I have the amazing privilege of sharing the platform with a diversity of Christian speakers and authors. Last Saturday I spoke for the Prison Fellowship Centurions program near Lansing, Michigan. There where three speakers at this particular gathering. One was a Centurion from within the group and the other, besides myself, was Dr. Cornelius Plantinga. Plantinga recently retired as president of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids. Cornelius Plantinga has written several books including the award-winning Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (1995), Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning and Living (2002), and Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking About Christian Worship (2003). Cornelius Plantinga, who goes by Neal among his friends, is now Senior Research Fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and president emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary. He spoke on “The Christian’s Calling.” He gave a magnificent and simple presentation of the Kuyperian worldview. His emphasis on the kingdom of God stressed the fact that we are all “called” to vocation (our divine calling), not just to get a job
Understanding our Exilic Missional Context: Evangelicalism and Liberalism in Twentieth Century America
Most historians and religion scholars now agree that by the twentieth century liberal Protestantism had led to a mainstream Protestantism that was vague, theistic and excessively nationalistic. In a profound sense, concludes British Christian Studies scholar Linda Woodhead, “liberal Protestantism’s triumph can be said to lie to some extent in its disappearance; it dissolved into the blood stream of American culture” (An Introduction to Christianity, 261). I think this is one of the most important single sentences in all that I’ve written in my recent posts about the growing unimportance of Christian faith to most Americans, especially the youngest Americans.
In contrast to this shrinking of Protestant faith the evangelicalism of Moody and Sunday gave rise to a more combative counter-cultural movement that was built on opposition, opposition to liberalism. These more conservative and populist movements produced battles over science in the first half of the century and then battles over political control of the nation in the second half, but I get a little ahead of myself.
Three main points underscore the unity that American Protestantism enjoyed into the early part of the twentieth century.
- Protestants shared a voluntaristic approach that viewed religion as a matter of individual free choice thus it was able to tolerate the co-existence of different Protestant churches and the differences between these churches since they all willingly embraced the greatest American accomplishment in freedom–the separation of church and state. A symptom of this stance was that the church began withdrawing from the public square in favor of investing its effort into the private, domestic circle. This stance led large parts of the church to embrace particular concerns about the morals of the individual, the relationship between the sexes and the overall welfare of the nuclear family. In the words of scholar Linda Woodhead, “Increasingly, Protestantism became a religion of ‘the family’” (An Introduction to Christianity, 257).
- Protestants shared a growing optimism about human choice and ability, which eventually led to the acute problem of “rugged Christian individualism,” a problem that we now equate with America in general. It was assumed, when this line of thinking began to be widely accepted,
I remember when I first heard the Spaniard’s name – Miguel de Unamuno. I was driving my car to speak in Iowa in the summer of about 1998 and the esteemed founding president of Regent College (Vancouver), James Houston, mentioned the importance of this Spanish philosopher for deeper insight into the faith. The course was one on spiritual formation. It seemed odd to me that Houston would mention a philosopher who more than dabbled in some ideologies that would trouble most American conservatives. (They trouble me too.) Little did I know what treasures awaited me in discovering the work of this early twentieth century thinker. But I am ahead of myself. Who was Miguel de Unamuno?
Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (1864 – 1936) was a Spanish essayist, novelist, poet, playwright and philosopher. His best known, and most important, philosophical essay was The Tragic Sense of Life (1913). His most famous novel was Abel Sanchez: The History of a Passion (1917), a modern exploration of the Cain and Abel story. For Unamuno, art was a way
Christians have always struggled to understand the role and place of reason in faith. The central problem is not whether or not reason is important but what reason can and cannot do. This reminds us of Plato’s warning about the danger of “misology.” Plato felt this was a great danger to man, in fact one of the worst things that could happen. The misologist is a person who has become discouraged by certain inabilities in the capacity to reason and concluded that careful reasoning is no longer relevant at all. To a large extent much of modern society has, at least popularly, fallen prey to this problem. Since we cannot be sure of some things we decide that it is pointless to attempt to reach any reasonable conclusions. Plato put this problem well: “Let us then, in the first place, be careful of allowing or of admitting into our souls the notion that there is no health or soundness in any arguments at all.”
Though reason is important to Christian faith most people are not drawn to Christ by reason. T. S. Eliot, and from what I