Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/31/2010

Ineffability, First Amendment, Madison, the Cast Iron Plant

“. . . .a hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world.”
Letter from Roger Williams to John Cotton (1643), in The Complete Writings of Roger Williams (1963).

"the care of each man's salvation belongs only to himself" John Locke

"the care of each man's salvation belongs only to himself" John Locke

What follows is my understanding of absolutely the most important aspect of living in society. Especially for those of us who may have (may have) brainly oddities that allow us to look at the very nature of life in ways others don’t, the right to experience, to search, to understand, and to express the obviously illogical and perhaps ineffable workings of our brains, freedom of conscience might be seen as the right to exist. [Please, before you think I’m setting myself up as in some way godly, read the note at (*) below]

Whatever one believes or does not believe about God’s existence, whatever one believes or does not believe about God’s self-revelation to humankind, whatever one believes or does not believe about God’s instructions for passing through this life in a manner that pleases God, the bedrock of every American’s freedom is the “unalienable right” to believe or not to believe. This is “the land of the free and the home of the brave” only insofar as the religious—or anti-religious—belief of every person in America is accepted and protected. online lists fourteen meanings for “accept.” One is, “to regard as normal, suitable, or usual” (1). The third edition of the American Heritage dictionary lists, “To regard as proper, usual, or right” as one definition (2). online lists four definitions for “tolerate.” The first and second are, “allow the existence, presence, practice, or act of without prohibition or hindrance; permit,” and “endure without repugnance; put up with” (3). The third edition American Heritage dictionary lists four definitions. The first and third are, “To allow without prohibiting or opposing; permit,” and “to put up with; endure” (4).

The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society (5).

“Toleration” is not the subject of the first argument of Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance.” Madison wrote the “Memorial” as a petition to the Virginia Legislature to defeat a bill offered by Governor Patrick Henry to levy a tax on all citizens for the support of christian education. The tax presumably would have gone to the church of each individual taxpayer. It did not make allowance for those who belonged to no church or those such as Quakers whose church had no professional clergy.

“Acceptance” is the subject of Madison’s “Memorial.” If one believes in “the Creator,” no matter how one forms and describes that belief, the sentence, “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him,” cannot mean that one simply “put[s] up with; endure[s]” the beliefs of another. “Duty of every man” means, rather, “to regard as normal, suitable, or usual.” If every person has a duty “to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believe,” then every person’s belief—because it is born of “duty” towards the Creator—is “proper, usual, or right.” One does not “tolerate” another’s relationship to the other’s God; one “accepts” it because it is the other’s “duty” exactly as one has one’s own duty.

regard as proper, usual, or right

regard as proper, usual, or right

Our mutual acceptance of each others’ “render[ing] to the Creator such homage and such only as [we believe] acceptable to” is the basis of all other rights our Bill of Rights guarantees us. Notice, “guarantees,” not “grants.” The rights are a priori “unalienable.” Government (any form or branch of government) does not give us and cannot take away from us those rights. Religious liberty is our First Freedom.

Nikolai Berdiaev (March 18, 1874 – March 24, 1948), the Russian philosopher of religion—or religious philosopher—is probably not the first writer to jump to mind in a discussion of The First Freedom as codified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He wrote,

Out of the Divine Nothing, the Gottheit or the Ungrund, the Holy Trinity, God the Creator is born. The creation of the world by God the Creator is a secondary act. From this point of view it may be said that freedom is not created by God: it is rooted in the Nothing, in the Ungrund for all eternity. Freedom is not determined by God; it is part of the nothing out of which God created the world. (6)

In Berdiaev’s conception, Maria Nemcova Banerjee asserts, “Man is the child of freedom–of nothing, of non-being . . .” (6) Freedom is not the creation of Nature’s God, according to Berdiaev. Freedom is part of the nothing out of which God created the world. Furthermore, Banerjee says, “Above all, Berdiaev insists on releasing freedom from the constraints of morality as codified by society’s laws. Nor does he accept a definition of freedom that reduces it to being an arbiter of the choice between good and evil. Berdiaev says, “Freedom cannot be identified with goodness or truth or perfection: it is by nature autonomous, it is freedom, and not goodness” (7).

Freedom is not created; it is part of the “nothing” from which God made creation. And freedom is not an arbiter between good and evil. Our freedom has nothing to do with morality. It simply is. Berdiaev stands squarely in the tradition of freedom of thought and conscience first expressed cogently by Martin Luther, then followed by such thinkers as John Milton and John Locke before becoming the bedrock of the thought of the Founders of the American Republic.

rooted in the nothing

rooted in the nothing

Among those “Enlightenment” thinkers who understood absolute freedom of religion (or non-religion) was, as I also pointed out yesterday, Roger Williams.

. . . .it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries. . . . (8)

Those who would have us believe that America was founded as a “christian” nation simply have not understood the writings of the founders (except those from Massachusetts and those influenced by the Puritans). Let them believe as they will, but let’s also defend ourselves against them. My ineffable experience walking through the Aspidistra Elatior on the campus where I teach is not a “christian” experience. But it is mine. And both Pat Robertson and Justice Antonin Scalia are bound by the First Amendment—as well as nearly 100% of the people who founded America—to accept my experience, not to tolerate it.

Neither the Southern Baptist Convention nor the Roman Catholic Church has any say in the matter.

(*) The only use I know of the word “ineffable” is in the Anglican hymn “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” by Matthew Bridges (1800-1894). Bridges speaks of his God as, “Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime,” meaning, of course God’s sublime nature cannot be expressed.” I mean simply that the workings of my mind often cannot be explained. See my posting for yesterday, July 30, 2010.
(1) “accept.” Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 2010. Web. 30 Jul 2010.
(2) “accept.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.
(3) Random House. “tolerate.”
(4) Houghton Mifflin. “tolerate.”
(5) Madison, James. “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (1785). Available at: Hadden, Jeffrey K. “The Religious Freedom Page.” The Religious Freedom Page. 06/21/01. Web. 30 Jul 2010.
(6) Berdiaev, Nikolai. The Destiny of Man, trans. by Natalie Duddington (London, 1937), Part I “Principles,” Ch. 2, “Origin of Good and Evil,” 25. Quoted in: Banerjee, Maria Nemcova. “Nikolai Berdiaev and spiritual freedom.” Modern Age 46.3 (2004): 210+.
(7) Idem. 71.
(8) Roger Williams, “The Bloudy Tenent Of Persecution” (1644).


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