Second-Stage Protestantism: A Concept with an Attitude
By Ed Knudson (www.pubtheo.com)
March 20, 2006
The following is a discussion in a question and answer format. I am very interested in responses from readers. What is most helpful? What is questionable? What is feasible or not feasible?
What is Second-Stage Protestantism?
I have been looking for an organizing concept for my website on Public Theology which I have been building for some years. It has many different sections, lots of articles, weblinks, book reviews, etc. I have many interests and concerns but it often feels like I am moving from one thing to the other without a sense of how things fit together. Also, the term “public theology” indicates that Christian faith is something with public implications not just a private faith for private persons as is so often assumed. But that concept has not been rich enough to offer a point of view for my own thinking and writing as well as the website. So I have been looking for a key, organizing concept by which to hold together many varied interests as well as express a clear and compelling point of view for my work, a hopefully lucid perspective on many things, theology, history, politics, economics, ecumenicity. When the term “second-stage Protestantism” came to my mind it immediately helped me organize my ideas, it stimulated many thoughts and associations, and seemed to lead to new intuitive insights. It is hard to put into words, yet that too is what an organizing concept does, it provides a guide and stimulation for putting words on the concept in order to communicate with others. It’s like a gestalt, or paradigm, or in some ways if you think in terms of science it’s like a new theory by which all of a sudden you are able to hold together a lot of otherwise disparate facts. I am in the process of testing that theory now during this coming year of 2006.
What do you mean by saying it is a concept with an attitude?
I have been feeling more and more an emotional unsettledness about where the Protestant mainline churches are going. They have been experiencing a belligerent sustained attack from neoconservatives and the religious right for a couple decades now. Many claim these churches are declining and have lost any reason for existence. Few pay them any attention in public debates anymore. But rather than stand and fight these churches seem to be just accepting the attacks and acting as if they can just go on doing what they have always done and everything will be all right. For the sake of peace in the church we pastors (I am a Protestant pastor) are too tempted to avoid conflicts, to avoid being clear when we see something is wrong even in terms of our basic doctrinal beliefs. We need a new attitude. The word attitude in sailing refers to the relation of the sail to the wind; to move the boat the attitude of the sail must catch the wind. The Protestant boat seems to be hardly moving these days, it hardly has its sails up, or has not positioned them to be able to catch the changing winds in the politics, economics, culture of the local community, nation, or world. So the idea of Second Stage Protestantism is an effort to read the winds and hoist the sails of the Protestant boat. There are lots of us in that boat; we have some great leaders; we have engaged in much energetic and refreshing theological work and biblical research; we have places around the country where outstanding ministry is occurring; but many pastors and congregations are confused and floundering, have no sense of purpose and are at the point of giving up. We are all in this boat together and I want to help as we try together to read the signs of the times and recommit ourselves to being the church alive in new ways at this moment in history.
So it is a new and original concept?
Well, in some ways, yes, but I was looking for a concept that in most ways would provide a kind of “aha” moment for others as soon as they start reading about it. That is, they would say, “Yes, that makes a lot of sense.” It would correspond with the experience of others in a descriptive way. I can’t claim I am the only one thinking about these matters. I wanted a concept that helps make sense for a whole lot of people in terms of what they are already doing and thinking and saying. Maybe the best way to characterize this is to say that I am trying to engage in an “act of interpretation.” We are all interpreting our lives all the time, the lives of people around us, the events around us, what we see on the news. We are trying all the time to “read” what is going on around us, making sense of it, determining what different events mean for our lives and others. We also want explanations for why things are the way they are. In broad terms that requires an act of interpretation. Science can’t tell us these things; the timelines involved are too long, the scope is too large, and we are dealing with matters of human consciousness and meaning. Once an act of interpretation is put forward then communities gather around it because the interpretation gives purpose and meaning to daily life and work; it defines what is right and good in moral terms; it clarifies choices before us; it sets a direction for life both personally and in community. But that will only happen if the interpretation makes sense to people. So Second-Stage Protestantism represents an act of interpretation that I hope will be shared with very large numbers of people which can help begin conversations about the need for a shift in thinking and working for Protestants. I would like to see a perspective developed which would help people organize their lives and habits of thought and give them a clearer point of view of past, present and future, and therefore be able to act in meaningful, responsible ways.
So it is a historical concept?
Yes, very much so. As soon as you refer to a “second-stage”
for anything that implies there was a “first-stage” and there is a transition
between the first and second stage. I believe we are in a transition between a
first and second stage Protestantism in the
Has Protestantism really had that much influence?
I think so, though many people today don’t realize it. The
most basic ways that people in this country think and feel today, and how they
determine right from wrong and good from bad, come out of the period of the
Reformation. I realize that is a big generalization, very big, indeed, but I
would like to work with it for a time to see how much support I can develop for
it in my own thinking and listening to others. But I do not mean by this that
For many that would seem to be an astonishing claim; what proof do you have?
Secular society had to come from some place. It is more true
to say that Protestantism created it than to say it emerged out of nothing.
Philosophers have tried to trace the origins of the modern notion of individual
subjectivity. They go back to Immanuel Kant, or to Rene Descartes, but most
recently some are suggesting it was
Why did you use the word “Protestant” in your organizing concept?
It is a common word just hanging out there without much
definition in the minds of most people. Therefore it is available to build new
content into it. There is no church with the official title of Protestant; it
has been a category word, a term by which to label any Christian church that
was not Roman Catholic. But that is one of the reasons, too, that I chose to
use the term. What we have seen since the Reformation is one Roman Catholic
Church and many Protestant denominations. In this country we have also seen the
invention of whole new denominations and/or religions, which are not really
Christian, such as the Morman church. I would include
many of the groups associated with the religious right in that characterization
as well; many of them are modern American social inventions that claim to be
Christian but really are heresies which do not believe nor worship according to
historic orthodox Christian faith. Or, they place such complete emphasis on
particular elements that they distort the whole. One of the functions of the
word “Protestant” could be to look at the larger history, before the
establishment of the
So Protestantism should be opposed to Roman Catholics?
Opposed is the wrong word; Protestants need to distinguish
themselves from the Roman Church, not as separate groups only, but as a more
organized entity with a clear identity. For the last few decades Protestants
have allowed themselves to hope for a reunion of the church. Vatican II in the
early 1960s was an historic event in Christianity. The Roman church opened
itself to Protestant bodies, rejected its claim to be the exclusive source of
salvation, and created great excitement in the church about the possibilities
for reunion of the churches. Martin Luther never wanted to leave the church; he
was forced out; he never wanted a denomination named after him, but others
referred to his followers as Lutherans and the name just stuck. After Vatican
II many Lutheran theologians began to think and write in more ecumenical terms,
in a sense preparing Lutherans for a time of possible return to the Roman fold.
Many pastors called themselves “evangelical Catholics” and a Center for
Evangelical and Catholic Theology was created by two theologians, Carl Braaten and Robert Jensen. But those hopes have been dashed
by actions of the papacy in relation to the role of women in the church,
various moral issues, and continuing commitment to an authoritarian church
structure modeled on the ancient
Is the religious right an expression of true Christianity?
I believe we must now answer “no” to that question. One of
the reasons for a focus on “Protestantism” is because I am thinking primarily
in the context of the church in the
Isn’t heresy too strong a word to use against people calling themselves Christian?
I am not interested in burning people at the stake for their
beliefs. However, I do believe it is very necessary for Protestants to develop
new ways to hold themselves accountable for faith and doctrine. Many of the
so-called non-denominational groups were explicitly formed over-against
doctrinal accountability making the claim, essentially, that they have a right
to believe anything they want. Now, religious freedom is a right guaranteed in
the constitution but the church is not the state. The
Why is a Protestant identity so important to you?
The motivation is not for the sake of the church itself. It is for the sake of the world, a world, Christians historically have confessed, that God loves. We as a nation and world really do face some horrendous issues now and in the near future. It’s no wonder that movies and television are displaying so many end-of-the-world themes. Name almost any single issue, war, security, education, health care, family wage, moral responsibility, crime, world poverty, population growth, energy supplies, global warming, environmental pollution; each of these have been problems, but now they are massive problems each threatening the lives of millions or billions of people. Some on the right are literally calling for a holy war between Christianity and Islam and already preparing for it and actually looking forward to it. Despite these giant issues the political and governing process in this country cannot handle them and appears itself to be breaking down; politicians get elected not on the basis of telling the truth but on the basis of which candidate can most effectively sell propaganda and manipulate the minds of people in television ads. Polls indicate that in general the American people have nearly completely lost faith in public institutions, especially congress, which is supposed to be the elected representatives of the people. Something has gone completely and terribly wrong with politics in our time and there is no consensus developing about what is at fault. One of the culprits is the religious right which has skewed the electoral process so badly that politicians can avoid talking about real issues and get elected on the basis of symbolic religious issues they can do little about, since they are mostly legal issues before the court, or would solve nothing even if adopted, such as prayer in public schools and placing ten commandments on county courthouse walls. In the midst of this breakdown of the political process and the prospects for holy global war I look around and ask, who can do anything about any of this? What institution or group of people, what movement or association, what way of thinking and organizing can have any influence on these matters? The answer is Second-Stage Protestantism in the form of real faithful people and pastors in local congregations in cities and towns throughout the nation. These are people who work in business, government, in the professions, in nonprofit organizations in local communities across the country. These are people who every Sunday are brought together in the power of the Spirit to experience themselves as the people of God through celebration of the historic liturgies of the church. Maybe these people can do something.
But these mainline churches are declining are they not?
Yes and no. Many of them are doing just what needs to be done according to how I think about Second-Stage Protestantism. There are local councils of churches all over, pastors of different denominations come together to study together and find ways to cooperate in various programs. Yes, over-all the mainlines are declining in membership while the groups associated with the religious right are increasing. That’s the perception, it needs more study to see what’s really going on in any particular place. The public media in general gives much more credibility to the religious right than it deserves in terms of numbers of adherents. The so-called growing churches are those which no longer preach the historic faith but are modernist, American, religious inventions. In that sense they represent a country which is rejecting orthodox Christian faith. And it is possible to speak about how Protestant congregations who are declining can be turned around; it is possible for pastors to reconceptualize their ministry in terms of making a turn toward new ways to engage in worship, learning and mission. In fact, I think it important to speak of a major type of turning, a kind of repentance, a turning away from the first-stage to the second-stage of Protestantism, a turn from what for many is merely private faith to public responsibility. As this is done there will be many, many new people who will attracted into the Protestant churches.
What more can you say about this idea of “turning”?
One of the benefits of the notion of Second-Stage
Protestantism is that it raises the very issue of what needs to change from the
first to the second stage; it stimulates ideas and conversation. I will be
thinking much more about this and encourage others to do so also. What it means
is, in a sense, to ask the question “What does repentance look like today?” If
Protestantism built secular culture what does it mean to turn it in a new
direction? What are the problems with current society and culture and politics?
Such questions should be asked not in simplistic, naïve ways, but seriously and
honestly looking at the most difficult psychological and institutional issues
in our time. Our very way of life in this country is no longer viable,
sustainable, legitimate; the future simply cannot be
more of what already is. A tremendous shift is necessary in how we think and
talk and act on a daily basis, in how we organize our lives within communities,
in human settlement patterns across the earth, in how we use energy for
transportation and industry. We have to fundamentally re-evaluate the role of
You seem to be saying the religious right is the problem and the mainline churches are the solution?
After the Reformation in
Who would listen to this? The media doesn’t cover mainline churches.
Media coverage is a very large issue, and one of the most significant reasons why we need to begin thinking in terms of a single Protestant identity. Each of the mainline churches, of course, can communicate with their members; each of them in various ways are trying to make clear that the religious right does not represent their views. That effort could be made vastly more effective if Protestants combined their efforts into a single voice. Imagine a single weekly newspaper sent into the home of every Protestant in the country! And/or, a single website. Protestants need to get into the news business in a big way. And a single Protestant news source would also help address the problem of media coverage. The large national media are not going to cover the actions and statements of individual church bodies. It takes too much work on the part of reporters to determine what is the Methodist view on an issue, or the Lutheran view, or the Episcopal view. We just have to face that fact. And we don’t have the luxury of being able to think that they, the media reporters, are going to know what we think; we will be defined by them in unhelpful ways unless they are given reason to think otherwise. We must, we just must as Protestants, seriously work to establish significant new ways and institutional means to put before the American people through the secular media a clear definition of Protestant public witness. The Protestant bishops could do this.
Are you proposing something like the Conference of Catholic Bishops?
Yes, that is one model, for Protestants. But it should have a focus on communicating through various media to denominational members but also to the general public. We have to get smart about these matters. Communication follows power. There has been a centralizing effect in modern communications. The national media are fixated on the presidency; what the president says gets covered no matter what. Everyone is interested, coverage is broad, an agenda is created, a mood or atmosphere or ethos is established. The religious right gets coverage because it is provocative and it has demonstrated political power. The mainline churches simply will not be heard in this culture until they come together to present a compelling argument in public, a coherent Protestant voice. It would be necessary to be savvy about the media but I am not talking here just about creating better public relations capability, though technical/institutional strategy is important. I am talking about the need for focused attention on real theological substance through the media. And we would have to deal with the stereotypical notions the media already have of the mainlines, that they are too liberal and couldn’t speak with one voice, that the leaders don’t represent the followers, that they are too diverse to be able to agree on important matters. I do think we need a brand new group, with the name Protestant in the title. The National Council of Churches does much important and good work and could continue to administer many of its current programs. But the publicity functions should be moved to a brand new entity for media purposes that is not associated with the NCC history. One NCC leader recently on a television talk show actually brought up the 1960s to prove a point and stepped right into the talking points of his opponents. Politics for the last thirty five years has been characterized by backlash against the sixties; we have to develop intentional ways to deal with that and get beyond it. To make any of this work we should not rely on a representative process like the NCC; the Protestant Bishops themselves should be sitting at the table. That’s what would focus attention of both the churches and the media. Again, communication follows power. Protestant Bishops could get this done.
What theological substance are you talking about? Where would you start?
Well, just imagine a five-day Protestant Bishop’s Convocation on Current Theological Heresies where the focus is on the questions of inerrancy of scripture (a “modern” view of scripture), religious nationalism (salvation through national glory or military power), and end times apocalyptic (including Christian Zionism). It would not be necessary to even vote on heresy statements, just raising questions could lead to much public discussion. In the process of dealing with these issues, of course, the positive Protestant theological contributions to these questions could be presented so the public could hear alternative ways to understand Christian faith. Right now, for example, most non-church people think the bible is a tool to pound people on the head for moral depravity rather than the source of revelation about a loving and graceful God. Most of the theological work has already been done; what we haven’t done is give our best theologians a platform for public learning either within or without the church. Imagine another five-day session on Jesus. We know more about Jesus today than most previous generations. The bible itself presents a diversity of views of Jesus, four different gospels plus another view from the Apostle Paul. The Jesus Seminar has demonstrated that people really are interested in Jesus; we don’t have to accept its methods, the narrow definitions of historical truth that are sometimes employed, to benefit from the results of Jesus research. The mission of Jesus constitutes the primary model for the mission of the church in communities today so it would be especially helpful to pastors and congregations to focus on Jesus. I could list many more themes of theological substance for such sessions, such as the crucial question of science and faith. And through technology hookups there could be hundreds of regional and local gatherings connected to the convocations, or whatever they would be called.
It seems you want more teaching authority in the Protestant church?
The Protestant Bishops should be doing what bishops historically have done, teach the church. Nothing is more important today. And in the process they would be calling into account those Americanized versions of Christianity now so prevalent. They would also be energizing pastors and members in Protestant congregations. They would get people reading and debating theology, how to believe in Jesus faithfully today, how to be responsible for the future of the world God loves. They would excite interest among the non-churched in these significant matters bringing new members into our churches. We do need more teaching authority in Protestantism. The first-stage of Protestantism was in many ways a splintering movement; Protestants debated and differed and formed all sorts of small church bodies, especially among the Baptists. The focus has been on church polity, the form of decision-making, with an emphasis on congregationalism. Issues of authority in Protestantism do, indeed, deserve new careful deliberation. But we don’t have to solve this problem before going forward. The ecumenical movement has been helping us come together. And the times now demand a shift, a change, a strong turning from that first-stage to a new second-stage Protestantism which affirms that the faith of the church is not up for majority vote, the witness of the church is not available to the highest bidder, the gospel is the treasure of the church for the sake of the world and it must be taught faithfully in our time.
