Friday, December 2, 2011

On Jonathan Edwards On Being

I ran across a reminder this morning of why one must always take great care in reading any particular author, but especially of those who are very careful in drawing distinctions. Jonathan Edwards is such an author, whose mind is at once so far-reaching and yet so close to the point before it that he is able to account for many distinctions that a lesser mind could not conceive. If there was one mind other than Christ's that I would seek to emulate, it would be a toss up between Augustine and Edwards.

Anyway, to the point. Here is a conclusion to a section from Edwards' philosophical notes On Being:

This infinite and omnipresent being cannot be solid. Let us see how contradictory it is to say that infinite being is solid. For solidity surely is nothing but resistance to other solidities. Space is this necessary, eternal, infinite, and omnipresent being. We find that we can with ease conceive how all other beings should not be. We can remove them out of our minds and place some other in the room of them, but space is the very thing that we can never remove and conceive of its not being. If a man would imagine space anywhere to be divided so as there should be nothing between the divided parts, there remains space between, notwithstanding. And so the man contradicts himself. And it is self-evident, I believe, to every man that space is necessary, eternal, infinite, and omnipresent. But I had as good speak plain. I have already said as much as that space is God. And it is indeed clear to me that all the space there is, not proper to body, all the space there is without the bounds of the creations, all the space there was before the creation, is God Himself. And nobody would in the least stick at it if it were not because of the gross conceptions we have of space.

Edwards' conclusion sounds controversial. Space is God. Historically, the Church has understood God to be "outside" or "beyond" both time and space. The reason for this restriction was because time and space have predominantly been conceived with respect to material bodies. But Edwards is careful to preface his conclusion with arguments that remove the problem of solidity (i.e. material bodies) from consideration. God (the infinite and omnipresent being) cannot be a solid, for He would have to be in resistance to some other solid or solids. He would not be the simple, self-existent, and eternally one God. There would be another or others that are not God against which God would be existent and defined. Thus, God is not a solid.

But here is where Edwards' brilliance shines. Our minds cannot conceive of anything irrespective of space. We need the concept or attribute of space as a basis for thought. The Biblical knowledge that Edwards' possesses provides the solution: space must be God, for what else but God is a necessary precondition of thought? He will later have to clarify what he means by distinguishing space proper to body and space within the bounds of creation, but all that space not so defined is an attribute of God. As Paul says, quoting a wise pagan, in God we live and move and have our being. He is our space, or maybe as Augustine would say, the home we inhabit. Is it any wonder that men, however much they might wish to deny God or escape Him, cannot, for their being that particular thing in the space of all that is, is their being in God. All souls are restless until they find their rest in God.

Here is where some might consider Edwards a full-blown pantheist. But for a thing exist within something else is not the same as for the something else to exist within a thing. I may inhabit a house without the house being in me. A thought may exist within my mind without being predicated of my essence. Pantheism only follows from a misconception of space, a misconception Edwards laments at the close of the passage.

I find that I, unlike Edwards, am too prejudiced a thinker. I too often want to have a party-line to play, a conclusion fixed by some other, more-reliable thinker, so that I may rest in his conclusion. But what if Edwards had not allowed himself the freedom of thought to examine space in ways hitherto neglected? Of course speculation has its dangers as well as does narrow=mindedness. But perhaps here is where the Anselmic, Athanasian, Augustinian dictum comes to our aid: believe in order to understand. There are basic truths that any child can understand about God, and indeed Christians all over the world teach their children to believe these things in order that they may understand; and also frequently repeat that they never be forgotten (even unto old age). But to mature we must also allow our minds to seek understanding that broadens the scope of our belief. If I may be permitted a physical analogy. In weightlifting, the muscles used to force the weights undergo microscopic tears in their fibers--there is a breakdown of their previous unity. But it is in these microscopic tears that the space necessary for muscle growth is opened up. With rest and good diet added to the weightlifting, the muscles grow into the spaces opened by the tearing down produced by the force exerted by the muscles. The growth of our understanding is similarly grown. When we force our minds to consider thoughts that are difficult, and may even cause spaces of doubt or the unknown to open, there is created space for the nourishment of recovery in the things we do know to grow into these spaces and increase our understanding.

Edwards pursues an observation about space that seems to contradict the common faith of Christianity -- space seems to be necessary, eternal, infinite, and omnipresent, but we affirm that God is not bound by or contained by space. Instead of retreating he pursues the problem, drawing upon what he knows well already, in order to seek an understanding that reconciles the problem. The result is a conception of space that not only reconciles the problem, but opens up opportunities for developing more understanding on immaterial space.

I realize that I'm dramatizing a bit here. Edwards may or may not have undergone the sort of process I describe above. However, what troubles me in the current age is how quickly many in the Church are to censure the intellectual weightlifting that is essential to sanctified spiritual understanding. Yes, heresies abound. Yes, novelties can lead to great error. Yes, yes, yes, to a thousand other dangers that persist whether or not Christians pursue the exercise I here recommend. Augustine once said that rhetorical abilities should be pursued by Christians so that the truth would have a better expression in its defense against promoters of error who were already using eloquence. The same is true, I think, of intellectual inquiry. The thousand and one ways in which it can result in error to not negate the (at least) several ways in which it directs us to greater understanding of the truth.

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