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Got Beer? Got Tacos?
2005-05-06 11:38
by Ken Arneson

Yesterday, as I started my car, my radio was tuned to 610 AM, the A's flagship station. 610AM has just switched from being an oldies station to religious (Christian) programming.

I have nothing against religious programming per se; some of my favorite films and music albums explore the relationship between God and man. My problem is that most of it just descends into trite, annoying clichés.

I was expecting the worst, either some bland Christian pop music like "You Light Up My Life", or some 700-Clubish "Democrats will burn in Hell" chatter. But I decided to keep an open mind and give the station a chance. To my surprise, I didn't turn the dial; the announcer was reading a story about the death of Aaron Burr.

That certainly got my curiosity up. Awooon Buuuhh! Awooon Buuuhh! (Can anyone hear the name Aaron Burr anymore without thinking of that commercial?) I wondered, why would a religious station discuss Aaron Burr?

It turns out the Aaron Burr in question was Aaron Burr, Sr., not Awooon Buuuhh, Jr. who was only a year old when his father died.

The story being read was not about Burr or Buuuhh; it was a biography of Burr's father-in-law (Buuuhh's grandfather), Jonathan Edwards. Edwards succeeded Burr, Sr. as President of Princeton University in 1758. (His term was brief; Edwards died just months later in a failed smallpox immunization attempt.)

Jonathan Edwards was a Calvinist Puritan preacher in a time when Puritanism was fading in popularity. Like any good Puritan preacher, he could deliver an effective fire-and-brimstone story, such as Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: are thus in the Hands of an Angry God; 'tis nothing but his mere Pleasure that keeps you from being this Moment swallowed up in everlasting Destruction.

In Edwards' era, Isaac Newton's physics and John Locke's philosophy were profoundly changing how people looked at the world God had created. Edwards, in his writings and sermons, attempted to merge these new ideas with his old Calvinist Puritan beliefs.

This, I suspect, is why the religious station was discussing the life of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards had many followers in his day, but over time, his philosophical theology faded along with Puritanism itself. But America is experiencing a bit of a neo-Puritan (i.e. Fundamentalist) revival these days, and his arguments now have a new audience who find them useful.

I knew nothing about any of this until I went home and looked up Edwards on the web. What fascinates me about this is that people in the 18th century were deep into the sort of beer-or-tacos, faith-or-rationalism debate that characterizes baseball today.

On the one hand, you have the old school: the 18th-century Puritans (21st-century scouts), who were deeply entrenched in a pre-scientific culture, had complete faith in their way of doing things, and utterly rejected the new knowledge. At the other end of the spectrum, you had those (some atheists and statheads) who rejected the old ideas as pure illogical nonsense, and would only tolerate rational arguments.

In between, you have a full spectrum of beliefs. There are some (Jonathan Edwards, Joe Morgan) who will acknowledge the new ideas as having some merit, yet still cling with a fierce determination to the old way of life. Others (Deists, Billy Beane) will acknowledge the mysteries to a small degree, but insist on behaving as if the universe is mostly rational. Most people fell somewhere in-between.

Interesting, too, that the most venomous debates were not between the purists on either end, but between the near-purists. We all know how much poison there is between the Joe Morgan camp and the Billy Beane camp. Similarly, Edwards had strong contempt for deists, who believe in God but not in miracles:

Edwards reveals the status of deists in his own mind when, in an unpublished sermon preached in 1731, he refers to "robbers, pirates and deists" with apologies to the robbers and pirates.

So don't expect the scouts vs. stats debate to end any time soon. If the history of faith vs. reason has shown us anything, the argument could last for centuries.

2005-05-06 12:21:41
1.   scareduck
Over the last ten years or so, I overdosed on H.L. Mencken (does it show?). In one of his many essays, he mentioned an orator whose name I wish I could remember who was active in the latter part of the 19th century, whose arguments were so forceful that he chased the church out of the central questions of natural philosophy -- what we would now call the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.). I remember thinking at the time, "I should look up this fellow's writing", but I never did.
2005-05-06 15:56:52
2.   Loogy
I know the Jonathan/Joe and Deists/Beane are arbitrary assignments.

Edwards would not be at the extreme, but in the middle. Just like Christians of today, he would look at the evidence and come to a conclusion. There would also be room for hunches (miracles). Edwards would not be less "stat oriented".

(Just my take stemming from my background)

2005-05-06 18:15:02
3.   Padgett
Great post, Ken. It's always a real pleasure to read your stuff.
2005-05-06 20:08:51
4.   TFD

"Showdown at Big Sky / Darkness at high noon.....That day may be soon..."

Ah. My faith in humanity is restored.


2005-05-07 21:01:56
5.   scareduck
I looked it up; it's Thomas Henry Huxley, also the title of the essay, which you can find here:

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