A few weeks before his death at age 84, Benjamin Franklin summarized his religious beliefs, in terms with which I could readily associate myself:
You desire to know something of my religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it. But I cannot take your curiosity amiss, and shall endeavor in a few words to gratify it.
Here is my creed.
- I believe in one God, the creator of the universe.
- That he governs by his providence.
- That he ought to be worshipped.
- That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children.
- That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.
These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.
As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire,
- I think his system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes,
- and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity;
- though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.
- I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequences, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and more observed;
- especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world with any peculiar marks of his displeasure.
Benj. Franklin, Letter to Ezra Stiles, 9 March 1790, in John Bigelow, ed., The Works of Benjamin Franklin, at 12:185-86 (New York: Putnam’s, 1904) (paragraphing edited and bullets added for readability).
I love his points about Jesus - they are all great. Especially the third, "....making his doctrines more respected and more observed." I've never thought about it that way before
This part, too, is so to the point: ...and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.
Posted by: bls | November 27, 2004 at 11:18 AM
I'm glad you question -- this is so wonderful to do. I can't help but notice however that you think it is only right as a Christian to "do the comfortable thing." You said that on a previous posting about "shortening the Nicene Creed" or something like that. Now, I have problems with folks struggling to intellectually assent to the creeds which nearly all Christians have confessed for at least a millenium. But, I wonder, just because something makes you "uncomfortable" or makes you doubt -- is that something which ought simply to be expunged? Especially as regards religious faith, it would seem part of the deal that all religions have certain essential claims which are not expungeable. Whether or not you can subscribe to the religion then ought to be your dilemna but not that of the religion. Franklin as with many of the Enlightenment deleted a good many pieces of the Christian religion which made them uncomfortable. It would appear you like that. But, isn't your enterprise one of inventing your own personal religion? You can say "faith" or "religion" or "tradition" or "doctrine" are not all the same -- and they aren't. But when you go to an Episcopal Church -- that is a religious institution dedicated to faith in Christ as mediated through traditions and doctrines. Should it accomodate you by altering its teachings because you and others aren't able to accept them?
Posted by: Greg Jones | November 27, 2004 at 07:04 PM
TYPO ALERT: should have typed "I have NO problems with..."
Posted by: Greg Jones | November 27, 2004 at 07:12 PM
Greg Jones, thanks for the comment. We can't lose sight that a religion is simply a set of beliefs that happen to be held, or to have been held, by a particular group of people. That fact doesn't mean that the beliefs are necessarily right.
I'm far from alone in the Episcopal Church in being less than 100% convinced of all the dogmas we now call orthodox Christianity. If I thought I were alone, or close to it, I doubt I'd still be an Episcopalian.
I have no interest in inventing a personal religion. I'm simply trying to get intellectually-satisfying answers to some of the questions I've had for years -- and that my teen-agers are now asking for themselves. Writing, especially in debates with traditionalists, is an enormous help in that effort.
Thanks for visiting.
Posted by: D. C. | November 28, 2004 at 10:18 PM
Wow, this was really actually quite moving for me. The first 5 points were so simple and yet so profound! I'm so glad I searched and found this...it may have changed my life forever!!
Posted by: Lindsay Wahlstrom | January 02, 2005 at 10:24 PM
please understand ALL of Jesus's teachings before you make judgments about them. any devout christians (followers, not fans of christ) pick up on this. im at school and i dnt have any time to continue
Posted by: philip | April 28, 2009 at 11:07 AM