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Lecture 15: Religious Epistemology

Success of German Criticism

German liberalism was enormously successful, overtaking all the protestant seminaries in Europe, and making deep inroads into the more conservative American seminaries. The reasons for this success might include the following:

Darwin's impact

So when Darwin's 1859 Origins book arrived on the scene, it gave a humanist, anti-miraculous or naturalist answer to the theological question "Why are we here?", "Where did we come from?" and "Where are we going?". In England in 1860, the year after, a group of Anglican clergymen wrote a collection of articles called "Essays and Reviews" in which they assented with Darwin and presented a clearly humanist view of the church. This movement became known as "Broad Church" in England. America, with its Anglophile preachers, imported it to the colonies and for example Henry Ward Beecher in N.Y.C popularized this approach.

Not everyone got on the bandwagon, however, one theologian at Princeton Seminary (then a conservative seminary in America--you've heard my story about its founding) named Charles Hodge correctly saw that the potential heresy of Darwinism lay not in its claim of common descent (e.g. that humans may be descended from monkeys), but rather in its view of natural selection occurring only by chance. This aspect, he argued, made a dramatical break with Christianity. All the accomodation of religion to Darwinism couldn't remove this crucial difference with Christianity. It was either God or Chance.

So among conservatives, there was consensus that Darwinism wasn't Christianity, but many in the liberal elite flirted with variations on a theme. Theistic Evolution, Evolution as evidence of God's interaction with life, etc. What changed this rosy picture was World War I. The effect was, for obvious reasons, much more dramatic in Europe than in America.

World War I

Remember, the three pillars of German liberalism were: Implicit in all of these is a highly optimistic view of man, society and nature. Thus WWI was a devastating blow. Several books have tried to show links between Darwinism, and in particular his view of "survival of the fittest" as applied to society, and WWI. Vernon Kellog, and Benjamin Kidd both argue in their books that the German militarism that led to WWI was fueled by "social Darwinism". The link with Nietzche was even stronger, but made more explicit in WWII. Thus there was not only a theological reaction to liberal theology, but a sociological reaction to a foreign philosophy that had just destroyed Europe. Who would want to import this explosively dangerous philosophy into America? Wasn't WWI proof positive that such innovations were dangerous and diabolical?

What were the consequences for conservative Christians? The first and most immediate was a reactionary response. In the early 1910-1920 time frame, conservatives published a series of articles in a collection called "Fundamentals", listing the theological beliefs that could not be compromised without loss of faith. The concept of making a collection of definitive statements is nothing new, for over the centuries the church had developed "creeds" that were succinct theological summaries intended to capture the important issues of faith in response to some heretical controversy. If one reads the Nicene Creed, written in 325 AD at the Council of Nicea in response to the Arian Heresy, one has a hard time understanding the issues involved "I believe in God the Father Almighty, ... God from God, light from light, true God from true God..." (Nor could anyone change the words of a creed, as exemplified in the Roman Catholic insertion of a single adjective "filioque" that caused the split from the Orthodox Church.) So it is entirely traditional, that in response to the (mostly) protestant heresy of German liberalism, the conservatives developed a new creed and allegiance to that creed made one a "fundamentalist".

A different tack was taken in Europe, as Karl Barth responded to the WWI Prussian belt buckles that read "Gott Mit Uns", God with us, claiming divine support for bloody war. He developed a theology known as Neo-Orthodoxy, that stressed the utter transcendence of God, and the inability for culture or theologians to accurately understand God, much less appropriate Him. While very popular in the middle half of the 20th century, neo-orthodoxy seems to have been absorbed back into the polarized conflict between conservatism and liberalism. Nonetheless, we should not overlook the fact that Karl Barth counter-attacked with a new theory of knowlege, with epistemology. The understanding of absolutes, of truth, seems to be an important response to liberalism on both continents, a topic I call religious epistemology.

Religious Epistemology

Another approach to understanding the Fundamentalist movement, is to consider the different ways that modern religious movements understand God. I call this religious epistemology, because it makes some assumptions about our understanding of God, absolutes and Truth. That is, it elevates one particular way or method of knowlege over the others, leading to some similarities that might not be expected.

Medieval Synthesis ==> 3 options
  1. RATIONAL: Liberal protestant, Deism, Unitarian
  2. EXPERIENTIAL: Pietism, Pentecostalism, Revivalism, Hippy
  3. CREEDAL: Neo-Orthodoxy, Fundamentalism (Roman Catholic?)
Without going into all the details of religious epistemology and its effect on the Religion vs. Science debate, we want to focus on that lightning rod of American culture, the conflict between Fundamentalism and Naturalism in the sciences.
Last modified, February 22, 2002, RbS