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Coffee & Wisdom 02.47: Allow Me to Post This Epistle Part 3

David Breeden is speaking all week about writing from prison.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, senior minister for First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, and this is Coffee and Wisdom. This week we are looking at writings in and from prison. I’m calling it “Allow Me to Post this Epistle, because in the good old days of the Roman Empire, anyway, these letters were called epistles because they were meant for public consumption. They were not private letters. Since that time, we’ve backed away from that word a bit. Probably sounds like a word that’s a little bit too too. Nowadays we call them letters, but we’ve got quite a bit of writing from prisons.

So today I want to look at particular Protestant, and I’ll ask you a question. What imprisoned writer is enshrined in the US House of Representatives; was condemned to life in prison; and ordered, read, and sent back so many books that he eventually escaped in the book box? Good question. Here, we’ve got a little picture of some folks carrying the box that seems a little bit heavy. We have here in a museum a box that purports to be the one that he escaped in. And then here they are schlepping it out of the prison itself. Well, the answer is Hugo Grotius. He was Dutch and so his actual name in Dutch was Groot. But most of the time when you look at his work, you’re going to see his name in its Latinized form.

Hugo Grotius, who lived from 1583 to 1645. He was a Dutch humanist–with a little H humanist. That is, the people who began during this period to look at human nature as an important part of reality. He was also a diplomat, a lawyer, a theologian, jurist, poet and playwright. And he’s often called the “father of international law.” So somebody that we ought to know. But he is not all that well known these days.

He was a proponent of a Protestant form of natural law. We have discussed natural law on Coffee and Wisdom before. Let’s just very quickly give a little handy dandy definition: All people have inherent rights conferred not by active legislation, but by God, nature, or reason. And the natural law, as it develops within Protestantism, is a little wonky or a little bit vague about who is actually conferring this. So here’s, I think, a good summary from Grotius on natural law, a quote, “The will of God is revealed not only through oracles and portents, but above all in the very design of the creator. For it is from this last source that the law of nature is derived.” So we can’t really find it from scripture so much as we can by reading the Book of Nature. And you can see how this is a very early form of what’s going to become an idea about Deism and will eventually become the idea for the American and French revolutions.

Grotius wrote several books, One, On the Rights of War and Peace, a very famous book about international relations, and then The Freedom of the Seas. He’s the first European to claim that the seas ought to be open for trade, which would be a benefit and good for everyone. The Dutch were at this time period in a tooth and nail battle with both Spain and England for control of sea channels.

Grotius says liberty is the power that we have over ourselves. And this is very important as a way of seeing how this is going to develop out of a Protestant viewpoint that people have a right to control their own conscience and their own bodies. This is a new idea. It’s coming out of the Enlightenment period. So here’s how Grotius drew it out: natural law, divine law, and human law. So we have the law, OK? And he says there are two kinds. There’s natural law which occurs again. And we can read it from looking at the Book of Nature itself, the laws and rules that we can divine from nature. Then we have positive laws–positive laws are those which are positively passed by governments. And you look down to the next little column here and it’s divine and human. Now, that’s a very interesting distinction that Grotius is making here, that natural law is above and outside of even divine law.

Now, yes, if you nailed him down on this, critics would say, yes, God created the universe. Fine. But the universal laws that God created are before the ones that we havae heard or read in scripture. All right. And so within positive law, those which are actually passed, we have divine, from the Bible and human laws. And then within those human laws, we have subsections of laws of nations and then civil or municipal law. So this is seeing a progression from a great deistic source of the universal laws down to biblical laws, which very clearly are geographic in nature. He was very much into the idea that Islam was a fine religion for people elsewhere. Again, very early in that kind of assumption that some kind of worldwide freedom of religion was a fine idea.

He says this human law must be made “etsi Deus non daretur,” as if God does not exist. Why would that be? Well, Grotius is living during a time when even Protestants are killing each other. Certainly Protestants and Catholics are killing each other all over Europe. And so his idea is, if we are going to make international laws that work, these must not refer to the Catholic God or this Protestant God or that Protestant God. We must look at the actual facts on the ground.

