Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Roots of Social Deviancy

So recently, as background for another project, I've been reading A Theology for the Social Gospel by Walter Rauschenbusch. This Baptist theologian-activist worked as a pastor in inner-city New York, near Hell's Kitchen, in the late 19th century and later taught for two decades at Rochester Theological Seminary. Reinhold Niebuhr called him "the real founder of social Christianity in this country." This text comes late in his career (1917), and is his attempt to draw together, in systematic fashion, the theological implications of progressive social Christian faith and practice.

Before I proceed, a couple caveats. First, I'm no expert on Rauschenbusch. My exposure to his work so far has been a brief pass-through in survey courses and a very cursory overview of the Social Gospel movement when I used to teach a gen-ed course in American religious history. Second, however, I respect Rauschenbusch and the other early pioneers of social Christianity and more recent thinkers, such as Prof. Gary Dorrien, whose work is informed by this tradition. (I'll hold off, for now, on offering any critiques of this theology. "Seek first to understand," counseled the late Stephen Covey.)

The book begins with a hat tip of appreciation to representatives of the older orthodox theology (especially Rauschenbusch's friend and Rochester colleague, Augustus Strong). Still, to put it a bit tersely, he interprets orthodoxy to be too individualistic to adequately address the social problems spawned and exacerbated by modern industrialism. Then follows a three-chapter apologia for his social reconstruction of theological method.

Then comes the meat of the book -- the reconstruction (or truncating, as critics would have it) of classical Christian doctrines. As Schleiermacher had done nearly a century earlier, Rauschenbush boils theology down to the religious experience of sin and redemption, now interpreted (of course) in relation to social processes. Like many modern liberal Protestants, Rauschenbusch rejects the biblical literalism of traditional accounts of creation and fall. But he is keen to retrieve the doctrine of original sin within the logic of his own framework.

The truth of this doctrine, according to Rauschenbusch stems from the essential solidarity of the human race -- particularly the solidarity of bad moral influences. Essentially, each generation corrupts the one that follows it. He posits some (inexplicable) biological basis for this solidarity. "Idiocy and feeble-mindedness, neurotic disturbances, weakness of inhibition, perverse desires, stubbornness and anti-social impulses in children must have had their adequate biological causes somewhere back on the line, even if we lack the records" (p. 58). (Perhaps genetic scientists will soon show us the part of the human genome that causes "stubbornness.") But the main culprit for our malaise is "social tradition".

And, even though I'm adjusting for the fact that I'm reading a century-old text, my mouth gapes a bit as I read the following passage:
The evil habits of boyhood, -- lying, stealing, cigarette smoking [R. would fit right in with us today], profane and obscene talk, self-pollution [Oh my! Not sure exactly what that is, but it sounds dreadful], -- are usually set up in boys by the example and social suasion of boys just one stage older than they [consult C.S. Lewis' account of English public schools in Surprised by Joy to confirm this]....One generation corrupts the next.
And it gets even better (my expository notes are embedded in italics):
The permanent vices and crimes of adults are not transmitted by heredity, but by being socialized; for instance, alcoholism and all drug evils [excluding marijuana?]; cruel sports, such as bull-fights and pugilism; various forms of sex perversity [a Victorian reticence to be specific spares us here]; voluntary deformities, such as foot-binding [some feminists might balk at the notion that foot-binding is "voluntary"], corseting, piercing of ears and nose; blood feuds in Corsica [wait...what?]; lynching in America [which, apparently, is on a par with nose-rings.] Just as syphilitic corruption [nice!] is forced on the helpless foetus in the mother's womb, so these hereditary social evils are forced on the individual embedded in the womb of society and drawing his ideas, moral standards, and spiritual ideals from the general life of the social body.
I hope the rest of the book turns out to be as much fun as page 60.

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