WWI and the Fall of Christian Empire, Part 2: Karl Barth

Every day in every way things are getting better and better.

Popular saying before World War I

World War I marked the beginning of a new era. In Europe and North America before the war, there was a general feeling of optimism about the future of humanity. Because of the success of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution and the hope of the various revolutions of the 19th century, people anticipated the eventual creation of a just society on earth.

The ferocity of the Great War chastened that optimism. Many people were surprised at how strong the call of nationalism was on the human psyche. The Western Liberal project had to rethink the question of human nature and society. The same introspection had to happen within the Liberal theological project begun by Friedrich Schleiermacher as well. The person who threw the bombshell into Schleiermacher’s project was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). (Note: Barth is pronounced as if it had no ‘h.’ It rhymes with ‘part.’)

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The Protestant Reaction to Modernism, Part 1: Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Beginning of Liberal Theology

At the 'heart' of liberal Protestant theology

Is it possible to disagree with someone and still appreciate their work and the project they engaged in? I believe that it is, and this is the spirit in which I write the next two reflections. In this reflection, I will be looking at the pioneer of liberal Protestant theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher. Next time, I will examine the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy, looking specifically at Henry Emerson Fosdick and Walter Rauschenbusch.

I don’t agree with any of these figures. I believe that their answers were limited and perhaps naïve. (Of course, I write that in full knowledge that many people will read my own reflections as limited and perhaps naïve.) However, I think their project was extremely important at a time when Christian faith could have faltered, being abandoned altogether or retreating into an anti-modernist fundamentalism.

They chose a third way. As Stanley Grentz put it: “While agreeing that theology could not simply return to pre-Enlightenment dogmatic orthodoxy, they refused to accept post-Enlightenment skeptical rationalism as the only alternative. For this new breed of intellectuals the only way forward in the aftermath of the Enlightenment lay in incorporating its basic thrust and engaging in a search for new ways to understand the Christian faith.” In other words, they were trying to articulate a vibrant Christian faith in serious conversation with Modernism. This is my own project in this series of articles. It is important to know about these thinkers because they set the agenda for all subsequent mainline Protestant engagement with Modernity. In many ways, we are still answering the questions they raised.

Moving Faith from the Head to the Heart

Have you ever felt that faith was so much more than creeds and doctrines and dogmas? That faith was more a matter of the heart than the head? Have you ever felt that you were deeply connected to God and the world in ways you couldn’t explain? Have you ever thought that maybe you don’t need all of the clergy and church stuff, and that you could just go out into the woods and commune with God? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have probably been influenced by a theologian you may never have heard of before: Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Continue reading “The Protestant Reaction to Modernism, Part 1: Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Beginning of Liberal Theology”