Review – Liberalism Without Illusions by Christopher Evans

Christopher H. Evans. Liberalism Without Illusions: Renewing an American Christian Tradition. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press. 2010. Pp. 207. Paperback.

Liberalism Without Illusions is a retrospect and prospect for American Protestant liberalism. Evans seeks both to reconnect contemporary liberals with their theological heritage and to refocus them on the future. Undergirding both is a frank assessment of liberalism’s present.

Evans acknowledges liberalism’s birth in Europe, but stresses the distinct shape it took in the United States. He plays up the continuity between the goals of American liberalism and nineteenth-century Christian social activism. Continuity is also evident in that liberalism did not found new institutions, but rather populated the oldest and most established American denominations. He points to Unitarian Walter Channing and Congregationalist Horace Bushnell as precursors to modern liberalism. Both envisioned new ways of understanding the significance of Jesus and the role of the church in society. The influence of biblical criticism broke up the exegetical monopoly of various orthodoxies, while Albrecht Ritschl’s focus on history and the kingdom of God offered new ways of conceiving God’s action in the world.

Indeed, the kingdom of God in history became a central concept for American liberalism. Shailer Matthews’ The Social Teaching of Jesus looked at Jesus as a historical figure. On the popular level, Charles Sheldon’s question, “What would Jesus do?” underscored Jesus as our moral example. Washington Gladden kicked off the first phase of the social gospel, seeking to apply the Golden Role on a societal level. Walter Rauschenbusch, however, gave the movement its theological shape. Combining his experiences as a pastor in “Hell’s Kitchen” of New York City and as a professor at Rochester Theological Seminary, Rauschenbusch articulated a public Christianity bent on transforming societal structures to approximate the values of the kingdom of God (see his A Theology for the Social Gospel.)

The liberal tradition was never homogenous. Critics, known as neo-orthodox or Christian realists, arose from within the ranks and critiqued the naïve optimism and cultural establishmentarian of an earlier generation. Evans notes, however, that these critics nevertheless remained indebted to the liberal heritage of a public Christianity, concerned with the fate of society and engagement with secular culture.

Liberalism moved increasingly away from the churches and the popular level to reside in the academy, where it has motivated several theological approaches. Process theology, which stresses the reciprocal interaction between God and history, grew out of the personalism and immanentism of liberalism. Liberation theology, which declares God’s solidarity with the poor and oppressed, radicalized certain political tendencies. Postliberalism Ecumenical movements looked for rapprochement between divided Christian traditions. All of these movements, though, have lacked significant grassroots support.  They remain largely the province of the divinity schools that birthed them.

Shifting to the prospect of liberalism, Evans displays an exceptional ability to sympathize with liberalism’s critics. The title Liberalism Without Illusions testifies to Evans’ desire to take seriously criticisms and failings. One chapter is devoted to conservative evangelicalism, which Evans views neither as the enemy or the opposite of liberalism, but as an alternative brand of American Christianity, one from which liberalism may need to learn a few things. In particular, liberalism needs to learn to deal with disestablishment, no longer having a direct pipeline to cultural elites and political movers. Evans also discusses J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, which raised the question of what is particularly Christian about liberalism. Evans recommends a retrieval of liberalism’s early theological, and not just political, heritage, as well as sustained engagement with the whole of Christian tradition. Of course, there is the challenge from Barth and the Neibuhrs that liberalism downplayed sin and was naïve about human perfectibility. Evans admits the presence of this tendency while also pointing to nuanced liberals, suggesting that at times this critique has been overstated.

Evans presents four questions that liberals need to face to renew their vitality. First, “Are liberals truly addressing the deepest needs and anxieties of the culture?” questions whether ministry centered on social justice and not on spiritual enrichment can be sustained. Second, “To what extent can and should liberal churches emulate popular models of ‘church growth’?” raises the issue of Protestant disestablishment and whether liberals ought to embrace evangelical ministry models. Third, “To what extent should the future of liberalism be predicated primarily upon specific political agendas?” cautions against reducing the religious to the political and against hitching liberalism to one political group. Finally, “How do liberals see themselves continuing to shape the larger Christian heritage?” rephrases Machen’s challenge to articulate liberalism in continuity with the Christian tradition.

