by Daniel Harrell
One last thank you for the wonderfully full three-month sabbatical you gave me and my family at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena this past winter. More happened than I could have summarized fairly in one or two sermons, so I’ve taken eleven. I’ve spoken about the psychology of belief and black faith, flavor and beauty, Deuteronomy, Mary and more. It was a very eclectic time away. This is my last sermon in summary, in part because I depart this week to walk with ten of our high school students on a faith and science study tour in the footsteps of Galileo. We’ll begin in Rome at the Vatican Observatory and wind our way through Florence and Padua where Galileo lived and taught before having our particles accelerated at the hadron collider in Geneva, the largest single machine in the world—used, ironically, to study the tiniest single pieces of matter known to exist.
Our trip is funded by the John Templeton Foundation which devotes extensive amounts of money to analyze connections between science and Christianity. I’ve been involved in numerous projects under their banner, three while at Fuller, one regarding a fairly new discipline known as Analytic Theology. Analytic Theology “seeks to integrate theological investigation with the methods and outcomes of progressive, truth-oriented disciplines such as the empirical sciences and analytic philosophy,” itself an approach to philosophical problems that analyzes the terms in which the problems are expressed. For example, I attended an analytic theology seminar on prayer where the theological problem is “if God is going to do whatever he wills, regardless of what we ask since God knows best, why bother to pray?” We spent a few hours on that one, without bothering to pray.
Fuller’s Analytic Theology project is led by the British born and educated Oliver Crisp, a charming chap whose expertise is the magnificent eighteenth century American philosopher-theologian Jonathan Edwards, considered by many to be the most brilliant American theologian of all time and who wrestled with problems like prayer all the time.
You really can’t be a good Congregationalist and not know about Jonathan Edwards. For 23 tumultuous years he served as the “periwigged parson” of the Congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts. His preaching and teaching were fundamental to the most important religious and social movement of his day—the Great Awakening. He oversaw an alternately amazing and disillusioning spiritual revival which became a prototype for America’s most influential religious practices. Asking Jesus into your heart, the altar call, personal religious experience as a validation of faith; these all derive from Jonathan Edwards. A voluminous author who combined high Calvinism with Enlightenment philosophy, a missionary among the Housatonic Indians, a devoted husband and father of 11 children, among the earliest graduates of Yale, Edwards briefly served as Princeton’s president prior to his death from a botched smallpox vaccination at age 55.
Sadly, most know Edwards solely through the lens of his terrifying sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. It is a sermon many recommend you not read at night. In it, Edwards preached:
When God beholds the ineffable extremity of your case, and sees your torment to be so vastly disproportioned to your strength, and sees how your poor soul is crushed, and sinks down, as it were, into an infinite gloom; he will have no compassion upon you, he will not forbear the executions of his wrath, or in the least lighten his hand; there shall be no moderation or mercy, nor will God then at all stay his rough wind; he will have no regard to your welfare, nor be at all careful lest you should suffer too much in any other sense, than only that you shall not suffer beyond what strict justice requires. Nothing shall be withheld, because it is so hard for you to bear. … God stands ready to pity you now; this is a day of mercy; you may cry now with some encouragement of obtaining mercy. But when once the day of mercy is past, your most lamentable and dolorous cries and shrieks will be in vain; you will be wholly lost and thrown away…”
The dude was definitely intense. To Edwards, a literal eternity was always at stake. And yet, even though punishment of sin and the eternal rejection of some were integral to Edwards’ theology, he was clear that judgment is God’s “strange work” executed “for the sake of something else” and not for its own sake. Serious engagement with Edwards is not for the fainthearted. As Oliver writes, “his thought is difficult to fit into neat categories. He has been labeled by some as too philosophical, by others not philosophical enough—depending upon the sort of philosophy in vogue. Some have regarded him as a kind of medieval hangover, dedicated to perpetuating the picture of a ghastly deity casting sinners into the inferno. Still others have thought him as so ahead of his time that we are only just beginning to catch up with him.”
