Saturday, September 29, 2012

Tolstoy and Prebyterians 3

Ok, the "Presbyterian Controversy"  is really not coming along, but the book has now been renewed for the third time;  it seems no one is actually looking for that book, nor the Swedenborg compendia which are languishing by the front door.  But we will say a few things about it below and provide an introduction.

On the other hand, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is about half through, since I've sat up late to get at least as far as Levin and Kitty finally agreeing to get married.  It was a strange deal between the two and mostly I feel sorry for Kitty, which is probably Tolstoy's objective here, seeing that the liberation of women, so to speak, needed to happen at some time.  The novel is starting to seem somewhat eternal, not in terms of the depth of the subject matter but according to the length of it.  I've begun skipping things about politics and economics just to see how it would go with Levin and Kitty.

Poor Kitty reminds me of some women in Jane Austen's stories, who seem to have no options in life except to try and make a good match, all the while trying to maintain their dignity, sensitivity and sense of romance--not a simple matter.  I suppose for women it is always such a thing, needing to marry for love and common sense at the same time since a poor match for a woman is much more devastating to her and her offspring, her health and joy, than  for most men.  Still, among these nobles, the double bind was something even more torturous.  (This reminds me of all the other poor Queens I've read about, who got married off into foreign lands into more or less traumatic situations, Catherine the Great, Catherine the wife of Henry VIII, and Marie Antoinette.  These are just the well-known ones.  To mind comes also Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of "Infidel", who fled her country finally because she was expected to make an advantageous match with someone whom she did not love romantically.)  Yes, this is the stuff of heartache, long novels, plays and movies.

But poor Kitty--she agrees to marry Levin even before he can confess to her something he really feels she needs to know, all for the sake of his own "sincerity".   He needs to tell her that he is an "unbeliever" and that he has not been chaste before marriage.  He supplies his diaries for her to read all the details regarding this sort of subject matter.   Kitty cries because he gives her all this information--too much information, as we say today.  However, the fact that he is an "unbeliever" is ok, since is such a great soul.  Eieiei... what a match made in heaven indeed.  They have been so in a torturous love all this time, but no one knew this about Levin.  Poor girl Kitty, having to make her decisions of "yes" or "no" with such little choice and knowledge base, as her sister Dolly explained once to Levin.  Yes, I do feel kind of bad for the women.

And then we have Anna Karenina, who was probably married early also in this kind of horse trade fashion and now has discovered romantic love.  She will be the tragic heroine.

I am intrigued how Tolstoy will develop further his theme of soul and brotherhood of man, so we do have to finish this long book.

So, let's try and connect this to the Presbyterian controversy.  Somehow following the "enlightenment" and into the romantic period we get a philosophy or theology which wants to dispense of "believing" in the Bible as a "real" truth, in the common sense. In its place we get a "real" Christianity, which can dispense with the written word and go only with a "spiritual" sense.  I don't know exactly how this happened but it seems to me that generally the German writers get blamed for this and this may be so.  Usually Schopenhauer comes up and what's his name, who wrote regarding "Christianity and its cultured despisers."  (I don't really know that much about it because when it comes to reading theologians, I always curve back to Luther, leaving the others aside.  This is because Luther can make me happy in Christ in a single paragraph, hedonist that I am.  The American Lutherans in LCMS could probably provide more literature on this, since they largely ended up in America for religious liberty reasons and had probably undergone this same controversy in Europe already.)

So it happened that the American Presbyterians also came under the sway of German philosophers and theologians, and people like their own transcendentalists had fallenl nicely into step with these trends, though I'd probably agree with a good chunk of their criticism of Calvinism.  There arose among them a number of liberal theologians, who felt they were unfairly castigated by their conservative "bretheren" and pleaded for tolerance for themselves in the church.  The eventual cause of the outbreak of the controversy and the ensuing battles was a sermon by a Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a liberal Baptist preaching in a Presbyterian pulpit.  The occasion was Sunday morning, 21 May 1922, in New York.  The title of the sermon was "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?"  We can see that the battlelines were already drawn and likely entrenched.

"A liberal Baptist preaching by special arrangement in the Presbyterian Church, Fosdick had become increasingly dismayed by conservative intolerance of liberal Christians. Since the close of the war, liberals and conservatives had been sparring on such issues as biblical authority, evolution, and foreign missions.  In response to the escalating militancy of the fundamentalists, Fosdick launched a counteroffensive and thereby precipitated the Presbyterian controversy." (p. 9)

The faction that was called the "fundamentalist" held the line at these doctrines:  the virgin birth of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, the substitutionary atonement, and the literal second coming of the Lord upon the clouds of heaven.

