Friday, July 31, 2015

Twentieth-Century Trends and UCC Theological Identity: Challenges and Opportunities

My understanding of the focus of the Confessing Christ (CC) network is the concentration on “serious and joyous theology” aimed at identifying what is valuable as well as what is problematic in the theological focus of the UCC leadership  While there are a divergence of theological voices on the CC steering committee as well as the broader network as exemplified on this list the appellation  of “liberal” to describe the prevailing theological viewpoint of the CC leadership, as someone had mentioned, seems wide of the mark to me.  In fact, from everything I’ve seen, the prevailing voices in this network exhibit a highly nuanced, profoundly biblical perspective that is, indeed calling the UCC back to its Reformation heritage.  Within the broader network, as exemplified by this list, there are a range of voices from theological conservative to modestly liberal, but a far cry from the center of gravity among the progressive viewpoint of the denominational leadership.

Moreover, as I understand it, the ecclesial focal point of the CC network is reconciliation rather than hostile confrontation with the prevailing progressive denominational thread, and also, I think, an appreciation among many in this network that there is something to learn, as well, from the progressive sector, even theologically, notwithstanding a need to nudge the denominational leadership back to its heritage in the Reformation.

As I had previously mentioned, these dilemmas are rooted in the progressive/fundamentalist tensions within Protestantism that go back to and prior to the onset of the 20th century.  In the mid-19th century there was a broad convergence at least within the North within the major denominations, a working consensus, of sorts of what has been referred to as the “benevolent empire” stemming out of the energies of the Second Great Awakening.  The theological conflict between the perfectionist leaning Charles Finney and the Princetonian Calvinist Charles Hodge did point to some brewing problems, yet by and large a broad center did hold through the Civil War.

  • Then Darwin
  • Then critical historiography
  • Then increasing cleavage between Yale and Princeton
  • Then fundamentalism and inerrancy
  • Then the social gospel
  • Then the kingdom of God interpreted as the brotherhood of man
  • Then premillennial vs postmillennial eschatology
  • Then the Scopes trial

The emergence of liberal Protestantism was grounded in these epochal changes in religious thinking of the 1875-1925 era.  The same applies to fundamentalism, a distinctively modern phenomenon. In working out a biblically-based centrist position, part of the challenge is to determine how the conflicts of these various issues are re-interpreted in the current period.

I, for one, can accept the broad premises of evolutionary biology and critical historiography as intellectually normative, subject to ongoing scholarship without the need to attribute theological significance to them.  That is, evolutionary science tells me something about the origins of species while critical historiography sheds some light on the formation and structuring of civilizations that I would accept as empirically verifiable even if they contradicted certain historical-like statements embedded in the Bible.  This gets tricky because I agree with Gabriel Fackre and others that there are historical components to the Biblical story, though I also argue that there are historical-like narratives also embedded which may not have been accurate at all as factually based.  An easy example is whether there was a literal Adam and Eve.  The short answer is I doubt it, and many taking strong biblical theological positions would agree with such skepticism.  Where the issue gets dicey is when we get to the NT and think about such matters as Virgin Births and the literal resurrection of the dead.  If such events did happen that would be fine with me. My common and critical sense understanding necessitates profound skepticism on these matters—not outright rejection, but profound skepticism, in which it is up to those making such claims to put up the evidence.

I won’t go on with these examples, as the point is really that in order to work through the tensions between fundamentalism and Christian modernism, the wheat from the chaff in critical analysis needs to be separated.  In terms of history and science, both may provide empirically-based reasons to reject or at least challenge the literal veracity of certain biblical events, even the important ones.  At the same time neither history nor science, as currently practiced, tells us much, if anything about God, or about the authenticity of the Christian revelation.

In reading Gabe and others I am gaining a better appreciation for the entire scope of the Christian story from creation to final eschatology and the depth of this story in comparison to those of our own far less comprehensive ones of self creation.  I have also believed for a long time, and still do, that the Christian revelation is about much more than the travails of the historical Jesus, even if we did have thorough and accurate information about this person.  In himself this personage was quite an insignificant player in the scheme of ancient history and could very well have been lost to historical memory.  However what the NT teaches is that the revelation of Jesus as the Incarnate Christ was the result of God working through the historical Jesus in part through the apostolic succession, the emergence of the church, the creative inspiration of Paul and the formation of the NT canon some several centuries after the life of Jesus.  There’s much else, too that one could undoubtedly point to as signs of God working through Christ in bringing the Incarnational revelation to humankind.  To me, this revelation itself is the mystery; some 2,000 years later in its capacity to speak and profoundly so to the perpetual condition of humankind.  On faith (for we do see dimly, but we see by faith) it speaks like no other revelation in the realm of human history.

It is not evangelicalism, but the incarnational faith of Trinitarian orthodoxy, which I believe is the standard upon which Christians need to put their stake in the ground.  That’s a broad tent, but it does have its standards.  It is the tent, I believe, which provides the solid basis for the CC community to engage the UCC leadership in rigorous, but respectful dialogue.  Such dialogue includes scope for the various lights beyond the evangelical community which speak a word or two of truth about critical dimensions of the mediation of the Word within the context of our times.  Thus, the CC community does it self well to learn what it can from Tillich, the Niebuhr brothers, Gilkey, Ogden, Hall, Moltman, Ruether, McFaque, Brueggemann, and other serious theologians of various neo-orthodox and liberal persuasions—not to accept everything that comes from their creative pens, but to probe with discernment what they have to say and to take what is essential from them in the ongoing work of establishing the level of theological thinking that is required for our times. 

Thus, when such work becomes mediated through our own biblio-centered evangelical premises the quality of all our theological thinking can only be thereby enriched.  One discerns this level of richness in the theological studies of Gabriel Fackre and from a very different tradition than that of Avery Dulles.  It is present, too, but in a more skeptical vein in the work of Donald Bloesch.

As I think through the vision of the CC network, I discern a distinctively different voice than that expressed by the liberal leadership and supportive progressive clergy of the UCC.  No doubt, there are substantial issues under consideration in the thinking and working through a viable theology of and for the UCC.  That needs to be done, however, with much discernment and in the process, coming to terms with the theological richness that comprises the more progressive and liberal perspectives, and calling that leadership, to reconnect in a more profound way than perhaps currently experienced with the fundamental truths of the biblical revelation.

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