But there is no one Protestant theology, how can there be a teaching authority when there are so many divergent views among Protestants?
I think there is more unity than we might think, especially about what we know we are against. The emergence of the religious right has forced the rest of us to become more clear about the center of Christian faith and witness. We have got to realize that if the mainlines don’t act together then those alien forms of Christianity are going to become even more dominant in the future. Now, it is true that the current political convergence of George Bush’s Republican Party and the religious right may not last much longer; his particular successful outreach to the religious right for electoral purposes is fairly unique. I am not sure any other Republican candidate can succeed as Bush has done. So we may not forever have to face the question of the Republican Party associated with a particular religious expression as we do now. Second-Stage Protestantism is not a partisan-based effort politically; it would seek to challenge both parties for the sake of social and economic justice. But in matters of faith, teaching the historic faith of the church, it is clear that the religious right is a heresy that must be vigorously opposed, and Second-Stage Protestants would take on the task of creating faith expressions necessary to preach the gospel and gather the church in this second-stage of our history. That is, the criteria for our theology would not be so much what we can agree on doctrinally from our traditions; we already agree on the basics. Rather, we are brought together by the task before us; we may need to speak the faith tomorrow in a way quite different from the way we spoke yesterday. We might well find that doctrines of yesterday can be spoken in more common ways tomorrow without in any way sacrificing any significant content of the faith. The early church faced this kind of problem when it created the Apostles Creed. The church is always confronting the interpretive task of speaking the gospel in ways that can be understood in changing cultures. What we especially need to focus on is not doctrine as a set of intellectual propositions hanging out there in abstraction, but on the way the teachings of the church have already been received culturally in contemporary society and how they “work” politically today. Since Protestantism has created secular culture and is now all intertwined with it what we need to do is re-evaluate what it means to stand responsibly before God today, what it means to believe in Jesus as messiah turning away from the sins of the past. Even beginning to speak in this way means opening the future to new possibility. And a great deal of biblical, historical, and systematic theology has already been done on all these matters.
Can you give an example of a doctrine and how it has been received?
Perhaps the best example is the idea of individual
salvation. The Reformation leaders brought the faith “back to earth” so to
speak. They turned away from a religious culture focused solely on the idea of
getting into heaven. They took seriously the gospel message that God creates
the world and wants human beings to love one another. Let me put it this way:
Many times members of congregations have come to me and said, “Pastor, I tried
to read the bible but cannot understand it.” In the conversation that followed
I would usually find out that they were bringing to the bible their own idea of
what they would find there. The idea they were bringing is what the modern
church, for the most part, but also the culture, has taught them, that
Christianity is about an individual obtaining eternal salvation in heaven after
death. But when people sit down to read the bible they find very little on that
theme, it just isn’t there. So people are confused. When you read the Hebrew
bible you see God intimately involved in history; salvation is not an
individual matter but is about
Are you saying Billy Graham was not preaching true Protestant faith?
I know it sounds wrong to many people, but, yes, now,
looking back and realizing that the individualistic methods of Graham provide
the model for most of the leaders of the religious right that this is an
Americanized form of Christianity which has now moved so far away from historic
Protestantism that it can no longer be accepted as a valid contemporary witness
to orthodox faith. First stage Protestantism has been influenced greatly by
this idea of individual salvation. Now, a turning is needed; theology for a
Second Stage Protestantism needs to do a lot of work on why this idea is a
heresy in the form it has now taken and how to understand and preach the
historic Christian witness of salvation through a gracious and merciful God.
This will have to do with the ideas of public church and Protestants as the
people of God in the world today. Remember that John Calvin never taught that
salvation was an individual decision; the focus was on predestination; God
chooses the elect. And Martin Luther said clearly that the human will was under
bondage, incapable of choosing God; faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit through
hearing the living Word of God. To make salvation an individual decision is to
make it a human work which is completely against the spirit of the Reformation.
We Protestants have to be clear about these matters today; it is going to take
great courage. Bishops and pastors must seek to teach Protestant faith to the
Many people in the mainline Protestant churches endorse what you call revivalist religion. Your views would alienate them and perhaps drive them out of their local congregations?
I don’t know what percentage of mainline members may identify with the religious right. I have heard that it may be some thirty percent. I read in Christianity Today magazine an estimate of fifty percent, but that magazine has reason to over-estimate. It is very hard to measure from polling because it is impossible to adequately phrase questions about abstract doctrines and faith attitudes, yet this is an area I want to explore and hope others do as well. The biggest point here, though, is that to the degree these folks are in the mainline churches they are holding us back. I think there are far too many local congregations where a small cadre of extreme conservatives keep the pastor from preaching the true gospel and inhibit peace and justice ministries. We should let those people go if they refuse to affirm a positive new ministry. Bishops should help give pastors courage to clean house if need be. Then we can go about the mission of building the congregation with new energy and vigor. Jesus told the disciples to “shake the dust off your feet” if a local community refuses the gospel; in this case it may mean to shake away those who would inhibit full Protestant ministry. Take the example of a small congregation of say 300 members which hasn’t been able to grow much for years; a few members are vocal extreme conservatives who may be able to get a total of sixty members on their side. Let them all go and you have a congregation of 240 members; develop a new, positive, affirming, outreach program, sponsor progressive educational events, put ads in the local paper about a “turning” at this congregation to focus on ministry for all people, and you will be surprised at how many new people may be drawn to your community. I believe there is a huge untapped mission field out there for progressive Protestant congregations. I also believe, by the way, if bishops and pastors would begin to clearly articulate a positive Protestant theology distinguished from the religious right, with compelling reasons and clear argument, and really go public with it, that many of those who may have some sympathy for the religious right would change their minds and hearts. We simply haven’t been very good at making things clear but we are at the point that if we don’t do it now we may lose Protestantism altogether. It’s important to realize that what the religious right says about the mainline churches is not true, or should not be allowed to be claimed to be true, especially concerning historic doctrinal witness. Some years ago I sat down to systematically watch the television preachers over a period of a couple months. I could not believe the diatribe against the mainline churches. These folks know how to attack and kill their opponents. No longer can we afford to have a tolerant attitude as if any religious belief is as good as another, an attitude still too prevalent among some Protestants. We do have real opponents today and some may be inside our churches; we should not let them control our congregations or church bodies.
Your strategy will just send more members to the revivalists wouldn’t it?
Maybe in the short term. But this
raises a very important fact about the growth of revivalism and what it means
for Protestants. First, let me distinguish between the leaders and followers of
revivalism. When I criticize the religious right I am especially criticizing
its leaders, less its followers. Its growth should be taken as a judgment upon
the mainline Protestants. We have not adequately reached out to the
constituencies that make up the religious right. I just returned from a visit
to a small
It is the “big-box church” where growth is occurring. Is not this the wave of the future?
If Protestants don’t change that may be true. Think about
how the big-box shopping malls have destroyed the downtowns of small towns and
cities across the country. Now the big-box churches have come and more are
coming. Along with the empty storefronts downtown we can see empty downtown
churches. This is a tragedy. Too many of
us seem to just accept this. It’s economics. We have become economic
determinists. We believe in the “creative destruction” of so-called capitalist
development as if the
You use the term “sectarian” for big-box revivalism. Can you talk more about this?
The term comes out of the Reformation period when church-state
relations were reconfigured. Protestantism developed two primary forms,
Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist). There was no separation of church and state;
each prince determined which religion would be followed in his area, Catholic,
Lutheran, or Reformed. So these were “public churches” in the sense that the
church accepted certain responsibilities in relation to the state. But there
were other religious groupings not officially related to the state or the state
church, these are referred to as “sects” and they were often organized
over-against the state and the church. The key characteristic for me is that a
sect is separatist, it believes in separating itself
from the community around it and more often than not takes a hostile,
antagonistic orientation to everyone outside itself. Sometimes sects can be the
source of creative ideas helpful to the rest of the community; some of the
Reformation sects focused on working for peace, for example. But the style and
negativity of these groups can be exactly opposite the public biblical gospel.
All through church history, for example, self-appointed prophets have announced
the end of the world and gathered a group around themselves to wait for the end
when they will be saved and the rest of the world will be destroyed, or some
variation on that theme. These false prophets reject public responsibility for
the future of the world God loves. This end times hysteria is what is being
emphasized in many of the big-box revivalist churches; they preach against
so-called secular humanism and public schools, they view themselves
over-against others, they have narrowly focused on sexual issues such as
abortion and homosexually and found it possible to raise money and politically
manipulate and mobilize people on the basis of hatred. Big-box revivalism is
the worst form of religious populism. This sectarianism is very different from
the biblical model of the people of God. The people of
Why has this sectarianism been so successful in gaining adherents?
I have already mentioned some factors. Let me list a few reasons more systematically, each of which deserves much more discussion. First, the mainline Protestants became comfortable in serving their class-based constituencies, did not seriously reach out to low income and working people and this left the field to the new Americanized versions of Christianity. These are the very folks who have not enjoyed as many of the benefits of secular society as the mainlines and therefore have a natural hostility to them. To be a mainline member you have had to be a successful middle or upper class family; if you have too many problems you don’t qualify and stop attending church or go someplace else. This has got to change; it is a very big task of Second Stage Protestantism to invent new ways to be the church today, a church for all people. Revivalism has hit a nerve with its emphasis on the family; families are struggling to stay alive today, especially lower and even middle class families. Revivalism is successful because it is addressing real anger and pain in the lives of people and turning them against the dominant upper classes who are viewed as liberals and non-religious. Actually, politically, the religious right organizes lower income folks to vote for the interests of the upper classes, the sectarian religious rhetoric is turned upside down politically. The religious right pastor betrays the class interests of his people. Social class is a critical component for understanding the growth of revivalism in our time. It is a hidden reality we don’t like to talk about even though it is plainly present in everything we think and how we talk all the time. It is also a fundamental reality exposed throughout scripture. Theological work must take into account the class implications of faith language. Much more work is necessary to be able to do so effectively.
Second, great investment in and value for higher education on the part of the mainlines has set them apart from the uneducated and this has become a primary social/political dividing line. The more educated people are the more liberal; the less educated the more conservative. The uneducated feel uncomfortable in the educated mainlines. Educated mainline children have tended to leave the church as adults; Protestants have not discovered a theology and piety compelling enough to keep their own children in the church. That’s another huge issue for Second Stage Protestantism. To put it more positively, adults with a Protestant background constitute a tremendous opportunity for outreach and mission.
Third, mass marketing through television has created a totally different cultural climate in this country and restructured business into large, nationally-dominant institutions with tremendous power over local business and community. The public consciousness of average persons is just dominated today by television marketing and programs geared to maintain attention. This is new in human history; nowhere before has it been possible for so many to be so controlled by so few. Big-box revivalism fits into this pattern; star preachers build large local followings through television ministries. Mass marketing has given corporations access to the individual minds of our youth, creating a youth culture with its own values and language over-against traditional social institutions; this is another huge factor for Second Stage Protestantism; revivalism uses corporatist techniques to address this youth culture in its own way. Everything is focused on the relation between the “mass” controlling function on the one side and the individual person on the other side, with no emphasis on lateral communications among persons of integrity in local community. Mass-based revivalism manipulates the minds of individuals; no local “church” is necessary or profitable; it is a modernist phenomenon using methods learned from star-based commercial culture and measures itself by how much money is made. So, although in relation to traditional Protestantism the religious right is sectarian it has actually adopted the principles and practices of current commercial culture and that’s why it works. Salvation is for sale. By selling religion sectarianism today has become, ironically, like the Catholic Church against which the Reformation was waged.
Fourth, electoral politics is under the control of corporate business and media to such a degree that it can be easily manipulated through strategic advertising for those interests rather than for deliberative democratic processes. Just imagine all the money media corporations get from politicians; it is a total disgrace in a democracy; yet the issue is hardly discussed because, of course, business media control the public agenda. The media helps to build the religious right by giving attention to its hysterical proposals. A political party finds it can get elected by appealing to the religious right, which, in turn, gives religious right leaders a sense of importance and helps build their movement. So politics and the media help create revivalism. They create the national market for religious rhetoric and this market then regulates, or works back upon, all the local franchises, the local expressions of revivalism, coordinates them, creates the language and habits of thought that local preachers need to use to participate in the larger religious market. These folks have created a certain formula for religious talk and organization and even “doctrines” (such as biblical inerrancy) which work for them because there is this national market for sectarianism. This market could go away if primary media and electoral politics ignored these folks but I don’t think that will happen unless mainline Protestantism is able to find its own credible and compelling public voice.
Finally, it’s important to realize that sectarianism has a
long history in the
How do you see the future? Will revivalism become the dominant form of Christianity?
It already is dominant politically. When is the last time you saw any Protestant mainline spokesperson in a newspaper article or television program? When I talk about the religious right with mainline pastors I too often get a reaction that we don’t have to worry about it. Maybe that is right, maybe the backlash will peter out; backlashes do not represent, after all, the primary underlying social forces of history, there is, still, a sort of primary public ethos in this country which affirms rights for blacks and women. But we have to realize that this “primary public ethos” is in fact something real, it exists, we are in this country one people, one nation, with what is at any one time a general public sense of what is good and bad, right and wrong. Politics is a contest over what that general public sense should be and that in turn tremendously influences what can be preached on Sunday mornings. When people walk through the doors of the church they bring with them the frameworks of thought and language they have received from the media. They interpret things within that framework in the terms by which the debate over issues is occurring publicly. This is a real contest all the time. Second Stage Protestantism must be involved in this contest. We Protestants have not been doing so well. Some of our most exciting theological work has been done within specific groups, such as feminist or womanist theology and black theology, but we need to find better ways by which such theologies can be received within the context of the general public ethos of the nation. We cannot finally separate ourselves into little enclaves of theology that speak only to our own group. Revivalism may well dominate the future if Protestants don’t come together in new ways to present a new way to be the church in the 21st century. It all boils down to how we are going to preach. The future is created by preaching.
So what should Protestant pastors be preaching these days?
I said earlier that our preaching should directly address
the heresies of the religious right. We need to be clear about that. And we
need to interpret history, as I have been trying to do some here. Theology is
interpretation of history not explication of abstract doctrine. There has never
been a time when theology is more important. Biblical preaching will help our
hearers “see” what is happening today, just as Jesus tried to help his disciples
see what was going on around them in their time. In the gospel of Mark this
“seeing” is a very big deal. To know the future one must “see” into present
reality; the preacher must expose what is going on the world today through
words. That’s all we have, words. We see through words, interpretation, but it
must be also as I said, “reality,” not mythologies, not abstractions, not just
repeating religious words, but preaching that faces the facts of life right
now. That’s what people want. They want to understand their lives right now,
what is happening to them, what their purpose is, what meaning there is to
their history, the times of their lives. The revivalists are providing this in
their end times doctrines based on a false reading of the book of Revelation.
The fact that this is so popular should teach us something. People want to
understand their lives within the context of a clear historical interpretation.
Protestants are not providing this. Our best church historians do history after
the model of secular history; what we need are strong theological
interpretations of history. To do this we need to understand Protestantism as a
“people of God” through time, with a past and with responsibility to forge a
future. I would love to see groups of Metropolitan Protestant Pastors around
the country coming together to study the history of their metropolitan area,
for example, looking at facts and interpreting them theologically, developing
specific ways by which to preach into the reality of life in that area, taking
responsibility for the whole territory of their ministry; that’s what Jesus did
and that’s what we should do. Jesus did not encourage people to leave the world
for the sake of some vague spirituality, he walked into the midst of the
reality of towns, villages, and finally
You seem to be saying that the guidance of the church should be bishops not a religious marketplace?
