I ran across one of my all-time favorite Walter Rauschenbusch quotes yesterday… Here is that quote with a few other observations from his book, “A Theology for the Social Gospel.”
“Theology needs periodical rejuvenation. Its greatest danger is not mutilation but senility. It is strong and vital when it expresses in large reasonings what youthful religion feels and thinks. When people have to be indoctrinated laboriously in order to understand theology at all, it becomes a dead burden. The dogmas and theological ideas of the early Church were those ideas which at the time were needed to hold the Church together, to rally its forces, and to give it victorious energy against antagonistic powers. Today many of those ideas are without present significance. Our reverence for them is a kind of ancestor worship. To hold laboriously to a religious belief which does not hold us, is an attenuated form of asceticism; we chastise and starve our intellect to sanctify it by holy beliefs.”
Rauschenbusch notes that church rulers and the keepers of orthodoxy are generally in a defensive posture. But He points out that “the great religious thinkers who created theology were always leaders who were shaping ideas to meet actual situations.” P.13. He cites Paul’s inclusion of the Gentiles and Luther’s justification by faith as two obvious examples.
Rauschenbusch recognizes the inherent link between Christianity and ethics. He exposes the distortions which inevitably result from non-ethically concerned forms of Christian religious practice. Those forms “nearly all centre on the winning of heaven and immortality. On the other hand, the Kingdom of God can be established by nothing except righteous life and action.” P.15.
I know that Rauschenbusch’s whole project was funded by an over-confidence in human ability to usher in the kingdom of God which was thoroughly discredited by Auschwitz and the atomic bomb. However, I still find much in his old Baptist theology which I can learn from, especially when he hones in on praxis.