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Are We Still of Any Use?
The Audacious Hope of the Engaged Scholar
Charles Marsh

In the opening scene of the 1970 film Zabriskie Point, one of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s three English-language films, a contentious debate between black and white student activists is underway on a California campus. As the camera surveys the scene in a documentary fashion, the students speak in tired revolutionary clichés. Angry black men in Che Guevara berets and army fatigues punctuate violent mantras with seething street wisdom. “Molotov cocktails are a mixture of gasoline and kerosene. White radicalism is a mixture of bullshit and jive.” A concerned white woman objects that “a lot of white people” are potential revolutionaries, even as a goateed Marxist turns to another woman and complains that the coffee has run out. “Can’t a man make a cup of coffee,” she replies in disgust. In a cameo, black radical Kathleen Cleaver threatens to close down the school “because we haven’t gotten what we need.” Meanwhile, Mark, the film’s protagonist, appears agitated and annoyed. When someone asks the young radicals if they’re really willing to die for the cause, Mark slowly rises to his feet and replies, “I’m willing to die. But not from boredom.” The debate continues in his absence, but the point has been made: these young activists, wayward children of the Movement, have grown to hate each other as much as they hate the System against which they wage vicious if not inchoate struggle.

A “thematic of escape” became obsessive in Antonioni’s later work, including Zabriskie Point and his two other English-language films, Blow Up and The Passenger. Youth movements, countercultures, alternative visions of self and world, and experimentations of the mind and body come and go as schemes of flight from the flattening effects of a plastic culture (Arrowsmith 1995, 132). All of these disappoint the demands of perpetual freedom. Authenticity lies finally in radical individuation, in an individuation that cuts loose all ties to community and proves to be only another disenchanted option in a one-dimensional universe.

What became of these student radicals taking it to a faceless man; why had the ambitions of a movement that began in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 (as we might frame the narrative) become abstract, inchoate, and self-referential?

 

Richard Rorty and the Old Left

 The philosopher Richard Rorty pondered questions such as these in his provocative and helpful book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, based on the 1997 Massey Lectures at Harvard. Rorty wondered how it had come to be that an activist tradition committed to piecemeal social reform, a generation of intellectuals and activists concerned with citizenship, schools, and voter registration, ran aground, splintering into self-referential spirals and identity fixations.

Rorty told a fascinating story about the moral vocabulary of an older reformist-activist Left, which shaped such progressive movements as the labor and civil right movements, the courageous work of those who struggled between 1900 and 1964 “within the framework of constitutional democracy to protect the weak from the strong,” kept its hand to the plow, and was committed to piecemeal social reform. Rorty said that it is the old Left one hears in the petitions of labor and civil rights organizers in the South between the years 1900 and 1964. Their focus was on the unjust laws and the need for concrete reform.

But by the end of 1964, as the civil rights movement began going “cosmic” and the rhetorical pyrotechnics of student militancy and Black Power drowned out the less stimulating planning sessions of grassroots organizers, the Left became increasingly Manichean in its perceptions. It is the new Left’s children one hears in the trendy sobriquets of contemporary culture studies, postmodern theory, and other insular “discourses” of the guild. Since 1964, the Left has increasingly operated as a “spectatorial, disgusted, mocking Left rather than a Left that dreams of achieving our country,” a fashionably cynical rather than a responsibly hopeful Left.1

Readers of Richard Rorty, admiring or otherwise, will surely know that he was anything but a conservative pundit coloring the sixties as a period of unrestrained hedonism. Rorty was quick to acknowledge that had this generation of passionate men and women restrained their anger, America might still be sending its young people off to kill Vietnamese (1998, 68). “It is even possible that the Defense Department might lie to the public more frequently and fluently than at present, (although that is difficult to imagine),” he added (68). The countercultural experiments of the decade reminded America that there can be beauty in dissent, that resistance makes room for pleasure, and that the mind can climb mountains and soar to imaginative heights.

Still, the old reformist Left accepted the inevitability of compromising principles and the necessity of sacrifice, and it accomplished much, while the new Left believed it must remain pure, never sell-out to the “dirty rotten system,” and it accomplished little. In other words, the old Left inspired social hope and civic participation, while the new Left inspired cynicism and a discourse of detachment and disgust. In humanities departments and intellectual culture, this cynicism and detachment manifested itself in a preoccupation with theoretical description and the crafting of esoteric vocabularies.