Yes, exactly, exactly. That is, bishops not because they are at the top of an authoritative hierarchy, but because they are real human beings, not mysterious forces guiding everything. The future happens through human decisions. Bishops are responsible for the teaching of the faith and they provide a place in the church to focus the attention of the church. They represent the substance of what we believe. We are talking here about the content of the faith of Christianity, we are talking about acts of faith in God on the part of persons and groups, we are talking about personal and communal faith commitment. We are saying that the church and its preaching and practice must be based on faith in God not on a marketplace where the religious ideas which make the most money become the content of Christianity. The market idea has become a way for the most powerful people and institutions of the country to avoid taking responsibility for their actions and for the future. Protestantism built this country on the idea of personal responsibility for others in community because it is God who is calling us and requiring of us to love the neighbor. It is this faith that must remain at the center of Protestant preaching and practice but it will be so only if bishops make it happen and provide the courageous leadership necessary to influence and teach the whole church. It is only this faith that will make it possible to address the huge changes required now for this technological civilization on global and local levels. Faith in the market god is leading us to disaster for both people and earth. I am not saying that the market as an organizing concept for certain aspects of economic activity is not efficacious; I am saying the market idea has become for many a kind of religion that justifies irresponsibility on a massive scale. Protestantism must now criticize something that it helped to create for the sake of the world God loves. I do not see any other countervailing force to the direction things are going except a strong and vibrant and faith-filled Second Stage Protestantism led by bishops and pastors both on the national and local levels.
Haven’t ecumenical groups been questioning the market concept for years now?
Yes, and that is exactly why mainline ecumenism does not
enjoy popular favor in the contemporary ethos following the end of the Cold War
and the apparent victory of capitalism over communism. This is all very
difficult to sort out intellectually; it is hard to find the right words by
which to helpfully discuss these matters because the words are so emotionally
and politically charged at high levels of abstraction, capitalism, socialism,
communism, democracy, freedom, militarism, etc. We must try to do so, however,
and this is a big part of what I mean by the need for theological historical
interpretation. The ecumenical movement on the world level has clearly
perceived the problems associated with what is now called globalization. That
is because groups like the World Council of Churches have included and given
voice to representatives of not only the rich countries but also the poor ones.
Mainline Protestant leaders, our most able and faithful observers, have been
telling us for a long time about the need to listen to the voices of the
powerless on both the global and local levels. They have been influenced by
heroes of the faith such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer who spoke out clearly against
Hitler’s effort to exterminate racial and sexual minorities. No credible
theological work can be done today that does not include serious reflection on
what made such a horrendous project possible, including the role of the
corporation in the technological modernity of Hitler’s Germany. So I am not
saying anything particularly new when I talk about the need to question the
power of economic institutions operating under the banner of the market concept
and using it to justify extraordinary irresponsibility. We need to tell that
history, the story of the Protestant People of God in the 20th
century, a story of witness to faith, peace, and justice. Included in that
story would be those who have opposed what Protestants have been doing. The
fact that Protestants today do not enjoy a strong role in public context is due
to systematic attacks on its credibility; there has been a strong reaction
against the WCC, NCC, and mainline churches raising issues of economic justice.
Though this has come from many sources, there is one person who represents this
reaction specifically and may be the one most responsible individual for
damaging the social witness of the ecumenical church. His name is Richard John
Neuhaus, a former Lutheran now Roman Catholic who is said to be one of the most
influential advisors in the current White House; George Bush calls him “Father
Richard.” Years ago Neuhaus created an organization through which he attacked
the World Council of Churches for including representatives from churches in
then Communist countries, for example, and attacked the National Council of
Churches for its support of programs of the poor and for liberation movements
in Central American countries, claiming that these are “Marxist” programs. The
church’s concern for the poor in this country and the world is claimed to be
Marxist by people like Neuhaus. Neuhaus has written many books and appears in
many ways to be a careful academic observer of issues in faith and politics, but
he is actually a political operative calculating how he can align himself with
prevailing powers and decided to do so by building his reputation attacking
mainline churches and promoting his version of revivalist cold war rhetoric
made popular at the time by Ronald Reagan. Anyone critical of American economic
foreign policy is considered a communist in this bipolar view of the world.
Like others of that period Neuhaus engaged in completely irresponsible
McCarthy-like charges of communist sympathizers, playing to the media, which
repeated the charges and severely damaged the church. He is now trying to
organize a coalition between Catholics and the religious right. Too many
Protestants take him too seriously, that’s one reason I am here trying to be as
clear as can be that he is an enemy of the Protestant witness and mission in
The Cold War seems to be crucial to your interpretation of history and church?
Indeed, that is certainly true. One cannot understand
current configurations of either politics or religion without an understanding
of the Cold War, and the period before, World War II, and what happened in
Naming evil is not something liberals like to do; can Protestants bring themselves to do this?
I do not want to give up on the liberal attitude, it is a
gift of Christian faith to the world, it basically means openness to the other,
to the one different from myself, to the one other
than myself and my group. The one other than myself is of as great value as
myself. This is the heart of Christian faith as Jesus teaches, love God and
neighbor. It really is simple. We are to worship God, and there we discover God
loves the other as well as ourselves, and that we are to love the neighbor,
that is, the one outside of our own household, the one different from us and
our group. This is our spirituality, not a spirituality leading us to
contemplate mysteries in heaven but a social spirituality that directs our
attention to concrete neighbors, real people in real places. Salvation occurs
now, not someday, it happens in love of God and neighbor; we are “saved” by the
neighbor actually, at least that’s what Jesus says in
the parable of the Good Samaritan. Salvation is a social, relational
experience. Current theological work on God as Trinity is helping return us to
the social nature of participation with God in community. It’s impossible not
to get this sense when we read about Jesus going about his life in his place.
The religious right does not preach this gospel, has no sense of social
spirituality, it rather in a bipolar manner separates people on the basis of
who is going to heaven and who is going to hell, a minor theme in the bible;
they view themselves as the elect God loves over against others and all those
others are destined for hell; this is a complete perversion of classic
Calvinism which directed believers to go and build up the life of the community
for all (Calvin actually tried to do that with biblical principles in Geneva,
Switzerland). Consider that all groups naturally, sociologically, tend to
separate themselves from others and view the in-group as good and the out-group
as bad, “we” versus “they”. Jesus completely turns that around in his
preaching. That’s why the church is not a “natural” community, but one created
by the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ through preaching the gospel. We are
to love God and the neighbor, the one outside of our group is the one to whom
we are to act in a loving, life-giving manner, restoring all to life in the
public community through healing and casting out of demons. Evil is that which
threatens the life God gives, now and in the future; evil is that which
separates people from their competence and power to be able to live within the
world God created for justice and mercy; evil is the use of others for one’s
own power, benefit, or privilege. (Just read about Jesus to affirm this view of
evil.) Now, this understanding goes way beyond classic liberal tolerance. We
are not to just tolerate the neighbor, but love him or her or them. Everything
I am trying to say about Second Stage Protestantism has to do with how we as
the church may be able to love the neighbor in our times. But let me try to say
clearly here that we get this motivation from the gospel, from the faith of the
church, from our history, from real and honest preaching. We do not get this from
liberal constitutional democracy. The church is not the state. The church has
its own way of talking within itself. It does not get its motivation from the
first amendment to the constitution in this country. Sometimes “liberal
churches” conceive of themselves as open to all other alien religious voices
and talk as if all religious views are equally of value and that we should be
tolerant of everyone and every view. Yes, the first amendment says everyone has
a right to worship as they please. But that does not mean every religion is
right, that every god is as good as another. Protestants must not give up the
very source of what makes us who we are, otherwise we lose the content of our
own confession and thus the spirit and energy that makes us the
What specifically would you name as current evils?
Let me answer by going to the heart of the theological task
and that is by asking who is God, what does this word mean? In the bible God is
revealed as a holy and righteous God who requires justice in the world. It is
God who is the final source of justification of us as human beings, of our
actions in relation to ourselves and others. The word “justification” here is
the big word, for Lutherans but also for all Protestants. Both Luther and
Calvin had strong concepts of the holy and righteous God. It is only God who
can ultimately justify us. This is the important clue to evil. Any other
principality or power, any other idea or institution or person or nation which
claims to be the source of ultimate justification is thus a candidate for a
false God and thus evil because it opposes God and God’s righteousness. In
moral philosophy the term justification is used to refer to the ground or basis
for any particular moral teaching or action. For theology God is the source of
justification of human action and nothing else. It is Protestants who have
since the Reformation been that church which taught its people that each stands
before God responsible for their action within the world. Roman Catholicism has
relied more on itself as an institutional power capable of defining law, cannon
law, governing the lives of its people. Protestants make ethics much more
difficult; we do not have the same access to natural or canon law but stand
directly before a God who requires that we do what is right and good at the
present moment. It is this “terrified conscience” which has been one
characteristic of Protestantism, most carefully described by the
philosopher/theologian Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th century as the
liberal state was developing in
So evil is that which is opposed to responsible, ethical action before God?
Yes, that is one way to put it. I am always concerned when I
hear politicians use the word evil. It is not a word that should be used in
political discourse. It is a religious or theological term. Any pastor or
theologian is going to be very careful about how to interpret the term in the
context of any particular period of history. The religious right trivializes
evil by associating it with a devil nobody believes in; but evils are very real
today. Jesus associates demons with “legion”, with the many, with a Roman
military group, and that gives us a good hint about defining evil. It is best
associated with “mob spirit,” the power of the mob takes over our minds and
leads us to do things we would not otherwise morally do. Think of the lynch mob
in which white people feel they are justified in killing a black person if that
black person has violated a white woman; a “spirit” takes over the mob so they
are not even interested in facts or true justice; the mob acts in revenge for
the alleged violation. Notice here that certain ideas about what makes for
justice in sexual racial relations are associated with this mob spirit. The
spirit tempts each individual; each individual in the mob gives in to the mob
spirit, allows the evil of the mob spirit into their minds. Each individual is
not evil, but they allow evil to control their actions, which is sin. Sin is
allowing evil into our minds. When a president uses the term evil in political
rhetoric it has the effect of creating a mob spirit, that the nation as mob is
justified in killing others because they are evil; this is very dangerous talk
because it is using the terminology of evil to create what is the true evil,
mob spirit, or in this case extreme, unreflective nationalism engaging in holy
war. This in turn can lead the nation to do things that are very wrong and
hurtful to itself; any military commander knows how important it is to have a
very clear and rational understanding of the enemy, to respect the enemy, to
engage in very deliberative actions in how to address the enemy, and all this
is opposite of mob spirit. So any politician willing to use the term evil
should be suspect, including Ronald Reagan when he referred to the
Economic ideology, what you call mythology, is the most powerful factor in society today?
Yes, I talked earlier about “facing reality.” Jesus faced
reality. If we ask what evils put Jesus on the cross we should not answer with
abstract spiritual forces off in some other world; he was killed by two
institutional realities, the
What do bishops and pastors know about economics?
The various Protestant denominations have formulated social statements on economic issues and these are important sources for further study and deliberation within the church at all levels. There are a great number of organizations inspired by Protestant faith working on the issue of economic justice globally and locally, just think of Bread for the World. The World Council of Churches has been carefully studying these matters for some time now. The economic system is not just hurting the poor; it dominates the lives of all; it is destroying local communities; it is making everyone dependent on highly centralized technological systems which it controls. I would like here to mention that it is pastors, local pastors of congregations, who as a group represent a tremendous resource for research on economic issues. Protestant pastors still visit their members, they are in the homes of real people, they hear about the lives of their people in concrete detail; they are not just dealing with mass audiences like religious right movie stars. In the lives of their people pastors see the wreckage of current economic dominance of society and culture. I will here mention just one thing, time. The time of people’s lives is nearly completely dominated today by activity serving the economic gods, work (many people need two or three jobs to make ends meet), going to stores (shop till you drop), watching television the content of which is determined by economic institutions. Very little time is spent related to government or democratic process or volunteer work or even involvement in family life in terms of actual discussion or social engagement or culture creation. If there is one thing I hear from people as a pastor it is the phrase, “I don’t have enough time.” The more machines we buy to “save time” the more we have to spend the time of our lives maintaining the machines, keeping them running, keeping the economic machine going. In fact, we are now living our lives within this huge economic technological machine as postmodern philosophers are telling us, a machine that at any moment may crash, may break, so we live internally with a sense of panic, pushed forward at breakneck speed, utterly and fully dependent on systems and forces beyond our control. The machine pounds us and pushes us and drives us and finally is killing us. The so-called “American way of life” is so machine-based, so energy-based, that it is not good for our own human flourishing and also threatens the future of the earth itself. Each home is hooked up to the machine in several ways and things are designed so every household regularly sends in the checks to those in control. Each household is dependent on the centralized system and that’s how those in charge want it; they want everyone dependent on them. They don’t want to look at alternatives. Second Stage Protestantism is a way to talk about the fact that we really need to find new, alternative, fundamental ways of being human and being human communities, new ways of “being” itself. We need to find ways to reconceive for ourselves and those we love “the times of our lives.” To do this we must talk about these matters in all sorts of venues; we must put words on our experiences, words that reflect the realities of our lives, words that acknowledge the pain we are experiencing together, not the mythologies coming out of economic theories and beliefs. Economics is a modern discipline; its theories have been around only for a couple hundred years now. It has created its own mythologies about human nature and how the world works. It is economic talk that is mythological today, not theology. Theology should help us reveal the true nature of our daily lives so that we can talk our way with others out of the dominance of economic institutions. We need an Exodus from economic domination, we need to seek a new Promised Land.
Why is talking so central to your conceptions?
Words create reality. I think it is particularly important for us today to recognize that contemporary philosophy is affirming something the church has long known. In Genesis God speaks the world into existence. The gospel of John states the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Apostle Paul asks how there can be a church without a preacher. Human beings speak with breath; our words are carried in the winds of spirits connecting one consciousness with another; all human relationships are mediated through words. Just imagine going through a day when you say “hello” to others and no one responds, no one speaks back to you; you will soon begin to wonder if you exist. It takes the other to speak us into existence. Words literally create us, create community. This is true not only for church community, but any community. Recognition of this in contemporary philosophy is called the “linguistic turn,” a turn away from the idea that it is rational concepts that constitute reality, or correspond to reality, to the understanding that how people in communities talk constitutes their reality, the only reality that they can ever know. Philosophy has moved away from what is called foundationalism, which is the effort to create universal rational constructs or world views such as Platonism which so influenced the ancient church. Philosophers today have faced the fact that they have to start with already existing mental outlooks, there is no universal rational truth out there which can be known with certainty. The legal basis of modern constitutional democracies is words in documents. Politicians and lawyers are constantly debating with words the meanings of words in all three branches of government. My own reading about the linguistic turn has been through philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty and theologian Robert Jensen but there are many others. More recently I have been struck by new social understandings of Soren Kierkegaard’s writings; he sees language as constituting spiritual realities of past, present, future. That is, there is no history without words, no future without words, no consciousness of the present without words. The present is transcended only through words. I use the word “spiritual” here because I think today too many people use the word to refer to something other than the physical, material reality of our lives as the place of salvation; spirituality is not mystical contemplation of eternal truths in some Platonic or other universe but for Christians spirituality is a matter of using our physical tongues to speak and experience community with others in the concrete, material world God creates for us and for which God requires of us responsibility. The incarnation of God in Jesus points to this material world as the place of God’s divine activity. Christian spirituality, I will say again, is loving God and neighbor and that happens through words. All forms of communication, non-verbal or through images, are given meaning and context only through words. This linguistic turn in philosophy corresponds to some degree with the amazing new development we have seen in just the last decade, the very fast and massive growth of the Internet which is part of the “information revolution”, moving economic realities from an industrial to an information age. People want to communicate, to use words, to connect with one another. The fast growth of the Internet and cell phones demonstrate this like never before. Second Stage Protestantism will be worked out in relation to these new realities. What words do we use to preach the historic, orthodox church into being in our own time under the one true God? We have a source for such preaching, of course, a whole book of words, the holy scripture. This ancient book is rather more important than modern constitutions.
You referred earlier to resurrection faith? What did you mean by that?
It is a language event. Protestants, unlike the religious
right, have been concerned to think about the faith. Theology is important.
Doctrines are important. The church faced a real conflict with science in the
19th century and its mechanical rationality. Most Protestants have
been able to move beyond those conflicts and inform themselves with the new
science of relativity that developed in physics in the 20th century.
