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Red Hot Pokers and All

February 26, 2013

January 22 1825 – April 19, 1825

I felt it was worth copying this complete letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, January 23, 1825, and also making it a color that hurts your eyes:

My Dear Sir,

We think ourselves possessed or at least we boast that we are so of Liberty of conscience on all subjects and of the right of free inquiry and private judgment, in all cases and yet how far are we from these exalted privileges in fact. There exists throughout the whole Christian world a law which makes it blasphemy to deny or to doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the old and new Testaments from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack or the wheel: in England itself it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red hot poker: in America it is not much better, even in our Massachusetts which I believe upon the whole is as temperate and moderate in religious zeal as most of the States. A law was made in the latter end of the last century repealing the cruel punishments of the former laws but substituting fine and imprisonment upon all those blasphemers upon any book of the old Testament or new. Now what free inquiry when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any argument for investigation into the divine authority of those books? Who would run the risk of translating Volney’s Recherches Nouvelles? who would run the risk of translating Dupuis? but I cannot enlarge upon this subject though I have it much at heart. I think such laws a great embarassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind. Books that cannot bear examination certainly ought not to be established as divine inspiration by penal laws. It is true few persons appear desirous to put such laws in execution and it is also true that some few persons are hardy enough to venture to depart from them; but as long as they continue in force as laws the human mind must make an awkward and clumsy progress in its investigations. I wish they were repealed. The substance and essence of Christianity as I understand it is eternal and unchangeable and will bear examination forever but it has been mixed with extraneous ingredients, which I think will not bear examination and they ought to be separated.

Without having reviewed every (or any) early 19th-century law on religious inquiry, I assume there is a bit of exaggeration here. That’s not to diminish the long and continued history of religious dogmatism and persecution, but just considering the amount of “free inquiry” that both Adams and Jefferson have engaged in throughout their correspondence, it may not have been quite as bad as JA suggests. However, I’m copying the whole letter because obviously I think JA has made some good points.

This is where I shoehorn whatever I want into the Adams-Jefferson correspondence. A couple of weeks ago I listened to an episode of BBC Radio’s “In Our Time” examining the ideas of the existentialist and Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. One of the guests on the program, Jonathan Rée, discussed SK’s phrase, “becoming a Christian,” a way of describing that there is no such thing as “being a Christian,” because the inquiry into truth and the mysteries of faith, love, God, Christ, etc. can never be a completed task. To quote Rée, “The very idea of being a Christian is contradictory because to be a Christian would be to think of Christianity as a doctrine that you could relax into like a comfortable armchair. But the whole point about being a Christian is that you always have to be on your guard against relapsing into taking things for granted.”

I like that, and while it isn’t about JA’s issue with the divine inspiration of scripture, if we use his letter as a launching point for thinking about “free inquiry” and the authenticity of faith, it’s a reasonable place to go. That leads me to two more quotes. One, from SK’s Fear and Trembling, written in 1843: “What every man has not a right to do, is to make others believe that faith is something lowly, or that it is an easy thing, whereas it is the greatest and hardest.”

Lest you think I actually comprehended more than 10% of Fear and Trembling, here’s my second quote, from Philip Yancey, a much more accessible writer than SK to the average Christian skeptic. This is from Reaching for the Invisible God, written in 2002: “Faith is the skeleton in the closet of faith, and I know no better way to treat a skeleton than to bring it into the open and expose it for what it is: not something to hide or fear, but a hard structure on which living tissue may grow. . . Doubt always coexists with faith, for in the presence of certainty who would need faith at all?”

I like that too. If faith is the greatest and hardest thing, then it makes sense for the 89-year old Adams to still be wrestling with the mysteries of the universe. I much prefer “becoming a Christian” to a red-hot-poker-in-the-tongue.

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