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  • The Aesthetic Foundations of Religious Experience in the Writings of Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson

I. Introduction

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) remain central voices in North American spiritual traditions. This article is an attempt to contextualize a major vein of the north American theological and spiritual tradition concerning the intersection of aesthetics and the human experience of God. As will be argued below, both Edwards and Emerson were deeply involved in these conversations and to a large extent offer novel approaches to the tensions between the individual and community as it relates to the experience of God. To that end, this essay begins with an analysis of Edwards's view of religious experience and its normative relation to human experience as a whole. I will argue that religious experience is for Edwards a phenomenologically observable reality with significant ontological implications. Second, I will argue that Emerson continued Edwards's work concerning the aesthetic and normative dimensions of religious experience. However, Emerson, who was ordained as a Unitarian minister in Boston's Second Church, eventually left the ministry in 1832 to embark on a philosophical, theological, and, as I will argue, a spiritual journey that would have a tremendous influence on religious thought and practice in America right up to this very day. The manner in which Emerson uses Edwards's aesthetic foundations leads to conclusions different from Edwards's, particularly in relation to the question of the individual and the community. When placed in conversation with one another, both Edwards and Emerson provide distinct yet complementary models for recovering a more robust and fruitful notion of the human experience of God that helps contextualize North American traditions of spiritual practice.

II. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Experience, and Normativity

For Jonathan Edwards, the connection between aesthetics and religious experience forms the normative core of human experience. By normativity I will follow Sandra Schneiders's definition as that which serves as the criterion or rule for how one orders his or her life and goes about the business of making [End Page 152] decisions in the world.1 While Edwards does not use Schneiders's "normative" vocabulary, I will argue below that there is a clear parallel between Edwards's understanding of the role of religious experience and Schneiders's notion of the normative dimension of human experience in general. It is important to keep in mind from the start that the issue of normativity here is not to be confused with epistemological questions concerning the validity of particular truth claims, but rather with the underlying dimension of how one lives in the world. Thus, for Edwards, normativity is more closely related to questions of ontology and ethics rather than of epistemology. I will argue that for Edwards, experiential "participation" in God, via the ontological presence of the Holy Spirit, is the ultimate source of reality and the foundation for normativity as such.2 Ultimately, I will present a reading of Jonathan Edwards that brings attention to what I perceive to be an internal organizing principle to his thought as a whole. I will argue that aesthetics, or the experience of beauty as "the consent of being to being,"3 provides a pneumatological grounding for the normative dimension of the human experience of God.

A. Aesthetics and the Ontology of Human Experience

As I stated above, Edwards closely identified aesthetics with ontology in what Roland Delattre calls Edwards's "first principle of being."4 Indeed, aesthetics is very much in the center of Edwards's understanding of human experience, particularly religious experience. However, what remains to be seen is how Edwards relates aesthetics, ontology, and human experience in the lived reality of human existence. For all of these relations, Edwards maintains a consistent and firm distinction between their natural or secondary realities and their transcendent or primary realities. I will proceed "from below" and work from the [End Page 153] natural/secondary relations up to the transcendent/primary relations, which is of course the exact opposite order in which they interact according to Edwards, in order to establish more clearly the issue of normativity that will form the conclusion of this analysis.

The subordinate position of these secondary categories should not be thought of as less real or somehow ontologically contingent on their primary corollaries for existence. Rather, both the primary and secondary relations are equally and immediately contingent upon God for their existence. The difference is the relative mode in which they are contingent rather than the ontological prioritization of one over the other. For Edwards, where the primary relations relate to God through concepts such as the sense of the heart, true virtue, and excellency; the secondary relations relate to God through concepts such as harmony, consent, virtue, and fittingness. The primary relations more perfectly embody or participate in the reality of God than do the secondary relations.5 Additionally, all beings that have primary relations also have secondary relations. The reverse, however, is not necessarily the case.

