It’s funny. I am sure Gary Dorrien has never heard of me. And I never heard of him until he showed up as the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Christian Ethics at my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary recently.
My friend George Todd alerted me to this fact.
So I emailed Gary but, as with all emails and other communications I have wafted toward Union Seminary since I have become totally unknown, beginning in the 1970s when my last books on social issues appeared, there was no response.
(Actually, there was an eventual response, a two line email indicating that Gary had not received the first email and a query regarding a reference I had made to John Lewis.)
When I do make contact I tend to elicit a perfunctory brush off. I experienced this at Union during the late 1970s when I tried to suggest I might have discovered in singing songs based on canonical texts a way of doing theology.
I remain lost in the mists of the generation of the 1960s, a decade I pronounced over when John Lewis was made to modify his remarks prepared for the now-nostalgicized March on Washington.
I remember going up to Heath, Massachusetts, where another friend, the late Bob Brown, used to live in summers, to search out a prominent New Testament scholar whose specialty was Mark.
To share my sung Gospel of Mark.
I should have known better.
The point I wish to make however is that I believe Gary Dorrien, interviewed recently in the New York Times, is passing wrong in his analysis of streams of thought in the realm of Christian social ethics.
He notes three such areas:
Niebuhrian Realism; and
There is a fourth area.
It has no name but it resonates to H. R. Niebuhr’s (the more percipicacious of the famed generation of Christian observers) informal statement I heard at UTS in 1961 — that both neo-orthodoxy and liberalism are dead.
That cut away a lot of confusion in subsequent years and opened the door to move beyond Reinhold Niebuhrian stasis.
The fourth way is the way of people like me and Will Campbell and Jacques Ellul and in some respects Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who refuse to forswear action in the name of the various cautions erected by Reinhold N.
And who refuse at the same time to indulge in the ideological idolatries of liberation theology or the naivete and Straussian Jesus reductionism that one sometimes finds in the liberal realms of New Testament scholarship.
We are people who have fought in the trenches and understood things most academics do not even encounter or think about.
Here is one such thing.
Which of the schools cited by G. Dorrien has given a tinker’s damn (not worth any consideration) to the realities of grass roots ecumenism, the institutional church, polity, the functioning of the actual ecclesiastical enterprise?
I watched Reinhold Niebuhr essentially trash Joe Haroutounian for suggesting a central place for love back at that supposedly classic-time at UTS. Sectarianism was for RN a dirty word.
I remember writing a now lost article in the student paper I edited at Union explaining why things were not so great at the seminary. President H. Pitney Van Dusen invited me to his spacious dwelling to explain myself in the presence of my classmate Geoff Rowthorne, presumably there to offer HPVD a bit of moral support for a more temperate view.
What I suspect G. Dorrien will find in time is that he has been a captive of a world. That is what I found when I essentially lost that world and moved beyond it to where people have no interest in it or recognition of it.
(I have since looked at many worlds including those of the Vineyard, Willow Creek, Jonestown, Las Vegas and Nietzsche. And above all the Web.)
Ah well, I am saying too much, as rem might say.
I am sorry. I am only a few miles south of G. Dorrien and he can reply to my e-mail or leave a comment or otherwise contact me in innumerable ways.
I have thoughts about these matters.
The fourth way is Abba’s Way. It is the CAP way. It is a form of universalism that addresses the prevalence of creedal messianism that still hobbles Christian thought.
It believes fervently in forms of institutional renewal that would require reforms of thinking even to imagine and execute.
Safer to ignore the presence of a fourth way. It always has been. From the very beginning.