Thomas Jefferson and the Humanism of Jesus
Talk given by Reverend Tom Goldsmith, Minister of the First Unitarian Church, at the monthly meeting of the Humanists of Utah on
December 10, 1992
Although I feel very honored to address the Utah Humanists, I confess that it is no easy task to be a speaker immediately following Sterling McMurrin. To make matters worse, I didn’t even have any “free agency” in determining my topic. Bob Green said, “You will speak on the Humanism of Jesus.”
The only thing harder than being the sequel to Sterling McMurrin is being forced to speak to a group of humanists on Jesus. Given the nature of this group, I would rather follow Jesus as a speaker and talk to you about the humanism of Sterling McMurrin.
Of course I know why Bob wanted me to give a speech on Jesus. It’s that time of year, with the holidays and all, when humanists dig in their heels with all this religious observance and pageantry stuff. Humanists contend that the holidays smack of too many church celebrations, and organized religion rears its ugly head.
But the problem is that humanists, like most people, enjoy holiday celebrations. Even humanists feel Christmas as a time of emotional attachments, and they end up embroiled in tremendous warfare between their rational selves and emotional selves. I think Bob wanted to hear something positive about Jesus in a humanist light so he can enjoy Christmas without guilt.
One of the old lines from way back: What’s the difference between a Unitarian and a reformed Jew? The Reformed Jew has the Christmas tree. Let’s face it, Christmas as a religious holiday poses problems for everyone in this room, yet we celebrate it anyway because we need something more satisfying and soulful than the 4th of July.
Salt Lake City is a great place to talk to humanists about Jesus. Especially at Christmas-time; with Temple Square decked out in beautiful lights; Jake Garn’s new book on why he believes hot off the presses and selling like hotcakes; and the Tabernacle Choir sounding like celestial angels singing the true meaning of Christmas. And here we are.
But I’m certain that all of us have strolled through Temple Square during this season. I certainly recall my first meandering through the grounds on a cold pre-Christmas evening—unsuspectingly bumping into the biggest Jesus Christ I ever saw in my life—smiling down at me from the Visitor’s Center. Scared my children to death. He seemed free-floating in space, and as I walked up the ramp I felt I had come face-to-face with the Cosmic Christ.
Let me begin by saying that Cosmic Christ may sound like hippy jargon as in: “Wow, out of sight, man.” But Cosmic Christ is really a legitimate theological term, stemming from the doctrine of Jesus as the incarnate Logos.
Jesus became the Logos in the fourth century when the Nicene Creed adopted the dogma of the trinity. By applying this title to Jesus, the Christian philosophers of that time interpreted Jesus as the divine clue to the structure of reality–phrased another way, Jesus as key to all metaphysical thinking. That is, if the question of “being” is the riddle of the ages, Jesus provides the missing piece to solve the puzzle.
The opening words of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word,” was deliberately meant to paraphrase the opening words in the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth…and God said…”
One way to translate logos is “The Speaking of God.”
The power of Jesus as the Logos incarnate is staggering–imagine, the “Speaking of God” taking on human form. And because the Speaking of God made the world possible, it was also the “Speaking of God” that made the world intelligible. Thus Jesus Christ as the Logos was the word of God revealing the way and the will of God to the world. Jesus tells us the meaning of it all (The Cosmic Christ).
We need to understand as we try to process this amazing stuff that the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith are two very different people with two very different stories. Essentially, for those of you who cling to the Christ of Faith, his personal history is irrelevant because Christianity begins with the resurrection—the risen Christ. His history, they contend, is irrecoverable, and besides, it doesn’t matter.
For those who hope to construct some understanding of this person in history, and discern his ethical humanism which might help us construct a better life in this world–the Cosmic Christ and incarnation of the Logos overshadow any reasonable lessons we might otherwise glean from Jesus’ exemplary life as a Jewish holy man committed to providing justice for the poor and outcast.
What became dogma in Nicea was the belief that through Jesus the Christ, all things were made. In other words, the word God spoke at the creation was also present in Jesus. The word which created something out of nothing…which turned non-being into being…was present in Jesus.
And when the world that the Logos fashioned turned their eyes away from God and became a fallen world, God sends us his Son and the Christmas Story becomes the lynchpin for getting the whole thing rolling. The word of God becomes incarnate in Jesus, born in a manger in Bethlehem. Christmas is powerful stuff for the believing Christian. The fact that the birth narrative we associate with Jesus is all folk-tale, including the shepherds and wise men and no room at the inn embellished by artist renditions of that holy night, does nothing to dissuade the believing Christian that cosmic mysteries were revealed in human form some 2000 years ago.
Images of Jesus that precluded the Cosmic Christ idea–word became flesh–didn’t get much attention, really, until the Age of Enlightenment. Philosophers trying to dig out from under this Cosmic Christ theology might constitute an interesting lecture in and of itself some day, but I just want to touch briefly on two names before moving to Thomas Jefferson, the thrust of my address tonight.