But the religious right is still locked in battle with 19th century
mechanical notions. If you look at their most important writings you will find
most of them come out of the late 19th and earlier 20th
century when the fundamentalist movement began. But this conflict has affected
many in First Stage Protestantism as well. It is the reason many have left the
church, no longer finding the doctrines of the church, such as resurrection,
credible. I recently had a chance to have a lengthy visit with a very close
friend, my college roommate, who was a pastor but left the church to work in
business. I had stayed in the church and during the visit he sincerely wanted
to know why; how could I continue to believe in and preach these doctrines? As
he asked his questions I realized that he was operating out of what I now call
the religious right mechanical world view, the view of the world taught in the
19th century and which still exercises influence, the view of what
constituted scientific understanding according to Isaac Newton’s closed,
mechanical, cause and effect universe. For this world view the most important
issue about the resurrection is the question “Did Jesus rise physically from
the dead?” That is, the emphasis is on the physical, mechanical process of the
resurrection. One has already made up one’s mind about the physics involved,
either yes or no, either this was a supernatural event or it was not,
supernatural in the sense of God’s intervention against the so-called laws of
nature. Once one has accepted the background assumption that the world is a
closed, mechanical universe then religious thought is very limited. For the
religious right, which views the world in this way, the test of faith is thus
to believe what seems to be a logical impossibility. That’s one of the reasons
for the educational divide between Protestants and the religious right; the
latter are preaching to the uneducated who are more
willing to believe logical impossibilities. I don’t think, in matters this
important, that we should be placing intellectual quandaries in front of people
like this, especially since science itself has entirely changed its primary
understanding of how the world works. It is no longer a big machine,
rather 20th century science has placed time back into the equation.
It is matter, energy, and time that Einstein talks about, not just matter and
energy that was the focus of
So what is the prime message you would have for non-believers?
Well, I would try to help them understand there is no memory of the past, no imagination for the future, no solidarity with others in the present, for any human community, except through words. Words create all communities. Adults have choices about which human community they are going to allow their minds to be influenced by; communities create the persons within them. The modern notion of the isolated, physical, individual self is a fiction; children raised by wolves without language die. It is through unique gifts of the Spirit that the Protestant community has a particular memory, a particular imagination, a particular kind of solidarity with others. Political communities are gathered around law and the violence which enforces law; economic communities are gathered around the making of profit; cultural communities are gathered around ethnic and racial identities; military communities are gathered around glorified violence; but the church is created through the preaching of the Word of God for all and the celebration of the sacraments, God made present through material reality. In other words, there are new ways to talk about the faith which may be intellectually compelling for non-believers. But the main thing is to find ways to preach and act on the gospel of God’s love, which the church at its best moments through history has always tried to do. And finally this means to be willing to lay down one’s life and the life of the church for the sake of the world, just as Jesus did. The church does not want to dominate others, to use God to control them, to force anyone in any way. The church exists through God’s gracious word. Each of us is not living each day; each of us is rather dying each day by giving ourselves and our time to whatever it is we think is most important. We offer ourselves and the times of our lives every day to something, we hand over our money, we hand over our energy, we give up ourselves to something, we have no choice over whether to do this, we all die someday finally. We do have some choice over whether we will respond to the gospel of God’s love and become a part of the Protestant community, accepting responsibility for the future of God’s earth.
You have used the phrase “one true God.” Should the church be talking about one true God in a world of liberal democracy?
Yes, but we should do so only on the basis of the gospel, on
the basis of the power of the church within itself, its own spirituality, not
the power of the state. Here is a major difference between First and Second
Stage Protestantism. First stage Protestantism lived off some quasi-official
establishment of itself as the state religion of the
But if the state and church are so separate how can the church influence the state?
We should today completely affirm the concept of separation
of church and state which has developed from liberal constitutional democracy.
The church has its own language and its own authenticity apart from any
legitimacy granted from the state. The church speaks that language within
itself, and that language includes the fact that God is a God ruling over the
state as well as the church. Christians believe government is from God. But
that does not mean that we in the church should use our own language in the
public realm, nor need we expect that our language should be placed in public
documents. We don’t need to reference God in constitutions because we believe
God is there whether or not it is officially stated. Neither should we believe
that a Christian can rule secular society any better than a non-Christian. That
is, we should not try to put “Christians” into positions of power,
at least as a church we should not do so. Rather, the church is teacher, that is our role, and a most important role that is
today. We should aggressively work to become a more public teacher. Jesus was a
teacher, the Reformation leaders were teachers, the
Prophets of the Old Testament were teachers, sometimes inside but most often
outside the government. The
We already have public schools and higher education institutions. Why should the church focus more effort on public teaching?
Protestantism built the schools we have in this country; it is time to take a long overview of the relation of Protestantism and education. Most of the higher education institutions began as religious schools. Protestantism encouraged public schools for all in local communities. Rarely did Protestants build their own schools for children in local communities. The religious right started creating private schools only after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in 1954; so the motivation for private schools today can be associated with racism clear and simple. Now the religious right is on a wholesale attack on that which historic Protestantism created, the public school, and is being assisted in that attack by one of the main political parties in the country. This is an outrage. Of course, the first thing the successful religious right leader wants to do is build himself a college, repeating the Protestant experience. We should rather re-examine what has happened with education in this country in all its aspects, which is more than we can do right here, we do have to rethink public schools. But I want to emphasize two matters here, first the liberal idea of objectivity and then the role of science in schools.
Why is it important to consider the liberal idea of objectivity?
Through higher education Protestants have been educating themselves out of the church. So I am concerned with the intellectual credibility of the faith. We have got to find ways to preach the faith to the educated today and there are some promising new openings available in the winds of current academic thinking. I think it important to remind people that it was the Protestant Reformation that created the context for the whole liberal idea of objectivity, that it is possible to stand apart from the world and observe it and come to conclusions about how it works apart from the magic and mystery the Roman Church and paganism had taught through the middle ages. Science itself is a product of the Reformation in this sense. Max Weber talks about this as the “demystification of nature”. Magic was used by the Roman Church to manipulate believers. The Reformers attacked all magical manipulation related to holy relics, saints and healings and penance practices (exactly the sorts of methods used today by the religious right). Martin Luther’s preaching had extreme social effects; he emptied the monasteries telling the monks and nuns to stop focusing selfishly on their own individual salvation and go into the secular community to do some honest work such as baking bread, building homes, helping to clothe the neighbor. He advocated public support for new schools for children. And, significantly, Luther advocated what I call “practical reason”, just use your head to see the real needs of the neighbor. Though Luther himself was not a social reformer, he remained “medieval” in his view of social structure, each person was to accept their “station” in life, his religious views were revolutionary for society too because religion was such an integral part of the society at the time. Other reformers such as John Calvin were more “modern” in the sense that they believed that human reason and the bible could be used to create a more just society. The idea of “humanism” was a product of the Reformation period which manifested itself most directly in the Enlightenment age. I think that Protestants should announce that “secular humanism” is the great gift of Protestantism to the modern world rather than the source of contemporary problems as the religious right claims today. As we face a very troubled future we need more rationality now than ever before. That’s why it is of great concern to me that our political life today is being controlled by such irrationality, including the hysterical religious right. Liberal society will not be able to solve the great problems it faces without the thorough-going application of reason to public affairs.
So rationality and liberal objectivity are solutions for the future?
Partly, but we now know that there are big problems with
liberal objectivity, and this is a major factor defining a Second Stage
Protestantism. The Enlightenment faith in reason has been absolutized
in modern academic institutions. The idea of objectivity is that one can
transcend specific conditions, raise one’s self up in space, so to speak, see
the world for what it is, and describe it in perfectly rational terms; this is
what is called the scientific method, at least a part of it. To describe the
world in rational terms modern science has found it cannot use words, it has
invented elaborate forms of mathematics to so describe the world. But once
described it must communicate the results of science through some words, and
such descriptions are, again, what “creates” modern social realities; these are
the realities within which scientists live if informed from no other source.
But a great big change has occurred in science only fairly recently, at least
as broadly perceived. In the age of mechanical science there was great faith in
the scientist’s ability to describe the laws of nature. That is, human beings
are able to “know” external reality, how the world works; there is reliable and
certain knowledge about the world through science. To the degree that science
can provide helpful knowledge I believe it remains an extremely important
enterprise. However, scientists themselves have come to see that their
knowledge is limited, that when science examines reality it also changes it,
that it is easy to analyze parts of things, it is another thing to put them
together to understand them synthetically as a whole. The intellectual movement
known as postmodernism has grown up as a very major challenge to the idea of
liberal objectivity. This is an intellectual orientation which has emerged more
from the liberal arts side of college campuses, the literary and philosophy
departments, as well as the social sciences. This is a “wind of change” that
makes it possible to completely rethink the relationship of theology and
reason. Postmodernism cuts apart and undermines the confidence of European,
western, Enlightenment faith and the notion of the “ascent of man” through
science and technology. This is true to such a degree today that it may be only
So postmodernism is important for Second Stage Protestantism?
Yes, very much so, though it is by itself not adequate. It
helps clear the way for theology, the theology that modernism has tried to
exclude from truth. Postmodernism is a devastating critique of modern
liberalism, a much deeper and more significant critique than that represented
by the religious right. It is amusing to me that so-called evangelical
theologians are generally critical of postmodernism because it undercuts what
they have come to believe about the certainty of modern knowledge and an
objective moral order. Revivalist theology is actually a form of modernist
religious faith; this is true not only in its total faith in the
efficaciousness of individual decision, but also in its mechanistic world view,
as we discussed earlier. Current revivalism is not Reformation faith, it is not
the historic faith confessed in the creeds of the church, nor is it biblical
faith, it is a modern invention using modern categories and tests of truth.
Intelligent design theory claims, for example, that science, not faith, is able
to demonstrate the truth of God’s existence. The symbolic numbers in the book
of Revelation are added up and manipulated to “prove” current historic events
will take place, which is not faith revealed through words, but faith proved by
arithmetic, mathematics being, of course, a primary test of truth for moderns.
According to the modern Newtonian world view, God’s action is known only when
mechanical laws of nature are interrupted such as miracles. This is all
modernism and such religious talk works because modernist assumptions are still
maintained by large segments of the population, especially those not enjoying
the benefits of higher education nor understanding the
development of physics in the 20th century. Revivalist leaders think
they are attacking liberalism; they actually represent a religious incarnation
of an earlier liberalism in modern society. And the critique of liberalism made
by revivalist leaders is very tame and simplistic compared to the devastating
critique of postmodernism. Revivalism is a religious throw-back to the 19th
century and so it fails to perceive clearly and trivializes everything it
touches, from its view of the family to sexuality to politics to world history.
To face reality we have to be able to see it clearly and postmodernism helps to
see what is happening in this extremely complex, inter-networked,
information-based, technological society. It is more a description of what is
happening than a prescription of what should be. One of my own access points to
postmodernism is the French philosopher Michel Foucault who thoughtfully
describes the conditions within which modern knowledge and institutions
developed, such as the mental hospital, the clinic, the prison and modern
approaches to sexuality. He is criticized for not providing any moral direction
in his work but Foucault is just trying to describe things as he sees them,
though in his later work he begins to speak more of ethics in a suggestive
phrase, “the practice of liberty.” Foucault does expose the degree to which
knowledge is associated with power through both academic institutions and the
professions based on knowledge. Modern knowledge professionals have emerged in
the last couple hundred years to enjoy authority and legitimacy in society
over-against that of clergy in the middle ages; it is they who are the primary
beneficiaries of modern higher education, who believe in liberal objectivity,
who exercise great power in social relations including the legal system, and
who earn inordinate salaries in relation to other workers. The religious right
is on the attack of such liberal professionals in its anti-elitist and its
anti-intellectual tirades and this is, indeed, also an indicator of the power
of professionals in modern society. But the right should know better what it is
attacking; it is attacking the very foundation of what makes modern society
work. These professionals themselves are to a great degree the result of the
Reformation, they are the product of Protestantism with its emphasis on the
importance of reason in determining how to best love the neighbor. Many were
motivated to enter their professions in order to serve others, the Protestant
motivation. To the degree that such professionals are able to be persuaded of
the postmodern critique, to the degree they will newly affirm the importance of
moral factors within their practices, these
professionals are a major audience for what we are calling here Second Stage
What role does ethics play in the practices of urban liberal professionals?
Here is another problem with the idea of liberal objectivity. It has screened out so-called normative methods from the process of human knowledge creation. I believe in the most careful studies based on the best possible empirical methods in the study of the complexities of modern society. But we need to realize the significance of ethics issues at every stage of this process, including decisions about what to study in the first place and who are to be the beneficiaries of that knowledge and how that knowledge is distributed through what institutional vehicles for what costs. Human knowledge today, such as medical knowledge, is being delivered to the upper and middle classes who can pay the costs according to the so-called free market; knowledge is not being delivered adequately to the poor and working classes. In fact the best sociology and psychology is used by corporations to manipulate people’s minds as they make consumer decisions. No wonder these folks are mad and turn to outmoded religious faith against the so-called knowledge classes. Successful political electoral strategy today is based on this knowledge divide. But religious right leaders urge their less educated followers to vote for a political party that does not believe in providing more equitable access to health care for all, and thus betray the interests of their own people. The main idea of constitutional democracy, that people are able to know and vote their own rational self interest, is undercut by outmoded religious faith of the right. I am not very hopeful that the political process by itself will be able to return to a process of representing the real interests of people unless there is a large movement of public professionals who begin in many and various ways to protest what is going on and change the system, this includes all those political professionals now working in the system. Access to knowledge is but one of the major issues of ethics standing today before professionals of all types. There are also before us immense issues related to professional practice such end of life health care issues, stem cell research, the relation of the human body to the machine, artificial intelligence, ownership of genetic information, and the list can go on and on. Now, it is liberal Protestantism that has experience and history in ethical deliberation. Many liberal Protestants have stayed in the church not because they were persuaded about the content of the faith but because they believed that there was also an ethical content of Christianity that should not be lost. These liberal Protestants are part of what I call First Stage Protestantism; that is, that time is over. We should be able to retrieve the best from that history and deliberation as part of our reflection on the Protestant past, however, that attitude (ethics without faith) we now know is not viable and cannot sustain the church nor provide adequate or compelling justification for ethics. We need the one true God for that.
So, knowledge is not the source of salvation?
Saying knowledge will not save society means to admit that one of the primary Enlightenment hopes remains unfulfilled, and we now know, was a false promise in the first place. I remember my father, born 1905, tell me about how many believed that idea in early 20th century. When everyone is educated then things will be all right. Then in that very century we have witnessed two world wars generated from one of the most highly educated European nations, the nation which invented the modern university, using the best of modern technology for purposes of extermination of racial minorities and military superiority. To read Zygmunt Baumen’s book on the Holocaust is to experience the chilling reality of how knowledge and efficient bureaucratic structure can be turned against humanity. The German professionals involved did not ask the questions of ethics which may have led them to change their behavior, they did not question which power they would serve, the power of the state, the power of the corporation, or the power of God revealed in all its brokenness in the midst of those who suffer pain and injustice and death at the hands of the powerful. This is the one true God revealed when Protestants read the scriptures, a God revealed in a pitiful, suffering one on a cross, destroyed by both religious and state power. It is this cross that ultimately is the source of salvation, not knowledge gained by human reason, important though that surely remains. It is that cross which connects God with us, and us with others, in a real solidarity that includes the most powerless among us, across the entire public world, a solidarity celebrated every Sunday at the communion table of the Lord. This solidarity is the source of truth more than liberal objectivity. It is for the other that we must use our knowledge, our powers, our minds, our hearts, our ultimate commitments and this has been the characteristic Protestant message across the centuries. This faith created this secular world and now must turn to question it and turn to face the new realities of our time with hope and confidence. One of the theologians who has made Martin Luther’s theology of the cross central to his thinking is Douglas John Hall, a Canadian reformed theologian whose works are recommended for study to formulate the theology of a Second Stage Protestantism.
How do you propose to reach public professionals?
