The faith of Thomas Jefferson

I recently participated in a debate on the faith of the founders of the United States.  I must say it is somewhat entertaining to see the lack of knowledge many have on this topic.  There is this misconception that they were all “good Christian men.”  The fact is – they weren’t.  Most of them were deists and would likely (by today’s standards) ended up as atheists given the advancements of science since their deaths as well as the pangs of history like the Holocaust and other genocides that have occurred since their deaths.  So maybe I will do a little series on the faith of the founders and since it was Jefferson that I spoke of this week, I may as well use the same subject here.  Thomas-Jefferson

For starters Thomas Jefferson rejected the divinity of Jesus, the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible, and the relevance and authenticity of the church at the time (imagine what he would think now)

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.  – Letter to Benjamin Rush in 1803

It is an indisputable fact that although Jefferson was critical of the Bible and the Church, he did admire the moral code of Jesus but also acknowledges that it was not a moral code that Jesus invented as it was one that early non-temple cult rabbis had (like Hillel) as well as a number of other moral philosophers that predate the writings of the nomadic tribes of the Hebrews.

Jefferson was a man of his own sect – he thought for himself. At best he was a Unitarian and in reality a deist or universal theist who was just a skeptic who liked to read.

Here is a nice nugget he wrote as well which in my opinion is spot on and can be found as a preface to the “Jefferson Bible” (more on that a little later):

“SYLLABUS OF AN ESTIMATE OF THE DOCTRINES OF JESUS, COMPARED WITH THOSE OF OTHERS.

In a comparative view of the ethics of the enlightened nations of antiquity, of the Jews, and of Jesus, no notice should be taken of the corruptions of reason among the ancients, to wit, the idolatry and superstition of the vulgar, nor of the corruptions of Christianity by the learned among its professors. Let a just view be taken of the moral principles inculcated by the most esteemed of the sects of ancient philosophy, or of their individuals; particularly Pythagoras, Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, Antoninus.

I. PHILOSOPHERS.

1. Their precepts related chiefly to ourselves, and the government of those passions which, unrestrained, would disturb our tranquility of mind. In this branch of philosophy they were really great.

2. In developing our duties to others, they were short and defective. They embraced indeed the circles of kindred and friends, and inculcated patriotism, or the love of country in the aggregate, as a primary obligation: towards our neighbors and countrymen they taught justice, but scarcely viewed them as within the circle of benevolence. Still less have they inculcated peace, charity, and love to our fellow-men, or embraced with benevolence the whole family of mankind.

II. JEWS.

1. Their system was Deism, that is, the belief in one only God; but their ideas of him and of his attributes were degrading and injurious.

2. Their ethics were not only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason and morality, as they respect intercourse with those around us; and repulsive and anti-social as respecting other nations. They needed reformation, therefore, in an eminent degree.

III. JESUS.

In this state of things among the Jews, Jesus appeared. His parentage was obscure; his condition poor; his education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and innocent. He was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence. The disadvantages under which his doctrines appear are remarkable.

  1. Like Socrates and Epictetus, he wrote nothing himself.
  2. But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write for him. I name not Plato, who only used the name of Socrates to cover the whimsies of his own brain.On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing of his life and doctrines fell on unlettered and ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, and not till long after the transactions had passed.
  3. According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and the throne, at about 33 years of age, his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of three years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals.
  4. Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective, as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.
  5. They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian Sophist (Plato), frittering them into subtilties and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an impostor.

Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man. The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his doctrines.

  1. He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only god, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.
  2. His moral doctrines, relating to kindred and friends, were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthrophy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.
  3.  The precepts of philosophy and of the Hebrew code laid hold of action only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thought, and purified the waters at the fountain head.
  4.  He taught emphatically the doctrine of a future state, which was either doubted or disbelieved by the Jews; and wielded it with efficacy as an important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.

I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials (The Gospels) which I call the Philosophy of Jesus. It is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen. It is a document in proof that I am a REAL CHRISTIAN, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call ME infidel and THEMSELVES Christians and preachers of the Gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were he to return on earth, would not recognize one feature.”— Letter from Jefferson to Mr. Charles Thompson.Jefferson sources

Note the words “wee little book”… To Jefferson the Bible was so bad that he literally cut out the only worthwhile portions of Jesus’ life and teachings and compiled his own “wee little book”. Copies of this book were given to Members of Congress shortly after it was discovered up until the 1950’s when the evangelicals seized control of the government out of fear of the Soviets and us needing “god on our side” (as if the little children in Ethiopia could wait – we were more important).  I own a copy and I recommend it to anyone.  A side note – “In God we Trust” became the motto in the 1950 and “Under God” was added in the 1950’s as well – so this “God and country” thing is not our heritage.

Here is a link to the Jefferson Bible (with actual pictures of it):  http://americanhistory.si.edu/JeffersonBible/

Any questions?

Be the change..

Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), political and ...

Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), political and spiritual leader of India. Location unknown. Français : Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), Guide politique et spirituel de l’Inde. Lieu inconnu. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have not been shy about expressing my opinions and sharing what I have learned in the realm of religion and philosophy. Just as society has gone through “ages’ of darkness and enlightenment, so have I as an individual. We live in an extremely materialistic world. A world where people are often judged and classed by what they possess and the influence they have rather than the content of their character. It is also evident that the less one is required to think about a topic, the more consumable it is for public discourse. When one takes a step back and looks at how far we have come scientifically, medically, and technologically it is difficult to understand why we are socially on a death spiral in the opposite direction.

