century, but our understanding of it has changed drastically. As we study it and seek to understand it, everything from supernovae to qwarks, we are learning more and more about reality and, IMO, therefore more and more about God. The hitch in this is that knowledge does not always lead to wisdom. The knowledge of splitting the atom provides us with nuclear energy, but it also created the bomb.

 

This is why, to me, the "Word of God" we have in the cosmos must also be accompanied by the "Spirit" of God, the life-creating and life-affirming wisdom of God. To quote Paul, the letter kills but the Spirit gives life. If we don't hold in balance the knowledge of our cosmos with the wisdom of using that knowledge to create, affirm, and strengthen life, then we err, not only for ourselves, but possibly for future generations and our planet.

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  • 10 months later...
Guest billmc

Well, it's been 10 months since I've shared anything on this thread, and seeing as I haven't used up my daily allotment of words yet, I thought I would share more about my explorations into this particular wisdom tradition.

 

However, I would like to switch gears somewhat. As I've stated previously in this thread, classical deism can be overly negative. Although Paine's writings were very influencial in America's efforts to free herself from England, his critique of the Christianity of his day was very much a "via negativa", pointing out much that was wrong, but not offering a whole lot in a positive way forward.

 

Although deism is more of a philosophy than a religion, it has, thankfully, changed quite a bit since Paine's day. And I've discovered that Positive Deism or modern deism focuses much more on offering something constructive to people instead of, as some forms of deism still do, bashing Christianity and other "revealed religions" over the head.

 

So what I would like to do, in the way of sharing and, of course, being totally open for discussion, is to offer a bit of the "via positiva" of modern deism. I'd like to do that by sharing 10 principles of positive deism, things which many modern deists hold to. IMO, they blend quite well with the 8 Points of Progressive Christianity, at least for me. And I'd like to simply post the point and then comment on it from my point of view and experience. As always, comments and input is welcome. These come from "The Center for Reasoned Spirituality" Uniting Science and Spirit http://www.reasonandspirit.com/about

 

Here we go:

 

1. We believe that God exists based on reflective reason, knowledge of Nature, and personal experience.

 

To me, this means that I can trust the reasons that I find in both the universe and within myself as sufficient evidence that God is real. Notice that I did not say proof, just evidence. The evidence that I find may not be persuasive to others. But it has convinced me. In my own journey, nature has been overwhelmingly convincing to me that Someone or Something made all this, that is was not just a cosmic accident or a series of random events. And I don't confine nature to just the external world and universe, as structured and as beautiful as much of that is. I also find within myself (and within others) evidence that there is some sort of Divinity behind and in us. My own personal experiences have also confirmed this to me. I can't deny that I feel that God exist and is real. I am okay with my own subjective experience of God or the Sacred. Yes, I am convinced that God or the Sacred exist. And I have some sort of idea about what that means to me. But I am also wary about trying to dictate to others about how they conceive of or experience God. It is a statistical fact that most people believe in God. But there is great divergence as to what God is like or to what character God may or may not have. So I think there is a lot of room for consideration, discussion, and even disagreement. But the point, at least for me, is that, yes, I believe God exists...and it is not just because a book or a religion or a prophet told me so.

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