An Interview with Avihu Zakai

One of the fea­tured speak­ers at “Jonathan Edwards for the New Mil­len­nium” will be Avihu Zakai, Pro­fes­sor of early mod­ern his­tory and early Amer­i­can his­tory at the Hebrew Uni­ver­sity of Jerusalem. I recently pur­chased Pro­fes­sor Zakai’s lat­est book, Jonathan Edwards’s Phi­los­o­phy of Nature: The Re-enchantment of the World in the Age of Sci­en­tific Rea­son­ing (2010). As soon as I began read­ing Edwards’s Phi­los­o­phy of Nature, I felt com­pelled to ask Pro­fes­sor Zakai a few ques­tions for and he gra­ciously agreed. His answers bear a close read­ing.

Rob Boss: Pro­fes­sor Zakai, what pre­cip­i­tated your inter­est in Edwards’s phi­los­o­phy of nature?

Avihu Zakai: As an intel­lec­tual his­to­rian, I have always believed, in the words of Hans Baron, the famous his­to­rian of the Ital­ian Renais­sance, that “the breadth of an historian’s insight into the past depends on the breadth and the orig­i­nal­ity of the ideas of man and of pol­i­tics on which he draws.” (Hans Baron, The Cri­sis of the Early Ital­ian Renais­sance: Civic Human­ism and Repub­li­can Lib­erty in an Age of Clas­si­cism and Tyranny (1966, p. 162.) From this one might guess my fas­ci­na­tion with Edwards’s life of the mind.

My inter­est in Edwards arose after read­ing H. Richard Niebuhr’s The King­dom of God in Amer­ica (1937). Dur­ing the 1980s and 1990s, I tried to explore the intel­lec­tual ori­gins of the Puri­tan migra­tion to Amer­ica. This resulted in two major stud­ies: Exile and King­dom: His­tory and Apoc­a­lypse in the Puri­tan Migra­tion to Amer­ica (1992) and Theoc­racy in Mass­a­chu­setts: Ref­or­ma­tion and Sep­a­ra­tion in Early Puri­tan New Eng­land (1994). In both I tried to ana­lyze the ide­o­log­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal ori­gins of the Puri­tan migra­tion to Amer­ica within the wider con­text of the Eng­lish Protes­tant apoc­a­lyp­tic tra­di­tion in the six­teenth and sev­en­teenth cen­turies. It was dur­ing these years that I first encoun­tered H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous book, where he reserved for Edwards, together with St. Augus­tine, a pre­em­i­nent place among church thinkers because of their abil­ity to recon­struct the his­tory of the Chris­t­ian church in the midst of pro­found his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. Each of course wit­nessed such a change – Augus­tine dur­ing the fall Rome and Edwards dur­ing the Age of Enlight­en­ment (Niebuhr, The King­dom of God in Amer­ica, p. xiv). Later on when I decided to explore the 18th cen­tury trans­for­ma­tion of Puri­tan ideas about time, it was only nat­ural to turn to Jonathan Edwards. No bet­ter exam­ple was avail­able than Edwards’s 1739 ser­mons on the His­tory of the Work of Redemption.

