The Declaration of Independence as a Calvinist Tract

It would be quite an anachronism if the authors of the Declaration of Independence had not thought in terms inherited from Christianity

As part of a seminar the website Crooked Timber is conducting on Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality Sam Goldman put up this post discussing Professor Allen’s interpretation of the theistic language in that 1776 document.  While Professor Allen concedes that a theistic reading of the Declaration is plausible, she argues that it is not necessary to arrive at agreement with the document’s central claims.

Mr Goldman is unconvinced of this, arguing that, while “Nature’s God” as described in the Declaration is not necessarily the Christian God, “the Declaration loses much of its original meaning if you leave God out.”  He spends several paragraphs discussing the sort of God the Declaration requires, showing that, for example, Spinoza’s pantheistic view might suffice to make sense of the bare language of the document, but that other evidence suggests that it would have repelled its authors, and that it would also defeat some aspects of Professor Allen’s interpretation.

I responded to Mr Goldman’s post.  I did not assert that the Declaration is necessarily a specifically Christian document, but that whatever God its authors had in mind was one who interacted with humans in much the same way as did the God Jean Calvin described in his theology.  Indeed, the reception of the Declaration in the civic life of the USA shows the influence of Calvinism on the American religious imagination.  I wrote:

“The Declaration’s God both reflects and reinforces hope that their rights were not reducible to their power or chance of immediate success.” And also their idea that justice is reducible to rights, while rights themselves are not functions of specific social institutions, but are given to us by God for no particular reason that history can discern, are received by us without our doing anything to claim them, and are retained by us throughout all time no matter how many centuries may pass without our exercising them, defending them, or knowing that they exist.

The Declaration may not mention the resurrection or Jesus “or other specifically Christian doctrines,” but in these three aspects it is, I think, obvious that the God of the Declaration relates to humanity in just the way that the God of Calvin does. Unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the persistence of the saints are three of the five petals of the Calvinist TULIP, and the Declaration’s view of rights as our history-free endowment implies a barely secularized version of all three.

The other two petals of the acronym, total depravity and limited atonement, are not far to find either. Both the king, in the comprehensive corruption that the list of grievances reveals, and the “merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions” show what humans are like when the Nature’s God does not so enlighten their understanding that the extraordinary claims of the opening paragraph become “self-evident.”

Even the very strange fact that the Declaration, which is a press release, became the occasion for the USA’s chief patriotic holiday shows the Calvinist influence. Not only do Calvinists tend to have rather a high respect for the market, so that an event in the marketing of the Revolution could become the paramount symbol of the Revolution, but also Calvinism’s emphasis on Biblical exegesis and the liturgy of the word prepared the Calvinist mind to look for the climactic moment of the Revolution, not in a battle or a treaty or in any other event where people gather and physical objects move between them, but in a presentation of abstract ideas to which people listen in silence.

This last point, that a particular configuration of the religious imagination is required to make a press release a fit object for national veneration, was in fact my initial response to the piece, as memorialized on Twitter:

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Marcel Duchamp, Calvinist

Tonight, Mrs Acilius and I were watching TV.  The program was a documentary called Paris: The Luminous Years. In a video clip from the 1960s, Marcel Duchamp said every visual artwork was a collection of shapes and colors.  The essence of art lay in the artist’s choice of these shapes and colors.  One set of shapes and colors was as eligible for this choice as another, and the actual production of the artwork was purely incidental.  Once the artist had made his or her choice of shapes and colors, the “art” is complete.

Mrs Acilius (who posts on WordPress as “Believer1“) said something about this.  “I think art is freedom.  When I paint a plate, I know that I’m painting it with fingers that have cerebral palsy.  So I have to start by accepting the fact that the picture I have in my mind is not going to be the same as the picture on the plate.”  We talked about this.  I asked her if she was saying that art wasn’t just something that happened in the artist’s mind, or just the finished product, but was to be found in the process, in the difference between what she was trying to do and what wound up happening.  She confirmed that she was saying that.

