Sunday, August 30, 2015

Culture Gaps in Protestant Liberalism

I read William Hutchison’s (1976) book, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism while in grad school some two decades ago.  I had been working on mid-19th century revivalism as part of a PhD program in history at the University of Connecticut.  I had also finished up a paper on Charles Finney and Horace Bushnell in which I found more convergences than divergences within a common context of Christian republicanism.  This convergence had its roots in a mutual grounding in non-separating congregationalism of the Puritan era  in the vision of New England as New Jerusalem. With Boston symbolized as the City on a Hill Christ would be revealed in a fresh way in the fulfillment of the Puritan Revolution in the new world.  It was my reading of Bushnell that brought me to Hutchison’s book, a solid overview on the emergence of Protestant liberalism in the United States from the Civil War through the First World War.

This history is crucially important in terms of the purposes of the Confessing Christ network in that it laid the foundation for 20th century Congregational religious identity, much more so, I would argue than any formal heritage grounded in the tradition of the Reformation.  Having its roots in Bushnell, this emergence is also the result of the influence of the “progressive” theology coming out of Yale with Noah Porter and other liberal lights of the late 19th century.  My memory is foggy, but I have some recollection of a progressive school of theology coming out of Andover in the same time period (D. Williams, Andover Liberals: A Study in American Theology, 1970).
            By the early 20th century there was a wide constellation of influences on the mainline denominations that drew extensively on the “modernist impulse” which laid the foundation for a broad stream of religious identity throughout the century in which the world, broadly defined, set the context for the faith.  What is critical, in my view is an evangelical determination of what was/is valid within the modernist impulse and what was/is questionable. Obviously there would be no uniformity of opinion here, but a grappling with the issue in itself could, in the right spirit open up some very fruitful dialogue.

My opinion is that there is considerable culture lag in mainline liberalism (generally speaking) based on issues raised a century ago.  Any substantial reconstruction of UCC collective identity is going to require the most profound discernment of the relevance of those issues for the contemporary setting, including a close examination of what was lost as well as gained by embracing the trajectory of the modernist impulse.

A deep appreciation for the transcendence of God would, I think, be a key factor in a way that disambiguates it from any vestiges of fundamentalism (and the modernist/fundamentalist wars of the early 20th century). A key for the evangelical community is the need to come to grips with the social gospel disambiguated from any vestiges of a telos of progress or any equation of the Kingdom of God with the brotherhood of man.  Both of these are old issues. Nonetheless, I suggest, they are still active as an unconscious force in the collective psyche among at least many who are grappling with this conflict, whether from the liberal or evangelical camp.

I do agree on the importance of grounding UCC identity within the Reformed tradition.  However, I believe that that effort can only remain problematic until these more recent conflicts within Protestant liberalism are more decisively worked through.  There might be some considerable value in placing keen attention on grappling with these early 20th century conflicts and their concomitant culture lags.  The result could be a more likely prospect of realizing an ecumenical identity with strong evangelical-reformed roots than currently operative, and at least some lessening of the culture wars within the denomination toward a more fruitful theological dialogue.  Such a development, in turn, could have rich implications for ecclesiology, missions, social outreach, and personal piety.  I hope to address these issues more fully at a later time in book form.   (Blogger's Note) In fact I have done so, as some of you know, in In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center:  An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Jonathan Edwards on the Beauty and Wrath of God: A Brief Overview (Update)

Jonathan Edwards on the Beauty and Wrath of God: A Brief Overview (Update)

J. I. Packer refers to Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) as “colonial America’s greatest theologian and philosopher;” one might argue that Edwards was the greatest theologian whoever graced the many pages of American religious history.  Packer further notes that “as a bible-lover, a Calvinist, a teacher of heart-religion, a gospel preacher of unction and power, and above all, a man who loved Christ, hated sin, and feared God, Edwards was a pure Puritan; indeed, one of the greatest and purest of all the Puritans.”  Packer rightly notes that this Puritan was “born out of due time.”  As with Lincoln, so with Edwards: in Lincoln’s case, in revitalizing the democratic legacy of 1776, in Edwards’ case, in reawakening the Puritan religious vision for a new generation that came to a crescendo in the breakout of the First Great Awakening, which continued to characterize his ministry and writings until his death in the late 1850s.

