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 JESociety.org 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!