“There is no such thing as excess in our taking of this spiritual food. There is no such virtue as temperance in spiritual feasting.” —Jonathan Edwards, “The Spiritual Blessings of the Gospel Represented by a Feast” (The Yale Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 14)
Most historians would omit “moderation” or “temperance” from a list of the dominant traits of our secular age. Who could disagree? Much depends, however, on the choice of topic. Moderation with respect to what? If alcohol, or sex, or materialism, or each individual’s right to an apparently amoral pursuit of happiness is the issue at hand, then the uncontroversial consensus of the historians is vindicated. We are a society severe in our commitment to an almost absolute lack of restraint. At least, that is, in these dimensions of the human experience. Yet to shift the focus in an unexpected way, what if we began to inquire into our culture’s religious habits? Ah, here the matter is entirely reversed.
Those perceived to be moderate in their faith are lauded as exemplary in the public square. Others whose unremitting devotion to God manages to keep pace with the culture-at-large’s intensely hedonistic pursuit of pleasure are viewed with mounting suspicion. In a word, that kind of religious zeal comes across as plain weird to the modern mindset. Slow it down a little, pal. Even though human beings have the inbuilt potential to become fanatically obsessed with just about anything in reality, the only version of it that truly scares us is the religious variety. Here our awareness level is on perpetual high alert. Like trained experts, we immediately detect the faintest whiff of spiritual fanaticism anywhere.
Ironically, however, we tend to be blind and insensitive toward other forms of extremism prevalent in our midst. Our jarringly bi-polar disposition toward moderation—total rejection with respect to our ungratified desires, but gleeful acceptance when spiritual duties are in view—is arguably one of the most unexamined and unquestioned features of this generation’s plausibility structure. American children learn this confused stance towards moderation the same way they learn to breathe. This pre-packaged dynamic resides in the deepest, most unreflective layers of our worldview. Bearing the blessed status of self-evident truth, it requires no justification to be accepted, and thus hardly ever receives any.
Taking a drastic turn, consider with me now a very different sort of group mentality. Consider our infamous and influential forbearers from the 17th and 18th centuries—the Puritans. They are perhaps the prototypical example in modern consciousness of the dreaded results we associate with the uninhibited pursuit of moderation in the social arena. H.L. Mencken once cleverly (though inaccurately) defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Overly focused on rules. Dour killjoys. Relentlessly and mercilessly quenching the most satisfying, life-giving passions. This would be one possible way to evaluate the evidence, I suppose. Yet could it not rather be the case that the Puritans were, in general, acutely aware of this principle set forth by C. S. Lewis, and that this accounts for the sheer strangeness they emanate to us?
“…our warped natures, the devils who tempt us, and all the contemporary propaganda for lust, combine to make us feel that the desires we are resisting are so ‘natural’, so ‘healthy’, and so reasonable, that it is almost perverse and abnormal to resist them. Poster after poster, film after film, novel after novel, associate the idea of sexual indulgence with the ideas of health, normality, youth, frankness, and good humour. Now this association is a lie. Like all powerful lies, it is based on a truth—the truth, acknowledged above, that sex in itself (apart from the excesses and obsessions that have grown round it) is ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’, and all the rest of it. The lie consists in the suggestion that any sexual act to which you are tempted at the moment is also healthy and normal. Now this, on any conceivable view, and quite apart from Christianity, must be nonsense. Surrender to all our desires obviously leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health, good humour, and frankness. For any happiness, even in this world, quite a lot of restraint is going to be necessary; so the claim made by every desire, when it is strong, to be healthy and reasonable, counts for nothing. Every sane and civilised man must have some set of principles by which he chooses to reject some of his desires and to permit others.” (Mere Christianity, p. 100)
Some forms of moderation arise not from any sour, miserable spirit, but precisely on account of our devout commitment to the most sublime experiences of joy possible. These experiences, crucially, never lay cheaply on the surface within easy reach of the uncommitted. They necessarily evade the grasp of the serial adulterer, of the promise-breaking alcoholic, of the greedy Wall Street liar, and of all others from their ilk. Because Christians love every sacred pleasure and enjoyment that adorns God’s creation in grace, we must be willing to put up significant rails around their edges, in order to protect them from a thousand forms of stifling corruption and abuse. Otherwise their availability to us simply vanishes. Grace is gone. Holiness, it turns out, is the necessary prerequisite of real happiness. The only other plausible option is that which is advocated by Screwtape: an ever-increasing craving for an ever-diminishing pleasure. That is the inevitable lot of the immoderate.
I am not naively pontificating for an indiscriminate return to full-blown Puritanism. They were mistaken—sometimes gravely so—on a great many things. I genuinely appreciate many of the social advances and individual freedoms we enjoy today. Yet I think the value they unapologetically placed on moderation in worldly pleasures has much in it to instruct us.