A plate by Mrs Acilius

I told Mrs Acilius that the difference between her and Duchamp reminded me of the difference between Calvinism and sacramentalism in Christian theology.  Duchamp’s idea that art is art simply because the artist has decided so, and that the events that take place in the physical world subsequent to that choice have no bearing on its status sounds rather like the Calvinist idea that the Elect are the Elect simply because God has decided so, and that events that take place in the physical world subsequent to his free election have no bearing on their status.  Her idea, by contrast, sounds like a form of Christianity that regards salvation as inseparable from particular forms of matter and particular events in time.

The Mrs is a Quaker; unlike the classical believer in the Orthodox, Catholic, or Anglican versions of Christianity, Quakers typically reject ritual.  They do, however, embrace sacraments.  Quakers do not practice baptism by water, not because they think it puts too much of God in the physical world, but because it puts too little of Him there.  Believing that the soul can encounter the Holy Spirit under any circumstances, they see the whole world as the scene of baptism.  Likewise, in their meetings for worship they do not have a ritual sharing of wine and bread, not because they lack communion, but because in their shared silences they make their fellowship a communion, and their whole persons an altar on which it is consecrated.  They do not make lists of sacraments, such as the traditional seven sacraments of Western Christianity, not because they deny that God interacts with humanity through matter, but because they believe that He interacts with us in more ways than we can count or foresee.  So when the Mrs puts an emphasis on the unpredictability of the artistic process, she is using categories familiar from the theology of her religious tradition.

Friends Journal, January 2011

During our Christmas break, the Believer and I read the latest issue of the Quaker publication Friends Journal.  I also read several books, among them the third volume of Paul Elmer More’s Shelburne Essays. The themes of this month’s issue of the magazine seemed to coincide in some interesting ways with the themes More explored in that 1905 collection.

Phil H. Gulley’s article on “The Meaning of Universalism” brings to mind two of More’s essays, the one on Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, also the one on William Cowper.  More argues that Cowper was the first English poet to make home life a major theme of poetry, and that Whittier was at his finest in exploring scenes of home.  In that way, Gulley is a follower of Whittier, for his essay is strongest in its vivid scenes from his childhood home.  Explaining his belief that there is no Hell, but an afterlife in which every human will proceed to salvation, Gulley tells of his parents insisting that he invite every child in the neighborhood to his eighth birthday party.  From that point on, he couldn’t imagine that God would give a party and leave anyone uninvited.

In his essay on William Cowper, More connects the poet’s poor mental health to his fervent belief in Jean Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination.   Calvin argued that the human will is powerless to accomplish anything of importance, certainly powerless to earn salvation, so that it is only by the free and arbitrary grace of God that some few souls, the Elect, are spared damnation.  Of this doctrine, More writes:

Good Dr Holmes has somewhere written that it was only decent for a man who believed in this doctrine to go mad.  Well, Cowper believed in it; there was no insulating pad of worldly indifference between his faith and his nerves, and he went mad.

The most obvious thing about this Universalism is that it is a form of Predestinarianism. It differs from Calvin’s doctrine only in expanding the number of the Elect to include all humans.  I cannot see that one form of Predestinarianism should be radically healthier than another.  Perhaps the belief that our actions on earth are of no importance to a kindly, indulgent God who can deny us nothing we might desire would lead to another set of delusions than those which would haunt believers in a doctrine that preaches that our actions are of no importance to a capricious, inscrutable God who will save or damn us without reason, but neither doctrine seems likely to inspire clear-headed realism.

If Gulley himself has kept his wits intact, I hasten to add, it is less likely because of an “insulating pad of worldly indifference” than it is a testament to the parents he commemorates so fondly.  As it so happens, Gulley’s father Norm was a coworker and a good friend of my father’s, and I was an occasional visitor in the home where he grew up.  My visits came after Phil Gulley had left for school, but I can confirm that they had created one of the most wholesome environments imaginable.

Another piece in the issue describes people who came from very different environments.  In her “Teaching in a Culture of Poverty and Violence,” Stephanie Wilder describes her work as a teacher in a facility for juvenile offenders in Philadelphia who have been convicted of serious crimes.  Some of these crimes are very serious indeed; the Believer and I both lost sleep after reading that “One of my students raped and brutally beat an 87-year-old woman.  He waited for her daughter to arrive home and then did the same to her.”  Wilder begins the next paragraph by acknowledging that “My students are unlikely to change.  The recidivism rate in juvenile justice is over 90 percent.”

