The Unity of God and the Wisdom of Christ: The Religious Enlightenments of Joseph Priestley and Thomas Jefferson
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In this chapter, we encounter Jesus through the prism of more materialist metaphysics, as we discuss the work of two important public figures of the late Enlightenment, and our focus shifts from Europe to North America: Joseph Priestley and Thomas Jefferson. The thought of these men will be situated within the history of Socinian and Unitarian theology. Both figures provide further evidence that a heretical Christian theology was capable of nurturing or authorising progressive visions of social and political order, and that materialism as a view of the natural world did not preclude a view of that world as created. The power, persistence, and limitations of Priestley and Jefferson’s versions of rationalist Christianity will be demonstrated with reference to their radical but tendentious biblical scholarship; their repudiation of Greek philosophy; and their cognitive notions of faith as a form of justified (evidentially grounded) religious belief. Priestley’s critical analysis of ancient religious and philosophical cultures and Jefferson’s famous (or infamous) editorial work on the Gospels prove indicative of enduring modern trends, especially in Anglo-American thought, which promote versions of the historical Jesus as a progressive prophet of (liberal) modernity by way of sometimes invidious comparisons with other cultural and religious traditions.