Jonathan Edwards and Sovereign Beauty
True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.
- Religious Affections
The first major voice in the American ethical tradition belongs to the Puritan pastor of Northampton in the godly commonwealth of Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). He set the terms of discussion about moral experience and the ethics of the fitting even though he failed to convince his successors that a specific form of religious experience was necessary to undergird sound morality. Almost all of them repudiated his orthodox Reformed theology but accepted the main lines of his moral psychology: American ethics would be experiential, pragmatic, transformative and aesthetic.
Every tradition is a conversation that extends over generations and centuries, usually without clear beginnings or endings. Although recent scholarship has focused on the intellectual legacy that Edwards inherited, this study will concentrate on the contribution he made to the American thinkers who followed him. Limited only by the confines of colonial libraries, Edwards reading brought him into conversation with John Calvin and John Locke, Bishop Berkeley and Isaac Newton, fellow Puritans John Bunyan and Cotton Mather, and the contemporary "moral sense" philosophers, Francis Hutcheson and the third Earl of Shaftesbury. Yet Edwards' voice was so powerful and original that he recast these older discussions into a distinct American idiom.
Every subsequent figure would have to contend with Edwards directly or with issues that bore his stamp. Certainly American's first major philosopher or theologian, he is arguably its finest as well. The speculative scope of his interests and the force of his argumentation set him apart. Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James could have written as they did without a Cotton Mather; their work would have been markedly different without Edwards. His successors did not contend with the metaphysical and idealist speculations that Edwards confined to private notebooks that are still not fully published They engaged his public legacy expressed in sermons and writings on religious experience, moral practice and human freedom that gained wide currency in the nineteenth century. Though his private speculations were philosophically idealist, these popular works show an empiricist's bent to test theory by observed experience, a preacher's preference for imagery that moved the heart, and a pragmatist's insistence that action is the main evidence of conviction.
Personal religious transformation is the first portion of Edwards' legacy. He strove to give an orthodox theological interpretation to experiential American religion in his writings on the Great Awakening which swept the colonies from 1740-43. Later "awakenings" produced forms of revivalism that the Puritan divine would have deplored; nevertheless, they ensured that experiential religion and personal conversion would be mainstays of American Protestantism. The central figures in the American speculative tradition endorsed this emphasis on personal transformation. Horace Bushnell, Josiah Royce and H. Richard Niebuhr argued its importance within the Christian framework; Emerson and James did so in language that was deeply religious but not tied to any ecclesiastical tradition. John Dewey, the figure in our study most critical of organized religion, argued that experience (the interacting unity of subject and environment) must be continually reconstructed.
An aesthetic focus is the second feature of this American conversation. For Edwards and all his successors, personal transformation begins in the central dynamics of the subject, what he calls the "affections," those "springs that set men agoing, in all the affairs of life." Human experience begins in feeling, in the attraction and repulsion of interest that reflection subsequently clarifies. Goodness that is unappreciated cannot redirect the energies of the heart or redefine the identity of the self. The aesthetic dimension of morality for Edwards includes both aspects of "aesthetic." Values are experienced in emotion, and they appeal to agents through beauty, the most accessible manifestation of goodness. The person perceives the moral beauty or "deformity" of intentions through the affections. The beauty of worthwhile conduct lures the agent to fitting, appropriate action; and for those whose affections are true, particular values are more profoundly attractive because they reflect the ultimate beauty of reality as a whole. When the experience of beauty is most profound, it links moral and religious experience.
Finally, Edwards foreshadows pragmatism, the uniquely American philosophical approach, by insisting that moral practice offers the most telling evidence of conviction. In combining sensible appreciation of value with the intense practicality of the Puritan conscience, Edwards reconciled two aspects of his heritage; that synthesis persists in the American tradition long after being cut loose from its theological moorings. Although pragmatism would not emerge as a movement until Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, the aesthetic dimension of American pragmatism finds its first articulation in the pastor of Northampton.
Before detailing the transformative, aesthetic and pragmatic aspects of Edwards' moral psychology, we will look to the historical crisis that provoked his writings.
The Challenge of the Great Awakening
Edwards developed his moral psychology in response to the pastoral challenges evoked by the Great Awakening, the movement of intense religious rhetoric and mass conversions that swept the colonies from 1740 to 1743. Although later social historians would attribute this upheaval to cultural and socio-economic factors, for the people of the day the central issue was theological: Was this movement the result of the Spirit of God or was it a delusion? Individuals anxiously sought to know whether their conversions were genuine; pastors sought to help them make a judgment on their experience. A broader question faced the critics and defenders of the Awakening: What is the proper nature of Christian religious experience?
Solomon Stoddard, Edwards' grandfather, was known as "Pope Stoddard" for the commanding influence he wielded in the Connecticut River Valley during his six decades as pastor of Northampton (1669-1729). In 1726 he brought the twenty-three year old Yale graduate back to Northampton to be his successor. Nine years later the town underwent a major revival which spread to many of the neighboring villages. This local occurrence set the stage for the Awakening of 1740 that spread to all the American colonies. In 1736 Edwards wrote a vivid account of the Northampton revival, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton The following year it was published in England, where it warmed the heart of Isaac Watts and other leaders of the growing pietist renewal there, including John Wesley's collaborator, George Whitefield, who later became the foremost preacher of the Awakening in the American colonies. Alongside vivid accounts of highly emotional conversions and reformed lives, Edwards develops his first criteria for discerning valid from counterfeit conversions. For the next decade he wrestled with this pastoral task as the tide of conversions swelled and then ebbed after 1743.
By 1746 the Awakening was spent and its fervent religion more a source of embarrassment than pride in New England. Edwards remained convinced that the revival of religion had been the work of the Spirit of God, but he was chagrined at the number of supposed converts who had slipped back into "carnal ways." He likens the crowds of converts to blossoms in the spring, many of which will "wither up, and drop off, and rot under the trees..." He and his ministerial colleagues had paid attention to the wrong evidence. "'Tis the mature fruit which comes afterwards, and not the beautiful colors and smell of the blossom, that we must judge by."
Puritan doctrine held that divine grace assured the final perseverance of the saints. This made the issue of false conversions all the more anxious. If the majority of the converts in New England's season of grace eventually fell away, it meant that they had never been converted in the first place. Edwards and many other pastors had been too hasty to validate the religious experiences of the eventual backsliders.
Edwards addressed both the pastoral problem and the more fundamental question about religious experience in the sermons that became Religious Affections. He sets forth twelve criteria to assess whether a valid conversion had occurred. These "signs" were the evidence that the person had acquired "true religion." While the pastor could help the individual discern the validity of his or her religious experience, only the individual concerned could properly make this judgment.
Conversion had to be experienced since it is no less than "a great and remarkable, abiding change" which permanently alters the person. It was more than a change of beliefs or a new way of interpreting reality, even though these more intellectual effects were expected to follow. The central change in experience was the gift of a new sensibility whereby the person could experience the beauty of God in a manner qualitatively different from their previous "natural" perceptions. Edwards would not authenticate a conversion experience on the basis of a certain set sequence of experiences since they could easily be induced by group pressure. Regrettably, nineteenth century revivalists reduced this American theology of conversion to a rigid sequence of conviction of sin, despair of one's own righteousness and a highly emotional decision for Christ followed by ecstatic release from the prior anguish.