These primary and secondary categories operate in several spheres of Edwards's thought. In aesthetics, Edwards distinguishes sharply between primary beauty (to which only intelligent and spiritual beings have access) and secondary beauty (beauty that relates to the world of things and nature). For both primary beauty and secondary beauty, Edwards uses the notion of "consent" to elaborate on the dynamics of their relationships. Consent for primary beauty "consists in concord and union of mind and heart,"6 whereas consent for secondary beauty consists "only in uniformity and consent of nature, form, quantity, etc."7 Additionally, Edwards makes a distinction between general and particular beauty. General beauty is that beauty "by which a thing appears beautiful when viewed most perfectly, comprehensively and universally, with regard to all its tendencies, and its connections with everything to which it stands related."8 And particular beauty is that beauty "by which a thing appears beautiful when considered only with regard to its connection with, and tendency to, some particular things within a limited, and as it were a private sphere."9 Both consent for primary beauty and that for secondary beauty are [End Page 154] operative for general and particular beauty for Edwards, as the latter distinction is in reference to the scope of beauty, whereas the former distinction is in terms of the mode of beauty.10

Interestingly, Edwards uses the structure of consent to bring together aesthetics and ontology with ethics. Virtue, or more precisely true virtue, is for Edwards the highest and ideal expression of ethics. Ultimately, for Edwards, true virtue is the "communication of God's holiness; so that hereby the creature partakes of God's moral excellency, which is properly the beauty of the divine nature."11 According to Edwards, this communication of God's own virtue, holiness, moral excellency, and beauty is properly seen as an enlargement of Godself to allow for human persons to "partake of him, and [rejoice] in himself expressed in them, and communicated to them."12 God communicates to the world through true virtue, which for Edwards is "that consent, propensity and union of heart to being in general … immediately exercised in a general good will."13 This communication of God's own nature forms the objective ground of the reciprocal and subjective response of consent from the human person toward true virtue.14 It is objective precisely because the communication of virtue, as we have already seen with aesthetics in general, is rooted in the ontology of God's reality; for "what is communicated is divine, or something of God: and each communication is of that nature, that the creature to whom it is made, is thereby conformed to God, and united to him."15

On the other side stands the subject of this divine communication. The subject, according to the nature and dynamics of consent, is not a passive participant in this exchange but rather is actively engaged through his or her own consent toward a second major term for Edwards, benevolence. Nearly echoing what we have seen over and again in Edwards writings, "pure benevolence in its first exercise is nothing else but being's uniting, consent, or propensity to Being."16 Benevolence, however, is not synonymous with consent, but rather, is expressed through the interior reception of either the secondary delight of beauty (what Edwards terms complacence) or more properly, the primary love of Being (which [End Page 155] is true benevolence). Thus, there is an added dimension of "value" here, where the subject's consent occurs not only at the level of external ontological or natural relations but also at the level of inner apprehension, appreciation, and appropriation of the beauty of Being. In other words, there is in some sense an affinity toward the object of benevolence/complacence as something desirable in itself, which in turn is experienced as beautiful or lovely by the subject.17

The close correlation between the dynamics of consent and benevolence on the one hand, and Edwards's ontological basis for aesthetics and ethics on the other, highlights the importance of the category of human experience for Edwards. Experience, or what Edwards refers to as "participation," is an essential component of his thought, even though he does not give much attention to the concept directly in his writings. Nevertheless, in "Notes on the Mind," Edwards makes it clear that a "being's consent to being must needs be agreeable to perceiving being … because itself is a participation of being in general."18 That is, the notion of consent necessarily implies a participation in (or experience of) the reality being consented to. This holds true as well for Edwards's aesthetics and ethics. Thus it is not accidental that Edwards places aesthetics and ethics, as well as religious experience, strictly under ontology, which is ultimately God. In this way, the category of religious experience, by virtue of the intrinsic connection between aesthetics and divine ontology, underlies the whole of Edwards's thought. Without the human subject's participation in the divine object through consent, Edwards's entire metaphysical and theological structure would collapse.