Edwards insisted that knowing God had to happen by way of affection, a sensation requiring both head and heart, intellectual comprehension and emotional engagement. Edwards compared religious affection to what occurs when you taste a delicious sauce rather than just look at it or read the recipe about how it was made. (No wonder I like this guy.) Unlike preachers in our time who whip up feelings without explanation, akin to a diet of Doritos and Twinkies, Edwards let God’s word do its own work. He’d stand erect in his high pulpit and monotone his sermons line by line. Among his most famous and effective was a series entitled, Five Discourses on Important Subjects, Nearly Concerning the Great Affair of the Soul’s Eternal Salvation. The congregation ate it up and revival erupted.
As to prayer, Edwards preached two things:
First, God accepts the supplications of those who pray to him. Their address to him is well taken, he is well-pleased with it. He approves of their asking such mercies as they request of him and approves of their manner of doing it. He accepts of their prayers as an offering to him. He accepts the honor they do him in prayer. Second, he acts agreeably to his acceptance. He sometimes manifests his acceptance of their prayers by special discoveries of his mercy and sufficiency, which he makes to them in prayer…. While they are praying, he gives them sweet views of his glorious grace, purity, sufficiency, and sovereignty, and enables them, with great quietness, to rest in him, to leave themselves and their prayers with him, submitting to his will and trusting in his grace and faithfulness.
Note that Edwards stressed not answers to prayer but what happens to you in the process of praying—this is a subtle but significant distinction. Edwards would have agreed with the premise that “God is going to do whatever he wills, regardless of what we ask because God knows best.” At best, prayer is our joyfully submission to what God is already doing.
And God is always doing, always loving. God exists as simple, free and pure act, Edwards taught, constrained only by his own nature, without any distinction between his being (that he is) and his act (what he does). As love God defines love, both its essence and act; whatever God does is what love does. And not only love but every attribute love implies: beauty, flavor, majesty, brilliance, extravagance, strength, mercy, justice, compassion, sacrifice, purity, excellency and righteousness—these all find their perfect definition in God. Love is the core essence and bond of the Trinity; the fullness of love expressed eternally in relationship so full and free and ever-filling it inescapably spills over to create a creation intrinsically relational by nature. Modern science shows all nature to originate from a single source and everything to exist in relationship to everything else. The apostle Paul celebrates God in Christ as “all and in all,” which Edwards understood as Jesus, the personification and perfection of Love, being both source and sustenance of everything.
Now if you’re still with me, here’s where Edwards gets weird. As a creation of God, the world is not made of matter, strictly speaking, but a running series of thoughts thought by God, moment by moment, new every moment, one right after the other in sequence, a continual creation whereby God thinks everything new every successive instant, every state, every act, every thought, every feeling, every intention. Nothing can be and not be contained in and caused by God. It may seem like you’re sitting there sleeping through this sermon, but your sitting or standing or playing the organ or stirring a sauce is only just the occasion for God’s action because Christ is all and in all; the sole cause and lone ranger of reality.
In this morning’s familiar passage from the last supper, John describes Jesus as knowing all that’s going on, where he’s from and where’s he’s headed, what time it is and whom he loves and how he loves them “to the end” or completely, or perfectly, as the Greek word implies, and how he alone possesses the power to do what must be done—all things having been given into his hands. On the one hand, Jesus got up, took a towel and washed his disciples’ feet, celebrated ever since and the paramount expression of love: humble, gracious, tender, selfless. Peter, who also knows Jesus’ true identity, is horrified by the prospect of God serving him. What kind of God stoops to wash feet? Jesus insists Peter accept it, that he believe in a God who sacrifices himself for love’s sake. But Peter can’t take it and ends up denying he ever knew such a God, his rejection reconciled only by Jesus’ resurrection and an infusion of the Holy Spirit, all part of the plan.
On the other hand we have Judas whom Jesus knows to be infused by the devil, preconditioned to betray Jesus and thus commit a satanic evil representative of all the horrific crimes we humans commit, the bonds of trust we so willingly violate, the relationships we righteously ruin, the conflicts we cheerfully nurture, and the deception and disloyalty and lies we relish. Jesus extended grace to Judas, even as he accused him: “The one to whom I give bread is the one who will betray me,” Jesus said. The bread given as an indictment of betrayal is the same bread offered as Jesus’ own body broken. Judas takes it and then we read “Satan entered his heart” and Jesus tells him, “do quickly what you are going to do,” a treachery Jesus goes on to define as necessary to the glory of God, also part of the plan.
