Quaker Theology #11 -- Spring-Summer 2005


Review Essay: Taking Up Niebuhrís Irony: Living a Theological Saga

Six Books by Gary Dorrien:

Published by Westminster John Knox, Louisville:

   The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900. 2001, 494 pages.
   The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism & Modernity, 1900-1950. 2003, 666 pages.
   The Word As True Myth: Interpreting Modern Theology. 1997, 287 pages.
   The Remaking of Evangelical Theology. 1998, 262 pages.
   The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology: Theology Without Weapons. 2000, 239 pages.

Published by Routledge:

   Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism & the New Pax Americana. 2004, 298 pages.

By Chuck Fager


A war was the setting for two of the most powerful passages in Gary Dorrienís monumental, many-volumed saga of American and German theological history in the past two centuries. It marked the beginning of one great career, and the end of another.

The career that began was that of Karl Barth. As Europe lurched into war in 1914, this young pastor was horrified to see his most revered German teachers and mentors, above all the great liberal Adolf von Harnack, scurry to identify Christianity with Prussian militarism. Harnack even wrote the Kaiserís speech pronouncing Germanyís war a crusade for Christian civilization.

"I suddenly realized," Barth wrote later, "that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history." (Barthian, 38) Any theology that so hastened to hallow a worldly call to arms needed to be overthrown, and he set out to do just that. Thus was lit the fuse for what Dorrien calls The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology, and one of the most influential theological journeys of the twentieth century.

But the same war meant an end, in humiliation and despair, for another great German-trained theologian, the American social gospeler Walter Rauschenbush, and for much the same reason. As told in The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism & Modernity, in 1914 Rauschenbush was at the height of his renown and influence in American liberal religious circles: a best-selling author, an eminent professor, a sought-after preacher.

But when the U.S. entered the war, almost all prominent American theological liberals junked their earlier pacifist leanings and rushed to become pious cheerleaders for Woodrow Wilsonís "war to end all wars." Rauschenbush saw through the cant, and said no to the stampede. "Donít ask me to combine religion and the war spirit," he told one friend. "I donít want to lose my religion; itís all Iíve got." (Idealism, 119)

An utterly loyal American, but with strong German roots, Rauschenbush denounced the war frenzy of both nations, and the scandal of its religious sanctification. Such even-handed integrity cut no ice with his American audience, however; reactions were immediate and fierce, as he knew they would be. Rauschenbush fended off repeated barrages of personal invective aimed at him and his Christian antiwar stand. He never wavered, but the ordeal took a terrible toll: he saw his last book ignored, and soon sank into depression and then illness. He died before the war ended, at the age of 56, of cancer.


There are dozens of other well-drawn profiles in these books. But reading them in 2004 and 2005, these two burned themselves into my memory. Iím not so sure what to think about the grand theological edifices these two thinkers constructed; surely there is value in each, though they would not easily harmonize.

But for my money, what is much more important, especially now, is the personal witness their work engendered: a refusal to join in sacralizing the techno-imperial warrior state, in two of its earliest incarnations. For me their "peace testimonies" are what stand out above all, because they best resonate with the call to resistance which I now see as the paramount theological imperative of our day. Indeed, after all this reading, I know of no better test for as good theology than whether it engenders and supports such resistance to the "war spirit."

This call to resistance is one of which Gary Dorrien is by no means unmindful. And in light of it ther e is both irony and symmetry in the recent news that, after many productive years at Kalamazoo College, he has been appointed to the Reinhold Niebuhr Chair at Union Theological Seminary.

Thereís irony in that Dorrienís work can be seen as a detailed critique of the arc of Niebuhrís own project Ė pronouncing Niebuhr, who spent decades blasting liberal theology, as a liberal at heart, and after all.

Yet thereís symmetry in that Dorrien is assuming this august mantle just as some of the darkest possibilities Niebuhr himself identified and foretold are coming to pass. Niebuhrís prophecy was in his 1952 book, The Irony of American History. He then lived to see the beginning of its tragic fulfillment by the time of his death in 1971, a fulfillment that has since reached new levels of horror. (Weíll return to Niebuhr shortly.)

The first two books in our list, Dorrienís Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900; and Idealism, Realism & Modernity, 1900-1950, are part of a trilogy, The Making of American Liberal Theology. They cover 150 years of theological evolution and debate, describing the main characters and lucidly setting forth their ideas. Itís fair to say that readers like this writer, who have made their way through the 1100-plus pages of the first two volumes, are eagerly awaiting the appearance of the third.

That culminating book, tentatively titled Liberating Theology in Crisis, is due out in 2006. It promises to bring this saga essentially up to date, with a focus on figures like Martin Luther King Jr., James Luther Adams, and John Howard Yoder, plus feminist, liberation and eco-theologians. The fact that we know some of these not simply as names on a page, or professors in a classroom, but as shapers of our time, only increases the eagerness.

Among its many potential topics, one on my list, but near the bottom, is a parochial concern: how will Dorrien treat Quakers? Friends didnít appear directly in the first volume. But they found a place there, behind the scenes of his treatment of the emergence of liberal theology, particularly in the work of the founding Unitarian thinkers William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker. Channing and Parker, as I have shown elsewhere, were crucial influences on their friend Lucretia Mott, who in turn played a major part in shaping American liberal Quakerism. Dorrienís account of Channing, Parker and their movement confirms this analysis. (Fager, 2004)

In volume two, which covers 1900-1950, Friends show up in a profile of Rufus Jones, presented as an exponent of a mystical approach to progressive Christian thought. Jones in turn is cited as a mentor to Howard Thurman, who in his turn was a mentor to a young Martin Luther King, Jr. at Boston University.

Not bad for as small a group as we are. Iím less sanguine about our prospects in the forthcoming Liberating Theology In Crisis. Theology hasnít been a Quaker strong point since Rufus left the scene; in truth, itís been close to a taboo. Douglas Steere might have a shot; and on my own private list, there are renegades like Jim Corbett and Elizabeth Watson. But Iím pretty sure that in the new book Quakers will be mainly on the sidelines, most of us not even paying attention.

But again, these provincial considerations are relatively minor. Iím awaiting Dorrienís third volume much more for the pleasure of seeing a masterwork completed, and in hopes that he will fill in what now seem like important gaps in the story as he has told it. In particular, he has overlooked the rise to pre-eminence of what has been called the Religious Right, in both its Catholic and Protestant versions.

It might seem unfair to expect a saga of liberal theology to explain the growth of its main rival. But itís plain enough now that the "plot" of the third volume will be entirely incomplete without such an account of the collision of these two forces, and the Rightís current ascendancy. This struggle fills the foreground of the theological scene today, and could well become the denouement and epitaph of the liberal tradition Dorrien has so richly chronicled. Such is certainly one of its goals.

This concern is in part a literary one, because some of the key figures in this conservative and neo-conservative insurgency are former liberals. But it also fits the Niebuhrian heritage Dorrien has now assumed, because Niebuhr himself saw most of it coming.

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