Common Sense and Piety

George Anastaplo

            It can seem obvious enough, upon contemplating systems of Revelation around the world and across millennia, that there are many complicated spiritual arrangements that can be readily recognized by us as obviously bizarre. The typical outsider (whether long after or far away), upon being exposed to such a system, is not apt to be persuaded that it is at all sensible, even when there may be in it parallels to what is generally believed in his own system “here and now.” One simply has not been prepared to “believe” that, however adept one may eventually become in its study. Thus, for example, a contemporary Egyptologist is rarely (if ever) a devotee of the divinities and religious practices of the ancient Egyptians.

Instructive here can be how we should regard novel revelations among ourselves in the West in recent centuries. Consider, for example, the “rappings” phenomenon in Nineteenth Century Britain, an American spiritualism importation commented on in this fashion in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s English Traits. (The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Modern Library Paperback edition [2000], p. 527):

And as [the English] belief in [their currency] is perfect, they readily, on all occasions, apply the pecuniary argument as final. Thus when the Rochester [New York] rappings began to be heard of in England, a man deposited [a one hundred-pound note] in a sealed box in the Dublin Bank, and then advertised in the newspapers to all somnambulists, mesmerizers and others, that whoever could tell him the number of his note should have the money. He let it lie there six months, the newspapers now and then, at his instance, stimulating the attention of the adepts, but none could ever tell him; and he said, “Now let me never be bothered with this proven lie.”

(See John B. Wilson, “Emerson and the ‘Rochester Rappings,’” New England Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 2 [June 1968].)

Consider, as well, the considerable reliance across the Atlantic Ocean, at about the same time, upon the celebrated golden tablets of Mormonism, tablets that were said to have been provided by an angel to a would-be prophet in Upstate New York, tablets in an exotic language for which angelic assistance and special equipment were required for their reliable translation. Although the tablets are no longer available for study, there are available the affidavits of respectable men who were once moved to testify to having seen them before they were reclaimed by the supervising angel.

More of an intellectual challenge may appear to be the revelations shared with us by men of generally-recognized intellectual prowess. One such man was the eminent mathematician, Blaise Pascal, who could insist upon the prudence of a Wager on behalf of Christianity. It can be wondered, of course, how Pascal would have regarded similar counsel on behalf of systems halfway around the world, systems that he (with most of his European contemporaries) would have regarded as simply bizarre. However, those systems, too, could have (for centuries) supported personal integrity and civic responsibility, something recognized by Pascal to result from the Christian dispensation. It can also be wondered how Pascal’s notorious Wager inducement to Faith should be assessed by anyone who suspects that God does not like gambling or gamblers. Other Pascalian intellectual anomalies, somehow grounded in his Faith, should be wondered about as well.

Then there was Emanuel Swedenborg, an accomplished man of science whom Emerson could celebrate as a remarkable spiritual innovator. But even he could, in Emerson’s view, go too far in his spiritual speculations. (Emerson did not have the additional evidence, as to Swedenborg’s exotic state of mind, provided by this mystic’s remarkable dreams.) The Emersonian critique of a man he made much of across decades included these devastating observations (in “Swedenborg, or the Mystic” –in Representative Men [1850]):

Another dogma, growing out of [a] pernicious theologic limitation [in Swedenborg’s thinking] is his Inferno. Swedenborg has devils. Evil, according to old philosophers, is good in the making. That pure malignity can exist is the extreme proposition of unbelief. It is not to be entertained by a rational agent; it is atheism; it is the last profanation…. To what a painful perversion had Gothic theology arrived, that Swedenborg admitted no conversion for evil spirits! But the divine effort is never relaxed…

Further on in this essay, Emerson continues the critique of his hero:

For the anomalous pretension [by Swedenborg] of Revelation of the other world, only his probity and genius can entitle it to any serious regard. His revelations destroy their credit by running into detail. If a man say [as Swedenborg had evidently said] that the Holy Ghost has informed him that the Last Judgment (or the last of the judgments) took place in 1757; or that the Dutch, in the other world, live in a heaven by themselves, and the English in a heaven by themselves, I reply that the Spirit which is holy is reserved, taciturn, and deals in laws….Strictly speaking, Swedenborg’s revelation is a confounding of planes –a capital offence in so learned a categorist. This is to carry the law of surface into the plane of substance, to carry individualism and its fopperies into the realm of essences and generals –which is dislocation and chaos.

Then there was Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest physical scientist since Copernicus and Galileo. Consider, for example, what is confidently done by him in the General Scholium added to his epoch-making Principia. The endurance of our Solar System (of which there are now said to be in the Universe millions of counterparts?) cannot be understood by him without the supposition of the Pantocrator. But even more (indeed, far more) of a challenge for the thoughtful observer is what Newton offers (at considerable length) as interpretations of prophecies found in the (Hebrew) Book of Daniel and in the (Greek) Book of Revelation. It does not seem to have been a challenge to him how long-accepted complicated systems of thought elsewhere (such as, for example that drawn on in the Bhagavad Gitz) should be understood.

Then there was Jonathan Edwards, who can be remembered for his powerful “Born Again” sermons (during the Great Awakening religious movement in Eighteenth Century America). It is not generally known that Edwards himself may have been as learned in the physical sciences of his day as anyone else in the Western Hemisphere. He himself had done respectable work on insects, including spiders. Even so, he can celebrate a Creator who could bring forth a world in which the large majority of the human race can be expected to be tortured forever after death (even though most of them had never had, in practice, access to that particular form of the Christian heritage required for salvation). The devastating critique by Emerson of Swedenborg that we have noticed would apply as well to this aspect of Edwards’s rhetoric.

However all this may be, it should be evident that Chance plays a major role in the form that one’s piety (or impiety?) may take. Indeed, it may not be gentlemanly to be a professed atheist, unless perhaps one happens to find oneself living among, say, the Aztecs with their frendish dependence upon large-scale human sacrifice. (Useful guidance can be provided here by the likes of Pierre Bayle and Benjamin Franklin, eminently prudent students of established pieties. Their sensibleness is to be contrasted with that of someone such as Martin Heidegger, regarded by some as the greatest thinker in the Twentieth Century, someone whose piety could even move him to proclaim, that “only a god can save us.” His never-repudiated flirtation with the Nazis remains a challenge for anyone who is tempted to take his formidable thinking seriously. I have had occasion to recognize him as “the Macbeth of philosophy.” (Macbeth, it should be remembered, may be the most complicated [and hence the most attractive?] of Shakespeare’s villains.) Compare, for a much healthier piety in our circumstances, the humane generosity exhibited in 2008 by a Jesuit, Avery Cardinal Dulles of Fordham University (Anastaplo, The Christian Heritage [2010], p. 356):

Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved it they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if the look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one mediator, leaves no one unassisted. But that same grace brings obligations to all who receive it. They must not receive the grace of God in vain. Much will be demanded of those to whom much is given.

Is there not evident here a determined common sense radically different in spirit from that which emanates (in the form of a ferocious piety) from Jonathan Edwards’s “angry God”?


These remarks were prepared for The Theological Study Group (East), at the Grace United Methodist Church, Naperville, Illinois, March 22, 2012 (Philip M. Dripps, presiding). The text discussed on that occasion was George Anastaplo’s The Christian Heritage: Problems and Prospects (Foreword by Martin E. Marty) (Lexington Books, 2010).

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