Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Unpalatable to Modern Sensibilities - Which Jonathan Edwards?

A book review of "Jonathan Edwards: American Evangelical" by Philip F. Gura ... interesting ... do we need to strip our Protestant heroes of their Calvinistic streaks to make them more palpable to modern evangelicals?

Unpalatable to Modern Sensibilities - Which Jonathan Edwards?


To bring this off, however, Gura has to deal with the uncomfortable reality that "Edwards couched his vision in language that many today would find offensive, or at least unpalatable."

... and ...

In almost every case, what Edwards was arguing for was the past, and especially the Puritan past of Massachusetts' first generation (restoring the strict membership criteria of the churches of the 1630s was the principal issue that caused his disastrous break with the Northampton church). "He was not a man of the moderate, rational, English Enlightenment of his day," Henry May once remarked, "Indeed, he was the most powerful enemy of that way of thought."

... more ...

This means that Gura's Edwards must not only speak over the heads of his own era. His "unpalatable" words must become a code that modern hearers can decipher and discover to be a relevant and friendly message for modern sensibilities. This is what goes into a great deal of modern scholarship on Edwards, whose authors hope devoutly that their recalcitrant subject can be made to yield neo-orthodoxy, postmodernism, semiotics, and other modern intellectual dividends. In Gura's case, the dividend he believes the modern reading of Edwards will yield is "a generous acknowledgment of our common humanity," a vision of "all souls as irreducibly equal" and capable of transformation "into benevolent beings." This means reading Edwards' relentless insistence on human depravity in The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin (1758) as a device for demonstrating "an equality that made no one any better than another, man or women, master or slave, European or Native American." It also means that the "new simple idea" of grace which Edwards borrowed from John Locke to explain the core of the conversion experience becomes a model of generic "personal transformation," which can occur "as one reads a book, is in the midst of a battle, volunteers in the Peace Corps, or climbs Mount Ranier."

To do this, Gura has to commit an act of extraordinary historical violence, because it is safe to say that Edwards never had any notion of depravity or conversion like the ones Gura wants to ease him into.

... and ...

Gura is astute enough to see how American evangelicalism has re-made Edwards into something it can admire and "trumpeted him as the progenitor of a remarkable American spirituality"; but apparently that only gives Gura permission to do likewise for those today who are "unaffiliated with any explicitly religious tradition" and who simply want to "reconceive the tenor of the spiritual life." And there is nothing which Jonathan Edwards would have found more bleakly abhorrent.

... still more ...

(Ian) Murray's Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (1987) is probably the least-well-known, and certainly the least-well-spoken-of within the circle of Edwards' scholars. There are reasons for this—Murray did next to nothing in the way of primary research, frankly painted Edwards as a martyr to Calvinist truth, and published his book under what amounted to his own imprint, the Banner of Truth Trust—yet Murray (who was, by the way, quite a good writer and quite well-read in Edwards' published works and the secondary literature on Edwards) may have caught far more accurately than his fellow biographers the Edwards whom Edwards himself would be most likely to recognize: an utter partisan of Calvinist orthodoxy with the brains and inclination to confront the most abstruse intellectual challenges to that orthodoxy, a man of the most solemn integrity who would rather be broken by the storm than bend to the self-serving wishes of his own times and his own congregation, a man of ideas for whom personalities come in a distant second.

It is precisely this which makes Gura fear that Edwards will turn out to be "unpalatable" to modern sensibilities, as he surely will. I suspect that turning Edwards loose like that on modern evangelicals would grate on their modern sensibilities, too. But Americans, fearful and resentful of being thought provincial, have always been hungry for intellectual champions to put on a par with Europe. The same spirit that moved Benjamin Franklin to appropriate Bishop Berkeley's promise that "the Arts delight to travel Westward," and drove Thomas Jefferson to denounce the Comte de Buffon's sniggering mockery of America, drives us today to locate a legitimate 18th-century philosophical virtuoso in America, and Edwards has long seemed the most obvious candidate. But to place Edwards on that pedestal requires that we seal his contentious Calvinistic mouth. We need his genius, but we cannot accept it. And he would not be in the slightest degree surprised.

Read the whole thing here