The Making of American Liberal Theology. Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950
Shattuck, Gardiner H Jr
The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950. By Gary Dorrien. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. xiii + 666 pp. $39.95 (paper).
This is the second book published in Gary Dorrien s ambitious threevolume history of theological liberalism in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As he did in his first volume, which considers the period between 1805 and 1900 (reviewed in ATZi 85 : 748-749), Dorrien skillfully blends theological analysis with biographical accounts of major figures in the pantheon of American religious liberalism. he studies the writings of notables such as William Newton Clarke, Walter Rauschenbusch, Shailer Mathews, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Benjamin E. Mays, and his narrative carefully surveys theological trends from the heyday of the Social Gospel prior to World War I through the ascendancy of “neoliberalism” (the term he applies to Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich) after World War II. According to Dorrien, “the essential idea of liberal theology is that all claims to truth . . . must be made on the basis of reason and experience, not by appeal to external authority” (p. 1)-a definition that unites the many theologians examined in this encyclopedic book.
Dorrien’s subjects are mainly Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists, and with one notable exception he barely mentions the theological work produced by Episcopalians during the first half of the twentieth century. Although the virtual exclusion of Episcopalians is not wholly surprising and reveals as much about the intellectual temper of the Episcopal Church as about the author’s own judgments as a historian, the single Episcopalian on whom attention is lavished-Vida Scudder-is a somewhat curious choice. As an advocate of labor unions and socialist ideology, Scudder was clearly a political liberal, and as a young woman she identified with the Broad Church Anglicanism of F. D. Maurice and Phillips Brooks. However, unlike most of the other theologians who are discussed, Scudder’s beliefs were not formed in reaction to a rigid Calvinist or evangelical upbringing. And despite her left-wing social views and early Broad Church sympathies, her staunch commitment as an adult to the liturgy and spirituality of Anglo-Catholicism would seem to disqualify her from being on Dorrien s list, which is otherwise composed of liberal Protestants.
Without denying either the importance of Scudder’s contributions to Christian social thought or her credentials as a major American intellectual, Anglican readers doubtless will wonder why Dorrien selected her as his only Episcopal representative of liberal thought. Would not William Porcher DuBose have been another good (and even more logical) choice? Shaped by the culture of evangelical Protestantism in the antebellum South, DuBose was still very active in the early twentieth century, and his emphasis on the experiential nature of religious knowledge almost exactly matches Dorrien’s definition of “liberal theology.” Yet the Sewanee theologians name does not appear in either the first or second volumes of this series. Because Dorrien concentrates so intently on people teaching and ministering in the urban centers of New York, Chicago, and Boston, it seems likely that he did not regard rural Tennessee as an auspicious place in which to uncover evidence of theological modernism-an understandable but regrettable oversight.
This omission notwithstanding, Dorrien is to be commended for all that he has achieved thus far in his series. One may quibble with a few of the details of his analysis, but scholars seeking to understand developments in American theology in modern times will benefit greatly from consulting Dorrien’s work.
Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Spring 2004
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