Help Wanted: Inspiration for a Great Awakening

November 21, 2005

I wrote this reflection paper for a course I took in my first semester at Catholic University, The History of Christian Spirituality. I responded to the selections of Jonathan Edwards found in the anthology, Light from Light.

The name of Jonathan Edwards recalls the Great Awakening in our nation’s early religious life. Most Christians probably agree that a religious revival is long overdue in our own time. For sure, there have been recent developments in the religious climate: in Protestantism, the evangelical movement; in non-denominational quarters, the rise of Pentecostalism. At the same time, Christianity’s traditional branches are suffering a loss of members and, in the case of Catholicism, a loss of clergy. The TV mega-churches look like a religious awakening, but closer inspection reveals that they have replaced true religion with self-help. A genuine religious awakening is needed, and soon. Secular forces are taking advantage of the religious confusion by expelling religion from public life. Another Great Awakening might rouse Christians to the defense of religion. Two elements from the thought of Jonathan Edwards can help toward a new religious revival: the image of God’s “majestic meekness” and the single-minded quest for holiness and heaven.

The comparison of the Christian life to a battle originated with the New Testament itself. St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:14-17). These comparisons encourage zeal, but they do not permit animosity. Edwards was right “to fight, with all my might, against the world, the flesh, and the devil” (395). But the early Christians did not defeat pagan Rome by threat or violence, but by presenting themselves as sheep for the slaughter. Nor did Christ himself send legions of angels against his persecutors and yet He won the greatest battle of all. So neither can contemporary Christians win a single battle by their fierceness – the world is always more fierce than us. After Jonathan Edwards’ personal awakening, he beheld God “in a sweet conjunction; majesty and meekness joined together; it was a sweet, and gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness” (391). “Majestic meekness” – an amazing expression, both for its beauty and its precision. This little phrase, revealed to Edwards in an intellectual vision, unites the immanence and transcendence of God. It is ironic that Edwards, almost without effort, should come to a balanced understanding that evaded the apophatic mystics.

Christians must reflect this majestic meekness. The world is against us – but we are not against the world. Like Christ, we have not come to destroy the world, but to save it. Angry Christians, much less violent ones, will not attract souls. We must confidently, persistently and yet meekly exhort the world to the Christian ideal. This activism is present in Edwards’ writings. “I had great longings, for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the world” (395). But Edwards did not call for a crusade, for see how he ends the above sentence: “and my secret prayer used to be, in great part, taken up in praying for it” (395). He also watched and waited: “I used to be eager to read public news-letters…to see if I could not find some news, favorable to the interest of religion in the world” (395). He knew that ultimately God, not Christians themselves, would fulfill the promises of salvation. He mentions conversations with his benefactor about “the glorious things that God would accomplish for his church in the latter days” (395).

Edwards’ Personal Narrative reveals a deep thirst for holiness. Certainly we should expect to find the same in the writings of any genuine mystic, especially in their autobiographies. However, Edwards’ desire for holiness is not couched in philosophical language or even within the framework of his own mystical theology, but it is simply and frequently repeated. “I had vehement longings of soul after God and Christ, and after more holiness” (392). “I felt a burning desire to be in every thing a complete Christian” (393). “I felt an ardency of soul…to be full of Christ alone; to love him with a holy and pure love” (400). Above all, contemporary Christians must rediscover this longing, expressed by Christ in the Beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). Holiness has a double function: both to save Christians themselves and to convert the world. Holiness is such an otherworldly pursuit that it naturally abstracts the Christian from worldly concerns. Many Christians today, besides their heavy involvement in politics, are also wealthy. Our Lord’s warnings for the rich prove so true in experience: the more we possess in this world, the more interested we become with it – and the less interested we become in heaven. In Light from Light‘s mere ten-page excerpt from his Personal Narratives, Edwards offers two meditations on heaven (see pages 393 and 396) and mentions the name in at least four other places. Edwards embodies the attitude of the author of Hebrews: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (13:14).

Both elements from Edwards meet. If we seek after “the city which is to come,” we must act as people on the journey to the kingdom of heaven. Amidst the people of earth, then, we must be holy. The next Great Awakening, if it comes, must awaken an earth more than ever hostile to religion. We must have the confidence of kings and the humility of journeyers – in a word, majestic meekness.