B. The Aesthetics of Religious Experience

In the preceding discussion, I argued that human experience and ethics are for Edwards ultimately aesthetic and ontological in nature; that is, the nature of beauty is ultimately rooted in and given through the very being of God. This holds true in a particular way for his view of religious experience. However, whereas Edwards made a general distinction between primary and secondary relations within his aesthetics and to some degree within his ethics as well, the same does not hold true for religious experience. Rather, Edwards takes the general distinction he maintained between the limited nature of virtue and the comprehensive nature of true virtue, from which he ultimately argued that all virtue, in the final analysis, is either true virtue or not virtue at all, and expands it for the nature of religious experience.19 Thus Edwards argues that religious [End Page 156] experience is distinguished from human experience in general as true virtue is distinguished from limited virtue. In the end, for Edwards, the only ultimately real experience is in some sense religious.20

Nonetheless, Edwards makes a very clear distinction between explicitly religious experiences of God, famously called true religious affections, and other experiences of reality (even of God) that are not explicitly religious in nature, what he calls mere notional knowledge or experience. The religious affections are indeed at the very center of the Christian faith itself for, as Edwards contends, "[nothing] is more manifest in fact, than that the things of religion take hold of men's souls, no further than they affect them."21 The distinction between religious affections and all other notional experiences of God, as will be analyzed more closely below, is precisely aesthetic in nature.

In 1723, early in his ministry, Edwards wrote a sermon, "A Spiritual Understanding of Divine Things Denied to the Unregenerate (1 Corinthians 2:14)," that introduced several important insights that he would continue to develop throughout his life. He identified a fundamental difference between a notional knowledge of God and a spiritual knowledge of God.22 A notional knowledge of God lacks a sensible perception of the beauty, amiableness, and excellency that the spiritual knowledge of God contains. He illustrates the experiential contrast between these ways of knowing God with the analogy of the difference between knowing that honey is sweet and actually tasting the sweetness of honey, which is experienced aesthetically as either enjoyment or disgust.23 And lastly, Edwards introduces the different effects that spiritual knowledge produces within a believer that mere notional knowledge does not produce for a "natural" person. These different effects are as follows: (1) spiritual knowledge transforms the heart; (2) spiritual knowledge purifies the believer's life toward obedience to Christ; (3) spiritual knowledge includes a holy joy regarding the things of God; (4) spiritual knowledge cultivates humility.24 Taken together, [End Page 157] these early remarks from Edwards lay the foundation for the aesthetic and ontological arguments that he would continue to develop throughout his life regarding religious experience.

More than twenty years later, Edwards expands these early insights in one of his most famous and important works, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. Two central and interrelating concepts in the Affections are particularly important for properly understanding the onto-aesthetic nature of religious experience for Edwards; the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a new spiritual principle of nature (signs one and seven in the Affections), and the "sense of the heart" (briefly used in sign four, but more substantively worked out in Miscellany 782, ca. 1739).25 These two central concepts establish the objective and aesthetic dimensions, respectively, of Edwards's view of religious experience. I will explore the implications of the onto-aesthetic roots of religious experience in more detail in the following section when I will take up directly the normativity of religious experience for Edwards.

The connection between the sense of the heart and the new spiritual principle of nature places religious experience in a relationship to human experience in general that is parallel and analogous to the relationship that Edwards establishes between true and limited virtue. Religious experience, like true virtue, defines, grounds, and perfects the nature of experience in general. It is this dynamic that leads us to consider the question of normativity for religious experience.

The question now is, does Edwards, in fact, view religious experience as normative for human experience in general? The twelfth sign of the Affections provides the answer: yes. The twelfth, final, and by far the longest distinguishing sign of true religious affections has long been noted as the most important in terms of the sign itself. In short, the twelfth sign is that true religious affections "have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice."26 The importance of this sign here is not simply that Edwards is dealing with the issue of practice, with all of its attending experiential elements, but rather how Edwards establishes this sign as the chief sign of true religious affections. [End Page 158]

Edwards lists three implications of this sign that serve as the main points of commentary for the sign: that practices are directed by Christian rules; that Christian practices becomes the most important aspect of an individual's life; and lastly, that these practices continue throughout the entirety of an individual's life until the very end. Clearly from the outset then, there is an immediate parallel between Edwards's twelfth sign and Schneiders's notion of normativity as the criterion around which one organizes one's life.