Liberalism Without Illusions is a satisfying read that is likely to instigate urgent conversations. Though aimed at liberals, it can serve as a winsome introduction to liberalism for non-liberals. Evans’ interaction with criticism is characterized by thoughtful interaction rather than defensive bravado or spineless capitulation. His sympathy for the best of the liberal tradition is infectious. His cautious but hopeful attitude toward the future is inspiring.

There are, of course, some weaknesses. One could wish for a bit deeper interaction with liberalism’s theological heritage, as only the kingdom of God concept receives sufficient treatment.  Postmodernity, a serious challenge to liberalism, receives scant attention. Evangelicalism’s appeal is cast mainly in terms of popularism and apocalyptic fervor; the spiritual depth and clear theological statements of evangelicals are underestimated.  One could also ask for some more pointed recommendations, but Evans did build his prospect around questions. Several of these weaknesses are offset by an excellent bibliographical essay that should guide readers to the answers they seek. Overall, I enjoyed reading Liberalism Without Illusions and would recommend it to pastors, students, and the average, interested reader.

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Published in: on October 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Early American Catholicism – The Priestless Church

[This is part one of a summary of James O’Toole’s The Faithful, a history of Catholics in America that focuses on the devotional and religious experience of American Catholics, as Catholics and as Americans.]

Few Catholics  On the eve of Revolution, there were few Catholics in the British colonies. Since Catholicism was discouraged by establishment Protestantism, most Catholics were scattered groups of immigrants, banded together by a common ethnicity. This combination of minority ethnicity with minority religion fused many Catholics into tight social units. Some did abandon their religion and join the cultural mainstream, but many more remained devoted, even though it was far from clear how to practice Catholicism under the conditions of colonial America.

Fewer Priests  The primary challenge for American Catholics was a shortage of priests. The ratio in many places was 1000 Catholics to 1 priest. Almost all priests were itinerant, meaning that a particular band of Catholics might see a priest only once every several years. If a priest was of substandard quality, there was no recourse. Any religion would suffer from a shortage of ministers, but Catholicism is especially handicapped under such circumstances. According to Catholics, only priests can baptize. Parents of unbaptized children may have to wait years for the sacrament; if their children should die in the meantime, the best they could hope for was that their children would remain in limbo, a place free both of torment and bliss. Only priests could administer the Eucharist, the central act of Catholic devotion. Only they could hear confession, absolving sinning Christians from the temporal penalties of their transgressions. When a priest did arrive in a remote area, they tended to stay for several days as Catholics gradually arrived from miles away. Confessions and baptisms could fill hours or even days, sometimes delaying the celebration of the Mass.

Individual Devotion  A unique Catholic lay spirituality emerged under these conditions. Devotional manuals and prayer books instructed heads of household to read Scripture texts and “reflections” aloud, and to recite prayers. Many were organized around the Church calendar, providing “an internal logic and a rhythm that lay people could feel.” These manuals are remarkable both for what they emphasize and for what they do not. Lacking regular confession, they led readers through examinations of their conscience. They encouraged the cultivation of inner virtues, including love and devotion to Jesus. Relatively absent from them are prayers to the saints, devotion to Mary, and attachment to the papacy. They were perhaps more “Protestant,” in that they offered a view of the spiritual life that rendered the institutional and sacramental aspects of Catholicism peripheral.

