Some Thoughts of a Medievalist Who Studies the Reformation in a Halfway House to Secularism
I thought I would take the liberty of this medium to share thoughts not drawn from my research in late medieval and early modern Christianity but provoked by the American intellectual historian David Hollinger. They are, in the end, somewhat personal.
In his presidential address to the Organization of American Historians last March, Hollinger calls attention to the role of Ecumenical Protestantism in recent American culture. True, Hollinger concedes, the Ecumenism that dominated the Protestant Establishment at mid-century, with its advocacy of cultural diversity, racial justice, and modernized belief, contributed mightily to the decline of the Protestant mainline.
The Ecumenists were lulled by their own success. Membership rose and peaked in the old Protestant churches in the early 1960′s, and the Ecumenists exploited an extraordinarily privileged access to government and media. They also underestimated the impact of the laity’s growing dissatisfaction with them, as the clergy turned increasingly leftward. Meanwhile, their intellectual progeny took themselves and the enterprise of social reform out of churches and into secular organizations. In the 1980′s and 1990′s, evangelicals handily took the Ecumenists’ place as the public face of Protestantism in the United States.
According to Hollinger, the Ecumenists got what they wished for, and then some. For one, Ecumenical Protestantism became “a commodius halfway house to what for lack of a better term we can call post-Protestant secularism.” Yet, too, the Ecumenists’ discourse of cultural diversity and tolerance and their criticism of religious orthodoxy now govern public attitudes in “the most ostensibly religious society in the industrialized North Atlantic West,” even among self-identifying evangelicals, perhaps indicating, he suggests, a kind of secularization by stealth. Sure, the success of mid-century programs has contributed to trans-generational attrition in the ecumenical churches, their numbers famously declining since the 1970′s. But these same endeavors have also left a deep imprint on American cultural life.
I teach medieval and early modern Christianity as cultural history in one of those Protestant Establishment seminaries. This one was begun under the leadership of a clergyman 140 years ago in a prominent church on San Francisco’s Union Square, and it is one of a dozen or so of the oldest surviving educational institutions in the American west. In his day, the founder was a visible and controversial public voice in the city.
A slave-owning southern clergyman before he came to the Presbyterian Church on the square, he thought the separation of church and state precluded government interference in the secular institution of slavery in the South and precluded public school prayer in the West. He is referred to cautiously and with caveats around here. His mid-century biographer was my predecessor by some generations removed, a historian of Protestant missions in California and the Pacific Northwest and a frequent contributor to the Pacific Historical Review. The biographer emphasized the bit about school prayer. We have all but forgotten the founder’s place in public life. The loss of his memory is emblematic of the decline of the Protestant Establishment of which Hollinger and others speak.
Around here, we tend to presuppose the academic parochialism of places like ours before the mid-twentieth century, while we are blind to the threat of parochialism now. We get it exactly backwards. In the 1920′s and 1930′s, when our faculty mostly avoided the stormy, definitive doctrinal and missionary policy debates racking the Protestant Establishment in those years, future Presbyterian ministers at this seminary could choose courses in Akkadian to complement standard offerings in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the bible. Now we send those students to the University of California.
Across the Bay at our nearest rival, the Congregationalist Pacific School of Religion, a professor who had trained in another seminary, the Moravian one in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, directed a significant archeological dig at Tell en-Nasbeh, northwest of Jerusalem. Such were the Protestant seminaries scattered across North America in the early twentieth century.
The rise of the Ecumenists in the 1950′s, in spite of their insistent self-distancing from the doctrinal orthodoxies of the past, seemed to reap a harvest planted by their ancestors. Their rise brought an ambitious president to the San Francisco Theological Seminary. As a young college professor in the Midwest, Ted Gill led study tours of college students to meet activist missionaries in Latin America. Once he arrived in the Bay Area, he expanded the faculty. He appointed, among several other mavericks, the seminary’s first medievalist, an intellectual historian imported from Europe named Martin Anton Schmidt. He appointed the historian of Puritanism Leonard Trinterud, the historian of Protestant theology John Dillenberger, and Noel Freedman, a scholar of Hebrew bible, who went on to become one of the most prominent bible scholars of his generation.
