Sunday, September 21, 2008

More Thoughts About the Role of Transcendentalism and the Social Gospel

Though I do not even remotely assign his writings to a level of importance as equal or necessarily within the same category as the Word of God, I do appreciate aspects of the writings of Henry David Thoreau. I enjoyed his style, his appreciation for nature, his encouragement to be good stewards of both land and government, social responsibility and stewardship, and particularly his love for solitude. He may have embraced evolution (a point that I would enjoy arguing with him as I have with many a professor and friend), but he alluded to all sorts of Scripture in the process, something I noted and greatly appreciated. (We share knowledge of the "borrowed capital" of a Christian society.) “Simplify, simplify, simplify” should also offer a strong appeal to those who follow agrarian idealism. Held in balance with the Word of God and as a general outworking of “the golden rule” (Christ’s second commandment of doing unto others as we would have them treat us), I find the social gospel principles to benefit American society. For those who do not hold to a Calvinistic or Reformed view, it offers a climate of cooperation and general Christian principle within which all Christians and even agnostics can find common ground. It is however, no replacement or rival to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the full counsel of the Word of God.

I also find that the social gospel does hold it’s own concepts of moral and social superiority. It promotes its own type of caste system that results in its own variety of paternalistic arrogance. The “bleeding heart liberal” can feel the same type of superiority and paternalism that the “Patriarchal Servitude” of the South promoted, but out of a sense of self-salvation. It is a man-centered view, it’s own special variety of Christian existentialism. Ultimately it’s up to man to carry out God’s will, and it has a very high degree of confidence in man’s own ability apart from God. Again, it is a gospel with Christian elements, but it is no substitute for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I offer here another perspective that challenges the views of Transcendentalism that were held in the South, views that many still carry today in one manner or form or other. I’m not a big fan of Mark Twain, not necessarily because I disagree with him so much as I don’t find his writing style easy and natural for me to read. Maybe I was dropped on my head when I was young, but I find the writings of the Russian Moralists much more easy to digest. I’ve plugged through Twain out of necessity but did not click with his style and therefore really developed no opinions about his work from a philosophical or theological standpoint. I became interested in the subject however, following a discussion of the topic on Mars Hill Audio. I do find his work to be quite essential to the American landscape, both from a religious perspective and an historical one. We do live in a pluralistic society, one with which our founding fathers entrusted us.

From the Book Jacket of Harold K. Bush, Jr.’s
“Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age”:

Mark Twain is often pictured as a severe critic of religious piety, shaking his fist at God and mocking the devout. Such a view, however, is only partially correct. It ignores the social realities of Twain’s major period as a writer and his own spiritual interests: his participation in church activities, his socially progressive agenda, his reliance on religious themes in his major works, and his friendships with clergymen, especially his pastor and best friend, Joe Twichell. It also betrays a conception of religion that is more contemporary than that of the period in which he lived.

Harold K. Bush, Jr. highlights Twain’s attractions to and engagements with the wide variety of religious phenomena of America in his lifetime, and how these matters affected his writings. Though Twain lived in an era of tremendous religious vigor, it was also a time of spiritual upheaval and crisis. The rise of biological and psychological sciences, the criticism of biblical texts as literary documents, the influx of world religions and immigrant communities, and the trauma of the Civil War all had dramatic effects on America’s religious life. At the same time mass urban revivalism, the ecumenical movement, Social Christianity, and occultic phenomena, like spiritualism and mind sciences, all rushed in to fill the voids. The rapid growth of agnosticism in the 1870s and 1880s is also clearly reflected in Twain’s life and writings. Thus Twain’s career reflects in an unusually resonant way the vast changes in American belief during his lifetime.

This reminds me of discussions of men like Kierkegaard who were criticized as miserable modernists and existentialists who rebelled against God. I’ve heard R.C. Sproul, Sr. defend Kierkegaard as one who earnestly wrestled with the problems and thinking of his day, writing honestly about the religious challenges that these dilemmas posed. Many are quick to label these men who write honestly and with the logic that Galileo once esteemed as God’s gift and not a curse. Those who lived in the Antebellum Period also confronted the challenges of their own day and were just as subject to the influences of their generation. Twain was no different, and we miss a significant perspective of American life if we dismiss him and cover our eyes and ears as he took on the dilemmas of his time.

In defense of faith in God’s providential work that is ongoing over the course of the life of a believer, I often remind people that Martin Luther was once a willing and zealous participant of the Catholic church. We’re all on a learning curve, and if we dare be brave and honest, we all traverse serious tensions in our times. Many of these tensions will not be resolvable – one such example of this is the poor that the Word tells us we will always have with us. To wholeheartedly discredit the Transcendentalists with a broad brush in their earnest struggle to make sense of God, themselves, and the world is not Christian and is far from American. A wholesale denouncement of any group proves fallacious and demonstrates the arrogance and the insecurity of man’s carnal nature something to which we are all subject. Though the North may have wrongly been caught in the sensational trappings of the slavery issue and thus exploited by those with the greedy interests of economics, the South was certainly guilty of stereotyping and dehumanizing their brethren in the North.

We all have a starting point, and I believe we should rejoice if that starting point includes godly principle. We should be ever mindful that our hearts, beliefs and our very societies are also sovereignly governed by the Holy Spirit’s guiding Hand and under the care of our providential God. We must start somewhere, showing tolerance and God’s love and grace to those who believe differently, remembering that our nation requires that of us. We must also yield to God’s providence, something that may not make sense to us or yield to our expectations.