Is Freewill compatable with Determinism? Some thoughts on Jonathan Edwards

I am posting today from the beautiful hills of the Tuscany region of Italy and I am about to start a 20 day spiritual retreat with teacher Andrew Cohen. During my travels here I decided to read something aligned to the more spiritual side of American Philosophy. And so, I have been reading about the great American Protestant Minister, Jonathan Edwards. In the 1730’s Edwards led his congregation into a collective experience of spiritual enlightenment that lasted for 5 months. This event catalyzed the protestant revivalist movement that was later called the Great Awakening and led to the conversion of thousands of people to the Christian faith up and down the East Coast of the United States.

Jonathan Edwards was a Yale graduate and later became the president of Princeton University. He is sometimes called America’s first philosopher and is certainly one of this nation’s greatest theologian. I found myself engrossed in his thinking and discovered that he and those around him were engaging in a variation of many of the discussions that we are having. Specifically, Edwards was deeply contemplating the relationship between freewill and determinism. In his case it was not scientific determinism that he was referring to, but the religious determinism of God.

Edwards was a Calvinist and he believed that the determination of who would enter into the kingdom of heaven was made by God at the moment of your birth and there was nothing you could do to change that. The Religious conversions that happened around him were not decisions to lead a holy life, they were recognitions that you had been elected to the holy life by God. Edwards and other ministers of the time were also reading the early books of the Enlightenment and were trying to find a rational way to understand Christian doctrine and prove that freewill was compatible with determinism (sound familiar – read Brian’s comment two posts ago).

Even more, and perhaps because I am about to enter into a spiritual retreat, I am thinking about the difference between science, philosophy and spirituality. It is not as easy to determine as you might think. At first I thought that clearly spirituality involves philosophy, but it is a philosophy that’s expressed purpose is to act as guiding principles for ones entire life – but then philosophy for many also acts in the same way – and many scientists relate the same way toward science. So that definition is not enough.

In thinking more about it I realized that the difference really is that spirituality involves faith in that which is unknowable – not simply unknown and waiting to be discovered, but not able to be known. Science includes the unknown, as Carl pointed out in an earlier post, but its faith rests in the known. Philosophy is somewhere between the two. And both Science and Philosophy can be pursued without them being the guiding principles of one’s life. But a spirituality that is not seen as a guiding force in life is not really a spirituality.

I hope to have more insight to share on this question after I spend so much time on retreat. I also have a few posts saved that will go up during the retreat, these I think you will enjoy as they give some historical background to some of the philosophy of America that we have been contemplating and discussing.

Please keep the conversation going!