This is truly “strange work.” Judas is doomed for his duplicity, but how is this right? If Satan is permitted to infect your heart, if God foreordained your deed and Jesus tells you to hurry up and go do it for God’s glory, how can you be to blame? If existence is a series of divine thoughts in God’s mind, there can no human free will or true love, no sin or responsibility for evil aside from God’s own. But how is this love? How is this just or good or true?
It seems too weird to ever be right, except that science increasingly demonstrates that we humans have no real freedom to do as we choose. If we have evolved over time—as biology, genetics, chemistry and paleontology demonstrate—then any ability to choose is constrained by heredity and dependent on our brains as they’ve been shaped by our genes and experience. Brain scanners offer a peek inside our minds, so to speak, to reveal intricate networks of neurons which determine not just some or most but all of our thoughts, intentions, actions, memories and dreams. We know that electrical activity builds up in our brains prior to our ever moving our hand to play an organ or stir sauce, before our minds make any decision to move. The conscious experience we associate with free will appears to be a post hoc reconstruction of events after the brain has already set the act in motion, involuntarily like a heartbeat. Neurons fire causing other neurons to fire, a running series of thoughts and deeds, moment by moment, one right after the other in sequence, stretching back to our birth and before, rendering us both predestined and predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that person’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy. This is not new.
It is problematic, however, as far as human societies go. If human existence is but a continuous series of chemically sparked neurological firings confined by our genetics, there can be no human free will or true love, no sin or responsibility for evil, no creativity, no learning, no remorse, no gratitude. As philosopher Stephen Case concludes, “to embrace determinism is to indulge our dark side. If the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.”
Only the antique weirdness of Jonathan Edwards can ride to the rescue. Only in God can the tension between the true and the good keep taut. Only in God can denial and betrayal be redeemed for glory. Only in God is humiliation and sacrifice regarded as love. It’s not enough that Jesus perish in his sleep for the sins of the world, he must be strung up in a most hideous manner, abandoned and condemned for a crime he could not have committed or even imagined. Christ dies on the cross and we praise the Lord for it and call it good news.“Divine convention is what constitutes truth” Edwards preached. That God does what he does makes it right and true and good and glorious simply because God does it.
These ideas finally got Edwards fired from his church—a preacher in the hands of an angry congregation, you might say. The last straw was the Last Supper. For Congregationalists, communion was both a means of grace and appetizer for eternity, food for both sinners and saints. But Edwards tilted the table toward the saints’ side, believing eternity was already now in God’s mind and should be visible in the sainthood of his people. This created an uncomfortable imbalance for congregants whose lives didn’t look especially heavenly. Edwards said only Christians whose character unmistakably evidenced God’s love should be permitted to partake and that he was the best judge of character. He lined this out in a stirring sermon entitled, An Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God, Concerning the Qualifications Requisite to a Complete Standing and Full Communion in the Visible Christian Church. His congregation spit this one back with “an uncommon degree of rage and madness.”
And yet Edwards’ own visions of rapture sustained him with joy. “And oh! what joy will there be,” he preached, “springing up in the hearts of the saints, after they have passed through their wearisome pilgrimage, to be brought to such a paradise! Here is joy unspeakable indeed, and full of glory—joy that is humble, holy, enrapturing, and divine in its perfection! Love is always a sweet principle; and especially divine love. This, even on earth, is a spring of sweetness; but in heaven it shall become a stream, a river, an ocean! All shall stand about the God of glory, who is the great fountain of love, opening, as it were, their very souls to be filled with those effusions of love that are poured forth from his fullness… And thus we will love, and reign in love, and in that godlike joy that is its blessed fruit, such as eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath ever entered into the heart of man in this world to conceive; and thus in the full sunlight of the throne, enraptured with joys that are forever increasing, and yet forever full, we shall live and reign with God and Christ forever and ever!”