Marilynne Robinson on Edwards

I was always curious to hear of Marilynne Robinson praising the beauty in Calvinism; usually beauty is the last thing one thinks when one thinks Calvinism. Sure, the calvinistic God is impressive due to its overwhelming power that is completely arbitrary, but I find it hard to say that this is beautiful.

So recently she published this essay on Jonathan Edwards, praising his beautiful metaphysics, and at times putting him on the same league of S. Thomas and S. Augustine (and she's not the first one to do that)
I've always wondered if this is not rather the despair of Protestant Americans (or just Protestants of the Calvinistic variety) to find their founding intellectual. I mean, they really don't have anyone that can be called a philosopher or a theologian (Luther was not one, much less Calvin—a sneaky lawyer, if you ask me). They might point to a couple of Dutch guys or some Anglo-Catholics, but the fact is that they were born in a time where philosophy and theology were no more (at least outside the Catholic Church).

Now that she elaborated on the supposedly awesomeness of Edwards' thought my suspicions are confirmed. What is amazing in Edwards is merely a voluntaristic deformation of classical ontology. We all agree that we live at every instant because God sustains us, we only are because God freely gives us being. So far so good, still nothing really to justify the praises he gets, this is just the old Catholic orthodoxy. But then he goes on to completely divorce the acts of God from His nature: he ignores that its in the nature of a God that is love to create, and not only to create and hold His creation (as if begrudgingly, threatening to leave it to go back to nothingness at every instant) but to delight in it, to love it.
It is by this disconnect, turning creation an arbitrary feat of an unpremised will, that he uses to explain original sin: a very strange explanation, indeed: because everything is arbitrary, there's no point in objecting to some perceived unreasonableness in the idea the our forefather's sins passed to us.
Here's the quote
Quote:He is arguing that there is no point in dismissively describing the ascription of Adam’s sin to humankind as arbitrary when the whole of being is arbitrary, always a fresh assertion of God’s will in creation. Within the bounds of His own great constancy, God is free. “The whole course of nature, with all that belongs to it, all its laws and methods, and constancy and regularity, continuance and proceeding, is an arbitrary constitution. In this sense, the continuance of the very being of the world and all its parts, as well as the manner of continued being, depends entirely on an arbitrary constitution: for it don’t at all necessarily follow, that because there was sound, or light, or color, or resistance, or gravity, or thought, or consciousness, or any other dependent thing the last moment, that therefore there shall be the like at the next. All dependent existence whatsoever is in constant flux, ever passing and returning: renewed every moment, as the color of bodies are every moment renewed by the light that shines upon them; and all is constantly proceeding from God, as light from the sun.”

Of course, it doesn't take a genius to realize this is no explanation at all and that it only makes the problem of evil even worse: if every bit of act within creation is a direct creative order of God, then so is the evil that happens. She does not deal seriously with this at all, and just says that every tradition has to wrestle with the problem of evil... so nothing to see here.
I also wonder the connection with this sort of theology with islamic theology. Some medieval muslims would see the world the same way: they would deny causality of any sort and posit that God creates every single event directly. And they are voluntaristic. Quite ironic: by leaving traditional Christian theology one falls back into muslim theology.

I kinda liked what I've read of Ms. Robinson, and this sort of lame defense of Calvinism surprises me more than the defense of gay marriage by a Mainline Protestant. I suspect she's trapped in a tradition and that she would feel much more at ease (minus the sexual ethics and the women clergy) in the Catholic Church, where there's plenty of real beauty going around in our theology. No need to pretend.

Fascinating! I don't know a thing, really, about Calvinism on a deep level, and know nothing about Edwards, but what you say makes good sense, all the way down to your comments on Islam's view of God as being pretty capricious. And doesn't Calvinism sort of see God as the Author of evil with their take on predestination? (PLEASE correct me if I'm wrong about that. I know I'm way out of my league arguing theology, at least on a deep level or in any comparative sense!).

When I think of Calvinism, my "instinctual," gut response -- an emotional one, to be sure -- is the feeling of "miserliness." Maybe it has to do (and maybe incorrectly) to the "Protestant work ethic," how Calvin destroyed Church teaching on usury, "Puritanism" in the everyday sense of the word, the aforementioned understanding of predestination. It all rubs me the wrong way on a visceral level. (Does it make intellectual sense? Or am I misunderstanding something?)
Yes, the problem of evil does takes a bitter turn with Calvin et al. The way they solve it is to say that all happens to the glory of God, even the predestination: basically God in his absolute and arbitrary freedom chooses some for salvation and some for damnation.
They will defend themselves saying that its not arbitrary, but rather its based on God. Other schemes of salvation base salvation partly on God and partly on man (man must respond to the gift of salvation). But I don't see how this works: if the criteria for salvation is based solely on God and nothing on us (our acceptance or rejection), then why some people are saved and others are not? Is God divided?

It really makes the tragedy and comedy of fall and redemption quite meaningless. They can't accept that evil is something that one overcomes (you know, the biblical way: death as an enemy, and the eschaton not as a lecture of how every evil was necessary and how it was the will of God, but rather a reconciliation, a drying of tears, as S. John relates). And I believe that deep down they know they are wrong. Few would dare to say to a grieving mother that her sons died for the glory of God, because God ordered it.

Also, her first point (which I didn't comment earlier), that redemption is more about a recuperation of a life and not so much (though this is implicit) the agreeing with the rule book is something that is as old as Origen and later the Fathers. So, the original thing Edwards brought to it was an ontologizing of sin. I wouldn't put him in the same place as S. Thomas or S. Augustine for that. How disproportionate!

Regarding Puritanism, I'm not that familiar with it in practice—I only know of it like I know, say, Islamism. So I can't relate to your gut response.


Thanks for the education, Renatus!


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