They are organized. The religious right mobilizes individuals in mass-based audiences and gives them a false gospel and false political hopes about nearly meaningless social issues. Even if they obtained all their political goals it would change little or nothing about what is really happening in modern society. Their analysis of why we have problems is completely wrong; they blame ordinary people for moral failure when it is really the modern corporation which is the primary source of heartache in the world today, corporations which are profit machines which care not for any moral concern that would threaten the bottom line. We will not be able to change corporations unless professionals who work within them decide to act ethically. It is human persons who can act morally; business systems today are programmed for immorality, to exclude moral concerns. Business professionals are organized in many different groups, as are all other professionals. A Protestant Mission Strategy today should focus on where people are already organized. Professionals are organized in many groups and those groups can be the basis for outreach. Of course, the place to start initially is with those professionals still within congregations. There are lots and lots of Protestant Public Professionals in the church already and we need to act now to enlist them in the church’s mission. We need to work harder to nourish them with strong and compelling theological content, call them to new responsibility for the future and learn from them how best to develop intentional means to relate with professional associations. I realize this is a rather new way to think about outreach; it will require much more deliberation to develop a full mission strategy. But the idea is to suggest that in Second Stage Protestantism the agent of change is going to be public professionals perhaps more than any other one group. These professionals stand in the history of Protestantism itself as indicated earlier. A way of talking about this history can be developed which incorporates them into the continuing Protestant people of God facing the realities of the world today.
Why do you use the phrase “people of God” in relation to the professions?
Each profession is based on a body of knowledge. Modernity is characterized by several of the bodies of knowledge, each with a profession to deliver the knowledge to the society and around each profession very large institutional structures have now developed. Society has become fragmented by these institutions each focused on their specialty, each examining only a part of reality; local communities are today controlled by these hierarchically organized, horizontal authority structures, up and down so to speak, these institutions are the source of personal identity, financial rewards, and personal meaning so far as that can be provided by these institutions, whether related to business, government, health care, education, media, etc. I call these “Enlightenment Institutions” because each is based on an idea or value emerging from the Enlightenment period which were implemented in the constitution and bill of rights, such as private property, freedom of speech, reason, the individual, etc. These together we can call “liberal society.” And, yes, it is important to use the word “liberal” for this society. The term “conservative” refers to previous monarchial society. The Enlightenment institutions have now grown to be extremely powerful and to a certain degree independent of each other, each competing with the other. The two political parties today each favor a different Enlightenment institution, Republicans favor business, Democrats favor government, but both parties as well as the media are now dominated by economic institutions. Business has been able to make government a tool of its own interests and dominate the mental consciousness of individuals, to keep people going to work and to the shopping mall. Because the national media are so powerful problems are defined as national rather than local problems which means solutions must come down through the hierarchial institutions focused on their specialties which means no one sees the total complexity which characterizes the lives of real persons, families, and communities. We all live within a maze of fragmented reality. Now, there are many implications of this brief description of Enlightenment institutions, including the fact that the People of God concept cuts across all the Enlightenment institutions, it brings together people in all the professions in ways that can provide the space for new and creative thinking. But what I want to emphasize right now is that the way Enlightenment institutions have developed generates a great deal of pain and anger, so much so that political life today is characterized by extreme nastiness, hostility, and incivility. There is now a wholesale attack on liberal society from the religious right, from postmodernism, from neoconservatism, from media outlets like Fox News and right wing radio, from many different sources, and liberals who want to speak on behalf of a liberal vision of society find themselves unable to find the words to do so, except for the so-called libertarians who think of themselves today as “conservative” which is a total contradiction of the meanings of these words. The liberal heritage coming out of the Reformation and Enlightenment is so focused on the idea of the isolated individual that it has nothing within itself to be able to understand social reality. It is that isolated individual which is made holy in the constitution of the United States, it has no social view; our legal system of lawyers and judges tries to function with no coherent understanding of how people relate to one another in groups. And, again, economic theory enshrines the individual rational decision maker as its view of human nature, maximizing personal pleasure and minimizing pain for individuals is the whole goal and purpose of life according to this theory. The Enlightenment institutions are all focused on the individual as the unit of analysis in the creation of modern knowledge used by the professions; social reality is for the most part screened out, not even perceived, not taken into account and consequently is being destroyed and people, who finally gain identity and purpose only through social reality therefore are experiencing tremendous pain. It is not just the injustice for those who are not enjoying the benefits of Enlightenment institutions that should be of concern to the church but also the pain that everyone is experiencing including the best educated professionals. The way the messiah church connects with people must be on the level of their pain, that’s how God has chosen to connect with humanity through the cross, that is what Jesus did in his ministry, that is the source of solidarity with others that is represented in the term the “people of God,” at least the way I want to use the term. It is not a glorified people, or a victorious people, a people which exercises violence over others, it is a people connected on the level of their mutual weakness and pain, acknowledging pain, that very reality which economic theory claims people are trying to avoid, acknowledging weakness, that very reality which those seeking political power are trying most to avoid. Through connections on the level of pain and weakness we human beings experience social solidarity, that is a fundamental wisdom revealed in the scriptures, that is where the one true God meets us, in the foolishness of the cross, that is how we become the true people of God.
Pain and suffering are not very popular themes to put at the heart of your ideas.
Pain fundamentally is separation from others. It’s when we find ourselves alienated from others, when we experience ourselves as isolated individuals alone in the universe. Liberal society, including schools and economy, is now creating these isolated alone individuals with hardly a clue how to connect with others, how to find meaning, how to make friends. So the age of the therapist has emerged, someone with whom to have at least some semblance of a relationship even though it has to be paid for. Many pastors in Protestant churches have become therapists providing individual “therapy” to client members. There are times when therapy may be helpful. But what people really need is meaningful community, a life with others, a place to connect with others on a deeper level, a place to find ways to make a difference in the world. Understanding the church as a people of God rather than a collection of isolated individuals, rather than a voluntary association which people choose individually to attend, is a very important aspect of Second Stage Protestantism. Pastors are community builders first and foremost through preaching and healing ministries. Healing is primarily a matter of being restored to the life of the community, ultimately that restored community on the other side of the end of history when we will participate fully in the life of the Trinity. And because this community is founded on the level of pain and suffering, founded on the cross of Jesus Christ, it is a “real” community, it is community based in reality, not false mythologies based on the false promises of a class-based society. That’s why the church can be the source of a viable social vision for the future. The church is not dedicated to liberal objectivity (which so often ignores the hidden realities of class), it understands itself in solidarity with those in greatest pain in society, it brings together all people in the midst of their pain and suffering, in the midst of their experience within the Enlightenment institutions of our day and their complexity and their failure to deliver on their promises. Second Stage Protestantism will turn away from the individualism it taught in the past to become a people of God in history for the sake of the world God loves. It is through participation with the people of God that each individual finds the fullness of life with others.
Is there nothing good about Enlightenment values such as liberal objectivity?
Yes, there is very much which is good. What I am trying to
say here is that we now live on the other side of the growth of actual
institutions built upon liberal values. Protestants helped affirm those values;
Protestants played a large role in building modern institutions in local
communities which have now become these large Enlightenment institutions.
Protestants should now be asking themselves how well the institutions are
preserving and functioning in relation to these values. Take free speech, for
example. Are modern media institutions really providing for free speech for all
Americans? Or are these institutions in the hands of corporations limiting
speech to the views of the wealthy? Those are the kinds of questions that need
asking as Gibson Winter in a book on Christian social ethics suggested some
years ago. We need to evaluate liberal society based on its own values. Is the
idea of private property, a very important idea for the emergence of modern
society over-against feudalism and monarchy (my home is my castle), really
functioning today in a way that assists large numbers of people to enjoy access
to and control over their own property? Most people have such large mortgages
on their homes that if they lose their job they will shortly be on the street.
The finance system in this country has been designed so that the vast majority
of people are regularly sending in their mortgage checks month after month,
year after year, constituting a good part of their
salary, but most of each check is interest for the wealthy. Most young people
cannot afford to buy a home in the places they desire to live. The idea of
property rights seems to function today as a justification for greater and
greater concentration of wealth in this society, where some have nearly all the
wealth/property/power and everyone else has little or none. We are becoming a
society like those in many
What resources do Protestants have that can make a difference today?
Well, first of all, we have places where people can come
together to talk. Before the fall of the Berlin wall I was impressed with the
fact that churches in East Germany provided the places for East Germans to come
together to talk specifically about what was wrong with their government. The
church was weak and powerless, but talking can make a difference. You didn’t
have to be a member of the church to come to talk. The talking created a new
public consciousness over-against the structures of authority of the state.
Government leaders, who can only rule if the people’s beliefs give them
legitimacy, literally gave up their positions; the government fell. And it all
happened very fast. All of a sudden there was very massive change. Now, I
believe there are very large numbers of people all across this nation who are dissatisfied with their lives, what is happening in
their local communities, what is going on in national politics. All the polls
about confidence in institutions provide evidence that people are very
dissatisfied with leaders. I think people are also confused and uncertain, they
don’t have confidence in their own mental habits and concepts; the
institutional maze is so vast that no one person can comprehend the complexity
of modern institutions even on local levels. The ideas in our heads don’t
correspond to the realities of our lives and that is a very discomforting
situation for anyone. The postmodernists reject the notion of “correspondence
theory of truth” (that ideas correspond to reality) but that just indicates the
degree to which modern people are living in a kind of vertigo leaving them so
incapable of thinking about social realities that they just try to maintain
some semblance of sanity by focusing on their own private lives. So people take
pills or other drugs or go to therapists to get some relief in their heads.
They numb themselves by watching television about the stories of other people’s
lives. What people lack today is ideas by which they
can comprehend the public realities of their lives. There are few places in
today’s modern world where people can actually come together to talk about such
ideas. Even schools and colleges are so dominated by the various experts that
no one sees the whole of reality. The various political parties have not been
able to formulate ways to talk that grasp in any beginning complete way what is
happening let alone develop alternative options. The Protestant Churches can be
places where people can come together to talk, to develop a new public
consciousness about the reality of the times of our lives. I am speaking here
simply about church buildings. Protestants still own enough of them all across
the nation to make a difference. That is a very big resource. But Protestants
also have a way of talking that can build a new public consciousness. It is
part of our history to work with big concepts and that is what is needed to
deal with complex reality. I have here been trying to discuss such concepts and
a way of talking as a beginning exercise. There are very large numbers of
people and groups all over who are already trying to find ways to talk about
these matters but each has their own way of talking. The
You are saying the
The political language used today is almost meaningless. I
cannot emphasize that enough. Words like “liberal” and “conservative” are used
in ways that are simply ridiculous; they correspond to
little reality and only add to mass confusion. That’s why I try to use the word
“public” and why I think it is helpful. We need a completely new way to engage
in public talk. The problem is too many Protestants have given themselves over
to the expert talking of the modern bodies of knowledge as if these are the
only source of legitimacy. We do have to listen to these expert voices,
especially about critical issues such as energy depletion and global warming.
But we Protestants have another source of public talk and big concepts by which
to comprehend large swatches of reality, that source
is the bible, and the theology based on the bible and on reflection on the
history of the church as it has interpreted itself and the world on the basis
of the bible. Protestants in their best moments always take the bible very
seriously; the fact that the religious right has been able to attack the
mainline churches for not taking the bible seriously must be completely
rejected. The bible, Old and New Testaments, is about politics through and
through, it’s about power and relationships of power. The central term in
Jesus’ preaching is the “
Why doesn’t better public preaching happen today?
I am going to be very specific about this question. It has to do with local congregational economics. Those who give the most money influence the content of what can be preached in too many places and those with the money are usually owners and leaders of business enterprise. Pastors in their minds selectively filter preaching ideas to check how they may be received by particular persons within their congregations. Pastors are not like traveling evangelists; preach and leave. They have to live with people over a period of years; they not only have to preach and teach, they have to maintain their organizations, keep them afloat economically. So the power structure of a congregation becomes a key component in any analysis and strategy for how to develop public preaching in a particular place. It would be too threatening to economic survival for many pastors to preach clearly and factually about economic mythologies, for example, since for business leaders this has taken on the status of a religious creed, supported by a national public ethos dominated by corporate media especially since the end of the Cold War. This wasn’t such a problem in First Stage Protestantism because people shared a social/moral understanding larger than economics; today economics has taken on the status of a religion for those in business. This is the primary factor which restrains honest public preaching today. The only way this will change is if pastors admit this in company with others and make explicit decisions to support one another as they try to change this behavior. But this really requires the development of a new mission strategy for groups of pastors and congregations in areas around the country. And, of course, the national Protestant bishops could help immensely by convening convocations which deal with these matters. If there is to be a Second Stage Protestantism, if local congregations are going to reflect the views of their national bodies, if Protestant churches are going to survive, there has to be honest public preaching that reaches into the hearts and minds of the people in ways that make sense, that interprets their lives, that gives them purpose and meaning in daily life today, preaching that reveals the one true God. When that happens money will flow into the offering plates. Money follows ministry and mission.
Where will the money come from for a Second Stage Protestantism?
There are many businesspersons who themselves reject the degree to which public consciousness is today dominated by economic mythologies; they know there is more to life than making money and a big bank account; they know they live in a social universe important to them, their family, friends, local community; they realize that they have been successful only through the care and help from many others; they care for others less fortunate than themselves; they want to act responsibly in relation to the future; they, in other words, share Protestant values. These folks can support a Second Stage Protestantism despite its critique of economic ideology. We spoke earlier of outreach to professionals and these are also an economic resource. But as I said above, money follows ministry and mission. A concern for money kills the church; public preaching creates it. Jesus, remember, was supported by women of means, they gave in response to his preaching and teaching ministry. He interpreted his times realistically; he faced the actual powers of that time; he didn’t draw people out into a separatist community to lament about how awful things are; his preaching was real in the midst of his community. The Apostle Paul did the same thing. Preach the truth today, the money will come.
Again and again I hear you using the word interpretation. Why is that so central for preaching and thinking today?
Interpretation is how the bible gets into words describing life today. It is historical interpretation of our own recent history as I talked about earlier. But it is also a social interpretation, and that’s particularly important today because of the so-called cultural wars. The religious right is a backlash movement against recent changes in traditional social structures, especially concerning the family. It sets up as the ideal a concept of the family coming out of the 1950s in this country, father-mother-children, the nuclear family. I too think the family is very important, but it is important to realize that changes in family life have been occurring for a very long time now, ever since the beginning of the modern era. The modern family is completely different from the medieval family. The family of tomorrow may be completely different from the modern family. Christian faith is not defined by particular ideas of the family, this is another way the revivalists have created a false god, a false doctrine. It is true that social structural change is difficult, a good deal of mental stability can be assigned to social stability, so we are dealing with very important matters here. I think Second Stage Protestantism needs to open itself to social invention, to defining many new ways to be family and community in the times ahead of us. This is because the idea of the family as a consuming unit, each family having a full compliment of modern machines, is not a sustainable idea for the future. You can see what I am driving at here; thinking over the next fifty years, for example, there are going to have to be major changes in basic life styles. I think there is going to be much more time for social life and the invention of new forms of social life in local communities. Rather than be so concerned about keeping the social structures of the past I think Protestantism should help people move into the future, it should participate in the very important process of re-inventing social life. This is the social “interpretation” which can be helpful. In the bible we see many social forms, not one view of the family; God should never be associated with particular social forms. Social forms are human creations through language, not eternal patterns. Lutheran social ethicists used to talk about “structures of creation” as if the family, government, and church were eternal in and of themselves but there was a tendency to assume that current forms of those structures were also eternal. No, the one true God is calling us to create new social forms today, new ways literally to be human beings involved with one another. One of the most debilitating economic mythologies today is that everyone must have a full-time job before they are worthwhile; there is extreme prejudice against those who don’t work, even against those who cannot work due to a disability as well as those who do not have the mental or physical qualities necessary to be able to successfully work in large corporate institutions. The unemployed are looked down upon. The poor are abused with claims they are lazy and irresponsible. Why is this work mythology so strong today? Partly because work was such a high value for First Stage Protestantism. But it is economic institutions who have taken this important idea and made it a part of an ideology/mythology that is now part of the process that is killing people, families, and the earth we all need for substance. A major turning away from this ideology is necessary for Second Stage Protestantism. We need a complete new theology of work.
Where do you look for ideas for what the social future can be?
