Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Garry Dorrien on Reinhold Niebuhr & U.S. Foreign Policy

I have mentioned Garry Dorrien on these pages before.  An Episcopal priest, historical theologian, and Christian social ethicist, Dorrien recently went from being a chaplain and religion professor at a midwestern university founded by Baptists to being installed as Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary of New York and Graduate Professor of Religion at Columbia University. (Listen to a podcast of  Dorrien’s inaugural address at UTS here.)

 UTS is one of the iconographic places of U.S. religious history:  One of the first places where then new historical critical approaches to biblical studies were practiced, it’s major early biblical scholar, Charles Augustus Briggs was tried for heresy because of this by the Presbyterians and expelled from their ranks. (He became an Episcopalian.) Union’s trustees severed its ties with the Presbyterian church rather than limit academic freedom or be forced to fire Briggs–making Union the first U.S. free-standing theological seminary without ties to a specific denomination. It soon became a center of the early modernist/liberal movements, and then of the Social Gospel. Towering preachers in the liberal tradition such as Harry Emerson Fosdick and George A. Buttrick became associated with Union in one fashion or another.  Later, Union was home to Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realism he represented as a correction to perceived weaknesses in the Social Gospel.  Union was host, briefly or for longer periods, to such diverse figures as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (as a post-graduate student), Paul Tillich (as a refugee theologian fleeing the Nazis), the early process theologian Daniel Day Williams (who was far more Christocentric and rooted in mainstream Christian theology than most process theologians), the Scottish theologian John Baillie, the Welsh New Testament scholar, W. D. Davies (after Davies’ time at Duke and Princeton), and with the career of Fr. Raymond Brown, Union became the first Protestant seminary with a major Catholic biblical scholar.  Union was even briefly a center of Barthian thought with the presence of Robert McAfee Brown. Then Union became a flourishing center of various strands of liberation theology, housing faculty who pioneered in Black Theology (James H. Cone), feminist biblical studies ( Phyllis Trible), North American reception to Latin American liberation theology (McAfee Brown, again),and much more.  Rather than the site of one major theological tradition like many seminaries or universities, Union has been a crossroads of many North American theological currents.  My own mentor, Glen H. Stassen, received his B.D. at Union and was deeply influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, D.D. Williams, & W.D. Davies (but not Tillich who had already left for Harvard; Glen has a profound distaste for anything Tillichian).

Garry Dorrien represents several of those strands in his own work:  He is a self-declared liberal theologian, shaped by the Social Gospel, Niebuhrian realism, and liberation theologies.  He has also been an excellent historian of “Barthianism,” and the rise of post-fundamentalist “neo-Evangelicalism.”  In this interview with Peter Steinfels of the New York Times, Dorrien continues his criticism of U.S. foreign policy, especially the war in Iraq. He also disputes Neo-Conservative claims to inherit the mantle of Reinhold Niebuhr, and surfaces several Niebuhrian themes that it would benefit U.S. Americans to reclaim and recover.

Pacifists like myself are widely expected not to appreciate Niebuhr and Niebuhrians like Dorrien. After all, Reinie began his life as a liberal pacifist, but had a conversion to non-pacifism as Hitler rose to power. He became one of the strongest critics of Christian pacifism in the 20th C.  But, like Duane K. Friesen and others, I appreciate Reinhold Niebuhr’s criticisms of naive, liberal forms of pacifism and believe that Christian pacifism is better for encountering and wrestling with Reinhold Niebuhr’s strong critique. Post-Niebuhrian Christian pacifism, as Martin Luther King, Jr. acknowledged in his famous essay, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” is far stronger than any pacifism which hasn’t taken Niebuhr into account.  Thus, I also appreciate Dorrien’s retrieval of Niebuhrian themes to criticize U.S. pride, imperialism, naivete, and Neo-Con hubris.

Hat tip to Melissa Rogers for alerting me to this significant interview.  In the future, I plan to blog through Dorrien’s 3 volume history of American Liberal Christianity.

May 26, 2007 Posted by | foreign policy, theology, U.S. politics | 4 Comments

The Practice of Theology, 2

If theology is a “science of convictions,” then we need to say more about what convictions are.  McClendon distinguishes them from opinions.  [See James Wm. McClendon, Jr. and James M. Smith, Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism (Wipf & Stock, 2002)–a revision and expansion of McClendon and Smith, Understanding Religious Convictions (University of Notre Dame Press, 1975).] Opinions are easily formed and easily changed. Forming them may require investigation or logical reasoning, but they do not involve much more than the intellect. We often know exactly how and when we formed opinion X and when it changed to opinion Y.

By contrast, convictions are deeply a part of us. We are very emotionally invested in them. They are not formed easily and they are not changed easily.  They cannot be changed at all without the individual or the community holding them becoming a significantly different individual or community.  In a sense, we are our convictions and, thus, changing them leads to our becoming someone new (or a different community).

Consider some examples.  And here, just for fun, I will tease some prominent theology bloggers and bibliobloggers by using them in the examples.  Imagine, if you will, a Jim West giving up a Zwinglian “pure memorial” understanding of the Lord’s Supper for a Lutheran belief in eucharistic “consubstantiation,” or some other “real presence” sacramental view.  Such a change would not be simply an exegetical or theological change of mind, but a type of conversion and the results would give us a very different Jim West from the one we know (and love?)–but he’d probably still keep calling Chris Tilling “the devil.”

Or imagine D. W. Congdon rejecting universal salvation. Surely that would be a conversion! (Actually, considering that Congdon is a Wheaton alumnus come to Princeton, this would probably be a re-conversion to earlier convictions.) Or what would Guy Davies be like if he came to embrace Arminius’ or Wesley’s views on prevenient grace and free will?

Waxing more serious, I know that my rejection of the view that Christians could use lethal force and serve in national militaries, and my embrace of Christian pacifism (gospel nonviolence)  was not a simple change of opinion, but a conversion. Since I was in the U.S. military at the time, it involved me refusing to don my uniform or pick up my rifle and applying for a conscientious objector discharge. 

The same is true for communities:  Consider those churches in the 16th C. that, under the influence of Zwingli or Luther or Calvin, embraced the Reformation–and were no longer Catholic but Protestant churches.  Or consider those early followers of Zwingli–Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, Georg Blaurock, etc. who followed the logic of Zwingli’s early teaching on baptism and then decided that Scripture had more authority than the Zurich city council and became the first Anabaptists.  Convictions are not changed easily–and they  cannot be changed at all without the individual or community holding those convictions becoming significantly different than before.

Therefore theology not only involves struggle for truth amidst error, but also the risk of conversion and change (not least from the theologian).

Now, all of us hold some beliefs, even some religious beliefs, at the opinion level rather than the convictional level.  Perhaps one definition of “fundamentalism” (whether conservative or liberal in orientation) is that all or nearly all beliefs are at the convictional level–nothing is adiaphora or even of secondary importance, everything is life or death, nothing is not a “test of fellowship,” that separates out true believers from heretics.

Next time: The branches of theology and how this relates to the practices of the Church and churches and the task(s) of theologians.

May 26, 2007 Posted by | theology | 7 Comments