However, moving beyond these organizing principles of Edwards's twelfth sign, we also see that the onto-aesthetic structure of Edwards's metaphysics of experience is at play. The key is how Edwards understands Christian practice as the tendency and effect of religious affections. First, Edwards maintains a distinction between the affections themselves and Christian practice as the fruit or effect of the affections. This reinforces his contention in part two of the Affections that the experience and expression of affections in themselves are not signs of true and gracious affections.27

Second, and more importantly, Christian practice, as the natural tendency and effect of gracious affections, points to the ontological and aesthetic dimension of the religious affections and the dynamism of consent. According to Edwards, Christian practice is an effect of true religious affections because true religious affections are caused by the Holy Spirit indwelling the heart of the individual "as an internal vital principle."28 That gracious affections ultimately tend toward Christian practice also suggests that the dynamics of consent are operating in these affections. Edwards argues that in addition to indwelling the heart, the Spirit also "gives the soul a natural relish of the sweetness of that which is holy."29

And finally, the tendency and effect of gracious affections toward Christian practice suggests for Edwards a change of nature. This change is in many ways the natural result of the operation of the sense of the heart through the new spiritual principle of nature that is the indwelling Spirit. However, this change also points to the transformative power of gracious affections as a sign of salvation and conversion through the power of the resurrection of Christ.30 For Edwards, in line with his reformed Calvinism, without the spiritual agency of the sense of the heart and new principle of nature, the natural person is simply unable to recognize and see the beauty and goodness of God's holiness and the pursuit of that holiness through Christian practice. Morally and socially, there may indeed [End Page 159] be many motivations for individuals to behave in certain patterned ways that mirror or attempt to simulate Christian practice, or what is true virtue; but as we saw above, there is an unbridgeable divide between limited and true virtue, between the appearance of affections and true gracious affections, and between knowing that God is beautiful and participating in the beauty of Being itself.

Edwards, then, provides a solid onto-aesthetic foundation for the normative dimension of religious experience that remains a central pillar throughout the development of American philosophy and theology. To demonstrate this I will examine the foundational role of aesthetics in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Neoplatonic metaphysics of Nature.

III. The Aesthetic Foundations of Emerson's Nature

That Emerson was a Neoplatonist is not a new insight, nor one that is by itself of much interest in the realm of Christian spirituality. Neoplatonism runs deep within the Christian tradition itself and features prominently in the works of some of Christianity's greatest spiritual writers. The Neoplatonic influence on Emerson, however, is a complex reality rather than something straightforward.31 However, we are not here concerned with entering into the debate concerning the validity of Emerson's appropriation of Neoplatonism. Rather, we are interested in the manner in which this Neoplatonic turn informs his aesthetics, how his aesthetics informs his thought as a whole, and how his aesthetics might be understood as a form of spiritual practice. As will be made apparent, although Emerson develops his aesthetics along lines that are structurally similar to Edwards, the two thinkers understand the content and significance of aesthetics in sharply divergent ways.

Beauty serves a very important role for Emerson, not only in Nature, but also throughout Transcendentalism itself. In one of Emerson's later essays, "The Poet," published in his Second Series in 1844, Emerson provides a mature and more fully developed sense of the centrality of Beauty in his thought by placing two important metaphysical elements under the category of Beauty. The first element in Emerson's metaphysics is his semiotic account of nature as a "picture language," as symbolic "in the whole, and in every part," which echoes his insights in Nature.32 This nature semiotics is not simply a theory of the [End Page 160] communicative processes of nature but is instead an account of the mediative nature of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, even the whole of reality. This semiotic mediation is viewed by Emerson as a "holy place … where Being passes into Appearance, and Unity into Variety."33 Ultimately Emerson's nature semiotics rests upon Beauty: "All form is an effect of character; all condition, of the quality of the life; all harmony, of health; (and for this reason, a perception of beauty should be sympathetic, or proper only to the good.) The beautiful rests on the foundations of the necessary."34 He even goes so far as to suggest that what he means by the perception of Goodness, Truth, and the Beautiful, (which he names The Knower, the Doer, and the Sayer), is simply a synonym for the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.35

