Spirituality and American Philosophy

Ok so here is where I start getting myself into trouble…

I want to open up the question of spirituality. And I think that question can be raised as, “Given our scientific understanding of reality, is there any validity to “spirituality?”

Before I start to explore this question directly I wanted to present a little bit about the significance of it in American philosophy. Part of this nation’s heritage is its strong religious character. Many of the people that originally settled America were driven to endure the hardship of entering the “New World” because of a desire to escape religious persecution and practice their faith freely.

If we examine this in regards to the larger cultural movements of the Western World at the time, we can see a direct connection with the rise of reason during the Age of Enlightenment. In Europe the new ideas of the Enlightenment were undercutting the authority of the church as the vanguard for truth and wisdom. Human beings were recognizing that they had the power to reason and to understand the world directly without the intervention of God, scripture or clergy. An understanding of the free and autonomous nature of the individual was beginning to rise in human consciousness. The Protestant Reformation further undercut the authority of the Catholic Church and began a movement to remove the religious hierarchy from the position of being intermediaries to God and give individuals their own direct connection to spirit. During these times of upheaval many religious believers found themselves under attack and saw The New World as a haven for their free worship. Freedom of religion is one of the fundamental convictions upon which this nation’s character rests.

Jonathan Edwards is a fascinating intellectual character in the development of American philosophy, although often misunderstood or dismissed, particularly by those who are not of an evangelic leaning. Edwards was born in Connecticut and came of age during the early decades of the 18th century. He was educated at Yale College and became a minister and eventually became the president of Princeton College before his untimely death. As a young man he underwent a spiritual conversion that brought him to closer connection to God. His duty as a minister was to lead the church in Northampton, Massachusetts. 

In 1735 his church congregation experienced a collective religious revival which for five months brought the entire congregation to a higher and deeper connection with God. Edwards wrote extensively about what was happening and similar awakenings occurred in other New England congregations. Eventually this revival would spread throughout the colonies and earn the name The Great Awakening.

Edwards is revered as the founding father of American Evangelical Revivalism. And, a century later during the time of Ralph Waldo Emerson, his books and sermons were used to guide a second period of great revival that became known as The Second Great Awakening. Beyond Evangelical faith, Edwards and his sky rocketing popularity had a lasting affect on the religious attitudes of all Americans.

You see, Edwards had witnessed the awakening of his congregation disintegrate as many whom he thought had been radically altered by spirit showed overtime to be still motivated by selfishness. Edwards felt it was critical to understand the difference between True Religion, which was catalyzed by a “supernatural love for the unseen,” and false. He wanted to understand the hallmarks of true conversion that would lead to lasting changes in a person’s fundamental motive for living. He was well versed in scripture, but also well read of enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and David Hume and he brought the power of his own great intellect to create an intellectually rigorous argument for the value and properties of authentic spiritual transformation. The most general legacy of Jonathan Edwards on the American attitude toward spirituality is in his belief in the possibility of true and lasting conversion. To him True Religion was the religion that convinced you emotionally as well as intellectually of its own validity. Once this conviction was achieved, the will would bend to the new higher principles that had awakened in the heard and mind of the converted.

Edwards was working in a strictly Christian context, but his ideas have propagated into the mainstream of American thinking in ways that Edwards couldn’t have predicted and probably wouldn’t have approved of. American’s still largely see faith as a matter of personal conversion in the sense that the degree of ones religious conviction is measured by the strength with which that religion has captured his heart and mind and led to a life altered in motive and action. As I proceed to think about the role of spirituality in American philosophy and even more fundamentally if it has a role, I will have in mind this Edwardian sentiment – that True Religion has to convince you in heart and mind and lead to an altered life guided by higher principles.