When God discloses the divine beauty to the convert, it reorders the moral life. If formerly the moral law imposed burdensome duties, after conversion the genuine beauty of true values and practices lures the heart to consent. Consistent moral practice insures that virtuous habits would take root and Christian sanctification would proceed apace. In this typically Augustinian theology, however, the roots of moral transformation lie in religious conversion which alone liberates the agent from being turned in on the self.
Important as the pastoral task was for Edwards, the more significant intellectual challenge came from the rationalist critics of emotionally charged religion. Flashy but superficial "enthusiasts" eventually brought discredit on the Awakening by their excesses and eventual collapse. Itinerant "New Lights" upset the ecclesial order by moving from town to town, preaching the revival in flamboyant and uncouth terms. Visionaries and fanatics like James Davenport whipped congregations into a frenzy with impassioned rhetoric, terrified sober citizens about the state of their salvation and then departed, leaving the local minister to cope with the results.
These excesses crystallized the intellectual challenge to the Awakening and certain members of the ministerial establishment openly attacked its theological foundations. While the enthusiasts believed that intense emotion guaranteed the authenticity of spiritual experiences, the rationalists wanted their religion rational, calm and polite. Charles Chauncy, one of Boston's leading ministers, led the attack. He attacked the vivid preaching of the awakeners that contrasted sharply with the rational, moralistic sermons favored by the more genteel divines. Even a twentieth century reader cannot help but cringe under the rhetorical assault of Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
Chauncy found little but manipulation and vulgar display in attempts to elicit conversions with such emotionally charged appeals:
For is it reasonable to think, that the Divine Spirit, in dealing with Men in a Way of Grace, and in Order to make them good Christians, would give their Passions the chief sway over them? Would not this be to invert their Frame?... Reasonable beings ought not to be guided by Passion or Affection though the Object of it should be God, and the Things of another World...."
In his view, revivalist fervor was nothing but bodily agitation that was more likely to cloud rational judgment than assist it. Chauncy and his respectable supporters needed neither the terrors nor the sweet comforts offered by the Awakening.
Even though the debates of the 1740's and the theological tenets of Puritan orthodoxy may appear equally exotic to a twentieth century reader, they posed challenges that would set the terms of discourse for the American thinkers we are examining. What is the proper role of affectivity in morality? Does morality depend upon certain religious foundations? What place do peak experiences, intuitive judgments and rational interpretation have in human transformation? How does practice verify beliefs?
All of these issues are crucial for the American ethics of the fitting. In the Introduction we have seen that the experience of the fitting is originally an immediate recognition that one object spatially matches another. This congruence becomes a metaphor for other forms of agreement. The relation of fittingness or appropriateness involves at least two terms, one of which is the adaptable element, the other the ground. Keys are made to fit locks, not vice-versa. The metaphor of fittingness easily moves beyond its original quantitative version to describe qualitative agreement. Now the qualities of two or more terms match in significant respects. In the American conversation metaphors of harmony and dissonance often describe the agreement or clash between important features of persons, events, actions, ideas, and systems of thought.
"Discernment" is the evaluation process that attempts to determine whether there is qualitative agreement. Judging quantitative agreement is not especially difficult: a given couch will either fit the dimensions of my living room or not. It takes more than a tape measure, however, to discern qualitative agreement. When I ask whether this style of couch fits the design of the rest of the living room, I have to consider aesthetic factors as well as size. More complex values come into play when I ponder whether I can afford leather designer furniture or whether sumptuous furnishings are "appropriate" considering my intentions to live a simpler life style and identify with the poor. A couch that fits my room may not fit my framework of values.
The choice that is fully appropriate, therefore, emerges from discernment that synthesizes a number of evaluative frameworks, from very practical considerations to economic, aesthetic, moral and religious ones. No neat logic can dictate the fitting choice. Just as in matters of belief we seek judgments of truth, in matters of value and emotion we seek judgments of appropriateness. When we "discern," we are pursuing a judgment of appropriateness. We discern the fitting response by placing immediate preferences and factual possibilities into larger spiritual and moral frameworks that highlight the deeper human significance of the competing claims.
Edwards describes the process of discernment in relation to four different relations that we will consider in turn:
God and the human person
the affection and its proper object
religious affections and appropriate conduct
finite values and the infinite beauty of God
In each case two or more terms are brought together to make a judgment about whether and how they fit together. For example, how can a finite sinner become related to the holy, infinite God? How do emotions become centered on authentic values? What conduct should issue from converted emotions?
Edwards develops his ethics of the fitting in response to these questions. He employs a host of synonyms for the fitting: suitable, conformable, agreeable, proportionate, proper, appropriate, belonging to, answerable, consistent, deserving, corresponding, becoming, natural. Each of them brings out some aspect of the relationship of fittingness. All exhibit the basic pattern of a relation consisting of an adaptable element (or elements) and a ground that serves as the normative foundation of the fit. His theological convictions do not entirely dictate his ethics of fittingness. Since he was convinced that God's converting grace respected the integrity of human experience, even those who do not agree with his theology may find his moral psychology illuminating.
1. The Challenge of Conversion: the Person and God
The question of conversion is central to Reformation Christianity and its theological mentor, Augustine of Hippo. Humanity finds itself in history fractured, disoriented, alienated from God and impotent to heal itself. The root metaphors of transformation convey its radical character. The Synoptic Gospels portray a bramble bush that produces no figs; if you would change the fruit you have to change the roots. The Pauline metaphors of change are total reversals: blindness to sight, bondage to freedom, death to life. For Augustine, the love of God pulls the heart's preferences like a new form of gravity. Martin Luther pictures a courtroom where the judge dismisses all charges against the guilty defendant. William James portrays conversion as rescue from a shipwreck.
Edwards accepted the traditional position on the universal need for radical personal transformation. His novelty comes in the reinterpreting orthodoxy to focus on beauty. The imagery of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" testifies that Edwards would attempt to scare hell out of the unrepentant. However, his basic metaphor of conversion does not rely on plunges into the abyss or spiders dangling over the flames. It centers on the fundamental metaphor of contraction and expansion of the heart.
In his more theoretical writings he portrays the unredeemed condition as constricted, stifling, the heart turned in on itself. God's grace liberates the person by expanding the range of concern, heart, and affections. In its original condition under the influence of divine love, the soul "was, as it were, enlarged to a kind of comprehension of all its fellow creatures" and extended to the Creator in love.
Immediately upon the Fall the mind of man shrunk from its primitive greatness and extensiveness into an exceeding diminution and ...as soon as he transgressed, those nobler principles were immediately lost and all this excellent enlargedness of his soul was gone and he thenceforward shrunk into a little point circumscribed and closely shut up within itself to the exclusion of all others. God was forsaken and fellow creatures forsaken, and man retired within himself and became wholly governed by narrow selfish principles.
Redemption reverses this collapse by altering the "principles" or internal dynamics of the person. Through Christ, God works "to bring the soul of man out of its confinement, and again to infuse those noble and divine principles by which it was governed at first. And so Christianity restores an excellent enlargement and extensiveness to the soul."
