Marilyn Robinson (thanks to our virtuous commonwealth correspondent) joins the New Calvinists in claiming Jonathan Edwards as her homeboy. Along the way she makes one significant concession:
The “awakenings” that were an effect of the preaching of Edwards and others met with objections on the part of conservative churches and leaders in his tradition. While he was defending orthodoxy in insisting that original sin was a real and crucial element in the human situation, his insistence on conversion, at least in the form it took under his influence, was not orthodox. Calvinism had clearly felt free to part ways with Calvin here and there as the centuries passed. Edwards never cites him as an authority. This matter of “visible saints,” people who indicated by any sign other than a faithful Christian life that they were the redeemed, has no basis in Calvin. That is, for Calvin there is no single threshold experience, like the conversion Edwards urged, that marked one in this world as among those who are saved.
It does make you wonder if the New Calvinists get their Calvinism from Edwards whether they have found the genuine article.
But Robinson is not really concerned with John Piper or Tim Keller — can you believe it? She writes to explain how Edwards’ philosophical theology informed her w-w as it were:
Edwards as a Christian theologian begins with belief in a creator, whose role in existence and experience no doubt elaborated itself in his understanding as he pondered the imponderable problem he had posed to himself. The intuition is sound in any case. It places humankind in any moment on the farthest edge of existence, where the utter mystery of emergent being makes a mystery of every present moment even as it slides into the mysterious past. This by itself elevates experience above the plodding positivisms that lock us in chains of causality, conceptions of reality that are at best far too simple to begin to describe a human place in the universe. Edwards’s metaphysics does not give us a spatial locus, as the old cosmology is said to have done, but instead proposes an ontology that answers to consciousness and perception and feels akin to thought. I have heard it said a thousand times that people seek out religion in order to escape complexity and uncertainty. I was moved and instructed precisely by the vast theater Edwards’s vision proposes for complexity and uncertainty, for a universe that is orderly without being mechanical, that is open to and participates in possibility, indeterminacy, and even providence. It taught me to think in terms that finally did some justice to the complexity of things.
This kind of insight leads Robinson to discount Edwards’ revivalism as mainly a circumstance of his time but not something that should make him known primarily as a preacher of hell-fire. I concede that Edwards was the rare revivalist, by twentieth-century standards. Who could imagine Billy Graham or Billy Sunday engaging Foucault and trying to come up with a justification for original sin? At the same time, revivalist achievements may have been higher in the age before mass communication. Think Charles Grandison Finney as a professor of moral philosophy and president of Oberlin College. Revivalism was not necessarily opposed to intellectual pursuits.
At the same time, Bruce Kuklick’s encounter with the apocalyptic Edwards should perhaps have guarded Robinson from an overly intellectual reading of Edwards — an interpretation that is, by the way, more congenial with her church, the United Church of Christ, yes the communion of Winthrop, Nevin, Niebuhr, Jeremiah Wright, and President Obama:
A scream of an owl at night represented to Edwards the misery of devils residing in eternal darkness. In 1745, the Catholic French defenders of Cape Breton, an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, surrendered to their Protestant English attackers. Edwards wrote that the surrender was “a dispensation of providence, the most remarkable in its kind, that has been in many ages.” It was for him a portent of what was to come. The biblical book of Revelation taught Edwards that the Roman papacy was the anti-christian force of the Antichrist that would fall in 1866, presaging a glorious time for the true church that would begin about 2000. These examples are not random—they are bits of reasoning that I can at least grasp; they are the tip of a far more mysterious premodern iceberg.
Confronting this material is paradoxical and perplexing. One is able to appreciate the technical philosophy of a thinker as a manifestation of abstract intelligence. Simultaneously, one can see that the lived world of a thinker is as limited, peculiar, and foolish as one’s own. As a Calvinist colleague of mine has suggested, Edwards’s understanding of his connection to the immediate world around him is no more or less reasonable than that of Linda Tripp when she declared it to be her “patriotic duty” to expose the relation between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. To put my concern another way, reading volume 15 and pondering its implications, I feel that Edwards is a figure closer to Charles Hodge than I had previously thought. (Bruce Kuklick, “Edwards for the Millennium,” Religion and American Culture, 2001)
I have no dog in this fight. Edwards is so yesterday.