However, the Puritans (see here and here) exemplified another quality that is still more profitable for our serious consultation. There was a core thread at the base of Puritan spirituality that has eluded the common knowledge of subsequent generations. Its presence would almost certainly startle most people if they became aware of it, given its complete contradiction of popular conceptions of these caricatured believers. Though it was widespread in Puritan theology and practice, I will use only one noted practictioner to illustrate it.
Jonathan Edwards, of course, conjures up squeamish images of unbearable moderation as much as any Puritan could ever hope to. Yet there was another kind of moderation he strenuously sought to avoid. As Michael McClymond has pointed out, “for adherents of the moderate Enlightenment, a little religion was a good thing. Yet Edwards abhorred moderation in religion…He was the self-appointed apostle to the spiritually indifferent.” (Encounters with God: An Approach to the Theology of Jonathan Edwards, p. 108). For all of their avowed temperance in worldly matters, the Puritans were hedonists when it came to spiritual joy. Here, moderation was to play no part in the Christian life. Here, moderation was no virtue for the follower of Jesus. The Puritans were resolutely against moderation in the spiritual realm. In this, too, a wide gulf exists between them and us.
In a little-known sermon entitled “Spiritual Appetites Need No Bounds,” Edwards began his oration—as the Puritans were wont to do—with a brief summary of his proposed doctrine. Here it is:
“Persons need not, and ought not, to set any bounds to their spiritual and gracious appetites.”
In the main body of the sermon’s text, he goes on to argue:
“And with respect to those [spiritual] appetites, self-denial has nothing to do; but here they may give themselves an unbounded liberty…There is no such thing as inordinateness in holy affections; there is no such thing as excess in longings after the discoveries of the beauty of Christ Jesus, greater degrees of holiness, or the enjoyment of communion with God. Men may be as covetous as they please (if I may so speak) after spiritual riches, as eager as they please to heap up treasure in heaven, as ambitious as they please of spiritual and eternal honor and glory, and as voluptuous as they please with respect to spiritual pleasure. Persons neither need nor ought to keep those inclinations and desires from increasing to any degree whatsoever, and there cannot be a too frequent or too powerful exercise of them…Persons may indulge them as much as they please; they may give themselves their full swing…by all means, endeavor to raise and to obtain satisfaction for holy inclinations; delight yourselves in the Lord…One would think you should not need urging to indulge your appetites and to enjoy your pleasures. Carnal men, by all the arguments that can be used, can scarcely be restrained from indulging their carnal appetites. ‘Tis a shame that the saints should need a great many arguments to move them to promote their spiritual appetites.”
Did you notice the almost sexual imagery employed here? From a Puritan?! And then by way of application, a closing exhortation:
“Endeavor to promote spiritual appetites by keeping yourself out of the way of [sinful] allurement…but we ought to take all opportunities to lay ourselves in the way of enticement with respect to our gracious inclinations.”
Translation: let yourself be seduced by the beauty of God in Christ.
In perhaps his most influential book, Religious Affections, Edwards labors to provide twelve “reliable signs” that ought to be actively present in the lives of all the godly, and by which they can find assurance of their right-standing with God. Here is the next-to-last sign:
“Another great and very distinguishing difference between gracious affections and others is, that the higher gracious affections are raised, the more is a spiritual appetite and longing of soul after spiritual attainments increased. On the contrary, false affections rest satisfied in themselves.”
Grace, when it is authentic, is never satisfied with what it has attained in the past. It always wants more. Another way to say it: grace rejects moderation as singularly inappropriate in the sphere of knowing and loving God:
“The more a true saint loves God with a gracious [i.e. saving] love, the more he desires to love Him, and the more uneasy he is at his want of love to Him; the more he hates sin, the more he desires to hate it, and laments that he has so much remaining love to it; the more he mourns for sin, the more he longs to mourn for sin; the more his heart is broke, the more he desires is should be broke: the more he thirsts and longs after God and holiness, the more he longs to long, and breathe out his very soul in longing after God. The kindling and raising of gracious affections is like kindling a flame: the higher it is raised, the more ardent it is; and the more it burns, the more vehemently does it tend and seek to burn. So that the spiritual appetite after holiness and an increase in holy affections, is much more lively and keen in those that are eminent in holiness, than in others; and more when grace and holy affections are in their most lively exercise than at other times…The greatest eminence that the saints arrive at in this world has no tendency to [satisfaction], or to abate their desires after more; but, on the contrary, makes them more eager to press forward.” (Religious Affections, p. 303)
As you seek God this summer, be extreme.