The heart turned in on itself devours all value like the "black holes" that astronomers have discovered in the universe. What accounts for this moral collapse? Edwards does not envision sin as a new dynamic in the human psyche. Rather, self-love which plays a legitimate role in experience becomes cancerous once it is unchecked by the higher principles of benevolence and love for God. Set loose from its subordinate role, it "breaks out into all manner of exorbitancies, and thus becomes in innumberably cases a vile and odious disposition, and causes thousands of unlovely and hateful actions."
Self-love is not the villain of this drama. God has created humans with a native esteem for themselves and desire for their own happiness. If they extinguished the capacity for enjoying their happiness, they would lose all will and inclination and become inert. When they lose sight of the proper source of their happiness, however, they become disoriented and begin to prize their happiness to the exclusion of all others. When it becomes the sole dynamic in the heart, it undermines conscience, instinctual affections and natural beauty, the natural sources of morality. Detached from the expansive attraction of the divine beauty, these natural moral principles shrink to the narrowness of self-love.
Religious experience does not necessarily cure this contraction of spirit. For years Edwards witnessed people obsessed with intense elations, visions, and inner promptings that they took to be God's commands. They presumed that the more intense their experience, the more assuredly it must be genuine. Edwards notes that these "hypocrites" actually took "more delight in their discoveries than in Christ discovered." They thought of themselves as eminent saints and congratulated God for his good taste in choosing them. When rejoicing in God, they kept one eye on themselves; their self-preoccupation was betrayed by the fact that "they are great talkers about themselves."
Edwards relied on the metaphor of contraction-expansion of heart to the end of his life. In his posthumously published essay The Nature of True Virtue, he states that common speech defines self-love as a person's "regard to his confined private self, or love to himself with respect to his private interest."
Love of one's own family or country appear to be more expansive than self-love. They are not, however, truly virtuous if they are "private affections" that are "limited to so small a circle."
Virtuous benevolence does not set boundaries on its concern as private affections do. Edwards argued that they inevitably pit their favorite groups against the common good of society or the universe. Virtuous love, by contrast, values finite groups as parts, not rivals, of the universal common good.
What will deliver the individual from this contraction of heart? Not the transports of religious feeling, since they can leave self-centeredness intact. Nor doctrinally correct theology, since it can leave the scholar unmoved and unfamiliar with the things of God. Nor moral earnestness because the obedient servant of the law may be driven by fear of punishment or calculation of reward. Iris Murdoch identifies a single remedy to "decenter" the "fat, relentless ego" and Edwards would agree: the manifestation of genuine, transcendent beauty, which is "the most accessible form of the good."
Edwards' described his own conversion experience as a breakthrough of God's beauty. It was sparked by reading 1 Tim 1:17, "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen."
As I read the words, there came into my soul, and as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced...and [I] prayed in a manner quite different from what I used to do; with a new sort of affection.
At first he did not realize that there was anything saving in the experience and it continued spontaneously. It brought to his heart "an inward sweet taste" of the truths about Christ. He relished "the glorious majesty and grace of God" in a combination reminiscent of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans which Rudolf Otto describes the experience of divine holiness.
For a time, nature itself seemed clothed with the beauty of God and the duties and virtues of the Christian life became more attractive.
Later he found that the converts in Northampton replicated this pattern: the gracious disclosure by God of the divine beauty inaugurated a new form of experience. Because this "sense of divine things" continued, Edwards inferred that a new capacity for experiencing was given by God. Even though the initial delights faded in time, the new capacity for appreciation remained. The awareness was direct and immediate, not the result of reasoning, so it resembled a new power of sensation like taste or sight. Because the person's experience was transformed, it followed that the convert had received a new "nature" or identity. A new "principle" or source was added that offset the dominance of self-love and permanently expanded the soul.
Experience Defines the Self
Edwards' focus on experience draws on the Puritan tradition and foreshadows American pragmatist and empirical theology. The term "experience" in Edwards unites subject and object even though it does not yet signify the embracing relation of subject and environment that James and Dewey meant by "experience." It is decidedly more than mere sense data to be evaluated and interpreted by mental categories, since this new experience conveys the truth of doctrines and the true worth of moral duties. Most importantly, experience centers on appreciation and action rather than consciousness. William James would endorse Edwards rule that "assurance [of conversion] is not to be obtained so much by self-examination, but by action".
Experience defines the nature of the person; it is not merely something that occupies consciousness. Edwards stands at the midpoint between the classic notion of the soul as a substantial being and the modern conception of the self that emerges through commitment and reflexivity. In the classical framework of Aristotle and Aquinas, the soul is the substantial form of the person that remains essentially the same throughout life; the only "substantial change" occurs at death. Experience qualifies the soul existentially, but not essentially.
Edwards inherits from the Reformers the model that the person is defined by relation to God rather than by an inner substantial form or principle. The New Testament's imagery of radical transformation--from death to life, blindness to sight, etc.--encouraged a more flexible interpretation of human nature than the substantialist model. Change the relation to God and "a new man" emerges by God's grace. Memory will attest to a continuity of personal identity, but the person has changed. Edwards adds to this relational definition of nature an operational dimension.
For Edwards "nature is an abiding thing" because it is the basis of operations and actions. If the person's operations are changed permanently, then the nature has been transformed. It has changed its shape, the literal meaning of "transformation." Admittedly, the new convert will wrestle with old sinful habits, but "they will no longer have dominion over him; nor will they any more be properly his character." These evil habits, extensions of a corrupt self-love, will no longer reign by default because a new principle of experience and action has been given in the gift of the new sensibility.
This moral psychology of religious conversion points to a new definition of human beings, one more dependent upon their commitments and histories than on their species identity. The new identity given by a gracious God manifests itself in new forms of appreciation, insight and action. In time, more secular philosophers others will omit God's intervention and identify existential commitment and conscious reflexivity as the mechanisms by which the self forges its own identity.
History and experience shape the self when they combine in a narrative, an account of the self emerging through time. The conversion movements that have dominated popular religion for most of America's history have contributed a distinctive element to the quintessential modern project, the pursuit of identity. They provided a narrative framework of personal transformation.
The central character of the conversion narrative is a protagonist capable of radical change. Universal structures of consciousness or human nature do not set the dynamics of the plot: they are more the stuff of the first act. While Immanuel Kant may have woken from his dogmatic slumbers into critical consciousness, American colonists and people of the frontier "awakened" from the darkness of sin and the bondage of "hellish principles" and inordinate affections.
The conversion narrative centers on a climactic event that divides the story into "before" and "after," ("I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see..."). The dramatic tension is not between two classes of persons, the saved and the damned, but between the former life and the new life that follows the great reversal occasioned by grace. The protagonist confronts the old antagonist within because the protagonist remembers the old "carnal" ways and still experiences some of those antagonistic yearnings even in the new "spiritual" state. The energies of transformation come from without in the conversion narrative (in contrast to its more recent secularized version in some forms of psychology and self-help programs).
Conversion, therefore, fundamentally consists in adapting or fitting the person to relate to God. The purely natural person is constitutionally unsuited to this relation since the unconverted soul lacks the capacity to experience God adequately. In the gift of a new sensibility, the person becomes capable of experiencing the divine reality and acting in an entirely new manner. God, as manifest in the divine beauty, is the ground and the converts' experience becomes adapted to that ground. They have been given a "heavenly nature" in being given the principle of true religion; "their grace is the dawn of glory; and God fits them for that world by conforming them to it."
