Doubting Thomas (Jefferson) and The Founders’ Great Mistake | Edmund J. Mazza, PhD | Catholic World Report
The Enlightenment marked a fundamental shift from faith and focus on an afterlife to the material world and the pursuit of happiness in this life
Editor’s Note: The beliefs of Thomas Jefferson continue to create controversy even though the Founding Father and third President of the U.S. died nearly two centuries ago. Just this past week, for example, World magazine reported that the large Evangelical publishing house, Thomas Nelson, decided to cease publication and distribution of David Barton’s controversial book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson, saying it has “lost confidence in the book’s details.” Barton is the president of the WallBuilders organization and a frequent guest on the Glenn Beck radio program; his book has been criticized for portraying Jefferson as sympathetic to Christianity while downplaying, or even ignoring, Jefferson’s criticisms of orthodox Christianity. The following essay, written by Dr. Edmund Mazza of Azusa Pacific University, situates Jefferson within the broader context of the Enlightenment, which was generally antagonistic to what Jefferson dismissed as the “monkish ignorance and priestly superstition” of the Catholic Church.
Most Americans know Thomas Jefferson as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third president. But Jefferson is also the famed founder of one of America’s oldest institutions of higher education, the University of Virginia. In this connection he is reported to have quipped that he hoped it would never retain a faculty of theology, nor ever become a den of “monkish ignorance and priestly superstition.” I have always found Jefferson’s pontificating to be quite ironic since it was precisely these prelates of the Church who invented the university system in the first place—some six centuries before he did!
Jefferson, however, was a man of his age, a period in history known as the Enlightenment. An ironic appellation to be sure, for it ushered in unprecedented shadows of doubt, obscuring centuries of illumination by the medieval masters of higher education. John Locke, another “luminary” of the Enlightenment took a similarly “dim” view of medieval or “scholastic” thinking when he wrote:
the Schoolmen… aiming at glory and esteem, for their great and universal knowledge, easier a great deal to be pretended to than really acquired, found this a good expedient to cover their ignorance with a curious and inexplicable web of perplexed words, and procure to themselves the admiration of others, by unintelligible terms, the apter to produce wonder because they could not be understood: whilst it appears in all history, that these profound doctors were no wiser nor more useful than their neighbours, and brought but small advantage to human life or the societies wherein they lived…
The key phrase in Locke’s statement is that the scholastics were not “useful” to their neighbors and brought almost “no advantage” to their practical lives as individuals or society writ large. Whether or not Locke’s statement is an accurate one, it betrays a fundamental shift: from faith and focus on an afterlife to the material world, to the pursuit of happiness merely in terms of this life instead of the pursuit of the God Who bestows happiness in the next.