Wilder turns to an obvious question:  “So why do I continue to work in juvie?”  After saying that as a Quaker, she is “reminded to seek that of God in everyone,” Wilder goes on to say that “I have learned to let go of my attachment to outcomes.”  She focuses on what she can control- her own behavior- not on her students’ behavior, which she can’t control.   “The boys use the expression, ‘Don’t test my gangsta!’  It means, ‘Don’t push me so far that I lose control.’  I feel that my ‘gangsta’ is my Quaker beliefs and values in the face of anger and violence.  I am sorely disappointed in myself when my gangsta is tested and I lose control and raise my voice or get disappointed.”

I’m sure Wilder’s basic point is sound- there is no point in focusing on other people’s behavior when all we can control is our own.  It is possible to take this too far, however.  Her presence in the classroom has an influence on the boys.  All of the stories she tells make it sound like her students respond to her principled nonviolence and solicitous concern for that of God in them with unbounded contempt.  If that is the case, then she may in fact be making it more likely that they will reoffend.  If the face of the justice system is someone they regard as a joke, then it can hardly deter them from continuing with the lives of crime in which they have already become so deeply invested.  As I reads the piece, I kept hoping that Wilder would describe some way that she found to use therapeutic methods based on the “Criminal Thinking” psychological model, or some other approach that has actually had success steering violent offenders away from their patterns.

Some interesting things from the web

1. Al Wood, proprietor of the magnificent Ukulele Hunt, disclaims any interest in politics, but he has a post up about copyright law that everyone should read.  He calls for a scrapping of the 95-year term of protection that is now standard in the developed world, and a return to the once-standard renewable 14 year term.

2. Some CT scans subject a patient to the radiation equivalent of 900 chest X-rays.  Several years ago, I heard the physicist Joseph Rotblat explain why he’d become an activist against the testing of nuclear weapons:

People began getting worried about all these tests.  In order to pacify the people, the Atomic Energy Commission issued a statement- this was the beginning of 1955- saying you didn’t need to worry at all about the fallout because the dose which people in the United States received from the tests was not more than from a chest X-ray.

Most people didn’t know how much radiation you get from a chest X-ray.  I knew… [A]fter this statement, I thought this was terribly dangerous.

3. A new article about T S Eliot in Commentary asks “But might it be allowed that one can write or say anti-Semitic things without being an anti-Semite? Eliot is guilty of the former, but does not, I think, stand guilty of the latter.”  The major theme of the piece is the great difficulty his Calvinist heritage left the Tse-Tse in his attempts to enjoy life.  Certainly a man who made several well-publicized anti-Semitic remarks, then earnestly declared anti-Semitism to be a sin, would seem to be an example of someone not having fun.

4. Seats in the US Senate are not apportioned by population, with the result that a candidate can lose by a landslide in one state, while candidates in other states can receive fewer votes and win elections.

 

The careers of ghosts

One of Ambrose Bierce’s most famous stories is “The Moonlit Road.”  Three narrators describe the same killing.  The third narrator is the victim, speaking through a medium.  Two of the victim’s remarks suggests that Bierce had worked out some sort of a theory about what it’s like to be a ghost:

Fear has no brains; it is an idiot. The dismal witness that it bears and the cowardly counsel that it whispers are unrelated. We know this well, we who have passed into the Realm of Terror, who skulk in eternal dusk among the scenes of our former lives, invisible even to ourselves, and one another, yet hiding forlorn in lonely places; yearning for speech with our loved ones, yet dumb, and as fearful of them as they of us. Sometimes the disability is removed, the law suspended: by the deathless power of love or hate we break the spell — we are seen by those whom we would warn, console, or punish. What form we seem to them to bear we know not; we know only that we terrify even those whom we most wish to comfort, and from whom we most crave tenderness and sympathy.