I need first to mention Matthew Tindal, and you’ll be pleased to know he’s not even a Unitarian and somehow wound up in my remarks. In his 1730 publication, he portrayed Jesus as “The Teacher of Common Sense.” He argued that a new image was necessary because in the course of time and with the advance of science and philosophy, the ambiguity in proving Christ’s uniqueness demanded fresh thinking.
It’s remarkable that Tindal is at least 260 years ahead of Pat Robertson, today’s presidential hopeful whose Christianity boasts hatred, intolerance, and division among people. But we don’t want to get into politics tonight.
Nonetheless…it is amazing just to contemplate how hatred and intolerance is perpetuated in Christ’s name, the word of God made flesh. The power of creation made manifest in human form supposedly holds opinions now on feminism, gay rights, affirmative action, quotas, family values, and welfare queens.
But getting back to the topic at hand. Isaac Newton reacted quite negatively to the Cosmic Christ theology saying, “As a blind man has no idea of colors, so we have no idea of the manner by which the all-wise God perceives and understands all things.”
It’s important to note that Newton still possessed faith; it was the mystical Jesus which he protested. When it came to God, Newton seemed to say, “That’s just fine. Let’s deal with God as First Cause, Prime Mover of sun and stars and life in the galaxies.” But, the notion that the God of creation was present in Jesus is not only incompatible with reason, but you won’t even find it in scripture. It’s a doctrinal inclusion which transpired 300 years after Jesus’ death.
Clearly the Christ of Faith and the Historical Jesus are two very different people. And Thomas Jefferson, known more for his politics than his theology, made (I believe) one of the most notable contributions in helping us see the distinction between the two images of Christ. In a sense it’s remarkable that a president of this country almost two hundred years ago was more free to indulge in the humanism of Jesus than the president is today. It seems that any embrace by a public figure today of a Jesus other than the Logos incarnate would doom him or her politically.
Although Jefferson never joined a Unitarian Church, his sympathies were with this denomination and he predicted that before the end of the 19th century, Unitarianism would be the dominant religion in America. Of course that prediction was made even before the birth of Joseph Smith, so it goes to show you that history has a few surprises up its sleeve.
Jefferson once refused to be the God-Parent of his nephew, for fear the Episcopalian priest would make him promise to raise the nephew a Christian. It was only after pre-arranging with the priest that he would not ask Jefferson such an embarrassing question that he did agree to be the God-Father.
Jefferson’s theology was greatly influenced by the renown scientist and British Unitarian minister, Joseph Priestly. Priestly, who felt his theological charge was to discover the authentic Jesus buried beneath dogma and tradition, wrote a treatise called, “Corruptions of Christianity.” He thought he was nailing tight the coffin of the Cosmic Christ, but actually almost sealed his own fate when mobs tried to hang Priestly. He ran for his life, but all his scientific work in the laboratories of Birmingham England was burned to the ground.
Only because of a prior friendly meeting with Ben Franklin in London in 1774, did Franklin persuade Jefferson to help Priestly to this country. Priestly began the first Unitarian Church in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, in 1793, but more importantly, became the religious mentor to Thomas Jefferson.
Priestly inspired Jefferson’s own personal pursuit of the authentic Jesus. Jefferson claimed it was simply not enough to reject the dogma and liturgical tradition of orthodox Christianity but to find a purified Christianity “…away from the rubbish in which it was buried.”
Most people identify Jefferson as an author of the Declaration of Independence. I was surprised during my first and only witnessing of the July 24th Pioneer Day Parade, how much Mormons seem to own Thomas Jefferson. I never quite understood it, other than when a friend explained that Jefferson was converted to Mormonism after he died…which really didn’t clear things up for me, either.
At any rate, my surprise of the Mormon embrace of Jefferson leads me to believe that they know little of his theology and his remarkable contributions to the theological world. He left behind several tracts on the philosophy of Jesus, but his seminal work is called, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually From the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French, and English.” More colloquially, it’s known as THE JEFFERSON BIBLE.
In his earlier works, Jefferson wrote of Jesus, “And the child grew and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him.” In the Jefferson Bible, he expunged the term “and the grace of God was upon him.” He didn’t begin his bible with “In the beginning was the Word,” nor did Jefferson make any accounting of the annunciation, virgin birth nor the appearance of angels to the shepherds.
Jefferson wrote a profile of a human Jesus, a very ethical man whom Jefferson referred to as “The greatest of all reformers.” Jefferson termed the beginnings of Jesus “a man of illegitimate birth.” Incidentally, Clinton is a great admirer of Jefferson, part of the inauguration will include a swing through Jefferson’s Virginia, and indeed, Jefferson is Clinton’s middle name. Although a Baptist, I think and hope and pray that we might become a tad less concerned about being a Christian nation in the next four years and start to examine our foibles in the light of a greater human good.