There are already many efforts occurring to establish more flexible
job patterns, work hours, correlating schedules of work and school. Young
families are experimenting with ways by which the father is the primary child
caretaker rather than always the mother, and they are trying to find ways to
spend more time with their children. People need adequate incomes to do that,
of course, and much higher priority should be placed on a living wage for
families in our political process. If they really believed in the importance of
families these are the things religious right leaders and pastors would be
working on politically; the fact that they are betraying the interests of their
own families by support of a political party opposed to such measures is an
indication of the depth of their apostasy, of the degree to which they are
interested in their own financial rewards rather than those of their lower and
middle income followers. The revivalists are not the place to look for ideas
for what the social future can be, they are a
reactionary group exercising no responsibility for the future. Jerry Falwell
wanted to celebrate his success as a televangelist so he built his own housing
subdivision for families and what did it look like? Any other
suburban development. There are some folks that we can learn from,
however, and it may seem surprising to mention them. We should look at the poor
In your view it seems that economic justice does not mean
that poor countries should become more like the
American way of life, the life patterns of current middle class families, are
not sustainable for ourselves let alone the rest of
the world. I said earlier that we faced big changes, very big changes, 500 hundred year changes, from first to a second stage
Protestantism. It was in just such a time that Jesus lived. Remember, in the
year 70 the whole of Jewish society as they knew it was totally changed;
What evidence do you have for talking about judgment day?
Well, that’s the right question. Evidence is important. I
have been writing this primarily for people who are already aware of global
warming, the depletion of oil resources, the continuing growth of world
population, and increasing poverty around the world. Our best scientists and
most thoughtful observers have been telling us these things for some time now.
My own effort is to discuss these facts with theological language from the
Protestant tradition to interpret our own times. I think this task is
important. People who allow economic mythologies to control their minds do not
want to face these facts. The people who have been making lots of money from
the current system do not want that system to change; they are pushing it as
far as it can possibly go without concern that machines wear out, the big
economic machine can crash at any moment, it is based finally on trust and
faith, it is based on ideas that are not working today for everyone, it is
going to crash sooner than later. We are coming closer to judgment day
concerning the crisis in oil availability and production now that
What can churches realistically accomplish in
In most of the towns and small cities of
Is conservative political philosophy hurting rural
Yes, very much so. It is not based on reality. The reality
is that the economy today is controlled by very large corporate institutions,
the rural economy as well as the urban economy. So if you don’t like what has been going on you have to look at the actual powers who
have been in charge. The issues of abortion and homosexuality have nothing to
do with the economic facts in rural
What about the split between urban and rural
We do need to realize what a great divide has been created
between rural and urban
Can Protestants organize such intentionally political involvements?
We have to realize that the religious right has become extremely political and is, in fact, having a real influence in the political process today as I have tried to show already. It is the religious right that has turned the red states into red states, after all. Remember we are talking about political pluralities in these red states, not all the people. The minority views of the religious right on abortion and homosexuality have been able to influence enough voters to turn elections in favor of those politicians willing to use that negative rhetoric. It actually would not take many votes to turn the red states into blue states. Now to speak that starkly about Republican and Democratic political involvements is hard for any Protestant congregation to accept. But I think we need to see reality here as I have tried to show. What we need to do at least is to take the issues of abortion and homosexuality off the public agenda as key current issues. Make the Republican Party along with the Democratic Party compete on the basis of the real issues facing a community, not these false issues. Right now Republicans are being elected with the help of the religious right. I don’t know what can change this except for a compelling voice from another religious group such as us Protestants. It would be wrong to expect Democrats to try to get elected on the basis of the views of the religious right. It is wrong to expect them to start speaking with any religious voice. What we need is for Protestants to expose the biblical and theological illegitimacy of the religious right, which is what our position has been anyway. We just need now to act on what it is we already believe, act decisively and clearly in a public context. Jesus died in the midst of a very real political world; the cross stands in the midst of politics; so the effort is dangerous but I believe the mission of the Protestant Church, the people of God in history, must include strong political involvement, not just on one side or the other, but calling both political parties to account for their actions in relation to the future of the world God loves and wants to preserve and protect. Right now, in our time, it is the Republican Party on the national stage which has made an alliance with a particular religious view; that must be aggressively challenged by Protestants today not for political reasons, but for the life of the world itself.
What can a local pastor do to begin organizing in a local congregation about politics?
The first thing is to be clear about the need for a new
interpretive framework to understand what’s happening in current politics from
a biblical perspective, from the view of Jesus in relation to his own times. I
believe this interpretive work is crucial, but most pastors are already doing
it, they just need to apply their interpretation to the life of the community
in which they are working. They should not think faith and politics are
separate, these two are intimately connected. So a language for speaking the
interpretation is crucial. To work out such new interpretive framework and
language it is necessary to relate with other pastors, probably, so that a
single pastor has the support and encouragement of others. From there all sorts
of possibilities suggest themselves. Let me mention just one. It is possible to
choose a few persons in the congregation with whom the pastor feels it is possible
to talk directly about these issues. Do this privately for a time to develop a
group within the congregation who is aware of possible new themes in preaching
and teaching and leading. It is also possible to draw together a small group of
Republicans in the congregation. Talk to them honestly about the problems
presented by the Republican Party and its adoption of particular views of
religion, its used of religious talk in political rhetoric as we have discussed
above. Ask them what they think about this and how a pastor can be faithful to
historic Protestant theology without addressing the ways in which the religious
right views are wrong, not only politically wrong, but theologically wrong. A
pastor can develop an intentional pastoral strategy for engaging in such
private meetings leading to a possible congregational decision process to adopt
a congregational mission strategy for ministry. Where such a strategy cannot be
developed officially by a congregation the pastor can work at organizing
specific efforts through particular current and new committees or task forces
to begin specific tasks in relation to political involvement, knowing at some
point that the congregation as a whole will at some time be forced to deal with
it. The key thing to note is that a pastor creates the “climate” of opinion
within a congregation through preaching and teaching on a regular basis. As
this climate is constructed it is possible to form the action groups to begin
carrying on work in the community. Another key point in all this is that a
pastor must decide in advance that it is possible to lose members who will
oppose such efforts and to let them go. Do not try to keep everyone. In my own
experience, conflicts of this kind mean that messages are sent to those who stay, positive messages which open the congregation to new
understandings about the identity of the congregation and who is invited to be
a part of it. The remaining folks will then begin inviting their friends
because it is a hospitable place to be. As long as the negative folks are
allowed to remain and influence the congregation then these other positive
folks will not be inviting their friends and neighbors. Remember, even in
What if my pastor is a conservative Republican?
For members of congregations the situation is more difficult than I have talked about above if a pastor identifies clearly as a conservative politically. In today’s context “conservative” tends toward a more extreme conservatism since the Republican Party has taken such a much greater turn towards a more particular extreme definition of what it means to be conservative, what is called “neoconservatism.” It is possible for laypersons, however, to organize a small group of like-minded persons to begin meeting, study neoconservatism, identify over time the ways in which the pastor in preaching and teaching is dispensing neoconservative or religious right viewpoints, develop a clear record of such, and at some point set up a meeting with the pastor to discuss what the group thinks about such preaching and teaching and what can be done about it. Always focus on the actual content of the preaching and teaching, not on personalities or emotional factors. What’s key is the teaching and preaching, that is how communities are formed and sustained. Laypersons are going to be less informed by biblical and theological backgrounds so doing studies here are important as well, perhaps led by a neighboring pastor. Most Protestant pastors are not politically conservative. In my own church body the vast majority identify themselves as liberal or Democratic in their political leanings. I think that’s because pastors are preaching about Jesus every Sunday and it is just very difficult to get Republican neoconservatism from the way Jesus talks in the bible. It is important to realize that most pastors are quite jealous about their relation with their congregations and may resent other pastors intruding. Not so long ago I would not have recommended that a group of laypersons seek the help of a pastor outside their parish. Now I believe we are in such a political-theological crisis that laypersons must begin to do so, must hold their pastors more accountable for what is preached. The neoconservative philosophy is so far from, and such a challenge to, orthodox Protestantism that any pastor who is preaching it is in some way preaching heresy or idolatry, as I have discussed above concerning economic mythologies. Let us say that a pastor is preaching the end times notions of the religious right, that Jesus is coming any day and therefore it is unnecessary to be concerned with environmental issues. Such preaching is based on relatively recent apocalyptic religious views and is not biblical; it is a modern heresy. Laypersons could begin meeting, investigate this literature, come to understand this is really an Americanized version of such thinking, and challenge the pastor on theological-biblical grounds. Nowhere should such irresponsible preaching be allowed to go unchallenged.
What other actions do you propose to expose religious right leaders?
I encourage specific actions against such leaders. Concerned laypersons can get together, starting with just two or three people if need be. Choose an active pastor of the religious right in the area; do research on this person; attend the congregation; develop a dossier on the content of the preaching with the specific political themes you hear; write up a brief paper on these themes and how they are against the bible or not based on the bible. Do research on the financial practices and political activities of that congregation. Then, if the evidence warrants it, engage in direct actions such as picketing outside the church building on a Sunday morning handing out leaflets to members as they leave. Such action challenges the legitimacy of that pastor in terms of the bible and orthodox Protestantism. Wise use of the media is necessary too. But the challenge must be on the basis of the substance of the faith not just political opinion. I believe such types of actions are necessary in a Second Stage Protestantism and various groups who engage in such actions can share their experiences and encourage one another. There are many organizers from the field of community organization who can help in developing the best ways to develop such action. One purpose of such action is to make a public witness about the true nature of Protestantism which will encourage people outside the church to reconsider their relationship to the church. “Hey, those people are standing up for something I believe in, maybe I should attend their church.” That’s how Jesus did it. He acted for others in healing and teaching and sometimes that took strange forms, such as his diatribe against Pharisees. Remember too his cleansing of the temple. Jesus acted within the political context of his time. And people followed him because of his actions. Witness is not just words, it is action with words, and it is public action, action that gets noticed by others so that it makes a difference.
How was Jesus involved in political activity more specifically?
I said earlier that we today know more about Jesus than
people who have lived in most of the previous centuries. That is because there
has been a great deal of research in just the last decades using new methods to
study the bible as well as the discovery of new and older manuscripts of the
bible and other ancient documents. But much of this research has not gotten
down to the parish level. Like everything else in today’s world it gets
complicated. So much academic work has been done that no pastor can keep up
with it and do everything else a pastor has to do in
the local parish. But if there is one type of literature to become acquainted
with for a Second Stage Protestantism it is the new Jesus research which places
him more accurately and thoroughly within his actual social-political-economic
context. The church has always believed in the incarnation,
that God entered into real human life in the person of Jesus, but we don’t
adequately realize what that means if we don’t have a good sense of the actual
times in which Jesus lived. Furthermore, to believe in the resurrection of
Jesus is to believe that the life of Jesus is raised, that’s why we have the
four gospels which are narratives of his life. Believing in resurrection is not
just a matter of believing something illogical, a physical raising,
as we discussed earlier, but the life of Jesus is raised for us to behold and
emulate. We cannot follow Jesus as disciples today without knowing what it
meant to follow him when he walked upon the earth himself. I cannot here tell
the whole story, but it is important to realize that he was raised as a child
and conducted his ministry primarily in
What are some key theological resources for Second Stage Protestantism?
Throughout this document I have been referring to words and language, preaching and teaching. This is all we have in the church, this is how the Holy Spirit works. To speak we need to breathe, to speak we must first inhale the air from outside ourselves, speaking is a kind of blowing out of words with wind. The Spirit works in the wind, in the speaking. It is a very natural process after all, not magical, yet full of mystery because it is through words that God has chosen to reveal God’s self among us. I emphasize this because so many today are looking for some esoterical manifestation of spirits and gods in strange places. It is all a matter of the tongue and the ear, hearing God’s word spoken to us, speaking God’s word to others. I have learned this through theologians such as Robert Jensen and my seminary teacher, Gerhard Forde (Theology as Proclamation), but there are many others. The one best book to examine carefully, called a classic by many, is by George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age. It is the most often quoted theological work over the past couple decades, especially among those trying to write within an ecumenical context. He speaks of two primary theories of religion, propositional doctrine and experiential-expressive. Debates between the two constitute the substance of theological work in the modern period, the first is understood as the traditional approach and the second as the liberal approach. The first emphasizes doctrines, that religion is a matter of believing certain propositional statements such as God exists, Jesus is both God and man, etc. These are matters of the head, we should believe certain things cognitively, with our minds. The experiential-expressive theory of religion starts more from the experience of human beings. Doctrines refer not first and foremost to intellectual propositions but are “symbols of inner feelings, attitudes, or existential orientations.” (p.16) For example, F. Schliermacher, called the father of modern theology, taught that all human beings have an inner sense of subjective dependency on something outside themselves, a higher power or ultimately God. Lindbeck suggests both approaches can better be understood by reference to a third approach, what he calls the cultural/linguistic theory of religion. Both doctrines and experience are important because they are both mediated through words. It is not merely words but how words are used in a religious tradition that makes the difference, the underlying cultural criteria by which words are interpreted or given meaning is what makes the difference. Words are the link between head and heart, so to speak. And, of course, the biggest point to make is that the words do real work. That is, when you say to me “good morning” and I say back to you, “good morning, good to see you,” there is a mutual recognition of one another that creates each of us in relation to the other. The gospel is particular words spoken to us from God, revealing the nature of God and God’s love for use as specific human beings. Words create the relationship with God. “God loves you.” Without words God doesn’t get to us, at least in ways by which we become conscious of God. This understanding of language, how God works through words, is crucial for understanding what I mean by Second Stage Protestantism. We need to speak the church into being in the 21st century in new ways, taking into account the historic doctrines and experience of Protestantism, to speak into being the public church which faithfully takes responsibility for the future of the communities and world within which God has placed it, loving the neighbor. There is one matter in the Lindbeck formulation, and the formulation of modern Protestant theology in general, that we should note as a failure, however. The Lindbeck approach does begin to address the issue I want to mention because he is talking about “culture”, that is, whole groups of people believing in certain ways of talking. But I think we must be much more specific and refer to the historical experience of real people who experience themselves not just as individuals but who experience themselves as part of a people through history. The experiential-expressive approach of modern liberal theology has focused entirely on the inner subjective experience of individuals as individuals, not as persons in community, not as persons as a people. Such an approach means that individuals think of the church as a voluntary association of like-minded persons rather than as a people formed by the grace and mercy of a loving, speaking God, a people with a history and a future. If we don’t use the words of our tradition, the words from the bible, to speak the church into being in our time, then there will be no Protestant people of God in our time or the future. Both Lutheran and Reformed church bodies believe in the doctrine of election, for example, that it is God who elects who God wills to be part of the people of God in the world today. But the Christian life is not based on doctrines; doctrines are for theologians, and important work they do indeed. But the doctrine must be preached! It is pastors who preach not the doctrine but the gospel, and it is this experience of preaching and being preached to that constitutes the decisive experience of the Protestant People of God. It is pastors who do God’s work of electing by preaching: “You are this day elected by God to serve the neighbor.” The language is the language of election, of gospel, and the form of the language is very important. The words work through the preaching of pastor (and people, of course) in the power of the Holy Spirit. The bible shows that all sorts of people were elected who try to escape from the task and avoid the election. But when God elects there is no escape. The religious right turns this completely around and says that you have to make a decision to elect God. That is terribly wrong and has terrible consequences in that people in the church then think they are the good ones because they made a decision and everyone else is going to hell. No, the important thing is that God chooses us, not that we choose God, and God chooses us to love the neighbor, the other one different from us. The pastor has the most important job in the world: choose and elect the Protestant people of God today.
Why do you keep using the language about the neighbor being “the one different from us?”
This refers for me to a very critically important aspect of
orthodox Christian faith. I spoke above about Lindbeck’s
reference to the background criteria that different religions bring to
understanding what it is they believe. For Christianity this idea of
“otherness” is such a criterion both in terms of our understanding of God as
well as of neighbor. Interestingly it comes to us Christians today from a
non-Christian source as a reminder of what it is that always should have been
at the center of our faith but has been repressed in some stages of our history
as a church. That source is contemporary postmodern philosophy which has an
accent on “otherness” and “difference.” I will first discuss it in terms of
theology from a Christian understanding. For Christians God is other than
themselves or anything in the world, God is Other. God
is not a tree or the sun or a rock or a people or a political or economic
ideology. God is not an idea or a projection of the human mind. The word God is
reserved for that which is entirely other than anything else in this world.
That’s what it means to say God created the world. But in this creation God is
creating that which is other than God. God loves this other, the creation,
which is different from God. God loves that which is different from God’s self.