2. Affections and Their Proper Object
The second issue in Edwards' ethics of the fitting centers on the correlation of the affections and their "objects." The path into the secret recesses of the heart begins from the values manifest in behavior, moves to the quality of the dispositions that seek those values, and arrives finally at the fundamental orientation of the self that is expressed in the dispositions.
No examination of consciousness can discover the moral direction of the heart; one must move by inference along the trail of the affections. The values they seek, which are called their "proper objects," shape the affections internally. Our hopes and fears, loves and hates, stretch toward certain values, persons, states of experience. By discovering what are the "objects" of our dispositions, we can make a judgment about the moral quality of our lives. This is the logic of discernment in Religious Affections. Your religion is authentic if your dispositions are oriented to the authentic values of God and neighbor.
Several features from this interpretation of human experience will recur in subsequent American thinkers: action shapes moral character through attraction and engagement. Desire, interest and inclination are more central to morality than reasoning from general moral principles. This portrait contrasts sharply with a model of morality derived from scientific method. It features a detached subject who abstracts from particular desires and relations in order to pursue "objectivity" and universal rationality. Even when John Dewey makes the method of science standard for moral praxis, it is science guided by discerning feeling and driven by a passion for reconstructing the human and natural environment.
For Edwards, this dynamic interpretation of human experience rests on the priority of "the will or inclination." The faculty of understanding is the "foundation" of grace since it grasps the truth of God's message; the will, however, is the "seat" of grace since it is the primary source of acts of virtue and religion.
Reason and action cannot substitute for an unconverted heart. One can have correct theology and be a stranger to God. Another might have powerful experiences or work wonders but only by virtue of the "common gifts" of the Spirit that do not effect the basic orientation of the heart.
Although some philosophers identify the will as the faculty of rational choice or self determination, Edwards uses "will," "disposition" and "inclination" interchangeably to stress its dynamic character. The will is "the faculty by which the soul does not behold things, as an indifferent unaffected spectator, but either as liking or disliking, pleased or displeased, approving or rejecting." The agent reflects on what is attractive; hence, the direction of the agent's desires and inclinations is crucial for morality.
The will is free when it chooses what is most attractive without impediment. If freedom means that the will determines itself apart from a compelling motive, then the will is not free. Choice follows inclination because the will is determined by the strongest motive that "stands in the view of the mind." Behind Edwards' position on the determinism of the will lies not only astute psychological analysis, but also Puritan theological convictions about divine foreknowledge and individual predestination. God would not have infallible knowledge of agents if their choices were free and undetermined. In his moral writings Edwards does not invoke these theological convictions to explain the phenomena.
Predestination, however, was a doctrine abandoned by the American thinkers we are examining. They retained Edwards' starting point that goodness is always experienced. Something good is always good for someone. There would be no goodness if experiencing beings did not exist, as William James will later insist. We appreciate something as desireable when it suits an inclination that we have. The fit between the inclination and certain qualities of the desired object registers as agreeable, satisfactory. We do not act for the sake of pleasure, but we find satisfaction in attaining what we take to be good. We detect that something is "suitable" because it attracts and engages the mind; the good "suits it best, and pleases it most..." While Edwards' consistent references to "sweetness" and "delight" may seem rather flowery to a twentieth century reader, they convey a central tenet of his moral psychology: pleasure is experienced when a power unites with its proper object.
What is attractive to us depends upon what sort of inclinations we have. There is the rub. A devious person will be attracted by possibilities for manipulation and deceit because they suit his or her character orientation. Morally good options, on the other hand, attract upright people because their virtues incline them to do the good. They appreciate the genuine worth of right action. Edwards does not describes moral good as a universal ideal or a requirement of rationality. Rather, he locates it in experience as "that good in beings who have will and choice, whereby, as voluntary agents, they are, and act, as it becomes 'em to be and to act, or so as is most fit, and suitable, and lovely."
Moral goodness, therefore, is experienced in the suitability or fittingness between good actions and virtuous character. To the good person the moral good is apparent, attractive--in short, beautiful. Moral evil will be known to be unsuitable to what is best in the human character; the good person will perceive it as ugly, deformed, repellent. This account makes it virtually impossible to reform one's morals by personal effort without the assistance of God's grace because the very motivation for self-improvement would be selfish, coming as it would from a corrupt will. Some intervention from the outside is necessary to reorient the will and its dispositions.
Judgment of Affections by Correlation
The affections are the central moral dynamics because they incline the person toward specific qualities and ways of acting. One can judge the affections from their desired goals and typical expressions, that is from their proper objects. As thirst is slaked by a refreshing drink, so benevolence takes delight in doing good for the beloved and anger strives to pay back the offending party as it seeks "satisfaction." Each inclination has a rationale internal to its striving, whether that be fairly spontaneous as in thirst, or a complex of evaluations and learned responses as in anger. In either case, desires and inclinations are not just "gut reactions" but have a certain pattern to them. Whether they are "rational" in a broader sense depends on whether they contribute to human flourishing.
Because Christianity holds that human flourishing consists in loving response to God and neighbor, all of its virtues must flow from the deep disposition of love. It is centered on the dominant affection of love as the principle of all its evaluation and action. In opposition to Charles Chauncy's dismissal of all emotion as unworthy of rational religion, Edwards flatly states the main thesis of Religious Affections: "True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections." To profess Christian faith involves experiencing the power and goodness of what one professes. Those who criticize all religious emotion for being excessive and irrational do not understand human psychology which requires both "heat and light" in response to what is infinitely good, true and beautiful. The skeptics are themselves suspect: "they who condemn others for their religious affections, and have none themselves, have no religion."
Edwards distinguishes affections from passions, where Chauncy had lumped them together. Passions are sudden physiological reactions that do not arise from insight and can overpower the mind. Affections are always based on some apprehension and are "the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul." They are the whole person's integral response to what is agreeable or repugnant. Human appreciation is not only physiological; indeed, nothing is known that is not accurately appreciated. Affections, therefore, break down any division between sensibility and rationality; they are "sensible exercises of the will...affections of the soul...sensation[s] of the mind."
Affections are deeper than inclinations or mere velleities. Although they are felt, they enter more deeply into the agent's character than passing emotions or feelings. Rather, they are "habits of the heart" which rest on convictions and issue in regular patterns of conduct. By emphasizing that affections convey insight into qualities and values, Edwards underlines the experiential character of knowing that will stamp the American tradition. Knowledge without appreciation is inadequate because it ignores salient qualities of the object.
Conversion gives a new level of understanding to the person.The appreciation given in conversion is unique because "something is perceived by a true saint, in the exercises of this new sense of mind, in spiritual and divine things, as entirely diverse from anything that is perceived in them, by natural men, as the sweet taste of honey is diverse from the ideas men get of honey by only looking on it and feeling it." Edwards gropes for tangible metaphors to convey these new depths of religious understanding He contrasts "mere notional understanding" with "the sense of the heart, wherein the mind don't only speculate and behold, but relishes and feels." It provides "a knowledge, by which a man has a sensible perception of amiableness and loathsomeness..." Religious doctrines that were once opaque or unmoving become meaningful when the beauty of God shines through them. The convert directly apprehends that these doctrines are from God by grasping "their divinity intuitively."
