Tuesday, July 7, 2015

"The Nature of True Virtue" by Jonathan Edwards: A Tribute to a Man at Odds with Himself

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758)
Lithograph c1800, Artist unknown
Courtesy of the Yale University Manuscripts & Archives
 Digital Images Database

Jonathan Edwards' The Nature of True Virtue (1755)^1 numbers among the books that have profoundly shaped my philosophy of life. Yet my disagreements with Edwards are great. In this posting I would like to review Edwards' discussions of true virtue and of God, and then attempt to account for a disturbing dissonance I find in the theology of this extraordinary man.

I. True Virtue

Edwards wastes no time in defining his book's central term. On the third page he writes:

True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to Being in general. Or perhaps, to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity and union of heart to Being in general, which is immediately exercised in a general good will.
For benevolence Edwards sometimes substitutes "simple and pure good will." For Being in general he sometimes uses "the universality of existence." True virtue he sometimes describes as our heart's benevolence toward "every thing with which it stands connected"—which for Edwards means simply everything, for in his conception of the "universal system of existence" everything is connected with everything else.

Edwards' emphasis here is on the word true. Not all virtue, he believes, is true virtue. He describes other kinds of virtue that are indispensable in our common life. Virtue may be grounded in our intuitive sense of justice, for example, or in our instinctive empathy for another person's situation. But Edwards is convinced that virtues not also rooted in the "consent, propensity and union of heart" to the universality of existence lack the "relish and delight in the essential beauty of true virtue, arising from a virtuous benevolence of heart."

Edwards observes that the context of our virtue is usually limited to "private systems." "But this," he writes, "I suppose not to be of the nature of true virtue":

For, notwithstanding that it [private good will] extends to a number of persons which taken together are more than a single person, yet the whole falls infinitely short of the universality of existence; and if put in the scales with it, has no greater proportion to it than a single person.
To me Edward's reflections suggest a governing principle for religious living: always to broaden our benevolence, ever to seek a greater common good. I think of the Psalmist's words:
I will run in the way of thy commandments when thou shalt enlarge my heart. (Psalm 119:32)

II. God

Edwards’ wording "falls infinitely short" bring us to his vision of God's infinity. In a collection of articles that Edwards wrote in his early twenties, titled The Mind,^2 he depicts God in bold strokes: "God is truth itself."

God and real existence are the same. ...Hence we learn how properly it may be said that God is, and that there is none else, and how proper are these names of the Deity: "Jehovah" and "I Am That I Am."
God is "the infinite, universal and all comprehending existence. ...His being is infinite. He is in himself, if I may so say, an infinite quantity of existence."

In The Nature of True Virtue, written some thirty-five years after The Mind, Edwards' language for God suggests more transcendence: God is "the first cause and supreme disposer of all things"; God is "the Being of Beings." 
But the infinity of God remains ever present: God is "infinitely the greatest and best of Beings."

In one paragraph Edwards gathers his thoughts into what surely must be the most kaleidoscopic characterization of God ever committed to paper:

God is not only infinitely greater and more excellent than all other Being, but he is the head of the universal system of existence; the foundation and fountain of all Being and all beauty; from whom all is perfectly derived, and on whom all is most absolutely and perfectly dependent; of whom, and through whom, and to whom is all Being and all perfection; and whose Being and beauty is as it were the sum and comprehension of all existence and excellence: much more than the sun is the fountain and summary comprehension of all the light and brightness of the day.
In another paragraph, contrasting true virtue with private systems of virtue, Edwards uses infinite eight times in quick succession.

Edwards’ sense of infinity suggests to me another religious principle: always to think and speak of God with a consciousness of infinity, together with a corresponding awareness of our finitude and an acknowledgement of our lack of comprehensive perspective or complete knowledge. I think of the prophet's words:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8–9)

III. A Man at Odds with Himself

The Nature of True Virtue is a surprising book to have come from the pen of this Puritan minister. Its logic and tone are philosophical. Edwards means to base his discussion on principles that are "reasonable to be supposed." In this book, perhaps uniquely among his massive writings, Edwards quotes no biblical scripture. He mentions Christ only once in passing. He expresses respect for moral philosophers of his age, acknowledging the social benefits of virtues they have defined and clarified through their analysis of "natural conscience":
Natural conscience, if the understanding be properly enlightened, and errors and blinding stupefying prejudices are removed, concurs with the law of God, and is of equal extent with it, and joins its voice with it in every article.
Frederick J. E. Woodbridge astutely observes that if Puritan theology "should be eliminated from the dissertation on The Nature of True Virtue, there would remain a conception of virtue almost identical with Spinoza’s."^3  Several times in his personal notes Edwards makes thoughtful mention of Spinoza.