 One fine spring afternoon in 1989 in a Jefferson Hall symposium at the University of Virginia, Rorty even directed his message to the then reigning king of postmodern theology, in this excellent rejoinder: “First: Pascal earned himself a footnote in the theology books by distinguishing between the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the God of the philosophers. Since Pascal’s time, the former God has remained about the same. But the latter God has gotten weirder and weirder...”

Rorty’s Massey lectures read with sermonic urgency. He pleaded with the Left, or with “progressives” (as we seem now to prefer) to reckon once again with real human misery and to set forth clear proposals for social progress—to clamber back down from high levels of intellectual abstraction to terra firma, so that discussions about tax laws, organizing initiatives, housing and immigration policies, political candidates, and the like might once again be regarded as central to intellectual life (1998, 94).2

And like a good preacher, he made three points:

First, he called for a moratorium on theory. “Disengagement from practice produces theoretical hallucinations,” he proclaimed (93).3

Second, he called scholars and intellectuals to rebuild bridges with practitioners and organizers, with workers and policy makers, and with the middle class.

Third, he proposed an initiative called the “People’s Charter.” Rorty imagined the “People’s Charter” as revival-like meetings during which back-sliding Leftists would repent of their promiscuous and insouciant use of terms like “system,” “late capitalism,” “the people,” and the “other” and rededicate themselves to the difficult work of piecemeal social reform (102).

Positioning himself in the fellowship of critical patriots and progressives—John Dewey, Herbert Croly, Walter Rauschenbusch—Rorty advanced a pragmatic standard of truth and insisted that progress in knowledge and society should be about attending to and solving the immediate and specific problems that obstruct “ever more novel, ever richer, forms of human happiness.”

I have great admiration for Richard Rorty’s work. I was fortunate to take his courses during my graduate studies at the University of Virginia. His lectures were sorely needed in the theory-drenched culture of 1980s-era, postmodern studies. Precisely for this reason, it is disappointing to realize that Rorty’s altar call for the renewed vocation of the engaged scholar was finally undermined by the limits of his election (a sort of justification by liberal irony alone) and a surprising lack of generosity.

“As the old-fashioned kind of atheist, the kind without the slash,” he said in that same forum, “I keep wishing that we didn’t have any theologians.” To be sure, I have often entertained the same wish as well. What theologian worth reading has not? But Rorty would say the same thing of anyone who “went transcendental,” theologian or not, anyone who invoked “non-representational ideas” for talking about justice, when far less would have been sufficient (in his view).

Longing for the day when an expansive hope would captivate the hearts and minds of humanity, Rorty longed with an even fiercer passion for a day when intellectuals, reformers, and organizers would happily dispense with God. However, by blithely ignoring the religious sources of moral engagement, he diminished his own best pragmatic case for renewing the practices of piecemeal reform and inspiring social hope.

Let us then ask another question: How might theologians and Christian scholars contribute toward renewing the vocation of the engaged scholar and offer resources that sustain and nourish its vision? One way of answering this is to address a related question: What motivated these venerable old-Left social reformers whom Rorty holds up as exemplars, indeed as saviors, for our time?

 

Bonhoeffer’s Journey in America

These questions are pertinent to a research project in which I am currently involved, namely a study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s academic year in the United States. The story of Bonhoeffer’s transformative encounters and experiences in America overlaps in intriguing ways with Rorty’s narrative of the rise and fall of American social reform.

In 1930, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to the United States as a visiting student and fellow at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In doing so, unwittingly we might add, he was moving deep into the same progressive culture whose demise Rorty mourned in Achieving our Country.

When Bonhoeffer arrived in Manhattan, he was a straight-arrow academic whose star was rising, a twenty-four-year-old Privatdozent at the University of Berlin, who had written two doctoral dissertations and completed a rigorous training in classical German philosophy, church history, Biblical studies, and philosophical theology. Bonhoeffer had little respect for, and quite frankly little interest in, American intellectual and religious life. His sights were set on a lifetime of academic accomplishments and the rich rewards of the guild.

Bonhoeffer complained shortly after arrival that the seminary had “forgotten what Christian theology in its very essence stands for” (1931, 310). He complained that “…the principal doctrines of dogmatics are in utter disarray” (308). In America it would appear that it is possible to enter the ministry without having a clue what one believes or without really believing anything at all.

On one occasion, Bonhoeffer approached Reinhold Niebuhr, whose course on religion and ethics he took in the fall semester, and asked with indignation, “Is this a theological school or a training center for politicians?”

