Jonathan Edwards's Philosophy of History: The Reenchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment

Jonathan Edwards's Philosophy of History: The Reenchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment

By Avihu Zakai
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003. Hardcover, 348 pages.

Most people who attended high school in the United States remember Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) for his stunning, frightening sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which is standard fare in American literature classes. It is regrettable that many dismiss Edwards on this basis and thus miss the depth and wonder of much of his other writing.

Avihu Zakai's book has a narrow focus on Edwards's philosophy of history. Even though he provides some introduction to Edwards's life and work, it is not the easiest place for a neophyte to begin. Those who are unfamiliar with Edwards would best turn to George Marsden's excellent new, biography Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press, 2003).

For the Theosophical reader, Zakai's book will probably be most interesting for the parallel between Edwards's time and our own. Edwards lived in the era of the rationalist Enlightenment philosophers, who mechanized the universe and secularized history, squeezing out the presence of the Divine. While he was intimately familiar with the new philosophy, Edwards had experiential reasons why he could not accept it. As a seventeen year-old college student, he had a religious conversion, in which "the appearance of every thing was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or the appearance of divine glory, in almost every thing." Once one's eyes have been opened, it is hard to shut them again.

Zakai demonstrates how Edwards labored against the intellectual trends of his day in an effort to reenchant the world with the presence of God. In his works on nature, he claimed "every atom in the universe is managed by Christ." If one sees Christ as the universal Logos, how many of us might agree? When considering history, Edwards gave preeminence not to human activity but to the movement of the Spirit, especially as displayed in periodic revivals. Do we not also try to discern spiritual cycles in outer history? Zakai points to the influence of Edwards's writings on American Protestant culture, where the revival continues to occupy a prominent place, although often in the hands of those less sophisticated than Edwards.

As women and men living in an age of scientific reductionism and philosophical nihilism, we are also striving to reenchant the world, to open our eyes and those of others to Spirit moving in nature and history. We would do well to attend to those who shared this struggle in other times.


July/August 2004