And yet, about two-thirds into his book, Edwards discharges a Puritan outburst about God’s final judgment and everlasting punishment of sinners:

Then the sin and wickedness of their heart will come to its highest dominion and completest exercise; they shall be wholly left of God, and given up to their wickedness, even as the devils are! When God has done waiting on sinners, and his Spirit done striving with them, he will not restrain their wickedness, as he does now. But sin shall then rage in their hearts, as a fire no longer restrained or kept under. …Their wickedness will then be brought to perfection, and wicked men will become very devils, and accordingly will be sent away as cursed into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.^4
What makes this bolt of theological lightning so heart-stopping for me is the realization that Edwards—indefatigable advocate for unbounded human benevolence and exponent of the finitude of human perspectives—here presumes to erect finite boundaries around the benevolence of his infinite God.

Specifically, Edwards restricts God's "spiritual and saving" benevolence to Christians. And not just to "Christians." Edwards limits God’s saving benevolence to those Christians only who have sensed God’s mercy and justice in overpowering and revelatory conversion experiences—experiences that must be warranted as genuine by pastor Edwards and his congregation. All other persons, be they as virtuous as Spinoza, are not truly virtuous, and are therefore ordained to everlasting damnation in hell fire. This means not just dying in an unalterable state of estrangement from God.  It means dying into God's intentional punishing, God's endless tormenting.

Admiring Edwards as I do, I feel a keen need to account somehow for this disturbing discrepancy between Edwards the 18th-century philosopher and Edwards the Puritan theologian. I suggest four considerations: (1) the inexorable grip of Puritan theological heritage upon Edwards’ heart and mind; (2) the ineradicable impact of his own conversion experience; (3) Edwards' failure to follow his own advice concerning conversion experiences; and (4) Edwards' breach of faith with his own sense of human finitude and the infinity of God.

1) As someone who grew up amidst Puritan religion, some of it literalistic in character, I know well the ineradicable tenacity of religious presuppositions in the minds and hearts of many believers. In reading Edwards I often sense that the roots of his Puritanism are so deep and invisible that he scarcely seems cognizant of them. He offers ingenious arguments in support of the justice of God’s eternal punishment of sinners—principally the argument that offenses against infinite Being deserve infinite punishment. But this is Puritan doctrine masquerading as philosophic logic. It is not argument that is "reasonable to be supposed" in any sense of "reasonable" that the prominent philosophers of Edwards' age would have acknowledged.

2) I also know at first hand the formative power of mystical conversion experiences, though my own experiences were puny in comparison with what Edwards describes. Here is a fragment from Edwards’ prodigious, 6700-word description of his conversion experiences, from his work titled Personal Narrative:

From my childhood up, my mind had been wont to be full of objections against the doctrine of God's sovereignty, in choosing whom he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell. It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me. But I remember the time very well, when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God, and his justice in thus eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure. But never could give an account, how, or by what means, I was thus convinced.... However, my mind rested in it; and it put an end to all those cavils and objections, that had till then abode with me, all the preceding part of my life. And there has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, with respect to the doctrine of God's sovereignty, from that day to this; so that I scarce ever have found so much as the rising of an objection against God's sovereignty, in the most absolute sense, in showing mercy on whom he will show mercy, and hardening and eternally damning whom he will. God's absolute sovereignty, and justice, with respect to salvation and damnation, is what my mind seems to rest assured of, as much as of anything that I see with my eyes; at least it is so at times. But I have oftentimes since that first conviction, had quite another kind of sense of God's sovereignty, than I had then. I have often since, not only had a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine of God's sovereignty has very often appeared, an exceeding pleasant, bright and sweet doctrine to me: and absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.
Can we wonder that Enlightenment rationality could never dislodge the "inward, sweet sense," the "delightful conviction," of this "exceeding pleasant, bright and sweet doctrine" once it had so utterly ravished Edwards’ heart?

3) As for Edwards' failure to follow his own advice about conversion experiences, we need to bring into play another of his works. Edwards' Treatise concerning Religious Affections
^6 was written about a decade before The Nature of True Virtue. I find it among the finest of his writings. In its first chapter he makes his case that genuine biblical religion must be an affair of heart as well as mind:

True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.... No light in the understanding is good, which don’t produce holy affection in the heart.
Edwards well recognizes, however, that "there are false affections, and there are true," and he writes two subsequent chapters "to distinguish between affections, approving some, and rejecting others; separating between the wheat and the chaff."

To this end Edwards specifies twenty-four "signs" to help Christian readers distinguish "genuine" religious experiences from "counterfeit." The first of the signs is this:

’Tis no sign one way or the other, that religious affections are very great, or raised very high.
Again he cautions:
’Tis no evidence that religious affections are of a spiritual and gracious nature, because they are great…. There are religious affections which are very high, that are not spiritual and saving.
And in the next-to-last of Edwards' twenty-four signs he warns: "false affections rest satisfied in themselves."