The second key piece in Emerson's metaphysics is temporality perceived as history. For Emerson, history "is the universal nature which gives worth to particular men and things."36 Thus there is a direct correlation between the temporal realities of the past and present. This correlation, however, is mediated via history. And while it is apparent that history is an element of reality, there is a fundamental difference between history and the nature semiotics discussed above. The difference is inherent in history itself, which is an intellectual construct. Emerson claims at the outset of his essay, "There is one mind common to all individual men [sic]. Every man [sic] is an inlet to the same and to all of the same."37 He continues by asserting that history in itself is nothing other than the record of the works of this singular and universal mind. These comments appear to suggest that history is in some sense a subordinate rather than a fundamental principle of reality. But it is important to remember that, as with his nature semiotics, history for Emerson is fundamentally one universal reality that is mediated via the particularities of a given place, person, or event. "Epoch after epoch," Emerson writes, "camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his [i.e., history's] manifold spirit to the manifold world."38

When viewed in this light, the structure and nature of history functions in parallel with what we saw of Emerson's semiotics, the essential unity of reality perceived via the mediation of particularity. This system reflects the Neoplatonic idea that all apparent diverse reality is merely a mediated form [End Page 161] of the reality of the One. My interest here, however, is with the implications of Emerson's notion of history for his aesthetics. What is important in this connection is the idea of history as the mediation of worth, or value. History is not simply a mediation of temporality but also mediates the perception of value inherent within reality; or to use Emerson's language, history is the recorded perception of worth.

Emerson hereby accomplishes two things. First, he counters the Enlightenment presupposition from Descartes through Hegel that human persons have access to history objectively through reason and the overcoming of personal biases. Instead, Emerson claims that history is a subjectively mediated reality. As a consequence, the reality of the historical present is on equal footing with the reality of the historical past. This is reflected when he writes, "I have no expectation that any man will read history aright, who thinks that what was done in a remote age … has any deeper sense than what he is doing to-day."39

Second, this mediated account of history elevates the significance of aesthetics. Aesthetics becomes an arbiter of the significance of the historical past and present. Aesthetics forms the ground upon which the rest of Emerson's work is established. Humanity perceives the realities of nature and time through the aesthetic mediations of historical signs and values. In short, the True (meaning) and the Good (value) are mediated through the Beautiful (aesthetics). We may now turn to consider the relation between Emerson's aesthetics and his spirituality of Nature.40

Consistent with his critique of Enlightenment rationality briefly outlined above, Emerson's Nature seems to be an extended response to this question found in his introduction: "Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?"41 This question prefigures the two metaphysical elements of Emerson's [End Page 162] matured Transcendentalist thought: the semiotics of nature and experiential and the leveling of the present and the past through his account of historical mediation. It is also of note that Nature was published in 1832, the same year that Emerson left Boston's Second Church, which marks the beginning of a break with religious tradition that would culminated in his 1838 address to Harvard Divinity School. What remains to be determined, however, is in what manner Emerson's metaphysics informs his idea of Nature as a spiritual practice.42

Nature is comprised of eight chapters that attempt to tease out various aspects, purposes, and uses of Nature as they relate to humanity. Central to this Nature-human relationship is its near, if not actual, identification with the divine-human relationship. In fact, Emerson's apparent pantheism throughout Nature, as well of the rest of his work during the "Transcendental" period, is a distinguishing mark that helps to define the shift from his "pre-Transcendental" period. Pantheistic themes are repeated throughout his work during this time, as evidenced in the poem "There Is Nothing Else but God." But it should also be remembered that Edwards's work would remain a strong influence on Emerson through the end of his life.43

In "Beauty," chapter three of Nature, Emerson provides us with a fairly clear portrait of how his notion of aesthetics serves as the ground for much of his thinking, especially as it relates to Nature. Beauty, at least in its metaphysical relationship to Nature, is conceptually divisible into three aspects: simple perception, the presence of a higher and spiritual element within simple perception, and the intellectual objectification of this simple-yet-spiritual perception.44 The parallels to Edwards's aesthetics are readily apparent. Moreover, Emerson's three elements of Beauty begin to reveal a spirituality of human participation in Nature analogous to Edwards's spirituality of participation in God.

