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Archive for December, 2010

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards and Conductive Imaginaries

Andrea Knutson, American Spaces of Conversion: The Conductive Imaginaries of Edwards, Emerson, and James (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

This sophisticated reading of the legacy of the Puritans in later spiritual writing will appeal mainly to academics interested in the history of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the advancing spirit” in modern American intellectual life. Knutson traces the ways in which Puritan understandings of conversion, especially as refracted through the thought of Jonathan Edwards, continued to shape and animate American life and letters through the writings of Transcendentalists (such as Emerson himself) and pragmatist philosophers (such as Harvard’s William James) during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Knutson focuses primarily on human religious consciousness, theorized here in terms of what she labels vaguely as “a conductive imaginary: a conscious space organized, or that self-organizes, around the dynamics and tensions between emergent and stored up truth, uncertainty and certainty, and perception and objects perceived” (p. 4). Edwards’ doctrine of conversion, for Knutson, “explore[d] the matrix of thought, feeling, and perception that is consciousness, characterizing it as expansive, and, therefore, redemptive, only insofar as an individual continually exercised its potential” (p. 9). Edwards dwelt, that is, in consciousness more boldly, resolutely, than did most who went before him, studying the subjective side of spiritual experience, seeking after truth by reflection on the soul, blazing a trail for kindred spirits and for later, more secular writers who would render human consciousness “an ever-evolving, originating process whose continual production of perceptual truths patterns the operations of grace” (pp. 9, 90).

In Knutson’s account, Edwards’ idealism (i.e. epistemological idealism) distanced him from the Puritan orthodoxies he inherited and led him to “[embrace] the uncertain nature of knowledge of God” (p. 79). It “created a horizon in the mind,” she explains, “toward which the understanding should always be straining in search of the truth” (p. 80). Edwards dared to swim in the murky depths of mind, one might say, in which certainty and clarity are not always easy to find and in which one must continue to move in order to thrive. Consequently, he engendered a tradition of epistemological thought that proved unusually creative and “conductive.”

Edwards would probably not recognize himself in Knutson’s book. In order to make sense of his legacy in modern American letters, she has had to compare her subjects in a rather abstract mode of literary-religious criticism, ignoring most of the ways in which a clergyman like Edwards maintained roots in Protestant history and dogma. Still, she is onto something important. Edwards’ writings on experience did continue to haunt modern American spiritual life and literature for decades after his death—both within and well outside of evangelicalism. Indeed, it does so even now. Knutson helps us understand this in a new and compelling way, proving again that Edwards’ inventiveness bore fruit that even he could not have imagined.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

Media Available: George Marsden on Jonathan Edwards and the Church

The Jonathan Edwards Center is pleased to announce that George Marsden’s recent Jonathan Edwards for the Twenty-First Century lecture and Q&A session are now posted free of charge. This lecture is part of the ongoing Jonathan Edwards and the Church lecture series, which is co-sponsored with the Henry Center for Theological Understanding.

Pastor Colin Smith of the Orchard Evangelical Free Church (Arlington Heights, IL) responded to Dr. Marsden’s lecture.

November 3, 2010 | George Marsden | University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN “Jonathan Edwards for the Twenty-First Century” (1pm in ATO chapel at TEDS)

What are the most helpful insights that we can gain from Jonathan Edwards’s theology today? This lecture uses the contrast between Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century to reflect on some of the most characteristic traits of later American culture to which Edwards’s “theology of active beauty” provides particularly helpful alternatives.

Lecture and Response (with Q&A): Audio|Video

Dissertation Notes: “The Weather and Theology” in Puritan New England

Darryl Sasser, “The Weather and Theology: The Influence of the Natural World on Religious Thought in Puritan New England” (PhD diss., Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, 2010).

Were the New England Puritans eco-theologians? Darryl Sasser, Visiting Instructor of History at Simpson College in Indianapolis, Indiana, explores this question in his dissertation, “The Weather and Theology.” He describes eco-theology as the intersection of God, nature, and humanity, and he finds in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Puritan theology a recurring interest in the surrounding environment. In short, by probing the influence of the physical environment on the Puritans’ lived religion through a variety of texts, he argues that both weather and place shaped their religious identity. Sasser specifically follows a thread of discussions about the natural world in five New England Puritans: William Bradford, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, Samuel Sewall, and Jonathan Edwards.

