Review Essay

Review Essay: Taking Up Niebuhr’s 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.

Reviewed Chuck Fager


A war was the setting for two of the most powerful passages in Gary Dorrien’s 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 Kaiser’s speech pronouncing Germany’s 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 Wilson’s “war to end all wars.” Rauschenbush saw through the cant, and said no to the stampede. “Don’t ask me to combine religion and the war spirit,” he told one friend. “I don’t want to lose my religion; it’s all I’ve 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. I’m 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.

There’s irony in that Dorrien’s work can be seen as a detailed critique of the arc of Niebuhr’s own project – pronouncing Niebuhr, who spent decades blasting liberal theology, as a liberal at heart, and after all.

Yet there’s 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. Niebuhr’s 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. (We’ll return to Niebuhr shortly.)

The first two books in our list, Dorrien’s 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. It’s 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 didn’t 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. Dorrien’s 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. I’m less sanguine about our prospects in the forthcoming Liberating Theology In Crisis. Theology hasn’t been a Quaker strong point since Rufus left the scene; in truth, it’s 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 I’m 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. I’m awaiting Dorrien’s 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 it’s 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 Right’s 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.


Even after half a century, it is possible to read Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History and see there only the dogged Cold Warrior, exhorting his compatriots to unflagging struggle against the Marxist menace. And to be sure, his anti-communist zeal in its pages is unstinting. But when I opened it a few months ago, what leaped from the pages was his repeatedly voiced sense of foreboding, even dread, at the hazards posed by this crusade to America itself, even as he saw it being then on the right side:

. . . [C]ommunism believes that it is possible for man, at a particular moment in history, to take “the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.” . . . . Its cruelty is partly due to the frustration of the communist overlords of history when they discover that the “logic” of history does not conform to their delineation of it. One has an uneasy feeling that some of our dreams of managing history might have resulted in similar cruelties if they had flowered into action. But there was fortunately no program to endow our elite of prospective philosopher-scientist-kings with actual political power.”

Irony, p. 3-4

But now, unfortunately, such an elite has been so empowered. Its rise is no longer prospective; this elite is in the saddle, and shows no inclination to ponder Niebuhr’s cautionary comment that “Communism is a vivid object lesson in the monstrous consequences of moral complacency about the relation of dubious means to supposedly good ends.” (Ibid., p.5)

Niebuhr was clear about the religious sense of election that was at the root of this hazard for the American experiment. The country:

came into existence with the sense of being a “separated” nation, which God was using to make a new beginning for mankind. We . . . had been called out by God to create a new humanity. We were God’s “American Israel.” Our pretensions of innocency therefore heightened the whole concept of a virtuous humanity which characterizes the culture of our era; and involve us in the ironic incongruity between our illusions and the realities which we experience. We find it almost as difficult as the communists to believe that anyone could think ill of us, since we are as persuaded as they that our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of any of our actions. (p. 24-25)

Niebuhr foresaw the climactic danger:

The real test . . . will occur at the point in time when American preparedness has reached its highest possibility and . . . might tempt American strategists to welcome a final joining of the issue. In that situation many Americans would, of course, strongly resist the temptation to embark upon a preventive war. But their resolution will be strengthened and their cause have a better prospect of success if the decision lies not with one powerful nation but with a real community of nations. (p. 138)

The fact that Niebuhr was imagining a preventive nuclear war against the Soviets rather than a worldwide crusade aimed at “terror,” and its Islamic stand-in makes his sense of our plight no less apt. The U.S. has now launched a preventive war, over the strong resistance of many of its own citizens, and in defiance of the “community of nations.” As Niebuhr intuited, the war’s “prospects for success” seem murky indeed.

But there is more to this analysis that echoes in the contemporary ear:

[America] might be driven to hysteria by [history’s] inevitable frustrations. We might be tempted to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations. The political term for such an effort is “preventive war.” It is not an immediate temptation; but it could become so in the next decade or two.

A democracy can not of course, engage in an explicit preventive war. But military leadership can heighten crises to the point where war becomes unavoidable. The power of such a temptation to a nation, long accustomed to expanding possibilities and only recently subjected to frustration, is enhanced by the spiritual aberrations which arise in a situation of intense enmity. The certainty of the foe’s continued intransigence seems to be the only fixed fact in an uncertain future. Nations find it even more difficult than individuals to preserve sanity when confronted with a resolute and unscrupulous foe. Hatred disturbs all residual serenity of spirit and vindictiveness muddies every pool of sanity. In the present situation even the sanest of our statesmen have found it convenient to conform their policies to the public temper of fear and hatred which the most vulgar of our politicians have generated or exploited. Our foreign policy is thus threatened with a kind of apoplectic rigidity and inflexibility. (p. 146)

It is possible, as Niebuhr’s New Left detractors would later do, to see in all this no more than dressed-up platitudes, barely covering a sellout to the worst of Cold War excesses (Idealism, p. 480). But Niebuhr’s responses to the Vietnam War, more than a decade later, suggest otherwise.

