One of the things I'm trying to do this summer is fill in culpable gaps--read books that have been on my shelf since graduate school, and which I confess that I didn't read then, no doubt attracted by the more immediate and gratifying lure of conversation with my fellow graduate students. They weren't assigned for any course--but I had a vague sense I should read them, and intended to get around to them sooner or later.Okay, okay, so it's later, a lot later. . .I've now about finished Perry Miller's, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. I recently read his The Errand into the Wilderness. I realize that later historians have contended that he failed to incorporate social history into his analysis. Nonetheless, for those interested in ideas, and the difference ideas make, they are stunning achievements. They take my breath away.The New England Mind is an intellectual history of Puritanism, in the form in which it settled New England. Miller lucidly examines the various components of the Puritan intellectual framework, from the deeply Augustininian piety that animated them, to the Aristotelian psychology, to their Ramist logic/rhetoric, to their major claim to theological innovation: the practical development of the Covenant of Grace, where Calvin's inscrutable God condescends to bind Himself to behave according to particular conventions when it comes to the salvation of the Elect. In sum, we are in a contract with God. Miller stresses, although doesn't elaborate upon, the degree to which the Puritans drew from the common law of contracts. As a teacher of contract law, I want to find out more.Bob Imbelli has a post that below that touches on the role of experience and authority in American culture; Miller's book, in my view, helps to illuminate the characteristically American take on the matter.Finally, Miller is, at least in my view, a superb stylist. Lucid, sympathetic, slightly ironic. Check this out:"There are probably a number of causes that account for the decline of Puritanism, for its various tranformations, for the ever widening circles of rebellion against it that have characterized three centuries of American intellectual history. Economic and social forces contribute much to the change, the development of science dissipates the Puritan cosmology, humanitarianism protests vehemently against Puritan harshness. Yet there are times when to the reader of the words left by the founders these objections lose their force. When the belief and the temper which the first settlers brought to America is examined, when the piety is estimated on the emotional and non-theological level, it seems obvious that the reason later generations ceased marching to the Puritan beat was simply that they could no longer stand the pace." (p. 59)
Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.