Emerson's aesthetics is a combination of Neoplatonic and Edwardsean influences. There are several significant parallels between the aesthetics of [End Page 163] Edwards and Emerson, as we have begun to see. First, both thinkers start from a relational epistemology, that is, that knowledge comes from perception of relations between objects, concepts, subjects, etc. Emerson writes, "Nothing is quite beautiful alone … A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests this universal grace."45 Similarly, according to Edwards, "There is a general and a particular beauty. By particular beauty I mean that by which a thing appears beautiful when considered only with regard to its connection with, and tendency to, some particular things within a limited, and as it were a private sphere. And a general beauty is that by which a thing appears beautiful when viewed most perfectly, comprehensively and universally, with regard to all its tendencies, and its connections with every thing to which it stands related."46 Both thinkers place relationality at the very center of what is Beautiful. This relational aesthetics carries with it some significant implications as far as Emerson is concerned, for it very fittingly agrees with his nature semiotics, which similarly is conceived of as systems of relations.47

When we move to consider Emerson's threefold structure of Beauty in light of his nature semiotic, we can see the emergence of Emerson's spirituality of Nature. As history mediates temporality, Nature mediates reality, which is for Emerson convertible with spirit. Emerson's conception of Spirit should not be confused with Hegel's Geist as a synthesis of subjective becoming.48 Rather, in a more Neoplatonic conception, Spirit is the only reality whatsoever, the One that is experienced in the diversity of Nature.

In this way, Emerson extends and reconfigures Edwards's onto-aesthetic conception of the Holy Spirit to an understanding of spirit that corresponds to reality itself as mediated via Nature. Emerson argues "that spirit, that is the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old."49 It is, in fact, the reality of the Spirit, with the notable absence of the distinctly Trinitarian formulation that we saw in Edwards, that establishes the foundation upon which reality can be perceived at all. Therefore, as mentioned above, whatever pantheistic overtones are present in Emerson, it is a transcendental rather than an immanental pantheism. [End Page 164]

The transcendent Spirit that is perceptible in human experience as mediated through Nature provides the conditions of possibility for a Nature-based spirituality. For Emerson, it is not merely the idea of Nature that is spiritually transformative. It is rather the experience of Nature in its widest totality that is transformative and transcendent. "Nature," he writes, "in its ministry to man [sic], is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other's hands for the profit of man."50 Moreover, this natural material ministry toward humanity is not something that is true only after the fact or as a result of the efforts of human agency, but rather, "there seems to be a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms …[that] preexist in necessary forms in the mind of God, and are what they are by virtue of preceding affections, in the world of spirit." Thus, Emerson can claim that spirit is perceptible in Nature, precisely because of the nature of spirit: Nature and Spirit are conatural. By virtue of the fact that "Nature is the symbol of spirit," according to Emerson, the presentness of Nature semiotically mediates Spirit in a way that other modes of revelation cannot.51

Emerson's spirituality of Nature is interestingly composed of three elements: Nature, spirit, experience. While any direct correlation to Trinitarian hypostases is unfounded, there does exist a tendency toward unification through difference in Emerson's metaphysic that is present throughout Trinitarian orthodoxy. This tendency is found in Emerson's essential identification of sign, spirit, and perception as irreducible elements of a single phenomenon, which he elaborates in his chapters on "Beauty" and "Language."

The aesthetic element in Emerson's thought serves as the mediating and experiential entry point into an experience of nature. As Donald Gelpi comments on this point in Nature, Emerson presents us with "a religious formula that would somehow unite mind and heart, reason and intuition, in a felt, creative response to divine Beauty."52 Thus it appears that just beneath the surface of Emerson's Unitarian/Neoplatonic structure, there lies a close affinity with the Trinitarian tradition as transmitted through Jonathan Edwards.