At first he supported the war, but then followed the lead of Martin Luther King, Jr. into opposition, rebuking those who claimed his earlier work in continued support. Poor health kept him from doing more, but he wielded a sharp and bitter antiwar pen, confessing to a close friend near the end of his life that “I am scared by my own lack of patriotism,” doubting the wisdom of his militant anticommunism, and adding, “For the first time I fear I am ashamed of our beloved nation.” (Fox, p. 285)

Neoconservatives still brazenly summon Niebuhr’s shade to give posthumous blessing to their imperial ventures. As one such put it, with typical triumphalism, in early 2002:

What might we learn from Niebuhr about our current challenges, which are so different from those presented by the Cold War, though similar in requiring patience, persistence, and firm resolution? First and foremost, that it is right and just for Christians to support this war. Indeed, they have an obligation to do so.” (McClay)

It is enough to say that I am persuaded to the contrary,that this eminence of Union Seminary would stand firmly against such bluster, as he did late in his life, as it gave voice to all the worst that he feared could happen to his home country, and like Rauschenbush, saw happening in his final clouded years.


Evidently Union’s search committee agreed with this view, because in Gary Dorrien they have gained a scholar who seems very much aware of the trajectory of Niebuhr’s thinking. He is also ready to pursue its dynamic against, as the title of his most recent book, Pax Americana, indicates, the self-destructive presumptuousness of the neoconservative agenda. Niebuhr would have applauded.

Pax Americana offers a calm and thorough review of the shaping of the neoconservative ideology, its rise to power in the current administration, and its various overlapping plans for U.S. world domination. This book is his second on the topic; the first, The Neoconservative Mind, published in 1993, is out of print and hard to find.

What struck me about Pax Americana, however, was how much was not there. What I missed was an elucidation of the religious aspects of this crusade. To be sure, most of the key neoconservative political actors seem to be confirmed pagans, worshippers of no god but Moloch. But even so, Protestant and Catholic conservatives have been key to assembling and motivating the coalition by which they now rule the country and seek to impose their will on the planet. Why Dorrien bypasses this dimension is a puzzle.

The nearest thing to a clue about this elision that I’ve found was in a talk Dorrien gave to an antiwar group in April of 2003, which summarized the book:

In the interest of inclusivity I have kept my religious feelings out of this talk, but I must at least acknowledge that my own motivation as a participant in the peace movement is primarily religious. From a Christian standpoint it is supposed to be nearly impossible to morally justify the murderous violence of war. The world worships power, but Jesus lived and taught the way of agape – the power of self-sacrificial divine love. To the early church the cross symbolized the fellow-suffering way of Christ, which contradicted the way of violence and domination.

It is painfully true that the Christian church did not sustain this meaning of the cross after the fourth century. To many people, the cross became a symbol of domination and persecution. Nonviolence is supposed to be constitutive in Christianity, yet in recent months I have been asked repeatedly to explain why so many church leaders, including the pope, have opposed the war. It isn’t what people expect. How very sad.

Sad, yes. But it’s also sad that Dorrien does not supply more insight into the religious basis of this reaction. After all, what has “inclusivity” got to do with calling this perversion of religion by its name? Niebuhr would be shaking his head at this.

I was left with a similar sense of disappointment after finishing his book which takes a look over the fence at The Remaking of Evangelical Theology. Here Dorrien does his usual good job of tracing the work and debates of numerous important evangelical thinkers of the past century, in which two themes seemed most salient: the internal struggles over “inerrancy” of the Bible, and the parallel efforts to prove intellectual supremacy for evangelical doctrines by means of one form or another of dogmatic scholasticism.

Pondering this second thrust, I wondered if one could perhaps see in it some of the roots of the religious and organizational resurgence which has so rocked our culture in the past twenty years. Were they in the thick tomes of Carl F.H. Henry and the tragic E.J, Carnell, which purported to show how, compared to their versions of intellectualized fundamentalism, all other religions and theologies were not only wrong but patently irrational? Or did they go back to the efforts of J. Gresham Machen in the 1920s to push all liberals out of the Presbyterian church? Do the tendrils extend all the way to the antebellum Princeton Scholastics’ vigorous defense of slavery as a biblically-blessed institution?

Maybe; I have some suspicions. But alas, Dorrien who could connect these dots better than just about anyone else, doesn’t. This is an important omission, if only because the spirit of such projects, though Dorrien seems too polite to say so, is frankly totalitarian; in Catholic history, this spirit gave rise to the Inquisition among other horrors. In the U.S., it first helped bring on the Civil War, and is now kindling something that could turn out to be worse.

Such upheavals are not unknown elsewhere in Dorrien’s corpus. Indeed, as we learn in The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology, Karl Barth emerged from the theological crisis of World War One only to have to confront another, in Nazism, twenty years later.

Again he resisted, losing his professorship at Bonn for refusing to sign a Hitlerian loyalty oath. He helped inspire the resistance of the Confessing Church, which, limited as it was, surpassed what most others did. And once more he protested as, with less fanfare than in 1914 and more signs of guilty conscience, one after another of his colleagues, including some very famous theological names, knuckled under to Nazi pressure and were folded into fascist “German Christianity.”

