Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

We need to find sources of prophecy appropriate for our own times

Mobilizing the Religious Left By ALAN WOLFE NYT: October 21, 2007 Walter Rauschenbusch, the leader of the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century, did just that in “Christianity and the Social Crisis,” published 100 years ago this year
The first half of “Christianity and the Social Crisis” offers an interpretation of who Jesus was and what he taught. Jesus, Rauschenbusch argues, was a revolutionary: “It is an essential doctrine of Christianity that the world is fundamentally good and practically bad, for it was made by God, but is now controlled by sin. If a man wants to be a Christian, he must stand over against things as they are and condemn them in the name of that higher conception of life which Jesus revealed.” It is therefore incorrect to view Christianity, as conservatives of his time did, as a purely ascetic spiritual retreat from the world. The church founded in Jesus’ name has not always lived up to the savior’s spirit, but the promise of social transformation is always there, offering the possibility for the Church “to act as the tribune of the people.”
The other half of Rauschenbusch’s book provides an analysis of the “present crisis” facing the United States. The brutal realities of unregulated industrial capitalism, he argued, were destroying the family and degrading the person. Commerce “exalts selfishness to the dignity of a moral principle.” Democracy was being corrupted by money. “Nations do not die by wealth, but by injustice,” Rauschenbusch proclaimed. The country needed “statesmen, prophets and apostles who set truth and justice above selfish advancement” so that “the stifled energy of the people will leap forward ... and a regenerate nation will look with the eyes of youth across the fields of the future.”
A clergyman, Rauschenbusch wrote, should “be the master of politics by creating the issues which parties will have to espouse.” It is unlikely that Jerry Falwell ever read Rauschenbusch, and he certainly would have disagreed with his political views. But he would have liked that part about creating issues. In a democracy, the people choose the questions they want to discuss, and in our time more of them want the religious spirit to concern itself with abortion and homosexuality rather than race relations or a just wage. By opening the door for the one, Rauschenbusch inadvertently gave freedom of entry to the other.
Jim Wallis, an evangelical minister and antipoverty activist whose 2005 book, “God’s Politics,” was much discussed in Democratic circles, recognizes that Rauschenbusch’s call for “Christianizing” society is inappropriate for one as religiously diverse as our own...
The late Richard Rorty, a grandson of Rauschenbusch, is also heard from in this book; he points out, quite correctly, that until roughly the 1970s, his grandfather helped inspire whatever minimal welfare state the United States developed. Today, he writes, sounding a note little heard in the rest of the commentaries, “the likelihood that religion will play a significant role in the struggle for social justice seems smaller now than at any time since ‘Christianity and the Social Crisis’ was published.” Indeed, Rorty himself, a thoroughly secular philosopher and public intellectual, had more in common with Niebuhr than with Rauschenbusch. Both he and Niebuhr made the concept of irony central to their work. For the theologian, an ironic temperament should sensitize us to the fact that even if we long for the good, we may still commit the sin of pride, whereas for the philosopher, irony helps us understand that even if we want to be liberals, we cannot ground our liberal commitments on any firm foundations.
A century ago, the case for the inevitability of inequality was made by secular thinkers strongly influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution, while those who argued on behalf of social justice took their Bible reading seriously. Nowadays it is the reverse, and the republication of “Christianity and the Social Crisis” could help restore the balance. Rauschenbusch may have been too steeped in his own vision of Christianity and too unwary of the dangers of blending religion and politics, but he was right that society needs powerful and prophetic voices. It is just that we need to find sources of prophecy appropriate for our own times, rather than borrowing them from the earnest but limited thinkers and activists of 100 years ago. Alan Wolfe is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College

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