Archive for October, 2011

In the last few years I have wandered in confusion between two inspirations that appear to be polar opposites:  the philosophy of Eastern religion and the comfortable American belief system of Benjamin Franklin.  Hindusim enthralls me with its sublime conception of an all-encompassing God – a God so vast and multi-faceted that the human mind and heart can only conceive of Him through the apparitions of His individual principles or manifestations, including but not limited to Kali; to Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma.  Buddhism borrows the ancient Hindu techniques of meditation but removes the psychedelic God-imagery of Hinduism – the vivid gold crowns and blue skies; the multiple arms and elephant bodies – asking us simply to meditate on Reality by eviscerating one’s sense of a separate self.  Thererin lies the vast, ancient, exotic continent ofAsia, with its temples, its gurus, and its armies of monks.  Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and Buddhism – so may spices to entice the spirit!

Meanwhile, here in the New World, our nation was founded by children of the European Enlightenment.  While Washington, Adams and Hamilton all expressed differing aspects of republican ideals, Jefferson and Franklin were its real intellectual leaders.  Jefferson was a brilliant democratic idealist, but it can be argued that Franklin’s life example expresses the original American spirit best of all.  Franklinism is a comfortable, pragmatic version of Deism.  While Ben was ostensibly a Protestant Christian like almost every other American of his time, he was deeply skeptical and distrustful of the various ministers who paraded their way through his life. Franklin believed in religious tolerance in the sense that he believed first and foremost that religion itself existed to be tolerated.  His personal belief system, as I understand it, was quite simple:  that God means for us to be happy.  What God is, though, Franklin didn’t say.  The Deists of the French Enlightenment, who must have influenced Franklin during his long sojourn in France as the American ambassador, believed in “Deus ex Machina” – the idea that an unseen God simply set the gears of the great universal machine in action and then paused, presumably to observe the consequences.  One of the gifts that Franklin gave America, then, was a sort of vague version of Christianity – a Christianity that emphasized the Protestant ethic of striving for human progress, while gauzing over the more messianic, hellfire aspects of the religion that propelled Cotton Mather and the other Boston Puritans.  In other words,Franklin bequeathed to us ‘Protestant-Lite:’   the organizing, community-developing, self-helping, character-building, human-validating aspect of the religion as opposed to the dark, good-versus-evil, dramatic vision of the Puritans and of today’s fundamentalists.

Franklin believed that God was Good and that He meant for us to help each other out.  As far as I can determine, he didn’t worry too much about the count of who among us is to be Saved and who is not.  My father recently told me that, growing up in Billings, Montana in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, his Methodist church emphasized this Franklinist concept that the church’s primary role is to help people help one another, while imparting the sense that God loves all of us; that we are all God’s children.

Franklinism and American culture celebrate the self – the self-made self of American individualism.  The Buddhist notion of destroying the self to gain an understanding of Reality is as foreign to an American sensibility as anything could possibly be.  Still, I wander mentally and emotionally between the two poles, because while I pursue a Franklinian life of self-improvement and progress, I also know how crazy our individual selves can be, left to their own devices. Franklin had an answer for that too:  the successful, enterprising man is also dedicated to improving his community.  To put it another way, striving for equality is as important as the pursuit of liberty.  Regrettably, the prominence of equality as a value equal or akin to liberty is a notion that we have almost completely lost in our modern, fractured and deeply divided society.  Nevertheless, equality is one principle that Franklin and the Buddha would certainly have agreed upon.


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