Bonhoeffer was further dismayed when his new classmates giggled in response to his presentation on Martin Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will.

But when Bonhoeffer left America ten months later, he left with a transformed perspective on social engagement, faith, and historical responsibility. “It is the problem of concreteness in our ministry that at present so occupies me,” he wrote in his notes upon his return to Berlin (quoted in Bethge 2000, 183). This from the same young scholar who had less than a year earlier found American pragmatism an offense to Germanic precision.

He began to lay aside his professional ambitions, to get involved in urban social ministries in Berlin, to fall in love with the Bible.

 “Something had happened,” Bethge wrote in his 1967 biography.

What happened?

I think that despite the hand-wringing over Protestant liberalism American-style, Bonhoeffer’s studies, encounters, and travels in America introduced him to a greater cloud of witnesses, inspired an enfleshment of the concepts he had formulated so precisely in his dissertations and academic writings—a community for others, “Christus als Gemeinde existierend”—and provided relief from the melancholy of north-German Lutheranism.

Since Reinhold Niebuhr’s arrival at Union in 1928, a cadre of progressive social reformers, many core members and future leaders of the old Left, had turned to him for support, and time and again, Niebuhr offered it graciously. In his marvelous book, Against the Grain: Southern Radicals and Prophets, 1929–1959, Anthony Dunbar writes that “without [Niebuhr’s] inspiration and practical assistance these movements might not have existed or succeeded to the extent that they did” (1981, 41). Niebuhr’s encouraging presence as well as his organizing and fundraising expertise are pervasive in the letters and exchanges of the intentional communities and progressive congregational initiatives that arose and flourished in this remarkably fertile period of American social theology.

In fact, most of the men and women comprising the old reformist, put-your-hand-to-the-plow Left, worked steadfastly in the tradition of the Social Gospel. Clarence Jordan, one of the founders of the Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia (which later launched the organization Habitat for Humanity), described the mission of the interracial cooperative on four hundred forlorn acres in southwest Georgia, as “a demonstration plot for the Kingdom.”

To be sure, Niebuhr’s emerging “Christian realist” views were beginning to call into question the idealism and utopianism of the Social Gospel. He was at work on Moral Man and Immoral Society. But it speaks to his ­big-heartedness and wisdom that even as he was rejecting the optimistic view that an age of perpetual peace was arriving, he affirmed the socially transformative energies of the Social Gospel, encouraged innovations in organizing and community building, and did not discourage utopianism at the ground level, the utopianism that often inspires creative solutions to concrete problems.

Bonhoeffer also encountered the American organizing tradition in his studies with other influential, if now largely forgotten, teachers at Union and through first-hand participation in their classes in local church-based organizing. (For more about these teachers, see: David Nelson Duke’s In the Trenches with Jesus and Marx: Harry F. Ward and the Struggle for Social Justice and Frank Adams’s James A. Dombrowski: An American Heretic, 1897–1983 for further reading.)

Charles C. Webber was a pastor, organizer, professor of practical theology at Union, and author of the book A History of the Development of Social Education in the United Neighborhood Houses of New York. Later in the 1950s and 1960s, he served as the National AFL-CIO Representative and the Industrial Secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Bonhoeffer took Webber’s course, “Church and Community,” in the fall semester of 1930. The course resembled what we now sometimes call a “service-learning experience,” though it was much more than that. Webber used the course to introduce seminarians to the lived theologies of a city in the throes of economic distress, one year into the Great Depression, and to the impressive displays of social ministries flourishing in New York City. He arranged “site visits” for the class and—Bonhoeffer could hardly believe his eyes having been educated in an academic culture in which professors remain largely imperious in their dealings with students—accompanied the seminarians as they journeyed from the Union quadrangle to take part in organizing initiatives based in New York churches and synagogues.

“In connection with a course of Mr. Webber’s,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “I paid a visit almost every week to one of these character-building agencies: settlements, Y.M.C.A., home missions, ­co-operative houses, playgrounds, children’s courts, night schools, socialists schools, asylums, youth organizations, Association for advance of coloured people.… It is immensely impressive to see how much personal self-sacrifice is achieved, with how much devotion, energy and sense of responsibility the work is done” (cited in Bosanquet 1968, 84).

