Monday, March 31, 2014

Rauschenbusch and the "Kingdom of Evil" (1): Introduction

As of late, I've been interested in retrieving a theology of the "principalities and powers." The late New Testament theologian Walter Wink is justly famous for his pioneering work in this area. But I'm interesting in developing this constructive project along somewhat different lines, more in line with dialectical theology -- and that leads to me to one of Wink's major inspirations, the Episcopal lawyer-theologian William Stringfellow.


Now, there are a number of reasons Stringfellow can be difficult to interpret, and one of the key stems from the question: Just how does one place his work? In terms of situating him amidst dialectical thinkers, his personal friendships with Karl Barth and Jacques Ellul would certainly be relevant, and I've caught more than a whiff of Bonhoeffer here in there in the Stringfellow corpus as well. Still, and perhaps a bit tricky, is placing Stringfellow in another context, that of North American radical social Christianity. Numerous strands from this tradition permeated Stringfellow's life and work: His leadership in the World Student Christian federation, his advocacy work within the Episcopal Church, his personal friendships with radical peace activists and his legal work with the East Harlem Protestant Parish are a few key such points of contact.

I have some homework to do, and I might just as well hash some of it out here. Broadly speaking, I'd like to get more clarity about the emergence of modern social Christianity -- it's systematic theological implications in particular. To that end, I'd like to develop a sort of genealogical story about socio-political accounts of sin and salvation in modern and contemporary Christian thought, particularly in the Americas. Just how, I wonder, did such conceptions of social sin spring up on North American soil, seeded as it has been by the austere Augustinian piety of the Puritans, the revivalist pioneer spirit of the Second Great Awakening, and the flurry of pentacostal and charismatic tongues since Azusa? This question intrigues me, though an American church historian I am not.

In sketching such a genealogy, largely to situate my own project in some sort of intelligible framework, I'm taking a second look at the Social Gospel movement -- not in its broad historical contours so much, but in terms of its ramifications for systematic theology. The go-to source here is the great Baptist activist and theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. My basic text is his last, and some say greatest work, A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917). Reinhold Niebuhr, whom most of us perhaps think of as one of the most strident critics of the Social Gospel project, nonetheless praised Rauschenbusch as "the real founder of Social Christianity in this country....It's most brilliant and generally satisfying exponent." (You can read this text online for free here.)

In particular, and in a few posts to follow, I plan to explore in some depth WR's doctrine of social sin, which he develops in chapters 4-9. What I think we'll see in these chapters is an incipient form of a theology of the principalities and powers, but one that is seeped in Rischl's ethical Kingdom theology and can be traced back, perhaps, to the real origin of modern social Christianity, the dogmatic theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Thanks for listening in.

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2 comments:

Amy said...

Interesting train of thought. Do continue. "Principalities and Powers" is a good tagline for Rauschenbusch's theology. I took a course in American Liberal Theology a year ago, and you're right. It's an interesting, winding road from Puritans to The Great Awakening to Transcendentalists to the Social Gospel. Did you know that until he came to Union Theological Seminary he had never heard of the Social Gospel, though it obviously has much in common with liberation theology.

J. Scott Jackson said...

Thank you. But I'm a little confused -- who's the "he" in your last sentence?