Catholics as Americans   After America gained independence from Britain, most Catholics viewed themselves as American citizens, committed to the ideals of freedom of religion and republican government. The Protestant mainstream was feeling more tolerant as well, partly because of the low status of the papacy and small number of Catholics at the time. Yet, there was the lingering question of how American Catholics would square their allegiance to a foreign figure —particularly one known for political meddling — with their commitment to American ideals. Most significantly, Catholicism was seen as the prime religious example of hierarchical principles, diametrically opposed to the republican political and religious principles embraced by America. Tensions caused by these principles would fuel controversy both among Catholics and between Catholics and non-Catholics.

Published in: on June 30, 2011 at 11:21 am  Comments (2)  
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Review – Open Friendship in a Closed Society by Peter Slade

Open Friendship in a Closed Society by Peter Slade is an ambitious combination of historical and theological analysis.  These two subjects, often unstable in combination, Slade handles with equipoise. Open Friendship is an examination of race relations among Mississippi Christians, focusing on the efforts of the organization Mission Mississippi.

Mission Mississippi is an interdenominational initiative that “strives to facilitate [interracial] relationships between individuals and partnerships between churches. These new friendships, Mission Mississippi declares, are ‘changing Mississippi one relationship at a time'” (3). Mississippi is known for significant racial tension, so Mission Mississippi’s aim is more counter-cultural than outsiders might suppose.

Slade’s narratives are rich. Keeping with Mission Mississippi’s emphasis, Slade illuminates his story with concrete personal histories and first-hand testimonies. The characters speak with their own voices, challenging us with their stories. Slade does not cast a script of heroes and villains, but rather of people united in overcoming their own inherited prejudices.

Two theologians provide the substance of Slade’s theological critique. From Jürgen Moltmann Slade appropriates the idea of “open friendship.”  Christ taught us the meaning of friendship by becoming our friends. Abandoning his own status and privileges, he identifies with our humiliation, our suffering, our burdens. He partakes in them and overcomes them. When Christians become God’s friends, they extend this open friendship to others. Friendship is open when it is intentional, when it crosses barriers, and when it refuses to be privatized. A closed friendship, which remains confined among natural peer relations, would never have resulted in incarnation. One consequence of open friendship is that friend seeks public justice for friend, discontent to let generous personal feelings be the extent of involvement.

Following Miroslav Volf, Slade explains the “will to embrace.” The will to embrace is an indiscriminate desire for reconciliation, but the embrace itself is conditional upon justice. That is, there can be no cheap justice, in which an offended party simply forgets about the wrongs done. However, Volf also stresses the need for “double vision,” which is “the process whereby an individual must seek to hear and understand the other’s truth and then seek to see themselves and their claims to justice and truth from this new perspective” (128). If this is achieved, then the embrace will include real justice, not vengeance or dismissal.

Armed with these theological categories, plus a dollop of the quotable Bonhoeffer, Slade scrutinizes Mission Mississippi’s contribution to racial reconciliation. At first glance, the strategy seems to suffer from typically naive evangelical individualism, seeking to correct systemic and institutional problems simply through individual action. Some sociologists employ this critique. Slade responds that even though the critique has some merit, Mission Mississippi’s actions provide a Reconciliation 101, a realistic starting point from which more mature efforts at reconciliation can arise. It does in fact serve as a vehicle for developing open friendship and double vision.

Superbly written and uncommonly perceptive, I highly recommend Open Friendship in a Closed Society. As a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, I was particularly interested in the central roles that First Presbyterian in Jackson and Reformed Theological Seminary played in the pages. Having one branch of my theological heritage analyzed was an uncomfortable but liberating experience. Since the situation in Mississippi is replayed in miniature all across the United States, most Americans will find themselves reflected somewhere in this work.

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Published in: on May 16, 2011 at 2:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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Review – The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll is a foray into the theological origins, content, and consequences of the Civil War. Noll argues that the relationship of theology to the Civil War and its attendant issues has been underdeveloped. Historians have concentrated on the secularizing consequences of the Civil War, but ignore the vast majority of Americans whose faith increased or remained unchanged. Civil War America was intensely religious, and understanding their religious commitments is essential to grasping the era. Noll’s work demonstrates how the Civil War was a crisis for Americans, not only as citizens or republicans, but as Christians.

