American Theology and The American Identity Crisis
"The Last Beat Hope": Pluralism?
Robert T. Handy's classic, A Christian America, shows that the 19th century Protestants embarked on a crusade to bring the people and the institutions of the USA under the suzerainty of The Christian Ethic. Towering over this project, however, was a supremely confident rationalism, a belief that the USA was a modern version of ancient Israel, a people chosen to bring enlightenment, civilization and democracy to the rest of the world. (Handy, A Christian America (NY: Oxford Press, 1971; see his Festschrift, Altered Landscapes; Christianity in America, 1935-1985 (Eerdmans, 1989); compare the interpretations of Niebuhr's Kingdom of God in America, and Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols (Doubleday, pb). See also Smith/Handy/Loetscher, American Christianity; Interpretations and Documents (2 vols).
As late as 1981, Jerry Falwell was sure that the US is God's chosen instrument for keeping the Church free to preach the Gospel to the whole world and for protecting the state of Israel until the Last Times ('An interview with the Lone Ranger of American Fundamentalism. Christianity Today 25/15 (Sept 4, 1988:22-31).
Pluralism, Protestantism and The American National Identity: The Paradox of religion in the US, noted at least as long ago as Tocqueville, is that religion flourishes here under an institutional structure that makes it legally separate from government and barred from special privilege (Tocqueville, p. 47, vol. I; see my 'Changing Interpretation of The First Amendment' in The Journal of Christian Studies).
End of An Era: 1960's - The Anglo-American Epoch (From Accessing of Elizabeth I to John Kennedy). Sydney Ahlstrom's landmark history published in 1972 declares that the year 1968 marked the end of the Protestant "establishment" in the religious life in America (S. E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of The American People, 2 vols (Garden City: Doubleday, 1975): 2.6l2ff; M. E. Marty, The Public Church, Mainline-Evangelical-Catholic (NY: Crossroads, 1981). In that year of 1968, not only was there new interest in non-western religions among adherents of the campus "counter-culture", but it was apparent that with the exception of Martin Luther King, Jr., no religious leader or institution in America could speak confidently about public policy in ways that drew together classic religious concepts and classic American political philosophy.
In the early eighties, Martin Marty described "mainline" denominations and congregations as representing a "public Church" that brought together people of diverse theological, ideological, and social opinion. In contrast to the alleged sectarian uniformity of the "evangelicals", the public church affirmed a profound unity in the face of profound diversity. Such a Church, implied Marty, is analogous to and supportive of the democratic concept of a public open to many opinions and cultures. (Marty, The Public Church, 1981; also his The Righteous Empire (NY: Dial, 1970).
Recently, Robert Bellah (et al) have echoed Ahlstrom's view of the exceptional combination of Church and public leadership in the career of Martin L. King, Jr. Under his leadership the civil rights movement "explicitly aimed at broadening and strengthening effective membership in the national community, involving biblical and republican themes on an international as well as national level . . ." The movement "called upon Americans to transform their social and economic institutions with the goal of building a just national community. ... It did this by combining biblical and republican themes in a way that included, but transformed, the culture of individualism." (Bellah, Habits of The Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 213,249.)
Perhaps the most important question of the eighties in America was, "What does it mean to be Christian and American?" The same challenge was present in 1935, but in the 1990's the answer is being overheard by the largest and most complex world since creation. Global perspective is both biblically sound and culturally imperative, as we face the 21st Century (see J. D. Hunter, American Evangelicals (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983; also his Evangelicalism; The Coming Generation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
Demise of The Protestant Axis in American Christianity: Remarkable differentiation within undergirding continuity of the Church and culture - see Catherine Albanese's America, Religions and Religion (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1981).
The 1960's experienced a paradigmatic revolution and the old paradigm was replaced by the new one, 'Civil Religion, cf. Bandy's "a distinct quadricentenium"; R. E. Richey and D. G. Jones, eds., American Civil Religion (NY: Harper and Row, 1974). We can gain perspective for probing the relationship of cultural continuity to manifest change in another social context. In his "Quicunque Vult", R. G. Collingwood posited that through metaphysical inquiry one can discover first principles that serve as the presuppositions of social life (An Essay On Metaphysics, vol. II of Philosophical Essays (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), chp 21, pp. 213-27; note his influence on Bultmann's Hermeneutic). Collingwood thought it possible, by analyzing these presuppositions, to explore deeper cultural patterns beneath relatively superficial appearances (see my Critique of Structuralism). These first principles are taken for granted, that is, they do not have the status of logical propositions nor do they serve as explicit norms of behavior and belief (see works by Kraft, Conn, et al, and my Cross-Communication of Christ; Contextualization in Context; and T. Kuhn's Theory of Paradigm). They are, rather, culturally given, hidden under, and only expressed through, symbols and rituals, in short, in a religious idiom (cf. note denial of possibility of Religious Truth through prepositional revelation - see my Word of God; and Christian Faith and Theories of Language. In this paradigm, religion is seen only as social location, where the presuppositions of the common life are worked through, codified, and transmitted (see R. Kirk's Enemies of Permanent Things (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969).