The Rationale of Affections
Affections of joy, guilt, or gratitude may be intensely emotional and still have a rational inner structure. Edwards analyzes affections according to their origin and goal, the two poles that determine their inner rationale. Affections have their origins from three sources: a) the root disposition of either love or hate; b) the Spirit of God joined to the converted human soul or from purely natural powers; and c) some evaluative intuition. The goals of affections are their "proper objects" (certain qualities in another person or state that suit them) and the object towards which they ultimately tend, either God or the self turned in on itself.
Affections are not merely spontaneous gut reactions but have "proper objects" that need to be discerned: the affection needs to "fit" specific qualities of the object. We do not justify gut reactions, but we do argue over whether a certain affective response is merited. However spontaneous love may be, in order for love to be genuine it must conform to the actual qualities of the other. Edwards considerably expands the notion of proper object to show the correlation between affection and their objects.
When God's beauty is disclosed in conversion, an entirely new proper object enters the person's experience; correlatively, it evokes new affections that are unlike any the person had experienced before. The unconverted experience the "greatness" of God but not his "holiness" or "loveliness." They might know God is omniscient, powerful and just but not that God was personally gracious, merciful, kind, faithful and loving. Because they miss these "moral attributes," they do not experience the beauty of God's personal excellence.
Love is the central disposition of the Christian life and it marks the divide between those who experience God as a force of nature and those who experience God's fuller beauty. Christian love arises from the indwelling Spirit of God (although Edwards does not specify how the Spirit works with the human powers of the convert). Love is evoked by its proper object, its ground in the Other that Edwards calls God's "lovableness," "amiability," "moral excellency," "holiness," or simply, "beauty." One does not come to appreciate these qualities "by a long chain of reasoning," rather one perceives God's beauty immediately and intuitively. No one has to reason whether a sunset is beautiful or not; it is obvious.
Every other religious affection--joy, humility, gratitude, etc.--flows from love. Love appreciates in God the qualities which are their proper objects. Each religious affection correlates with some specific quality of God and Christ, while all are rooted in the primary Christian disposition, love. The moral attributes of God are the ground of this relation to which religious affections conform. Here the concept of fitting needs to be supplemented by a more organic term of relation such as "participation." A holy love participates in the holiness of its object, grows and thrives on it.
In summary, therefore, an affection and its object stand in reciprocal relationship since the object is the objective correlative for the affection and the affection is the subjective correlative to the object. This correlation of qualities provides the basis for discerning the nature of religious affections and making the crucial judgment about whether genuine conversion has occurred. From the qualities of God made known in Scripture one can infer the appropriate or fitting affective responses in the true Christian. From the other side, by examining our own affections we can judge whether they tend toward the true God. This correlation between affections and the divine characteristics grounds each of the twelve signs for discerning true religion.
Divine Beauty as Normative
How can beauty be sovereign; that is, how can it establish a normative order in the affections? While other factors such as the example of Christ, moral rules and sound doctrine inform religious affections, Edwards insists that they depend upon the new sense of the divine moral excellency. That beauty provides the remedy for the heart turned in on itself which is dominated by self-interest, the one principle that remains when grace departs. Beauty decenters the ego by drawing it out of itself.
The experience of beauty pulls the person beyond of the confines of self-absorption. The natural beauty of a sunset can catch even a weary traveler by surprise, arresting her attention in a moment of quiet delight that calms her concerns. More permanently, the loving response to personal beauty and goodness lures the lover to transcend self-absorption. Genuine love delights in taking the other's welfare seriously, even foregoing its own claims in the process. It would seem strange to call such spontaneous benevolence a duty; it flows naturally as part of the scenario of love. Beauty is sovereign here, not the call of duty.
The disclosure of beauty, particulary the beauty of personal "loveliness," evokes a response that is engaged and detached. Edwards insists that the beauty of God delights the person and simultaneously engenders a respect that protects against selfishness. The convert relishes the goodness of the divine beauty as a bonum formosum not a bonum utile. Even in experiences of natural beauty it makes no sense to ask, "What can I get out of this?"
The appreciation of God's beauty has this ecstatic dimension; the person is absorbed in the "loveliness of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not [in] any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest." In face of the mystery of God, the awe and respect of the tremendum balances the enjoyment of the fascinans. Edwards' devotion was permeated with an undertone of deep reverence for the divine sovereignty; it never slipped into the chummy familiarity of pietism.
Genuine religious experience also is deeply engaging. Love is always a combination of complacence and benevolence for Edwards. That respect for delight in goodness provides the affective grounds for recognizing that self-love has a legitimate place in the converted heart. Grace does not abolish self-love anymore than benevolence banishes complacence and delight from love. Self-love plays a subordinate role in fixing the agent's intentions securely on the good, but only usurps sovereignty in "hypocrites," who use religious experience to inflate their self estimation.
Beauty, therefore, is sovereign since it reorders the priorities of the will: every good, every attractive quality that is a proper object for an affection is sought primarily for its own sake. This account of proper religious motivation stands in sharp contrast with John Locke's somewhat mercenary interpretation. For Locke the prospect of reward or punishment motivated obedience to the commandments of God.
The divine beauty can function as a moral guide because it has specific features, definite qualities that ought to shape religious affections. It is not the transcendent bliss of some mystical traditions nor the blank Absolute indicated by apophatic theologians. Puritans did not question the conviction that the moral character of God had been revealed in the history of salvation and definitively expressed in Scripture. Those revealed qualities of God and Christ are normative for the convert's growth in sanctification through virtuous practice. For example, the holiness of God engenders reverence and humility in one who acknowledges finitude and sinfulness. The character of Jesus Christ also provides criteria for religious affections. While promoting every virtuous affection, grace will more especially bring forth "those virtues that were so wonderfully exercised by Jesus Christ towards us in that affair [of the work of redemption]...such as humility, meekness, love, forgiveness, and mercy." In effect, the story of Israel and of Jesus become the pattern for the life-story of the Christian.
The testimony of Scripture shapes virtuous dispositions for Edwards, as in different ways it will for Horace Bushnell, Josiah Royce and H. Richard Niebuhr. Biblical symbols, narratives and moral standards provide criteria that guide affections because biblical patterns "rectify" the discerning sensibility of the Christian moral agent.For Edwards, Scripture also sets forth key patterns of God's action which enable the saints to discern the providential action of God in history. Biblical moral norms also guide the conduct of converts, but Edwards devotes remarkably little attention to them. The unconverted could manage external obedience to moral norms despite their lack of religious affections; however, "without such things as these, [the Christian] don't obey the laws of Christ..."
In Religious Affections Edwards affirms that Jesus Christ is more than merely an example of moral virtues. Christ constitutes a distinctive pattern of life for the Christian and imparts that pattern through the action of the indwelling Spirit. The Christian stands related to Christ as type to archetype, the fundamental Platonic image of fittingness:
...there is grace in Christians answering to grace in Christ, such an answerableness as there is between the wax and the seal; there is character for character: such kinds of graces, such a spirit and temper, the same things that belong to Christ's character, belong to theirs.
