A quote that has always amazed me is one from Thomas Jefferson. The words were written in a letter to his nephew Peter Carr on 10 August, 1787. The letter was part of a written, back and forth dialog about Peter’s education under George Wythe and about how they both regarded highly Wythe’s intellect and strength of character. George Wythe was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and is considered to be the first law professor in America.
The quote reads:
“Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”
As I mentioned above, this quote has always fascinated me and, I believe, for good reason. To question the existence of God is a bold position to take, considering that it could have eternal consequences beyond our life here on earth. Moreover, Jefferson takes one step further stating that if there were a god, he would be a reasonable one and cites that the laws of nature need to be the basis of questioning the Bible.
Recently I have been listening to a series of lectures by Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Jordan Peterson. This quote began to mean something much deeper than what I had previously understood after listening to hours of Peterson’s views. Jordan Peterson has taken the brave position to approach the Bible from a psychological vantage point and explore the deep meaning within its pages as a mystery.
I have to admit, being one who has written many articles, a 400 plus page book, and spoken at length about how German Existentialism has destroyed Western Culture, I am fascinated by how compelling and convincing Peterson’s Darwinian approach to the Bible is. The fear of wading into the waters of an approach to the Bible that is different from what I have learned throughout my life as a Christian reverberates in me, but dissipates as I remember Jefferson’s quote.
Peterson has realigned my understanding of the Bible in a sense without detaching me from my faith. Peterson’s careful intellectual dissection of the deep meaning of the story of Adam and Eve as well as the story of Cain and Abel over the course of 8 hours of discussion has brought to the surface a new understanding of how amazing the human being truly is and how the Bible is much more than just a book of timeless stories. It is being unfolded by Peterson as a brilliant tradition that not only exists as a pillar of Western Culture but it is also a book that should remain as one irregardless of your faith.
At the time of Jefferson’s letter to Carr, the American Revolutionary War had subsided five years prior and the draft of the United States Constitution was being finalized by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, William Johnson, and Rufus King. It is easy to imagine that discussions of individual liberty and how to protect that liberty were at the forefront of our founders mind at this time. It is evident that our founders including Jefferson understood the totalitarian threats to the individual and were focused on preventing these threats from manifesting themselves within the body of government.
Peterson explains in his lectures that the totalitarian is afraid of the unknown and a that set of beliefs and the structure that the beliefs reside in are often a frame of reference for navigating the unknown aspects of life. When something that we experience challenges our beliefs, it is akin to standing on the edge of a cliff, staring down into the darkness of the unknown. This fear, if not confronted, further perpetuates the fear of the unknown and may cause us to react in a way that is to protect the belief structure that we adhere to instead of realigning it with reason and logic.
This is idea has extremely deep meaning because it alludes to the idea that each and every one of us have the capability of being totalitarians. We all have belief systems and structures that we have adopted, erected, and modified with our experiences to help us navigate and make sense of life. If we grip them with a closed mind, the fear of chaos will perpetuate irrational and even evil actions. The Bible, therefore, is a type of structure that breathes life into soul of its readers with every honest interpretation. This doesn't mean that the Bible needs to be viewed and modified through the prism of current cultural norms to apply relativity to our modern view of morality, but rather as a lens to understand the negative outcomes of our cultural moral ills through contemplation of metaphorical stories.
Our inability to challenge our beliefs structures and even the existence of God could cripple our ability to further navigate the challenges that life has to offer. Challenging the idea of the existence of God does not mean you deny the existence of God. Rather the exercised would only embolden fact that God exists. When someone or a group of people become petrified within their beliefs and do not wash away the unreasonable ideological antigens with the antibodies of reason, the intellectual body of the host individual or the host society will die and the totalitarian will be born.
The antibody, as mentioned above, is information that we have to parse through and challenge our belief systems. The good beliefs that stand up to honest logic-based criticism become stronger. The bad beliefs wither away and make us stronger and humble. Those that refrain from readdressing their beliefs and belief structures often set themselves up for failure when they realize that their entire frame of reference is invalid.
Imagine a scientist who works all of his life trying to prove his hypothesis, while ignoring any data that proves his hypothesis incorrect. He realizes that he has devoted his entire life to a failed hypothesis. Beliefs and belief structures, therefore, are our own hypothesis to the way we see the world. If we are ideologically rigid and ignore the data that presents itself to us, we are setting ourselves up for the great fall.
