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First Great Awakening

I have always loved the phrase “great awakening” and felt some affection for the men and women who participated in its two incarnations – particularly on the colonial side of the  pond. My interest in it lies mostly in the passion for an authentic conversion experience that it generated for people. Oddly, from a theological perspective, the first great awakening in particular is at odds with my personal experience both as a Catholic and a student of A Course in Miracles. Yet, I think it remains a movement that is fascinating but also potentially enlightening.

The 1st great awakening was a revitalization movement in Europe and the American colonies in the early to mid-eighteenth century. Jonathan Edwards, who preached in nearby Northampton, was the definitive American influence. Most students these days have to read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which is considered a classic both of literature and the theology of the period. Essentially, the movement personalized one’s relationship with Jesus – at the expense of tremendous guilt. To the extent that one had an indifferent or lackadaisical approach to salvation, the great awakening dumped a vat of freezing water on it. God was angry, your soul was at terrible risk of eternal damnation and redemption was a difficult, tricky business. The spiritual focus moved increasingly away from church-based rituals and traditional established doctrines propounded by the clergy and more towards one’s own experience of Christ.

Jesus redeems was the rallying cry but guilt was the engine that drove the machine. Edwards – who I have long found a fascinating and complex man – was characteristic. God was not especially interested in saving us from the fires and agonies of hell. Rather, the select few who managed to change their lives – hew to a rigid moral standard and practice a rigorous introspection with an eye towards stamping out even the slightest hint of sin – would find themselves protected in the bosom of Christ.It was intense and it was ongoing. You didn’t “wake up” and then everything was just fine. You had to repeatedly turn your life over to Christ and strive for a degree of excellence that your whole nature opposed.

Our cultural resistance to the awakening – its literature, its theology – really stems from its harshness. It feels unloving. And it absolutely proposes a God that is separate, judgmental and ready at a moment’s notice – for the slightest of sins – to consign us to eternal torture and suffering.

I’m not a proponent of that!

Yet many of the root impulses that characterize the first great awakening continue to seem germane. I do believe – and I do propose and advocate – that people assume responsibility for their relationship with God, through Jesus, if that’s the path they want to follow. My biggest beef with organized religion is that it willingly or unwillingly breeds passivity. People assume that the Pope or the Bishop or the Minister or the Rabbi or the Roshi is the expert, the one with the knowledge, the one in constant contact with the Divine. This happens even when we know better, even when we think it doesn’t. The religious ceremonies, the pomp, the presence of experts . . . all of these mitigate against a personal encounter with Jesus.

One of the things that people don’t often realize about Jonathan Edwards was the fact that he lived a great deal of his life in a state of almost mystical joy. He loved nature and saw God in it on a regular basis. We want that experience of union! But we are troubled by how harsh Edwards could be, how stern, how ascetic. But I would suggest that Edward’s mystical experience of Jesus was driven less by his Puritan standard of living and more by his determination to attain salvation. He knew the power of prayer, the power of mind and he brought it to bear on his day-to-day activities. The result was divinity.

Is it possible to admire his devotion – his faith even – without buying wholesale the harsh theological rigidity?

The men and women who experienced the great awakenings had an encounter with Jesus Christ and it transformed them. Isn’t that what we all want – an experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit that raises up to the Kingdom of Heaven? A Course in Miracles is far gentler in its language (it’s not sin – it’s an error) and far more patient with its students. I like that and I need that. But I don’t want to get comfortable. I don’t want to slack in my practice – doing the lessons, practicing the Rules for Decision, studying the text, working with other students and teachers.

I think alot about Edwards devotion and his faith that we experience God in this world. Like many of us – me included – he used the language of his day (although, to his credit, I think he advanced it significantly – he was a phenomenal writer) to try and help himself and others to find God through Jesus. It’s an age old dilemma. And remember – even though the first great awakening was successful by almost every measure, it wasn’t the end. A second great awakening would follow.

We are always looking for Jesus – that idea that we as people can be better than we are, kinder and gentler and filled with peace, ever extending what is best in us to others. That’s the goal, that’s the dream. Three centuries ago it was fiery sermons and the vivid imagery of suffering and damnation. But times change. And God is always using whatever means possible – psychotherapy, new age Christianity, A Course in Miracles, whatever – to help us come home to him. I see in the Great Awakening the seeds of our own, forebears who wanted to achieve the Kingdom of Heaven and sought that grace with admirable passion and fervor. They are my brothers and sisters, shedding light, calling for help but absolutely sharing the path.


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