Archive for the ‘Constructive Orthodoxy’ Category

The school of “Boston Personalism” which flourished in the first half of the twentieth century deserves a higher public awareness – their relative obscurity is significant for my thesis that Christianity’s best modern minds have been undeservedly “submerged” by historical forces which favored less worthy ideas.

Gary Dorrien (Union Theol. Sem.) brings this sunken strand of personalist theology and philosophy closer to the surface in Vol. 3 of his history of liberal theology.

The most coherent school of American liberal theology took its inspiration from the personalistic idealism of a single thinker. Borden Parker Bowne [1847-1910].

(Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, Vol. 3, Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, p. 286)

The premier theologian of the Boston Personalists was Albert Cornelius Knudson (1873-1953), who earned a Ph.D. under B.P. Bowne in 1900 and eventually became dean of the Boston University School of Theology.

Knudson was the product of Midwest Methodist piety and a graduate school conversion… Though he came late to his theological calling [note: he began his career teaching Old and New Testament criticism], it was Knudson especially who made Bowne-style personalism a significant theological school   (Dorrien, p. 286)

And, in honor of Father’s Day:

His father Asle was a distinguished and impeccably orthodox Methodist pastor… Knudson later recalled that the sanctificationist Wesleyan piety of his parents was “all very simple, but it was intensely real and vivid.” It remained vitally real to him long after he discarded much of his father’s theology. “I was allowed to go my own way, and no regret was expressed at my later departure from some of the tenets of the traditional evangelicalism in which I had been brought up. Whatever may have been my father’s feelings about the matter, he had an instinctive reverence for the honest convictions of others and was quite willing that I should work out my own intellectual salvation.” (Ibid, 286-7)

Knudson’s parents were immigrants from Norway and “their home life and Asle Knudson’s preaching emphasized the centrality of spiritual experience.“ (p. 286)

A second important theological and practical influence in Boston personalistic theology came from Methodist bishop Francis J. McConnell, another thinker with a Ph.D. under Bowne.

The philosopher of the school was Edgar Sheffield Brightman, a late student of Bowne’s and a professor of philosophy at Boston U.

The rise of personalism at Boston ought to have been an inspiration for a generation of liberals, whose optimism was badly stunned by the intransigence of the corporate barons and the horrors of WWI.

“Boston Personalism” acquired school status in the very years that liberal self-confidence began to erode.” (p. 286)

American theology has always been characterized by the strife of its competing sectarian bailiwicks, and I think the Methodist antecedents of the Boston school probably contributed to its failure to attract a wide following among non-Methodist religious thinkers. Many Methodists themselves disliked the Boston school’s more liberal approach to theology and scripture.

I think it is sad that a perverse sectarianism infects so much of American religious thought even today.  From the nineteenth century, each sect has had its own seminaries and its own journals – filled with opinionated criticism of new developments in all the other sects.  There has been little opportunity for a pooling of religious genius in this country, and therefore no great salient of progressive Christian thought.  Although each sect seems to have had in every generation at least one thinker of unusual caliber, there were no ‘schools’ formed beyond the pale of a given denomination. It was not until the rise of secular universities very late in the 19th century that we see the fruit of combined intellectual powers from different backgrounds – except this fertility was chiefly won for non-religious concerns

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I have been pleased enough with a 3-day review of writings by Richard Whately (1787-1863) to want him and his school on the front end of my project of cultural archaeology.  My aim in this project is to appreciate some under-appreciated Christian thinkers whose work has become submerged or ‘lost’ beneath other and stronger (not more worthy) religious and intellectual trends.

My long century is shaping up to extend roughly from 1820-1940.  I will eventually be focused on the later half of my period, works c.1875-1935 which I judge to be more valuable than Whately’s though no less submerged; but it was important for me first to find a theoretical ‘early strata’ for my project.

Richard Whately was elected Fellow of Oriel college, Oxford, in 1811; his first major work, The Use and Abuse of Party Feeling in Religion, reproduced his Bampton lectures of 1822.  Whately became a prolific and respected author and the acknowledged leader of what has been called the early Oriel School or the Noetic school in English theology and philosophy.  This group, including the older Edward Copleston and the younger R.D. Hampden and Thomas Arnold, and others, was a spiritual force at Oriel College and at Oxford until Whately was effectively taken out of the local picture in 1831, when Lord Grey dispatched him to Ireland as Archbishop of Dublin, an office he held I think until his death in 1863.

