Lessons from Harry Emerson Fosdick
On May 21, 1922, Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick climbed into the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church in New York City. It was a precarious time for the denomination. Congregations were battling each other. Members were chastising members. Conflict seemed the order of the day. The church was pondering what its future might look like, and individuals were worrying that their particular vision of the church was in peril.
That is to say, it was a time much like our own. On that morning, Fosdick delivered what would come to be his most famous sermon, entitled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, in which he laid out his understanding of how the church should think about itself in times of crisis and how the future of the church might be imagined.
Fosdick’s sermon has been in my mind a great deal in the past few years. As I spend time in gatherings of Presbyterians, and as I muse over proposed changes to our structure and to how we do business, these themes surface constantly. There is rarely an assembly of Presbyterians these days where those gathered will not be treated to (or subjected to) some presentation or sermon on the state of the church, usually couched in terms of the uniqueness of the present moment and/or the imminence of crisis. In superficial ways these addresses, sermons, and the like are the children of Fosdick’s sermon, but too often they miss the mark.
Fosdick reminds us that conflict is not an aberration in the life of the church; it is the life of the church. There have been very few moments in the history of the church when division has not been the norm.
I have found many of these ruminations driven by twin impulses of pride and of fear. The pride is manifest in several ways. There is a pride in the notion that we stand at some particularly perilous moment and that the future of God’s work in the world depends upon our courage and conviction. And there is a pride in the structures and the institutions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as we have come to know it, a sense that there is an intrinsic worth in those structures, which must be defended at all costs.
The fear grows from this pride. It is a fear that we stand to lose something that is precious to us, whether that is our place in the national conversation, the order and stability of our forms of governance, the support of our allies, or the intellectual weight of our theological traditions. I must confess, it is a fear that I succumb to regularly. And it is a fear that can stultify, keeping us from our calling for the sake of a supervening end of the preservation of our denomination as we know and understand it.
This fear is the outgrowth of our pride. The antidote to this pride is, of course, humility – a humility that is not cowardice, not passivity, but rather an awareness of our sinfulness and an awareness of God’s grace which has overcome the most debilitating effects of that sin and freed us for God’s action in the world.
And so Fosdick’s sermon has been useful for me to keep in the back of my mind as a corrective in several ways. One important point that Fosdick makes at the outset of his piece is that conflict, even dramatically divisive conflict, is not an aberration in the life of the church. It is the life of the church, whether we like it or not. There have been very few moments in the history of the church when division has not been the norm. In part, this division is a manifestation of our sinfulness, our pride in our own doctrines and ideologies. But it is also the necessary work of the body of Christ as it struggles to make sense of new times and new situations. If we are to be the Church ‘always being reformed’, we are going to have to disagree with each other, to get things wrong, to risk losing members and losing friends over hurt feelings and accusations of apostasy. Painful as it can be, this is what spiritual growth looks like. It is when we are at our most comfortable that we are in the most danger.
Perhaps most importantly, Fosdick’s sermon is fiercely political and partisan.
A second point which Fosdick’s reflections drive home is the necessity to guard against the fetishizing of either tradition or innovation. He writes:
Speaking, as I do, from the viewpoint of liberal opinions, let me say that if some young, fresh mind here this morning is holding new ideas, has fought his (sic) way through, it may be by intellectual and spiritual struggle, to novel positions, and is tempted to be intolerant about old opinions, offensively to condescend to those who hold them and to be harsh in judgment on them, he may well remember that people who held those old opinions have given the world some of the noblest character and the most rememberable service that it ever has been blessed with, and that we of the younger generation will prove our case best, not by controversial intolerance, but by producing, with our new opinions, something of the depth and strength, nobility, and beauty of character that in other times were associated with other thoughts. It was a wise liberal, the most adventurous man of his day—Paul the Apostle—who said, “Knowledge puffeth up, but love buildeth up.”
I’m not sure about characterizing Paul as a liberal, though I’m willing to think about it, but the point is well taken. Too desperate a love for the traditions of the church can lead to a moldering, crumbling edifice, but the similarly desperate need for change in a quest for relevance, or even for market share, can damage as well. Both are forms of idolatry, of spiritual pride. We betray an unearned confidence in what we have built and what we may build in the future and we sometimes fail to listen for what God is saying to us in the now.
But finally, and perhaps most importantly, Fosdick’s sermon is fiercely political and partisan. It does take sides, and there is no doubt about his answer to the question posed in his title. This is, I believe, the most spiritually significant message to be gleaned from his work. The church is political and has been called to be so. Our Reformed tradition teaches that God is in charge of our salvation. This earthly realm, in which we live, work, play, fight, love, and all too often hate, is where we live out our vocation. We are called to attend to the body politic, to nurture it, to care for it. We are not aloof as Christians from the issues of the world. We are in the midst of them. This is not to say that we always do a very good job with this task, that we have mastered the art of our political responsibilities, but we do have them. We may avoid sanctifying partisanship, and we may bring a different vision to the table, but we should not abdicate our responsibility to “seek the welfare of the city” where we are placed.
We are not called to create more Presbyterians. We are not called to be the largest church we can be. We are called to be the most faithful church we can be.
Too often, when congregations or denominations find themselves in troubled times, the impulse is to turn inward. We are prone to walling ourselves off from the threats we perceive in the world around us and treating our church walls as a fortress to protect us from the world. We become sanctuary Christians. That is, we think of our religious lives too exclusively as lives which protect us and isolate us from the messiness of creation. But sanctuary first meant ‘holy space’. Our churches are holy spaces, but being a holy space is not always synonymous with being a safe space, a comfortable space, a space to escape. When we lead holy lives, we also lead fraught lives. Discipleship, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us, has cost.
We cannot, out of pride or out of fear, muzzle the message of the Gospel. We must dare to speak – and not just to speak, but also to act in ways that are consistent with what we understand as the message of the Gospel. We must be humble enough to know that we will get it wrong sometimes, we must be confident enough to know that our errors won’t damage God’s will for God’s creation unalterably, and we must realize that if we compromise our deepest convictions for the sake of the imagined future health of our denomination, we will be left with little that is useful or recognizable.
Because when it comes down to it, I do believe that we are in a fraught time, because I believe that we are always in fraught times. I believe that what we say and what we do as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does matter in some ways for what comes next. We are not called to create more Presbyterians. We are not called to be the largest church we can be. We are called to be the most faithful church we can be. And if we so value the goods of what we have been over the far greater goods of the coming of the Kingdom, then we may find ourselves as observers when God’s work in the world passes us by.
AUTHOR BIO: Robert Trawick is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, NY. His research interests include Reformation theology and the intersection of theology and labor. He has written most frequently on the Social Gospel movement. He lives with his wife Amanda and son Owen in the lower Hudson Valley, where he is an ordained Presbyterian ruling elder and former moderator.