Gill’s impatient correspondence with disillusioned donors makes for an interesting read. The donors were goaded by news of his endorsement of the civil rights movement, and by a newly appointed theologian’s court testimony against local obscenity laws, and by things said by bible professors visiting churches to preach – denying the Exodus, the resurrection of the dead, and other less axiomatic biblical miracles.
Gill also invested time, personnel, and property into the creation of the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, a quintessentially ecumenical project if ever there was one. Dillenberger was transferred to the GTU. Neither the medieval intellectual historian nor the prominent bible scholar stayed long, moving on, respectively, to the universities of Basel and Michigan. The ambitious young president himself left to become professor and then provost of John Jay College in New York. US withdrawal from Vietnam took away the draft deferments that incentivized applications for admission. Soon after, the decline in enrollment, mercifully gradual here, began.
The mid-century expansion ultimately proved unsustainable, although I hasten to add that at both the GTU and SFTS we like to think that we’ve continued to thrive, and our pride in our graduates is fulsome. That I should teach a decidedly medieval Reformation on this Protestant faculty in a well-integrated ecumenical consortium is a privilege I owe to the expanded intellectual, social, and cultural space created by Ecumenical Protestants.
Those who teach history in a theology faculty associated with the old Protestant churches know their own versions of this story. It’s hard not to yearn for the halcyon days at mid-century when the Ecumenists could all rest confidently in a public, liberal-Protestant prestige, and yet it’s hard not to marvel at the Ecumenists, if for no other reason than because fewer and fewer of us, or our students, were born and raised in their ancestral faith with its peculiar assumptions and prejudices.
I won’t go into the details of those assumptions and prejudices. I prefer to consider the reminders of an earlier prestige. Here, our stately buildings, a popular local wedding venue, are rare, if late, examples of Richardsonian Romanesque on the west coast and a gorgeous testimony to the Protestant Establishment’s past, which included a handful of the region’s generous captains of industry. Today, passersby admire the buildings wondering if we are monks (none are) and nuns (one is), train priests, or reject evolution (none do).
Meanwhile, theological education among Ecumenical Protestants seems to have regressed into vigorous nail-biting. This is hidden by an awkward optimism, that when we become the kind of dynamic, adaptable organizations that evangelical schools and churches are presumed to be (and to be fair, some really are), the numbers of our students will rise, followed by a bounty of job openings for our enterprising graduates.
Here, in the Ecumenical Protestant seminary, it occurs to the teacher of history that the study of ancient, medieval, or early modern religion has little to contribute to the perfection of Godly Play or the role of Power Point and social media in “a new model for ministry” patterned after the evangelical seminary’s, or the seminary satellite’s, model down the road. Spirituality, on-line education, and youth ministry, some say, are the most important things a seminary can teach today, and by teach they seem to mean train. To embrace that ambition would make a travesty of what theological education born in the Protestant Establishment had aspired to be. At the same time, like our Establishment forebears, we tend to ignore the center of serious theological inquiry that our best evangelical rival, Fuller Seminary, has become.
Needless to say, the august Society sponsoring this blog is, in its own way, both a product of the old Protestant Establishment and, in its current, vibrant form, a by-product of the transitions discussed by David Hollinger and others. Both facts, the society’s origins and its current form, are reflected in the journal’s indicative title/subtitle, Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture – “Christianity” and “Culture” coaxing the reader away from the delimiting “church.” A member of the ASCH teaching in a seminary is not inclined to surrender all real education in the history of religion and culture to the divinity schools and departments of universities, as though real scholarship should not belong in a seminary, a presupposition occasionally voiced, sometimes obliquely and sometimes directly, by friends outside of seminaries and, more alarmingly, by others within. No, I’m not willing to admit the failure of Ecumenical Protestantism.