Shortly after Whately’s departure to Dublin, a second Oriel group caused such a stir in their rising as to eclipse the writing of the Noetics in the public eye.  This later group included John Keble, John Henry Newman, and Edward Pusey, and others who comprised the Anglo-Catholic ‘Oxford Movement ‘.  These later thinkers need no archaeology – they have their fame – which contributed not a little to the relative obscurity of the Noetics.  But the dialectic between them will give me opportunity  to take into consideration the ‘greater names’ from time to time.

In an earlier post I signaled my esteem of Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a religious thinker who enabled many nineteenth century minds to maintain their bearings as Christians even in their criticism of Christianity.  My archaeology of obscure men will take in the stream of Coleridge’s thought initially through the work of Julius Charles Hare (1795-1855).  Hare, who lectured at Cambridge in the 1820s and 30s, will allow me to bring that University into the picture.  In America, my project will find its origin in the writing of Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) and others like him.

Warning:  thinkers like Richard Whately (and others among my unknowns) don’t usually generate broad or flattering Google searches (food for gossips and wikipediacs).  Too often the antique quality of minor traits and opinions of early modern minds can be falsely accentuated and give to postmodern eyes the appearance of a quirky or unenlightened personality.  Of course that’s a large factor in the present obscurity of my unknowns, which in my opinion they do not deserve.

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God can neither order nor permit anything the end of which is desolation and ruin… We are sick because we are human; we are disappointed because we make mistakes; we sorrow for those who die; but God does not send mistakes; men die because they are men, and death knocks impartially at the palace and the cottage gate.

-The Age of Faith, 1900, pp. 154, 156

American theologian Amory Howe Bradford was pastor of First Congregational Church in Montclair, NJ.  He was an important member of the little-known American Institute of Christian Philosophy, which flourished in the 1880s and 90s.  Bradford’s earliest published work was entitled Spirit and Life, 1888.  He was the son of a congregational pastor and was educated at Hamilton College, NY, and graduated from Andover Theological Seminary in 1870.  Bradford was in the direct male line of descent from Governor William Bradford, of the original Mayflower compact.

No one is condemned to suffering in order that blessings may be realized by others. Even the most literalistic of the elder theologians taught that the sufferings of our Lord were voluntary…. A little child dies a horrible death, and the father asks: “Do you not think God is following me?” What idea can that man have of God? Does any sane person believe that God sends pain, sickness, long agony, death, to an innocent little child in order that a willful and vicious man may be brought to his senses?

No one is condemned to suffering for the benefit of another. The Almighty is not limited in His resources. My father would not ruin my brother to save me. (pg. 159)

During three recent visits to the seminary library I’ve had a chance to indulge my passion for forgotten theologians (like Bradford).  During each visit I spent good time among books from a single LC category, just pulling up a chair in the stacks in front of a great wall of books and going slowly across and down the book case, opening up every single book whose title did not absolutely offend me.  In fact it was the title of Bradford’s book, The Age of Faith, which compelled me to take a closer look, on the day I camped in front of category BR 121.

Bradford’s title struck me because BR 121 does not hold any books from the medieval period most people understand as ‘the Age of Faith.’  It’s a category for a type of apologetics in which the Christian writer attempts either to explain or explain away various aspects of the contemporary cultural scene in terms of his own vision of Christianity, and speculates about what the church needs to emphasize if it is to make headway in the modern world.   In a moment I recognized him as a writer on the inner spirit in man whom I knew something about.  This week I pulled the book from my pile of library check-outs and was inspired in my studies of providence and theodicy.

My special interest in this kind of theological writing focuses on the 30 years before and after the First World War (i.e. including writing from the second great secular catastrophe).

If all sorrows were penal, it would mean that others were being punished in order that we might suffer; that scarlet fever burns up a golden-haired child in order that a disreputable man may get his deserts; that cholera devastates a community in order that two or three dozen reprobates may be made to understand that they cannot evade the Almighty. The hollowness of such thoughts is exposed without argument… To assert that the innocent are made to suffer in order that the guilty may be adequately punished is to deny the sway not only of Fatherhood, but also of justice. (p.160)

Amory Howe Bradford; born Apr 14, 1846; died one hundred years ago on this day, Feb 18, 1911.

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“Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who offers it”

– Soren Kierkegaard (1847)

We misunderstand Kierkegaard’s meaning here if we think he’s saying prayer doesn’t reach God.  Neither is he calling prayer a one-way street, or a futile method of venting hope and desire, or a technique of problem-solving by self-hypnosis.

