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Monday, April 2, 2018

Progressive Christianity and Religion's Cultured Despisers

Back when I attended Vanderbilt University's Divinity School, our softball team toyed around with the idea of putting the names of "famous" theologians on the backs of our jerseys. Jerseys with names like "Rauschenbusch" and "Schleiermacher" would certainly attract attention although I think it's unlikely that few people knew (or know) who Walter Rauschenbusch and Friedrich Schleiermacher were. The former was a Baptist minister who was a leader of the social gospel movement (e.g., see his Theology of the Social Gospel) that thrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in New York City's Hell's Kitchen where Rauschenbusch was a pastor. The latter is considered by many as the father of liberal Protestantism and is probably best known for his book, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, in which he addressed the intellectuals of his day who found deriding Christianity and its adherents to be great sport. (In other words, the glee with which Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris attack religion in general and Christianity in particular is not a new phenomenon.)

Schleiermacher's legacy is still with us. Liberal Protestants still find it necessary to defend the faith against today's cultured despisers of religion. Unfortunately, in so doing, we often water the faith down to such an extent that it's indistinguishable from the latest secular trends. Such watering down is unnecessary, however. We can still embrace "liberal" causes without abandoning central Christian beliefs. Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson (for her novel, Gilead) is an example of this. She holds relatively traditional Christian beliefs but ascribes to what most would consider progressive political views ("Marilynne Robinson: Traditional Christian, Political Liberal"). As she notes:
I have spent all this time clearing the ground so that I can say, and be understood to mean, without reservation, that I believe in a divine Creation, and in the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and the life to come. I take the Christian mythos to be a special revelation of a general truth, that truth being the ontological centrality of humankind in the created order, with its theological corollary, the profound and unique sacredness of human beings as such (The Givenness of Things, p. 222).
Robinson is more the exception than the rule, however. At times it seems that progressive Christians are more concerned about appearing intellectually respectable than they are Christian. In fact, at times progressive Christian seem reluctant to talk about Jesus, which is curious because Buddhists don't seem to be shy about quoting the Buddha, and Muslims frequently hold up Muhammad as an example to follow.

Perhaps my favorite example of this is when in the 1990s we were pastoring a church in Bend, Oregon, a group of conservative Oregonians succeeded in placing an anti-gay rights measure (proposition) on the ballot. In response, our local Mainline Protestant ministerial association chose to draft a statement opposing the measure. I remember receiving a copy of the first draft and liking it. However, when I showed it to the Associate Minister at the local Methodist Church, he immediately pointed out that there was nothing remotely Christian about the statement. And he was right. It could've been written by the local chapter of the ACLU. Afterward I often quipped that progressive Christians are more likely to cite Jefferson than we are Jesus. (Note: we did amend the draft so that our final statement did refer to Jesus's life and teachings.) Which is unfortunate because a wealth of sociological research has demonstrated that people who are looking for a church (or synagogue, mosque, or temple) want something different from what's available in the secular world.

Another way to put all this, is that there's a difference between being intellectually responsible and appearing intellectually respectable. The former employs reason and is willing submit its assumptions to critique. By contrast, the latter often embraces the latest intellectual fad without thinking through it's potential implications (theological and otherwise). I think it's important to recall that it was secularists (e.g., H. L. Mencken) and Mainline Protestants, not conservatives, who initially embraced eugenics in the U.S., and in the lead up to WW I, it was liberal theologians such as Adolf von Harnack who enthusiastically supported the Kaiser and German aggression. I'd like to think that if Schleiermacher had still been alive, he would've opposed the war. I am skeptical, however. I am happy to report that Walter Rauschenbusch did, though.

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