Wednesday, November 28, 2012

If People Can't Help What They Believe...

My latest reading of George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life covered a variety of topics: the growing influence of Anglicanism in early eighteenth New England, which concerned a number of Puritans; Jonathan Edwards' prophetic speculation, as he calculated that Christ would return in 1866 (1260 years after the start of the papacy, which Edwards dated to 606 C.E.) and viewed himself as one of those who would bring people to Christ in the latter days, through logical argumentation; Edwards' admiration for his future wife, Sarah, on account of her joy (an attribute he himself desired) and her enjoyment of God in solitude (something that he himself experienced); and how Jonathan Edwards----an educated man----could bring his sermons down to earth for his congregation by means of effective analogies.

There was a period of time when Edwards' sermons were rather positive, and that was when Edwards was seeking to encourage himself as he was struggling with negative thinking.  Edwards also had experience in trying to suppress resentment, and that was manifest in some of his sermons, which sought to teach people how to have a loving and forgiving attitude.  Edwards urged people to hate the sin but love the sinner, and even to live at peace with those who had different religious beliefs, for, as Edwards said, people can't help what they believe (page 97----in case you're interested in seeing Marsden's discussion and in tracking down his reference).  That's actually a provocative statement, and it inspires me to ask: Why does God judge those who don't believe in Christ, if they can't help what they believe?  And, if we should cut people some slack because they can't help what they believe, why doesn't God do the same?


  1. "people can't help what they believe ... Why does God judge those who don't believe in Christ, if they can't help what they believe? And, if we should cut people some slack because they can't help what they believe, why doesn't God do the same?"

    I don't think of the 'free will' issue as being necessarily a problem. Even supposing we don't have free will, and will never have it even in Heaven, then as long as not having it feels exactly the same as having it, what is the problem? I don't think God ultimately condemns anybody. That life in this world is hard is not God's judgement on anybody. That this life is hard is a problem, but I don't see any answer for it ever being given to us, even in Heaven, except that to Job, that what God does is beyond us. But, once everybody is in Heaven, that there isn't any answer satisfactory to us won't be a big deal!

  2. I like your point about free will. I'd say that, in a number of respects, it at least feels that we have it, since I can make choices. On the other hand, in the area of beliefs, I don't think that we have it----at least not as much.

  3. Hi James,

    Yes, we don't choose what to believe, in the sense that what we believe is what we judge to be the case from the evidence. Except, perhaps, where the evidence doesn't allow a judgement one way or another, maybe we can choose to believe one or other is the case. But is that properly 'believing', or just deciding to act as if one or other is the case, not so much believing as 'hoping'!

    I've written before that I think that being a Christian is a matter of disposition, not believing a set of statements. If we haven't free will, then it may be that we have been determined not to have a Christian disposition. That looks ok to me as an idea as far as this life is concerned, but we all will have a Christian disposition in Heaven, whether freely chosen or determined!

    But, in Heaven, we will still be limited creatures, so it seems to me not necessarily the case that we would all subscribe to the usual set of Christian doctrines there. That is, maybe there could be Buddhists there, believing they are in Nirvana, at least for a few eons, till their situation had sunk in. I am more inclined to think that we will be determined to have both the right dispositions and the right beliefs, because the idea of free will in Heaven seems problematic - Lucifer, so to speak, fell!



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