THE PERSISTENCE OF PERNICIOUS IDEAS

The history of ideas and their influence is a fascinating area of study. I make no claims of being a scholar or philosopher, but simply an observer of the world in which I live. As such, I believe that as a society we stumble blindly along shaped and formed by forces of which we are totally unaware. The ideas of the past, inherited by the present generation as a worldview mold our society far more than we are capable of recognizing.

Ideas have incalculable effects. Many of the effects of a particular formulation of ideas are not immediately recognized in the day in which they may be in vogue, but they become a part of the fabric of a society and their effect only becomes evident years, decades or even centuries after the actual idea was first formulated.

The particular idea I want to look at is “deism,” the “belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation (distinguished from theism),” or “belief in a God who created the world but has since remained indifferent to it.” N. T. Wright describes this as belief in God as an “absentee landlord.” Sometimes deism is described as God having created the universe and then withdrew from it leaving it to rock along on its own. He exercises no influence in the affairs of men.

The fundamental idea of deism probably goes back to ancient Greece and perhaps beyond, but modern deism traces back only a few hundred years. It should come as no surprise that it gained ascendency in the so called “Age of Reason” (1600’s and 1700’s A.D.) and the “Age of Enlightenment” (1700’s and the early 1800’s). Fundamental to this age was the idea of “humanism” or the primacy of man. Deism fits this concept very well as there is no external authority such as the Bible to worry about. Man, according to this religious philosophy, must by his own reasoning power discover from nature the laws of morality and justice by which to live.

This concept of a distant and disinterested God was accepted by many of the founding fathers of this nation. Contrary to popular belief, these framers of the government of the United States were not Christians, but were deists. George Washington was a Deist, as were John Adams, Ethan Allan, Paul Revere, John Hancock, James Madison, Samuel Adams, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Alexander Hamilton.

The major philosophers of this period, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Gottfried Leibnitz (1646-1716), Bendedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) were major influences in the universities and among the highly educated and ruling classes of Europe, Britain and the United States. (Source). Thomas Paine, whose writings (The Age of Reason, etc.) affected the thinking of the patriots who fought the Revolutionary War was a major figure in promoting deism in the late 18th century.

Although questionable, it is thought that Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, “was a respected physician, a well known poet, philosopher, botanist, and naturalist.” (http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/Edarwin.html). Erasmus was reportedly a deist. He believed in evolution long before his grandson popularized the theory in his “Origin of Species.” Here is a poem by Darwin that illustrates that point.

Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

Erasmus Darwin. The Temple of Nature. 1802.

It is not a long leap from belief in a distant God to belief in no God when man wishes to assert his sole supremacy over creation. About the time Charles Darwin (who claimed to be a deist) published his theory of evolution, the Industrial Age/Modernism was getting under way with an optimistic outlook that anticipated a world in which God was not needed at all – even to explain the existence of all things. The belief that man through his own ingenuity could solve all human problems and usher in a utopian era was prominent.

With a suitable scientific “creation story” that excluded God, man was now free to “kick God out” of his thinking. No longer did man have need of deity either as creator (as deism believed) or as preeminent sustainer (as Christians believe). Atheism now became the preferred “faith” of the intelligentsia – the scientists, philosophers, professors and other prominent shapers of the thoughts and beliefs for more than the last century.

Without God, there is no objective source of morality or justice. Morality, rather than being based on the perfect character of God is now based on the desires of humanity. However man wants to define right and wrong is how right and wrong is determined. This is why the Supreme Court of our land could pronounce abortion as legal. This is why we have undergone the “sexual revolution” and the acceptance of the homosexual “lifestyle” including the demand for and acceptance of “same sex marriage.”

The widespread influence of deism has not just affected secular society – it has had very pronounced effects on religion as well. In Germany in the mid-nineteenth century very likely because of this idea of a distant God there was the rise of a questioning, critical view of the Bible. The Bible was only the production of man and full of all kinds of inherently human mistakes. This view later came to be known as “modernism” which affected – and still affects – many of the old-line protestant churches.

It is also likely that the thinking of Thomas Paine and deism influenced the American Restoration Movement. There are among those who trace their religious roots back to this historical occurrence some who believe in an aloof God who does not interact with his creation. After the close of the apostolic age God withdrew from his creation and has not been heard from since. Thus the necessity of relying heavily on human reason to establish Biblical authority. This reliance on reason is, no doubt, a contributing factor in the differences and divisions that have characterized this historical movement.

For those who hold this view, prayer is not an urgent matter. To believe in a God who specially answers prayer means that one believes in an immanent God who is near and interested in providing what is good for his creation and is automatically dismissed. For God to intervene in human life to effect healing of the sick is unthinkable. If someone recovers from illness after prayers are offered is merely coincidental.

These thoughts about the Restoration Movement are only observations. I do not have documentation to back up what I have said here. It seems highly unlikely, however, that the Restoration Movement being birthed and growing up in the era of deism was not affected in some way by this philosophy. People do not live in a vacuum and movements are not insulated from their time and environment. It is historical fact that the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) was markedly affected by modernism.

But that is a study for others or another time.

Is God far away? Is he uninterested in his creation? Remember the last words of Jesus recorded in the gospel of Matthew?

And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20b).

Moses told Israel long ago…

Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

And the words of Jesus quoted in Hebrews 13:5

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

No, God is not far away. He is near to all of us. We would do well to keep that in mind in formulating all our thinking about him and about our lives. It does make a difference!

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