The Impact of American Religious Liberalism by Kenneth Cauthen

In his volume on the Impact of American Religious Liberalism, Kenneth Cauthen presents at least two aims for his discussion. The first aim is to establish a taxonomy of liberalism by which he attains to his second aim, and that is a description of the forces which allowed American religious liberalism to enjoy an impact upon American society. The presentation is neat, trim, and somewhat biased toward religious liberalism. That being said, the bias does not detract from its usefulness. If anything, Cauthen’s presentation corroborates H. Richard Niehbuhr’s contention that religious liberalism presented a sort of Christ of Culture orientation. Furthermore, Cauthen’s presentation demonstrates the differences within that overall motif.

Cauthen describes liberal Christian theology as possessing a certain continuity within the Christian religion that is placed under stress by the findings of Enlightenment modernity.  Liberalism presents a sort of continuity with older forms of the religion while placed under the tension of the autonomy of the Enlightenment and the desire for Christianity to be expressed in a more dynamic manner. The three factors involved in the composition of liberal Christianity, then, are continuity, autonomy, and the dynamic.

In view of the aforementioned three-sided dialectic, Cauthen divides liberalism into two parties which are somewhat part of an overall evolution of liberalism and move from right to left, from continuity to dynamic. The first is evangelical liberalism which stressed the contiguous nature of Christianity while reconciling it to the modern way of thinking. Within this category, Cauthen places William Adams Brown, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Walter Rauschenbusch, A.C. Knudson, and Eugene W. Lyman. The second of Cauthen’s parties is modernistic liberalism which emphasizes the dynamic nature of the Christian religion – even relinquishing, at times, the finality of the Christian religion. This more left-ward leaning group consists of the later Shailer Mathews, D. C. Macintosh,  and H N. Wieman.

Cauthen’s categories are helpful and even instructive. It is important to note that not all liberal theologians of the past century are close to each other and that they all may be found on a spectrum radiating from continuity through autonomy to the stress on the dynamic force of Christianity. Cauthen’s treatment would seem to cater to the History of Religion’s school even if he presents more data than opinion. It is the dynamic nature of liberal Christianity, according to Cauthen, that allows the Christian religion to change with the times and speak to the humanity of whatever cultural period a human may be found within.

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