The theological crisis was self-made. Protestant Christianity in America had flourished since the founding of the United States. It had done so by allying itself with the dominant intellectual trends, the spirit of the age: republicanism, populism, common sense rationalism. The Christians of the antebellum period revered the Bible. It was the most widely and frequently read book in the nation. They supposed it to be a plain book containing all the laws for Christian living. Any literate person could read it and live out its message. The Christians believed strongly in providence, God’s guiding hand superintending history. Providence for them was not theoretical or abstract. America was God’s special nation, in covenant with him. Moreover, people supposed they could interpret providence straightforwardly. In short, interpreting both the Bible and providence required only faith and some common sense.

Interpreting both proved harder than suspected. As the issue of slavery became more prominent, biblical interpreters reached ever widening conclusions, all from the plain reading of Scripture and common sense. Radical abolitionists advanced the spirit of the New Testament against slavery, sometimes at the expense of the letter. Hardline pro-slavery advocates pointed to the biblical record of slavery to prove that God allowed and even approved the practice. The Southern Presbyterian Thornwell took the the cultural backwardness of negro nations as providential confirmation that the negroes were not capable of governing themselves. Several northern voices read the same providential history and gleaned the lesson that wherever the gospel went, it overthrew tyranny and brought civil liberty.

Nuanced positions existed, but were embraced by few. Some abolitionists, including several black authors, bypassed the question of slavery in general. They attacked slavery as it actually existed in the Southern states, devoid of the restrictions found in biblical Israel. A few noted that slavery in Israel was not hereditary, since the slave families were incorporated into the covenant people. Few Americans distinguished between biblical slavery and American slavery, which was racially biased. Defenders of slavery rarely noticed that many of the slaves in the New Testament were white, and that their arguments could theoretically support white slavery as well. Many Americans believed in the natural inferiority of the negroes; some found support in the Genesis curse of Canaan, Ham’s son. Because the race issue was never resolved theologically, racism persisted in the South after abolition.

The nuanced positions failed precisely because they were nuanced. Republican and populist Christians were not used to theological arguments that required abstracting concepts from passages and connecting those concepts logically. They expected to see the positions arise from plain statements of chapter and verse. Americans who viewed their national covenant as analogous to Israel’s tended to import Old Testament laws wholesale. The impiety of some radical abolitionists poisoned abolitionism among the more orthodox.

The original contribution of Noll’s work is the examination of foreign commentary. Protestants outside the United States were almost entirely against slavery. Because slavery was not an issue for them, they perfunctorily dismissed the Southern exegetes. However, they were not all favorable toward the North. Some found the North’s politics hypocritical, decrying slavery but greedily consuming Southern cotton. Many found the North’s posture overly aggressive. Some used the War as an opportunity to criticize republican government and American individualism.

The Catholic reflections on the Civil War were perhaps the most profound. Catholics were a cultural minority in the States and produced few original ideas. In Europe, however, Catholic intellectuals wrote piercing analyses. Progressive Catholics were strongly pro-abolitionist and cheered the march of republican ideals. More quickly than their Protestant counterparts, the conservative Catholics perceived that the war was a result of interpretive gridlock. Their answer was simple: the Catholic magisterium. Conservative Catholics took the opportunity to catalog the evils of modern liberalism and Protestant schism. America became an object lesson on the disadvantages of rejecting proper civil and church authority. (On the Western frontier, Mormons were blaming America’s woes on their rejection of the prophet Joseph Smith.)

