In the days after 9-11-01 Americans turned to God for solace and church attendance increased, if temporarily. The smell of death and the fear of vulnerability quickened our spirits and sobered our thoughts. While the horrors have faded in our consciousness, as post-9-11 people we do tend to view the world more cautiously and eternity more closely.
An interview done by PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly with Notre Dame history professor George Marsden on great American theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is pertinent for both a 9-11 world and for the newly visible evangelicals. Marsden is author of Jonathan Edwards: A Life.
Here are a few excerpts from Marsden’s comments on Edwards:
The Tenuousness of Life: Edwards had a sense of the tenuousness of life. He talks about how we’re “walking on rotten canvas.” In the 18th century that was easier to understand; lots of people lost most of their children. Cotton Mather, who lived just before Edwards, had 15 children, only two of whom lived to adulthood, and he went through three wives. When there was always that possibility that you or anybody else you knew might die at any time, there was a much greater sense of the need to depend on something else. Post-9/11 America has gained a little bit of that sense — that things aren’t necessarily just upward and onward; that lots of things can go very wrong. Edwards’s kind of theology is addressing the dimension of the human condition that consumer culture tends to ignore — that most people don’t succeed, and things do go wrong.
We tend to live with the illusion that we’re going to live forever. Of course, we do live longer than people then did, but we don’t face the reality that life is limited. I think you can learn from 18th-century people. With the precariousness of the world today, things can go very wrong. It’s good to be reminded that we’re not here forever, and one ought to face that.
A Model for Evangelicals: Also, Edwards has something to say to American evangelicals. They would benefit by having him among their spiritual founders. For one thing, it would be good to have more emphasis on a founder who was a profound thinker. There is a tendency toward anti-intellectualism in American popular religion. In some ways, that’s its strength, because it’s very easily shared and spread. But that also leads to some shallowness. Edwards has a very deep theological expression to propose to people. I think there would be a good basis for recovering some more depth in evangelical theology — particularly a tendency within evangelicalism (to which I am essentially sympathetic) to make one’s own religious experience the center of what the religion is about. It loses sight of God as the real center.
The Centrality of God: The most striking thing about Edwards’s theology is its God-centeredness. He is always starting everything with reference to “What is God doing?” and then trying to understand us in that light. He has a very dynamic view of how God works in the world — that God is essentially love, which means that God is essentially an active being who is relating to creatures. The whole purpose of creation is to express God’s love to creatures. Creation isn’t simply something that went on long ago — that God wound up the universe and then it runs on abstract laws. Creation is an ongoing process. Edwards could go out in the fields and get a sense of the beauty of God’s love in the beauties of nature; they are pointing toward the love of God, the redemptive work of God and Christ. He’s constantly emphasizing that the essence of religious life is true affections directed toward God. Even in the Awakenings that he was dealing with in the 18th century, he was criticizing people who were celebrating their own experience too much, in a way that religion could get them to talking about themselves or what they get out of it. He was always referring them back to the centrality of God in all that they talk[ed] about.
Edwards is a fascinating and important founding father and this entire interview is worthwhile reading.