The Puritan impulse emerged as a reform initiative within the Church of England.  It transmuted into an independent religious movement in the embrace of the fundamentals of the Protestant Reformation:  the sovereignty of God, justification of faith, and the centrality of the personal interpretation of the Bible through the power and light of the Holy Spirit.  Puritans also believed “that man existed for the glory of God, that their first concern in life was to do God's will and so to receive future happiness. They believed that Jesus Christ was the center of public and personal affairs, and was to be exalted above all other names”  Edwards stressed all of these themes.

The English Puritan movement of the late 16th and early 17th centuries brought great vitality to the Christian faith through the writings of Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, John Owen and other luminaries; writers whose work on faith, theology, and the power of the written and spoken biblical word deserve close study among contemporary evangelicals. The Puritan movement was brought to New England in the early 17th century with Boston serving as the epicenter—“the city on a hill”—with high hopes that through its “errand into the wilderness,” New England would become transformed into the New Israel where the Protestant Reformation would reach its pristine goal that would ultimately lead world conversion. This vision of ultimate global conversion was central in Edwards’ world view.

 New England Puritanism reached its high water mark in the first two generations, particularly the first, say by 1660, but gradually declined through the first decades of the 18th century in a transition that one historian captured in his book titled From Puritan to Yankee: Character and Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765.  It is in this milieu that Jonathan Edwards burst on the scene in North Hampton, MA, as the key theologian of the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, a conversion-based revitalization movement that brought radical faith once again to the center of cultural and religious focus throughout New England and the northern colonies.  It is in this setting that Edwards preached his classic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” where he stressed the fear of God in the classic sense.  In this sermon he offered the following dire warning to those who have backslid or never accepted the faith once for all delivered to the saints:

It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite. Oh, who can express what the state of a soul in such circumstances is!  All that we can possibly say about it, gives but a very feeble, faint representation of it; it is inexpressible and inconceivable: For “who knows the power of God's anger?”

As important as is this sermon in the Edwards canon, it captures only one essential aspect of his religious vision, the righteousness of God expressed through his heightened wrath and the need strive toward a life of radical holiness, without which one is in the most acute danger of being utterly lost in terms of enjoying a right relationship to the living God.

There is also an aesthetic sense underlying Edward’s religious vision in its focus on God’s beauty that is captured in another of his sermons, “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Parted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be Both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine.”  As Edwards presents the vision:

There is a divine and superlative glory in these things [the revelation of the living presence of God to the individual conscience]; an excellency that is of a vastly higher kind, and more sublime nature than in other things; a glory greatly distinguishing them from all that is earthly and temporal. He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it, or has a sense of it. He does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart. There is not only a rational belief that God is holy, and that holiness is a good thing, but there is a sense of the loveliness of God's holiness. There is not only a speculatively judging that God is gracious, but a sense how amiable God is upon that account, or a sense of the beauty of this divine attribute.

There is a great deal packed in here which goes to the essence of Edwards’ religious vision, in which his love, exhibiting itself as true beauty, infuses the world at its most fundamental essence, a beauty that is marred, even disfigured, but not destroyed by sin, in which it is not possible for “those whose minds are full of spiritual pollution, and under the power of filthy lusts [to] have any relish or sense of divine beauty or excellency; or that their minds should be susceptive of that light that is in its own nature so pure and heavenly.”

It is the tension between these dynamics (the unsurpassable beauty of God and the gross destruction of sin) that underlies all of his major texts, notably Treatise on Religious Affections, Freedom and the Will, The Great Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, The End for Which God Created the World, and The Nature of True Virtue.

Packer’s summary statement is worth noting: “Edwards has been described as God-centered, God-focused, God intoxicated, and God-entranced, and so indeed he was. There is no overstatement here. Every day, from morning till night, he sought to live in conscious communion with God, whether walking, riding, studying on his own, or relaxing in the bosom of his large and, it seems, happy and often extended family. He was not a mystic in the sense of seeking Goddrenched states of soul that leave rationality behind; on the contrary, it was precisely through deep and clear thoughts that God warmed and thrilled his heart.” 

For Edwards, the beauty and awesome fear of God were mutually entwined in a way that lent an intensity of passion to the revelation of God in Christ in the very midst of reconciling the world.  When taken as a whole, his theological reflections and devotional commitments were grounded in his aspirational vision to realize the kingdom of God in this life as an ever present and most fundamental reality, notwithstanding the ever present gap between the reach and the attainment in this life.

