Thursday, February 05, 2009
THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE—THE ISSUE OF CONVERSION AND EMOTION PART TWO
By common consent amongst scholars, and others as well, by far the greatest theologian in American history thus far was Jonathan Edwards (1703-58). Yet if we ask the question of which of his works have had the most influence and made the most impact on American and in fact on Christian life world wide, it is not his great tomes on Original Sin or the Freedom of the Will. Rather it has been: 1) his chronicles about the first great Awakening; 2) his Diary of the Indian missionary David Brainerd; and 3) his work on Religious Affections and Conversion. For those who are students of 19th century revivalism it will seem an odd paradox that in the New England revivals of the mid-18th century it was the Arminians who opposed revivalism and the focus on new birth experiences, and it was the Calvinists who took the lead in said revival. This was just the opposite of what happened in the 19th century revivals and camp meetings that spread throughout the South and middle portions of the country. It is interesting that the three Edwardsian sources listed above kept being reprinted by the American Tract Society, often expunged of their more Calvinistic tinges to make them serviceable as guides and encouragement for the 19th century revivals.
Philip Gura in his fine "Jonathan Edwards. America's Evangelical" (N.Y.: Hill and Wang, 2005) in assessing the lasting and broadest impact of Edward's thought even unto today says the following: "For the past two and a half centuries people have gone to Edwards to understand what it means to embody spirituality and make it evident in their daily lives. He did nothing less than script how modern American evangelicals understand these concepts." (p. 230). "What Edwards had privileged, first through his interaction with those going through 'the work' [i.e. conversion] and later in his writings about the awakenings, was nothing less than the final, unassailable significance of an individual's emotions-- his or her feelings--to genuine religious experience. Concomitally, while Edwards urged his countrymen to conceive of the self as the locus of truth, he also insisted that this belief bear tangible fruit within the Christian community and not lead to mere self-indulgence or solipcism." (p. 231).
By focusing on 'the religion of the heart' Edwards had set in motion an unintended social consequence. As Gura puts it, the idea of individual right of conscience or individual human agency when it comes to one's own spiritual life, was set in motion. "No more would parishioners be held to artificial or dogmatic standards as they struggled with their religion. Rather Edwards had told them that spiritual knowledge was available to any, the lowest as well as the wealthiest, and was, verified internally, not by some autocratic clergyman." (p. 232). If you want to know where the rather extreme focus on interiority, on the inner light, on the inner spiritual experience, and on conversion thereto and on the "you ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart" focus comes from, we owe this in no small measure to Edwards and his influence on American Evangelism.
For Edwards true religion consisted in large measure in 'holy affections'. But what did he mean by that phrase? He defines religious affections as follows--" the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the will of the soul", not mere emotions or passions, nor even outward manifestations of excitement. Rather he is talking about something at the very core of a person's being, the core of our motivation which has been transformed by the grace of God-- call it the heart, call it the will, whatever one calls it, it is not a mere matter of the changing of ones understanding or ideas, though that is involved. It has to do with the renovation of the control center of a human personality which previously had been self-centered, and now could be God-centered, which previously had been bound in sin and inclined to sin, but now had been set free from the bondage of the will and was able to do that which was virtuous. Edwards most certainly did not see conversion as a human self-help program. He saw it as the life of God in the soul of a human being, or as the transforming grace of God which invades the human life and changes it from the inside out. He stresses that neither light without heat, nor heat without light, is the result of God's inner work. He puts it this way---"where there is a kind of light without heat, a head stored with notions and speculations, with a cold and unaffected heart, there can be nothing divine in that light, that knowledge is no true spiritual knowledge of divine things....If the great things of religion are rightly understood, they will affect the heart." (quote in Gura, p. 130).
But there was so much of an emotional outpouring at Edwards revival meetings in the 1730s and 1740 to the outside skeptic, even other Christians who saw such outpourings of emotion as over the top, or even dangerous, that there was a tendency to conclude that what was going on was mere emoting, mere sentimentalism, mere psychological manipulation of people's feelings. This reaction was only reinforced when Edwards most famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" was published, which sounded, to the outsider as though someone was trying to scare to death the listener and force them to repent and have an emotional conversion experience---OR ELSE GO TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET.
In the Boston weekly paper his critics drew up a caricature of Mr. Edwards recipe for 'a new kind of convert': "Take the green leaves of Pretension, Hypocrisy, and Ambition, of each three Handfuls; Spirits of Pride, three drams; the seeds of Discord and Dissention, one Ounce; the Flowers of Formality, half a pound; Roots of Obstinancy, Ignorance, and Controversy, five Pounds...; and then beat them all into a Mortar of Vain Glory with the Pestle of Contradiction; add a fee drops of crocodile tears mixt with the Water of Strife, infused over the fire of blind Zeal; add to the Composition four ounces of the Spirit of Self-Conceit more than lukewarm, and let the presuming Brother take a spoonful of it, Morning and Evening, before his Devotion." (quoted in Gura p. 116).
