Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections

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. 

God has an Israel

Digging through old drafts of blog posts the other day I found the following post, last edited April 2, 2010. It seems like a relatively complete thought, and I have no idea why I didn't post it then. So I'm posting it now.  In my reading from the Church Dogmatics this morning, ol' Karl was talking the Old Testament, and some of the things he was saying reminded me of a quote that I thought I had read earlier in §14. But I was wrong. Here's the quote, from von Balthasar:

All ancient peoples have their gods. The God of Israel, however, is distinguished from all other gods by the fact that he brings into being a people to worship him by his own free sovereign act of choosing - whether we look at the first manifestation of this choice of a people - when God called Abraham - or at his choosing his people when he led them out of Egypt at the hand of Moses (who himself had first to be called of God), thus making something like a nation out of a miserable collection of uncultured and demoralized slaves; before all this, in each case there is a free act of the divine initiative that can neither be foreseen, demanded, nor deduced. (Engagement With God, pp. 13)

I quite enjoyed the point that von Balthasar makes here. Israel is not a people who have a god named YHWH. Rather, YHWH is the God who has a people, Israel.

Uncertainty, Science and Theology

Alister McGrath has two great articles up on the Austrailian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion and Ethics site, "Stephen Hawking, God and the Role of Science", and "Science, Belief and the Question of Proof". In the former McGrath, spurred by the recent flood of press received by Hawking and his new book, The Grand Design, argues persuasively that Hawking's claims in the book overreach the abilities of science.

In the latter he tries to pierce through the rhetorical clouds of atheist fundamentalists to show that science is not a question of proof, but is always subject to revision, and that that is of course okay. Darwin knew that his theory was not without problems, but he still thought it true, and this is typical of all scientific enquiry - indeed, that's the nature of hypothesis. McGrath:

As he remarked towards the end of his Origin of Species, "A crowd of difficulties will have occurred to the reader. Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered; but, to the best of my judgment, the greater number are only apparent, and those that are real are not, I think, fatal to my theory."

It is interesting to note that these words of Darwin could apply with equal force to Christian faith. Yes, it makes a lot of sense of things. Yes, there are some problems and difficulties. Yet the theory makes so much sense that Christians believe that they are justified in holding on to it.


So what is the relevance of this for religion? For Christians, belief in God is the "best explanation" of the way things are. As C.S. Lewis once put it, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen - not just because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."

We can't prove that God is there, any more than an atheist can prove that there is no God. But all of us, whether Christians or atheists, base our lives on at least some fundamental beliefs that we know we cannot prove. That's just the way things are. And it's not a problem.

We humans are always working with our best guesses, giving our assent to a framework of belief that seems to match the data the best, that seems to most powerfully interpret our experiences. This framework always involves large swaths of contingency and less-than-sure certainty. This does not, however, make the framework irrational or necessarily untrue. In fact, without such frameworks we would be reduced to either a radical skepticism or a radical solipsism (though I think these are still just best-guesses, even if they are especially extreme ones).

And I would be remiss as someone who reads a lot of Karl Barth if I did not point out that Christians believe they can speak of God only because God has himself spoken. God is beyond the possibility of comprehension, and so anything that could be demonstrated within science itself (science being the most successful endeavor of human comprehension to date) by definition cannot be God.

But God is the God who speaks. Without that there is no Christianity, and without that science would undoubtedly be the deepest we could go. But way down, from beyond the depths of the infinite deep, God comes to us, dwells among us humans and shows to us what cannot be said - that which Paul calls pistis Christou, the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.