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

Brief Thoughts on Gary Dorrien

DorrienIt’s been awhile since I posted in my series of “Brief Thoughts on Contemporary Theological Voices.”  These are not intended to be comprehensive studies of particular thinkers, but mere introductions from my very subjective viewpoint–which the reader may do with as she or he wishes.  This is separate from my series on theological mentors, on personal heroes, or on major theological  dialogue partners. I previously offered Brief Thoughts on Marcus Borg and on N. T. Wright.

Gary Dorrien (1952-) is an Episcopal priest, a widower with one grown daughter, and currently Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, having previously been both chaplain and professor at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.  His current role at Union is a homecoming since he is twice an alumnus (M.Div., 1978; Ph.D., 1989), having earned two degrees at Princeton Theological Seminary ( M.A., 1979, Th.M., 1979) in between his Union degrees.  He is also one of the major voices today in reviving the American theological tradition of the Social Gospel–which he does from a post-liberal perspective.  As a scholar, Dorrien wears two hats:  The first is as a theological historian, an interpreter of various strands of Christianity, especially in North America.  The second hat is as a strong proponent of a revived Social Gospel and of economic democracy (or democratic socialism) in a U.S. context.

In Dorrien’s first role, interpreting the work of others, he has been praised by many whose views he doesn’t share. Yes, they say, he’s not one of us, but he has understood us correctly.  The number of different theological strands that Dorrien has interpreted both sympathetically and critically as a theological historian is pretty amazing.  His works in this regard include the following:

  • The Neo-Conservative Mind:  Politics, Culture, and the War of Ideology (1994).
  • Soul  in Society: The Making and Renewal of Social Christianity (1995).
  • The Word as True Myth: Interpreting Modern Theology (1997).
  • The Remaking of Evangelical Theology (1998).
  • The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology: Theology Without Weapons (2000).

It also includes Dorrien’s award-winning 3 volume history of the American form of Liberal theology which has been widely praised as carefully noting both strengths and weaknesses.  I have loved this series, although I only have one foot in this tradition, because I found myself understanding American liberal Christianity better than I ever have before. (Note: I am referring to genuine theological liberalism: anthropocentric starting point, revising doctrinal claims in light of modern science, etc. This is in strong contrast to the popular way that both fundamentalists and journalists refer to any non-inerrantist or non-fundamentalist as “liberal.”  Also, one should  not assume that liberal theology and politics go together and conservative theology and politics go together. That has often been the pattern, but there have been many exceptions.)

  • The Making of American Liberal Theology I: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900 (2001).
  • The Making of American Liberal Theology II: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950 (2003).
  • The Making of American Liberal Theology III: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity, 1950-2005 (2006).

Those 3 volumes belong on the shelves of every minister and theologian in the U.S.–and because we export our theology, many overseas  as well.  I only hope  Dorrien eventually edits a sourcebook of primary materials to go with those volumes of great secondary interpretation.

In his role as an advocate for a renewed Social Gospel,  Dorrien stands on the boundaries of the liberal tradition and Barthian/ post-liberal critique of that tradition.  He knows that the Social Gospel was originally too dependent on evolutionary views of human history, was too optimistic, too white and male, and without strong enough theological foundations.  But he is horrified at the retreat from a Social Gospel to an individualistic “gospel” of personal prosperity (“health and wealth”) and support for structures of the status quo.  Dorrien’s passions are for economic democracy and for an anti-imperialist foreign policy that takes human rights and peacemaking seriously–though I don’t think Dorrien is a pacifist anymore than the namesake of his endowed chair at Union, Reinhold Niebuhr.  Anabaptist-style liberationist that I am, I take issue with Dorrien’s Niebuhrian realism and just war thinking–but his internationalist anti-imperialism is a welcome change from either the militant Nationalists or the Neo-con imperialists.  Dorrien’s publications as a Social Christianity advocate include:

  • The Democratic Socialist Vision (1986).
  • Reconstructing the Common Good: Theology and the Social Order (1990, repr., 2008).
  • Imperial Designs:  Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana (20004, 2006).
  • Social Ethics in the Making:  Interpreting an American Tradition (2004, 2008).
  • Economy, Difference, and Empire:  Against Domination (forthcoming, 2009)–already on my Christmas list.

I share more of Dorrien’s economic and political views than his theological, but he makes an excellent dialogue partner.  My kind of Believers’ Church vision will never be dominant, always a minority voice–but I would rather be interacting with a dominant church culture along the lines of a Garry Dorrien than along the lines of the Religious Right which has set so much of the agenda from c. 1979-c. 2007 that it was hard for any other voice to be heard at all.

As a historian, I think Dorrien has few peers. As an advocate, I think he represents the kind of liberal Niebuhrianism that once dominated the churches in this country.  That liberal Niebuhrianism has problems from my perspective–but not as many as what replaced it.  It remains to be seen whether Dorrien’s prescription for a renewed Social Gospel along liberal Niebuhrian lines (taking on board critiques from many angles) can overcome the weaknesses of former incarnations–but it will be exciting to watch and see.

August 10, 2009 - Posted by | theology


  1. It’s a shame he is not more well-known. I have read the first set of books you listed and found them all to be excellent and as you say “sympathetic and critical”.

    Comment by stan | August 13, 2009

  2. He was a lot of fun in class. Oh, and a walking encyclopedia.

    Comment by d. w. horstkoetter | August 14, 2009

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