Friday, February 18, 2005

The Deist Minimum

In this article, from the January 2005 issue, Avery Cardinal Dulles, gives a quick run-through of Deism, its growth and decay, and how its residue left traces in the American Founding. He says that much of our American tolerance of other faiths is due to the American civil religion, which has deism making up some estimable proportion of it. And he says that all this, the civil religion and the tolerance, is under corrosive attack by the modern multi-culti forces of pluralism and religion-hostile judiciaries.

Well, maybe. I'd think that indifference would be a deadlier weapon than hostility against Christianity in America. As Canadian columnist Mark Steyn said, "Forty years of ACLU efforts to eliminate God from the public square have led to a resurgent, evangelical and politicized Christianity in America. [...] In Britain and Europe, by contrast, the formal and informal symbols of religious faith remained in place in national life and there were no local equivalent to America's militant litigants, and the result is the total collapse of Christianity: Across the continent, the churches are empty. In attempting to sue God out of public life, American liberals demonstrate yet again that they're great on tactics, lousy on long-term strategy." For all the doom and gloom that we conservatives love to appall ourselves with, the Christian faith is still quite robust in this country.

I don't know that I quite follow Cardinal Dulles point about deism being the fund from which the American triumph of tolerance is drawn. (Yes, I have a license to mix metaphors that way!) I'd say that the living, breathing Christian life among the general public in the United States is more descended from people like Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, and John and Charles Wesley, than from Thomas Jefferson. The Great Awakenings swept aside whatever market for a sheerly rational religion there ever may have been among the common people. To me, deism is an 18th century curio of that century's love affair with Reason and Harmony. It was a creed that would "satisfy the soul of a saint without disgusting the intellect of a scholar", as someone once said. We see its patina on the words of the Founders, but deism was not their essence. Whatever the Founders believed personally, it's faintly ridiculous to think that they didn't have a good grasp of the popular religious sentiment of their time.

And is Cardinal Dulles right, that deism constitutes the bare-bones minimum for hewing to a recognizably Judeo-Christian public morality in this country? I have to admit I've never considered deism that way. I'm inclined to think of deism as an artifact than an article of faith. But, maybe it has leavened Christianity with reason to some extent. Or, was deism the product of reason in Christianity, instead? Whatever, when culture warriors come to the inevitable exhortations to re-embrace the vanished values of old, I just don't see deism being one of them.

Aside: As for deism in the modern era, I wonder if it will make a re-appearance in the wake of the recent gigantic tsunami. An absent, clockmaker god is certainly the easy way out of the theological puzzle posed by such a huge disaster. Smaller disasters don't call up the ultimate questions so readily: Mudslides wipe out a California community? Well, people should know better than to build on and under hills that are so geologically unstable--are little more than giant mudpies, in fact. But a giant ocean wave that wrecks the whole Indian Ocean seaboard? That demands some sort of cosmic explanation.

A good, lengthy exposition of deism can be found here, at the online Catholic Encyclopedia.

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