It came to my mind recently in the middle of a particular blog conversation.
Here's the letter:
I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For, without the belief of a Providence that takes cognisance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion that, though your reasons are subtle, and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind spits in his own face.
But were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantage of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the Hottentots, that a youth, to be raised into the company of men, should prove his manhood by beating his mother.
I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person, whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a great deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it?
Franklin's argument against the viability of the recipient to change men's minds about religion doesn't hold much sway with me. If ideas rise and fall only according to their ability to convince others to agree with them, then our successful ideas are only forms of pre-approved conclusions that won't upset the apple cart.
I think history proves that ideas which might seem unconvincing and insignificant at first to mankind can slowly start to brew and gain strength. In fact many movements start relatively small, with a handful of thinkers and proponents.
Yet, even though I would disagree with the motivation behind some of Franklin's comments, he does strike at my heart with this comment; "And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself."
It is a truth that I can't deny.
Since our great church shopping adventure began towards the end of the summer, we have semi-regularly landed in an ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) church. And, I have been pleasantly surprised by it. Not having much experience with Lutheranism, other than a few visits here and there in the course of my life, and also being aware that the ELCA is the more liberal version of Lutheranism, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
What I have found has been peaceful and refreshing to me. The service has contemporary music, but also follows the traditional liturgical forms, with specific acknowledgments of the readings, confessions of the congregation, recitation of The Lord's Prayer through song, and culminating in communion. There is something powerful in the entire congregation lining up and one by one receiving communion form the pastor and his lay helper. For one brief moment, every congregant is being acknowledged and participating in a meaningful ritual.
And so...what do I ponder with all my doubts as I sit in the pews and here a sermon from the gospels and sing along to a creed of which I am not completely certain? Do I feel like a hypocrite? A liar? A great pretender?
No. I don't. I don't feel like that, at least not at this point.
You see, I recognize what Franklin says, I owe much to my religious education. It has made me who I am. And, not only has it made me who I am, but I need it to continually remake me. I need the encouragement that I have felt from this local congregation. I need to be reminded to appeal to the better angels of my nature because I don't get that anywhere else. There is no encouragement form the world at large for me to strive to be a better person, to encourage me when I fail, to tell me that there is a better way to live life. Whether or not I intellectually assent to every orthodox doctrine, I have not arrived and I still need that emotional connection with something other than myself.
And the stories and words and parables that have moved me for almost 20 years.....they still move me. They still have the power to speak to me, even in my skeptical state, though the mode of operation differs.