Scripture's organic images of head and members or vine and branches suggest that moral imitation comes from participation in the life of Christ through the Spirit. Puritan spirituality had long insisted that the convert's transformation would manifest a "Christomorphic" character that would gradually replicate the typical dispositions found in the gospel portrayal of Jesus.
The beauty of the beloved should in time produce a beautiful character in the convert. The character of the Christian should manifest that order and proportion which were the classical marks of beauty. The various affections balance each other harmoniously: Christian joy can accommodate sorrow and in religious sorrow there is the potential for joy. The "beautiful symmetry and proportion" of gracious affections is not static. True converts are never satisfied with their "spiritual attainments" but always press ahead for more. Religion could be intense without being unbalanced.
Edwards's defines these criteria of virtue and balance against the background of the excesses of pseudo-converts: self-obsession, fascination with visions and private revelations, spiritual arrogance, unbalanced zeal, erratic behavior and moral complacency. Hypocrites inevitably got to extremes because they lack the pervasive impact of saving grace. The Spirit inaugurates all the virtues in true Christian and guides their discernment in a balanced fashion. The "half-baked" enthusiasts are especially deficient in the most telling sign of all, Christian practice.
"This fruit of holy practice, is what every grace, and every discovery, and every individual thing, which belongs to Christian experience, has a direct tendency to."
Edwards account of human affectivity blends cognitive and emotional factors in a sophisticated manner. Knowing and acting have emotional components; emotions have an inner rationale.
Religious affections are deeply felt and also ordered by a variety of standards: proper objects, sound doctrine, moral rules, the example of Christ, due proportion. The standards, however, are internal to the operation of gracious dispositions because the very objects towards which they tend evoke correlative qualities in the affections. Given the beauty and importance of the objects of Christian belief, one should expect that an appropriate human response to them would be rational and practical but also "lively and powerful."
3. Correlation of Affection and Action
The beauty of God that inspires love also motivates and guides appropriate action. Unless religion becomes pragmatic as well as aesthetic, the convert is no better than a well crafted statue that is attractive but lifeless. It is not the amoral appreciation of an aesthete who ignores moral concerns. The new principle of life organically produces moral conduct. As their proper objects shaped the affections internally, so too they lead to external expression in suitable behavior.
Puritanism and Moral Practice
Edwards held together the moral earnestness of Puritanism and an aesthetic interpretation of conversion. The beauty of God lures the believer to energetic moral response. Since the glory of the sovereign God is compelling, it leads to obedience as well as to delight. The excellency of divine things is supreme and transcendent. For hereby these things appear above all others, worthy to be chosen and adhered to. By the sight of the transcendent loveliness of Christ, true Christian see him worthy to be followed...by the sight of that superlative amiableness, they are thoroughly disposed all difficulties for his sake.
The new convert who still experiences the tug of sinful habits may not find moral fidelity so natural; nevertheless, Edwards insists that the new nature is more powerful than the old principles. Although the great number of backsliders after the Awakening might have led another to question that conviction, Edwards remained convinced that the true saints would enjoy "final perseverance."
When God's self-disclosure takes place through beauty, it recasts the relation between religion and morality. For Luther the dominant Christian affection is trust that abandons any effort at self-justification in favor of Christ's freely given grace. Good works should flow from faith, but Christians will always be tempted to place their confidence in good works instead of in God's grace. Not surprisingly, Lutheran theologians avoided ethics out of fear of legalism.
Edwards shifts the imagery of justification away from the Pauline courtroom imagery that Luther makes central. Organic metaphors and sensibility images link justification to the active pursuit of sanctification. Love based on beauty becomes itself the basis of trust in God. Because the divine beauty is aesthetically compelling, it is also morally compelling. Love seeks union with the beloved and acts on that desire: "That which men love, they desire to have and to be united to and possessed of. That beauty which men delight in, they desire to be adorned with. Those acts which men delight in, they necessarily incline to do." Although Edwards also invokes the language of divine sovereignty and human dependence to express the appropriateness of obedience to God's will, in Religious Affections the lure of beauty is the central dynamic of the moral life.
The marriage of an ethics of beauty with Puritanism's extraordinary moral earnestness may be the most puzzling feature of Edwards' theology. One might expect that those who were assured of eternal life could afford to relax a bit in their moral practice. If they thought they could not go wrong, they might even become quite relaxed. Those, however, whom God had foreordained for salvation were expected to give evidence of their election by constantly doing good. Classical Calvinism preached the opposite of quietism: moral seriousness provided the evidence of personal predestination. In Religious Affections the culminating sign of true religion is practice, "universally conformed to and directed by Christian rules..."
Final perseverance is guaranteed only to those who work at it with superhuman effort, which seems less impossible since their energy comes from the Spirit of God that has been given them. Edwards' lengthy account of the trials and temptations that inevitably follow conversion would probably discourage anyone unconvinced of personal predestination. To one assured of election, however, these trials become the opportunity for refinement, the fire that tests and purifies the gold.
Much of the world and flesh remains in the new convert who has just embarked on the long journey of sanctification. Sinful habits do not vanish in the glow of God's grace; they obscure the new vision like a disease of the eye or the murkiness of twilight. In his sermons to the congregation at Northampton Edwards never tired of urging them to put their faith into practice. In Religious Affections he stresses the power of God more than the weakness of many converts who are "low in grace" and embryonic in their Christian development. The new habits implanted by God require serious practice to bring them to maturity. While the Spirit empowers that moral fidelity, only heaven will bring an end to trials and difficulties.
Discerning the Fitting Action
The new sensibility guides the convert to discern the appropriate action through the tendencies of religious affections. Every significant emotion tends to specific kinds of actions. In the words of contemporary philosopher Robert C. Solomon, emotions are "our projects. They are not only directed toward intentional objects; they are laden with intentions to act." Because many emotions intuitively evaluate the situation and suggest how it ought to be, they convey strategies and scenarios for action.
Edwards treats practical discernment in response to the serious pastoral problem of "enthusiasm" in the Awakening. In eighteenth century vocabulary, "enthusiasts" were those who believed that God was directly and infallibly revealing His will to them to enact in specific circumstances. Edwards conceded that the same tendency to enthusiasm that undermined many religious movements in history had also discredited the Awakening.
During the revival of 1734-5 in Northampton he had witnessed what happens when obsessive impulses are taken to be the voice of God. The local revival subsided after Joseph Hawley, his uncle by marriage who suffered from depression, succumbed to suicidal impulses and slit his throat. Afterwards a number of other pious persons were plagued by thoughts, "as if somebody spoke to 'em, "Cut your own throat, now is a good opportunity: now, NOW!'"
In 1741-42, the fanatical James Davenport displayed the dangers of enthusiasm. Believing that he was acting under the direct inspiration of God, Davenport preached in New England churches and town squares condemning local clergymen as unbelievers when they did not welcome his ministrations. His increasingly bizarre career ended on a dock at New London, Connecticut, where his followers built a bonfire out of dangerous books, fancy apparel, wigs, and other worldly goods and danced around its flames. His subsequent public repentance and admission of being under a "false spirit" did little to abate the scandal he had caused.