And so, also, God wants us to love God, that which is different from us, and to
love the neighbor, which is a word obviously meaning not of our own household,
our own identity. We are to love that one who is other than us, different from
us. For Jews that means to love the one who is not Jewish.
Jesus even tells us to love our enemies, the ones most different from us. The
early Christians who were Jews had difficulty deciding what this meant in
practical terms but it was the Apostle Paul who clearly saw that it meant to
love the Gentiles, the ones different from Jews. The early church was a
multi-racial and multi-cultural social phenomenon and it had lots of problems
as we read about in Paul’s letters. In fact, it is impossible to understand
Paul’s theology without taking into account the fact that different peoples are
coming together in one new community in the power of neither law (Jewish) nor
desire (Gentiles) but of the spirit of Jesus, one who literally died for
others. In this “otherness” talk we see what is distinctive about Christianity.
God is not my group’s God over against the gods of other groups, but my God is
the same God who created other groups and I am to love them as my neighbor.
That is especially what the world needs today, I believe, and it is right there
at the center of Christian faith, right there in the center of the bible. Even
in the Old Testament the people of
What does this mean for a Protestant approach to the Muslim world?
Let me first say that I think of Jewish people as part of my
own household of faith. It is clear in Romans 11 that the Apostle Paul thinks
of Jewish people as continuing in the promises of God which will be finally
fulfilled. Paul was not preaching another God different from the God revealed
in the Old Testament when his preaching created the early church. So, Judaism
in its various forms is not a separate religion from Christianity in essence. I
realize that not all Jews would accept this embrace but their acceptance does
not determine my own attitude. In fact they have every reason historically to
be wary of Christians, a history concerning which all Christians should get on
their knees and confess their sins with utmost sincerity and honesty. I
recently read a book on the church in the middle ages
before the Reformation which documents unrelenting, horrendous use of violence
against Jews by both angry mobs intent to destroy “Christ killers” and by
official legal authority under Christian rulers. That book by Peter Brown (The
Rise of Western Christendom) also discusses the development of Islam. Now, if
Judaism can be understood as a part of the Christian household of faith, as I
want to understand it, how about Islam? All three of these religions are Abrahamic; they trace their origins to Abraham as the
father of their faith. All three of these religions are “religions of the
book,” one is the Hebrew bible, one is the bible containing the Hebrew bible as
well as the New Testament, and one includes the bible and additional writings
of Muhammad of Mecca (570-632) called the Koran. It seems to me that there is
enough here to suggest that there can be hope for new interpretations by which
all three can begin to understand themselves within the context of a common understanding
of God and faith. Such, at least, I suggest could be a major project of Second
Stage Protestantism. Thinking over the next fifty to a hundred years these
religious divisions must be overcome in this world, at least the conditions and
divisions which lead each to do violence to the other must be overcome or the
world will face a very bloody future, worse than what is now occurring in
Israel and Iraq, and judging from the past and the current mobilization of
anti-Islam hatred among the religious right which desires the United States to
engage in holy war. Christianity shares responsibility for the emergence of
Islam. Remember that the
Why has the Islamic world set itself against the
I will answer clearly, but those who may be questioning my
comments so far may want to take a breath or two or three and get settled in
their minds to hear a hard truth. The
Has violence characterized both Christian and Muslin history?
I often hear comments to the effect that Islam is a religion
that believes in violence as if Christianity is any different. Here is another
place where history is important. Americans have become an extremely arrogant
people because they do not know their own history. Christians are arrogant when
they think Christianity is a religion of peace and Islam is a religion of
violence. Both Christianity and Islam have a very long and bloody history of
fighting not only against one another but each of them within themselves. Most
pastors have read books on church history and know Christianity was spread
Who are some prophets today?
There are many Protestant pastors who are trying to preach
prophetically today and one of the things I want to do is begin to identify
these pastors more specifically and present their preaching to a wider
audience. And I believe all Protestant pastors must now identify themselves
with the prophetic function of ministry, more so than they have done in the
past. The job today is not to first and foremost be a church administrator or
an organizer of church functions, others can do this, it
is to preach prophetically, interpreting history realistically, pointing to
signs of hope for peace and justice. It is dangerous work,
Jesus was put on a cross for telling the truth about
How can Protestants grow by preaching unpopular prophecy?
I think pastors should build their churches on the basis of
their prophecy, on the basis of telling the truth, on the basis of a clear and
compelling interpretation of history. And I believe that there are very large
numbers of people out there who reject appeals to mass hysteria, who do not
want to live on the basis of fear and insecurity, who are rather desperately
looking for a larger view of the world and history by which they can orient
their lives, find meaning and purpose, and find themselves called to engage in
noble and significant work. The current political use of mass hysteria is an
opportunity for Protestants to build up their church on the basis of biblical
theology! Protestants have always believed the bible is the standard and norm
for truth, we just have to actually use it to
interpret our times. The prophets of the Old Testament are an incredible
resource for biblical preaching today. And I think we modern people can be
helped to understand that it is the height of arrogance for us to think of
ourselves as the only wise ones who have ever lived, that we are “civilized” in
our use of reason, when today this country is being driven by mass hysteria!
What happened in
So, who is that person you consider a prophet today?
Since unpopularity and controversy are characteristics of
prophecy one place to look in the popular media for prophets is unpopular and
controversial figures. The media chooses figures from the religious right
because they match the criteria reporters use for what makes for a “religious”
statement, such as when Pat Robertson announces that natural disasters are
caused by God as judgment for what Robertson considers immoral acts, as he
recently threatened against the citizens of Dover, Pennsylvania, for voting out
school board members who had tried to force the teaching of Intelligent Design
in science classrooms. This is a trivialization of an important issue, the
relation of faith and science, but the media considers such things to be news.
Christian faith loses credibility in such news reports, which, of course, is
the view of the reporters, in general; religious faith is incredible. But I
would like to point to a person not associated with Christian faith, a most
unpopular person these days because of his interpretation of the 9./11 events. His name is Ward Churchill, a professor of
Indian studies at a
Why don’t people see the importance of economic justice?
It’s because they believe in economic mythologies as I tried
to show earlier. It all has to do with how we define “reality.” What I have to
say here can be helpful to pastors as they try to think about these matters and
find ways to discuss with persons who work within business settings as well as
others. It used to be that it was religious faith that was accused of
consisting of mythologies. Today religion is not taken seriously, even by those
in the religious right who use the old mythologies simply to make money. The
neoconservatives who say they support religion do not believe in religious
mythologies, they support religion because it is a means to obtain political
power. The Catholic Church takes religion seriously but it primarily speaks
within its own institutional structures, it considers participation in the
church itself as salvation and creates its own world, so to speak, in and of
itself; reality is what happens inside the church and its own churchly culture.
That is the direction of even such newer theological movements as radical
orthodoxy. There is a movement within Protestantism led by Stanley Haurerwas and others which wants to duplicate the Catholic
model, to break the church out of the world into its own more sectarian culture;
while there is some help in some of this theology, especially concerning peace,
it is not moving in the historic Protestant direction. It is the
Do you mean that theology should replace economics?
No, not in those terms. I mean economics refers to a limited field of reality in the world which can be helpfully interpreted from theological perspectives. When economics is allowed to become a mythology or religious in character, ultimately justifying human behavior, it becomes demonic and theology can be a necessary corrective. Protestantism from the Reformation put accent on loving the neighbor through best use of human rational capacity. This idea promoted the development of science and the various bodies of knowledge we discussed earlier, including the science of economics. Now, economics is a social science, not like physics which does not have to deal with matters such as human consciousness and social interaction. Economics is a set of social relations, not simply exchange relations. Failure of economists to admit that fact is one of the factors leading to economic mythology which in turn means that the social impacts of economic activity (on the family as a social institution, on how income is distributed in the community) are screened out of perception of reality. I would be most happy if economists would admit they are studying just one piece of the whole human reality, but that is not what many of them do today, they claim that economics constitute the whole of reality, that everything can be explained through economics. There is a movement today, for example, funded by large corporations that provides judges with expenses paid courses the content of which claims that legal decisions are always economic decisions (who gets rewarded with what money). See the writings of Richard Posner on this such as his book The Economics of Justice. I think it helpful to break economics into three levels, the macro, institutional, and individual levels. The macro is the whole economy. Now the notion of an “economy” is a modern idea, never before in history has there been any study of the totality of what is considered to be economic activity. There has long been the buying and selling of goods in markets, but never the idea that one can think about the totality of such activity in one concept. Like other efforts to formulate modern knowledge, economics thinks it is studying something real, the “economy” as a whole. To study this all kinds of counting as to go on, government has to set up ways to receive numbers from corporations and other sources, these numbers are aggregated, summed up, and the totals are assumed to tell us something about the economy as a whole. We “know” the economy through these numbers, gross national product, productivity, employment rates, etc. Along with government accounting the stock markets get to be centers of attention as everyone tries to follow the market, to see what the “economy” is doing. All of this is mythology. It works because everyone believes in the myths, including the myth that statistics can demonstrate something real when aggregated in such massive ways. As soon as large numbers of people would stop believing the myths the statistics would tell us something different. Economics today is a faith system. The idea of the “economy” as I said has never existed before modern times. But we sure do believe in it today, it has become a sort of god. During the Christmas period, for example, news shows like to report how sales are going and even urge people to go to the mall and buy gifts for friends and family in order to help the “economy.” Serving the economy, offering one’s self up to the economy, has become the duty of human beings. We are not to buy things because we need them, or because we love our friends or family, but because we must serve the economy. Most retail businesses would go broke without high Christmas sales so the actual fact about this is the economy is dependent on the social/religious activity of Christmas but in contemporary economic mythology it is the “economy” that must be served, the social/religious under-structure of reality is literally screened out of perception by the focus on economics alone. Christmas sales are aggregated and if better than last year then it is a “good Christmas” and the stock market goes up. The economics actually is based on a social-religious-community reality, business feeds off the social reality, it lives from it, it uses it, it manipulates it, it tries now to control and determine it, and, in fact, it is driving it so hard that Christmas as a social-religious celebratory experience is losing its capacity to deliver those meanings in the first place. Business is killing the thing that makes it profitable because of its own mythologies. It is not just the economy, it is a particular type of economy that is believed in, the capitalistic economy. Business as an institutional reality justifies its existence in relation to this new god, this new mythology, the capitalistic economy. As I indicated earlier, business now is able through its dominance of major media to influence the minds and hearts of the mass society of individuals; it uses that media to propagate its mythology, to evangelize for its god, a god that has strict rules to follow, a god that drives people to go to the mall to consume more and more, a god that promises much more than it can deliver and that is why so many people are so filled with generalized anger today, a god which defines what is an acceptable human being in very narrow ways, a god which determines what is “hot” and “in” and what must be done to be “cool,” and a god which announces that you can be “free” from any social constraints to do what business wants you to do. What I have tried to do with this example of Christmas is demonstrate the three levels of economics, the general level of the economy as a whole, the institutional level of actual business activity which has become so powerful today as compared to other spheres of society, and the individual level where the human person is defined in very narrow terms as a pleasure seeking animal. I find it helpful to think in terms of these three levels as they are related to one another in dynamic ways. If economics would stick to a more modest realm, admit its dependency on social reality, and admit it must always function under rules finally determined by democratic processes in the community, and if its leaders would admit that their economic decisions are also always also moral decisions then I would not be so critical. Capitalism as an economic system has been immensely productive as long as it operated within the larger morality created from Protestant faith, but it has in the 20th century separated itself from any other accountable authority and taken a turn toward becoming a totalizing mythology and dominating force in society which is not good for the democratic polity of the country nor its social-religious character. A theological interpretation of capitalism may help save it from itself especially now that it is claiming to be able to function autonomously on a global scale.
What evidence do you have that economics has become a totalizing belief system?
I have already given several examples, the myth of the free
market, the myth of the notion of an “economy” itself.
There is in any belief system a totalizing tendency, a tendency to
universality. But these matters, as all else, as we have seen, are best
understood in a historical context. One can look at the actual history of
capitalism. And here the decisive event is one that has happened not so long
ago, the fall of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War. The Cold War
was viewed as a battle of economic ideologies. The fall of Soviet Communism has
been interpreted as a victory of capitalism. That is, capitalism no longer has
to demonstrate its validity through reason or logic or science, it can claim to
be authorized by an historical victory, at least this is how proponents now
think about it. That is the primary reason why it has become a totalizing
belief system in the actual minds of the people now in power in the
What do you mean by saying it is time for the Crucifix?
Protestants have had a tendency in their worship to display in their sanctuaries the empty cross, the cross of the resurrected Christ. Roman Catholics have used the crucifix, presenting before the people the full image of the suffering body of Christ on the cross. I am wondering whether or not in Second Stage Protestantism we should return to the crucifix in order that Protestants might be able to identify with the extensive pain that people in western culture are and will be experiencing in the next fifty years or so. Jesus says that “they do not know what they are doing” and so, also, in our time, we do not know what we are doing, everything we do to try to prevent and solve problems just causes greater problems, we blame everything on the least powerful among us rather than point the finger where it belongs, at the most powerful. We crucify the poor in order to justify the rich. This thinking, blaming the victim, which is taught by both neoconservatism and the religious right is irrational. The powerless around the world are not to blame for the failures of American foreign policy. The poor in this country are not to blame for the failures of the economy. Black people are not to blame for the terrible condition of our cities. Atheists are not to blame for the hedonism and individualism of current culture. This thinking if it continues to inform policy formation in this country can only cause ever greater crises because it is irrational. First Stage Protestantism lived much of its life within a public atmosphere of great hopefulness for the American experiment, a kind of theology of glory, not adequately facing the realities of sin and evil, trying to overcome pain and suffering through the application of rationality in science and technology. Liberal Christians early in the 20th century even imagined a “Christian century.” To survive the 21st century we must be much more sober and realistic, we must ground hope for resurrection in the reality of the cross. We are able to live not according to mythologies, not the ghosts of modern culture, but faith in the one true God revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ.
What are the ghosts of modern culture?
Modern culture has been constructed through opposition to
God. Modern secular culture needs God to push against, it comes to know itself
only in relation to what it believes it is rejecting. So God for modern culture
is a kind of Ghost. The Ghost is still there; it is very important for the
Ghost to remain there for without the Ghost modern culture does not know
itself, cannot define itself. In historical terms the modern age is defined
over-against the medieval age, an age of reason over-against the age of faith.
The medieval God
remains as an authoritarian Ghost in the minds of modern persons. In terms of
personal biography large numbers of persons conceive of their lives in the same
way, they were raised in the church but then went to school and college where
they gave up naïve faith for more “rational” explanations of the way the world
works, the various bodies of knowledge we referred to earlier along with their
Enlightenment institutions. But God remains as a Ghost in the minds of such folks, they define themselves in terms of when they gave up
on silly magic or authoritarian prescriptions of how they should morally live
their lives. But the Ghost remained in the mind, and even the morality remained
for most of these folks who have been raised in the church. Over the years I
have countless conversations with persons about these matters. Right now I am
corresponding with a young man just out of college about whether God exists. It
is interesting to me that he has a very strong need to deny God’s existence, he
is very engaged in this conversation, he needs to know that God does not exist
so that he can justify behavior he believes would otherwise be proscribed by
God. When I ask him what concept of God it is that he is rejecting he is
confused, he believes he knows exactly what God it is that he is rejecting and
refuses to entertain the possibility that there are other concepts of God or
that God may not be a concept in the first place. In other words, he is
defining himself by a Ghost which continues to haunt him at the depth of his
being. This is the situation for very large numbers of people who understand
themselves as secular persons today, especially those who have been raised in
the church or who are part of larger families with a history in the church, so
much so that it characterizes modern culture itself. To see
how this works consider popular music and take Madonna as an example.
Her persona has been carefully created explicitly over-against the church and
the mother of Jesus. (I am not concerned here with her personal beliefs or
actions, but with her persona, the way her image works.) The Holy Mother is
associated with sexual liberation of young people, a most powerful image
justifying sexual expression at a time in the life cycle when the hormones are
raging. This has made very large amounts of money for Madonna and all
associated with her. In this example, the Ghost is explicitly associated with a
religious image but all of modern culture, such as in
Does the Ghost remain in postmodern culture?
