Self-Evident?

Michael Metzger

Civil War buffs say it’s self-evident the South was finished when Vicksburg fell on the fourth of July 1863. Niall Ferguson disagrees—the decisive event occurred earlier. History and human nature remind us how self-evident truth is not always self-evident. In the case of America for example, the decisive date might not be the Fourth of July 1776.

On the fourth of July 1863, Vicksburg surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, splitting the Confederacy in two. This is considered to be one of the turning points of the war, but “from a financial point of view, it was not really the decisive one,” writes Niall Ferguson, a British historian.1 He says the key event happened in 1862, when David Farragut seized control of New Orleans, the Confederacy’s main cotton port.

Cotton was the key to the Confederacy’s finances. The South first financed the war by selling bonds to its own citizens, then turning to Europeans, who showed little enthusiasm. “But the Southerners had an ingenious trick up their sleeves,” Ferguson writes. The Confederacy issued cotton-backed bonds that promised investors a seven percent return along with the option of taking physical possession of the cotton at any time.

To ensure this rate of return, the South drove up cotton prices, which drew European investors. However, with the fall of New Orleans on April 29, 1862, investors could no longer cash in their bonds without running a Union blockade. The bonds became worthless, so the Confederacy printed more money and prices rose by about 4,000 percent. On closer inspection, it’s not self-evident that the fall of Vicksburg was the decisive event in the Civil War. It might have been the capture of New Orleans in 1862.

The ancients studied history and human nature and understood how self-evident truth is not always self-evident to everyone. Adjudicating the differences required a referee. The Judeo-Christian tradition looked to institutional authorities as judges. In his Summa Theologica, for example, Thomas Aquinas wrote how “the existence of God is self-evident” by way of revelation—church authority and scripture—as well as reason.

The Protestant Reformation redefined how individuals ascertain truth. In 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, challenging the church’s authority. What made Luther remarkable, Joshua Foa Dienstag writes, was not his view of God but “his views about humans, their capacities, and their right to judge in their own cases.”2 Truth still required revelation and reason, but its veracity was now judged by the individual’s conscience. This is an astonishingly naïve view of human nature, as scripture says conscience can be corrupted without the correctives of healthy cultures and institutions. “The Pandora’s box that Luther opened at Leipzig,” writes Richard Popkin, was his “new criterion: that what conscience is compelled to believe on reading scripture is true.”3

A third view of self-evident truths emerged at roughly the same time. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and René Descartes (1596-1650) asked similar questions and came up with similar answers: “In whom can we trust,” Descartes asked, when “there is hardly a statement made by one man, of which the opposite is not loudly supported by some other?” The answer was truth is a matter of rationality and science, not revelation and religious authority. This too is an astonishingly naïve view of human nature. It was to become Enlightenment modernism, the foundation for Benjamin Franklin’s famous edit.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson originally wrote: “We hold these truths to be sacred.” Franklin scratched out “sacred” and replaced it with “self-evident.” Walter Isaacson, president of The Aspen Institute, notes, “By using the word ‘sacred,’ Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was an assertion of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead to an assertion of rationality.”4 He “was consciously trying to create a new American archetype.” Franklin wanted to create a nation where, according to historian Gary Wills, reason, science, and skepticism would be considered “a clear advance over medieval arguments from authority and legend.”5

This is why the Fourth of July 1776 is one of the turning points in American history but the decisive events happened earlier, in the 1500 and 1600s. Modernism gave rise to America as well as a unique form of faith: American Evangelicalism. Historian of Religion Sidney Mead described it as “the fruit of strange bedfellows: Enlightenment modernism and English pietism.”6 Modernism makes the individual authoritative while pietism makes passion the ultimate virtue. The evangelical form of individual religious experience grew rapidly because it resonated with American culture. It was, wrote William James, free from institutional authority and opposed to any “institutional form.”7

The trajectory of Enlightenment modernism, along with American Evangelicalism’s anti-institutionalism, subjected American institutions of education, media, business, and politics to the ideologies of Darwin, Freud, and Nietzsche. Darwinism says self-evident truths evolve, Freudianism says individuals ought to express what seems self-evident to them, and Nietzsche took religion entirely out of the equation. It’s self-evident that the New York State Senate would essentially say gay marriage is a self-evident truth.

In the parable of Pandora’s Box, the problem is the deed cannot be undone. How is it possible for Americans to adjudicate their different takes on truth in a culture of individualism? How can American Evangelicalism, aping individualism and intensity, be a corrective influence? These are hard questions since history and human nature are not the strong suits of the evangelical form of individual religious experience. If they were, they’d recognize the defining events occurred long before the Fourth of July 1776.

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1 Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (New York, NY: Penguin, 2008), p. 92.
2 Joshua Foa Dienstag, “Reflections on Sheilaism,” The Hedgehog Review 2.1 (Spring 2000).
3 Richard Popkin, The History of Skepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003,), p. 5.
4 Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), p. 312.
5 Garry Wills, Henry Adams and the Making of America (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 35.
6 Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1963).
7 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, in Writings, 1902-1910 (New Haven, CT: The Library of America, 1987), p. 34.

