Relevant Morality

Though in the 1930s, pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick questioned many liberal premises, in the 1920s, he was an ardent champion of modernist thought. In a 1926 essay, “What Christian Liberals Are Driving At,” he outlined two major aims of liberalism; the following is a condensed excerpt.

Certainly I cannot claim the right to speak for all Christian liberals. There are too many different sorts of them, from swashbuckling radicals, believing not much of anything, to men of well-stabilized convictions who are tolerant of differences and open-minded to new truth. But there is a large and growing group in our churches for whom I shall try to speak.

The uproar of the last few years associated with fundamentalism has been caused in part by the clear and true perception of the reactionaries that the liberals are gaining and that, if not stopped now, they will soon be in control. What the liberals are driving at, therefore, is an important matter, not only to the churches, but also to the public in general. Let me try to group their major aims and motives under two heads.

Getting with it

For one thing, liberals undoubtedly wish to modernize Christianity’s expression of its faith. The Protestant Reformation was a valiant stroke for liberty, but it occurred before the most characteristic ideas of our modern age had arrived. The Augsburg Confession is a memorable document, but the Lutherans who framed it did not even know that they were living on a moving planet, and Martin Luther himself called Copernicus a new astrologer. The Westminster Confession is a notable achievement in the development of Christian thought, but it was written 40 years before Newton published his work on the law of gravitation.

Protestantism, that is, was formulated in prescientific days. Not one of its historic statements of faith takes into account any of the masterful ideas which constitute the framework of modern thinking—the inductive method, the new astronomy, natural law, evolution. All these have come since Protestantism arrived.

Protestantism stiffened into its classic forms under the intellectual influences long antedating our modern world, and the chaos and turmoil in Christian thought today are the consequences. They spring directly from the impossible endeavor of large sections of the church to continue the presentation of the gospel in forms of thought that are no longer real and cogent to well-instructed minds.

As one deals with young men and women religiously upset, one must often blame their unsettlement not so much upon the colleges as upon Christian churches and Sunday schools-upon religious agencies which taught these young people in the beginning that the Christian gospel is indissolubly associated with the prescientific view of the world in the Scriptures or the creeds; that the gospel of the Lord Jesus is dependent upon fiat creation or the historic reliability of old miracle narratives; that the God of the gospel, like the God of the early Hebrew documents, is a magnified man who could walk in the garden in the cool of the day or come down from the sky to confound men’s speech lest they should build a tower high enough to reach his home.

It is a tragic error thus to set up in the minds of young children an artificial adhesion between the gospel and a literal interpretation of Scripture and creed, so that, when education inevitably opens a child’s mind, the whole unnatural combination of liberalism and spiritual faith collapses, and Christ is banished from a soul because he has been associated with opinions that are bound in the end to prove untenable.

Liberalism is not primarily a set of opinions; it is a spirit of free inquiry which wishes to face the new facts, accept whatever is true, and state the abiding principles of Christian faith in cogent and contemporary terms.

Doing good

At the very center of liberalism, as I understand it, is the conviction that nothing fundamentally matters in religion except those things which create private and public goodness.

In historic and contemporary Christianity, three elements have been continually used as competitors of character in the interest of Christians. They have repeatedly usurped the place which private and public righteousness ought to occupy as the one supreme matter with which Christianity is concerned and for which it works. These three elements are ritual, doctrine, and church.

This does not mean that ritual is unnecessary or unimportant in religion. Religion always has had its ceremonies and always will.

Nevertheless, a peril lurks in all ritualism—the supposition, namely, that the Lord God of this infinite universe cares anything about our meticulous performance of a ceremony—if it does not issue in private and public righteousness.

Nor does the liberal Christian belittle doctrine. The ordered and intelligible statement of the convictions which undergird Christian living is important. A man’s creed, if real and vital, is his conviction about the nature and meaning of his life, of the world in which it is lived, and of the God who rules it. That certainly is basic and controlling.

Only there is an omnipresent danger in emphasis on doctrine. Doctrine in time is petrified into dogma. It is officially formulated. Then there is an ecclesiastical type of mind ready to use it, no longer as an inspiring elucidation of the convictions by which men really live but as a mold into which men’s thinking must be exactly run. Doctrine is then authoritative, a definition laid down in times past of the way in which men must always think. And men often pride themselves on this repetition of their fathers’ thoughts, as though the God and Father of Jesus cared anything for that, except as it represents real convictions vitally issuing in private and public righteousness.

Furthermore, the liberal certainly does not undervalue the church. Nevertheless, the pathos of Christian History lies in the way the church has so often misrepresented and obstructed vital Christianity. Our multiplied and meaningless denominations are doing that today.

In one of our American communities, a congregation called itself The Church of God. They could not agree among themselves and, having split asunder, the split called itself, The True Church of God. They in turn divided, and the new division called itself The Only True Church of God.

The tragedy of that picturesque situation, too typical of our modern Protestantism to be pleasant, is that none of these divisions has any imaginable relationship with the one supreme business of religion: the creation of private and public righteousness.

A liberal, therefore, in his emphasis is utterly careless of sectarian distinctions. He sees that our denominational peculiarities for the most part are caused by historic reasons only, have no contemporary excuse for existence, and have no contribution to make to righteousness. He is convinced that nothing matters in any church except those few vital and transforming faiths and principles of the gospel, common to all churches, which do create personal character and social progress.

By Harry Emerson Fosdick

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #55 in 1997]

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