This week, “Did You Know” is excerpted from a South Bend History professor’s latest book, Saved By Grace.
Jonathan Edwards was an excellent psychologist, and he knew that skillful preachers could easily manipulate the people in their congregations into all sorts of temporary emotional states. A revival sermon, however, which did no more than produce a stream of people coming down to the altar because certain emotions had been triggered, would produce no permanent change in behavior.
In his “Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God,” Edwards described how he followed up on any apparent conversion experience to see if the person’s behavior actually did change for the better in objective ways, over the weeks and months that followed.
Some people fell back into their old ways of living soon after the revival was over. No matter how sincerely they believed that they had seen the light and had been permanently changed, by their subsequent behavior, proved that it had been nothing but cheap emotionalism.
But there were others, he discovered, who showed a real change in their fundamental underlying character. Their old character defects had been removed and replaced with a different and more positive set of motivations. The fact that one could observe this in completely objective fashion—we must remember that in a small New England town, everyone knew what everyone else was doing, and there were very few real secrets—was a reality which refuted the Enlightenment philosophers’ claim that spirituality was totally subjective and imaginary. If a spiritual solution could alter underlying character in ways which produced objective behavioral changes (when non-spiritual methodologies achieved no positive results at all), this was empirical proof that the spiritual dimension had objective reality, even if we could not perceive it directly as an ordinary sense object. Electrons, neutrons, ultraviolet light, and magnetic fields cannot be perceived directly as sense objects, but we can know of their existence by their effects on things which we can directly perceive.
Edwards was a good Calvinist, so he was well aware that no preacher could change anyone’s character with a sermon, even if the words were spoken with a golden tongue. Only God’s grace could reach into the depths of the human heart and shine the divine light which illuminated the good and Godly things and showed their true goodness and excellence. But preachers who employed the methods he had discovered could give God’s grace a much better chance to work! This illumination theory, as Edwards well knew, went back to Augustine, the great African Saint who had lived at the beginning of the Middle Ages, and in fact went back even before that to the great pagan Greek philosopher Plato and his parable of the cave. Those who finally escape the dark cave of illusion and denial, and emerge out into the bright land above ground, are illuminated by the sunlight of the spirit, which Plato called the sunlight of the Good. Ancient and medieval Christian philosophies from the very beginning, along with the old traditional Jewish and Muslim philosophies, were in total agreement that what Plato called Good (which is closely connected to what Twelve Step people call Good Orderly Direction), was simply another name for God. We cannot see the sunlight of the Good directly in its full brilliance because our human minds would be burnt up by its overpowering light. We cannot stare at the physical sun up in the sky either, and truly focus on it, without destroying our eyesight permanently. But we can know that we are standing in the physical sunlight when we can see other things in its light: trees and grass and flowers and animals and mountains in all their beautiful colors and details. To be continued…
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