(--That does indeed make me also a "fundamentalist" by American nomenclature.)

"Fosdick specifically addressed all but the third of these 'opinions', contrasting the 'points of view' of fundamentalist Christians with those of their more progressive counterparts.  Fosdick allowed that many devout Christians believed that the virgin birth was an historical event, that 'it actually happened; there was no other way for a personality like the master to come into this world except by a special biological miracle.'  But, he argued, many others within the evangelical churches accepted another point of view.  These Christians held that 'those first disciples adored Jesus --as we do;  when they thought about his coming they were sure that he came specially from God--as we are;  this adoration and conviction they associated with God's special influence and intention in His birth--as we do;  but they phrased it in terms of a biological miracle that our modern minds cannot use.'  Likewise, while many evangelical Christians affirmed the inerrancy of the Scriptures and the literal second coming of Christ on the clouds of heaven, others believed the Scriptures were 'the progressive unfolding of the character of God' and taht development, not supernatural intervention, was God's way of working out his will ih the world." (p. 10)

According to Fosdick the church should just stop bickering about this and accept the liberal faction the way it is, so it can get on with its work and attract young people to it.  (Isn't if funny how things like these are always done 1.  to attract young people  2.  get more work done  3.  for those with the firmer opinions expected to bow to those with the flimsier opinions rather than the reverse.)

This assault on orthodoxy were met by the "fundamentalist" champion J. Gresham Machen.  He condemned Fosdick's preaching as "dreadful undogmatic Christianity."  Another leader in the fight, Clarence Edward Macartney from Philadelphia, gave a point by point response to Fosdick in a sermon titled:  "Shall Unbelief Win?"   He contended that "the naturalistic views described by Fosdick were simply irreconcilable with the doctrinal position of the Presybterian Church.  It was therefore the duty of the church and all evangelical Christians to make this incompatability known, to fight for the faith--'earnestly and intelligently and in a christian spirit'  but nevertheless to fight." (p. 11)

"The virgin birth, he maintained, far from being myth or rubbish, was historical fact; the Bible was the inspired and authoritative Word of God; and premillenarians, though mistaken in their exegesis, were at least loyal to the 'Person and claims of Jesus Christ.'  Liberal preaching, on the other hand, was 'slowly secularizing the chruch.'  The minority of modernists and rationalists in the church, Macartney argued, depended on the tolerance of evangelicals to let them spread their message.  But tolerance could only end in an emasculated gospel.  The future was clear.  If left unchecked, liberalism would lead the church to a new type of Christianity,  'a Christianity of opinions and principles and good purposes, but a Christianity without worship,  without God, and without Jesus Christ." (p. 11)

--As for myself, having lived mostly in the second half of the 20th century, I have been able to observe the effects of this liberalizing tendency in the Canadian Churches.  In Canada the United Church was formed in 1925 by uniting mostly Presbyterians and Methodists, along with some other groups.  My own experiences with encountering individuals from these churches, largely from singing in community choirs with them, hiring them as staff, and from reading their publications sent to us for our clinic waiting room, has shown to me the extent of their discomfort with the Bible.  In all encounters, the Bible can be used as anyone pleased.  Supposedly it contradicts itself all over the place.  (This is mostly by hearsay, because their Bible knowledge was actually not that extensive; -- this would by corollary of saying that it's all wrong;  why would you study it.)  Talk centers about liberal politics and how the Bible is not true.  A strange doctrine for a church.

Once I went to hear a talk by an Edmonton woman doctor who had spent most of her life in Nepal founding and running a hospital somewhere in a remote location.  When she returned to Canada, she said she could not believe what had happened to her denomination (originally Methodist).  It was disheartening for her to discover, that all the faith had been hollowed out and practically collapsed in her absence.

All of this makes me think of how Matthew Harrison keeps quoting Luther:  the gospel is a sudden heavy rainshower (Platzregen);  it has come and watered and then it is gone.  If we will let it go, it will be gone, to our own sorrow and regret.  We will be in a post-Christian society.  But the rain will move on.  And it seems it is moving to China and such other places.  In meeting Chinese Christians I have discovered their ripeness for learning about God.  They've been through Communism, Atheism and Buddhism, etc.  All of it is philosophy, they say.  But Christianity tells the truth about God.  So it is.  Amen.  Lord, keep us in your grace, help us and leave us not.

Enough for today...

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