Forgetting our past

June 8, 2006

One failure of liberal Christianity is that in looking for the future it often forgets the past; even its own past. Although I would reject the imposition of a Roman Catholic style Tradition, to which I must assent or leave, it is surely equally unwise to forego the advice of those who went before us and tried to answer the same questions we ask.

Our problems aren’t that new; and if we are to have better answers to them then those who have gone before we should first understand what their answers were. Case in point – in 1922 Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a sermon in the First Presbyterian Church in New York called Shall the Fundamentalists win?.


Tell me if you think we have resolved this issue yet:

A great mass of new knowledge has come into man’s possession: new knowledge about the physical universe, its origin, its forces, its laws; new knowledge about human history and in particular about the ways in which the ancient peoples used to think in matters of religion and the methods by which they phrased and explained their spiritual experiences; and new knowledge, also, about other religions and the strangely similar ways in which men’s faiths and religious practices have developed everywhere.

Now, there are multitudes of reverent Christians who have been unable to keep this new knowledge in one compartment of their minds and the Christian faith in another. They have been sure that all truth comes from the one God and is his revelation. Not, therefore, from irreverence or caprice or destructive zeal, but for the sake of intellectual and spiritual integrity, that they might really love the Lord their God not only with all their heart and soul and strength, but with all their mind, they have been trying to see this new knowledge in terms of the Christian faith and to see the Christian faith in terms of this new knowledge. Doubtless they have made many mistakes. Doubtless there have been among them reckless radicals gifted with intellectual ingenuity but lacking spiritual depth. Yet the enterprise itself seems to them indispensable to the Christian church. The new knowledge and the old faith cannot be left antagonistic or even disparate, as though a man on Saturday could use one set of regulative ideas for his life and on Sunday could change gear to another altogether. We must be able to think our modern life clear through in Christian terms, and to do that we also must be able to think our Christian life clear through in modern terms.


One Response to “Forgetting our past”

  1. I recently have come to the same conclusion as Fosdick (really great to be so with it on the cutting edge only 84 years later) It seems that “liberal” Christianity really blew it by just allowing the scientific community and the elites of academia to define the universe of which we are a part in essentially non spiritual materialist terms. The error may go all the way back to assuming that the public schools were protestant schools designed to Americanize immigrants. Then the universities (many founded for christian purposes) abandoned the task of understanding “God’s” universe and humanity’s place in it. Catholic schools and universities served the purposes of their church better and longer. It seems that “liberal” protestants abandoned the search for truth in the elementary and advanced areas to a completely secularized system. We will need a generation of effort to begin to address this problem by establishing institutions of higher learning and to address the problem of spiritual illiteracy among persons of all ages. Is there any movement within our branch of Christianity that has the vitality to pull this off?

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