What intrigued me most about the New Eng­land the­olo­gian was the com­par­i­son Niebuhr had made between him and Augus­tine, thus extri­cat­ing Edwards’s thought from the provin­cial con­fines of colo­nial Amer­ica. I tried to fol­low Niebuhr’s lead in my first book on Edwards, Jonathan Edwards’s Phi­los­o­phy of His­tory: The Reen­chant­ment of the World in the Age of Enlight­en­ment (2003), as well as in my sec­ond, Jonathan Edwards’ Phi­los­o­phy of Nature: The Re-enchantment of the World in the Age of Sci­en­tific Rea­son­ing (2010). In the first study I attempted to place Edwards’s phi­los­o­phy of his­tory in the wider con­text of sacred eccle­si­as­ti­cal his­tory, as a Chris­t­ian mode of his­tor­i­cal thought. Edwards was an heir of Chris­t­ian the­o­log­i­cal tele­ol­ogy of his­tory, sal­va­tion his­tory, though he trans­formed it rad­i­cally in order to pro­claim God as the author and lord of his­tory. In the sec­ond, I argued that Edwards was an impor­tant early mod­ern philoso­pher who devel­oped a sin­gu­lar phi­los­o­phy of nature, a unique view regard­ing the essen­tial nature of real­ity, enti­tling him to a dis­tin­guished place among early mod­ern philoso­phers who reacted against the meta­phys­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal impli­ca­tions that often accom­pa­nied the appear­ance of new modes of sci­en­tific thought and imag­i­na­tion from the six­teenth to the eigh­teenth cen­turies. Accord­ingly, my goal was to place Edwards’s writ­ings on nat­ural phi­los­o­phy in the broad his­tor­i­cal, the­o­log­i­cal and sci­en­tific con­text of a wide vari­ety of reli­gious responses to the rise of the New Phi­los­o­phy of nature in the early mod­ern period (focus­ing on astron­omy, cos­mol­ogy and physics): John Donne’s reac­tion to the new astron­omy of Coper­ni­cus, Kepler and Galileo, as well as to Fran­cis Bacon’s new nat­ural phi­los­o­phy; Blaise Pascal’s response to Descartes’ mechan­i­cal phi­los­o­phy; the reac­tions to New­ton­ian sci­ence by Jonathan Swift, John Edwards (not related to Jonathan Edwards), Got­tfried Wil­helm Leib­niz, George Berkley, William Blake, and oth­ers. And finally Jonathan Edwards’s response to the sci­en­tific cul­ture and imag­i­na­tion of his time – exper­i­men­tal, mechan­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, or the doc­trine accord­ing to which all nat­ural phe­nom­ena can be explained and under­stood by the mere mechan­ics of mat­ter and motion – and, con­se­quently, his attempt to con­struct a plau­si­ble alter­na­tive to the mech­a­nis­tic inter­pre­ta­tion of the essen­tial nature of real­ity, which would recon­sti­tute the glory of God’s absolute sov­er­eignty, power, and will within creation.

RB: Many peo­ple asso­ciate Edwards with hell-fire preach­ing and the revival tra­di­tion alone, yet your book points out that Edwards also mounted a pow­er­ful offen­sive against the mechan­i­cal phi­los­o­phy of the Enlight­en­ment. Can Edwards the preacher of heart reli­gion be sep­a­rated from Edwards the philoso­pher? How did his phi­los­o­phy shape his pub­lic the­ol­ogy and the awakenings?

AZ: I think it nei­ther pos­si­ble nor jus­ti­fi­able to sep­a­rate Edwards the preacher of hell-fire from Edwards the philoso­pher – or the cham­pion of heart reli­gion from the critic of mechan­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. In both of my stud­ies, Edwards’s Phi­los­o­phy of His­tory and Jonathan Edwards’ Phi­los­o­phy of Nature, I tried to show that Edwards’s philoso­phies of his­tory and of nature were part and par­cel of his the­ol­ogy, and that in turn emerged in large part from his con­ver­sion expe­ri­ence. There­fore an account of Edwards’s mind, as I argue in the above stud­ies, must start at the moment of his con­ver­sion, a pro­found spir­i­tual expe­ri­ence that deter­mined the agenda for much of his future the­o­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal works. This of course was also the case with other promi­nent Chris­t­ian thinkers – such as St. Paul, St. Augus­tine and Pas­cal, to name only a few.

Many fea­tures of Edwards’s thought, in both form and con­tent, can be traced directly to this sig­nal moment when the whole of his reli­gious iden­tity was trans­formed. Ulti­mately, this expe­ri­ence led Edwards to recon­struct, among other things, the exter­nal world of nature and the realm of his­tory, the “order of nature” and the “order of time,” as well as the realm of ethics and morals, in accor­dance with the the­o­log­i­cal con­vic­tions he acquired dur­ing his con­ver­sion. In all these spheres he sought to re-en­chant the world in order to man­i­fest God’s unshaken absolute sov­er­eignty in cre­ation. Edwards’s life of the mind, to use Max Weber’s the­sis, is evi­dence of how new reli­gious con­vic­tions leads to new modes of action.