With us, Edwards lived with the seemingly ineradicable tension between the power of beatific vision of God’s indwelling presence and the indubitable reality of the ever present disfiguring power of sin to corrupt the individual’s relationship to the living God, which, despite sin, is foreordained to come to pass in God’s good time through the blood of the Lamb.  Unlike most of us, Edwards was a trail blazer of the highest order in seeking the far edge reality of embracing the most realizing eschatological vision of what life with God will be like when God will become all in all, that is, when all things will be subjected to him (1 Cor 15:28).

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Whither Theology in the Secular Academy

I couldn’t find the discussion post to the topic of what would have needed to be in place in 20th century public schooling for the automatic eradication of God from public discourse to have not happened.  The message was, I believe, to the effect that scientists should acknowledge the limits of what can be illuminated by science and not pretend to have anything of substance to say about metaphysics (ontology).  I agree with you on that, just as I believe that in their better moments, most scientists would, too.  However, your point is well taken that in the scientific guild as a whole there is at the least, an implicit zeitgeist ( operative based on the assumption that the universe, at some very profound level of knowledge is subject to the potentiality of rational understanding on naturalistic grounds alone.  This would be the perspective of the scientific philosopher Karl Popper (I almost wrote Barth) who also propounds the indeterminate nature of our understanding of nature and the universe itself even in his seeking of World 3 Objective Knowledge (See his intriguing book, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach).

To add something from my field, there is also a similar zeitgeist in the historical profession in which anything beyond the natural is automatically eradicated from the field of study.  Thus, in 20th century historiography, at least at the public university, we can study art, politics, society, diplomacy, and culture on their own terms (as they are defined by the guild), but not theology as a historical discipline on its own terms, or even as a sub-discipline of intellectual history.  Thus, notwithstanding the profound grappling of the relationship between faith and culture as exhibited by the neo-orthodox theologians en masse, the neorthodox interpretation of faith on its own terms gets virtually no coverage at all in the 20th century European intellectual history curriculum. The partial exception may be Reinhold Niebuhr in his focus on “realism” and contribution to cold war ideology, but not his theology as representative of one way in which a Protestant intellectual grappled with the meaning of God and culture in the 20th century, especially in his opus, The Nature and Destiny of Man

That subject has been basically taboo based on the enlightenment, rationalist assumptions that have undergirded the history profession over the past century and more.  The extent to which the postmodern influence will change things remains to be seen.  Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida have been willing to view religion on its own terms into some of their work. However, I’m not sure the extent it extends beyond some version of humanistic naturalism.  My best hunch is that they would reject monotheism as a serious possibility in its own right as beyond the pale of serious human discourse.  If 20th century intellectuals knew as much about Barth and Bultman as they do of Heideggar and Wittgenstein, they would have come to have known that there are contemporary viable ways of thinking about God, whether or not one accepts the validity of any such thinking.  The fact that Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans is not a book that is studied in 20th century intellectual graduate courses is a scandal of vast proportions that played its not unsubstantial role in eradicating God from the curriculum of the secular university.

Thus, God as a profound discourse of human probing, and certainly any claim of God as radical other, has been eradicated from the field of intellectual history based on the presumptuous conceit of enlightenment thinking.  This legacy, which nonetheless endures, is powerfully challenged by postmodern scholarship, which nonetheless reifies the secular in the refusal among its major proponents, with some notable exceptions, to view theology as a legitimate discipline based on its own intrinsic standards.  In short, Karl Barth et al are excised from the intellectual history of the secular university where anything beyond naturalism is viewed as absurd on its face (or merely private).  In my counterfactual reconstruction I would correct this oversight.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Pushing on the Logic of Liberal Protestantism

I read somewhere in Borg that if he were raised in another culture he probably would have accepted the religion in which he would have been raised.  On the surface it sounded superficial except that if he accepts inclusivism as axiomatic he cannot help but to say something like that.  I assume the Dalai Lama had a silent smile for professor McFague when she had said something similar.

Even still, I want to push Borg, Spong, and McFague to probe more deeply on why they view Jesus with ultimate concern.  Even if for them the matter is existential and cultural rather than, say, ontological, in which God is revealed in human flesh through the Trinity,  there are still motivating reasons and I would like to see these theologians more publicly grapple with those reasons.

