2008 Stone Lectures: Lecture 5 - “President Edwards and Esther Edwards Burr Return to Princeton University: Is There a Problem?”

George Marsden
Thursday, October 9, 12.45 PM.

Esther Edwards Burr was Jonathan and Sarah Edwards’ daughter, who died a few weeks after her father died at 26 years old, leaving two children behind. Esther is Marsden’s favorite of the Edwards on a personal level. We know a lot about her personally because she and a good friend exchanged daily diaries reflecting on their daily lives and thoughts – discussing novels, for instance. Also, Esther could hold her own in social situations, and she recalls one instance where a man disparaged women’s intellectual abilities. She “talked him into silence,” as she put it. She was not initially happy to move to Princeton, but became less recalcitrant after a revival hit the College of New Jersey campus.

Neither Jonathan nor Esther would find much to cheer them if returning to Princeton University today. What occurs in social sciences and humanities classes would dishearten them, and they would have a hard time conceiving of what the point of a contemporary university education could be. The question is, “How does an Edwardsian orientation fit in with the contemporary university?”

Marsden is not interested in conservative Christians somehow retaking control of the historic American universities. Such an occurrence seems so unlikely as to be a waste of time to talk about. But, Marsden does not think that Jonathan Edwards would be a good candidate for president of Princeton University today. The fact is that he was fundamentally Constantinian in orientation. Even the Protestant Christian Right today hold to the separation of church and state, but Edwards had no such conviction and tended to think that Reformed Protestantism would one day rule the world. The only way for Edwards to regain such a presidency would be for him to be convinced to play by the rules of contemporary culture, and he would likely be more likely to stick with his pastoral and missionary work, or perhaps set about founding a new higher education establishment for those of similar orientation.

Still, might there be a way for Jonathan or Esther to teach at Princeton University without leaving behind their theological convictions? Would they be able to find a place within such a university?

It would be necessary to explain to them how universities like Princeton have been shaped and reshaped by the demands of social, economic, and political forces. One of the important moments in this development occurred after the Civil War when higher education was refitted to serve national interests of social consolidation and technological development. Woodrow Wilson played a role in this as Princeton University president and as President of the United States. He recast Princeton University in terms of a vague and ecumenical Protestantism, and a strong public / private distinction was made. Private, sectarian religion was something that you increasingly checked at the door. Part of this was driven by the ascendency of natural science in the academy as the model for truth-seeking. One had to be free from prejudices and faith commitments, it was thought, to pursue objective scientific research. What happened was that the old religious Constantinianism was replaced by a new secular Constantinianism.

The post-1960 era is another stage of development, whose dominant motif is diversity and not uniformity or conformity. Further, the trend toward technological and vocational training and away from training in the humanities continued. Universities increasingly came to serve the global and consumerist marketplace. Postmodernity, Marsden thinks, has had the positive effect of overthrowing natural science as the final arbiter of truth, but it has unfortunately gone even further by dethroning all authorities – further damaging the humanities.

All these forces make it difficult to reintroduce religion to the university setting. The fundamental question is, “Which religion?” Particularist religious beliefs, especially those that once held power or still have aspirations of power, are often worrisome because they contradict the politically- and market-driven desire for stabilization. The universities cannot really be blamed for this worry, since the social rhetoric of conservative Christians is often cast in the mode of reclamation of power. Marsden, as previously noted, does not agree with this rhetoric and wants to appeal to Kuyper and the Dutch tradition in negotiating the relation between Christians and the universities.

Kuyper represents a version of the Christian tradition that is neither Constantinian nor sectarian – this tradition is in the world but not of the world. Three core beliefs of this position are that no religion or ideology should have a monopoly or be established by the state, that substantive religious groups should have a place in the public sphere, and that the place of various religions should be one dimension in thinking about what constitutes a just society. Pluralism must include, not exclude, religion. The proper role of public institutions is to promote justice, maximizing equal treatment for all religions and ideologies. Some religious practices must be limited in the public domain, but the goal should be to keep these limits to a minimum. This runs counter to the current tendency of inhibiting substantive religion in the public sphere. Such a policy can never succeed since people of particular religious convictions can never and would never want to set them aside within the public domain.

Perhaps if Jonathan and Esther understood how far gone our culture is from their spiritual concerns, they would dedicate themselves to instructing students and – given Jonathan’s constant desire to engage with the best minds of his day – perhaps even seek to do so at Princeton University.


millinerd said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
millinerd said…
Thanks for this excellent summary Travis. I like how the fact that Edwards might not "cut the deal" to be President does not rule out genuine engagement.

Popular Posts

So, You Want To Read Karl Barth?

So You Want to Read….Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

2010 KBBC: Week 1, Day 5

Karl Barth on Hell, the Devil, Demons, and Universalism – A Florilegium

2010 KBBC: Week 3, Day 1