A bit later, she elaborates on this:

You think that we are of another world.  No, we have knowledge of no world but yours, though for us it holds no sunlight, no warmth, no music, no laughter, no song of birds, nor any companionship.  O God!  what a thing it is to be a ghost, cowering and shivering in an altered world, a prey to apprehension and despair.

A very similar theory seems to inform the lyrics of Lila Burns’ “Young Hearts, Young Minds.”  A contender for “Ukulele Video of the Year” honors at Al Wood’s incomparable Ukulele Hunt,  the song enlists our sympathies for those who are powerless to do anything but “float around town/ just sing out loud goin oo oo oo-oo oo-oo.”  Whether Lila Burns has read Ambrose Bierce or developed her conception of the afterlife independently I don’t know.

While I’m at it, I should mention John Zmirak’s recent Halloween essay.  Who likes Halloween?  Radical traditionalist Catholics, that’s who likes Halloween.  Zmirak expresses a measure of sympathy for anti-Halloween Protestants:

Some homeschooling friends of mine confessed to me that they felt torn over whether or not to let their son dress up and go trick-or-treating; their Protestant friends kept telling them that this holiday was pagan or even Satanic. And given their theology, you can see their point: The souls of the dead are either in Heaven — in which case they’re not walking the earth and need not be appeased, represented, mocked, or even commemorated, depending on which reading you give to the way we Catholics appropriated old pagan customs that marked this time of year– or else they’re in Hell, and not worth remembering.

Only if you believe in Purgatory, Zmirak argues, can you fit earth-haunting ghosts into the world of Christian imagination.  Zmirak gladly claims the Addams family as rad-trad Catholics.  “Indeed, I think I may have spotted several Addamses at the indult parish in New York City…”  He urges devout parents not to dress their little trick-or-treaters as saints, but to give them costumes that display the eerie and frightening parts of life that Halloween is meant to confront.  He does draw the line somewhere, though:

Now, I’m very much in agreement that two-year-old children should not be dressed as Satan. For one thing, it’s a little bit too realistic. Indeed, the fallenness of children, which Augustine bemoaned in his Confessions, is so evident to everyone that garbing the little tykes in the robes of absolute evil seems to overstress the point. Nor do we wish to trivialize the serious, deadly purpose of our infernal enemy — dragging each of us screaming to Hell. If you’re feeling puckish, it’s in much better taste to dress up your kids as Osama bin Laden, Annibale Bugnini, or some other of the Evil One’s lesser minions. If you must dress your boys as saints, choose military martyrs, canonized crusaders, or patriarchs from the Old Testament. One suggestion I made as editor of the Feasts and Seasons section of Faith & Family magazine was this: Dress up your daughters as early Roman martyrs, like Agnes and Agatha, and your sons as the Roman soldiers, gladiators, and lions that sent them to heaven. Stock up on lots of fake blood for the girls’ machine-washable tunics, and let the games begin! (Alas, this idea never saw print.)

Bierce grew up in Ohio in the 1840s and 1850s; his family and neighbors were staunch Calvinists.  One of his sisters was so committed to that faith that she went to Africa as a missionary.  She was never heard from again; many Ohioans thought that she had been eaten by cannibals.  Perhaps she was an inspiration for the cartoons magazines used to run showing pith-helmeted figures in great pots of boiling water.  Bierce himself was alienated from religion; at times he made a show of atheism, at other times he cultivated a reputation for the Satanic.  The God in whom Bierce did not believe was the God of Calvin.  When he turned his imagination to the supernatural, Calvinism would have been his starting point.  Perhaps the isolated, helpless, misunderstood ghosts of Ambrose Bierce and Lila Burns represent a stage in the decay of Calvinist theology, even as the Addams family and other products Zmirak endorses represent the current stage of rad-trad Catholicism.