Jefferson’s rational account of Jesus goes on to say, “A man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, and enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions of divinity, ending in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted according to Roman law.”
Jefferson insisted that Jesus’ humble origins not detract from the content of his message—namely a morality of absolute love and service. The humanism of Jesus is quite obvious, once it is liberated from the trappings of dogma, miracles, and the notion of the Cosmic Christ.
Jefferson had pieced together a portrait of Jesus as one who served humanity. Once the image of Jesus leaves the realm of the supernatural and conventional piety, we can begin to see a spiritual dynamic which drives to the core of humanism…at least religious humanism.
One of the leading humanists and a Unitarian minister from Minneapolis, Khoren Arisian, speaks of spirituality as “a potential aspect of all life.” I think we would all agree that spirituality is not a definable reality, but (according to my good friend and humanist leader, Ken Phifer) humanists can participate in spirituality as the journey, if not the actual arrival.
The humanism of Jesus, I believe, was geared towards the journey and addressed the “potential aspect of all life.” His foremost commitment lay with the poor. He demanded the poor be treated with justice.
Last Sunday in church I took the opportunity to explore some of the new images of Jesus since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a host of other writings found in Qumran (I have been immersed in a lot of Jesus this week, a not too common experience). Essentially, Jesus is now viewed as a holy man from Galilee, a healer and exorcist in great demand. He was more likely a scholar than a carpenter, and was probably married. It would have been very unusual at this time for a young Jewish male to have been unmarried. He had a strained relationship with his family, who disapproved of his association with swindlers, drunkards, and whores. He was sought by Rome for armed insurrection. He died a Jew, with no fixed body of teaching or blueprint for a new religion.
Thomas Jefferson obviously didn’t have the advantage of the Dead Sea Scrolls to enhance his portrait of a historical person some 2000 years ago. But he managed, nonetheless, to distill from the original texts, a commitment that life is beautiful and that our challenge is to bring peace and justice into the world.
The humanism of Jesus seemed like a process and attitude towards realizing the “potential aspect of all life.” His defense of the poor and empathy with the suffering are directly related to the demands of justice implored by Old Testament prophets. Jesus had studied them well.
Let me just add in conclusion, that it might appear shocking to some to consider the humanism of Jesus–a strange juxtaposition of secular and religious. Especially when we look at the 2000 year history of Christianity, it seems incomprehensible all which has been done in Christ’s name, from the Inquisition, to Hitler’s final solution, to the bigotry of Pat Robertson. I doubt Jesus would have looked upon Christianity any too kindly. In fact, said historian and biographer, A. N. Wilson, “If Jesus had foreseen the whole of Christian history, he might have exclaimed with Job, ‘Why died I not from the womb?'”
So as you dare take your next stroll through Temple Square…relax, enjoy the lights and ambiance…and be sure to meet up with that huge monstrosity of a Jesus, a reprehensible symbol to be sure, but worthy of contemplation. It represents a lot of theology; and it is a noble movement to get out from under such gaudy impressions of a mystical figure in order to appreciate a teacher–a Jewish holy man–whose visions of peace and justice resonated in all likelihood with your sentiments today.
Also, relax about the holidays, and don’t feel embarrassed as a humanist who enjoys Christmas. That might actually make a nice title for a Children’s story: “The Humanist Who Enjoyed Christmas,” right on the shelf next to the “Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”
“Thanks for having me here tonight, and Merry Christmas to you all.”
During the discussion afterward, Reverend Goldsmith spoke of the book of James (brother of Jesus) found among a group of early Christian writers that added much to the “snap-shot” glimpses of Jesus and the times in which Jesus lived. At that time, Galilee was a hot-bed of political activism, there were 20-30 active sects striving for religious independence from Rome. Here, also, were holy men, usually Hasidic healers.
The book entitled “Jesus” by A. N. Wilson contains much information about this historical person with a following. A charismatic, itinerant exorcist, whose only goal was teaching about how to be a good Jew. He was a scholar, not a carpenter.
A History Of Knowledge, Past, Present, and Future
The sub-title on the cover states: The Pivotal Events, People and Achievements of World History. The review on the back cover is by Clifton Fadiman, and this book published by Ballantine Books, was a selection of the Book-of-The-Month and The History Book Club. These are good recommendations for “popular” reading, but also probably means that the book won’t find itself on the book-shelf of many Professors of History, which is a recommendation in itself.
As a text for our current lecture/discussion series on the History of Humanism, this book comes as close as one single book could. It reminds me of the College Outline Series giving an overview of course subjects I read as a college student. This is not an outline, but reads as though it were. To cover the subject in 422 pages, it has to be very direct. I find the book to be very readable, not at all like the usual history text, while still presenting the information. As stated in one review: “…making even the most complex ideas clear, accessible, and compelling.”
The author, Charles Van Doren, was a student at St. Johns College, which studies the Great Books, and he was for twenty years an Editor for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He clearly has the credentials to write this kind of book. I recommend that you read it.