Our Theology Starts 100 Years Ago: an experiment

I want to throw something out and see if it has legs. I will be playing a character today – feel free to play along! 

My great-grandmother was born into a world that no longer exists in many ways.

I’m preparing a presentation for the Subverting the Norm Conference. I have been reviewing a book called Modern Christian Thought and I am haunted by the reality that there is something significant about the late 19th and early 20th. One-Room Schoolhouse

The world changed 100 years ago. The changes weren’t just technological and societal. The changes were in areas that deeply impact the realms of belief and the way that we live out faith in community.

As a constructive theologian who is getting ready to present to a group of radical theologians, I keep circling around this idea:

 

The way that we think about theology and engage our faith has been fundamentally altered in the last 100 years.  

I am tempted to say that we would be far better off if we just started theology at the turn of the 20th century.  In some ways, the way that we all approach the christian faith begins about 100 years ago.

  • Radio was becoming a technology for mass communication. Somewhere between 1909 and 1920 the medium emerged. 1920 sees the first public stations.
  • TV didn’t exist yet.
  •  Women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920.
  • 100 years ago – World War 1 had not started.
  • The Great Depression is almost 2 decades away. That is important because it wrecked 2 things that ruled up until that point in the American psyche: 1) the myth of perpetual growth & prosperity 2) the illusion of independence and not be inter-connected with other nations.
  • The 1906 Pentecostal Revival at Azusa Street was on the move.
  • 100 years the large of majority of American churches were preaching ‘post-millennial’ theology: that we would usher in the kingdom of God through societal improvement. 100 years later almost no one believes that.
  • In 1914 Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic and was arrested. A decade later she would do it again with success since venereal disease had become a reality for soldiers in WWI. By the 1930s legal victories would make contraception normative.
  • 1903 the Wright brother famously took flight. 1909 air travel began to go commercial.
  • 100 years ago the psychology of Sigmund Freud was starting to be popularized.
  • Movies were still a few years away.
  • Vatican II, Nuclear War, and the Internet were not even shadows to be hinted at – and those three have perhaps impacted the greatest number of humans as anything else on the list.

One Downside: 

In fact, there is only reason that I am hesitant to say that we would be far better off to just start theology at the turn of the 20th century. The reason for my hesitation is that matters of racism and the colonial legacy might be lost.

I would argue, however, that these concerns are accounted for in my 100 Year proposal because the implications of African slavery, First Nations genocide, and other historic legacies are so deeply embedded in the current structures that they show up continuously. *

Huge Upside:

It seems to me that those who are most into things from the 13th century (Aquinas) or 16th century (Calvin) or even the 19th (revivalism and holiness) are most prone to the ‘silo mentality’ that has then focused on ‘in house’ matters to the apparent neglect of the culture around them. I know that it is dangerous (and ill-advised) to paint with such a broad stroke but …

There is something self-satisfying when we get fascinated with a historical expression that tends to pull one into a more … I don’t know how to say it … internal place?

It’s not a lot different than when people get really into quilting, or tying flies, or video games. That becomes their big things, takes much of their thought energy and time. But in the end … it is just another thing. Like collecting Precious Moments figurines – it’s not harmful – it’s just not worthy to be the thing.   Like a kid so enthralled with playing in the sandbox being totally oblivious to world around.

It doesn’t pass the ‘so what’ test.

Conclusion:

Because the gospel is about incarnation, we are supposed to be the body of christ fully embodied in our time and place. That is how I read it.  So much has changed over the past 100 years that to not put all our energy into the world in which we live is the equivalent of  – at best fantasizing/day dreaming … and at worst to live in denial and prefer the fantasy.

I am growing suspicious that it is that stark.
The consequences are that dire.
The realities of our century are that severe.

It is why I’m growing suspicious that Radical Political Theology may be far more faithful an endeavor than attempts to recover a romanticized notion of something lost.

I don’t want to talk about Aristotle and neo-Platonism one more time. I don’t care about the Greek polis. It doesn’t matter how pre-moderns conceived of substance and essence. I don’t care how the Reformers argued about communion and baptism. It’s time to move on.

 

* There is no greater danger in them being lost anymore than they are now, nor is there much progress being made by our current approach which is white-washed simply by ‘look, I didn’t own any slaves and I didn’t steal any land – that has nothing to do with me.’ So I’m not sure how much the 17th 18th and 19th century are really helping us in matters of justice. 

 

Share
If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!

30 comments
tom c
tom c

What about the Bible? I'm suspecting you'd want to include it in you're resources for theology. So, would that mean closing the door for theological resources at some point in the second, third or fourth century before reopening it 100 years ago? For that matter, one might want to reopen that door in the 16th Century. It all depends on what is counted as being included in the Bible and when the canon was settled. If one wants to do theology with the Bible, it seems to me it is incoherent to close the door in 1913.

