Friday, September 22, 2006

Still More Readings in History

In one of his most important works, Princeton and the Republic: 1768-1822 (340 pgs), Mark Noll argues that Witherspoon’s ideal of a Republican Christian Enlightenment failed at Princeton because those three elements cannot be fully synthesized. As president of Princeton, Witherspoon wanted the institution to provide the intellectual foundation for the moral government of a democratic America. Samuel Stanhope Smith fully embraced that program, and when he became president, he concentrated on tying the Enlightenment (Scottish common sense philosophy) and Republicanism (democracy) together. He argued that in ethical systems we can and should reason from the effects of actions to their causes using the careful rational and scientific procedures of the Enlightenment as the foundation of the moral government of the nation. However, with that emphasis, Christianity and the importance of conversion fell into the background. Ashbel Green, his successor as president of Princeton, placed a greater emphasis on Christianity and the importance of conversion tied with Republicanism (democracy), which was also unsuccessful, since most of the students of Princeton were unconverted. Under Green's administration, Princeton seminary was born, showing the failure of his program to unite Christianity and Republicanism at a secular institution. All in all, history indicates that no intellectual combination of Christianity, Enlightenment, and Republican government has worked. The synthesis itself is unstable.

In Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (316 pgs), James Turner has argued that theologians, primarily Protestant Christian theologians, caused Americans to stop believing in the existence of God. Typically, historians have said that the origin of unbelief in America lies in the Enlightenment and its embrace of Newton’s ideas of cause and effect, which did away with the need for “God” to explain why things happen the way they do. They have argued that when evolution explained the unity and diversity of life, and when philosophers argued that the “first cause” needn’t be a personal deity, unbelief became an intellectual competitor. But, Turner says that none of those things are the real root of unbelief in America. He argues that the reason unbelief is a viable option in our culture is that theologians and ministers worked very hard to synthesize modernity and Christianity in an effort to remain relevant. He shows how the strategy worked at first, as long as science depended on the explanatory power of “God,” but failed when science and philosophy came up with alternative explanations. Liberal theology (the theology that accepted modernism) therefore was the forerunner of unbelief in our culture. Turner, who is by no means advocating Christian theism in this book, argues that for Christian theism to have survived, it should not have adopted the presuppositions of modernity and made God after the image modernity, but should have firmly asserted God’s transcendence.

In Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology (281 pgs), Keith W. Clements brings together selected texts from Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, The Christian Faith, and other sources. The goal of Schleiermacher’s theology was to re-orient the Christian faith by placing it on the foundation of Romanticism in order to save it from being obliterated in the modern age of reason. He argued that “religion” contains no knowledge, and so never overlaps with science, philosophy, psychology, or even with ethics. “Religion” is “feeling.” It is responsive to knowledge, but is not knowledge. Therefore, science and philosophy can have no objection to “religion.” In that way, Schleiermacher made a place for "religion." “Religious” feeling is the “feeling of absolute dependence” on the infinite Universe and upon the world-spirit (which notion of God appears to be Pantheistic, or Panenthesitic, though Schleiermacher denied that charge). According to Schleiermacher, sin is “God-forgetfulness” and Godliness is “God-consciousness,” or the “feeling of absolute dependence.” Religion is the process of moving from sin, "God-forgetfulness" to Godliness, "God-consciousness." Schleiermacher argued that we cannot know God (the Universe) directly, but we can know and study the feelings we have in response to him. That is his idea of doctrine: explanations of human feeling of response to God. Doctrine, therefore, has its starting point in the human feelings, rather than in God, and so is anthropocentric rather than theocentric. Since this feeling is a response to the whole Universe, “religion” is intensely communal and social, as human beings feel their dependence on others and on all of nature. Human beings from every religious faith may have this religious feeling. However, the historical Jesus, according to Schleiermacher was the perfect example of religious feeling. He teaches us how to be religious. He died in order to show how far he would go in his commitment to religious feeling. However, he is not the unique Savior, and "religion" is found in every other world faith.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

More Readings in History

In America’s God (622 pages), Mark Noll argues that from the collapse of the Puritan idea of a national covenant around the time of Jonathan Edwards to the Civil war, American theology sought to influence American society but American society eventually changed the shape of American theology. Noll argues that during this period, three concepts were drawn into a synthetic interdependent balance: Revival theology, Republicanism (or Democracy), and common sense moral philosophy. When Jonathan Edwards’s theology prevailed, it unwittingly undermined the Puritan idea of a national covenant by emphasizing individual conversion over corporate establishment. This revival or conversion theology asserted that the only way to have a pure church is to have a free state and so American theology strongly advocated Republican (or Democratic) government. Republicanism on the other hand believed that a society with a Republican government could only be kept from decline through a religious or theological support of ethics. Because America was not a church-state, theologians sought a biblical ground on which to argue for social ethics, and they thought they found it in common sense moral philosophy, which basically stated that every human being has built in moral instincts. The churches became broadcasters of common sense moral philosophy, which the state accepted as a legitimate basis for law and ethics, and theologians began to formulate theology according to moral philosophy and social gospel, departing from Edwards, and biblical conservatism. At the time of the civil war, biblical theologians disagreed about the morality of slavery, arguing both for and against slavery from the Bible. The inability of biblical theologians to agree on a single biblical social ethic caused the American public to reject the possibility of constructing a national social ethic on the basis of the Bible.

In another historiographical work on the intellectual history of roughly the same period entitled Churchmen and Philosophers (311 pages), Bruce Kuklick argues that from the time of Jonathan Edwards to the time of John Dewey, American Congregationalist thinkers shifted from a predominantly supernatural perspective to a predominantly natural perspective, though all of these thinkers retained a place in their thought for both supernatural and natural concerns. Kuklick himself thinks that the intellectual trajectory of period was a good thing, but challenges the older accepted historiographical thesis that it was marked by a simplistic change from the sacred to the secular. The older model fails to account for the significant religious consciousness of America that extended from that time even to this day. So, Kuklick's concern is to show that while in the main, thinkers were shifting away from theology and toward philosophy, there is an underlying unity as well. Kuklick writes, “Edwards and his followers found value in the natural only because it was the medium in which the supernatural was displayed. Dewey and his successors ruled out the supernatural, but only when they imported its values to the natural.”

What can the Christian learn from these studies? Both books demonstrate that Christianity degenerated into moralism and pragmatism when it moved away from Scripture as the only valid foundation of thought and practice and away from an experimental, affective encounter with Christ central to true religion. Edwards's vision was lost when his successors subverted his methodology and made ungrounded human reason the basis of thought, rather than the mind of God revealed in Sacred Scripture.