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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion by Gary Dorrien (Westminster John Knox Press) The idea of liberal theology is nearly three centuries old. In essence, it is the idea that Christian theology can be genuinely Christian without being based upon external authority. Since the eighteenth century, liberal Christian thinkers have argued that religion should be modern and progressive and that the meaning of Christianity should be interpreted from the standpoint of modern knowledge and experience. The intellectual giants of nineteenth‑century theological liberalism were German theologians and philosophers, but the questions that gave rise to this tradition were not unique to German academics: Is it possible to be a faithful Christian without believing that God willed the annihilation of nearly the entire human race in a great flood, or that God commanded the genocidal extermination of the ancient enemies of Israel, or that God demanded the literal sacrifice of his Son as a substitutionary legal payment for sin? Is it a good or true form of Christianity that teaches the doctrines of double predestination and biblical inerrancy? Can Christianity claim to be religiously true if the Bible contains myths and historical errors? Is there a progressive Christian "third way" between the authority‑based orthodoxies of traditional Christianity and the spiritless materialism of modern atheism or deism?

Liberal theology arose in Germany as a creative intellectual response to these questions, but well before it acquired movement status there, similar religious stirrings began to appear in England, France, and the United States. The gods of the liberal tradition are German academics, but throughout the nineteenth century American Protestantism produced its own vital tradition of liberal religious thinking and piety. The American tradition of theological liberalism is nearly as old as its storied German counterpart and is stocked with figures rich in religious insights honed through pastoral experience.

In this book I argue that American theological progressivism in the nineteenth century shared the same animating impulse as the German "mediating theology" tradition with which it eventually became linked: to create a modernist Christian third way between a regnant orthodoxy and an ascending "infidelism." Culturally and religiously, I argue, the American pastors and academics who pioneered the liberal tradition in American theology were earnest Victorians. All of them conceived of religion as a civilizing‑and thus personally and socially saving‑power of spirit over the bestial forces of nature. As modernists of a distinctive kind, the founders of American theological liberalism were always concerned to find a progressive Christian way between the religious conservatism that they discarded and the rationalistic radicalism they dreaded. This book interprets the making of American liberal Christianity through the writings and preaching of these nineteenth‑century founders and is the first volume of a projected three‑volume interpretation of the entire history of American theological liberalism.

Theological liberalism in America has indigenous roots, though its forerunners and founders were open to European trends accessible to them. In the early decades of the American tradition, the foreign influences were mostly English and Scottish. A distinctively modern tradition of liberal Protestantism had already germinated in the United States when German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher launched the modern, epoch of theology with his book Speeches on Religion (1799). By the time Schleiermacher published his dogmatics in 1820, the liberal stream of American Congregationalism was a separate party led by a galvanizing spiritual seer, William Ellery Charming. It proclaimed itself to be liberal, modern, Arminian, experiential, and rationalist; fatefully, it also accepted the label "Unitarian." A generation later, American Congregationalism produced another wellspring of liberal Protestant thinking in the imaginative theorizing of Hartford pastor Horace Bushnell. Liberal theology gained entry to American academe in the later nineteenth century in conjunction with an ascending social gospel movement. By then it had expanded considerably beyond its early constituency of Unitarian and Congregationalist pastors; by then it was also a movement closely attuned to trends in German theology.

This book tells the story of the making of American liberal Christianity from the beginning of the Unitarian revolt to the beginning of its enfranchisement in many of America's elite universities and seminaries.

ALABASTER VILLAGE:  Our Years in Transylvania by Christine Morgan.
Skinner House Books
$16.00, paper, 156 pages, notes, 10 photos
To order, call 1-800-215-9076 or send email to bookstore@uua.org

In this story of courage, struggle and the eternal optimism of youth, Christine Morgan describes the years when she and her husband, a young Hungarian Unitarian minister, worked to improve the standing of the Hungarian Unitarian minority in Romania. Together they contended with political oppression, social upheaval, poverty, and religious opposition in 1930s Transylvania. More than an account of Unitarian history between the wars and Transylvanian agrarian village life, ALABASTER VILLAGE is a personal story of a young woman’s extraordinary struggle to hold together a marriage and start a family in the face of tremendous hardship and strain. ALABASTER VILLAGE is an autobiographical work based on the life and letters of the late Christine Morgan. In addition to her work in Transylvania, Morgan had a long career in social activism and civil rights in the United States. She served as Dean of Women at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, and organized the Human Relations Commission in Appleton, Wisconsin.
For many years, Christine’s letters about her life could not be published, for fear of reprisals from the Romanian government. Now, more than a half century later, her moving story is at last told to inform a new generation of Unitarians who are seeking religious and civil freedom. “Even when my eyes were overflowing with tears, I could not stop reading for a moment. This is a bittersweet remembrance of disease, poverty, the early end of Christine’s first pregnancy, separation from her husband, conflicting ideals, triumphs in the village in simple and universal ways, reconciliation work between ethnic groups, and, most of all, of the love of a mother for her child. It is a must read.” Dr. Judith Gell, co-director, Center for Free Religion, Chico, California, and General Secretary, Partner Church Council, UUA.

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