Saturday, May 26, 2012

Words and Action

A nineteenth-century poem of uncertain authorship tells of a centipede whose excessive thought paralyzed her:
A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
I thought of this centipede recently while reading Religious Affections, in which Jonathan Edwards points out that the most important, reliable sign of grace is action. I don’t want to say that Edwards counseled the Christian not to think, especially in light of what I posted at the end of last month. And Edwards’s own lengthy analysis of Christian life in this very book shows his belief in the benefits of analytical thought. But he had just been through the First Great Awakening and had heard many people professing to be true converts who had no proof other than their assurance that they had undergone marvelous mystical experiences. So, he says, act and let your good works shine before men. The proof of Christianity is not in self-inspection but in righteous deeds.

Edwards walks a tightrope, though, balancing his injunction to act with all his analysis of what a true conversion experience entails, and all that analysis calls for self-inspection. I found the book instructive and inspiring, but I often fell off the rope as I tried to follow Edwards across. The difficulty was especially clear in the section on humility. Do I have humility? If I’m truly a Christian, I must be able to discern humility in my life. But then as soon as I find it, I wonder if I’m not too pleased with myself; Edwards might say that I’m taking pride in my humility. It is only the great man doing a humble service that thinks about his humility, he says; the slave does humble work while never thinking of his humility as a virtue.

Two interesting details stood out to me while reading Edwards’s description of the features of true religion. First, his explanation of Jesus’ curious statement that the Kingdom of Heaven is taken by violence satisfied me more than any that I had ever heard. The key to it had been before my eyes for quite a while, but Edwards had to point it out to me. I think of violence as an attack, but in ancient philosophy, “violence” means a force applied against an object’s natural tendency. Aristotle’s frequent example involves tossing a rock in the air. Toss it as gently as you like, and you’re still committing a violent act, because the rock’s natural tendency is to go down. So, Edwards explains, those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven have to press vigilantly against their first natures.

Second, Edwards divides God’s attributes into natural excellencies and moral excellencies. God’s natural attributes all involve his superiority in things that humans might have naturally. A human might of her own nature have strength or longevity; so God’s omnipotence and eternity are natural excellencies. But no human can of her own nature be holy; thus, God’s holiness is a moral excellency. One of the marks of true religion, Edwards claims, is a love for God’s moral excellency. Unbelievers and demons tremble at his surpassing strength, but they don’t see his holiness as beautiful. The whole idea surprised me at first. No proportion holds between even the longest human life and God’s eternal being, so I would never have thought to call his eternity “natural.” But the distinction makes some sense as Edwards explains it.

As I read the book, I kept thinking how much good this wonderful  summary of Christian life would do for new or young Christians. Besides reaching his immediate goal of sifting through the debris of the Great Awakening, Edwards succeeds in exhorting the reader to a life of “earnest” Christian action and in teaching an overview of basic doctrine. The plethora of Bible quotations alone, from numerous parts of the Old and New Testaments, would help the young believer inexperienced with the Scriptures. The problem is the book’s eighteenth-century language and style. I hate “modern” renditions of classic novels, but I wish someone would revise Religious Affections for the twenty-first century young reader: condense it slightly, add lots of chapter breaks (the placement would be obvious from the originally clear organization), break up some of the sentences, and update the language. Anyone? Anyone?

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