“God’s Righteousness and Ours” A Devotion on Psalm 111:2-3

“Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honor and majesty is God’s work, and God’s righteousness endures forever.”—Psalm 111:2-3

The concept of “righteousness” was important to Ancient Israel’s self-understanding of their covenant with God. The Hebrew word usually translated as righteousness could also mean integrity, justice, prosperity or wholeness. Righteousness was both an attribute belonging to God, and the order of things that God put into place for the well being of Israel.

There were two contesting schools of thought about Israel’s special covenant with God. There were those who believed that God’s choosing of Israel was unconditional and could never be revoked.

The other opinion, associated with the prophets, was that Israel’s election came with the responsibility to manifest God’s righteousness in the life of their society.

And the prophets’ test for national righteousness was how it treated the most vulnerable of its citizens. In patriarchal Israel the most vulnerable were widows and orphans, who had no male to give them status or protect them. Other vulnerable people were foreign migrants, who had no claim to the land. And finally, as in every society, the poor were vulnerable. Whenever this collection of “the last, the least and the lost” were being mistreated it called into question the integrity and identity of national life.

This idea of societal righteousness was important to our Puritan ancestors, and, though it has never been fully realized, remains in the DNA of American identity. For example Dr. King powerfully employed this Biblical notion in his plea to our national conscience during the struggle for civil rights.

A pressing question for our time is this: can the soul of a nation be considered sound if it mistreats its most vulnerable members?

Prayer: You are righteous, O God. Pour out your righteousness on our troubled land, that our national soul may be healed.

(This is my United Church of Christ Daily Devotion for August 16, 2018. To see the original go here. To subscribe to the UCC Daily Devotional and receive it every day by e-mail go here)

New England Puritan Ghosts: Why Hawthorne “Got” Melville

 

My town sits on a particularly rich literary and intellectual “trade route.”  Most notably Moby Dick was penned here in the mid-nineteenth century (see my post Moby Dick as Theology.)  Moby Dick wasn’t the commercial success Melville had hoped for, but Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom it was dedicated, understood and appreciated it.

I have ruminated about why Hawthorne “got” Moby Dick, when most of the critics of the day saw merely a dark muddled fish story interrupted by frequent wordy digressions on whaling.

The answer I think, and this is hardly a new theory, lies in their common New England heritage and the ever-looming memory of the two centuries long Puritan experiment, by their time for all practical purposes over.  Hawthorne, of course, wrote the enduring iconic Puritan novel, The Scarlet Letter, which every American schoolchild must read.  That The Scarlet Letter is more about Hawthorne’s nineteenth-century neighbors than about his seventeenth-century Puritan forbears should not let us underestimate its importance in defining Puritanism in the popular imagination (any more than Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, another school favorite, should, although it too is less about the Puritans than it is about its own context, the social hysteria of 1950’s McCarthyism.)

The third canonical school text on Puritanism is Jonathan Edwards’ notorious Enfield sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a brilliant but scary depiction of the fires of hell and the tenuousness of human life.  To those of us who have actually read other Edwards’ sermons, the choice seems largely to have been made on the basis of dramatic impact, and not to get too paranoid, another piece of literary ammunition to discredit the Puritans.  At least “Sinners” is an actual Puritan text.

But even Edwards’ ritual enemies often admit he is a towering intellectual figure.  Recently I have been reading in and about him, and the first thing that struck me is that a mere 100 years separates Edwards Freedom of the Will (1754) from Moby Dick (1851), both written here in the Berkshire Hills but in different intellectual worlds.

Much changed here in that hundred years.  For one thing, when Edwards lived, Pittsfield didn’t exist as a city, but was part of the much conflicted frontier, the “howling wilderness” as Edwards was to describe nearby Stockbridge, to which he came in 1750.  I like that the local community college has a “Jonathan Edwards Library,” but Edwards died in 1758 and Pittsfield wasn’t founded until 1764.  But it is the Berkshire Community College so the title is apt.  I once delivered a community forum lecture on Puritanism there and, while the students were attentive and eager to engage, their knowledge of Puritanism in general and Edwards in particular was spare, and largely formed by the aforementioned canonical school texts.