Edwards' Personal Narrative leaves no doubt that his affections were "raised very high" indeed. His paradoxical language is sheer mysticism:

There came into my mind, a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express. I seemed to see them both in a sweet conjunction: majesty and meekness joined together: it was a sweet and gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness; an awful sweetness; a high, and great, and holy gentleness.
I think it regrettable that Edwards did not take to heart his own warnings about such heightened religious experience. Though he wrestled throughout his life with concerns relating to his religious experiences, in the end he seemed "rest satisfied" that his own experience was genuine, setting him absolutely and eternally apart from most of humanity.

Would that instead of this absolute separation he might have included all of humanity in the idealistic, asymptotic imagery that he uses elsewhere for saints in heaven:

Let the most perfect union with God be represented by something at an infinite height above us; and the eternally increasing union of the saints with God, by something that is ascending constantly towards that infinite height, ...though the time will never come when it can be said it has already arrived at this infinite height.^7
4) Finally, I suggest that Edwards should have taken more genuinely to heart his repeated assertions in The Nature of True Virtue that God is infinite and that human beings are finite:
In a clear view of the Deity, as incomprehensibly and immensely great…all other beings are as nothing and vanity.
Or again:
Whatever the private system be, let it be more or less extensive, consisting of a greater or smaller number of individuals...it contains an infinitely little part of universal existence, and so bears no proportion to the great all-comprehending system.
When Edwards speaks with assurance of God's "anger and condemnation," of God's "hatred and contempt and wrath," I have to ask how it is possible for Edwards to attribute such finite human qualities to an infinite, "incomprehensibly and immensely great" God.

Edwards attempts a justification:

We have no conception, in any degree, what understanding, perception, love, pleasure, pain, or desire are in others, but by putting ourselves as it were in their stead..., making such an alteration, as to degree and circumstances, as what we observe of them requires. ...And this is the only way that we come to be capable of having ideas of any perception or act even of the Godhead. We never could have any notion what understanding or volition, love or hatred are, either in created spirits or in God, if we had never experienced what understanding and volition, love and hatred are in our own minds. Knowing what they are by consciousness, we can add degrees, and deny limits, and remove changeableness and other imperfections, and ascribe them to God.
But how can we presume that our finite minds are ever able to "remove changeableness and other imperfections"? How many times over do we have to "add degrees" and "deny limits" to reach infinity? Edwards cannot have it both ways: "as nothing" and "infinite" are incommensurable. In his own words, the finite "bears no proportion" to the infinite.

Extrapolating from human qualities to divine leads directly to anthropomorphism: speaking in childlike terms of a manlike God. Edwards' language of God's "anger and condemnation," "hatred and contempt and wrath," is unalloyed anthropomorphism. Amidst his thicket of Puritan terminology, he seems to have lost sight of his own dichotomy between finitude and infinity.

Edwards is a man at odds with himself. Would that instead of literalistic talk about extrapolation, his religious genius might have graced us with additional kaleidoscopic metaphors for the "foundation and fountain of all Being."

Richard R. Niebuhr opens an article on Edwards with these words:

Jonathan Edwards is as complex a person as we could hope or fear to encounter in the chronicles of American culture.^8
A complex person indeed, a person who inspires and disturbs me. I am in awe of Jonathan Edwards; his vision of true virtue has helped mould my life. But for me his doctrine of a God who punishes everlastingly is a soul-jarring discrepancy. That religious doctrine persists widely to this day. To adapt Niebuhr's phrase, it is something I always "fear to encounter in the chronicles of American culture."

^1 Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, ed. Paul Ramsey (Yale University Press, 1989).
^2 Jonathan Edwards, Scientific and Philosophical Writings, ed. Wallace E. Anderson (Yale University Press, 1980).
^3 Frederick J. E. Woodbridge, "Jonathan Edwards" in The Philosophical Review (vol.13, no.4, July, 1904), p.402. See my blog posting "Santayana's Introduction to Spinoza" (April 15, 2015).
^4 Edwards' language in the final clause echoes Matthew 25:41.
^5 Jonathan Edwards, Personal Narrative, ed. George S. Claghorn (Yale University Press, 1998), p.792.
^6 Jonathan Edwards, Treatise concerning Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith (Yale University Press, 1959).
^7 Jonathan Edwards, Concerning the End for which God Created the World, ed. Paul Ramsey (Yale University Press, 1989), p.534.
^8 Richard R. Niebuhr, "Being and Consent" in The Princeton Companion to Jonathan Edwards, ed. Sang Hyun Lee (Princeton University Press, 2005), p.34.

Note: Edwards' works are available in digital, searchable form on the website of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University: <edwards.yale.edu>


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