Bradford represents the early Separatist Puritans who launched Plymouth Colony. They faced unique challenges in an untamed “wilderness,” an environment they feared because they were so susceptible to its whims (30). But Bradford also exhibited their corporate confidence in God’s providence no matter how it was manifested in the weather.

Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, and Samuel Sewall represent a later generation of Puritans living in a tamer New England and seeking to make sense of nature and weather in light of the emerging ideas of the “New Science” (56, 98, 125). They sought to apply the methods of science in their environment: Increase wrote a book on comets, Cotton penned a treatise on natural philosophy and Christianity, and Sewall devoured almanacs and kept notes on the weather in his diary for business endeavors. All three believed, in different ways, that divine providence could fit together with the New Science, thus representing a shifting landscape in Puritan theology.

With Edwards Sasser marks a significant shift in the Puritan approach to nature. While the other four subjects often found divine judgment in weather, Edwards found God communicating himself positively in nature, and he often met God powerfully on his walks through the woods near his rural home. Sasser argues that Edwards’ appreciation for nature and his natural typology led him to elevate nature to the point that he claims Edwards “held nature in equal, if not greater esteem, than the Bible” (164). By making this move, Sasser can cast Edwards as the shifting point toward modern eco-theology. He acknowledges Edwards’ moderate path between pantheism and deism, but states that “[e]ven though an anachronism, Edwards can be thought of as an eco-theologian,” and that “he easily falls within the modern model” (174, 177).

What Sasser’s dissertation does well is remind us that the Puritans lived in a particular place and that that place made an impact on their theology and lived religion. Weather, environment, and nature caused New England Puritans to wrestle with their theology in a world with changing views on science and nature. Insulated from political and philosophical pressures of Old England and influenced by frontier living in New England’s harsh climate, their experience shaded their theology in ways that differentiated them from their counterparts on the British Isles.

Sasser also reminds us of the global-local tension. While many historians are exploring colonial New England in the broader context of Atlantic studies, Sasser calls us not to neglect local influences, showing that the weather and environment of Massachusetts gave the New England Puritans a unique experience of faith.

What remains unconvincing to this reader, however, is Sasser’s interpretation of Edwards on two accounts. First, to say that Edwards “believed nature was equal and possibly superior to Scripture when revealing God” (163) fails to take seriously Edwards’ commitment to the authority of the Bible, which so pervades his work. It is true that Edwards valued God’s communication in nature, but he held that Scripture was a tutor that teaches us the “language” of types, so that we can interpret God’s communication in Scripture and nature (“Types,” WJE 11.150–152). The Bible saturates Edwards’ writings, and he said himself that “[t]he Book of Scripture is the interpreter of the book of nature” (“Images of Divine Things,” WJE 11.106), a quote Sasser explains away. Yet the Edwards scholars who best understand his engagement with the Bible—Robert Brown, Stephen Stein, and Douglas Sweeney—all agree that the Scriptures held supreme authority over nature in Edwards’ mind, against the arguments of Perry Miller, a key source for Sasser.

Second, what Sasser does by making nature equal to Scripture is cast Edwards as a proto-eco-theologian. While he rightly shows that Edwards developed a theology of nature, he burdens it with modern notions of environmentalism that were foreign to Edwards. Yet this misreads Edwards. One example may suffice. In a sermon on Rom 8:22, Edwards states, “Natural man should earnestly seek after conversion.” Sasser argues that Edwards defines the “natural man” as “one who seeks conversion and to be in ‘alignment’ with God and nature,” as opposed to the “unnatural man” (173). But for Edwards, the “natural man” is the “unconverted person” who has not yet been affected by the Holy Spirit’s gracious influences. The man in a natural state needs God’s supernatural grace to be freed from the natural state of original sin. Sasser mistakes an environmental focus for Edwards’ perennial gospel-centered revival preaching.

All in all, Sasser is at his best when showing us that weather and place affected the religious experience and thought of the New England Puritans. But his reading of Edwards seems to fit more into his own eco-theological interests than into the thought of Jonathan Edwards, the New England divine.

– David Barshinger, Senior Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS