To a European the study of contemporary American theology is highly important. America is one of the two political, cultural and spiritual poles (Russia being the other), around which oscillate the main currents of the life and thought of Western Europe.
For a long time America was of no concern to the spiritual vision of a European. Indeed, Europe looked down upon an America it considered immature and culturally undeveloped. The “Yankee” did not appear to be a cultured inhabitant of Western Europe. Fie seemed solely concerned with the dollar. He appeared to have little understanding of spiritual life. Since the last World War, however, the European’s attitude has changed. Personal contact with Americans has led to a better understanding and appreciation. In any case, the economic and political life of Western Europe must take America into account. The luxury of ignoring the existence of this great power in the West is no longer permissible. Nor, for that matter, can we Europeans ignore Russia and the Far East.
Present-day American theology is still predominantly liberal or modernistic in character. In the past, this was not the case. Once America was the land of the Pilgrim Fathers. The public life bore a Christian stamp in all social expressions. American theological faculties, for example, at Harvard, were fortresses of orthodox Christianity and orthodox theology.
Retreat From Orthodoxy
The spiritual powers now in control of American life cannot be called Christian. In philosophy, the Pragmatism of which William James is the spiritual father has exercised a great influence for many years. Its modernized form is found in the Behaviorism of John Dewey.
Pragmatism is closely connected, in some respects, with the historical origin of the American people. The colonist, who daily encountered the hard facts of reality and therefore did not have much time and interest for abstract philosophical speculation, was inclined to ask, “What is the benefit of it?”
The specific type of Pragmatism encountered in James and Dewey is one of the characteristic off-shoots of the Enlightenment, which at the end of the eight-teenth century propelled life along radically new paths. The Enlightenment exchanged historical Christianity for a humanistic rationalism, strongly optimistic in character and nearly unconditional in its faith in the unlimited possibilities of human nature. The roots of this philosophy have gone deep in America. The eighteenth century American stood on the threshold of its natural development. Under the influence of the Enlightenment it suddenly became conscious of its enormous potentialities. In this respect no figure was more important for his own time and for later periods than Benjamin Franklin, in whom the young America was so-to-speak incarnated. With him was launched the triumph of modern science, especially the application of science to technique. The unbelievable accomplishments of technology have shaped America into a land where the majority, not just a fortunate few, can achieve a standard of living higher than any previously conceived. This trend in development was favorably disposed to the rise of Pragmatism.
Truth Reduced To Utility
Pragmatism implies the radical denial of each concept of truth. Truth is no longer a magnitude of an entity in its own right. Just as modern American life was oriented toward utility, so truth became reduced to usefulness. Truth is what is useful, what in one way or another serves the vital needs of the individual in society. And since different individuals have different needs, Pragmatism for the first time in the history of philosophical thought consciously proposed a pluralistic concept of truth. Truth is not unitary; truth is just as much a plurality as life is pluriform. What is true for one person does not necessarily have to be true for another.
The Behaviorism of John Dewey, a mild form of this early Pragmatism, is known by the term Instrumentalism. For Dewey, the human spirit is in its essence nothing but an instrument, a utensil, a tool, suited for the attainment of a specific aim. It is clearly evident how thoroughly undermining this concept is for the Christian faith. Nothing is more devastating to our spiritual life than such a devaluation of the concept of truth. It results in a spiritual decline of human life in its entirety, especially in the field of religion.
Religion is not denied its right to exist. Dewey believes, however, that religion comes into its own only when it breaks all connection with the supernatural. What is left, however, is a religion that no longer deserves the name of religion. It is a religion without God. Some may continue to speak of something divine, but faith in a personal God as the creator of the world and of man is abandoned. Man was not created by God. God is a creation of man. Man is able to manufacture everything that he desires. Man makes or fabricates all he desires and needs, also his God.
It is deplorable that Dewey’s viewpoint still gives the general tone to present-day scientific America and controls much of the entire philosophy of education.
Gospel Becomes Social Energy
What has been the attitude of the Christian Church during the last century with respect to Pragmatism and Humanism? Has it been asleep? Did it simply allow the life of its time to slip by unnoticed? Certainly not. The large ecclesiastical bodies in the United States (e.g., Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist) have so far been a model of powerful activity in this twentieth century. For example, their enormous accomplishments in the field of philanthropy and missions are well known. Financially and organizationally, America has for a long time played a dominant role in the missionary enterprise.