The religious consequence of the Civil War was secularization. Since the theologians could not come to agreement, the generals had to decide the proper interpretation. Ulysses Grant proved the more successful expositor. Since then, Americans have been reticent to base public policy on interpretations of Scripture. Also, the theological battles between Protestants sidelined the longstanding anti-Catholic animus. Not only Catholics, but also cults and non-Christian religions flourished after the war. The tension between the desire for a Christian nation and the tradition of individualist interpretation of Scripture was resolved by eliminating specifically Christian ideas from the public sphere.

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is an original and illuminating work. Noll is a superb writer, and the material is engaging. The 200 pages pass swiftly. The book may not be necessary for some readers, though. Many of its themes have already been treated in Noll’s more comprehensive America’s God. The original portions deal with the perspectives of foreign and minority groups. So, if those details interest you, by all means grab this book. If not, the treatment in America’s God is probably sufficient.

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Published in: on December 29, 2010 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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Review – Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President by Allen Guelzo

Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President by Allen Guelzo is a unique contribution to Lincoln biographies. Rather than focusing on Lincoln’s career, family, or presidential policies, this book is an intellectual portrait of America’s sixteenth President. Taking Lincoln seriously as a man of ideas, this work explores Lincoln’s beliefs, ideas, and sources. As such, it speaks more about Lincoln’s why’s than what’s, more about his motives than his accomplishments.

Lincoln appears as an old-school Whig, following in the path of Henry Clay. Throughout his life, Lincoln thought of freedom as social mobility and favored Whig policies because they promised all (white) Americans the opportunity to better their conditions. Lincoln detested Jeffersonian agrarianism, reckoning its static social hierarchy as nearly slavery.

Such economic and political views could easily lead a man to oppose negro slavery, but although Lincoln privately detested the slave institution, for much of his life he did not favor emancipation or abolition. Lincoln’s views on slavery evolved slowly; before his Presidency, he did not consider it a major agenda. While in office he favored containment rather than abolition, and as hostilities escalated, he continued to offer gradual and compensated emancipation long after the Southern states had rejected his proposals. He stifled several efforts at emancipation by his generals. Finally, he declared emancipation, but only because he esteemed it the best strategy for keeping the Union intact. Nevertheless, he became a heroic icon to the black community.

Historians hotly debate Lincoln’s religious views. Guelzo offers a measured reading based on the whole of Lincoln’s life. Although certain aspects of Lincoln’s hardshell Baptist heritage would remain with him permanently (such as his denial of free will and belief in overruling providence), Lincoln never professed faith in the Christian religion. Early in his life he wrote a book attacking Christianity, but concerned friends coerced him to destroy it. He embraced pieces of the Christian worldview and quoted Scripture freely (mostly for polemic ends), but there is no indication that he believed it to be inspired. Later in life, Lincoln would begin attending church, at least occassionally, but he never joined one.  Especially late in his life, he acquired a more religious outlook, but not necessarily a Christian one, and certainly not an evangelical or “experiential” one. He was, however, interested in Christianity and said that he wished he were more of a believer than he actually was. Certain statements indicate that he planned to make a serious examination of spiritual claims after his Presidency; of course, that opportunity never came.

Lincoln devoured books, and his tremendous memory ensured that ideas remained with him for a lifetime of meditation and development. He read broadly, perusing poetry, classics, and science texts alike. Invention and ideas were the new economic baseline, replacing land as the measure of wealth. Philosophically, Lincoln was a man of Enlightenment ideals. There is, however, more than one Enlightenment. Lincoln’s Enlightenment was the liberal Lockean school, whereas his philosophical opponents had attached themselves to a Rousseauan interpretation.

Abraham Lincoln provides copious material for meditation wrapped in highly readable prose. Lincoln’s life before his Presidency is especially well-written. Guelzo streamlines his text by not using footnotes, but those inclined to engage with him on a critical level will welcome his “Note on the Sources,” an entire chapter at the end explaining his interaction with the primary and secondary literature. I heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in Lincoln, the Civil War, or 19th century American political or religious history.

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Published in: on August 13, 2010 at 11:05 am  Comments (1)