I am tempted to say no, but the question perhaps should be considered an open one. That is, postmodernism as a conscious orientation to the world is still something affirmed more in intellectual than practical public politics. Whereas modernism is defined over-against God, postmodernism has little concern for God at all. It is the orientation of those coming from families where for generations there has been little concern for God. There are more and more such families and persons in western cultures. They seem to survive quite well without God. The question we are dealing with here is whether there can be something which can be called “secular society.” Can such societies survive? Can any society survive without some sort of central concept of God at the heart of the society? The founders of this country believed that a democratic government could maintain itself without explicit adherence to any particular, official religious faith. This is what we can call Classic Liberalism, belief that human beings can order themselves within democratic processes including checks and balances of three units of government, with rule by the majority yet with respect for minorities, a “limited government.” The religious right is on a crusade to demonstrate that Classic Liberalism cannot work, that only faith in God can provide the basis for democracy. Yet the notion of God that the religious right promotes is an authoritarian one, completely opposed to the spirit of democracy. What we seem to have before us in the public context today is a battle between fundamentalism and postmodernism, the one claiming life must be lived under an authoritarian God, the historic God coming out of medieval Catholicism and carried on in First Stage Protestantism (the Ghost), and the other claiming no God at all. What is rejected by both sides is Classic Liberalism. If either of these sides wins we lose the country as we have known it, though the greater danger comes from fundamentalism since the logic of its approach leads to authoritarian fascism on the scale of corporatist empire. Though postmodern criticism undercuts all classically liberal beliefs it represents an appropriate modesty concerning the notion of western superiority and the importance of multi-cultural sensitivity, and it is possible for postmodernists to decide to participate in Classic Liberal government as the best possible style of political process for a postmodern world. Still, postmodernism provides no adequate basis for social morality, some transcendence is necessary for some order in social life, is necessary for human beings to be able to find purpose and meaning in their lives as well as how to determine right and wrong. I suggest that such transcendence can be provided through interpretation of history for the country itself and that one of the tasks of Second Stage Protestantism is to help the country develop such an interpretation and promulgate it throughout the public school system. Such an interpretation should not be based first on abstract philosophical concepts coming out of either postmodernism or fundamentalism but on actual history as it unfolded, and it must be a critical history, that is, that is willing to reveal where the United States did not do so well, where it made mistakes, where it failed its own values, where it hurt other peoples. Most of the foreign policy conundrums we now face as a country have come out of a failure to rightly interpret the Vietnam war, for example, as well as the second world war, and the Cold War, as discussed above. Just as in biblical times when there were debates among schools of thought within Israel about how to interpret and understand its history, so politics should be characterized by similar debates today, except that there should be a much stronger substratum of historical understanding than exists today. The American people are nearly ignorant about their own history. Never before has the study of history been more important. And this history has to deal with the Ghost, with the reality of religion. The terrible current legacy of the religious right has been to associate Christian faith with obnoxiousness, with ridiculous hysteria, just at the time when all secular persons would do well to realize the importance of religious faith in the history of this country as well as others. Protestants should in no way follow the model of the religious right as it approaches these issues. However, it would be possible to organize and present a major study of American history and make it known to others as a helpful contribution to public life today. Americans need a positive self-understanding in order to face the tremendous changes coming in the future otherwise the country will turn against itself as it tries to protect itself. Just as the auto-immune system of the body can destroy the body so the United States is becoming so militarized, is defining everything in terms of national security, is using up its resources fighting against false enemies, that it is actually attacking itself, attacking that which is healthy in the national body, weakening itself just at the time when it needs its strength to change to face the future. I believe Protestants need to help the country affirm the democratic processes of Classic Liberalism but to do so there needs to be honest and realistic assessment of history, and, to a certain degree we Protestants must be willing to keep the Ghost out of it, for the sake of a world that already has too many gods.
So Protestants should in the end support Classic Liberalism?
Well, yes, Classic Liberalism is the intellectual foundation
of the country. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of
Rights, are documents of Classic Liberalism. Martin
Marty gave a talk on this a couple of decades ago; he said few people actually
believe anymore in what I am calling Classic Liberalism. He was referring to
the academic community, primarily, I think, especially social science which
through its studies recognizes that a central tenant of Classic Liberalism, the
free individual, does not correspond with reality since individuals are created
by their social environments. The human person does not just pop into existence
as a free, rational individual. But, Marty said, he wants to come to the aid of
Classic Liberalism as worthy of continuing respect as a form of government. He
was speaking to Protestants and I agree with him. But I think in a Second Stage
Protestantism we need to carefully study what Classic Liberalism means now for
the future. We should do that study at three levels. First is the philosophical
background of liberalism, its key concepts such as contract theory which
corresponds with covenantal theology, the theory of law which corresponds to
Protestant notions of natural law, the theory of rights which is associated
with the idea of the free individual (including whether a corporation should be
considered a legal individual), the theory of the sovereignty of the people and
what that means for a deliberative political process and representative
democracy. Understanding these matters is crucial as I will indicate below. The
second level of study should focus on the history of how liberal beliefs have
been actually implemented in the institutional machinery of government in this
country. We now have over 200 years of experience with an effort to
institutionalize Classic Liberalism including the relation of church and state.
I think Protestants as a body should engage in such study and not rely on the
judgment of individual scholars; we need to develop the concept of “communal
understanding,” that it is necessary for us as a particular People of God in
the world today to have a communal perspective on the world in which we live.
Such a communal understanding will not come about through the political process
as if understanding is determined by majority vote, it
will come through careful deliberation involving large numbers of people led by
faithful leaders. And the third level of study is contemporary practical politics.
Protestants should not only engage in the political process, we need to develop
an understanding about it. We need to engage in a process of stepping back from
the intensity of practical political involvement and seriously ask how best to
engage within it for the sake of both church and world. Early in his ministry
Jesus went into the wilderness away from town and city and there confronted the
demons and determined his own stance before he entered into the realities of
his day. Protestants need to do the same today. This is especially necessary in
our time because the divisive, polarized politics currently being practiced has
little to do with, and is actually in opposition to, Classic Liberalism. That
means the people of the country are not learning Classic Liberalism from the
political process. We are not practicing what we preach in this country today.
Since Classic Liberalism is the intellectual foundation of the documents and
fundamental political beliefs of the country that means that practical politics
is undermining and calling into question this foundation, these beliefs. This
process has proceeded to such a degree that very large numbers of people don’t
believe it is important for them to even take the time to vote in public
elections today. The explanation for this should not be based on blaming people
for not voting, we must ask what it is about current practical politics that is
leading so many to believe that voting is not worthy of their time and effort.
We must ask who controls the process of politics today, what language is being
used, what do people learn from involvement in the political process, and how
does this relate to the history of the country and its founding philosophy.
Classic Liberalism, it can be said, has its origins in the Reformation which
influenced the Enlightenment and so Protestants are able to claim it as a
political philosophy emerging from their own history. At least, I think it
would be good for Protestants to make such a claim, take responsibility for
Classic Liberalism, study what it means in today’s situation of practical
politics, and act on the basis of the communal understandings which result. It
may be that it is part of the mission of Protestantism in the world today to
“save” Classic Liberalism from itself, from the way it has been implemented and
is currently being practiced in the
Why is current practical politics so threatening to Classic Liberalism?
Classic Liberalism as institutionalized in this country was
an effort to avoid war, to find a way for human beings to come together in
civil society without recourse to killing one another and to avoid what had
been going on in
Why has the conservative attack on Classic Liberalism been so successful?
I have already talked about the primary reason, just one of the Enlightenment institutions, corporate enterprise, has come to nearly completely dominate not only the society but also the democratic polity of the country. The idea of competition in capitalist economics has been applied to the political process which is conceived of as a survivalist struggle within which the strongest win. It is not a matter of deliberation, not a matter of thinking and talking, it is a conflict defined in terms of Social Darwinism not Classic Liberalism. The so-called “free press” is in the hands of corporate enterprise so it cannot criticize its benefactor to the degree necessary. In fact the press propagates the notion of politics as war, especially in how it covers the “horse races” of elections. The fact of nearly total corporate power today is screened out of the consciousness of both people and professionals even though it is the elephant in front of everyone’s face. That is one of the reasons why I see only the Protestant church as capable of mounting an effort to tell the truth in today’s public life. It is the only major institution which enjoys a broad presence in American society and is also distant enough from economic power to be able to provide a place from which to “see” what is going on in the world. A second big reason for the success of conservatism has to do with the nature of liberalism itself. In any conflict the liberal tendency is to want to talk, that is the essence of liberal belief, talking can resolve conflicts, respect the other person enough to talk with them. For the conservative today, talking is no solution, it is fighting, engage in war, destroy the opponent by any means necessary, use language not to reach understanding but to dominate and defeat. It’s as if the Cold War, the conflict with an external enemy, has been internalized; the enemy is now within, as the rabid talk show host Michael Savage has named his book. Now, the liberal really does not have any way to respond to this without giving up liberal beliefs in the first place. In other words, Classic Liberalism cannot survive if political leaders do not share the beliefs that founded the country. I have engaged in conversations with many, many conservatives over the years and more and more I have found that their object is not to listen and consider options but to dominate and defeat, to force allegiance to their way of seeing things. A third reason that conservatives are able to “win” the debates on these issues has to do with the way the liberal media work. The media is liberal, as the conservatives claim, most reporters have gone to college, they share liberal sentiments. But what that means is that they dutifully report the conservative voice on the news even when that voice is one that engages in merciless and unwarranted attack, even when that voice engages in deliberate public lying. I have seen this over and over in the political debate on television news shows. The conservative stakes out a clear, often hostile position, the liberal wants to discuss it and doesn’t seem to stand for anything. Are you for abortion or against it? Are you for the Iraq war or against it? The liberal wants to discuss. The conservative wants to fight. And fighting, of course, always makes for better news, better ratings, more money from the advertisers. On religious issues the whole process gets completely ridiculous. To have a good fight it is necessary to have a religious right spokesperson over-against a representative from an atheist group. Now that really reveals the nature of religious debate in the country! So, it is clear that the modern media do not present the context for learning anything about Classic Liberalism, the process is one of rather silly conflict to try to get high ratings. In fact, those who support a liberal position, that talking through an issue can be helpful, end up looking like they have no substance. No wonder few people today believe in the idea of Classic Liberalism, it is not taught in the political process, it is not taught in modern media, the place that it is taught to some degree, the public school, is also one of the prime targets of the extreme conservative right. Maybe the Protestant church is a place where people can learn again about the hope of Classic Liberalism, the hope for a world with less conflict and war.
You are saying that conservatism has come to mean the promotion of war?
Yes, because it wins elections. But it has become
irrational. When I was growing up my Republican father told me that it was
Democrats who got us into war, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. That is
one reason he was a Republican. Conservatives historically have been hesitant
about a powerful central government. That is another idea of Classic
Liberalism, limited government. The founders, as I said earlier, didn’t want a
monarchy where the king could easily declare war for national glory.
Declaration of war is assigned to the congress in the constitution. Now we see
that it is those who name themselves conservative who have completely jumped on
to the bandwagon of war. It wins elections. The central reason why the
conservative talk show host Sean Hannity says he
opposes liberals is that they are “weak on defense.” For him the classic
historical reference is World War II when Hitler was “appeased” so it is
necessary to fight the enemy. Hitler is proof that talk doesn’t work. I will
not here discuss all the history, though such is an important project for
Second Stage Protestantism as I have indicated already, but I just want to say
that the idea that we must build up ever greater and greater military capacity
has become irrational. The
How can Classic Liberalism avoid war in the future?
Often it has come to my mind something that might be called
a principle of historical interpretation, or of any social conflict. I am not
sure where I got this idea and have not thought about it systematically, but
would like to mention it here to initiate some reflection. It is the idea that
you become like your enemy. In a protracted engagement in conflict a sort of
strange dialectical process takes place. I can’t quite explain it but it seems
as if you become like the enemy against which you are fighting. It happened
with the religious right in its fight with modern science; the religious right
actually has taken on within itself the standards of truth in 19th
century mechanical science, as I described earlier, despite the fact that such
science is viewed by the religious right as its most horrible enemy. Another
way to say this is that “losers win”, the losers of a conflict may end up
winning in the long run.
Does the Democratic Party promote the philosophy of Classic Liberalism?
Not really. The base of this party tends to be against war
because it remembers
What does all this mean for political differences on the role of government in society and economy and social welfare programs?
In this document I have been trying to focus more on
underlying beliefs and habits of thought rather than on the ways current issues
are debated. I am looking for a new language by which to get at deeper issues
in politics today, a language that can be used by persons to discuss in such a
way as to lead to mutual understanding no matter what political party they have
identified with in the past. I think that the Protestant church is about the
only place in society where it may be possible to develop such new language, to
engage in reflection and deliberation, to call people to responsible
participation in the political process. I have emphasized the economic realm
because I believe that many social, environmental, and health problems
experienced by the American people are the result of inadequate regulation of
powerful economic actors. It is completely obvious that air pollution causes
disease the costs of which are passed on to people and health care
institutions. So it is then necessary to provide tax money from all the people
to help alleviate the problems caused by those who are polluting the air, which
means the people are subsidizing the costs of such industry. But this “obvious”
fact is screened out of consciousness by those who believe that government
should not regulate those who pollute the air because such regulation constitutes
“socialism.” Every social or environmental issue is thus debated in terms of
highly abstract political or economic philosophy resulting in a politics of war
to defeat your opponent. It is this process that has become irrational in our
time. The growth of government in provision of social and health services over
the past decades has come about primarily due to lack of good economic planning
and regulation on the part of government. Good economic planning could greatly
reduce the size of government, but such planning is exactly what the economic
institutions are opposed to. Or, it is more true to say that we already have
economic planning in this country, we just don’t call it that, and we do not
discuss on whose behalf such planning should be done. That is, governmental actions in relation to the economy, such as the
Federal Reserve Bank, are debated within the context of what is good for the
“economy” rather than in terms of what is good for people. Giant
retailers such as Wal-mart are possible not because
they are the most efficient but because their costs are subsidized by
government and the rules governing business make such giants possible. Change
the rules and you change business. As long as business can get the public to
believe that these topics are off limits to democratic process then it can use
government for its own purposes rather than what is best for all the people.
For example, business is able to set up bidding wars among local and state
governments concerning tax breaks for locating new factories. It is the
economic actors who are in charge, not government by the people. Throughout
American history there has been conflict and tension between the interests of
property and the interests of the people, so these issues are not new, but at
this point in history both government and business have grown so large that
things are much more complex than they have been in the past and business has
come to dominate nearly everything including government and politics. The
What do you mean by the phrase “messiah church?”
The word “Christ” means messiah, or, in brief, the way to a
desirable future which also redeems the past. To call Jesus the Christ is to
see in him the way to the future. The church is the body of Christ, the
continuing reality of God acting in the world. This has many ramifications, but
the phrase “messiah church” is shorthand to say the church can be the way
society as a whole is able to move into a desirable future. Just as Jesus is
sent from God’s love into the world so also the church exists for the sake of
the world. The church exists not for itself, not to build up its own existence
over against the world, but to give up itself for the sake of others outside
the church so that the world might live. The way of Jesus is the way of the
church. In concrete terms the church is the way the God of Israel continues to
be manifest in history after the destruction of
Why would the world be willing to listen to what the church says?
After two centuries the church has much to confess, many sins to turn away from. One of these is the temptation to claim authority, even the authority of doing violence to others by words and deeds sometimes with the power of the state. Lacking trust in the word of God the church has resorted to institutional power and psychological manipulation to force faith. The degree to which this was done in First Stage Protestantism must now be given up in the Second Stage. This is the only way by which to reach out to those who have left the church because of its oppressive cultural dominance. The Word of God can stand on its own without violence or intimidation. It is necessary to reject, then, the whole style and approach of the religious right which wants to return to medieval times and try to use the power of the state to implement its religious views. Unfortunately in our time belligerent claims of the religious right create negative reactions from people in the world. This must be explicitly rejected. The possibility of concrete alternative futures must be offered through words of grace in the spirit of Jesus for real persons, real communities, real nations, and the real world in which God has placed us to do that which must be done so that the world can survive as the place God intended it to be.