Toward a Natural Social Theology (Part 1)

A couple of years ago, I was invited to contribute an essay to a project that will, if its intentions are achieved, be a rather ambitious multi-volume set on Anglican historical theology. I sent the email attachment a few hours prior to the midnight deadline of 31 December 2013 (I set myself the slightly earlier time of puck-drop on yet another game the Buffalo Sabres were to lose), and it is now in the black hole of the first stage of the editorial process. The request was to write on “Anglicanism and the Social Gospel”. I had to stick to the given title (as much as I am not thrilled with it). I believe the main reason I was asked to write on the topic was my work on William Temple.

I’m choosing to de-construct and re-construct some of what I’ve written for that essay here.

Temple’s early-ish work was approximately contemporary with the mature work of the American Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, the main American articulator of the notion of “social gospel“. It’s hard to tell what influence Rauschenbusch may have had on Temple’s later work, as referencing and indexing were much looser in the early 20th century than they are today. But the two make a much stronger appeal to a form of natural theology than to any form of divine command ethics or revelation.

This means that even if the way the Bible came into being is through revelation,and its commands are directly from God, the fact of the Bible and its influence on a fairly wide cross-section of human experience is something that anyone can observe without herself receiving a direct communication from God. You don’t have to accept it as divinely revealed and commanded, to concede that many others do exactly that–and to observe and assess the influences, for good or ill, that have historically arisen from the way the Hebrew and Christian testaments have influenced human culture and attitudes.

One of the most important parallels between Rauschenbusch and Temple is that both of them question the value of what the former calls an “individualistic gospel”, especially in blinding us to God’s hope for all people. This is most easily seen in this pair of quotes from the two:

The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God to save every soul that comes to him. But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it. It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion. (Rauschenbusch, Theology for the Social Gospel (1917), p.29)

No object is sufficient for the love of God short of the world itself. Christianity is not one more religion of individual salvation, differing from its fellows only in offering a different road to that goal. It is the one and only religion of world-redemption. (Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel (1939-40), p.48)

This is so different from the “Jesus is my Boyfriend” kind of theology that makes personal relationship between the individual and God the primary goal of Christian belief and practice. It’s a theology I can’t even come close to accepting, because it is completely anathema to the one and only prayer that the Gospels record as commanded by Christ. That prayer, in the form most churches use it (from Matthew’s gospel), indicates that we pray, not first for our own wants, but that God’s kingdom come, “on earth, as in heaven.” Not that we should go to heaven after we die, but that we are given the will to make earth–in our place and during our lifetimes–a place where God might be pleased to hang out with us. For liturgical churches such as those of the Anglican Communion, this prayer is placed immediately before the distribution of Holy Communion in most principal Sunday services.

Both Temple and Rauschenbusch (notably, an Anglican and a Baptist) claim that the key to a Christian social ethic is that in the communion service, we pray for the Kingdom to come, and then we have a sort of dress-rehearsal of what the Kingdom looks like: adequate and beautifully presented forms of basic food and drink, given in the necessary share for all who approach; the most lavishly dressed leaders wait at table to meet the needs of those who are seemingly less important; the first and last receive equally. Prayer and sacrament are the basis of Christian action in the world.

It seems, at least to me, that this is a far more exciting and inviting way to engage with the sacred than the more isolated (even if isolated-within-a-crowd), individualistic path to so-called holiness.

I wonder if a renewed emphasis–or taking the emphasis seriously–on a social Christianity, not just at the highest levels, but at the congregational level, would be the best thing the churches could do. Rauschenbusch was quite clear he believed so:

Audiences who are estranged from the Church and who would listen to theological terminology with frank scorn, will listen with absorbed interest to religious thought when it is linked with their own social problems. (Rauschenbusch, Theology of the Social Gospel, p.17)

Maybe, over the centuries, we’ve become too tied down to assent to written and spoken formulae to describe our Christian beliefs. Maybe this is part of what those who have deliberately left the church–but still hold at least a residue of Christian commitment–are longing for but not finding in their “faith communities”. Almost a century ago, Rauschenbusch claimed that the commitments articulated by the social gospel had “taken the place of conventional religion in the lives of many outside the Church.” (Theology of the Social Gospel, p.3).

Perhaps, it is time to make a little less over verbal formulae, or even narrowly defined correct ways of Christian participation in congregations, and link up our words and worship better with the concerns that might be more concretely related to the peaceful and equitable reign of God, and care for the whole world.

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