Earlier this Fall a friend of mine and I decided to read a book together. After some deliberation, we chose Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections. I knew it wasn't going to be anything like his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", but I was still not expecting it to be so good.
- I was expecting polemic, but I found careful reasoning and nuance.
- I was expecting partisanship, but I found the Great Tradition.
- I was expecting an opportunity for me to exercise deep, critical thinking, but I found a brother in Christ.
It's easy for our thinking to slip into polemic - not least when it comes to religion! But Edwards was almost always fair, sober, and careful. It's easy to try to score cheap points for my 'team', but to me Edwards read like a representative of the best of the broader Christian tradition. It's easy to step back and think about a book just with one's head, but to me Edwards became a kindred spirit. Reading Edwards was like reading Irenaeus or Augustine or Athanasius - full of excitement and surprises, while nonetheless feeling always familiar.
A few years ago I read Stephen Long's Saving Karl Barth, a book unlike any other I have ever read (check out a review I wrote a few years ago here). I say that because Saving Karl Barth is a biography, but it is not the biography of a person - it is the biography of a friendship. Two of the most important theologians of the 20th century were friends. Both from Switzerland, they had a great deal more than that in common, but what makes their friendship so interesting is their differences and the way the tensions in their relationship shaped their theologies. Of course I'm talking about the Reformed firebrand Karl Barth, and the younger, more contemplative Roman Catholic Hans Urs von Balthasar. The upshot of Long's book is to suggest that Christians who disagree with other Christians should pursue a relationship of friendship rather than opposition.
Edwards is a Calvinist, while I am not. But what a gift to spend time with a Calvinist and to find not a fight, but a friend.
How appropriate that I had such a relational, even emotional, reaction to Edwards' big book about Christian affections - our experience of passionate love for God. I'll post some thoughts about the actual content of the book in this space soon.