Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
QUESTION: I'm a 75-year-old man who's never followed any formal religion, but I have always tried to do what I thought was right. As of late, I've been reading with great interest about something called Deism. What are your thoughts on this topic?
-- G., via email
ANSWER: Deism is a system of beliefs about God that includes everything we can know by the use of unaided human reason and rejects any theological beliefs that can't be proven by reason and can only be known by God's revelations to us through sacred scriptures.
The most famous work of Deism in America is Thomas Jefferson's version of the New Testament, which he published in 1820 as "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Jefferson retained all the teachings of Jesus that were rational and ethical, and snipped out (literally) all the stories of miracles and the resurrection.
The basic beliefs of all Deist theologies is that God exists and created the world, but beyond that, God has no active engagement in the world except the creation of human reason, which enables us to find God by doing good. This religious orientation was the one that infused the Declaration of Independence with its religious veneer. It is universal, rational and ethical.
There's another concept called Natural Law, which is based on the writings of Thomas Aquinas in his "Summa Theologica" and is also found in certain teachings of the rabbis and the teaching of the Muslim theologian Averroes (Ibn Rushd).
"There belongs to the natural law, first, certain most general precepts, that are known to all; and secondly, certain secondary and more detailed precepts, which are, as it were, conclusions following closely from first principles," Aquinas wrote. "As to those general principles, the natural law, in the abstract, can nowise be blotted out from men's hearts."
Our own stubborn blindness can overcome our innate knowledge of the good God wants us to do, but we know it nonetheless because we have a moral conscience guided by reason, Deism teaches. It's tempting to think that Deism makes God unnecessary and leads directly to atheism and the use of reason alone. This can be true, but it's not essentially true of Deism or Natural Law theories.
Keep studying. Read C.S. Lewis' book, "Mere Christianity."
QUESTION: When you answer queries, invariably you say something like, "I believe God wants us to...," "God did this because...," etc. Unless you've met God personally, why is what you believe he wants any more accurate or true than what I, or others who've never heard personally from God, believe?
-- S., via email
ANSWER: What makes my beliefs true, if they are true, is that they reflect the universal understanding of the world's religions and the classical philosophical theories of ethics. It's not my opinion that, for example, theft and murder are wrong, but the universally endorsed understanding of thinking people since people began to think about right and wrong. People who think such moral wrongs are right, are just wrong. Personal opinions are decisive in deciding what's beautiful or ugly but have no bearing on what's right or wrong.
Disagreements about what's right or wrong do not prove that there is no right or wrong. They just indicate that we need to discuss the topic more and not give up making the case for human virtue.
I am religious and I am Jewish because I rationally believe that the revealed word of God in the Bible contains many ethical truths that reason confirms as true. Those are the truths I write about. There are also revelations in the Bible that cannot be proven by reason. They don't bring me truth, but they do bring me hope, which on many days is far more important to me.