Essay / Culture

Edwards, Fiddling on the Roof: The Role of Religious Affections in the Christian Life

In “The Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye asks his wife: “do you love me?” A beautiful song follows, as his wife relives the last 25 years of their marriage, thinking through the chores, the children, the sacrifices… but through all this Tevye’s refrain echoes: “yes… but do you love me?” Pardon the anachronism, but Jonathan Edwards recasts this scene, with God asking his bride, his covenantal people: “yes… but do you love me?”

Jonathan Edwards on the Religious Affections

Jonathan Edwards writes: “For although to true religion, there must indeed be something else besides affection; yet true religion consists so much in the affections, that there can be no true religion without them. He who has no religious affection, is in a state of spiritual death, and is wholly destitute of the powerful, quickening, saving influences of the Spirit of God upon his heart” (p. 148. All quotations taken from the Yale Edwards Reader).

To be sure, there must be something else besides affection. In fact, there must be a great deal more than affection. Marriage consists of a litany of chores, sufferings, joys… making dinner, doing the dishes, begetting and raising children, not to mention the times of sickness and want. But marriage does not consist in these alone, either, for these needs can be met in other ways, and, more importantly, we long for something more, something beyond these acts of service and sharing life together.

The same is true of religion. Edwards recounts his experiences as a youth, when he “used to pray five times a day in secret, and to spend much time in religious talk with other boys; and used to meet with them to pray together” (p. 282). And to be sure, these were joyful and enriching acts and experiences. In the course of time, however, these feelings wore off, and only after a time of violent inward struggles did he come to enjoy an “inward, sweet delight in God and divine things” (p. 283) which then continued throughout much his life, putting his experiences as a child in a different and ultimately pallid light.

Edwards seems to be saying that while a great deal matters in religion, or the Christian life, it is the role of the divine affections which pull the whole together, making it what it was meant to be: the affection that washes over, colors and shapes religion into eternal life, or transforms a marriage as a whole, making it something more than mere cleaning, cooking and sharing a bed.

Can We Make Affections Happen?

And how do we make this something happen? According to both Edwards and “The Fiddler on the Roof,” this is something that comes to us. We may seek it, we may try to cultivate it, but it must come to us, the joy and delight, the overwhelming affection that saturates, picks up and fulfills everything we are and do. True affection cannot forced, cajoled or purchased. In fact, we shouldn’t even seek it directly. For one reason, we can’t make it happen—we can only seek to make room for it to enter, to welcome it. Second, the affection ultimately is not the thing itself that we seek, but the crowning glory, that which makes the thing full and complete. And while the crown completes the king, a crown alone is nothing. A jester wearing the king’s crown is still a jester. Third, we need to be careful to distinguish between good and bad affections. I recommend a careful reading of the Religious Affections, but to sum up one of Edwards’ points, “Christian practice is the principal sign by which Christians are to judge, both of their own and others’ sincerity of godliness” (p. 165-6), for the affections (their strength, duration and otherwise) can prove false or be misunderstood.

What then changes as a result of the affections? In a certain sense, nothing. As Tevye and his wife note: “it doesn’t change a thing.” All the same actions remain, all the service, all the chores…. But in another sense, everything changes, for all our natural faculties and activities are taken up and made complete through through the presence of these affections. As Edwards notes, “God, in letting in this light into the soul, deals with man according to his nature, or as a rational creature; and makes use of his human faculties” (p. 114). God’s action is one of taking up, working with, and perfecting human nature, faculty and activity. Nothing changes—for we are still but men and women; but everything changes, for the same chores, the same acts of service, are taken up and fulfilled, crowned with the joy and affection which together (act and affection) are the gift we are given and the joyful work to which we are called.

Sketching Some Implications

The implications of this approach to the Christian life are profound, but I will sketch but two.

First, our relationships should be characterized by a pattern of love and service which make room for, and invite affection. We should not operate under the guidance of, or for the sake of, affection alone. Rather, affection is a gift which comes to the eager servant, and remains a gift. But it is the kind of thing that transforms the servant into a son, or, to switch images, crowns one who up to that point had merely been in line for the throne. Whether in a romantic relationship, or one at work, service precedes and is then fulfilled by the gift of affection.

Second, this helps us understand our God and the work he has done for us. As Edwards writes in his “Images of Divine Things” (p. 16), the lower things are meant to be witnesses to the superior things of God throughout his creation. This would suggest that the relationship of Tevye to his wife might stand as an image of the eagerness God has to be loved by his people: not served alone, or loved alone, but to be loved in the midst of faithful service. The flip side of this, however, is that God does the same toward us: the atonement must not merely be effective, but deeply affective! In fact, affection is so central to atonement, that there can be no atonement without it. God did not merely seek to serve, for service alone is not worthy of the affection he seeks to share. Rather, he sought to serve in such a way as to shower his love and affection upon us, that we might return the same.

And to our response (echoing Tevye’s wife): “but you are a fool!” God retorts: “Yes! But do you love me?!”

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