At Union Seminary Richard decides to study Christian social ethics under Reinhold Niebuhr. In his first semester, Richard immediately audits a seminar being co-taught by John Bennett and Reinhold Niebuhr on “Christianity and Communism.” The seminar is prompted by the victory of the People’s Army of China in driving the Nationalist Army out of mainland China to Taiwan in 1949. Niebuhr shows his humility by bringing in outside speakers: overseas people, missionaries, and those with expertise in international affairs. During these years Niebuhr is invited by George Kennan to take part in State Department policy deliberations in Washington, D.C. Richard comes to appreciate the more measured approach of John Bennett in contrast to Niebuhr’s charismatic and exacting insights into world politics. Nevertheless, Richard is drawn to Niebuhr’s central insight into human sin as the pride in power, and to Niebuhr’s humanity as a New York Giants fan. In 1951, Niebuhr shares with Richard his theological response to Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world.”
As he enters Union Theological Seminary, Richard looks forward to his studies under Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most challenging theological thinkers of his generation. In his last summer at the Dress Joint Board of the ILGWU, he discovers Niebuhr’s name is well known among the garment worker officers. Educational Director Will Herberg, a former Communist, has been converted back to his Jewish faith by Niebuhr’s theology. Richard soon learns that he is part of the “Golden Age” of teaching at Union Theological Seminary. Beginning at the beginning in Genesis, Jim Muilenburg’s dramatic teaching style fires up the seminarians for three years of prophetic learning. Richard’s excitement is heightened by the critical view of preaching by George Buttrick, his pastor at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.
After attending the recent 220th Presbyterian General Assembly meeting in Pittsburgh, a question was put to me: Who is winning the battle between those with a biblical literalist view and those with a wider interpretation of Scripture? And how is this affecting the future of the Presbyterian Church?
First, this struggle is not new to the 220th General Assembly. Its roots go back to the late 19th century and the advent of Bibiical criticism within the larger movement of scientific inquiry. In the background was the study of Charles Darwin and his work on the origin of species. The height of the controversy erupted in the fundamentalist-modernist struggle in 1925 in the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. The accused was John Scopes, a high school science teacher, who was charged with teaching evolution in a state funded school. The fundamentalist point of view for creationism was presented by William Jennings Bryan, a Presbyterian, and three times Democratic candidate for U.S. President. Attorney Clarence Darrow took up the defense of John Scopes and evolution as being consistent with religion.
The fundamentalist-modernist controversy was a central issue in the Presbyterian Church in the 1920s and surfaced in the competition for Moderator of the Presbyterian Church General Assembly in 1923 when William Jennings Bryan, defender of creationism, ran against Charles F. Wishart, President of the College of Wooster who supported the teaching of evolution in the college. Wishart won the election by a vote of 451-427.
The Presbyterian Church continued to be embroiled in the controversy through the 1920s into the 1930s when New Testament professor John Gresham Machen of Princeton Theological Seminary took up conservative cudgels to fight the modernist theology being taught at the Seminary. In 1929 Machen led a group of conservatives out of the Presbyterian Church to form the Westminster Theological Seminary. In 1933, his efforts to organize an Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions brought on his trial and suspension from the ministry. In 1936 he organized the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Since 1936 we have seen many divisions and the creation of new denominations within the Presbyterian family. Like the Machen exodus, the divisions are rooted in differences in Scriptural interpretation and in theological points of view.
Second, in the struggle over Biblical interpretation between conservative and liberal folk, the dissidents who leave the denomination claim that the modernists or the liberals, however you want to call them, are not true to Scripture. The modernists or the liberals avow that the issue is the interpretation of Scripture and the new resources that have helped bring greater light to Scripture. It is this new light which energizes the modernists or liberals in their viewing issues related to race, women and gender concerns. These are the very issues that have created the splits in the denomination. The new light brought to Scripture has opened us to see the Creator’s concern for the well being of all created life. Scripture and the Gospel of Christ opens the door to the rights of all people no matter what their race or gender.
The splits which have come from a Biblical literalist interpretation of Scripture have centered on these issues. We fought a Civil War and a church split, north and south, over the issue of race. Women have struggled for centuries to be recognized as equal partners to men. Children born into the human family have an equal right to a life free from prejudice because of their gender orientation.
Those who leave us because of our Biblical interpretation, disavow the new light that we have found which sees the Gospel’s openness to people no matter what their race, their gender or their sexual orientation. We have fought these battles within the Presbyterian denomination over the last century. They have been hard fought battles, gaining small victories of justice for racial equality, for women’s ordination and for full acceptance of gays and lesbians in the church community. But along the way those who have disagreed with this new openness have left us to create new religious communities.
The Presbyterian Church, USA will continue on in its search for new windows on a Gospel which sheds a brighter light on the Creation into which we have been born. Some will not agree with this venture into the future, and will leave us, but this is the road to which we have been called.
This is a note of appreciation for all those folks who have found themselves reading or listening to “On the Sidewalks of New York.” This website was the good work of my daughter Margaret. The autobiography was originally written for the family, especially the offspring, who wanted me to put down my stories on paper two decades ago. Under gentle pressure, the stories have now been elevated to public listening via podcasts.
After some hesitancy, and lively conversation with Margaret, a theme for this blog was decided upon. Thinking back over time, it became apparent that the Depression years, which left a deep impact upon my consciousness, is in replay in this last decade. I came through my young adult years, after having chosen a religious course, realizing the close relationship between a prophetic religion and the equality and justice called for in our society. Today, most organized religion is seen as retrogressive in the cause of justice to bring balance to the inequalities evident today. So I decided that this website would engage the conversation about how the prophetic religion we have inherited from our Biblical heritage needs to come into play within this political season. So let the discussion begin.