The American Religion: The Development of American Theology, Part 3 of 4

The American religious landscape today is as diverse as the soda aisle at your local grocery store. You can get the “Original” formula, or maybe you would rather have the diet option instead. Perhaps you want your soda caffeine-free, or maybe you prefer some sort of fruity soft drink. Perhaps you have a taste for the specialty brand which only comes in bottles with witty little labels around the base. Of course you also have to decide if you want the 2-liter bottle, or the “fridge-friendly” 12-pack. The options and choices are almost endless when it comes to soda, and with American theology it is no different. We have seen our “city upon a hill” roots move to an “awakening” of God’s sovereignty in salvation to man’s free choice to choose God apart from any divine intervention. The aisle is indeed crowded and the options many.

In this third part of our series, I will continue my analysis of select readings, compiled in William C. Placher’s second volume in the Readings in the History of Christian Theology, and glimpse into the theological landscape of a post-Civil War America. With the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a intrinsic religion based on the precepts of Transcendentalism begins to take hold, one that can be experienced apart from any outside revelation but rather is discovered within the self. These ideals may seem wholly American, as they might well be, but they are far from orthodoxy and a Christian understanding of revelation and salvation. We’ll conclude this part with a short analysis of Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. With Eddy, old heresies are reignited and a spirit-body dualism begins to pervade the theological landscape of the American religious experience. This one facet alone has infiltrated and damaged many churches, even those who have nothing to do with the Christian Science movement. The aisle is stocked and the choices are ready to be made. Here in a America, the soda aisle is open to all.

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Sarah M. Grimké, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women

Sarah Grimké, as we have already seen with David Walker, appeals to “Holy Writ” in a polemical fashion. Grimké, a Quaker and lecturer on abolition, uses this treatise to answer her opponents regarding the validity of her public speaking. Using Scripture, quite selectively at that, Grimké argues that man and woman are created equally (as in no distinction) in the dominion of God’s constitution. Drawing from Genesis chapter one (but not two) she reasons that man which she believes to be a “generic term including man and woman” has “no particle of difference imitated as existing between them.” Though likely existing in other quarters of America both here and previous, Grimké represents the advancement of feminine voices within the American religious experience. Like Walker before her, she uses the source of Scripture to promote a polemical and political perspective.

Scripture has always been used to promote individual agendas, but the American Christian scenario has given us the definitive phenomenon of multiple interpretations becoming the normative experience. Like Grimké, many Evangelicals today appeal solely to “our King and our Judge” in reasoning their decisions. Many of us, of course, hold this to be true but when employed in an argument that denies the need for subjugation to any additional authority, we who use such an argument have overstepped the bounds of God’s expressed desire for his people. One can see such a consequence being displayed in church membership and independent church mentalities, where the only accepted authority is God and any other established authority is seen as inferior and hence, not to be ultimately obeyed. God’s authority, for many like Grimké, becomes the intrinsic authority of self which has the name of God imposed upon it. Such notions will become explicit with the Transcendentalists, as we will see with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Divinity School Address

Emerson for our purposes here is the representative of the theological trend in American religion known as transcendentalism. Strictly defined this philosophy teaches that divinity pervades all of nature and humanity and that God can be known intrinsically apart from external revelation or rational thinking. God is the panentheistic God, that is, he is in all that is created. With this thought Emerson can write that “one mind is everywhere active” and in “each ray of the star.” There is a Law which is “sovereign over all natures” and to this Emerson refers to as “divine and deifying.” Knowledge of this overarching Law, for Emerson, brings knowledge of one’s soul and makes man “illimitable.” However poetic this may seem to some, his language is ambiguous at best and ultimately vacuous upon closer inspection.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, though heralded as a prolific philosopher, poet and lecturer has deposited the transcendental ideals into the American religious experience. He championed individuality, freedom and the ability for man to realize just about anything intrinsically. For modern day Evangelicals, this translates to the experience of the spiritual life in a dramatic and alarming manner. Christians today are implicitly taught that the spiritual life is the one that is best experienced by oneself. American Christians on the whole believe they themselves to be receivers of God-given messages with language such as “God revealed to me” and “I feel God telling me such and such.” Though some may find no cause for alarm here, this is the echo of Emersonian philosophy. We have been taught to trust our own impressions over the testimony of the church and the revelation of Scripture to man. For us today, the transcendental philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson influences numerous facets of the American Evangelical awareness.

Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures

Christian Science, but not excluding Mormonism, represents the summary of American religious progression. Using Scripture as their guide nor denying the label of Christian, Christian Science practioners have inherited a complete departure from orthodoxy in every sense of the word and have reinvigorated numerous Christian heresies which were previously stayed by the historical Church of Jesus Christ. For Eddy, the spiritual sense is superior to that of the physical, that is, “matter is Spirit’s opposite.” Yielding to “Truth” or “divine Principle” brings about healing from physical sickness and sin “of any sincere seeker of Truth.” In fact, Truth shows one that sin and disease are actually false and “lose their reality in human consciousness” and they will “disappear as naturally and as necessarily as darkness gives place to light.” In the end, sin is conquered for the one who simply has the most faith.

The teachings of Mary Baker Eddy surface within many facets of Christianity. The dualism of matter and spirit are readily found within the pulpits of American Evangelicalism. Where one sees an overemphasis of one’s soul compared to one’s body, the teachings of Christian Science reverberate in the background. Faith healers and prosperity gospel preachers teach the same principles which are taught through Eddy’s famous treatise: yield enough to the Spirit and have enough faith and you will be healed. It is true that Eddy has inherited the accumulation of American theology in the form of Unitarianism and transcendentalism, and these philosophies are transparent in her teaching. For our purposes in analyzing the history of American theology, we must see that Eddy represents a complete departure from orthodox biblical interpretation, the fruits of which come from separation from orthodox Christianity and submission to teachings of the apostles, an issue in which American Evangelicalism continues to struggle against.

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