Jonathan Edwards on Beauty, Desire, and the Sensory World

By Lane, Belden C. | Theological Studies, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Jonathan Edwards on Beauty, Desire, and the Sensory World


Lane, Belden C., Theological Studies


THE RECENT THREE-HUNDREDTH anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), coming as it does with a huge resurgence in Edwards scholarship, offers an occasion for appreciating more fully the importance of a man who has already been considered the greatest Protestant theologian to grace the American scene. (2) My article is an effort to relate his writings on spirituality to contemporary discussions of beauty and ecology, asking how his thought can contribute to a Christian environmental ethic. While it is inaccurate to claim him as an ecotheologian, his richly sensual, almost sacramental view of the natural world is full of implications for contemporary moral practice. His work merits attention by Catholics and Protestants alike.

In the early 1960s, well before the first Earth Day celebration and even before the Club of Rome report on the threat of human growth to the natural environment, Joseph Sittler issued one of the first theological calls for ecological consciousness. He urged that environmental ethics should take its cue from the first question of the Westminster Catechism in the Calvinist tradition. What is the chief end of man and woman (and of all creation, for that matter)? The answer: To glorify God and to enjoy God forever.

The proper starting point for a Christian attentiveness to the ecological crisis, he urged, is the exercise of delight--the enjoyment of all the manifestations of God's glory in the natural world around us. This is the place to begin, not with paralyzing fear over the potential of ecological catastrophe (as real as that may be) and not with crippling guilt over the human abuse of creation (as dreadful as that is, too), but with enjoyment and delight-the true wellspring of free and spontaneous human action. Drawing on Augustine's distinction between what we can "use" as human beings and what we should best "enjoy," Sittler argued that in matters of ecological responsibility "delight is the basis of right use."(3)

Jonathan Edwards could not have agreed more. His conviction was that the natural world is a communication of God's glory that should fill us all with desire. The conscious celebration of the beauty of God is the end toward which the whole of creation is drawn. No other theme is more prevalent in Edwards's thought. Edward Farley goes so far as to say that in Jonathan Edwards's work "beauty is more central and more pervasive than in any other text in the history of Christian theology." (4)

Humans, with their capacity to articulate wonder and to love, have a supremely prominent role in the task of giving God glory, but they do not do it alone. Along with the rest of the natural world, they participate in a reciprocal process of the whole of creation being raised to the consciousness of its created splendor. My theme here focuses on Edwards's understanding of the new capacity to sense the sweetness of things that believers receive as one of the graces of salvation. This sensus suavitatis had been emphasized by Calvin and by the Puritans before him, but Edwards developed it in a new way, viewing it as a perception that illuminated the truths of Scripture and the magnificence of the natural world in a common apprehension of God's glory.

One of the difficult issues in the interpretation of Edwards's thought has been how this new "spiritual sense" should be understood. Some have emphasized the idea as offering a virtual "sixth sense" by which the believer is equipped to perceive a spiritual reality altogether unavailable to nonbelievers. Others have understood it as offering a heightened and more integrated capacity to perceive reality through ordinary channels of sense experience. Michael McClymond rightly urges that both are involved, as Edwards tried to argue for two deeply-held interests--the distinctively Christian experience of God as a graced reality and a quality of religious experience that brings ordinary sense experience to its greatest fulfillment. …

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