God helps those who help themselves. Most people are not only familiar with this concept, but also accept it as truth. Many even believe it is Holy Scripture. Usually they place it somewhere between Second Opinions and the book of Hesitations.
Actually, it is not the Apostle Paul but Benjamin Franklin who must take the credit—or rather, the blame. Going off the rails from his Puritan upbringing early, Ben quickly deduced that all those things his folks originally taught him to do for the glory of God would also help him get ahead, make money, and broaden his influence.
Indeed, Ben may have looked and acted like a Christian (although he obviously considered the Seventh Commandment more of a suggestion than a rule), but his intentions were quite worldly and self-serving. Like many a wise Southern grandmother has said, “Just because the cat gives birth in a bread pan, it don’t make ‘em biscuits.”
These were just a few of the insights explored by English 4 students this past month as we contrasted the worldviews of Christianity and Deism. While Franklin attempted to “enlighten” the Deism of Europe by injecting a little Christian-based morality from his youth, his contemporary Thomas Paine was a bit brasher in his beliefs.
According to Paine, a Deist may be defined as someone who:
- Believes in the existence of a creator God, as evidenced by the intricacy and harmony of creation. However, this God is distant and uninvolved: akin to someone’s creating a complex piece of machinery, setting it in motion, and then walking away.
- Believes that the only knowledge that people might need to have about this Creator and His ways may be learned by studying nature and employing their reason, which Deists claim was the choicest gift granted before the Divine Departure.
- Believes that the Bible or “the books of pretended revelation, which shock our reason and injure our humanity” are at best, useless and unnecessary; at worst, fallacious and detrimental.
In fact, French philosopher Denis Diderot noted that a Deist is merely someone who has not lived long enough to be an Atheist. Quite a logical deduction, since it seems a small leap from “God does not care” to “God does not exist.”
True Deism like Paine’s is proof positive that copping to the existence of Intelligent Design does not necessarily indicate any breakthrough in spiritual understanding. In fact, we discussed some very unfortunate conundrums that arise in Paine’s assessment:
- Are our human reason and observations as consistent, infallible, and enlightening as Paine would lead us to believe? We could wax philosophic on this one for days, so instead let us simplify. If this were indeed true, our marriages would be continual bliss. Our classrooms would produce geniuses by the thousands. Congress would not know the meaning of the word “deadlock.” But as it is now, our most learned scientists cannot even agree from year to year on whether coffee and chocolate are good for us or bad for us.
- What if we really did pattern our moral behavior after what we observe from nature? This then begs the question, “From what slice of nature do we draw our conclusions?” We readily want to extrapolate from the beauty of a sunrise, the rhythm of the seasons, the symbiosis between species. But what about the parasites? Should it be acceptable for one person or group of people to suffer so another can gain? Should it be permissible to prey on the old, sick, and weak, like most species do? Or worse yet, should we approve their practice of abandoning our own old, sick, and weak to die alone and unprotected? Think of it… More dictatorships and able-bodied people sponging off the government and less hospitals, nursing homes, and neo-natal care units. Sounds less moral by the minute.
- Is it possible to exercise and encourage morality without an absolute, transcendent truth as its foundation? After grappling with this very question throughout his dissertation Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law in the 1979 Duke Law Journal, humanist professor Arthur A. Leff arrived at this unsettling conclusion:
All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around at the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, then the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should… As things stand now, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless:
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is depraved.
Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, Pol Pot—and General Custer, too—have earned salvation.
Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
[All together now] Sez who?
God help us.
In the end, a Deist is left with no moral alternative other than to borrow from Christianity to prop up his weakened worldview. We may look no further than the debacle of the French Revolution—the second revolt on which Thomas Paine collaborated—to see evidence of what happens when he doesn’t.
Incidentally, I still hold great hope that I will see Mr. Franklin sitting across the table at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. While delivering his address on prayer to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Ben clearly and systematically negated each of his former Deistic notions. It is amazing what a little revolutionary war can do for an 81-year-old’s perspective on the sovereignty of God.
Let’s hope history need not repeat itself.