The Power of Presuppositions lie in their capacity to make the world intelligible within a given culture (Presuppositions should account for both Truth and Meaning); that is, to make ideas and actions within it effective and coherent. According to Collingwood, classical culture had a metaphysical flow that fatally limited it. It failed to understand and conceptualize the relationship between realm and movement, form and flux, structure and change (see F. F. Centore, Being and Becoming, A Critique of Post-Modernism (its presuppositions) (Westport, CT: Greenwood Pub., 1991).
Classical Christian theologians identified this flaw and corrected it with the Trinitarian formulations of the creeds. For Collingwood the magnitude of their achievement was demonstrated by the progressive advance of science in subsequent western culture, which was itself decisively recast on the basis of Christian assumptions (Cf. God as the absolute origin and absolute consummation of the universe; Charles Cochrane in his Christianity and Classical Culture (Oxford, 1939; Oxford University Press, 1944).
Collingwood suggests that 'first principles' can be analyzed in a fully rational way only retrospectively, that is, as a historical subject matter. From the Collingwood/Cochrane/Kuhn thesis is it possible to identify distinctive metaphysical presuppositions that have defined the form of American culture and shaped the content of its social order in distinctive ways, even through nine decades of the 20th century? Can The unique presuppositions of American civilization be identified? If so, these are the norms for evaluating departure and ultimate displacement of 'classical norms' with 'new norms.' Identification of received 'norms' are essential for locating the source of continuity of American religious life in the last half-century.
The radical change of the last four decades are understandable, only if we can identify and articulate the 'new normless norms'.
It is surely plausible to argue that American society and its culture have embodied the basic metaphysical presuppositions of Western Christian tradition (historically, naturalistic, deistic presuppositions, have priority to The Christian Worldview, e.g. Jefferson's French humanistic naturalism is present in The Constitution) rather than first principles antithetical to it such as have been derived from indigenous pantheistic paradigms in the new world or, subsequently, from eastern sources, especially influential since the 50's and 60's.
On the basis of the Christian paradigm, the world is 'one' rather than 'plural.' Since the first scientific revolution, the drive toward universal explanatory theories is predicated upon the presupposition of an 'ordered' universe (second presupposition) (see all of Stanley Jaki's works). So the Christian theistic postulate, which Collingwood saw as the symbolic means of asserting the oneness of the world (contra pantheistic, new age monism) continues to operate as a basic presupposition of American culture even in the decade of relativistic 'pluralism.' Both Collingwood and Cochrane affirm that the incarnation of The Logos, at the cultural level, is the source of comprehensive cultural unity. The Holy Spirit dwelling and acting with structure and biblical eschatology affirms God's sovereign will within historic movement toward His Kingdom.
The kingdom of God as an American Presupposition: Over fifty years ago in a very influential book, H. Richard Niebuhr proposed that the religious symbol of the kingdom of God has played a critical role in American religion; and by implication our social and cultural history (The Kingdom of God in America (Chicago: Wilier, dark & Co., 1937; see also E. T. Tuveson's Redeemer Nation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968); the eschatological aspect of the discussion stems from the theologies of Wrede and Schweitzer within classical liberalism; see B. W. Ball, A Great Expectation (Leiden: Brill, 1975; C. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (NY: Viking, 1972; C. C. Goen, "Jonathan Edwards: A New Departure in Eschatology." Church History 23 (1959):25-40; Edward's Post-Millennialism is also expressed in Alexander Campbell's Millennial Harbinger).
Niebuhr's discussion emphasizes the changes in the 'use' of Kingdom of God in three centuries of American Theology: (1) Puritans held that the Kingdom of God was His sovereignty; (2) While in The Great Awakening and for evangelicals in the 19th century it signified the 'Rule of Christ;' and (3) Finally in the late 19th and early 20th century he noted that the 'Social Gospel' emphasized the Kingdom on earth as an expression of the social implications of the gospel. Hence the fruition of the American interpretation of the Kingdom of God has made it a unique position and presupposition of American religion and culture. The question facing the church in the 1990's is "have these first principles undergone significant adaptation or transformation in the new world?" Surely a Global Perspective is derivable from this set of presuppositions.
Christianity is not identifiable with American culture/religion (see my Crosa-Cultural Communication of Christ). From the early discussions of J. Edwards (John F. Wilson, "Jonathan Edwards as Historian," Church History 46 (1977):5-18) we can perceive the gradual opening of the American heart to the charismatic activity of the present decade. The 'Third Force' is present among Protestants and Roman Catholics, no longer limited to classical pentecostalism (see my The Holy Spirit: From the Biblical Perspective to Resurgent Global Perspective).
Have American theological presuppositions changed? By de-emphasizing the place of order or movement, American society has pushed beyond specific formulations that derive from European culture. American culture and religion has ushered in a consistent commitment to modernity. The history of American theology is a historiography of changing basic presuppositions in American cultural context. (See Hunter, How to Reach Secular People; Roxburgh, Reaching A New Generation; Barna, The Invisible Generation; Noll, Hatch, Marsden, The Search for Christian America); Qz Guiness, Running with the Devil (Contra Mega church).
James D. Strauss