Jonathan Edwards and twentieth-century neuroscience according to Marilynne Robinson

February 9, 2016

RobinsonIn 1959 when I arrived in Berkeley to study church history at Pacific School of Religion, I was familiar with and distressed by Jonathan Edwards’ revivalist sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Early in my studies, I read more of Edwards’ writings and developed a new appreciation for his contributions to American theological and philosophical thought.

Fortunately for students, Yale University Press was then publishing the definitive edition of his entire body of writings. The entire series, which reached a total of 58 large volumes, can still be purchased. Amazon offers a kindle version of this long shelf of books for $1.99, and includes a free Kindle app.

As a doctoral student, I bought two volumes at the discounted price of $6.50 per book and read both of them with considerable care and appreciation. Further encouragement to think well of Edwards came from the biography written by distinguished Harvard professor Perry Miller whose multi-volume masterpiece, The New England Mind, had already shaped a generation of American historians and intellectuals. His biography, Jonathan Edwards, was not easy to read, but it proved beyond a doubt to me that Edwards deserved serious attention despite the sermon that often was used to ridicule him.

The Amazon reviewer says that Miller’s study of Edwards “as a writer and an artist is regarded as one of the great studies of ‘the life of the mind.’ He challenges readers to understand Edwards as an intellectual who, living in his own time and place, wrestled with issues relevant to the modern world.”

My history with Edwards, has come to mind because of Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Givenness,” which helps to explain the title of her book in which it appears, The Givenness of Things. She begins her essay with the statement that she had been reading Edwards’ theology, especially A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. This was the same book that had transformed my appreciation of Edwards 55 years ago.

This book, Robinson explains, rescued her from the positivism of contemporary neuroscientists that she found more constraining than the doctrines of original sin and predestination in the Calvinist tradition that Edwards represented.

Robinson describes Edwards as a pragmatist because he accepted “the givenness of things.” She perceives a direct line leading to the philosophical ideas developed by William James and states this similarity in one of her characteristically long sentences:

James’ “posture of objectivity, scrupulous because it is tentative, different as it is from Edwards’ intensely scriptural and theological approach, makes the same assertion Edwards makes, which is that a kind of experience felt as religious and mediated through the emotions does sometimes have formidable and highly characteristic effects on personality and behavior that are available to observation” (p. 73).

Robinson gives a name, “the mysteries of consciousness,” to this aspect of human life. She refers to it as “higher order thinking,” which describes aspects of what we think and do that “are shaped and triggered by culture and personal history” (78). Edwards referred to them as “affections,” and listed them as “joy, love, hope, desire, delight, sorrow, gratitude, compassion, and zeal, as well as fear and dread.” He showed from Scripture that the are an “intrinsic part in the experiences of faith” (p. 73).

Modern neuroscientists, Robinson explains, study the processes in the human brain that can be examined by devices and procedures they have mastered. They can display the neurological synapses in the brain that are triggered both in humans and in other primates when they encounter something fearful such as a lion on the loose.

At this point, neuroscientists assert that there is nothing beyond these neurological processes, nothing in human culture and experience that also generates the wide range of response and behavior that we regularly experience in ordinary human life. Their already agreed-upon criteria of what is real require that they reject any evidence that does not agree with these conditions.

Using materials from the Bible and from contemporary human experience, Robinson counters by asserting that factors denied by neuroscientists are in fact true and trustworthy.

“Love, however elusive, however protean, however fragmentary, seems to have something like an objective existence. It can be observed as well as tested. Perhaps it is better to say, language reflects a consensus of subjectivities. We seldom agree in our loves, we vary wildly in our ability to acknowledge and express them, we may find that they focus more readily on cats and dogs than on justice and mercy, neighbors and strangers. And yet, for all that, we do know what love is, and joy, gratitude, compassion, sorrow, and fear as well” (p. 79).

Her final plea is that any explanation of reality we use must include “the most basic knowledge we now have of the cosmos.” As she points out at the beginning of the essay, that knowledge comes from what theologian Jonathan Edwards called “the religious affections.”

It’s time to reread A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections!