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Jonathan Edwards on commonsense as a failure of the imagination

Americans have a long history of touting commonsense as providing a solid foundation for sure knowledge of the world. We’re often skeptical of those whose ideas sound too “theoretical” or “abstract,” and we scoff at people who posit ideas that seem radically contrary to the world as we experience it.

This attitude often displays itself most clearly in how people react to scientific theories. People laugh at the idea that the universe could be made of “strings,” because obviously we don’t experience reality that way. And, many mock the idea of global warming because it happened to be colder in their part of the world the last couple of years. Now, I’m not trying to start an argument about whether these theories, and others, are right. My only point is to comment on how many people use commonsense experience to reject or “refute” more abstract ideas.

For Edwards, this suggests a complete lack of imagination.

I’ve been re-reading Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and this section stood out to me the other day. The specific context has to do with Edward’s philosophical idealism and how contrary to commonsense it is to suggest that the “physical” is not what is ultimately real. But, Marsden goes on to point out that the same imaginative openness to new ideas also characterized Edwards’ approach to scientific developments.

The problem with thinking that commonsense experience was ultimate, he was convinced, was a failure of imagination….’Imagination’ at the time meant literally the faculty by which one forms images of things. The case of prejudices, said Edwards, was that people get so used to perceiving things in common ways that they ‘make what they can actually perceive by their senses, or by immediate and outside reflection into their own souls, the standard of possibility or impossibility; so that there must be no body, forsooth, bigger than they can conceive of, or less than they can see with their eyes; nor motion either much swifter or slower than they can imagine.” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 80)

This isn’t to say that Edwards rejected commonsense. In most situations, commonsense is a fine guide to understanding the world. But, Edwards point is that our perspective is inherently limited. So, if we insist on judging the world on the basis of our own limited experiences, we will necessarily be prejudiced against much larger truths. And, Christians in particular should be able to look beyond our limited horizons and imagine possibilities that border on the absurd.

Time to spend some quality time with Jonathan Edwards – any suggestions?

Every year I get to lead a Th.M. seminar focusing on key figures in historical theology. This year, it’s Jonathan Edwards. (So far I’ve done seminars on Augustine, Luther, and the Greek Fathers. I love my job.)

So, as I get ready for the seminar this summer, it’s time for me to brush off old favorites and explore new resources. I’m just about to dig into Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word by Douglas A. Sweeney and The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics by Kelly Kapic and Randall Gleason, which I’m thinking about using as a resource for orienting students to the broader Puritan context of Edwards’ theology. In the next few days, I’ll also be reading through Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life again, since that will be the key biography for the course.

I have several other books on my reading list and I’m looking forward to digging more deeply into Edwards than I have in the past. But, I’m also open to suggestions. So, I have two questions. What are your favorite books about Edwards? And, what are your favorite works written by Edwards?

For extra credit, if there are any journal articles or book chapters that you think do a particularly fine job of addressing some aspect of Edwards’ life and/or theology, please feel free to pass those along as well.