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.

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