We Christians know that ‘God does not change’ (Mal 3:6); ‘shows no partiality’  (Rom 2:11); ‘nor shadow of turning’ (Jas 1:17).  But we have also been invited to pray (Mat 9:38 & etc.).  How’s that going to work then?

The average person might admit the Bible teaching but not recognize the theo-logical importance of a concept of an unchanging God.  The point is that prayer  invoked with the idea that God may be changed or show partiality tends to move our worship in the direction of an imaginary being of our own creation – a man-made god.  A prayer made in expectation that God will fulfill our needs and desires is a wish to make God more like us.  This is opposed to that faith which would make us more like God.

Kierkegaard recognized the religious need to reach God – to be heard – and the theological value of the concept of an unchanging God.  He preached an address in May, 1851, entitled “The Unchangeableness of God” (Jas 1:17-21), in which he developed the religious sense of this paradoxical situation – the human need  for change from a God who must be – by the Bible and the best theological definitions – unchangeable in nature.

From the opening prayer to the 1851 address:

“… Even that which we human beings call an insignificant trifle, and pass by unmoved, the need of a sparrow, even this moves Thee; and what we so often scarcely notice, a human sigh; this moves Thee, O infinite Love!  But nothing changes Thee! O Thou who art unchangeable!  O Thou who in infinite love dost submit to be moved, may this our prayer also move Thee to add Thy blessing, in order that there may be wrought such a change in him who prays as to bring him into conformity with Thy unchangeable will, Thou who are unchangeable!”

I think Kierkegaard’s insight was to recognize that impassibility (freedom from suffering) was not a necessary quality of divine immutability when considered in the context of an unchanging love.

What God gets in this arrangement is a man who seeks in his prayer time the  next move in the continuous change he should be making in the direction of more and more God.

What man gets is a God that hears him, and even suffers affliction with him (if need be) in unchanging love.

Note:  Top quote,  Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing (2. “Remorse, Confession, Repentance”) – ET D.V. Steere, 1938; 1851 address, in For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourselves! (Princeton, 1941)

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S. T. Coleridge 1772-1834


I meddle not with the dispute respecting conversion, whether, and in what sense, necessary in all Christians.  It is sufficient for my purpose, that a very large number of men, even in Christian countries, need to be converted, and that not a few, I trust, have been.  The tenet becomes fanatical and dangerous, only when rare and extraordinary exceptions are made to be the general rule; – when what was vouchsafed to the apostle of the Gentiles by especial grace, and for an especial purpose, namely a conversion begun and completed in the same moment, is demanded or expected of all men, as a necessary sign and pledge of their election.  (Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, Introductory Aphorisms, XXVIII)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s religious writing has always been a bigger draw for me than his poetry.  But Aids to Reflection is not an easy read; some of Coleridge’s concerns are dated, his style is ornate, with his sentences given to long dependent clauses.  Why do I bother?

I have a peculiar brand of liberal Christianity which still has a God and a Christ, still defends a supernaturalist view of the cosmos – but cannot find a liberal church or a secular university that doesn’t demean this God and this Christ and this cosmos.  Consequently I have only a very limited contemporary intellectual mileu and am, by all accounts, an inveterate Anachronist.  My intellectual passion for over 30 years has been dominated by philosophers, theologians, preachers, writers, and poets largely born before 1900 (although I enjoy a handful born later, and a few of the oldies, even, were writing past the 1960s).

Why so few favorites born after 1900?  Well ‘the times’ change, they say.  In our secular age, fewer and fewer really fit human minds are finding the Christian churches and the life of religion and theology to be a lure to their tremendous talents.  Not that I am a talent, but only that I know a good mind when I see one.  My father-in-law, a physician, remarked recently that he has seen evidence of a similar ‘brain drain’ in medicine – I mean of the tip-top minds, the epoch-makers, he suggested that too many who 100 years ago would have seen medicine as the avenue of greatest idealism and service had been attracted (or distracted) into careers that appeared to offer the latest salaries and different fascinations.

So I go back to the age when there were still really top minds able to believe in God and push the envelope of a constructive theology.  It’s that simple.  And it was decades ago that I found in the stacks of a great old seminary library a book by Scottish professor John Tulloch, Movements of Religious Thought in Britain during the Nineteenth Century (1885).  In this precious old work I discovered to my surprise  many  inquiring religious minds which suited me both spiritually and intellectually in a remarkable way – and most of them were expressing a significant debt to Coleridge.