As concerns the notion of human experience, the implications of Nature for the study of spirituality are readily received from the text. What is not so apparent, however, is the development of a correlative spiritual practice. Emerson is seemingly aware of this apparent lacuna when he writes in the concluding [End Page 165] chapter of Nature, "The best naturalist who lends an entire and devout attention to truth, will see that there remains much to learn of his [or her] relation to the world, and that it is not to be learned by any addition or subtraction or other comparison of known qualities, but is arrived at by untaught sallies of the spirit, by a continual self-recovery, and by entire humility."53

Thus Emerson can challenge all of us to "build, therefore, your own world,"54 precisely because Nature in its essential unity of spirit exists to be perceived, to be encountered, and to be participated in. The practice of the spirituality of Nature is nothing other than "a sally of the soul into the unfolding infinite,"55 or, as Edwards put it, the agreeable perception of the unity of Beauty and the "consent of being to Being."56

IV. Moving Forward: Aesthetics and Experience

Jonathan Edwards's exposition of the dynamic relationship between God and human experience highlights the centrality of conversion through faith and consent to God as the source and foundation of salvation. By connecting this normative encounter with God with his aesthetic ontology, Edwards opens up the category of human experience and allows it to play a more central role in the spiritual life. At the same time, Edwards does not give experience itself a "blank check" to define for itself what is authentic Christian practice or not. Rather, Edwards's onto-aesthetic notion of experience places the self-disclosive revelation of God as the criterion for religious experience. Thus, religious experience is bound up and rooted in Scripture as the word of God.

Emerson's philosophical treatment of Nature provides not merely an ideal vision of how the world and its inhabitants should be, but an account of how the world and its inhabitants exist and are encountered. The influence of Edwards's aesthetics on Emerson is evident throughout his writings, but particularly as it relates to transcendent experiences through Nature. Aesthetic moments transformatively open the soul toward the divine in Nature.

For both men, there is an undeniable relationship between aesthetic experience and the structure of reality in its transcendent and immanent dimensions that provides the foundation of spiritual experience, whether the object of that experience is symbolized as God or Nature. [End Page 166]

J. August Higgins
Oblate School of Theology


1. I am relying heavily here on the work of feminist biblical spirituality scholar Sandra Schneiders and her seminal work The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, MN.: Liturgical Press, 1999).

2. While Edwards does not use the exact term participation all that often, it is nevertheless a core principle that helps to correlate several other more frequently used terms such as excellency, consent, and being as will be shown below. See Roland A. Delattre, "The Theological Ethics of Jonathan Edwards: An Homage to Paul Ramsey," Journal of Religious Ethics 19, no. 2 (1991): 71-102.

3. Jonathan Edwards, "The Mind," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 6, Scientific and Philosophical Writings, ed. Wallace Earl Anderson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980), 336. All subsequent citations of Jonathan Edwards work unless otherwise noted will come from The Works of Jonathan Edwards (WJE) from Yale University Press or The Works of Jonathan Edwards Online (WJEO),

4. Delattre, Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards: An Essay in Aesthetics and Theological Ethics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), 1–2.

5. McClymond and McDermott, Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 112–15.

6. Edwards, WJE, vol. 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (1989), 565.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid. 540.

9. Ibid.

10. William C. Spohn, "Union and Consent with the Great Whole: Jonathan Edwards on True Virtue," Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics 5, no. 1 (1985): 21–22.

11. Edwards, WJE 8:442.

12. Ibid. 461.

13. Ibid. 540.

14. Delattre, Beauty and Sensibility, 156.

15. Edwards, WJE 8:442.

16. Ibid. 546.

17. Delattre, Beauty and Sensibility, 94–99.

18. Edwards, WJE 8:362.

19. Ibid. 540.

20. This, of course, is not to say that individual people do not experience through the course of their lives genuinely natural or nonreligious realities, but that from the onto-aesthetic dimension of Edwards metaphysics, even those realities are related in some way to Being in General, or God, and thus consist of a religious aspect. Not incidentally, this is how Edwards reconciles the problem of evil and sin within his theocentric metaphysics. See his two seminal works on this issue, Edwards, WJE, vol. 3, Original Sin, ed. Clyde A. Holbrook (1970); Edwards, WJE, vol. 1, Freedom of the Will, ed. Paul Ramsey (2009).

