The Transitory and the Enduring

I just finished reading Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life at 9:30 this evening (November 19).  There were some tough chapters to persevere through in its 505 pages, but the weakness is mine, not Marsden’s.  The last chapter, from which the title of this post is named after, was especially good, and I’d like to share some paragraphs, sentences, and thoughts that I found helpful.

The chapter opens with

Edwards spent his whole life preparing to die.  As he often reminded his congregations, those who were sitting comfortably one Sabbath [Sunday] might be in the grave by the next.  For those who spurned God’s Spirit, life was like walking on a rotten canvas, and at any moment they might suddenly find themselves plunged simply by the weight of their sins into everlasting hell.  By contrast, if one had experienced God’s transforming work, then death would be a release in which one was borne upward to see Christ’s glory.  Holding on to that hope, Edwards worked constantly to cultivate gratitude, praise, worship, and dependence on his Savior.  Whatever his failings, he attempted every day to see Christ’s love in all things, to walk according to God’s precepts, and to give up attachments to worldly pleasures in anticipation of that closer spiritual union that death would bring.

Edwards served as the president of the College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton) for the few months before his death in 1758.  His predecessor there was his son-in-law, Aaron Burr, who left two kids when he died not long before that in September of 1757.  During Edwards’ short time at Princeton,

Jonathan also got to spend some time with his Burr grandchildren.  Sally, aged four, could recite prayers and some of Isaac Watts’ verses.  Aaron Jr. was just turning two.  In her final entry of her surviving diary or letters to Sarah Prince, dated September 2, 1757, when Aaron Jr. was just nineteen months, Esther Burr [Edwards’ daughter] described the future vice president [of the U.S.] and duelist who killed Alexander Hamilton in terms that sound almost prophetic.  “Aaron is a little dirty noisy boy,” she wrote, “very different from Sally almost in every respect.  He begins to talk a little, is very sly and mischevious.  He has more spri[ghtliness] than Sally and most say he is handsomer, but not so good tempered.  He is very resolute and requires a good governor to bring him to terms.”  One might picture the encounters between the strict grandfather and the rambunctious grandson.  Edwards may have felt confirmed in his views on original sin.  [I laughed out loud at that sentence.]

As I worked my way through this book I had several “Aha!” moments regarding aspects of Edwards’ theology as Marsden helped me understand Edwards’ life and the world he lived in (Sitz im Leben?).  As it turns out that was one of Marsden’s goals.

One of my hopes is that this book may help bridge the gap between the Edwards of the students of American culture and the Edwards of the theologians…As a biographer attempting to understand Edwards first as an eighteenth-century figure, I have been working most directly as a cultural historian.  Yet I have been doing this always with an eye on the theological question, taking his thought seriously as a part of the larger Christian tradition.

If one has, as I do, theological mentors from across the ages, then it is valuable to realize that their insights on spiritual matters come framed by their particular personal and cultural circumstances.  My belief is that one of the uses of being an historian, particularly if one is part of a community of faith, is to help persons of such communities better understand what they and their community might appropriate from the great mentors of the past and what is extraneous and nonessential…We need to use history for the guidance it offers, learning from great figures in the past – both in their brilliance and in their shortcomings.  Otherwise we are stuck with only the wisdom of the present.

So what can we learn from Edwards? 

Among other things, Edwards challenges the commonsense view of our culture that the material world is the “real” world.  Edwards’ universe is essentially a universe of personal relationships.  Reality is a communication of affections, ultimately of God’s love and creatures’ responses.  Material things are transitory and ephemeral.  Their meanings are found in their relation to the loves at the center of reality.  Although they are transitory, they can have great eternal significance if they are recognized for what they are, signs or expressions of God’s love.

And finally, the last two paragraphs of the book.  If you’ve made it this far I encourage you to see it through to the end!

Edwards thus addressed one of the greatest mysteries facing traditional theism in the post-Newtonian universe: how can the creator of such an unimaginably vast universe be in intimate communication with creatures so infinitely inferior to himself?  [Has anyone else ever wondered that?]  How can it be that God hears their prayers and responds by caring not only about their eternal souls but even about the details of their temporal lives?  [I hear echoes of Ecclesiastes and the Sermon on the Mount…]  To answer such questions one would have to face more starkly than is usually done the immensity of the distance between God and humans and between God’s ways and our understandings.  At the same time, Edwards insisted, if God is meaningfully related to us, God must be intimately involved with the governance of all the universe in its detail.  Further, God must be governing it in some way that also grants the maximum possible autonomy to created beings.  Whether Edwards, or anyone else, adequately explains how this mystery may be resolved is a matter of some debate.

Yet Edwards’ solution – a post-Newtonian statement of classic Augustinian themes – can be breathtaking.  God’s trinitarian essence is love.  God’s purpose in creating a universe in which sin is permitted must be to communicate that love to creatures.  The highest or most beautiful love is sacrificial love for the undeserving.  Those – ultimately the vast majority of humans [???] – who are given eyes to see that ineffable beauty will be enthralled by it.  They will see the beauty of a universe in which unsentimental love triumphs over real evil.  They will not be able to view Christ’s love dispassionately but rather will respond to it with their deepest affections.  Truly seeing such good, they will have no choice but to love it.  Glimpsing such love, they will be drawn away from their preoccupations with the gratifications of their most immediate sensations.  They will be drawn from their self-centered universes.  Seeing the beauty of the redemptive love of Christ as the true center of reality, they will love God and all that he has created.

And so ends the book.

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