Awakened by a cock-crow (a sermon, a calamity, a sickbed, or a providential escape) the Christian pilgrim sets out in the morning twilight, while yet the truth is below the horizon.  Certain necessary consequences of his past life and his present undertaking will be seen by the refraction of its light: more will be apprehended and conjectured.  The phantasms, that had predominated during the hours of darkness, are still busy.  Though they no longer present themselves as distinct forms, they yet remain as formative notions in the pilgrim’s soul, unconscious of its own activity and over-mastered by its own workmanship.  (XXIX)

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Last Sunday afternoon in a certain city, a dusty and over-stuffed automobile stopped in an empty public parking lot, where its driver made a cell phone call.  He then drove to a shady corner of the lot and parked.  Less than ten minutes later, a second vehicle entered the lot and came to a stop near the first.  Both drivers got out of their cars and greeted one another, after which the driver of the second car opened his trunk to display an open box.  The first driver, after examining the contents of the box with approval, gave the other man a sum of money and put the box in his own car.  After a short conversation, the buyer got into his car and departed the lot, heading out of town.  The seller drove off in another direction.

J. Brierley ("J.B.") 1843-1914

On the face of it, an observer might have seen this transaction as anything but what it was – my pre-arranged purchase, while driving home from vacation, of eight rare volumes by Jonathan Brierley, a popular religious essayist of the early twentieth century.  The book dealer, 250 miles from my hometown, had agreed the week before by email to meet me on short notice while I passed through town, and sell me the books in a cash deal without postage and handling costs.

Interesting to note, it had been almost a year earlier that I had first spotted the collection online – just after returning home from a previous vacation in which I had passed through that same city.  Nevertheless, I felt no compulsion to order them at the time, but conceived of the possibility of executing the transaction as I did, in the current year.  I was almost certain I would not lose my opportunity, even if I should let an entire year pass, because I have noticed that nobody on Earth is yet seeking the forgotten books and authors which I hold to be crucial to the next theology.

More on Brierley in the sequel.

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“Your very contempt for the poverty-stricken and powerless venerators of religion, in whom, from lack of nourishment, religion ever dies before it comes to birth, convinces me that you have a talent for religion…

Become conscious, then, of the call of your deepest nature and follow it…  banish the false shame of a century, which should not determine you.  …Return to what lies so near to you, the violent separation from which cannot fail to destroy the most beautiful part of your nature.”

On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, F.D.E. Schleiermacher, 3d German ed. 1831, ET John Oman, 1893, Harper 1958, p.91, 92).

I continue my historical retrospect of what I would call ‘constructive orthodoxy’ with excerpts from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s literary debut, in which the thirty-year-old theologian calls out the Age of Enlightenment for the folly of its indifference and atheism.  The alienation of ‘the modern’ from God was viewed by Schleiermacher as a tragic divorcement of self-consciousness from its right relation to the ground and truth of being.  But I cannot miss the fact that he assigns a central role in this modern tragedy to the eighteenth century church itself.

People think they know Schleiermacher, but it requires more than a simple refunding of our own ideas of religious feeling, absolute dependence, and God-consciousness, to really know him.  Rightly apprehended, his work still represents, I think, the classic historical model for religions of experience, for constructive ‘methods’ of religious living.

“The religious man must, at least, be conscious of his feelings as the immediate product of a universal reality; for less would mean nothing.  He must recognize something individual in them, something that cannot be imitated, something that guarantees the purity of their origin from his own heart.  To be assured of this possession is the true belief.  To the contrary, belief usually so called – which is to accept what another has said or done, or to wish to think and feel as another has thought and felt – is a hard and base service… To wish to have and hold a faith that is an echo, proves that a man is incapable of religion; to demand it of others, shows that there is no understanding of religion” (pp.90-91).

Like him, I would try to make the higher truths of religious living accessible to some of the great minds of our day.  It is the task of the next theology to elaborate a spirit of faith and worship capable of operating in freedom from the burden of humanity’s many unrevealed, anthropological religious forms (including those which weigh heavily upon Judaism and Christianity).

“Hereafter shall each man see with his own eyes and shall produce some contribution to the treasures of religion.  Every sacred writing is in itself a speaking monument from the heroic time of religion, but, through servile reverence, it would become merely a monument that a great spirit once was there, but is now no more… You are right in despising the wretched echoes who derive their religion entirely from another, or depend on a dead writing, swearing by it and proving out of it (p.91).”

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