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Deism, Theism and Jimmy Carter

This is Palm Sunday.
This is Palm Sunday.

I was disappointed more than I can say when I watched an interview with former President Jimmy Carter on MSNBC this past week. Carter is known for his Christian lifestyle and commitment to the Baptist faith. Chris Matthews, the show host, is Catholic but knows next to nothing about theology and doctrine. Between the two of them they delivered a message that the people who send me comments on the Huffington Post know very well: most Christians are uninformed and/or dogmatic and uninformed.

It makes no difference whether you are Catholic or Protestant; neither of the two men knows anything other than what they read for themselves in the New Testament (not that they haven't read the Old Testament as well). But the discussion went to the treatment of women in the Church because of Carter's recent book that deals with the subject.

It is truly annoying to me that Carter quoted letters of St. Paul--letters that Paul is no longer considered to have written. I don't know for sure, but I presume that both Carter and Matthews are too busy to read much scholarship on Scripture, but in Carter's case he ought to consider himself obligated to keep informed. In the discussion, Carter quoted this entire passage in context:

"Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church, for we are members of his body. 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband." [Ephesians 5:22-33]

The problem is that Paul did not write the Letter to the Ephesians! Other letters that Paul did NOT write are Colossians, Philippians, Philemon, Titus, Hebrews and First and Second Timothy. As long as there is legitimate doubt of the authorship these letters cannot be considered Christian doctrine, because we don't know the agenda of the persons who wrote them. Whoever it was, he must be considered a spokesman for a point of view that Paul may or may not have held. Certainly he thought of himself as saying something that Paul should have made clear.

We also have to contend with this passage:

"But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.

"For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." [Galatians 3:23-29]

The Letter to the Galatians was written about 56 C. E., and it is considered genuine by people who know a whole lot more about Paul than I do. It also serves to illustrate Paul's changing consciousness about social status. But modern Christians have been taught to resist change in any way possible, especially when it comes to educating themselves about the ongoing research and scholarship that is going on in the Church.

There has also been dialog about belief in Theism and Deism in the comments on the Huffington Post, where you can find some very erudite comments at times. I must confess that the Deistic/Theistic concept of God as someone who set the Cosmos in motion and then withdrew himself is much more in accord with my personal beliefs than the Hebrew concept. To the Hebrews of the Old Testament, everything that went wrong was ascribed to God's punishment.

In a manner similar to the Hindus, the Hebrews ask, "What did I do to deserve this?" while the Hindu might say, "I wonder what you did in a past life to deserve this." This is an oversimplification, but it does serve to kill my desire to espouse the Hindu philosophy. On the other hand, if the Judaism of Late Antiquity seems harsh, it also strikes me as appropriate to see whether today's Jewish theology holds the same beliefs. Actually it doesn't; the concept of misfortune as punishment crashed out with the Holocaust and Jewish theologians looked for other answers. You can find some of them in the writing of Jewish theologian Rabbi David Kushner.

The trouble for me is that neither of these ideas works. And as much as I admire the ethical Theist philosophy of our Founding Fathers, the Christian philosophy is really the only one that works for me. I can conceive of a God who allows the universe to grind along, following its natural laws. I can also understand that God's nature of perfect goodness would place us at quite a remove from the right things that we should be doing. And I understand that we often do the right thing on our own because usually "the right thing" is quite obvious in a given situation.

But Jesus is simply the only person who came along and insisted that God is loving and understanding, along with his power and goodness. As Christians, we can pray for help; in fact, someone once said that all prayer comes down to two orations: "Help me, help me, help me," and, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

The Deist/Theist philosophy rules out the prayer for help, when we contemplate the famous "watchmaker" theory. God gets things rolling, winding up the watch so to speak, and then lets it run on its own. The ancient Hebrew philosophy--which ought to be out of consideration but is not--postulates that our misfortunes are our fault. Neither of these leads to real spiritual depth, but the evangelical Church is wedded to the ugly combination of literalism and the Old Testament and will not stop drinking that Kool Aid.

In fact, the rise of Determinism, or Calvinism, is a direct result of reading the Old Testament literally and rejecting Deism. The idea is that God is very much involved, angry and vengeful. This God is hurling bad things down from heaven at us, much like Zeus launching thunderbolts to punish evildoers in the Hellenic era. Whether it is true or not (to play the devil's advocate for a moment), there is no emotional or intellectual way that the God in this scenario can be worshiped. I can certainly fear him or flee to the ends of the earth, but I cannot love this God of hate and anger.

The Barna Group also came out with a report this past week showing that actual belief in the Bible has gone down again. According to an article posted on, the poll found that the greatest number people losing faith in the credibility or sacredness of the Bible are those between the ages of 18 and 35. What this means to the evangelical church is obvious: these folks no longer believe that we can just open a Bible and find the answers to life's questions. This is amply illustrated in the writing of Mark Twain, who unfortunately began his bible studies by opening the Old Testament. He was horrified and if you read his nonfiction writing, he never got over his anger at the Church for teaching the awful things that he read. Of course no one was standing over him like a Sunday school teacher, explaining everything and painting pretty pictures of the animals coming two by two.

So I would think that it is incumbent upon Sunday school teacher Carter to inform himself of Church scholarship. Apparently he doesn't think so; he spouts the same evangelical talking points that have been disputed for generations. I mean, the Jesus Seminar included Albert Schweitzer, for heaven's sake.

For more info: read the Barna article here:

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