The Common Good

Separation Anxiety: God is Dead! Long Live God!

This is the third and final installment of my little series on Harry Emerson Fosdick, his sermons about Modernism and Science, and how these century-old sermons remind us that our present conversations about the same are anything but new. They may be necessary, but they aren't new. You can read my first post, “I Love How History Repeats Itself,” and my second post, “Science, Faith, and An Ongoing Conversation.”

God's hand illustration, George Nazmi Bebawi / Shutterstock.com
God's hand illustration, George Nazmi Bebawi / Shutterstock.com

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I want to continue to focus on the same two sermons, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" and "The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism," and finish up a line of thought about American Christian Fundamentalism and interlace a third and final sermon entitled, “The Greatness of God” in which Fosdick outlines some of his own understandings of atheism, science, and religion. Typical of Fosdick, there is a tome hidden in between the lines of that sermon. Nevertheless, I'll try to share some of it with you.

What does Fosdick say is the trouble with Modernism? In “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism,” he lists a few problems. Here's a list:

  • “... it is primarily an adaptation, an adjustment, an accommodation of Christian faith to contemporary scientific thinking.”
  • for this reason it tends “toward shallowness and transiency” and thus cannot adequately represent the Eternal;
  • “Unless the church can go deeper and reach higher than that it will fail indeed.”
  • “... excessively preoccupied with intellectualism” eschewing the heart and thus missing much of Christian spirituality
  • excessive sentimentality, which means the eternal progress of the human character and the eradication of evil and the loss of moral judgment, scientific progress being equated with human moral progress
  • “... modernism has even watered down and thinned out the central message and distinctive truth of religion, the reality of God.”

Here he quotes a poem by Swinburne:

"Thou art smitten, thou God, thou art smitten; thy death is upon thee, O Lord.
And the love-song of earth as thou diest resounds through the wind of her wings -

Glory to Man in the highest! for Man is the master of things!"

Here he goes on to talk about atheism. Here it helps to nod to “The Greatness of God,” another sermon preached in the mid-30s. He offers that many of the atheists he meets cannot believe in the God of the American Fundamentalist:

“Or here is another man who says, I am an atheist. And after talking with him I see that he is not an atheist. What he is denying is not God, but some popular picture of God. That is what most atheism is. There is very little of the Simon-pure article, and sometimes one can help a man like that by making him see that when the little gods go, the great God comes. One can send him out saying: The gods are dead! Long live God!”

We can and should pick nits with Fosdick in our present situation, but the above lines are so very familiar. It was one of many critiques laid against Dawkins and other popular atheist thinkers of our own time. Dawkins was mad as hell and he was right to be. The religion he despised may very well be an entirely inadequate religion. I wonder if had Fosdick possessed the language if he would have been speaking to the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious.

Fosdick finishes his list with this:

“Finally, modernism has too commonly lost its ethical standing-ground and it's power of moral attack. It is a dangerous thing for a great religion to begin adjusting itself to the culture of a special generation. Harmonizing slips easily into compromising. To adjust Christian faith to the new astronomy, the new geology, the new biology, is absolutely indispensable. But suppose that this modernizing process, well started, goes on and Christianity adapts itself to contemporary nationalism, contemporary imperialism, contemporary capitalism, contemporary racism – harmonizing itself, that is, with the prevailing social status quo and the common moral judgments of our time – what then has become of religion, so sunk and submerged in undifferentiated identity with this world?”

Fosdick indicts Fundamentalism and Modernism in one move. Standing in the pulpit of Riverside Church, a congregation built by Rockefeller money, he calls out all of Protestant Christianity. In our desire to meet the criticisms of atheists, in our desire for technological, economic, and scientific progress, we lose God. We lose the Eternal. So what then is the response? Here's one last lengthy quotation:

“Therefore let all modernists lift a new battle cry: We must go beyond modernism! And in the new enterprise the watchword will be not, Accommodate yourself to the prevailing culture! But, Stand out from it and challenge it! For this is the inescapable fact, which again and again in Christian history has called modernism to its senses, we face: we cannot harmonize Christ himself with modern culture. What Christ does to modern culture is to challenge it.”

He calls for Christians to separate themselves in some way, to stand in opposition. A century later we can track how this played out among Modernist Christianity... Koinonia Farms, Stanley Hauerwas, The Ekklesia Project, Rodney Clapp, Phyllis Tickle, Diana Butler Bass, Brian McLaren, and many others have taken up this call in oft surprising ways. It is woven in the fabric of many of our responses to the so-called decline of Christianity in our communities.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the origin of and the development of Fosdick's ideas. In a previous thread some mentioned Bonhoeffer's time at Union Seminary and his critiques of the Christian theologians he encountered there. No doubt Bonhoeffer would have heard Fosdick preach. Their critiques of their culture are similar. Not surprisingly, many of those I've mentioned above laud much of Bonhoeffer's thinking.

What else do you see? How else do you understand this movement in Modernist Christianity? Am I right that what was old is new again? 

Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.orgFollow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.

God's hand illustration, George Nazmi Bebawi / Shutterstock.com

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