21. Edwards, WJE, vol. 2, Religious Affection, ed. John E. Smith (2009), 101.

22. Edwards, WJE, vol. 14, Sermons and Discourses: 1723–1729, ed. Kenneth P. Minkema (1997), 74.

23. Ibid. 76.

24. Ibid. 81–82.

25. Perry Miller's groundbreaking publication of Misc. 782 in his article "Jonathan Edwards on the Sense of the Heart" (Harvard Theological Review 41, no. 2 [1948]: 123–45) suggested a later date of 1745 for this entry, putting it roughly in the same time period that Edwards was working on Religious Affections. However, Ava Chamberlain has argued persuasively for an earlier date of around 1739, and Edwards's sermon series A History of the Work of Redemption elevates, in particular, the normative dimension of his use of the sense of the heart in terms of Christian practice, as we will see in the following section. See Chamberlain, editor's introduction to Edwards, WJE, vol. 18, The "Miscellanies": 501–832 (2000), 23; and Edwards, WJE, vol. 9, A History of the Work of Redemption, ed. John F. Wilson (1989).

26. Edwards, WJE 2:383.

27. See, specifically, signs 1 and 2 of part 2 on this point, also sign 11 of part 3. WJE 2:127–35, 376–83.

28. Ibid. 392.

29. Ibid. 394.

30. Ibid. 392–93.

31. See Donald L. Gelpi, Varieties of Transcendental Experience: A Study in Constructive Postmodernism (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 102. For a critical reading of Emerson's religious rhetoric in contrast to the more favorable analysis of Gelpi, see Perry Miller, "Jonathan Edwards to Emerson," New England Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1940): 589–617.

32. Emerson, "Nature," and "The Poet," in Essays & Lectures, ed. Joel Porte, The Library of America (New York: Library of America, 1983), 20, 452, respectively. All subsequent quotations from Emerson, unless noted otherwise, will come from this Library of America edition.

33. Ibid. "The Poet," 453.

34. Ibid. 452.

35. Ibid. 449.

36. Ibid. "History," 238.

37. Ibid. 237.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid. 239.

40. For a thorough analysis of Emerson's metaphysical development, see Donald L. Gelpi's careful treatment in Endless Seeker: The Religious Quest of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Lan-ham, MD: University Press of America, 1991). In particular Gelpi argues for a three-stage development of Emerson's metaphysic: the pre-Transcendentalist stage included his years as a student and Unitarian minister coming to a close when he left the pulpit of Second Church in 1832; Emerson's second Transcendental phase occurred between 1832 and 1841; and the final post-Transcendental phase from 1841–1875, which is marked by a revision and dampening of the lofty character that marked the Transcendental phase. Nature, as well as our previous metaphysical analyses, occupy the middle two phases of Gelpi's scheme, with Nature falling in the early stages of his Transcendental phase and the metaphysical material characterizing the matured Transcendental phase and early post-Transcendental thought.

41. Emerson, Nature, 7. This is also a striking parallel to Emerson's younger contemporary William James and James's notion of the essence of religious experience in his seminal classic

42. A note for clarification: when I use "Nature" in a capital and nonitalicized style, it is referring to what Emerson is referring to as the Transcendental reality of Nature itself. Italicized "Nature" refers to Emerson's text, and "nature" lowercase refers to common usages of nature, (including the natural world human nature, specific internal properties inherent to a given thing, etc.).

43. In particular, Donald Gelpi notes that Jonathan Edwards's strict divine determinism heavily influenced Emerson throughout his life, and that, coupled with a strong Neoplatonic idealism, leads me to ascribe a radical form of panentheism to Emerson's theological philosophy. See Gelpi's full argument in Varieties of Transcendental Experience, 87–133.

44. Emerson, Nature, 18.

45. Ibid.

46. Edwards, WJE 8:540.

47. Emerson, Nature, 20.

48. Dale M. Schlitt, Experience and Spirit: A Post-Hegelian Philosophical Theology (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), 77–80.

49. Emerson, Nature, 40.

50. Ibid., 12.

51. See, specifically, the connection between Language and spiritual mediation from chapters 4 and 7, "Language" and "Spirit," respectively. Emerson, Nature, 20–25, 40–42.

52. Gelpi, Varieties of Transcendental Experience, 102.

53. Emerson, Nature, 43.

54. Ibid. 48.

55. Ibid. 47.

56. Edwards, WJE, 8:546.

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