Jonathan Edwards in a New Light, by Pulitzer Prize Winner Marilynne Robinson

A Pulitzer prize-winning novelist writing of her intellectual debt to Jonathan Edwards in a major intellectual journal it is definitely worth a read

Remembered for Preaching Fire and Brimstone, Jonathan Edwards Was Actually One of the Great Intellectuals of His Era

“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…”-Marilynne Robinson

By Marilynne Robinson | HUMANITIES, November/December 2014

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758): Pastor, College President, Theologian, Philospher, Intellectual
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758): Pastor, theologian, philosopher, college president, and intellectual extraordinaire

When I was in college, and even earlier because my older brother introduced me to Modern Thought as he was introduced to it, I felt gloomily captive to the determinisms of Positivism, Behaviorism, Freudianism, Marxism, and the rest. I was troubled by all this for years. Then I was assigned by a philosophy professor to read Jonathan Edwards’s treatise The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, Part Four, Chapter III. I found in it a glorious footnote on moonlight, and was liberated.

I know this sounds improbable on its face. We are told that it is modernity that liberates, and Puritanism, with its famous defense of predestination and its all-devouring work ethic, that we ought to be, and perhaps never are, liberated from. I have always been unperturbed by these criticisms.

First, despite its many difficulties, the doctrine of predestination, which is nearly universal among Christian theologies, though used polemically against Puritans, at least holds the line against the notion that we get what we deserve, which is conceptually even cruder, and an invitation to self-righteousness and judgmentalism that flies in the face of central teachings of Christ.

Second, the satisfactions of work may reinforce an ethic, but they are more than sufficient as reward all by themselves. More generally, no major conceptual system has ever dealt satisfactorily with every problem it raises. Theology, like cosmology, pushes at the limits of the knowable and the articulable. Dogmatism and hostile criticism alike can make the difficulties that arise in thinking at this scale seem to be its whole meaning and substance. So we learn how not to read a great literature for its actual value. …But the value of his or anyone’s best insights should not be denied because of difficulties in his premises or his conclusions [and] Jonathan Edwards provided me with a metaphysics that made the phenomenal world come alive for me again and that seemed to me to undercut every version of determinism…

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Marilynne Robinson is a National Humanities Medalist and the author of Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Home, winner of the Orange Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Lila, her most recent novel, was published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

See also

 Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections

Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’?

Revival and Moral Philosophy: A Puritan Vision for American Higher Education

Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: The Great Awakening and the Birth of American Celebrity Culture