Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Philip Gura: How Jonathan Edwards Talked About God

Readers Almanac, the blog of the The Library of America, is re-running a piece on Jonathan Edwards by Philip Gura, the editor of the Library's recently released Jonathan Edwards: Writings from the Great Awakening.  Gura is the William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of several great books on American religious history and literature, including Jonathan Edwards: America's Evangelical and one of my personal favorites, A Glimpse of Sion's Glory: Puritan Radicalism in New England, 1620-1660.  I have long been a fan of his work.

In this particular piece, Gura asks: "Why should one be interested in the writings of the eighteenth-century American revivalist and theologian Jonathan Edwards?  Here is a taste of the essay:

Edwards the merciless logician who published lengthy tomes in which he denied that we have free will and defended the notion that all humans struggle in bondage to original sin? Edwards, the fire and brimstone preacher who stared dispassionately at the bell rope across the space of the meetinghouse as he described God’s everlasting and just hatred of sinners and their proper condemnation to a vividly imagined hell? Edwards the apologist for emotional religious revivals that made his spiritual descendants Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and Jimmy Swaggart into household names?

The answer is simple. We should read him for his mastery of language, and that is why he is in the Library of America. All attempts to speak of ultimate things are metaphorical and as such depend finally on the resource of language. Words are all we have to express such thoughts and perhaps our only way of “knowing” the world. And in this case in particular, Edwards helps us, as far as language goes, to understand our humanity. His language bends backward and forward, and allows us better to know ourselves, no matter in what religion we believe.

Read the rest here.