Think “Jonathan Edwards,” and images such as a zealous preacher at a pulpit or a spider dangling over a fire might come to mind.
But as Kathryn Reklis, Ph.D. reveals in her new book, Theology and the Kinesthetic Imagination: Jonathan Edwards and the Making of Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2014), the Jonathan Edwards of the Great Awakening was about much more than fire-and-brimstone.
Reklis, an assistant professor of theology, contends that Edwards is key to a problem plaguing many contemporary theologians: How theology can save itself from irrelevance in the postmodern world.
She explains that by the mid-20th century, many Christian theologians were growing dissatisfied with the way theology had been conducted over the previous two centuries. The Enlightenment, the “Age of Reason,” prompted theologians to approach their discipline in a rationalistic way, treating Christian doctrines like logical propositions in an attempt to cast theology as a science.
However, this “rational pursuit of ultimate truth” left some concerned that theology had abandoned its true strengths, such as an emphasis on the roles that beauty, bodily experience, desire, and emotions play in Christian life.
Reklis argues that 18th-century American preacher Jonathan Edwards strikes that balance between those domains. A follower of John Locke and Isaac Newton, Edwards strived to pursue truth through a rational, scientific method. And yet, Edwards was also devoted to a more visceral pursuit of truth. He defended the intense religious revivals (passionate preaching experiences that often inspired intense emotional reactions in listeners) of the Great Awakening, and believed people could know God through a “‘spiritual sense’ as true and reliable as one of our five senses.”
“He was committed to ‘the new science’ of his day—meaning, truth arrived at through experience and deduction, or what we might think of as the scientific method,” Reklis said. “At the same time, he was a strict Calvinist […] To defend his understanding of Christianity, he turned to concepts of human desire, emotion, and bodily experience as proof of first-hand experience of the divine.
“So he was this strange figure who was embracing modernity—science, rationality, etc.—and who was also using those new tools to defend a very ‘old-fashioned’ view of Christianity.”
Herself a blend of historical and contemporary theological training, Reklis aims to use Edwards’ “alternative modern” approach to explore the question of contemporary theology’s relevance and how concepts such as beauty, body, and desire might serve to revive contemporary Christian theology.
“In [Edwards’] day, evangelical Christians split from ‘rational’ Christians, or what we came to call the mainline Protestant denominations in the United States,” she said. “I try to show that the same concepts many mainline academic Protestant theologians want to rescue now—such as the importance of beauty, bodily experience, and desire—are the ones Edwards used.”
— Joanna Klimaski Mercuri