To a large extent, however, the prevailing American spirit has left its mark upon the official life and theology of the larger denominations. In particular, this is evidence in the social gospel movement, which since the beginning of this century has been the motif of American theology. The attempt to confront with the Gospel of Christ the problems of modern American life, especially the important problem of an industrialized society, is in itself worthy of respect. What is seriously to be regretted, however, and what has resulted in great spiritual damage, is that this movement has been accompanied by a complete lack of resistance to the dominating spirit of the time. The latter has been given a completely free hand to dictate the path to be followed. What is characteristic of the social gospel is not so much the application of the gospel to social questions but rather the overwhelming emphasis placed on social problems by this gospel. The entire gospel is seen as a social and ethical totality; everything that does not fit into this framework is discarded.
This accomodation of the gospel to social and ethical problems was readily accomplished through the inner affinity of the social gospel and the dominant American liberal theology.
Triumph Of Enlightenment
The spirit of the Enlightenment with its rationalism, moralism, optimism, and tolerance had conquered the entire New World. In harmony with the spirit of tolerance, the separation of church and state was not guarded against an exaggerated and libertarian concept of religious freedom. The acceptable view was that everyone can believe and teach whatever he wishes. The day was not distant when faith was strongly reduced in its content. Of the original Christian confession, very little was to remain in force. In the broadest circles, the ideal became a religion as free as possible of any dogmatism and predominantly moral in character. Even unitarian tendencies became respected as essentially Christian. Inevitably, the grace of God was little understood. Much more important than God’s mercy in Christ, it was held, is the dignity of man. One can thus truly speak of the trend as the humanization of religion. “The biggest goal of God’s laws and religion,” said one of the spiritual leaders of the time, “is human happiness.” He did not bother to add “… the happiness of unregenerate man.”
Impact Of Evolutionary Science
The theology of the social gospel clearly contains trends of the piety of the Enlightenment, especially its individualism, rationality, and unconquerable faith in human progress. These tendencies acquired a special emphasis with respect to the Darwinian theory of evolution, so cherished by the modern ideal of science.
One task of science was thought to be that it should, as much as possible, purify religion of all so-called nonessential elements (especially the miraculous!) so that it would be a suitable foundation for modern society.
In the form of modern biblical criticism science was expected to lead to the creation of a more “correct” picture of Jesus, which would replace the ecclesiastical Christological dogma by a completely human Jesus.
The idea of development was now applied to the New Testament message of the Kingdom of God, viewed as a human accomplishment, to be developed by human effort, within the boundries of our human era.
Religion Narrowed To Ethics
A new type of Christian piety arose. The religious, in its entirety, was nearly subordinated to the ethical. Honest moral conduct was considered to be the best form of religiosity.
Great value was ascribed to the idea of the brotherhood of man on the basis of the universal Fatherhood of God. This brotherhood discloses itself in the cooperation envisioned by the social gospel, in the equality of man, and in a recognition of the absolute value of human personality.
In time the ideal of the democratization of the industrial social order arose; that is, the workers must receive the right to organize.
In international relations the Christian ideal of life was also to be applied according to the Golden Rule, “Do unto others that which you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12). War was viewed as a serious violation of the divine world order.
Although these concepts undoubtedly have some real values, Christianity is hereby conceived in a predominantly collective fashion. Very little value is placed on personal salvation. The entire Christian faith is restated in terms of collective solidarity. God’s plan primarily consists in saving and reforming human society.
Inseparably connected with this movement was the removal from Christianity of all “transcendent” elements. Walter Rauschenbusch, a representative figure of the social gospel, sought to humanize all religion, including the conception of God. He frankly said that today God must be dethroned in order to meet the needs of men. What is necessary is “a God with whom men may cooperate, not to whom they must submit.” God is openly proclaimed to be a partner of man. And Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of America’s most popular preachers, ascribed only one function to religion, namely, the service of man and humanity. Religion according to him was a question of psychology. It was not concerned with the knowledge of God but with a knowledge of man and his human end.
It is no wonder that in this spiritual atmosphere no room remained for the biblical evangelical proclamation: the preaching of Christ as God’s Redeemer, reconciliation through his sacrifice, and justification by faith in his Atonement and Resurrection. The historicity of Christ no longer had any integrating significance. The only thing important, declared A. W. Palmer, one-time President of Chicago Theological Seminary, is “that Christ shall be reduplicated in a myriad of Saviours.”
Fidelity To The Bible
American Fundamentalism has also contributed to the theological climate of America. In sharp contrast to the predominantly moralistic social gospel in which the atoning death of Christ has almost no place, in Fundamentalism one often finds a hearty inner piety, especially a joy in the blood of the atonement and in the grace of the Holy Spirit. Characterized by an unconditional respect for the witness of the Scriptures, Fundamentalism views modern biblical criticism as a serious threat to true Christianity. Unconditionally it retains the plenary inspiration of the Bible and requires that, above all else, one must bow in faith to what is revealed in Scripture.