I intuit a weak narrative theology operative in their Christ “from below,” but their narrative threads are a good deal more liberal and metaphorical all the way down than the postliberal narrative theology of Frei, Lindbeck, and Husinger.  What I’m interested in is a sharper articulation of the ultimate value system of their respective theologies, and when pushed very hard, exactly how they grapple with the exclusive/inclusive tension of a believing faith in Christ.  If one takes the Trinity with radical seriousness that invariably pushes toward a high Christology and an exclusivist interpretation of the significance of Christ as the way and the life without equivocation and remainder.  If the Trinity is a metaphor for something else—a more inclusive religious experience in which, in the final analysis, the different religions exhibit diverse dimensions of a global understanding of God, then what one could say at best is that Christ is a way, a truth, and a life with much equivocation and remainder.  My assumption is that Borg, Spong, and McFague are closer to this second camp. If that is the case, if Christ is a way, a truth, and a life, only, in which other possibilities of equal merit pertain, then my objective remains on pushing these liberal stalwarts very hard on identifying the source and rationale on why they link Jesus to their ultimate concern (assuming they do).

In my view, if the Trinity is anything less than what has been claimed in the orthodox Christian tradition over many centuries, then Christianity as a way, may have a certain aesthetic appeal that one might find inspiring at a given time and place, but nothing more compelling or enduring to it to profoundly stabilize a radical commitment to its core assumptions.  At different times and places other stories will carry a more substantial weight and Christianity as a distinctive religious will gradually flow into the ebb tide of some type of syncretism, a temptation that the early church successfully countered in no small measure in the doctrinal stabilization of the Trinity.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Probing the Underlying Assumptions of Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong

As many of us know, Bishop Spong and Marcus Borg are major liberal Christian theologians who have raised critically important issues particularly for mainline Protestantism.  Both Spong and Borg are empathetic to Rudolph Bultman’s project of demythologizing in order to remythologize, a position to which I am far from unsympathetic.  Still, I would push these theologians very hard in grappling with the key question, even in its remythologized mode, why Jesus?  The deeper question, then, is to what extent is even the remythologized Jesus still relevant to our contemporary setting and on what grounds?  To press this further, why do these theologians identify Christ (however interpreted) as their ultimate concern?

            What I would like to get at, in part, is whether the answer for these theologians is ultimately existential and personal, or whether there is another ground that transcends such relativism.  If there is another ground, I would like them to be as exacting as possible in explaining what that basis is, including a very precise discussion of the inclusive/exclusive issue on whether Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” without equivocation or remainder. For if inclusivism is radically held to, then, by definition, any foundational ground for adhering to the faith becomes questionable.  Based on this assumption, I might say, for example, that I ground what Tillich calls “ultimate concern” in some secular philosophy, in which may be nothing intrinsic in its logic, or in principle, to argue that I am wrong.

            Now if you were going to say I’m wrong and that somehow the stirring faith of the living Christ is a more satisfactory form of human identification than anything else, then, by definition, that needs to be based on some criteria.  What I want to know, in particular, is precisely how these esteemed liberal theologians come down on this issue and on what grounds. These criteria, in turn, would serve as a basis for evaluating other perspectives (both more liberal and conservative).

            Historically, the Christ myth has been a very potent symbol for many people for a long period of time.  In terms of the Christ myth, my view is that the heights and the depths of its efficacy in mediating the human condition for good are unfathomable, and therefore perpetually emergent in the process of continuous human existence itself.  In this respect, its infinite depths are fathomless, which is also true of any “living” secular philosophy.  If this is the case, its remythologizing potential, in itself, is not sufficient grounds to base any objective-like claim of exclusive truth, however subtle. Other grounds need to be made.  Do Spong and Borg in any sense assume an exclusivist position?  If so, the basis for it needs to be clearly articulated.

            If not, then one drops back to the inclusive position and interprets the living Christ as one viable pathway to the holy (to use religious language).  That may be fine, but that by definition can there be nothing other than a personal, existential decision based on no ground other than personal choice?  And even here, I want to press matters.  If this is the pathway that Spong and Borg assume there are still reasons operative on what they have based this on.  By definition, in emphasizing Christ (however “liberally” interpreted), they are making certain value judgments that are based, at some level, on reasons. Although it may be implicit in their written theologies, I would like these two liberal stalwarts, or their defenders to publicly reflect on their reasoning for placing their ultimate concern on Jesus, including a very honest confrontation with the exclusive/inclusive issue.  There is much at stake on the viability of Christianity in grappling with this complex issue in a probing, discerning manner.