How Much Longer?

January 29, 2013

April 11, 1823 – November 10, 1823

Thomas Jefferson must have been in a particularly “Enlightenment” mood in April, considering the long letter he writes to John Adams excoriating John Calvin and Calvinism, translating John 1:1 to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, and describing the divinity of Jesus as a “fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words,” not to mention “mystical,” and on par with “the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” All this because JA made a joke about his own affinity with Calvin’s arthritis, gout, and sciatica. Talk about hitting a nerve.

John Calvin, 1509-1564
“He was indeed an Atheist” – Thomas Jefferson
Not exactly a measured assessment.

This could be the jumping-off point for a discussion of the founding fathers’ Christian beliefs (or lack thereof), but my mood is more along the lines of this sign-off by JA: “I salute your fire-side with cordial esteem and affection. J.A. In the 89 year of his age still too fat to last much longer.”

You also may be wondering how much longer this correspondence can go on, or, equally important, how much longer my corresponding erudition can sustain itself. (Was that a pun?)

Rest assured, 15 letters remain in the collection, which means just 3 more weeks of disciplined reading and questionably enlightened reflection. (Was that a poem?)

August 22, 1813 – September 15, 1813

Earlier, I mentioned religion as a common topic of discussion between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. My lack of attention to this topic up until now might suggest that it is a minor and infrequent item between the two, when actually it has been the primary content of the letters for a good while now. Instead of cataloging the statistics of who wrote to whom and how many times, I could have been relaying our Founding Fathers’ musings on Arianism, Arminianism, Calvinism, Trinitarianism, and Unitarianism. (And I should have been more precise, clarifying “religion” as “Christian theology.”)

Why the avoidance? Partly because it makes my head hurt. It’s more fun to joke about greedy Dutch lenders. And it’s more gratifying to think about personal loves and losses. Not that theology doesn’t interest me. I particularly enjoyed this critique of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination by the acerbic Mr. Adams:

“God has infinite Wisdom, goodness and power. He created the Universe. His duration is eternal, a parte Ante, and a parte post. His presence is as extensive as Space. What is Space? an infinite, spherical Vaccuum. He created this Speck of Dirt and the human Species for his glory: and with the deliberate design of making, nine tenths of our Species miserable forever, for his glory. This is the doctrine of Christian Theologians in general: ten to one. Now, my Friend, can Prophecies, or miracles convince You, or Me, that infinite Benevolence, Wisdom and Power, created and preserves, for a time, innumerable millions to make them miserable, forever; for his own Glory?  Wretch! What is his Glory? Is he ambitious? does he want promotion? Is he vain? tickled with Adulation? Exulting and tryumphing in his Power and the Sweetness of his Vengeance? Pardon me, my Maker, for these aweful Questions. My Answer to them is always ready: I believe no such Things. My Adoration of the Author of the Universe is too profound and too sincere. The Love of God and his Creation; delight, Joy, Tryumph, Exultation in my own existence, ‘tho but an Atom, a Molecule Organique, in the Universe; are my religion.”

Hard to argue with that. Actually, it’s easy to argue with that, as theologians have been doing at least since John Calvin published Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536. But this ain’t that kinda blog.

A rousing theological discussion can be a stimulating, uplifting, even enjoyable experience. But here’s a friendly tip, courtesy again of Mr. Adams. If you find yourself in a theological debate—with a friend, enemy, or yourself—and your head starts to hurt, repeat this:

“It would be presumption and Impiety in me to dogmatize, on such Subjects. My duties, in my little infinitessimal Circle I can understand and feel. The Duties of a Son, a Brother, a Father, a Neighbor, a Citizen, I can see and feel: But I trust the Ruler with his Skies.”

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