The spirit which Barth and Rauschenbush and Niebuhr faced is again loose upon the land. Dorrien’s narrative of evangelical thought continues into the early 1990s, the era of the rise to dominance of Dominionist and neoconservative thought and structures in the movement. Yet its vast impact, as much theological as it is political, hardly registers on his radar screen. Instead, his book focuses on what he sees as the emergence of promising post-fundamentalist and post-conservative trends in evangelical thought – a feminist here, a liberation-minded scripture scholar there, a Christian environ-mentalist in a corner.

Perhaps such trends exist, and if so, I wish them well. But they are clearly marginalized, and all-but underground. By the time I closed The Remaking of Evangelical Theology, it seemed that Dorrien was straining at gnats, and mostly indulging a liberal observer’s wishful thinking. He was fussing over the handful of writers whose work appealed to his liberal concerns, while all but ignoring the 900-pound elephant that is crowding them out. The book misses the other, much more massive remaking of evangelical theology and culture it has brought about.

The echoes of Barth’s experience in our current discourse are evident to any who have ears to hear them. But these books are somehow largely deaf to them.

Still, hope springs eternal, and the many riches here makes one hope even more intensely that the trilogy’s third volume will begin to fill these gaps, which yawn wider with every day that passes.

I’m worried, though, because the elephant is also missing from The Word as True Myth, which presents what appears to be a summary of the larger project. In it Dorrien examines a wide range of recent thinkers, from John Cobb and process thought, to the religious implications of Jungian psychology, Mary Daly’s post-Christian feminism, other liberationists, and the Babel of deconstructionists.

All interesting; yet again, while a field of vision limited to the liberal sectors of the landscape may be instructive, it still seems daily more parochial, obsolete, and unhelpful.

So I’m awaiting Vol. 3 of his history not only because the first two were well-written, informative and insightful; but also because, and most important, it will be his last chance to bring together all this material in a way which can make it armor and ammunition for the trials that lie ahead.

And that’s what it should be. For one thing, Dorrien said (Idealism, p. 5) that volume three will feature, among the others, the Unitarian thinker James Luther Adams. I don’t know much about Adams, but I do know something of one of his more well-known students, reporter Chris Hedges, the recovering war correspondent. Hedges’ book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, has been widely discussed as an eloquent cry against war by a nonpacifist.

That book was not overtly religious; but Hedges has noted how often he saw religion used to add fuel to the fires of the various wars he reported on. Now his attention has turned, with growing alarm, to this rising domestic insurgency and its implications. Given his experience, I believe his is a voice to be heeded.

Last January, for instance, Hedges published a New York Times profile of professor Fritz Stern, who was a youthful exile from Nazi Germany and spent his academic career studying the origins of German fascism. The profile focused on Stern’s explanation of how Nazism co-opted and mobilized religion into a pillar of its regime. (For the full text of the Stern presentation, see Stern.) The parallels to “the rise of the Christian right” were evident to Hedges. (Hedges, January 2005).

Hedges has the theological background to highlight this process. He attended Harvard Divinity School before beginning his journalistic career. There, he writes,

I had a great ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, James Luther Adams. When I was a student, he was in his seventies. He told us that when we were his age, we’d all be fighting the Christian fascists, which we thought was rather silly then, but probably not so silly now.
. . . Fundamentalism lends itself completely to war, because it has a dichotomy between “us” and “them.” There is a notion that the only way to salvation is through whatever religion we happen to be, and in the fervor of that kind of fundamentalism, we refuse to acknowledge that salvation is possible through any other route.

Hedges 2003

Hedges adds: “But fascism, Adams warned, would not return wearing swastikas and brown shirts. Its ideological inheritors would cloak themselves in the language of the Bible; they would come carrying crosses and chanting the Pledge of Allegiance.” (Hedges, May 2005) He wrote that after a visit this winter to the National Religious Broadcasters convention in California, where, he felt, he saw Adams’s prophecy and Stern’s analysis being amply enacted before his eyes.

This quote reminds me of the old question from the days of the Watergate scandal: What did he know, and when did he know it? James Luther Adams knew something important, and he knew it well before most of the rest of us. And he was a liberal theologian. Tell us this story, Gary.

Which brings me to a final point: Dorrien’s books will be consulted for a long time about the history of liberal theology, and rightly so. As they are, however, I submit that for many future readers, and not just myself, an increasingly important measure of a thinker’s weight will be, not only their view of Ritschl or Schleiermacher, but whether, like Barth and Rauschenbush, their theologizing somehow enabled them to stand against the militarist, triumphalist tide washing over their/our society. And his grand trilogy’s value will be diluted if it does not explain how the current they witnessed against became a tide that battered them.

If Gary Dorrien seeks to be worthy of the Niebuhr chair, and the weight of his own project, he better find and tell us those stories in his aptly-titled, Liberating Theology in Crisis. And the sooner the better.



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