Liberalism without Illusions: Renewing an American Christian Tradition

Article excerpt

Liberalism without Illusions: Renewing an American Christian Tradition. By Christopher H. Evans. (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010. Pp. ix, 207. $24.95.)

Since the mid-1960s Protestant liberalism had lost its dominant position in the American religious scene. A cogent analysis of its predicament is offered by Christopher H. Evans, historian at Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School (a seminary long a bastion of theological liberalism) and a parish associate at Christ Episcopal Church, Pittsford, New York. Evans defines liberalism as a historical movement supporting "critical intellectual engagement with both Christian traditions and contemporary intellectual resources," "an affirmation of personal and collective experience, systemic social analysis, and open theological inquiry" (6).

Evans begins by describing the backlash against liberalism but sees mainline churches as still a major component of the American landscape. He then delves into liberalism's origins, discussing the crucial role played by Horace Bushnell, who developed the concept of "Christian nurture," and Walter Rauschenbusch, the archtypical proponent of the social gospel. In approaching its different varieties, Evans covers such diverse figures as Harry F. Ward, Paul Tillich, and Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr.

To make its heritage relevant today, Evans asserts, liberalism must clarify its own beliefs, particularly given the apocalyptic scenarios employed by contemporary fundamentalism. Pointing to matters raised by the thoughtful Presbyterian conservative J. Gresham Machen, Evans calls upon liberals to deal with a host of questions: How does one reconcile the reality of sin with the affirmation that persons are fundamentally good? How can one understand the meaning of Christ's death if one denies the tenet of substitutionary atonement? How does one reconcile biblical accounts concerning the end of the world with the liberal Faith that Christianity must reform the very same world? …