Edwards' response to the issues raised by enthusiasm is a masterpiece of moral psychology. It also shows the most practical side of his ethics of the fitting. The new religious sensibility does offer specific moral instruction and motivation to act; however, these inspirations are not direct communications from the Holy Spirit; they are intuitions based on the new sensibility. A discerning spiritual sense develops much like natural good taste. Its sensible evaluations register immediately without discursive reasoning; they rely on taste rather than deliberate judgment. One who "has a true relish of external beauty" can tell by the "glance of his eye" what is beautiful. "He who has a rectified musical ear, knows whether the sound he hears be true harmony" without reference to theories of musicology.
There is a holy beauty and sweetness in words and actions, as well as a natural beauty in countenances and sounds, and sweetness in food...When a holy and amiable action is suggested to the thoughts of a holy soul; that soul, if in the lively exercise of its spiritual taste, at once sees a beauty in it, and so inclines to it, and closes with it.
As usual for Edwards, the sense of taste is the closest sensory analogue to direct religious appreciation.
Sometimes the spiritual taste suggests specific ways of acting by operating through the affections. They offer guidance in the same manner that natural affections do. A self-centered individual is unlikely to notice or respond to the needs of others; a benevolent person, on the contrary, will have a sense of how to act and what to say to a friend. The affection of benevolence has a built in tendency, a scenario, for helpful and considerate behavior.
Aristotle linked this guidance by virtuous inclination with practical wisdom or phronesis, and Thomas Aquinas called it "knowledge by connaturality." Edwards refers to it as "a kind of taste of the mind...whereby persons are guided in their judgment of the natural beauty, gracefulness, propriety, nobleness and sublimity of speeches and actions..." Virtues and vices have a felt affinity for appropriate behavior because they are disposed to act consistently with ingrained preferences.
Any affectively charged habit makes spontaneous evaluations--what we will term immediate "judgments of affectivity." They are not irrational but are "a first glance" of the evaluating agent. This insight does not depend upon theoretical gifts. It is not the product of inference or conscious reference to standards. It evaluates immediately, like all sensory perception, and "more precisely, than the most accurate reasonings can find out in many hours."
Just as a well-trained palate will suggest to a chef what ingredients are missing in a sauce, a well-developed habit of virtue spontaneously indicates what is "suitable" behavior. The converted soul that has grown in sanctification operates in the same manner: "Yea its holy taste and appetite leads it to think of that which is truly lovely, and naturally suggests it; as a healthy taste and appetite naturally suggests the idea of its proper object." The morality of fittingness operates quite clearly when the mature Christian "knows at once what is a suitable amiable behavior towards God and towards man," because the dispositions of love and reverence seek to express themselves. These "habits of the heart" suggest appropriate words and actions more astutely than would a gifted intellect would that lacked these virtues.
In this ethics of the fitting, discernment by sensibility is more important than conscious reference to rational norms of behavior. Nevertheless, discernment does not become a pure intuitionism which dismisses any reference to standards. The norms of Christian morality are internal to Christian habits of the heart just as the lessons gained from years of tasting sauces "rectifies" the taste of a master saucier. A chef's palate may be educated by certain standards of taste, but the chef does not justify his seasonings by referring to those norms. However, he might be able to give some reasons for his technique if he were challenged by a food critic. In more formal terms, judgments of taste and affectivity are accountable to judgments of rationality, but they are not derived from them by a reflective process.
4. The Correlation of Part to Whole
The final dimension of Edwards' ethics of the fitting defines the ultimate framework of the moral act. How does love for a finite person relate to love toward God? It fits the larger intention of loving God as part to whole. Because natural morality has a beauty of its own, finite values are not valued simply as means to an infinite end. They have their own integrity, even if they are not absolute. When taken up into the intention to love God, however, natural morality achieves its full beauty. If we restrict our sympathies and loyalties to limited frameworks, or "partial systems of being," our hearts do not expand to the full scope of beauty. On the theoretical plane, philosophers who take natural morality as a fully adequate system ignore the relation to God that gives virtue its full meaning.
In two late essays Edwards argues that virtuous acts are good and beautiful because they fit into the fundamental commitment to God as parts fit into a whole. These essays explain the metaphysical foundation for the experience of beauty that had been analyzed psychologically in earlier works. Religious Affections showed that delight occurs when the subject's will and dispositions find their "proper object." The Nature of True Virtue describes the objective foundations of beauty: natural beauty images the structure of spiritual and divine beauty and the virtuous act images God's intentions toward finite beings. In this meta-ethics of the fitting, we move from the adaptation of affections to their objects to the congruence of intentions whereby finite beings are affirmed as parts related to the universal whole.
Edwards shifts from taste to musical harmony as the basic metaphor for appreciating value. Music played an important role in his religious experience. His favorite expression of prayer was singing God's praises while walking in the woods (a practice that may have been encouraged by the fact that there were a dozen children at home). The beautiful harmony of congregational song in the Awakening gave him a new image for heaven: the faithful singing to God and to each other. Harmony brings two or more sounds into union and leads the melody forward; there is a deeper union that these harmonies image for those who love God: the union of diverse chords images the union of hearts in loving community.
Mark Twain once said that history doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme. An astute observer of historical events catches the rhyme, spots the telling analogies. In True Virtue, Edwards asserts that analogies exist between finite beauty and infinite beauty; and those who are "truly virtuous" have a capacity to catch the rhyme between them. Appreciation of a beautiful sunset or admiring an act of fairness fits into loving God because the structures of the two acts are similar. The person who loves God discerns this objective similarity by catching that harmony. So too, actions that do not fit into consent to God will cause discord in the converted heart.
Actions not in tune with love of God may still be attractive in a limited perspective. A brief melody of Beethoven may be delightful taken by itself, even apart from the symphony to which it belongs. When the listener appreciates the entire symphony, however, the same melody often takes on a more profound appeal. It may echo or foreshadow major themes and contribute to the beauty of the whole piece.
Edwards held that the virtuous heart can detect a deeper resonance in beautiful music because it discerns there a resemblance to the loving "consent" or agreement of voluntary agents. The "secondary beauty" of order and proportion in sound reflects the "primary beauty" of loving commitment between conscious agents. The Creator has established "a law of nature" by virtue of which
the consent or concord of the various notes of a melodious tune, should appear beautiful; because there is some image of the consent of mind, of the different members of society or system of intelligent beings, sweetly united in a benevolent agreement of heart.
Epistemologically, Edwards has shifted from the more empirical analysis of Religious Affections to the neoPlatonic model of image and reality, type and archetype.
Those who have glimpsed the beauty of the whole universe (that is, God as including all finite value) appreciate the full beauty of the parts. They penetrate from one level to another along the chain of analogies that organize reality in this neoPlatonic model. The agreement of notes images the agreement of benevolent society which in turn images the "the mutual love and friendship which subsists eternally and necessarily between the several persons in the Godhead..." The various levels of reality fit each other as image to reality and type to archetype because "it pleases God to observe analogy in his works..."
God has made an analogy between morality and music so that discerning moral beauty is analogous to appreciating the depths of musical harmony. (The two are not identical since good musical taste does not guarantee moral or religious insight. ) We appreciate the true worth of finite values when they "are seen clearly in their whole nature and the extent of their connections with the universality of things." Any finite value is naturally beautiful because of the internal order and proportion of its components that fit together in a pleasing way. The appropriate love of parents for children is naturally beautiful and so is the balanced proportion of a just contract.
