The Odyssey of Paine


There’s a pun in that title for you theology nerds- let me know if you get it. Inspired by my friend Bethany, today’s post is brought to you by Thomas Paine. Particularly memorable quotes are brought to us today by the color bold.

“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

“I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”

People ask why do those [insert disliked group here- atheists, agnostics, nontheists, skeptics] talk about religion so much if it doesn’t matter to them? Well, it does matter, because it matters to the religious, and it shapes how they live their lives. Therefore I would much rather have the world full of those who agree with Brian McLaren than those who agree with Pat Robertson.

Questions of honesty and clarity are also important to me, though I’ve discussed at length with my friend Jimmy the often antagonistic relationship between striving for clarity and trying to connect with others who will inevitably disagree on what some words mean. Regardless, here’s Paine on how other people might see him based on the statement above:

“But, lest it should be supposed that I believe in many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.”

Now, on what Paine doesn’t believe, and why he doesn’t believe it:

“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

And later, on the danger of revelation:

“Each of those churches show certain books, which they call revelation, or the word of God. The Jews say, that their word of God was given by God to Moses, face to face; the Christians say, that their word of God came by divine inspiration: and the Turks say, that their word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from Heaven. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all….

“No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication [revelation], if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person… only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.

“It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication — after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.”

If Paul of Tarsus walked up to you today and told you he had had a vision on the road to Damascus, would you believe him, or would you check him into your local full-care psychiatric clinic? Moreso if he then spent years wandering in the deserts of Arabia receiving more revelations?

“But the resurrection of a dead person from the grave, and his ascension through the air, is a thing very different as to the evidence it admits of, to the invisible conception of a child in the womb. The resurrection and ascension, supposing them to have taken place, admitted of public and ocular demonstration, like that of the ascension of a balloon, or the sun at noon-day, to all Jerusalem at least. A thing which everybody is required to believe, requires that the proof and evidence of it should be equal to all, and universal; and as the public visibility of this last related act was the only evidence that could give sanction to the former part, the whole of it falls to the ground, because that evidence never was given. Instead of this, a small number of persons, not more than eight or nine, are introduced as proxies for the whole world, to say they saw it, and all the rest of the world are called upon to believe it. But it appears that Thomas did not believe the resurrection, and, as they say, would not believe without having ocular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I, and the reason is equally as good for me, and for every other person, as for Thomas.

I would note here that the crowd of 400 witnesses to the resurrection claimed by Paul (by hearsay) in one of his letters would be pretty compelling evidence, if they had all attested to it at the time. It is rather curious to me that if such a large body of witnesses was around that none of the Gospel writers noted it. That would seem like pretty incontrovertible evidence, at least as far as ancient documents go.

And now Paine shows his true Deist stripes:

In like manner of reasoning, everything we behold carries in itself the internal evidence that it did not make itself Every man is an evidence to himself that he did not make himself; neither could his father make himself, nor his grandfather, nor any of his race; neither could any tree, plant, or animal make itself; and it is the conviction arising from this evidence that carries us on, as it were, by necessity to the belief of a first cause eternally existing, of a nature totally different to any material existence we know of, and by the power of which all things exist; and this first cause man calls God.

Admittedly quite enlightened for his time. Of course, Paine new nothing of natural selection and the self-organizing principles which govern the cycles of stars, the gradual formation of planets, and the evolution of all that we call life. But still, he has a decently strong argument for a Deity based on the existence of something instead of nothing, but that argument is based on metaphysics masquerading as proof disguised as a sasquatch. In other words, it could go either way, completely arbitrarily.

Paine then does a neat little commentary on Mormon theology, without even knowing it:

“The most extraordinary of all the things called miracles, related in the New Testament, is that of the devil flying away with Jesus Christ, and carrying him to the top of a high mountain; and to the top of the highest pinnacle of the temple, and showing him and promising to him all the kingdoms of the world. How happened it that he did not discover America?

Thank you Thomas Paine (for making my day and for the American Revolution so I don’t have to sound like Richard Dawkins). And now I have to go study for finals.


One Response to The Odyssey of Paine

  1. Cody says:

    I haven’t read Thomas Paine yet, I just started this Seminary thing. Though, he sounds quite a lot like David Hume, whom I read quite a bit last quarter. Good stuff. I know a few local radio talk show hosts that would do well to read some of this. At least they could find out a bit about the people that they condemn. Circular reasoning is running rampant in the evangelical world these days (i.e. I know the Bible is true because all scripture is God breathed blah blah blah). A bit irksome.

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