Are you operating as a totalitarian?
The stories of the Bible tell us so much if you are to look at them as a form of metaphor or mythology. I remember the story of the angel that took the great fall after he ignored the will of God. Satan was a cynical angel, as was the snake in the Garden of Eden. It was the same snake that offered Eve that the apple that could be seen as a being lacking the discernment between right and wrong. She was a mere animal operating on a rigid black and white framework of instincts, rather than navigating the garden within the field of colorful reason. The snake offers her fruit from the tree of knowledge, which she then offers to Adam. Through the taste of the fruit, their eyes are open and the conscience is born.
This is absolutely profound and the idea expressed here ricochets back into the letter from Jefferson to Carr. He writes:
“He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality therefore was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality, and not the truth, &c., as fanciful writers have imagined. The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call Common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules. In this branch therefore read good books because they will encourage as well as direct your feelings. The writings of Sterne particularly form the best course of morality that ever was written. Besides these read the books mentioned in the enclosed paper; and above all things lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous &c. Consider every act of this kind as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties, and increase your worth.”
Jefferson explains that our sense of right and wrong is as real as our sense of hearing, seeing, and feeling. There is no relative moral sense of right and wrong. Instead, there is a fixed right and wrong that we have to sense. Not only is it fixed, but we could not operate without it. Our being, as explained by Jordan Peterson, requires a body. Jefferson explains that, without our sense of right and wrong, it would be as if we were without our arms and legs. In other words, our being would cease to exist and back to the rigid instinctual animals we would become. In essence, our acceptance of moral relativity would be akin to spitting out the apple that the snake tempted us to eat and cursing the God that created it.
The meaning in these stories has multiple dimensions. Exploring these dimensions with logic and reason on your side and taking into account the laws of nature (Jefferson explains the law of nature as a compass to truth) will fill the soul with virtue and wealth. That is how man builds a virtuous society.
We have to challenge our beliefs first before we challenge those of others. The challenge will only make us stronger when confronted by others will ill ideas. We also must be willing to graft the good ideas of others to the evolving structure of our beliefs that become stronger and stronger over time.
If you are a Christian and believe in the “body of Christ,” you can apply what has been explained here and the idea of the “body” takes on a complete new meaning. Taking in the body of Christ, as many Christians do, is a way of consuming all that is Christ. The body also resembles the Church with Christ as the head. The spirit of Christ cannot exist without the body, and it is the responsibility of the Church to embody Christ. Christ lives in the body and has to be resurrected and renewed in order for those that make up the body to live a rich life and transition into the eternal reward through the conscience of their progeny.
The transcendence of Christ’s spirit through the open hearts and minds of those representing the moral church body, perpetuate peace and virtue from the pious expression of that body. It is not without sin and sacrifice. The body of the Church must offer itself up to God in order for the body to be reborn. It is the death and resurrection. “Let Go and Let God.” You must die to your own selfishness in order to become a humble reborn servant of God. But the mistakes we learned from make us humble servants of the Church and community. In short, the embodiment of Christ within the Church becomes the being of a virtuous society.
You do not, however, have to be a Christian to understand the archetype outlined by this idea. Humbleness doesn't only come by being a charitable Christian; however, a true Christian embodies modesty, humility, decency, virtue, and charity.
Before we can fix the world, we must fix ourselves. Arrogance, impropriety, pride, and arrogance do not perpetuate peace and virtue. They manifest within the bloodless hearts and dark souls of tyrants and totalitarians. They squeeze the life out of people to force their rigid impractical version of the utopian Garden of Eden on the people hammering them to animals who operate only under impulse and greed.
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Written by Chris Pilie
Freedom Loving American
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This is an amazing piece, Chris. Thank you so much for sharing. There are SO many pieces to this article that I'd like to respond to, but this is probably the most important: "We have to challenge our beliefs first before we challenge those of others." Do you think it's more difficult to challenge our own beliefs today than it was, say, ten years ago? Fifty years ago? Five hundred years ago? I don't think the process of challenging our own beliefs is any more or less difficult than it has always been; I do think we live in a curious age, however, when it has become "cool" to mock and laugh and ridicule anyone who makes a mistake or errs or says "I was wrong," and so I think many of us wear this affectation of confidence in our words and beliefs because we're afraid of being publicly put to shame. Such a tragedy. Anyway--awesome article!