How has the conception of the divine in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" by Jonathan Edwards influenced spirituality and feelings of guilt?
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Such "Fire and Brimstone" preaching uses fear of doing wrong as incentive for the religious life. This motif of fear was one that the Puritans held over the community; it was a relgion of negativity in which good deeds mattered not. Only faith could save a person and, even then, if one were not of the "elect," he or she could still not be saved.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's writings are indictments against this fear-of- being-damned approach, demonstrating that the results of holding a vision of Dante's Inferno over people is negatory. Young Goodman Brown goes to his grave "a hoary corpse" as he loses all faith in humanity, Hester Prynne loses her beauty as she is denied her passion for life; the Reverend Dimmesdale decays from the inside for lack of openness and joy.
In contemporary life those religions that are offshoots of Puritanism tell people that certain things are evil--e.g. alcoholic beverages. It is interesting that in the Southeast, where preachers use this Fire and Brimstone technique about the sin of libation, there is a greater percentage of alcoholics than in any other area of the country. Again, this proves that a negatory approach to religion is ineffective.
While it's true that Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" does appear to elicit guilt from his audience, I'd like to put this in some context. These were people who had a legacy of strong faith but had fallen away from reliance on God. Edwards was discouraged and wanted to leave (and was actually removed at one point from the pulpit by the congregation, if I remember correctly), but he was moved to try once more to reach these rather hard-hearted people who had turned from God. While the sermon itself is full of strong metaphors and dire predictions about the fate of those who were not committed to God, it was delivered, according to historical accounts, in a virtual deadpan--no emotion, more a matter of going through the motions but not really believing anything would change. Members of the congregation at various points in the sermon fell on their knees in repentance in the aisles of the church. This is considered to be less about guilt than the conviction of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, and this became one of the foundational incidents in what is known as the Great Awakening--a time of spiritual revival and renewal in America.
The vision of the divine that is presented in Edwards' speech is one that indicates God being displeased with humanity. In the sermon, it is the sinful actions of human beings that has created a frayed relationship between God and his followers. Edwards creates a setting where individual sins and/ or apathy has created a sentiment where God is angry. The arrow of his anger is aimed at those who treat him with the lack of respect that he deserves. Edwards ensures that this message resonates throughout the sermon. At the same time, Edwards provides a "way out" for those who wish to change the dynamic of this relationship. The primary path for salvation in the sermon is one to immediately capitulate and fall unto the Lord's feet and take him as a savior, causing a change in one's life. The guilt that Edwards creates is within the mind of the follower who believes that their actions of sin lies in needing to do more for the Almighty. In this vein, Edwards is able to increase spirituality through increasing fear and guilt in the minds and hearts of the followers.
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