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THE FIRST GREAT AWAKENING

JONATHAN EDWARDS

Although one might imagine that it is impossible to present a rational argument for irrationality, this is exactly what Jonathan Edwards did. While his ideas may have only a coincidental effect on our study of the philosophy of eighteenth century politics, it is important that we see it for what it was. The same Americans who saw Benjamin Franklin as their greatest statesman, also were deeply involved in the great awakening. It is only by understanding Edwards concept of irrationality in religion that we can understand why even those who found deism distasteful followed the leadership of men like Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams. In a sermon preached in 1741 in Enfield Connecticut, Edwards compared sinners "...to a particularly loathsome insect being dangled over a roaring fire by one who feels nothing but hatred and revulsion toward it." It is not that God will call you to judgement. God Has called, the judgement is in. He talked about heavily laden clouds about to break open, a dam ready to burst, the Earth's crust about to crack open. Only god is holding it all back. Will he hold it back for one moment more? Why should he? The sinner has been condemned, the headman's axe is already arcing down toward his neck. This powerful statement of basic Calvinistic theology not only caught the people of his time, like Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" it expressed feelings they were unable by themselves to bring out yet lay harbored closely beneath the surface of their lives. What we are interested in here, is the rational justification for this kind of irrational view of life.

From the beginning we have seen the evolution of western culture as it revolved around a single elemental truth. The world is rational. From this assumed truth we derived the implication that therefore man, being a rational animal can understand the world. However, we can understand only that world that the mind can deal with. The world as a physical phenomena is fundamentally obscured from the mind. Thus, it is only through experience that we can know of the world, either of its unique existence, or its understandability. Plato saw the sensible world as shifting shadows of a real world. Aristotle saw the world as real but understandable only through analogy. Because what is understandable is fixed and what is experienced is not. John Locke taught that the tenuous connection we have with the sensual world was only through ideas stirred in the mind by sensation. The world and its reality may be rational and thus understandable, but it is also fundamentally untouchable by the very mechanism by which it can be understood, the mind. This is a highly perplexing problem that has been debated by philosophers since the beginning of western culture. This is the starting point too for Edwards, because he said that it is the point of contact between the natural and the supernatural. Thus, Edwards realized, natural knowledge is ultimately mysterious. But so is saving truth. So is true religious knowledge. We derive our natural knowledge through rational activities concerning what has been input through the physical senses. When one is converted to Christianity, he receives a new sense, a spiritual sense. This new sense gives him an input into the supernatural.

The problem with the typical rational interpretation of the strict Calvinist attitude emphasized in the sermon quoted above is that it eliminates any possibility of freedom of the will. Thus it eliminates any possibility that man can be moral at all much less be judged by his morality. This attitude was particularly powerful during the mid and later eighteenth century. First, Edwards cleared up what he thought we mean when we use the term "will." He said that it is "that by which the mind chooses anything" When a person acts voluntarily he chooses. His choice is his preference, it is derived from his wants and desires. Thus to call a will "free" is only to say that it is capable of choosing what it desires or wants, to do as one pleases. Thus if a person is sinful it is because he wants to be sinful. Our volitions are wicked because our desires are wicked. the sinner turns away from God because he wants to. The only escape from this is for the sinner to become aware of the presence of new possibilities, new objects that are more desirable than what he has experienced in the past. He can only become aware of these new possibilities by obtaining this new spiritual sense. Thus the only cure for human nature is the imposition of divine grace.

The purpose of this sojourn into theology is simply to point out a fact often overlooked in studies on the politics of eighteenth century America. The existence of a national slogan, "In God we trust" in a country which has gone through a great deal of effort to separate religion from government is a paradox unless we can understand the rationality behind Edwards approach to theology. The answer to the question is the God we trust the Deist God of Paine Franklin and Jefferson, or the Christian God of Jonathan Edwards or John Witherspoon is simply yes. Once you have a rational concept of religion the statement says essentially the same thing to both groups of people. It says that we trust in the ultimate rationality of the world.