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5 thoughts on “Self-Evident?”

  1. Mike, I’m not alarmed by American individualism. Even though I read, I think, a far too highly placed emphasis on freedom being a gift granted by God, in CS Lewis’s writings, if there is any truth to freedom, it’s that we really can think freely even if we can’t always act freely. So, no matter how theology, for example, might be adjudicated by some other source other than the individual (and it is in fact very often adjudicated, by copy-cat statements of faith rather than sincere sit down sessions of “So, what do we really believe and what questions do we have lately, and why?”), individuals will still venture outside of adjudicated lines and persist in questioning what doesn’t sound right. And thank God we can and do. I’m not a disciple of Darwin, Freud, or Nietzsche (D,F & N), but if their thought pervades American culture, it’s because “Christian versions” of their contributions to thought were adjudicated away from Christian thought and discussion and thus their thought was bound to show up somewhere somehow. (I’d say like a child grows up and out of his shoes, rather than like an infection that must come to the skin’s surface: growth not illness.) If D,F & N raised questions about the nature of man, and church authorities refused to “go there” for whatever reason, the same questions I have as an individual that might find worthy theoretical discussants in D,F & N will have to be met in an environment very sadly out of the range of adjudicated Christian discussion, and it’s the church’s fault that I have to go outside the church for those discussions. What to do? Stop trying to adjudicate discussion. Adjudication is a process for government and the courts, processes that can and should certainly be strongly influenced by a culture of thinking Christianity. My guess is that the courts have only been exposed to non-thinking Christian bulldozering, and the courts have responded in-kind.

  2. Mike Metzger

    Bob:

    You ask a good yet difficult question. I appreciate it, so much so, that I’ll try to at least frame up the challenges as I see them. You can take it from there (agree, disagree, or modify).

    It seems to me that much of American Evangelicalism has bitten so deeply into the apple of individualism that it has trouble sniffing what is meant by institutional authority (c.f., Dave’s reply above or the recent Rob Bell controversy). Setting aside where you stand on the issue of eternal damnation, it seems to me the bigger problem is pastors of independent churches (e.g., Bell) answering to no institutional authority beyond themselves (or their inner circle). Institutions are not perfect, but it does not appear that Bell went through any rigorous vetting process apart from his own take on scripture (perhaps he included a circle of friends or peers). I like him and much of his work but have not read that he submitted to any institutions that could have vetted his takes on damnation, etc.

    The advantage of institutional authority is that, like the Senate, it can be the saucer that cools the passions and actually helps people. When I ask readers of Bell’s book what they plant to do about his take on these matters, they are left scratching their head. Bell is a clever and compelling writer – we need caring ones.

    This is why I appreciate, for example, the reluctant and slow disassociation of many conservative American Episcopal churches from American dioceses. But note that they are submitting to an African bishop – not spitting to form another Protestant denomination.

    My comments could be read as a tacit endorsement of Roman Catholicism, and that would be fair. At the very least, it’s an argument for rigorous denominational authority. At the end of the day, you have either institutional or individual authority – since the buck has to stop somewhere – but you can’t have it both ways.

  3. “At the end of the day, you have either institutional or individual authority – since the buck has to stop somewhere – but you can’t have it both ways.”

    Mike, that’s exactly what you CAN have, in my mind, but it depends on how the institution manages its remarks, etc.

    Why can’t an institution say, for example, since you’re concerned with damnation (your own example): “Historically, ‘we’ have been known to believe X about Y. But, we’re open and not threatened by questions. In fact, we encourage the questioning of everything we have historically stood for. Should any of our pastor/teachers want to dis-affirm any historical stands, then in peace they may go. Until then, we welcome questions and speculations of all sorts. We believe X about Y until further notice, but welcome your questions, comments and complaints.”

    I wouldn’t be surprised if more non-Christians are non-Christians because their questions are treated with the same disdain that Rob Bell experiences.

    As for accountability, Bell essentially answers to his own congregation (they could fire him) and the reading public can call him out and correct him ad infinitum, or not make his book a best seller, etc.

    I’d like to shake the honesty tree a moment: we live under an abundance of institutional authority. How so? We can only pose serious questions and conversations during off-the-record times…lest we be called out as trouble-makers or heretics in the making. If we had real individual authority we’d have no fear of open discussion. However, open discussion is about as rare as any appreciation for Rob Bell. I don’t buy his take, but he raises worthwhile questions. I have yet to read very much appreciation for his efforts to raise the questions.

  4. Luther may have opened Pandora’s box, but I believe that is only because of our misinterpretation of his action. He was not merely an individual questioning an institution to satisfy his internal standard, but an agent of the Holy Spirit to change the direction the Church was heading.

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