“For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead.”
Thomas Jefferson said this as a visionary, a thinker, and a wildly imperfect man. If you think he shared your religious values, I would dare say, probably not. Jefferson was a Deist. A man of reason in pursuit of what humankind could understand.
Jefferson understood the classic languages. He read the Bible in its myriad translations, and sought to comprehend its mysticism and its human creation by way of the mind. Someone once argued with me that America was founded on Judeo Christian values. This is as true as saying the stars come out at night. But why do they? How far away do they glow? The values of Jefferson are those of a seeker, a man who sought to know what he did not know, and stopped short of believing much of what he couldn’t. Jeffersonian Christianity would set off shouts of heresy in the vacation Bible school of my upbringing.
I say this to speak here of my faith. This is a commentary on religion, yes I dare. I say this as a caveat against thoughtless following.
Think before you believe. Think upon the times of the writings that cause you to believe. Understand that much of this life — often its most beautiful mysteries — will always lie beyond the reach of our understanding. Those who protest to know everything, to understand everything, understand poorly. Theirs is a poverty of seeking. Of yearning. They refuse to know that they do not know.
The Jeffersonian Bible is a document of assiduous hand, of assumptions and the refusal to make assumptions, of crunching under the shoes of the mind the oats of a harvest we did not sow.
If Mr. Jefferson’s view of the omniscient and omnipotent Watchmaker is true, I believe the Watchmaker tends to the gears, oils the machinery, perhaps winds us up into a tension between love and evil, knowing love will prevail. Knowing that Love made the watch.
The sun sets each day upon the Tidal Basin in D.C., its quiet water and the rush of traffic flowing around Mr. Jefferson in his memorial, standing in repose, upright, yet dead, clothed in his time, yet timeless in the country he helped bring out of the ground. We are his America, and an America beyond him. He envisioned, brilliantly, so much of our need, and could not see some of what would come against us. Mr. Jefferson, in all his flawed humanity, lives in the vitality of the documents he made and the nation we keep making.
And I believe if he were alive today, Mr. Jefferson would say — seek. Seek before you claim to know. Seek to try to know. Then accept what is unknowable. Accept and have peace, beyond a simple word of the mind.
To believe in God, without claiming to have God in a box somewhere — that, perhaps, is the culmination of the Age of Reason. And true faith.
I believe Mr. Jefferson followed truth to the cliffs of mystery, paused to reason for a while, then took the leap. We all will take it upon our final breaths.
Thank you, Mr. Jefferson, for America, greater now than she was. I am thankful, too, for a Christian faith that deems it reasonable to believe only God is good at being God, after all.