JessePals
JessePals

Hi Bo, 

 

Sorry, on the issue of anachronism. I misread the first part of your post and thought you were writing off Medieval Scholasticism because it took place before the advent of common civil liberties we value today. 

 

On 'The Great Tradition' I only use the term functionally as a referent. I would never argue for its greatness. I enjoyed your post. I'm beginning to approach some future work in this area and so want to emphasize the utility of some  modern theological constructs as a theoretical antecedent for expansive theology for our time.

 

Thanks!  

JessePals
JessePals

I see your point Bo. However, we can't do theology, not of quality IMO, without history. It has become rather fashionable to eschew Hellenistic Philosophy and the Lutheran Reformation but no one seems to want to reflect on the fact that we make such assertions in undeniable similarity with the Cumma et al. Also, as regarding the Reformation, I actually think it's a good thing we're not having to count our sins anymore , this lends more time to philosophizing ;) It's dangerous to want to lob off 1,000 plus years of theology because it arose in what we anachronistically deem primitive and not yet christened in egalitarianism. The liberty and latitude we have today is as a result of the 'dirty work' of a great many thinkers before us. So perhaps we ought to show a little for "The Great Tradition", no?

Jonnie Russell
Jonnie Russell

Agreed that there's something less than useful for a constructive theology going forward by studying the intricacies of past thinkers in outdated forms of life.  I feel you and like your vigor in that regard. I have to say though, the ol' enlightenment ethos of 'always forward-- progress-- don't look back' seems to be lurking in the shadows here.  If theology in the postmodern context is precisely unpacking our tradition in new contexts, rigourously working through and applying old thinkers (even ancient) can be extremely fruitful. Your radical counterparts do it all the time: Caputo working through mystics and apophatics, etc.

 I agree with the ridding ourselves of incomprehensible worldviews and forms of life, but we also need the contant burr of a Zizek in our saddle, to divest us of the fallacy (and pride) of thinking we've got the best of what we need move forward purely in our own time.  That's the naive postmodern indeology right? Getting over the 'modernist' numskulls, etc.  I'm not trying to say your post was 'naive.' Anything but.  Just that we need to balance our vigor with an ideological humility that lets things speak across seemingly divergent 'wordlviews' or philosophical systems.

dangarvin
dangarvin

I love it. I think it's a great thought exercise and could be a most excellent and needed reboot. I wonder, however, it if isn't, in a way, somewhat similar to (although the inverse of) certain (ahem) radical attempts to reclaim a certain orthodoxy by excising a similar time frame.

 

On the other hand, when you finally patent the brightly colored pill that makes this possible I'll gladly take it.

jdharrison
jdharrison

 @BoSanders I have a clarification question: Is it not possible for one to study a particular historical understanding of "X" in order to reframe it in contemporary terms? In philosophy, that's especially important. Derrida reads Plato and Rousseau (and others), Meillassoux reads Schelling (a figure all but ignored throughout 20th century philosophy.) Am I missing something here?

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

Where did @Dan Hauge comment go?   I got an email notification and came to reply but it is nowhere to be found!   -Bo 

steveheyduck
steveheyduck

I can appreciate not wanting to talk about all those things, as long as we aren't all going to pretend they are not in our history. 

I expect at some level we wind find that many of those conversations/debates are different/older versions of the same conversations/debates we are having today. 

 

If we don't learn from those conversations, are we doomed to repeat them?  Or are you saying we have learned from them, so let's stop repeating them?

DennisMaher
DennisMaher

100 years ago one of my maternal grandfathers was shifting his blacksmith shop to auto repair in small town Iowa. Also in Iowa my other maternal grandfather was reading and listening to R.G. Ingersoll. A book entitled God's Funeral tells of how atheism grew among intellectuals from 1990-1914. Fundamentalism and WWI ended it. The Fundies, Scofield etc. were reactions to Darwin and Freud. 50 years ago I aligned with Reformed Christianity to further civil rights and peace. That didn't last long, but I still thought we could de-mythologize and re-interpret the Christian myths. In 2000 a scholar said to me "We made it all up" and it ended for me. I do think that the God meme and the human need for community are hard-wired in us, so I think we need to keep re-interpreting until most people are something like Unitarians. People have to get over the loss of Providence.

jeffinanutshell
jeffinanutshell

Bo, this seems like a fruitful way of thinking about how much the theological landscape has changed in the last 100 years. It also serves as a reminder of how much it will need to change in the future and calls us to reflect on just how those changes will be formed. 