Ambrose Bierce and The Man Without Illusions

Several weeks ago, The Nation ran a review-essay about Ambrose Bierce.  A few days before happening on this piece, I’d my old Dover Thrift Edition collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories, a paperback I’d bought for a dollar in 1996 and had been meaning to read ever since.  I was interested in the reviewer’s remarks about one of those stories in particular:

In another powerful story, “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” Bierce writes of a face-off between two batteries of well-fortified Confederate cannons, twelve in total, and a single Union cannon crew led by Captain Coulter. Coulter’s crew is forced into an open notch and ordered to engage in a firefight just because a general in the field wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true. Though Coulter hesitates, he follows the order. He and his crew wheel one cannon out to the notch and commence firing. Soon the twelve Confederate cannons respond and the two sides are lost in the thunderous explosions and enormous clouds of artillery smoke. Each time one of Coulter’s cannons is destroyed, his crew wheels a new one up to the notch so the fight can continue. Eventually the Union officers ride up to the notch to check on Coulter and his men:

Within that defile, barely broad enough for a single gun, were piled the wrecks of no fewer than four. They had noted the silencing of only the last one disabled—there had been a lack of men to replace it quickly with another. The debris lay on both sides of the road; the men had managed to keep an open way between, through which the fifth piece was now firing. The men?—they looked like demons of the pit! All were hatless, all stripped to the waist, their reeking skins black with blotches of powder and spattered with gouts of blood. They worked like madmen, with rammer and cartridge, lever and lanyard. They set their swollen shoulders and bleeding hands against the wheels at each recoil and heaved the heavy gun back to its place. There were no commands; in that awful environment of whooping shot, exploding shells, shrieking fragments of iron, and flying splinters of wood, none could have been heard. Officers, if officers there were, were indistinguishable; all worked together—each while he lasted—governed by the eye. When the gun was sponged, it was loaded; when loaded, aimed and fired. The colonel observed something new to his military experience—something horrible and unnatural: the gun was bleeding at the mouth! In temporary default of water, the man sponging had dipped his sponge into a pool of comrade’s blood.

The cannon drooling blood is certainly a memorable image, and as I read the story I was sure it would be the detail that stayed with me.  By the end, however, even that horror has been put into the shade.  At first we think that Captain Coulter’s commanding officer sent him to that desperately exposed position and ordered him to shell the house opposite simply because he “wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true.”  Then one officer tells another that Coulter was a southerner who had left his family behind Confederate lines to join the Union army.  He goes on to report a rumor that the commander had led an occupying force that patroled the area where Coulter’s family was.  This rumor held that the commander had made advances to Coulter’s wife.  She rebuffed him, and the officer wonders if that was why the commander put Coulter in such danger.  By the end of the story, even this grotesque idea is shown to be short of the full horror of the situation. 

The Nation‘s reviewer quotes Bierce’s definition of “realism” from The Devil’s Dictionary as “The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.”  This quote is at the center of a little disquisition on Bierce’s use of improbable events in his fiction.  The last two paragraphs of the review sum this disquisition up:

Bierce often resorted to horror, whether grisly war stories or even supernatural tales, but he didn’t do this to avoid writing about reality; he used the genre to confront the truths of his day—the monstrosity of battle, the terror of extinction.

Read Bierce and try not to think of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Read Bierce and consider the ways “probability” can be a poor test; sometimes realism just fails. Every era needs a genre through which it understands itself. We are living in the age of the uncanny once again. Time to testify.

This point is very close to something that came to my mind while I was reading that collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories.  The stories are full of wildly improbable events; random shots fired at distant enemies can be relied upon to kill the gunners’ fathers, brothers, wives.  Bierce presents these freak occurrences not to undercut the sense of his stories’ reality, but to emphasize their truthfulness.   

What truth does Bierce want us to think fills his stories?  I think it is the same truth that was publicized almost two decades ago, when a hit movie was advertised with an image of a Marine colonel shouting “You can’t handle the truth!”  Even though the movie passed through theaters in 1992,  a Google search for “You can’t handle the truth” restricted to results that went up this week draws over 16,000 hits.  I wonder if the resonance of that line and the power of Bierce’s stories don’t combine to show that there is an idea at large in American culture of truth as something necessarily violent, of war as the ultimate truth.  If so, the colonel in the movie and the highly decorated Civil War veteran Bierce would both figure as men with a privileged access to truth, as warriors who had seen the heart of battle. 

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