Nature, Natural Law and Our National Religion of “Nature’s God” part 1
There are times
—esp. around national elections when we”re surfeited by political mythologies (many of them pathological)—
I want to write about the giant subject of what our national creed is, and how our rights derive from nature. SO…….
I stand w/Jefferson, who claimed that “freedom is the gift of nature.” Allow me to explain;
but before I do I should note that in what follows I use this definition of religion: it is a system of stories and beliefs that unites, that “,” for our comprehension the disparate phenomena and design(s) of what we call the . This is a very broad definition, but it needs to be, because religion is innate, a biologically “hard-wired” reflex-response generated by our limited consciousness, an expression catalyzed by the finiteness of the human nervous system;
for, we must agree that it is impossible for the human mind to comprehend, by thought or language, the totality of the cosmos; and, b/c our minds can only comprehend part of the cosmos, we are forced to hypothesize and imagine the rest of it; and that”s why we construct and “tie together” w/stories and beliefs the entity, or entities, which are traditionally known as “God” or gods. (And, btw, by not believing in “God,” atheists end up believing in “God”—else they wouldn”t have anything not to believe in; also, Nietszche”s pronouncement that “God is dead” doesn”t work, b/c the moment that happens, another one appears to take it place—because “God” is, among other things, the end of thought itself: wherever/whenever our ability to understand and explain phenomena fails, our hard-wired brains begin to imagine what”s going on there, and to “tie together.”) Note that the definition of religion I use does not create an antagonism between science and theology, as both are religious. Like Jefferson, I judge religions as being good or bad based on the what they produce: a good or bad life; a good life is one wherein a person has fully exercised their natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
By , I mean “that which gives birth”: the generative force in physis that makes us what we are, purely material and spiritual beings, as is evidenced by our breath (Latin spiritus and/or Greek pneuma). If, as I was taught, breath is spirit and spirit, God, then our everyday lives are spiritual and godly, and we have much to be thankful for. We breathe, embodying spiritus/pneuma because we have been delivered into this world, this earth, this continent, this biome, this watershed. Only living beings breath, of course; and if, as I was taught, God is life, we have not only much to be thankful for, but also to celebrate. We are alive and so little else is, and overbrim and hyperventilate with spirit and God, only because we are natural.
If we were not born naturally, we would have no life, eternal or otherwise; and, you know the Christmas story, the nativity scene: If Jesus had no Mary, none would have known of Him. And would Adam and Eve and Moses have experienced Jehovah, if Jehovah did not become natural? Consider this: without nature, there is for us no (way to embody) God. By nature, then, I mean something equally essential to us as God is. Lack one, lacks both, and the unseen is proven by the seen, said Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass, and I stand with him, and Whitman stood with Thomas Paine, who expressed the Founder”s Deism, in the Age of Reason:
Do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the Scripture which any human hand might make but the scripture called the Creation.
The only idea man can affix to the name of God is that of a first cause the cause of all things.
For our purposes in this little blog post, we reach the conclusion that Jefferson did not feel uncomfortable equating God and nature (even if we do). He was a neo-classicist, as Monticello amply demonstrates; and his theology celebrated God and nature as different names for the same thing: “that which gives birth.” For this reason, he—and the signers of the Declaration of Independence—declared that the deity of the revolutionaries was one new to western culture: “Nature”s God.”
Jefferson claimed that freedom is derived from nature, and not from any human construction or invention. He extrapolated upon the philosophy of natural law that finds its provenance in ancient Greece (that became, through the influence of , and though the influence of Aquinas & Isaac Newton, part of the theology of the Anglican Church). At this very moment, “natural law” provides the epistemological grounds for Western law and science. The basic idea of natural law is that physis (i.e., the dynamic, living cosmos) operates according to laws, and if we understand those laws, we can follow them and live a good life. On the foundation of natural laws, natural rights are anchored.
In the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson used the foundation of natural law to anchor the fundamental set of natural rights expressed in the original “American creed”:
When it becomes necessary, in the course of human events, for one people to dissolve the political bands that which have connected them with one another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness…
Notice 2 things.
1) The Founders abhorred theocracy, & the original “American Creed” does not (nor does the Constitution) reference any deity that had been described in any popularly acknowledged sacred text—instead, it references “the laws of nature” and “Nature’s God.” John Adams explained this fact to the leaders of Morocco in the Treaty of Tripoli that both nations signed to rid the Mediterranean Ocean of pirates:
“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
Adams also wrote:
The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.
The Founders chose to anchor the government and political culture of USA in “nature” because, to them, nature was both the clockwork cosmos Isaac Newton imagined, and the unmapped Western frontier. From the clockwork nature came laws; the cornupic West “gave birth” to all the little houses on the prairie that (according to Crevecoeur-ian yeoman-farmer political myth) housed democracy-loving pioneers. The “new” American identity, best expressed in the life and deeds of Ben Franklin, was natural—not feudal or theological.
2) You see “equal” is mentioned twice. Equality is a natural law, as I will now explain, & this law and the rights established upon it, are the prime tenets of classical liberalism. All the signers of the Declaration were liberals, even those representing the states that would later comprise the Confederacy during the Civil War—because political liberalism as a formal historical reality, and world-shaping force, begins with the signing of the Declaration. No Founder was what we today call a “conservative.”
I will conclude this post by offering you something of great value, esp. in at this moment in our national history: the empirically-provable, natural law basis of liberalism.
We are equal because when we take our first breath, we breathe an atmosphere that no other human can claim (greater) title to. Every baby owns as much of the sky and the ocean and the earth as their parents; they own it all, but owning it all actually means they own nothing. (Own the sky! Own the ocean! Own the rainbow and all of its gold!). We are born on a planet we cannot actually possess. But but but, much of history is the story of how humans fought to own it, all those Macbeths and Caesars and Hitlers and Texans, I’ve heard. History is often the story of how humans killed each other to own the earth but the fact is, they never anyone of them owned it. It is actually impossible to own anything, except in fantasy. Every dying person knows that and squirrel and brook trout, too.
Equality is a natural law because no human can actually own the earth.
In my next post, I will tell you the story of how Abraham Lincoln enforced that natural law through the just use of lethal force during the Civil War, which was a war between “liberals” who defended the Founder”s definitions of nature, natural law and the national religion of the USA, and “conservatives” who defended an unnatural law of inequality, and a theology that was not “American.”
Glad to have you writing the blog again. Good stuff.