The Jefferson Attitude

The New York Times ran an article by historian David Williams about Thomas Jefferson’s more or less Christian attitude and how taking a similar stance might allow the Democratic Party to win over those who find Democrats essentially secular and deaf to the concerns posed by their Christian beliefs.

According to Mr. Williams, Jefferson believed in the teachings of Christ but didn’t accept the “mysticism”, by which Jefferson apparently meant the outrageous claim that Christ was God and as such performed miracles including his return from death, thereby providing evidence for his assertion that believers could achieve eternal life.

Now, I would certainly prefer that Democrats took the teachings of Christ seriously, no matter how they feel about “mysticism”. While I spent some time at a seminary in Tijuana, a very intelligent member of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity told me that part of his admiration for the Mexican poor was that even most of those who didn’t believe in Catholic doctrine, having grown up in a mostly Catholic culture, had learned to be humble and selfless, as Christ would have them be.

Would that we all were humble and selfless, no matter what we believe.

But whether or not this Jeffersonian template, based largely upon the Beatitudes and the admonition to love our neighbors, would win at least some swing votes to Democrats, it’s quite a dangerous course to chart. In fact, I would call it hogwash except, perhaps because of my ties to Christian culture, I would rather play nice.
In defense of my objection, I will call upon Feodor Dostoyevski, widely held to be among the greatest novelists ever.

In the recent work of a far lesser writer (Ken Kuhlken, alias me), we find a precocious thirteen year old discussing a criminal case with his attorney uncle:

“Tommy asked, ‘Well, do you want to hear something Dostoyevski thought about bad guys like Luz? [boss of a Tijuana cartel.]’

“’Read on.’

“Tommy’s source was The Brothers Karamazov, which he opened to a book mark.

“’This is Rakitin, who’s pretty much of a nitwit, talking about Ivan, who is mighty smart: “Did you hear his stupid theory just now: if there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful?”’”

Dostoyevski devoted much of his art to dramatizing this very question: if we remove God from the equation, why should we act in accord with any moral standard other than the pursuit of our own benefit?

If we take a secular stance and dismiss the possibility of what Jefferson deems mysticism, why should we hold anyone’s well being above our own; why should we sacrifice; why should we try to love better?

Over a hundred years ago, that question drove Dostoyevski’s two most profound and compelling novels. Before his time and ever since, some mighty intelligent writers and thinkers have tried and failed to come up with a convincing answer.

So, regardless of the fact that a long lost girlfriend of mine argued that Christianity would be preferable if blood weren’t one of its abiding themes; and my Unitarian friends would have us consider the teachings of Christ in the same category as those of the Dalai Lama; and many folks I know believe that heaven is a swell concept but hell is simply not Christ-like … regardless of the opinions of those good people, the notion that we can legitimately pick and choose from a historically fixed set of beliefs is a fool’s paradise.

Which brings me to the role of us writers in political, social and spiritual discourse.

Sure, those of us who believe in Christ ought to let our readers know that, like Jefferson, we adhere to the values our Lord set down and hope people follow them whether or not they believe in the “mystical” stuff. But if we believe in that “mystical” stuff, we also ought to insinuate our belief that creation is more than what the Bernards would have us believe.

For a definition of “Bernards,” I once again call upon the precocious Tommy. Jodi, The novel’s narrator, is telling about a drive along Highway 395 in the Sierra Nevada:

“Once when Tommy laughed and I asked what about, he said, ‘Dmitri, one of the brothers, he calls science guys Bernards. Bernard was some knucklehead French writer.’

“’Dmitri calls scientists Bernards?’

“’Not exactly scientists, but guys who think science is the answer to everything.’

“’So, Tommy,’ Mystery [Jodi’s daughter] said, ‘if not science, what is the answer to everything?’”

To find the answer to that last and ultimate question, you’ll need to read the novel.

Thanks for reading, Ken

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One comment on “The Jefferson Attitude
  1. Carol Roberts says:

    Looking forward to reading it, Ken.