While the unconverted can appreciate the beauty of fairness or family affection on one level, they cannot appreciate them fully. The saints relish a deeper resonance in natural values because they have a sense of the reality of which these values are images. The personal union of hearts in the Trinity and in God's love for humans lies behind the ordered union of parts that constitutes natural or "secondary" beauty. Ordinary morality makes its appeal as a form of secondary beauty. Duty intimates a richer beauty; justice is fraught with a deeper meaning, namely divine benevolence. This agreement between levels of appreciation registers for the virtuous like the harmonious union of a musical chord, even though they do not consciously advert to the deeper levels.
This analogical reasoning brings us to the heart of Edwards' metaethics of the fitting, that is, its basic presuppositions about God, reality, moral goodness and human beings. Objectively, the structure of the virtuous act fits, conforms to, the structure of the act whereby God wills and maintains creation. Edwards interprets the universe historically and theologically.
Behind nature and history lies a single intention. The comprehensive context of the virtuous act is this embracing intention for the whole of Being; the ultimate framework of reality is not the cosmos but "intelligent being," the creating and sustaining God. God is the beginning and end of the unfolding process we call history.
The Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, which is the companion piece to True Virtue, gives Edwards' account of God's intention in creating. The ultimate ground of beauty and virtue is not the physical structure of the universe but the dynamic intention which God has for the world and all it contains. God affirms the good of creatures from universal benevolence and in subordination to their place in the overall good of the universe. Creation is not for its own sake, but is ordered to fulfillment in God. The ultimate good of every creature is found in union with God, a union for humans that will be an eternity of increasing communication of knowledge, love and joy. The virtuous act is beautiful because it mirrors God's intention.
The virtuous moral agent affirms finite values in a manner that mirrors the way God affirms them. We saw above that the basic structure of the act depends on its origin and its end or purpose. True Virtue makes the philosophical case that concurs with the theological argument in End in Creation. Virtuous human acts must originate in a benevolence toward universal being and affirm finite values and agents in a way appropriate to God's designs for them. Neighbors, therefore, should not be loved and served simply as a means to get the agent to God; nor should they be loved as if they were ultimately valuable. Instead, the virtuous agent loves them in a way that brings them to their proper fulfillment in God. If their fulfillment lies beyond finite human relations, they must be loved in light of that larger destiny. In fact, God loves them that same way, not as ends in themselves but as beings moving toward union with God's own reality.
Because God is first and last both in the cosmos and in the structure of the virtuous act, systems of ethics that omit God are "fundamentally and essentially defective."
This amounts to an argument for moral universalizability, but on quite different grounds from the rational universalizability that Kant would later propose as the basis of ethics. (For Kant a moral maxim gains its authority from its truth-value, that is, its capacity to be willed not just for a particular situation but for any similar situation.) Edwards argues that a morally good act is universalizable in its beauty. Nothing is truly beautiful that is not beautiful in all its relations. The beauty of any part must be determined from a universal perspective. That perspective does not belong to an omniscient observer or to a finite agent with such grand pretensions. It is present in the appreciative capacities of the agent who has had some glimpse of the divine beauty that is the beauty of the whole.
Virtuous agents do not see things from God's perspective but rather appreciate them within their appreciation of God. The beauty of limited values harmonizes with their fundamental affective stance. This resonance or harmony is possible because the act of affirming finite values images God's act of affirming them in relation to the overall intentional design for creation. The part, therefore, is appreciated in terms of the whole. To the converted agent, the secondary beauty of finite values is located in the universal intention of the act that is fundamentally beautiful, namely the act of loving God. Virtue has a centrifugal drive that reverses the centripetal pull of egoism. The egotist makes himself the center of value and subordinates every other value to his own contracted interest. Virtue expands the appreciation of the part to the fullest bounds of reality by subordinating finite value to the ultimate beauty of God.
It now becomes clear how the contraction of interest and appreciation undermines moral commitment. If our interests and loyalties are merely "private affections" fitted to "partial systems of being" we cannot help but misinterpret the significance of actions. Edwards is convinced that acts which are appropriate only to limited frameworks will eventually conflict with the universal good. (One would have to consult his writings on original sin for a fuller justification for this negative estimate than is provided in True Virtue. )
When the heart expands beyond sinful contraction, the appreciation of divine beauty deepens and broadens natural values and affections beyond their usual scope. The natural affections then move in a universal direction. For example, the "pure benevolence" that is ingredient in love toward God expands the scope of natural pity and compassion:
And this is a source of pity far more extensive than the other. It excites compassion in cases that are often overlooked by natural instinct.
And even in those cases to which instinct extends, it mixes its influence with the natural principle, and guides and regulates its operations.
Duty and everyday experience take on new symbolic richness and depth to those who can detect ordinary objects and events as "images or shadows of divine things." Even more importantly, that new appreciation expands the scope of moral concern and action.
Morality and religion in this account cannot be opposed because there is a structural similarity between the moral act and the religious act, just as between the secondary beauty of proportion and the primary beauty of loving union of hearts.
Justice and all the acts of duty are based on a structural proportion that natural conscience affirms. The same is true of natural instincts such as family affection, gratitude, sympathy, etc. The more they extend to a greater scope, the more beautiful they become. Nevertheless, secondary beauty no matter how extensive remains limited. Philosophers, particularly the advocates of the "natural moral sense," such as Hutcheson and Shaftesbury, confuse this extended secondary beauty with truly universal beauty.
Like most of the American speculative tradition, Edwards owes much to the moral sense philosophers of Scotland and England. However, as Norman Fiering insists, Edwards intended to relocate their theory of moral perception back into the theological context from which it had been removed. Only the transforming grace of God could provide that sensibility which yields true moral perception.
Edwards' theocentric morality does not add new values or norms to the contents of natural conscience at its best; rather it affirms them at a deeper level and with a broader scope. Individual acts take on different meaning depending on the context in which they are interpreted: what seems morally expansive in one context may be narrow and relatively self-serving in another. To affirm the full dignity of the part requires a sense of the whole, so that the part may be appreciated in its fullest potential significance and beauty. The process of moral interpretation and universalization is not primarily abstract; it relies on imaginative reflection and evaluative frameworks that are embedded in our affections. As H. Richard Niebuhr notes, "we interpret the things that force themselves upon us as parts of wholes, as related and as symbolic of larger meanings." As we shall see, Niebuhr consciously developed the themes of Edwards ethics of the fitting, particularly as morality fits into the ultimate framework that is the reality of God.
Both Edwards and Niebuhr share the basic conviction of theology in the Reformed tradition: all finite values, especially love for other persons, are secure only when rooted in love of God. The sovereignty of God, which is the moral correlate of monotheistic faith, upholds the integrity of limited values precisely by refusing to let them become absolute. Their beauty and value are limited by an ultimate beauty of which they are partial reflections. They cannot become the center of value when we realize that they are derived from and subordinate to the One who objectively is the universal center of value. Put in the biblical words that sparked the conversion of young Edwards: "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever, Amen." (I Tim 1:17)