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Marilynne Robinson on Jonathan Edwards

By November 8, 2014 One Comment

Lots of people are eagerly awaiting their copy of Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Lila. Me too, though realistically my schedule probably won’t let me get to it till Christmas. Meanwhile, I was intrigued to read Robinson’s essay, “Jonathan Edwards in a New Light,” in the November/December 2014 issue of Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The subtitle of the article (supplied by an editor, I presume, not by the author) is distinctly unpromising—no, downright irritating: “Remembered for Preaching Fire and Brimstone, He Was Actually One of the Great Intellectuals of His Time.” Talk about a ‘duh’! Every Edwards scholar since Perry Miller seventy years ago has been saying this. A graduate student two hours into seminar reading knows it. So why do we have to keep hearing this repeated, and as late-breaking, amazing news to boot? Well, maybe because the word just hasn’t gotten out. Ask graduates of a West Michigan Christian high school about Edwards and you’ll get “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Sigh. Lament. Beat professional head against the wall.

In this context Robinson takes a clever tack. She reverses expectations at every point, puts the conventional wisdom of secular academe on the defensive, draws analogies and approximations between classic Calvinistic theology and contemporary science, and demonstrates the generous if astringent humanity in the tradition’s founder and its New England champion. It helps that she’s a good prose stylist. And yes, that’s my feeble gesture toward Robinson’s masterful mode of understatement.

The richness and subtlety of Robinson’s essay cannot be captured without grossly exceeding my word count. Plus, there’s nothing here substantively that has not appeared in the considerable Edwards scholarship that’s emerged over the last thirty years. If it takes a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist to get the word out, so be it; the historians and theologians won’t begrudge her. Where Robinson excels is at weaving so many insights into such compact frame, and in personalizing her account so effectively. I was early bedeviled by deterministic philosophies, the essay begins; then in Edwards’s treatise on original sin I read “a glorious footnote on moonlight, and was liberated.” Read Edwards for freedom, and in Original Sin, no less, and find it in a footnote. Sweet move.

The “light” in Robinson’s quoted “moonlight” is of the essence, for Robinson testifies that her liberation was “as much scientific as theological.” Edwards’s Original Sin comes off as first of all as blindness to divine glory and only then as a trail of moral failures. Conversion becomes a species of Christian enlightenment, that word being shorn of the 18th-century movement’s perceived hostility to religion. The physics of light meets “Edwards’s metaphysics” which in turn “is first of all an esthetics” that yields an equation of beauty with love. Of supreme beauty with divine love, because love is the persistent intention of God’s work in the world. For Edwards that work is continuous, good old Calvinist “divine sovereignty” on steroids, so to speak. His is a world of radical contingency, utterly and repeatedly—in fact, at every instant—dependent upon the good will of God to sustain creation in being by a constant work of re-creation. In the process Robinson makes predestination plausible as a creative M.O., as well as an argument against self-righteousness. The problem of—and the continuously re-creating God’s possible responsibility for—evil is not particularly Calvinist but generically monotheistic. One Calvinist shibboleth does go by the boards; if election glows in a new light, reprobation, though “not inconsistent with Edwards’s epistemology…is profoundly at odds with his vision of God as absolute love.” One might recall that Hosea Ballou, a founder of American Universalism, began as a devout Edwardsean.

I don’t think Robinson gets everything right. Harriet Beecher Stowe might have “adhered to [Edwards’s] model of intellectual rigor,” but far from affirming, she finally repudiated “the need for the kind of conversion experience Edwards famously described”—in fact, counted his insistence on the point as a great wrong turn in New England religious history, the source of acute and needless spiritual suffering for herself and many that she knew. But Robinson is right and revealing to stress that Edwards cast “the whole of being [as] arbitrary, always a fresh assertion of God’s will in creation.” The distinction between this contingency and that of the “fortune” which Calvin repeatedly scored is that God’s is finally suffused with love, with light instead of blind and dark chance.

Let’s end where Robinson does. Edwards’s system “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.” Then her Puritan “improvement” of the text for our great present congregation of searchers and doubters: “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.”



James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

One Comment

  • Mike says:

    I’m late to the party, and better late than never. I just read Robinson’s essay. Thank you for this compact, thoughtful review of it. I appreciate the additional background on Stowe and the need for conversion.

    I once heard Robinson speak and a question came up about how she chose what to write about. Her answer was that her choice was made by what she considered “interesting and important.” I’m deeply glad for the topics she has chosen to write and speak about.

    I was moved by interest and a sense of importance to search for her essay and this review by reading her “Old Souls, New World” essay on the Puritans in her book of essays “What are We Doing Here?” She provides so much to ponder and an encouragement to those of us who consider ourselves generalist.

    Thanks again, Mr. Bratt.

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