Pittsfield was named after the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, who so influenced the future of North America by his efficient administration of the Seven Years’ War.  The first minister of Pittsfield’s First Church of Christ was Parson Thomas Allen, Harvard trained but influenced by the New Divinity of the Edwardsian disciples that developed Edward’s themes after his death.  (I was the eighteenth minister of that church.)  By Melville’s time in the mid-19th century my eighth predecessor John Todd (1800 -1869) was the incumbent, but there is no record of Todd and Melville crossing paths that I have found.  Todd thought of himself as being in the Puritan succession, but the grand granite meeting house he built in the Gothic revival style points more to the prosperous 19th century Congregationalism of the beginning of the Gilded Age than to the Puritans.

All thoughtful New Englanders in these times had to engage the legacy of the Puritans.  Edwards himself in the mid-eighteenth century was dealing with a changing world far removed from the world of the 17th century founders.  It was his genius to cast the theological preoccupations of that world into the new thought-forms of the Enlightenment.  He wasn’t the only bright young man in his time to read Locke and Newton and have his eyes opened, but he seems to be the only one who didn’t turn away from the old verities, rather he used the new learning as tools to express the old truths.

But by the mid 19th century it was more the novelists than the theologians who were grappling mightily with the themes of the founders.  So Melville’s fish story plumbs such deeps as election, predestination, and theodicy.  Where Edwards found human freedom in the affections, Melville finds the demonic in human obsession.  Hawthorne’s village soap opera explores old themes as well: covenant and community, morality and hypocrisy.

That is why Hawthorne “got” Melville.  He understood what Melville was trying to do, because he was trying to do it as well: make sense of this rich and ambiguous religious and intellectual legacy that had so shaped the American mind and soul for better and for worse.

That Puritanism, real and imagined, continues to be a template for American ideas, even in our own time, is as true as a quick look at the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism proffered by the W. Bush era neoconservatives as a defense of the Iraq war demonstrates.

Which is to say that the ghosts of the founders’ faith linger.  Perhaps a more nuanced reading of their actual beliefs and positions would result in a more nuanced approach to the issues they raised.

 

“Heaven, a World of Love”

For those whose only exposure to the sermons of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is his infamous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” I recommend his brilliant and moving sermon, “Heaven, A World of Love.”

Reading it today we can see that the Puritan had more weapons in his homiletical arsenal than merely frightening his congregation with images of a fiery future. In “Heaven, a World of Love” his exquisite portrait of heaven, and the way people interact with one another there, might have made the faithful squirm every bit as much as his image of the spider over the flame in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”

Notice the image of community as a musical ensemble, praising God together. What might we in the church on earth learn from this? Here’s an excerpt:

“And oh! what joy will there be, springing up in the hearts of the saints, after they have passed through their wearisome pilgrimage, to be brought to such a paradise as this! Here is joy unspeakable indeed, and full of glory – joy that is humble, holy, enrapturing, and divine in its perfection! Love is always a sweet principle; and especially divine love. This, even on earth, is a spring of sweetness; but in heaven it shall become a stream, a river, an ocean! All shall stand about the God of glory, who is the great fountain of love, opening, as it were, their very souls to be filled with those effusions of love that are poured forth from his fullness, just as the flowers on the earth, in the bright and joyous days of spring, open their bosoms to the sun, to be filled with his light and warmth, and to flourish in beauty and fragrancy under his cheering rays. Every saint in heaven is as a flower in that garden of God, and holy love is the fragrance and sweet odor that they all send forth, and with which they fill the bowers of that paradise above. Every soul there, is as a note in some concert of delightful music, that sweetly harmonizes with every other note, and all together blend in the most rapturous strains in praising God and the Lamb forever. And so all help each other, to their utmost, to express the love of the whole society to its glorious Father and Head, and to pour back love into the great fountain of love whence they are supplied and filled with love, and blessedness, and glory. And thus they will love, and reign in love, and in that godlike joy that is its blessed fruit, such as eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath ever entered into the heart of man in this world to conceive; and thus in the full sunlight of the throne, enraptured with joys that are forever increasing, and yet forever full, they shall live and reign with God and Christ forever and ever!”