Special emphasis is laid, however, upon what are considered to be fundamental biblical truths: the virgin birth of Christ; his metaphysical Sonship; his crucifixion as the only basis of salvation; his resurrection; original sin, and the consequent depravity of man; and eternal life and eternal death, as the twofold starting points of human life. Fundamentalists deem it impossible to have any bond or fellowship with one who denies any of these fundamental truths.
Lack Of Cultural World-View
Often, however, the impression is given that faith in these truths is only a blind subjection to an external authority without the integration of these truths into the totality of life. And, in many cases, no attempt is made to reach a solution to questions of the relevance of Christianity to modern science and culture. Such questions are in fact often met by a hostile attitude. Usually there is no awareness of the call and obligation of a Christian to culture or the intellectual content of civilization. Christianity is thus in danger of degenerating into a morbid and sickly enthusiasm.
Niebuhr On Liberalism
After this short and incomplete characterization of the twentieth century American spiritual and theological situation, it may be well to discuss briefly a representative of contemporary American theology, Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr’s theology is usually described by the term “Christian Realism.” This designation distinguished it from the older theology of the social gospel, which was characterized by a definite idealistic tendency and a naive trust in the goodness of human nature.
The social gospel limited itself to social programs and high-sounding social slogans, but it scarcely disturbed the actual life of society. Niebuhr gradually discovered the cause of this failure of liberal theology to lie in its anthropology, its theory concerning man, which lacks all understanding of the demonic depth of human existence. In its thoughtless optimism, Liberalism imagined that a proclamation of law of love could of itself conquer the natural egoism of the human heart. Its perfectionism, its new faith in human perfectability, did not take into account the deeply rooted power of sin in human nature.
In addition to his campaign against Liberalism, Niebuhr conducted a second front against orthodoxy. The basic fault of Liberalism was to be sought in its sentimentality; the lack of power of orthodoxy was due to its pessimism. Orthodoxy’s vision was too exclusively directed to the sinfulness of our world. Therefore, orthodoxy maintained the status quo as much as possible. It feared that if changes were made in the existing order, the result could only be complete chaos.
Niebuhr is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the theological world of today; in more than one respect he is worth listening to. We consider it of great importance that Niebuhr was one of the first to recognize the pernicious totalitarian structure of such ideologies as National Socialism and Communism. Niebuhr was one of the first to understand that sin is more than a wrong subjective attitude of the human heart; it can also become incarnate in certain social relationships, which then constitute the greatest threat to temporal human life.
Flaws In Niebuhr’S Thought
At the same time, we believe that there are serious objections to Niebuhr’s theology and ethics.
His views are dangerous because Niebuhr is one of the most noteworthy and most gifted representatives of a new type of theology, often qualified in America as “neo-orthodoxy.” Many hope that neo-orthodoxy will provide the basis of a future ecumenical theology. As a matter of fact, neo-orthodoxy contains something which makes it appropriate for this purpose. It is preeminently a theology of synthesis. The chasm between orthodoxy and Liberalism appears to be bridged in a genial manner. Basic evangelical sounds are heard and what offends modern man’s world view and religious autonomy is discarded.
In this respect Niebuhr’s theology displays a striking agreement with another fashionable theologian of our time, Rudolph Bultmann, who by his de-mythologizing seeks to escape the offense of biblical revelation. Bultmann does not realize that in the meantime he has exchanged revelation for a modern religious Existentialism. The latter is ready to speak to modern man in his despair, but it shares with the true gospel of Jesus Christ only a verbal similarity.
Our century is apparently repeating the same mistakes made by the theologians in the nineteenth century. Everything points to the fact that a new theology is more adapted to the needs of twentieth century man; it contains dialectical tension, is less strange to reality, and has a better understanding of the tragic depths of human life. But like nineteenth century theology, it accomodates the gospel in its deepest kernel to the dominant spirit of the time, and has received its stamp from the dominating philosophy of the day.
Because of the important influence of America upon the economic and political life of the world, Europeans watch with interest the theological climate of this great nation. It is hoped that the humanization of religion under Liberal influence will be halted, and greater emphasis given the transcendental elements of Christianity.
Dr. G. Brillenburg Wurth has taught for a number of years at Kampen Theological Seminary in the Netherlands. He is author of many books, and writes frequently on such themes as pastoral counselling, the Christian life, Christian morals, and Christian ethics.
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