As those of you that read the blog know I am a fan of Jefferson – and recently acquired the Jefferson Bible and did a review of Christopher Hitchens: Thomas Jefferson Author of America. Useful background if all you know of Jefferson is he wrote the Declaration of Independence and said something about the wall of separation of church and state.
Jefferson himself would not want a blog on his religion:
Say nothing of my religion. It is known to my God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life; if that has been honest and dutiful to society, the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.
Yet I have Jefferson to thank for this blog because in a letter to Mr. Charles Thompson Jefferson remarked that he was a “REAL CHRISTIAN [the capitalisation being his own], that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus”. He rejects the dogmas and doctrines that develop from the “heathen mysteries” based on words and actions that Jesus himself did not say or do. Reflective of that The Jefferson Bible ignores the supernatural elements such as god speaking or angels comforting him during crucifixion. Rather it stresses the ethics and morals of a philosopher.
One that Jefferson rated Jesus above all others. The ancient philosophers, while well schooled in concepts like justice and precepts that lead to tranquility of the mind, left out virtues life peace, charity, love – the concept of benevolence to humanity was almost alien. The deist god of the Jews (and the portrayal of Jehovah) was injurious to a brotherhood of humanity let alone of those virtues. For Jefferson, the teachings of Jesus – a man who lacked education or status in his society – make his doctrines the more remarkable and rates him above the philosophers.
However what has come down to us is lacking because he was a young man (33 at death) and taught for three years – his full faculties and ability to refine his message were denied him:
Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective, as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have to come us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.
Thus the Jefferson Bible concentrates on the Gospels only, arranged by chronology and subject. The rot that set in from Paul onwards is ignored. For in a further letter Jefferson spells out Jesus as a moral man:
“To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others and ascribing to him every human excellence, believing he never claimed any other”
On blogging about the television show here in the UK “Make Me A Christian” some Christian’s have replied
that living a christian life based on the precepts of Jesus is not enough. To be a Christian is to accept that Jesus is the Son of God (going beyond the Unitarianism that Jefferson considered true, that Jesus is God) and that only through is sacrifice are we saved. That you actually need faith as the minimum in this to qualify as a Christian and to be saved. Good works based on the precepts are either also necessary or a supplement to that.
If that were so atheists could not be considered Christians if they agree with much of his teachings on how to live your life. If you think the notion of an atheist agreeing that Jesus had much of value to say the you may want to read Richard Dawkins article Atheists for Jesus where he says:
I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense which he inevitably espoused as a man of his time. And perhaps the oxymoronic impact of ‘Atheists for Jesus’ might be just what is needed to kick start the meme of super niceness in a post-Christian society. If we play our cards right – could we lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment?
The barriers to this way of thinking about Jesus can be considered that he is only worth listening to if he is divine, and that salvation is an appealing (some may say lazy) way of accepting grace by having a scape goat that takes away your sins. Further, just read the first chapter of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life – you have no purpose but what God has set you. The supernatural is linked to Jesus being Christ from conception to rising from the dead. The beauty of the Sermon of the Mount is lost amongst the message that he is the Lord our Saviour.
It reminds me of Douglas Adams who said:
Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?