 

Another thing that I would consider is the influence of the Scofield Reference Bible which popularized a certain kind of dispensationalism around 100 years ago.

 

As an aside, it would be interesting to see how this form of dispensationalism caught hold as the other things that you have named began to fade away, particularly the myths that the Great Depression broke. If the grand narratives of continual, self-sufficient progress began to fall apart, it is easy to see how a new grand narrative (one which imagines a much darker short-term future) could be appealing. 

BenHoward87
BenHoward87

If I remember correctly, Hans Kung makes a semi-related point in Theology for the Third Millenium. He points out that every innovation/revolution in theological thought ultimately leaves behind a kind of remnant/shell when the theological conversation shifts. So you have a shell with Aquinas, a shell with Calvin, a shell with Holiness, a shell with Schleiermacher perhaps. They don't actually stand for what those they hold dear stand for, because they only hold to ghostly vestiges of what that person believed.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @JessePals OK - glad you wrote back a clarified :)  you clearly have an expansive vocab and masterful understanding ... so I look forward to future exchanges!   I think we are on the same page ... so lets see we we come up with -Bo  

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @JessePals  I see what you are trying here .... and I'm not opposed to it  - but I have two issues for clarification:

 

1) I'm not sure that you are using the word anachronistic correctly.  If I was saying that St. Paul had all of my same enlightened views (if you only read him right)  - that would be anachronistic (out of time).  OR if I said that Paul should have had my views even in his day.  

But simply saying that what they believed in the past is not the same as what we believe today is not 'out of time'.  

I don't expect people in the 13th century to hold my views. That's not anachronistic.

 

2) Calling it 'the Great Tradition' is problematic for me on 2 fronts. A) It is singular as if there is only 1 tradition and not the dozens and hundreds of streams that make it up.

B) to call it 'great' is to white-wash everything from the Constantinian compromise to the Crusades to the German Christians abdication to the Nazis and Colonial Missions.  There is lots of good too ... but not ONLY good - let alone great. 

 

so while I am not adverse to your proposal ... those 2 things give me hesitation.  -Bo 

 

Thoughts?  

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @jdharrison I get that.   I understand that some do good work with that kind of a discipline. 

 

I'm talking more about a cultural way of conceptualizing the endeavor.  I'm concerned with religion's propensity to dance around its own flickering embers to the neglect of real energy that could be put into contemporary engagement. 

 

I'm trying to be nice and not say that much of christianity seems to be a self-satisfied language game that fulfills the role of 'opiate of the people' (in the bad way).    -Bo 

 

does that help at all?   

danhauge
danhauge

 @BoSanders  @Dan Hauge

 I felt I probably wasn't really understanding the 'game' correctly with my comment, so I got rid of it as to avoid embarrassment :)

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @steveheyduck I am saying that we HAVE learned from them :)  I also saying that they are contained / embedded in present frameworks and structures - they are with us already.

 

-Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @jeffinanutshell ohhhh - good one!   I tried to allude to this with the whole post-milllenial thing but I will definitely take add it ..  -Bo 

dangarvin
dangarvin

 @BenHoward87 Ditto to what Bo said. That is really great stuff.

 

And sadly I suppose there is a Paul shell and maybe even a Jesus shell (or 2 or 3000).

jdharrison
jdharrison

 @BoSanders  Yes it does. Thanks.

 

I agree that scholars getting wrapped up in what Calvin or whoever meant by "blank" with no consideration for how a particular conclusion would affect the lived experience of Christians now is a bit self-indulgent. Theology is a lived discipline.

 

I do think that in any Christian community one could probably identify particular practices/beliefs/understandings that are quite damaging (some might say double predestination, for example) which, I think, probably ought to be traced back to the particular figure(s) where those originate in order to get a more complete picture of how they develop, how they're different now, etc. So in that sense, I think that history is still necessary.

 

Lastly, shouldn't we be careful not to be temporal-centric or Western-centric by saying only the last hundred years are important? Eastern or African traditions might not be so quick to dump history along the same lines and for the same reasons you give.

danhauge
danhauge

 @BoSanders  @steveheyduck

 Hmm. So you're saying that we have so assimilated the theological moves of those past conversations that we really don't need to consciously reference or study them anymore? I'm skeptical. I'm still working on WHY I'm so skeptical, but it really seems kind of an exaggerated overreaction to those who believe we can simply reproduce their thought.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @jonnie if your above comment is any indication, I am in for quite a treat :)   let's connect closer to April...   -Bo  aneverydaytheology@gmail.com 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @jonnie I'm in my workshop - whittling away as we speak ...