We must act as if God does not exist. When we have passed human laws, we can read the Bible all we like. We can read the Bible the way we want to, all we like. But we must pass laws as if God does not exist. He said, “a state is a perfect body of free men, people united together to enjoy common rights and advantages.” So this is the way we will later see what’s known as a social contract. This is a little bit early for that idea yet, but he is going to be leading the way. His ideas will lead into that idea. A state is a perfect body of free people united together to enjoy common rights and advantages. So we are free by the laws of the universe, God’s laws, and then we will join together and pass laws which are human laws on the earth, and those will guarantee our rights. So you see how this is going to go directly into the way US law is thought of in the US Constitution. And this is a very important point that Grotius makes: even God cannot make two times two not make for. So this is an admission or a claim that would not have been made one hundred years previous to Grotius, that there are laws out there pre-made by God. Sure, we’re not going to argue about that yet or we’ll get burned at the stake. But there are these established laws that God will not change.

And we can look at those unchangeable laws and see how we should be acting on the Earth. Even God cannot make two times two not make four, a very important development in Protestant European thinking.

Well, Jacobus Arminius became theology chair at Liden and along comes Armenianism or in the Dutch reform tradition it’s usually called Remonstranceism. And then you have anti-remonstranceism. But this idea questions Calvinist predestination. Those of you who know Unitarian theology know that this is a very important point that becomes important later within Unitarian thinking. The Armenian idea is that you can change what’s going to happen to you in eternity. Of course, Calvin with predestination, not it all: Get set it all up from the foundations of the universe and you will or won’t go to heaven or hell according to a preordained idea way back. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Armenianism says, however, wait a minute. I think that you can change your fate. That’s going to become a very important part of Protestantism. It’s going to veer off into what becomes pietism, Methodism, et cetera.

Later Grotius wrote a book called The Truth of the Christian Religion. What he claims is that Christianity has it right, OK, we’ll say that, but yeah, there are different ways to look at this particular little subject.

So maybe the Catholics have a perspective, maybe these Protestants have a perspective, and we are going to say we’re going to agree. Christianity is is right. OK, we can do that, Europeans, but we’re also going to say there are nuances within it that we’re not, we can’t, agree on. But that’s OK. Now, that’s a very forward looking idea of interfaith work, not popular during this time period.

So Grotius is arrested because of his Protestant leanings within this argument that’s going to be happening within the Dutch Reform tradition. He is arrested and condemned to life in prison for his Armenianism. And then we have a couple of illustrations from the time period. Here are his wife and maid helping him get into his book box. Yes. He ordered so many books that this book box was not in any way odd going in and out of his prison study. And not a bad room to be in if you have to be in prison. I think you will agree from the picture that’s not bad. And here he is being schlepped out in his box. He did escape the Netherlands and he went to Paris, where he lived out his life and was able to continue his writings. His companion in crime was beheaded, but he was condemned to life in prison and lived to write another day by escaping in a book box.

Grotius. And here he is on his plaque. If you go to the US House of Representatives today, one of the forebears of American ideas of our Constitution and our laws is Grotius and his ideas about how we can derive human laws from this very much larger natural theological perspective than just biblical scripture. So a very important thinker within the Protestant tradition that gives us many of the laws that we do have today.

Thanks for listening today. You can read a lot more about Grotius. Very serious philosopher. I often mention the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is online, and it is peer reviewed by philosophers and professors. So it has very good ideas within it. It’s not just making it up; and is a little more in-depth than Wikipedia, although Wikipedia is not bad. But certainly you can look them up and discover a little bit more about this idea that we must pass laws as if God does not exist.

Wednesday night–join me for Bibles and Beer, “Paul Takes it All Back”. That’s tonight at 7:00 p.m. Central Standard Time. Paul did write about how the world would end. And later he or maybe one of his buddies rewrote the idea of how the world is going to end. And that’s what we’ll be looking at tonight at 7:00 p.m. Central Standard Time. Thanks for joining today, and I’ll see you again tomorrow.

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