Thursday, October 18, 2007

The work of doubt is never done

Thanks to Lyra, Tony and Jeff for bringing Hypatia of Alexandria to life, that remarkable woman tucked in among all those men in Raphael's School of Athens (October 11). And thanks too to Jeff for mentioning Jennifer Michael Hecht's book Doubt, which is required reading for those of us who choose to live by our own wit and reason, rejecting all forms of supposed revelation. Her subtitle is The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. Her theme is that doubt is the engine that throughout history and in every tradition has driven intellectual discovery.

Here is a counter-example from Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, a book which traces pretty much the same theme in American culture from the time of the founding fathers and mothers:

The Reverend Timothy Dwight assumed the presidency of Yale University in 1795. He was the grandson of the famed Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards, whose best-known fire and brimstone sermon was titled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God":
The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.
Yow! Following in his grandfather's footsteps, Dwight was heaven-bent on confounding the doubters and unbelievers among his student flock.

One of Dwight's most memorable sermons was on the immorality of smallpox vaccination. William Jenner introduced vaccination in 1796, one of scientific medicine's greatest boons to humanity. Dwight would have none of it. As Jacoby writes: "If God had decided from all eternity that an individual's fate was to die of smallpox, it was a sin to interfere with the divine plan through a man-made trick like vaccination."

How many young Hypatias has a Dwightlike adherence to doctrine stopped in their tracks?