Hollinger points out that the presumption of failure typical among Ecumenical Protestants, and I would add, the confusion, depression, and muddled aspirations that accompany it, make sense from only one perspective. He says,
To recognize the historic function of ecumenical Protestantism as a halfway house, if not actually a slippery slope to secularism, is in no way invidious unless one approaches history as a Christian survivalist. Religious affiliations, like other solidarities, are contingent entities, generated, sustained, transformed, diminished, and destroyed by the changing circumstances of history. Those circumstances still render ecumenical Protestantism a vibrant and vital home for many persons. A genuinely historicist approach to the history of religion will not teleologically imply that those committed to that faith today are headed for history’s dustbin. On the contrary, historicism demands that we address every human phenomenon in its local and global contexts, and be as respectful as we can of the honest decisions people make in those settings and refrain from thinking we know the future.
It’s worth pondering this observation in all its dimensions. There is, for example, the business about secularism. What’s wrong with it, in the pluralistic form once advocated by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the young Martin Marty, Henry van Deusen, and their admirers of yore? I, in my interfaith family, with my Catholic dean and my Jesuit, Franciscan, Dominican, Jewish, Muslim, Swedenborgian, Buddhist, evangelical, Unitarian, Ecumenical Protestant, unidentified, religiously indifferent, and atheist colleagues and students across the Bay, find this saeculum a good and productive place to call home. A particular religious or cultural identity does not have to dominate a society to be morally relevant or spiritually alive, quite the contrary, a point the old guard Ecumenists argued on principle but might have found difficult to feel in their Anglo-Protestant, Euro-American bones.
Ecumenism was not only a Protestant affair, and the pluralism encouraged by the Ecumenists was not unique to them but widely shared among the political left. This fact was reflected in Fundamentalist accusations of selling-out the church, familiar to those of us who passed near or through evangelicalism in the 1970′s. The rejection of a Christianity leaning affectionately on its diverse cultural pasts and presents in a world of religions, beliefs, and unbelief survives in an evangelical rhetoric against “cultural Christianity.” But, tellingly, cultural Christianity is now also recognized by evangelicals to be a threat within evangelicalism and not just outside it.
That pluralism has subsumed Protestant-Catholic, Jewish-Christian, or Christian-Muslim differences under the umbrella of cultural diversity is hardly a bad thing. Nor is it a damaging thing. A historian should never regret contributing to a comparative, deeply human and humane dialectic of identification and differentiation, the I-am-you-not-you dialectic created by interaction across boundaries.
A great danger in seminaries is that a recidivism around a particular religious identity, encouraged by what Hollinger calls Christian survivalism, could destroy any interest in a genuinely historicist approach to history. Anxiety to survive threatens to collapse the teaching of church history or the history of Christianity, whichever side of the journal’s title you prefer, into a self-affirming exercise, an exercise in a particular version of Christian identity or theological or spiritual tradition, a history taught by people with little training in, or sympathy for, a genuine historicism, a history that studies the past only to appropriate bits, pieces, and distortions for the present.
I don’t mean to begrudge anyone the history of his or her particular brand of the world’s “traditioned communities,” a phrase coined by Lewis Seymour Mudge, a theologian and a fondly remembered colleague, a dedicated Ecumenist, and a scion of the Protestant Establishment whose father, as stated clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly, was mentioned regularly in the pages of Henry Robinson Luce’s Time Magazine. The plural of Mudge’s phrase is essential. The pluralistic, historicizing alternative to self-affirmation is, in fact, wonderful. There is no better reason to study the history of Christianity anywhere, in a seminary or out, than to be seduced, charmed, provoked, shamed, offended, and engaged by the magnificent imaginaries that color the history of religion, a culturally promiscuous science.
Christopher Ocker is Professor of Church History at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, Coordinator of the seminary’s Muilenburg-Koenig History of Religion Seminar, a Member of the Core Doctoral Faculty of the Graduate Theological Union, affiliated with the Joint Program in Jewish Studies of the GTU and the University of California at Berkeley, and affiliated with Berkeley’s History Department.