How can a society that is charting DNA and uncovering the secrets of the human genome find television shows that claim to be reality when they are mere facades and staged fallacies displaying utter ignorance and Neanderthal behavior to be entertaining?

How can a society with the resources available to wipe out hunger across the globe instead squander the wealth by engaging in unnecessary combat?

How can a society claiming belief and reverence to a man who preached “what ye do to the least of my Brethren, ye do unto me” be more concerned about defending the wealth of the wealthy than the well-being of the poor?

There are some that believe that the rise of secularism in the world is the cause for the moral collapse of society and to those people I can only ask them to explain the Inquisitions and Holy Wars of the past and the lavish lifestyles of high-profile pastors and clergy today. The overwhelming majority of wars that have been fought in history were either for religion or imperialism and ironically enough, up until the 20th century imperialism itself was also tied to religion due to the perceived “divine right” of monarchs.

It is incumbent on all of us to find a way to move society forward in a rational, compassionate, and tolerant way. We cannot expect things to change without any effort of our own and we cannot expect or allow the discourse to be done without any effort of our own. It has been over 50 years since a vibrant and inspiring leader said “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I think this premise needs to be extended further as we now live in a more global centric world. The myth of one country being “greater” than another is not conducive to geo-political progress and it creates a vain and false sense of exceptionalism, which is counter productive in building relationships.

We all need to take a step back and consider that our personal worldview is limited by our personal education and experience. Just because we have grown up under certain conditions and beliefs does not mean that they are true or that they apply to everyone. The art of compromise has all but vanished in the halls of the U.S. government because of ideological stubbornness and the perception that compromising somehow is a relinquishing or surrendering of core values, when it is an essential part of managing cultural diversity.

So how is this in any way relevant in the Quest for Light you may be asking? Well, it is simple really. Take a look at how you spend your day. No doubt it is probably a repeatable routine that resembles a hamster in a spinning wheel. Do we look at the forest for the trees anymore? Do we spend time walking on something other than concrete or asphalt? Do we sit in the shade provided by something not consisting of trusses and plywood? Can we even see the stars anymore? Do we even look up?

We live a life with no evidence to support that anything will follow once we take our last breath. Life has a cycle that if you live long enough you eventually become just as helpless as you were when you were born. A full circle of life that ends almost exactly as it began, except instead of the promise and potential that comes with a new life we must consider what it is we did with all that promise and potential.

Darkness dissipates by a mere spark of light and a spark can cause a flame and a flame can lead to a fire. Gandhi once said to “be the change you wish to see“. I think it’s time we all stop waiting for change or praying for miracles and start doing something.

“What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
Albert Pike

Stop talking and do something

English: A homeless man in Paris Français : Un...

Image via Wikipedia

Faith does not feed the homeless, it does not assist the elderly, it does not protect the weak, or comfort widows and orphans. 

Faith does not house an injured veteran, it does not counsel the depressed, it does not provide healthcare to the poor.

People with big hearts do.

People who talk less and perform random acts of kindness are not as numerous as those who like to complain about the state of things.  Some people perform acts of kindness out of the goodness of their heart and some do them for self-gratification and recognition.  Either way it is our actions and not our personal beliefs that can affect the lives of other people. 

Many of the worlds religions rest the fate of mankind on a messianic figure of some kind.  Some believe this person will be a warrior who will defeat the forces of evil by force, some believe he already came and will return to finish what he started, and some believe that there have been messianic figures in the past and that more are to come – each one adding to the work of the other.

Instead of waiting around for someone why not look at yourself?  Every single person has the power to make a difference on their own.  There are so many stories of this happening in the past.  From Hercules, Noah, and Moses to George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. 

“Be the change you want to see in the world” ~Gandhi

It was a small group of ambitious men who ended the Divine right of kings in Europe and its grip on America.  It was a small group of people who inspired thousands to rise against dictators and topple oppressive regimes.  Why are you waiting around for someone else to “save” you or the rest of the world when you can do it yourself?  Every single one of us has the power to change the world for the better.  You don’t have to start a revolution or sacrifice your life either, it can be a simple act of kindness for a complete stranger that can start a ripple effect of kindness that can span a distance greater than you can imagine. 

 “Each person must see himself as though the entire world were held in balance and any deed he may do could tip the scales.”  ~Maimonides

I am not telling anyone to renounce their religion or any doctrines they may teach.  I am merely saying that it’s time to stop preaching about ending times and the collapse of morals in society and actually do something about it.  Sitting around and acting hopeless accomplishes nothing.  In my life time I have seen the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and people in positions of power that can do something about it (Washington, the Vatican, etc) do absolutely nothing about it.

Rather than spends billions of dollars fighting an ideology, why not spend those dollars on things like feeding the homeless, assisting the elderly, protecting the weak, comforting widows and orphans?   Maybe instead of waiting for a savior we can provide housing to an injured veteran, counsel the depressed, or provide healthcare to not just the poor but, every single person who needs it.

You can call me unrealistic, you can say I’m crazy, you can even tell me this is impossible.  If you did then it would just be a useless parade of words with little to no meaning and another example of a complete lack of action.  All of us have heard the expression “actions speak louder than words” but, how many of us actually try to help others?  How many of us show our children the necessity of having a charitable heart?  How many of us spend more time “keeping up with the Jones’s” instead of “helping out the Smith’s”?

If you think you can’t make a difference.  Just watch what happens when you actually try.

© Nelson Rose, The Quest for Light