Politely shrugging off Christ
In this new year, dressed as Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, I crisscross our nation on the Chautauqua circuit, celebrating the tercentenary of his birth. In October 1703 Edwards was born in Windsor, Conn.
He never shrugged off Christ. He took Christ seriously by defending the Christian faith with an intellectual fervor unrivaled in America since. Jonathan Edwards, led by the Christ’s Spirit, was responsible for the religious enthusiasm that deluged New England.
Revival swept staid Puritans off their feet. Edwards led during the 15 years following 1734 an earnest revival to follow Christ among his Congregational parishioners. Historians call these revivals the Great Awakening. Believers became awakened to Christ upsetting bad habits. The Great Awakening rocked the Boston establishment, which tried to shrug it off.
Edwards has fallen from favor with most Americans because he passed judgment on faulty, insipid religious beliefs. Rendering judgment against folks who are sincere in their religion is like passing gas in public. People pinch their noses in both cases.
Edwards engaged in polemics. He believed that Christ bestowed upon him divine truth. Much that passed as Christianity lacked the mind of Christ and the heart of truth’s conviction. People used religion to make them feel happy or found a faith that slapped them on the back for being such nice folks. Edwards struck at such flimsy faith with hard-nosed arguments.
He was not like a heavyweight fighter who hugs the ropes in the 15th round because he knows he has won the fight and settles for a technical knockout. Edwards wanted to floor untruth. He fought to knock out error. His prize was Christ’s truth. He waged his controversial battles as an ultimate insider.
Preachers detest such polemical adversaries. Most preachers settle for never criticizing the establishment of which they are part. Why throw away their bread and butter? Edwards believed that the bread of life gets moldy. When Christianity becomes buttery, it melts what’s true.
I engage in polemics, what Edwards masterfully accomplished in his era. Today our culture shrugs off God and hardly tolerates Jonathan Edwards. Many will skip his 300th birthday party in 2003.
That’s because our culture frowns upon the notion that Christ urges us to pass judgment. Making judgments about things religious, that some convictions are right but others are wrong, smacks of being closed off, rigid, intolerant and inflexible.
We feel uncomfortable with the Jonathan Edwards’ types among us who argue that one religion at its best is right and another at its purest is dreadfully wrong. We’d rather talk about Islam, Judaism and Christianity as being “different” and then delve into these differences in non-judgmental ways.
President George Bush has often used this non-judgmental notion in clarifying who we are fighting. We are fighting, he claims, terrorists who want to dismantle Western civilization. We are not waging war against Islam. Bush usually adds that Islam in its purest form is a peaceful religion. Here our president expresses a non-polemical view of religions that most of society endorses.
The world’s dominant religions, we assume, are fundamentally the same. Devotees of Judaism, Christianity and Islam get in touch with a holy God and learn godliness in character and morals. Some do it through Jesus. Others pick Moses. Still more find God through Muhammad.
These faiths all share a common core, we are told. We pick our heroes, stick to our cultural religious norms, meld ourselves to our own peculiar traditions and live happily with each other. Every religion is as good as another is. Or, because so many in our society lack the will to pass judgment on religion, we hear that we are all blind searchers after truth.
Our prejudices blind us. Our puny perspectives lack God’s wide-angled vision of what’s true. The litmus test for judging the value of religion is “what works for you.” If you chose to believe that God, like the moon, is made of green cheese and that makes you happy, healthy and wise, go for it. This leads to the non-polemical conclusion that Jesus is the right guy for Christians, Moses gets the Jewish nod, and Allah likes Muhammad.
Jonathan Edwards believed that such slippery thinking put down the three great faiths. Each unflinchingly believes that it is the vehicle by which God reveals truth. Assuming that the prime reason a variety of religions exist is because we like “different strokes for different folks” doesn’t take the faiths seriously. Such non-judgmental prattle is simply wrong.
People politely shrug off Christ, using these slick mental maneuvers.
On February 13, 1759, one month after occupying the presidency of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, Edwards was inoculated for small pox. It did not take. He died shortly after coming to Princeton on March 22, leaving unfinished the culmination of his polemical theology, “History of Redemption.”
Edwards stood convicted, like the poet T.S. Eliot after him, that God’s truth is anchored and redeemed in Christ’s Cross. Eliot described the cross as “the stillpoint in a turning world.” All divine truth flows from Calvary. Everything that is worthy, true and of good report leads to the cross. As the Apostle Paul makes clear, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (I Corinthians 15:3-5).
Christ does not merely have some truths he shares with other religious founders. He is the truth. God’s truth.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister serving with MAJESTY, featuring creative music for worship. MAJESTY can be reached at P.O. Box 8100, Avon, CO 81620. Web site: http://www.majestyministries.org. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores.
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