This of course was an unfair assessment, but the emotional excess of some of what went on in Northampton and the Connecticut valley at the instigation of Edwards preaching and that of his fellow revivalists, led to such a caricature. When Edwards quite specifically pointed to emotional experiences of a child and his wife and one other woman to provide a template or example of what he saw as genuine, this did nothing to further convince the skeptical, not least due to the prejudices about women and children being too emotive and irrational anyway.
Edwards described the conversion process as follows-- first individuals are awakened to "a sense of their miserable condition by nature" and so become aware of their dreadful sinful state. Then followed a realization that they were in danger of going to Hell or perishing eternally, a stage in the process that often left people despondent and crying out "what must we do to be saved", and realizing they had nowhere to turn but to God. Finally, to some God brought a "conviction of their absolute dependency on his sovereign power and grace, and the universal necessity of a Mediator" and this realization often led to a wonderful calm. (Gura, p.88). Edwards of course realized that by so focusing on the inner experience and the emotional reaction to it that he was letting the genie out of the bottle, opening himself to charges that what was happening was 'mere enthusiasm' (which was the 18th century buzz word for fanaticism). Some critics even called what Edwards seemed to be stirring up,'distemper', but he continued to stand by the genuineness of various of the conversion experiences, even the ones where people claimed to have visions and see Christ's blood or his dying on the cross. To those familiar with Catholic literature on the beatific vision of various saints (e.g. Hildegard of Bingen), some of of these descriptions will sound very familiar. It is also not a surprise that some accused Edwards of fostering 'mysticism' or 'mere superstition', and he was at pains in his subsequent writings to explain, and defend what had happened as genuine religious experience. Thus the revivalist had to turn apologete thereafter.
Was the net effect of the First Great Awakening too much emphasis on emotion, and a private individualistic experience of salvation of a particular dramatic sort? Perhaps so, but the positive effects in changed lives cannot be denied. Unwittingly however, by this strong emphasis on a lay person's testimony and theologizing about it, Edwards also unleashed a kind of anti-clericalism as well as anti-intellectualism. If the Holy Spirit could prompt a simple uneducated vessel to truly explain what had happened in their soul, what need was their of external guidance or 'mere learning'. Edwards, who went on to be the third President of Princeton did all he could to correct such misimpressions, but he could not deny the great leveling effect of the work of the Spirit on all kinds of human lives, whether well educated and well heeled or not.
When I have reflected on revivalism and conversion, a few things have become apparent to me over the decades of my ministry: 1) for those who have genuine experiences of conversion to Christ, the experience is more profound than our ability to articulate it properly . My grandmother was a profoundly committed and converted Christian woman but she could not adequately articulate with theologically appropriate language what had happened to her in that Baptist Church when she was converted. She could just repeat the verse from Amazing Grace, and let it go at that; 2) the genuine work of God is not demonstrated by how dramatic (or lack of drama) there is in the instant or process of the change. Some people cross over Jordan and don't realize it until they find themselves happily standing on the far shore. 3) conversion is an event which leads to a process or simply a process, initiation is not the same thing. Initiation by baptism can be done in a short span of time, but this should not be confused with conversion. We have too many tales in Acts and elsewhere where you have: a) people who are converted but have not experienced Christian baptism (e.g. Apollos in Acts 18); 2) people who are initiated but don't yet have the Holy Spirit, which according to Luke is the litmus test of whether one is a Christian at all or not (see Acts 8); and of course 3) we have stories where initiation and conversion happen basically simultaneously. It is always interesting to me how the case of St. Paul is singled out as an example of instanteous conversion, but in fact the event on the Damascus Road led to several days before the scales fell from his eyes and he was baptized. Even in the case of Paul, conversion involved both an event and a process thereafter before he came to Christ. The big bang theory of conversion needs some qualifications. God can of course cause a conversion however God wants to, whether slow or fast, dramatic or quiet. Its not for us to decide such matters. 4) conversion is only the beginning of salvation, not the whole-shebang. To use traditional language the new birth and justification by grace through faith are the door into the body of Christ, and the house of salvation. But thereafter one has to work out one's salvation with fear and trembling. There are in fact as many verses in the NT about 'salvation' which comes after conversion (especially in reference to final salvation when we receive the resurrection body and are conformed fully to the image of God's Son), as there are references to the new birth as salvation. The Christian has to say "I have been saved, I am being saved, and I shall be saved to the uttermost". Until one gets through all three tenses of salvation, the situation is still not fully and finally resolved, and salvation in full has not been completely obtained.
Think of these things.