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

In this final part of my four part look at the development of American theology, I can’t help but think of the fashion world. Oftentimes in fashion we marvel at how certain people can get away with wearing all sorts of bauble. We gawk, marvel and critique many things that pass for fashion. Perhaps we ourselves are the unknowing victim. Commentators on television spend hours remarking on various dress styles and fashion trends. But in the end, that’s all it is: a trend. But there will always be those who failed to receive the message that the trend is over. Fashions will rise, and then they will fall but there will always be those committed to their personal fashion cause. Throughout the American religious experience, there have been trends which have risen and fallen, yet many trends which should have died continue to endure making the theological landscape a bit of an eyesore for analysts to ridicule.

This, perhaps deficiently, elucidates American theological tendencies. With rising cultural currents comes subtle shifts in the theological landscape, and perhaps at times those currents hit with tidal-wave proportions. As the infantile American nation purposely de-regulated religion, the faith was forced to fend for itself. Trends were left unchecked by greater theological authorities. This left the door open for dramatic interpretations of Scripture and spiritual practice, as we have already seen with Mary Baker Eddy and the Christian Scientists. The door was completely knocked down by the likes of Joseph Smith and the Mormon movement with the founding of a new faith, which purported ties to Christian origins but scarcely resembled anything Christian in its theological formulations. Today we live in a world of experimental spirituality. Gone are notions of orthodoxy in its objective sense within the general consensus; everyone is now free to be orthodox unto themselves. Moralism continues to reign as a substitute for Christian theological assertions; a religion works based on the fruits of its adherents, or so the argument goes. What little room exists for confessional statements is pushed aside to make room for a more pragmatic approach to theology. If it works, do it. Pragmatic Moralism and Sentimental Spirituality are the faith systems of this nation. This is the American Religion.

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Joseph Smith, King Follet Discouse

Smith, in similar fashion to Eddy, represents that which summarizes the traditional American religious experience: a general departure from orthodoxy and the traditional teachings of the church universal. Smith, however, is much more committed to the language of Scripture, though errantly exegeted. In much a way as Arius did in the third and fourth centuries, Smith forms his doctrine on an over-reliance upon the literal interpretation, yet reaches far beyond even that. To know the “only wise and true God” one must “learn how to be gods” themselves, a reading undoubtedly interpreted from Psa. 82:6. From this alone Smith forms an entire doctrine of god-men who appear to have equal standing with the Father as they “sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.” Smith indeed believes himself to be indwelt by the Holy Ghost, yet because of this he believes himself to “know more than all the world put together.” Smith’s departure from orthodoxy, if he was even there to begin with, is further exemplified in his teaching of the elements and God’s inability to create out of nothing. For Smith, God ordered creation from “pure principles of elements,” elements which “can never be destroyed” as they have “no beginning and can have no end.”

Smith’s doctrines, apart from representing anything close to Christian teachings, show how much freedom the American religious experience has allowed individuals to possess. A departure from church submission and following orthodox Christianity inevitably leads to perversion and false teaching. Though similar language can be employed, that language is ultimately abstruse and perfuse with fallaciousness. Smith sets himself against the “learned doctors” of the faith and carries the banner of individual interpretation apart from the lens of orthodox Christianity. In today’s evangelical culture this kind of subjective interpretation can dangerously appear in numerous corners. From independent bible studies apart from pastoral supervision to pastors themselves unwilling to submit their teaching to the testimony of the historic church, we see Smithsonian concepts. The principles Smith sets forth that will eventually become Mormonism are the seeds for any such groups who choose to interpret Scripture apart from what has been established as orthodox Christianity.

Horace Bushnell, Christian Nurture

From Christian Nurture, one can easily deduce the argument which he purports to make: a Christian is formed not generated. Bushnell rightly deduces that “our modern speculations is to an extreme individualism” and in this Bushnell speaks out against “Baptist theories of religion.” He sees a tendency in the Sunday school movement and believer’s baptism to deny the “organic power” of the faith to impart such faith to children through Christian nurture. He denies the assertion that there is a moment in which a child becomes a “complete moral agent” and believes this to be a “clumsy” observation with no precedent. A child is not “beyond the sphere of good and bad exercises” but only insofar as the parent themselves forms and nurtures such sentiments, “working a character in him.” He rightly concludes that a “pure, separate, individual man, living wholly within and from himself” is not possible and is rather a “mere fiction.” One cannot naturally choose God, the idea of God must be formed in her, says Bushnell.

While his observations on individualism are refreshing, we must recognize that as a Congregationalist in the nineteenth century, Bushnell denied or modified much of traditional orthodoxy. His view of conversion asserts that natural man cannot choose God, which is correct, but he appears to believe that apart from Christian nurture, there is no other way one will come to know God. Implicitly within this treatise he denies supernatural regeneration. While we must applaud the parent that nurtures their children in the faith, we must uphold that they will not ultimately know their need for Christ apart from the Holy Spirit bringing them to such a realization. Bushnell should be applauded for his convictions against individualism, but he must also be chided for his denial of God’s supernatural act in salvation. Bushnell responds to those who say children can’t know the things of God, yet he represents those that say only through training and education will one have any Christian leanings whatsoever.

Conclusion

The history of theology in the United States reveals a rapid digression from that which is orthodox. John Winthrop sets the stage for the American religious experience by establishing the motif of a “city upon a hill.” The early colonial period is thus seen as hyper-religious in its view of their relationship to God as a new people of God, mirrored by their reading of Israel in the Old Testament. We see in the theology of Edwards a wonderful blend of Calvinistic convictions yet a need to recognize one’s sinfulness and need of conversion. In Edwards, we see the guiding light of orthodoxy in the history of American Christianity. As ideals of the eighteenth century Enlightenment take hold in America, we see a shift in viewing man’s natural ability to enact salvation, a view expressed by the likes of Channing and especially Charles Finney.

Scripture eventually becomes a polemical tool and basis for individual interpretation. As the book most widely read, the Bible becomes subject to various new forms of exegesis. With Emerson and the transcendentalists, religion becomes intrinsic and nebulously subjective. With this legacy, Mary Baker Eddy and Joseph Smith are allowed to view their interpretations of Scripture as intrinsically revealed truth, though masked by the gift of the Spirit. Biblical language permeates all religious experiences, however such language lacks orthodox Christian clarification. This heritage has shown itself in various ways within our contemporary evangelical culture. Such dangers as individual interpretation, intrinsic knowledge of God, and separation from traditional Christian orthodoxy are just some of many problems based upon the foundation of the American religious experience. If but one lesson can be learned from this brief inspection of theology in the United States, it is this: the American tradition is not necessarily the Christian tradition.

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