Edwards’s phi­los­o­phy of his­tory was essen­tial to the shap­ing of his pub­lic the­ol­ogy and the awak­en­ings. Hence, I would argue, knowl­edge of Edwards’s phi­los­o­phy of his­tory is key to his the­ory and prac­tice of revival. Here was, for him, the secret to both sec­u­lar and sacred his­tory. Here also lies Edwards’s impor­tance in inau­gu­rat­ing the revival tra­di­tion in Amer­i­can his­tory. Indeed, “no one per­son was more respon­si­ble than Edwards” in shap­ing the char­ac­ter of the New Eng­land revival of 1740–3 (Syd­ney E. Ahlstrom, “The­ol­ogy in Amer­ica: A His­tor­i­cal Sur­vey,” in The Shap­ing of Amer­i­can Reli­gion, eds. James W. Smith, et al, 2 vols. 1961, I, p. 246). This applies not only to Edwards’s actions dur­ing this revival, but also, and most impor­tant, to the his­tor­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion he offered for the eighteenth-century Protes­tant evan­gel­i­cal awak­en­ing in Europe in gen­eral, and the Great Awak­en­ing in Amer­ica in par­tic­u­lar, envi­sion­ing them as a sin­gu­lar moment in sacred, sal­va­tion his­tory. The works Edwards wrote dur­ing that awak­en­ing, such as Sin­ners in the Hands of an Angry God, 1741, The Dis­tin­guish­ing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, 1741, and Some Thoughts Con­cern­ing the Present Revival of Reli­gion in New Eng­land, 1742, can only be appre­ci­ated if one sees his spe­cial sense of time and his­tory. Fur­ther, Edwards’s under­stand­ing of his own role in the revival is explic­a­ble only in the con­text of his view that this was a deci­sive moment in sacred his­tory, thus res­cu­ing it from dis­missal as a provin­cial event per­tain­ing only to the reli­gious his­tory of colo­nial New England.

RB: In your book you explain in detail Edwards’s emblem­atic world­view. Do you believe that such an enchanted world­view remains viable today? Why or why not?

AZ: As in Renais­sance think­ing, nature for Edwards was a great trea­sure of divine signs and metaphors. In this grand the­o­log­i­cal tele­ol­ogy of typo­log­i­cal order, the whole world is imbued with spir­i­tual, divine mean­ing and sig­nif­i­cance. Yet, para­dox­i­cally, Edwards’s emblem­atic, sym­bolic view of the world of nature, the typo­log­i­cal read­ing of cre­ated order, is not rad­i­cally opposed to cer­tain trends in mod­ern physics regard­ing the essen­tial nature of real­ity. Since the sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion of the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, sci­en­tists have sought new knowl­edge in a rel­a­tively straight­for­ward, tra­di­tional man­ner. Exper­i­ments would be per­formed, hypoth­e­sis tested, and sci­ence would progress as new data accu­mu­lated. Every now and then, of course, a sud­den, great leap would occur which unveiled some sig­nif­i­cant and unex­pected new dis­cov­ery. Today, how­ever, there are some sci­en­tific fields in which the fron­tiers have been pushed so far for­ward that sci­en­tists have found them­selves ask­ing ques­tions that have always been con­sid­ered to be meta­phys­i­cal, not sci­en­tific, in nature. It no longer seems pos­si­ble in physics to do research with­out con­fronting ques­tions once thought to be meta­phys­i­cal – is it mean­ing­ful to speak of time before the cre­ation of the uni­verse? Did the uni­verse have a begin­ning? What exactly is the log­i­cal sta­tus of ‘other uni­verses’ if these uni­verses can­not be observed? Is it mean­ing­ful to speak of what can­not be observed? For that mat­ter, what mean­ing should we attach to the exis­tence of extra dimen­sions of ‘super­string the­ory’ that are com­pacted to such tiny dimen­sions that they can never be observed?

All these ques­tions relate essen­tially to the grow­ing rift in mod­ern sci­en­tific thought between the­ory and exper­i­ment. For exam­ple, the best the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cists today are pre­oc­cu­pied with the­o­ries that are extremely dif­fi­cult to test exper­i­men­tally, such as the ‘super­string the­ory’ that has never yielded a direct testable pre­dic­tion. In their reac­tion to such an impor­tant ‘meta­phys­i­cal turn’ in cur­rent sci­en­tific thought, Nobel prize-winning physi­cist Shel­don Glashow and his Har­vard uni­ver­sity col­league Paul Ginsparg have likened super­string the­ory to medieval the­ol­ogy: ‘Con­tem­pla­tion of super­strings,’ they write, ‘may evolve into activ­ity … to be con­ducted at schools of divin­ity by future equiv­a­lents of medieval the­olo­gians. For the first time since the Dark Ages, we can see how our noble [sci­en­tific] search may end, with faith replac­ing sci­ence once again’ (Richard Mor­ris, The Edges of Sci­ence, 1990).

