Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Thomas Jefferson’s “Christianity”



If you visit the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington D.C. these days, you might notice a special exhibit on the famous “Jefferson Bible,” Thomas Jefferson’s thoroughly revised edition of the gospels entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. The Jefferson Bible is as impressive as it is questionable. The founding father painstakingly pieced together clippings from Greek, Latin, French, and English editions of the gospels to provide four parallel texts, yet in the process there were some intentional and glaring omissions. Jefferson cut anything that he did not feel could be supported by rational argumentation: this ‘gospel’ has no birth narratives, no miracles, no mention of Old Testament prophecy, and (not surprisingly by this point) no resurrection. His Jesus is a wise moral teacher, offering guidance for our lives, setting an example of goodness and ‘religion’.

The exhibit at the Smithsonian displays the original ‘Bible’ itself, among other things, and it even lets you browse the entire text digitally on some handy touch-screen displays. What most interested me, though, was the information, mostly in quotations on placards around the room, on Thomas Jefferson’s personal views of Christianity. Not surprisingly, given the omissions in The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson's faith was rather unorthodox—but many of the steps he took away from traditional, orthodox belief were less glaring than, say, leaving Christ's resurrection on the cutting room floor. In fact, to modern Americans, his intellectual heirs in so many ways, some of his most dangerous claims will sound perfectly natural.

One example is the quotation in the picture above: “The life and essence of religion consists in the internal persuasion or belief of the mind.” 
This sounds pretty simple and uncontroversial, doesn't it? Thomas Jefferson was disgusted by the idea of an established, state church, and he fought for individuals' freedom to arrive at their own religions conclusions and convictions. No authority should be able to impose faith on you: it's my decision, a personal, internal matter. It's private; it doesn't affect you, and so it's none of your business.

The problem with this Thomas Jefferson religion that so many of us have heard about our entire lives, this internal religion of the mind, is that it's not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The gospel is about a kingdom that encompasses all of creation and a Lord who is Lord of all.
Christians are people called to live in this world, amongst our neighbors, lives that are subject to the lordship of Jesus. We may not always talk about Christ, that may be inappropriate, unnecessary, or disallowed in some circumstances, but we always act as though Jesus is King and treat others lovingly, making every decision out of prayerful, considerate obedience. Our faith is never going to be confined to a personal conviction, limited to an internal, heart disposition. On the contrary, it will overflow into every action, every relationship, and every purpose that make up our lives. If I'm faithful to Jesus, I'm going to "impose" my beliefs on every person I ever encounter, simply because I will embody the God's Kingdom and the values and convictions of that Kingdom in their presence. It can't be kept private because it's not about "internal persuasion"; it's about being a peculiar people who are driven by the hopes and values of a peculiar Kingdom. And you do that in public. This private 'Christianity' that can box itself in, that can spare those around you having to encounter your beliefs which perhaps they reject (after all, no one should have to encounter ideas they disagree with!), this just isn't the Jesus-is-Lord faith of the Church.

Yes, the imposition of a confession of faith on someone—‘you will believe this, or we'll burn you at the stake!’—is a vile practice, as far from Jesus' humble submission unto death as you can get. Christians must never look to mandate (or legislate!) the dictates of faith. I absolutely agree. But the religion that Thomas Jefferson and so many others of his time promoted, a personal religion relegated to the mind and heart, removed an appropriate distance from your neighbors, is simply not the communal and active, Kingdom faith to which Jesus calls us.

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