Rauschenbusch and the "Kingdom of Evil" (3): Rorty Weighs In

My wife made a wonderful find at a used book store -- the centennial reprint of Walter Rauschenbusch’s seminal manifesto, aptly retitled Christianity And the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic that Woke up the Church (New York: Harper One, 2007). The original text is interspersed with commentary from several famous contemporary thinkers in the fields of religion and ethics.

The book is edited by great-grandson Paul Raushenbush, religion editor with the Huff Post and former Associate Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University. (For some reason, his version of the family name drops the two Cs) The afterword was penned by another descendant of W.R., the late philosopher and avowed secular humanist Richard Rorty (pp. 347-350). Rorty was Walter Rauschenbusch’s grandson, and his comments bespeak the challenging yet ambiguous prospects in our day of his ancestor’s Christian social vision.


Richard Rorty

Rorty claims, first, that Rauschenbusch’s vision for social Christianity utterly rejects the classic doctrine of original sin. He means, of course, the body of teaching that stems from Augustine’s reading of St. Paul and that so decisively shaped the course of Western Christianity. Rauschenbusch, on this reading, claims that the doctrine of the soul’s depravity is both narrowly individualistic and rooted in an asceticism that owes more to pagan antiquity than the militant activism of the original Jesus movement. (This frames the matter too simplistically and W.R. offers a more sophisticated and, I think, mixed assessment of original sin in his 1917 work, A Theology for the Social Gospel; more on this in a later post).

According to Rorty, W.R. sought to convince his critics that it was society as a whole, rather than atomized individual subjects, that needs redemption: One ought not to view Jesus as one’s “personal savior” (p. 347). Rather, “Jesus did not come to save you, but to teach you that you and your neighbor, working together, can create a just society” (ibid.). W.R.’s view on the relationship between individual and society is more subtle than this, I think, and this emerges in a quote Rorty cites from chapter 7 (on “social evangelization”):

[Rauschenbusch] asked Christians to “have faith enough to believe that… God saves not only the soul, but the whole of human life; that anything which serves to make men healthy, intelligent, happy, and good is a service to the Father of men” (ibid., emphasis mine).

Rauschenbusch, after all, was nurtured in his youth within a robust (German) Baptist pietism, and such a formation leaves its indelible mark, as my own personal experience bears out. Still, as Rorty correctly sees, Rauschenbusch subverts the individualistic, inward focus of a pietism focused on personal holiness at the expense of collective struggles for the common good -- a quietistic vision of Christianity as fundamentally apolitical. To that end, he retrieves the radically socio-political character of the Kingdom of God as the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and many early Christians perceived it.

Rorty makes an interesting, if somewhat invidious, comparison between Christianity and the Social Crisis and Gustavo Gutierrez’s classic, A Theology of Liberation, whose radical potential was largely repressed under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. (Pope Francis’ recent gesture in receiving the great Peruvian theologian at the Vatican is an interesting move, in this regard.) According to Rorty, Rauschenbusch’s social vision has proven more “viable” than that of Gutierrez, at least in a 20th century context wherein the social gospel helped shape public policy through the advocacy of politically active Christian leaders. I think he is implying, in part, that the shortcomings of first-generation liberation theology are inherent in how it was structurally dependent upon the Roman Catholic hierarchy for sponsorship, whereas the North American social gospel message is more detachable from its ecclesiastical moorings and thus (putatively) able to address the public square more directly. Perhaps there is also a dig here, as well, at the Continental Marxist theory that underpins Gutierrez’s work, but I don't want to read to much into it.

Rorty rues the resurgence, in recent decades, of religious individualism and a concomitant return of the kind of “apocalyptic millenarianism against which Rauschenbusch struggled” (p. 349); in view here, obviously, is the kind of apocalypticism promoted through such popular media as the Left Behind novels and movies. (Teaser: The study of the socio-political aspects of apocalyptic literature and movements is a hot topic of cross-disciplinary study today among biblical scholars, historians, and theologians. In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at Rauschenbusch’s fascinating account of the prophetic and apocalyptic movements in history of Israel.)

To wrap up, Rorty offers this provocative assessment of North American Christianity, worth quoting at length:

One hundred years ago, there was still a chance that the Christian churches would play a central role in the struggle for social justice – that Christian, rather than Marxist, ideas would inspire radical socio-political change. One can imagine a twentieth century in which the two World Wars and the Great Depression were avoided, the Bolshevik Revolution collapsed, and social democrats like Eugene Debs and Jean Jaures were elected to high office, thanks to the enthusiastic support of the Christian clergy. Decolonization and the entrance of India and China on the international stage could then have taken place against the background of a consensus, in the West, that building a global egalitarian society was a moral obligation. With a bit more luck, Rauschenbusch’s dream could have come true, despite the “sinfulness of the human heart.” (ibid.)

“With a bit more luck”? I’m not so sure. It is also hard to imagine that neopragmatist Rorty was as naive as the highly rhetorical statement above might suggest. For my part, I’ve read too much of Karl Barth, William Stringfellow, and Reinhold Niebuhr to have such a sanguine view of humanity’s latent capacities to build a ethical commonwealth on earth. For me, the prophetic vision of a thinker like Rauschenbusch needs to be grounded in a deeper anthropology and a more radical theology. I also don’t think this is the last word on evangelical pietism either (Just see Cornel West’s profound retrieval of African-American spirituality in his early work, Prophesy Deliverance). Without something or someone transcendent to ground our hopes, I’m tempted to concur with Rorty’s wistfully sad assessment:

[O]ur luck was bad, and Christianity has probably missed its chance. The likelihood that religion will play a significant role in the struggle for justice seems smaller now than at any time since Christianity and the Social Crisis was published. (ibid.)

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