Avihu Zakai, Jonathan Edwards’s Philosophy of Nature: the Re-enchantment of the World in the Age of Scientific Reasoning

Avihu Zakai, Jonathan Edwards's Philosophy of Nature: the Re-enchantment of the World in the Age of Scientific Reasoning (London: T & T Clark 2010) 352pp. $136.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780567226501

Avihu Zakai's Jonathan Edwards's Philosophy of Nature provides a survey of early modern Christian reactions to the natural philosophy or science, and examines Edwards's theological alternative to this philosophy. Many of these philosophers represented nature as a '"self-moving engine"' (3), thus problematizing the view of God's dominion over nature and challenging Christian authority. Zakai's study aims to show a lineage of thought from John Donne to Edwards, tracing anxious responses to the scientific advances in natural philosophy and astronomy. His central thesis is that Edwards has more affinity with Medieval to Renaissance thought, and is less modern in his thinking than has been argued in previous studies. Zakai investigates Donne's reactions to Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Bacon; Pascal's rejection of Descartes' mechanical philosophy; Leibniz's, Swift's, and Blake's outraged responses to Newtonian science; and turns finally to Edwards, who 'provide[s] a plausible alternative to the predominant scientific reasoning of his time' (232). Zakai claims that his study is 'about the theology of nature among Christians, not the Christian rejection of an atheistic universe of thought' (2), but it is difficult to see how the former can be discussed without considering the latter. We are told that 'very few studies' (2) have been concerned with the Christian rejection of natural philosophy, though Zakai does not inform his reader what these studies are, or how they relate to his own. He briefly mentions that his work differs from other critics of Edwards, namely, Miller and Anderson (12, 25, 44), yet it would have been helpful had he engaged more fully with their arguments.

The first chapter sets out to show the affinities between Edwards's philosophy of nature, and Medieval to Renaissance conceptions of the world: the hierarchy of nature; a cosmos that was finite and teleological; and a Theatrum Mundi, which was 'created by the Deity to be the mirror of divinity' (13), to name a few. Chapter Two addresses the emergence of natural philosophy in the early modern era and the consequent decline of theology's interpretation of nature. Zakai offers a stimulating survey of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo's theories of astronomy, and reactions by Christians such as Calvin and Luther, in addition to controversies about Biblical interpretation. The following chapters then turn towards Donne, Pascal, and Newton, before returning full-circle to Edwards. Donne felt that the new philosophy instigated '"harmes and feares"' (87), and that knowledge and discovery led to the 'decay' of the world (119). These views are usefully compared to Bacon's, who heralded scientific advance as human progress. There is an extract on Donne's satire 'Ignatius his Conclave', in which innovators such as Copernicus and Columbus are 'seeking admission to Lucifer's domain in Hell' (112). More literary exposition such as this would have enhanced Zakai's study, since many of the religious figures he invokes were also poets (Blake and Swift, for instance). The third chapter looks at Pascal, the 'master of anxiety' (126), and his bitter reaction to Descartes' mechanical philosophy. Like Donne, Pascal felt the existential dread of scientific discovery, which exposed man to the agoraphobic space of infinity (128-132). Especially noteworthy in this chapter is the reference to the conversion experiences of Pascal and Descartes as demonstrating an important affinity between science and religion. The chapter on Newton demonstrates the vast reach of this scientist over seventeenth and eighteenth-century thought; Newton's mathematical God profoundly disturbed many, with Zakai focusing on Leibniz, Swift, and Blake. Some strong words are devoted to Blake's reactions: he 'detested Locke', and he 'hated Bacon' (205). Blake was indeed a spirited character, but if Zakai is referring to Blake's 'contempt & abhorrence' upon reading Locke and Bacon (Erdman, 244), he should cite this, and specify that it is their works Blake refers to, not the men. The last two chapters focus upon Edwards's struggle against Enlightenment thought: his alternative typology which was constituted by a view of the material world as a '"shadow"' of the spiritual (218); the view that 'history was constructed by divine providence' (223); the belief that moral agency was redundant without God (226); and an appeal to the hierarchy of nature. According to Edwards, God was 'the sole foundation of all natural phenomena' (251), and his case was distinctive – Zakai claims – since he was the only theologian to truly engage with natural philosophy in order to provide a Christian alternative.

Most interesting in Zakai's study is the discussion of how scientific views of infinity or the heliocentric motion of the earth prompted strong emotional reactions, such as anxiety and dread, amongst religious thinkers. Although Zakai focuses less on scientific reactions to the religious emblematic view of nature as a '"collection of signs and metaphors"', it is interesting to learn that scientists warned, in regard to this perspective, that truth '"becomes secondary, if not irrelevant"' (18). The book is not without its shortcomings: there is often an overreliance on quotations without systematic analysis; an omission of detailed annotation on some primary sources (Calvin and Luther, for example, are quoted via a secondary source (60)); and a tendency to repetition. The latter sometimes gives the impression of a circular argument that threatens to lose direction. There are also issues of presentation: the phrase 'the disenchantment of the world' is overused, and would have benefited from an interrogation of the word 'enchantment' rather than its constant repetition. There are also a few grammatical and typographical errors which cause confusion and mar the reading (the adverb 'sadly' (3) is misused). Overall, though, this book provides an accessible overview of religious responses to the emergent natural philosophy, and demonstrates how a lesser known but nonetheless important figure – Edwards – aimed to challenge this philosophy and refashion it into an alternative and comprehensive conception of the world. The book would appeal to those who require a broad overview of the New Philosophy, and the various negative responses it incited in Christian thought. More specifically, it would interest those who seek a fresh perspective on Edwards.

Stephanie Codsi, University of Bristol