New Reformation Revisionist Protestantism 19601990

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During the 1960s, Western society underwent a series of convulsions that called the settled assumptions of the past into question with unprecedented vigor. It was as if there was an unrelenting impatience with the ways of the past, a sense of dissatisfaction with existing ideas and values, and a strong belief that a new beginning lay just around the corner. The cultural mood of the period is caught well by Tom Wolfe in his essay "The Great Relearning."11 It was all about sweeping everything aside and starting all over again, "following a Promethean and unprecedented start from zero." Perhaps a clean sweep appealed more to the imagination than to the reason—but it certainly captured the mood of the moment.

Protestantism could not help but be caught up in this "great re-learning." Its fundamental mandate was, after all, to reexamine itself constantly, asking whether its present institutional forms and distinctive beliefs represented the most authentic and reliable interpretations of the Bible. Yet during this period a growing number of Protestant intellectuals began to ask even more radical and dangerous questions— such as whether the Bible could be taken seriously in modern culture.

Demands for a "new Reformation" gathered momentum. The "old Reformation," it was argued, was based on the Bible; what was now needed was something more radical than had ever been proposed before. Writers such as John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal bishop of Newark, declared that this new Reformation would abandon obsolete ideas—such as a transcendent God, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and a reliable revelation of God in the Bible. Although these revisionist ideas had been around since the early Enlightenment, they had tended to exercise influence primarily within radical groupings outside the church. In the late twentieth century, however, they became an integral part of the agenda of revisionist Protestantism.

So if the Bible was not to be trusted, what was? By the late 1960s, the Enlightenment suggestion that reason could be trusted where the Bible could not was being abandoned as unworkable. Other alternatives were therefore proposed. Those who were perhaps the most influential argued that Protestantism should take its leads from the ideas and values of Western culture. The intellectual origins of this trend could be traced back to the great liberal Protestant writers of the nineteenth century, such as A. B. Ritschl (1822-89). Yet it was a risky strategy. As William Ralph Inge (1860-1954) once quipped, whoever married the spirit of the age today would be widowed tomorrow. Cultural change erodes culturally based theologies. And in the 1960s, Western culture went into convulsion.

The outcome was a series of suggestions that now seem a little extravagant, perhaps even mildly hysterical. The best known of these was the "death of God" movement, which made the front cover of Time magazine on April 8, 1966. The funereal black cover was emblazoned with three words: "Is God dead?" Books with titles such as Paul van Buren's Secular Meaning of the Gospel (1963) and Thomas J. J. Altizer's Gospel of Christian Atheism (1966) cornered headlines in a puzzled yet fascinated secular press. Altizer's legendary inability to express himself clearly just puzzled them more.

A much more coherent statement of this agenda was set out when Harvey Cox—newly arrived at Harvard Divinity School—published his book The Secular City (1965). The book, which became a best-seller, took its stand on a series of incontrovertible core beliefs. "Secularization rolls on, and if we are to understand and communicate with our present age we must learn to love it in its unremitting secularity. We must learn, as Bonhoeffer said, to speak of God in a secular fashion and find a non-religious interpretation of biblical concepts." Secularism was here to stay; God was dead; Christianity would have to accommodate itself to modern thought and values; religion was about humanity, not God. "As Bonhoeffer says, in Jesus God is teaching man to get along without Him, to become mature, free from infantile dependencies, fully human." The book proved to be a landmark in the "secular Christianity" movement.

Similar ideas were expressed by the English bishop John Robinson in Honest to God (1963), which questioned whether the notion of a transcendent God could be taken seriously by "modern man." John Shelby Spong developed these ideas in the 1990s, extending Robinson's critique to many additional elements of Protestant beliefs.12 Catholicism, which was undergoing its own internal convulsions at that time as a result of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), was not affected by these social trends to anything like the same extent.

Many of the more radical religious writings of the 1960s proposed agendas based on the assumption that the prevailing cultural trends represented permanent changes in Western culture. That was a hasty and incorrect judgment. With the benefit of hindsight, this fascinating, turbulent period witnessed what was no more than a temporary change of cultural mood, but some were unwise enough to treat it as a fixed and lasting change in the condition of humanity. John Robinson's Honest to God ultimately represents a modernist take on traditional Christianity.13 So what happens when modernism gives way to postmodernism, which rejects or inverts most of modernism's fundamental ideas? A generation later, Robinson's work feels like an exhibit in a museum of historical theology—a fascinating account of the cultural mood of a bygone era and the failed strategy to respond to it.

Others, taking their lead from postmodernity, argue that Protestantism must revise its ideas to accommodate the cultural insight that nothing can be known for certain and no reliable closure can ever be secured. The English theologian Don Cupitt illustrates this trend well, particularly in his assertion, "We alone improvise our knowledge about everything—including even ourselves." In The Time Being (1992), Cupitt insists that the "world of signs" is endlessly transient, making it impossible to reach firm and permanent conclusions.14

These strongly revisionist approaches are part of the inevitable free market of ideas that shape Protestant identity. Protestantism is not a static entity, but a living entity whose identity mutates over time. Yet that mutation leads to a variety of outcomes—among which some flourish and others wither. While such revisionist approaches have found some support within sections of Protestantism in the West—especially the left wing of American culture—they have not attained the wide acceptance found by other new developments, such as Pentecos-talism, which addresses the postmodern context on a very different intellectual basis and using a hermeneutical method.

Most commentators on recent American cultural history take the view that God, declared somewhat prematurely dead in 1966, underwent an intellectual and political resurrection in the following decades.15 As the president of America's Skeptics' Society, Michael Shermer, commented recently, never in history have so many, and such a high percentage of the American population, believed in God.16 Not only is God not "dead," as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche prematurely proclaimed, but he never seems to have been more alive.

There is perhaps no more telling witness to this than the same Harvey Cox who published The Secular City in 1965. Some twenty years later, he followed this with Religion in the Secular City.17 Far from endorsing the views he expressed earlier, Cox argued that religion is—and would continue to be—a significant force in society. "With the passing of the modern age, the epoch of 'modern theology' which tried to interpret Christianity in the face of secularization is also over." Cox pointed to the current vitality of Catholicism in Latin America and Protestant fundamentalism in the United States as signs that the long-predicted triumph of secularism was simply not going to happen.

Cox moved the goalposts still further in 1995 when he published Fire from Heaven.l8 The central argument of this book represents a near-total inversion of Cox's judgments of 1965. The twenty-first century, he asserts, will belong to Pentecostalism, not secularism. Pentecostalism is "a spiritual hurricane that has already touched nearly half a billion people, and an alternative vision of the human future whose impact may only be in its earliest stages today." And what is the secret of its success? Cox is clear: it lies in its fundamental conviction "that the Spirit of God needs no mediators but is available to anyone in an intense, immediate, indeed interior way." The evidence suggests that Cox may well be right in this judgment, at least in the short term. We return to consider this new movement in the following chapter.

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