The shift from physics to meta­physics is one of the most com­mon fea­tures of the mod­ern sci­en­tific imag­i­na­tion. Instead of the sci­en­tific revolution’s dis­en­chant­ment of the world, which con­sti­tuted a reac­tion to medieval the­o­log­i­cal tele­ol­ogy of sacred order inher­ent in the fab­ric of the uni­verse, mod­ern sci­ence rather tends again to the re-enchantment of the world of nature. Holis­tic con­sid­er­a­tions, which can not be tested or proved, are begin­ning to dom­i­nate the hori­zon of sci­en­tific imag­i­na­tion and deter­mine the edges of sci­ence. Here is another exam­ple: although physi­cists can­not observe quarks or glu­ons, these enti­ties have nonethe­less become ele­ments of the model of sub-atomic real­ity because they lead to pre­dic­tions that sci­en­tists can mea­sure. There is a grow­ing ten­dency among sci­en­tists to tol­er­ate these hyper­space and super­string the­o­ries, despite the fact that seven of the spa­tial dimen­sions of super­grav­ity and six of the dimen­sions of super­strings (where the one-dimensional strings reside) are hid­den and curled up in spaces much smaller than the size of the pro­ton. So are they are invis­i­ble. Para­dox­i­cally, then, the tremen­dous advances of sci­ence have led to a new search for meta­phys­i­cal under­stand­ing that may pro­vide bet­ter insights into the mys­tery of the essen­tial nature of real­ity. (See, Zakai and Ramati, “The Meta­phys­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Mod­ern Sci­en­tific Imag­i­na­tion,” in Sci­ence and Reli­gion Together, ed. R. L. Her­rmann (2001), pp. 41–51).

Within this new meta­phys­i­cal con­text, Edwards’s re-enchantment of the world res­onates clearly and pow­er­fully, and his emblem­atic world­view and enchanted world­view remain viable. Fur­ther, Edwards’s reac­tion against the dis­en­chant­ment of the world has seri­ous ram­i­fi­ca­tions for var­i­ous press­ing prob­lems of the mod­ern world, such as, more specif­i­cally, ecol­ogy. His emblem­atic world­view, the view that the whole world is imbued with spir­i­tual, divine mean­ing and sig­nif­i­cance, I believe, may pro­vide an impor­tant the­o­log­i­cal basis for the shap­ing of a unique Chris­t­ian response to con­tem­po­rary eco­log­i­cal cri­sis. This cri­sis has arisen in part from the dis­place­ment and sub­se­quent sep­a­ra­tion of human­ity from nature. A good dis­cus­sion of this prob­lem may be found in Peter Scott’s A Polit­i­cal The­ol­ogy of Nature (2003).

RB: Con­sid­er­ing the theme of our 2010 con­fer­ence, “Jonathan Edwards for the New Mil­len­nium,” can the 18th cen­tury Edwards make a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to phi­los­o­phy in the 21st cen­tury and beyond?

AZ: In order to con­tem­plate Edwards’s con­tri­bu­tion to phi­los­o­phy in the 21st cen­tury and beyond, we should first study his unique con­tri­bu­tion and reac­tion to eigh­teenth cen­tury thought and belief. We need more stud­ies deal­ing with Edwards’s phi­los­o­phy in the wider ide­o­log­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal con­text of his time in both Europe and Amer­ica, such as Ger­ald McDermott’s study of Edwards and Deism – Jonathan Edwards Con­fronts the Gods: Chris­t­ian The­ol­ogy, Enlight­en­ment Reli­gion, and Non-Christian Faiths (2000), Stephen Daniel’s The Phi­los­o­phy of Jonathan Edwards: A Study in Divine Semi­otics (1994), and Robert Brown’s Jonathan Edwards and the Bible (2002). I have no doubt in my mind that after explor­ing as much as pos­si­ble Edwards’s philo­soph­i­cal the­ol­ogy in the con­text of 18th cen­tury thought, many will find that his views about human nature, his­tory, nature, ethics, are not only essen­tial for con­tem­po­rary def­i­n­i­tions and for­ma­tions of Chris­t­ian iden­ti­ties but also for a true under­stand­ing of the mod­ern human exis­ten­tial con­di­tion in gen­eral. I have tried to do so in my explo­ration into Edwards’s recon­struc­tion of the order of time and the order of nature.

RB: Thank you, Pro­fes­sor Zakai. We look for­ward to see­ing you at the Jonathan Edwards Soci­ety con­fer­ence in October!