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

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.



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pp. 152-166
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