Roger Olson’s Series on Horace Bushnell And A Few Words of Caution

Remembering the Liberal Christian Imperialism of Horace Bushnell

English: Horace Bushnell (1802-1876)

English: Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During my Masters’ degree years, I worked on an independent study on the history of liberal (Protestant) Christian theology and its development. I came across Gary Dorrien‘s Three volume set, own, read, reviewed, and critiqued (yes, all of the above) his Making of American Liberal Theology. When I read texts, I read them very closely, and quite frankly, I am a little disappointed in Roger Olson, who has been more than willing to be critical of Jonathan Edwards, but not progressively orthodoxy folk like Bushnell. Dorrien had more to say about Bushnell than just being the standard for mainline liberal theologians. In fact, Dorrien hints, but goes no further than a few blurbs, that Bushnell believed in the Christianizing of society, a world-wide empire, just as he promoted the idea of “Christian nurture.” Of course, believing that a theological system has something to do with biologically inherited/family taught norms is going to be racially problematic. Dorrien and Olson fail to see the problematic implications of these teachings. Nature according to Bushnell (according to trusted historians) expressed the mind of God. One of the positive outcomes of Karl Barth’s NEIN!!! to Natural revelation is that it freed black liberation theologians to reject racist natural theologies of Jim and Jane Crow South. What happens when Christian thinkers see God in nature without thinking first Christologically, they confuse the work of God with the work of the State (for more, see James Cone‘s Black Theology and Black Power), and that’s exactly how Bushnell’s theology and politics played out. Biographers, as Dorrein put it, white-washed Bushnell’s biographies, because “Christian nurture” went hand in hand with Anglo-Saxon supremacy (Dorrien volume 1, page 138). The eternal conflict between the Occidental and the Oriental, and the Occident’s eventual triumph was embodied, in Bushnell’s view, between the “Christian and Mohammedan races.” It was with little shock that Bushnell blamed Western anti-Semitism on the Jews themselves; Christian governments had the right to persecute the Jews (oh, the ironic racism here). Anti-slavery Bushnell was, but an advocate of racist public policies, he was, and racist theologies at that!

AS for whether or not post-conservative evangelical/post-liberal theologies are the solutions to Christianity’s problem, I can only recommend you read Joerg Rieger’s God And The Excluded: Visions and Blindspots in Contemporary Theology, particularly the third chapter, “Theology and Postmodernity: The Turn to Language and the Text.” 

Otherwise, please go ahead and read Roger Olson’s series on Horace Bushnell linked here:

Remembering the Progressive Orthodoxy of Horace Bushnell Part One;

Remembering the Progressive Orthodoxy of Horace Bushnell Part Two

Needed: A New Progressive Orthodoxy for the 21st Century Part Three of series about Horace Bushnell

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