The students visited the National Women’s Trade Union League and the Workers Education Bureau of America; discussed “labor problems, restriction of profits, civil rights, juvenile crime, and the activity of the churches in these fields” (Bethge 2000, 162);4 studied the role of churches in selective buying campaigns and public policy, drawing on models and insights gleaned from the Southern Tenants Farmworkers Union and the Delta Cooperative.

The class also met with officials from the American Civil Liberties Union, the nation’s premier defender of civil liberties, which after its founding in 1920 had focused heavily on the rights of conscientious objectors and the protection of resident aliens from deportation. When Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin in the summer of 1931, he told one of his brothers that Germany would need an ACLU of its own (Bethge 2000, 162). Through his field work with Charles Webber, this nearly forgotten professor of practical theology, Bonhoeffer found a pathway from the theological classroom to the concrete social situation, and many of the phrases of progressive American social theology began to pepper his sermons, writings, and letters (“Christian Socialism,” Time, 11 May 1931; von Hase, 597).

The circle of Christian social reformers into which Bonhoeffer moved at Union included numerous students who would disperse into urban centers and isolated rural areas as pioneers of faith-based economic justice and racial equality programs: the activist-pastors John King Gordon, William Klein, and Gaylord White, James Dombrowski, and Myles Horton.

James Dombrowski is a particularly interesting character. Long after his time at Union, Bonhoeffer inquired in his letters of Dombrowski and his other American friends from New York.

Dombrowski was a Methodist minister born in Florida who, after finishing his degree in divinity at Union, wrote a doctoral dissertation at Columbia University on “The Early Days of Christian Socialism in America” (see: Adams 1992 and Dombrowski 1936). He chose a career in organizing over academe and in 1934 established the Conference of Younger Churchmen of the South. From 1942–1946 he served as the executive director of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, and in his role as executive director of the Southern Conference Educational Fund (1946–66) edited the progressive Southern Patriot and worked behind the scenes with many of the key players in the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dombrowski was a vital member of a remarkable (and sadly vanished if not vanquished) generation of southern progressives whose organizing and educational efforts prepared the ground for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Among this company of southern dissidents, we should also remember Howard “Buck” Kester, Sherwood Eddy, Lillian Smith, Jessie Daniel Ames, Lucy Randolph Macon, and Myles Horton, who became, against all odds, one of Bonhoeffer’s closest friends at Union.

Let us also praise a country boy born from the riverboat town of Savannah, Tennessee for his contributions to the old reformist Left. Myles Horton most surely represented a type of theological student inconceivable to Bonhoeffer before his year in America. Horton grew up in southern rural poverty of the sort documented by James Agee and Walker Evans in their landmark volume, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). He was educated at Cumberland College (a school set up for poor whites in Appalachia) and spent many of his student summers working at vacation Bible schools in the mountains of east Tennessee. He said later in an interview that the only reason he was admitted to Union Theological Seminary was because the seminary was looking for a “token hillbilly.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Highlander Folk School emerged as one of the most important training centers in these golden years of progressive Protestant social activism, equipping southern workers with skills for labor organizing and helping launch the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In the 1950s, the Highlander Folk School under Myles Horton’s direction turned its attention from labor to the burgeoning civil rights movement and helped train such church-based organizers as Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, and Martin Luther King Jr.

The scholar Clifford Green notes that these representatives of the American organizing tradition “were probably some of the most radical Christians with whom Bonhoeffer ever associated—and they were radicals not only in theory…. They worked on urban and rural poverty, on racial justice and civil rights, on union organizing, on peacemaking, and at the United Nations” (2008, 34).

And we must not forget Bonhoeffer’s intense six-month immersion in the African-American church, prompted by Franklin Fisher, the son of a Baptist minister in Birmingham, Alabama, who one Sunday invited the young German scholar to worship with him at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. In time, Bonhoeffer, in his fine tailored suits and silk ties, began teaching a Sunday school class for boys and a Wednesday-evening Women’s Bible Study. On at least one occasion, he preached in the pulpit of the esteemed Adam Clayton Powell Sr.

Bonhoeffer’s presence at Abyssinian in 1930–1931 coincided with significant transformations in Powell’s understanding of himself as a minister in an urban parish. As the Great Depression swept over his Harlem parish, Powell was inspired to new convictions as a pastor and citizen. In his memoir Upon This Rock, he said he thought of Jesus no longer as powerful but inaccessible, as a purely transcendent symbol, but as a man who wandered the streets of Harlem, who shared the struggles of the poor and distressed as friend and counselor; as a person who lived for others amidst worldly joys and sorrows in the polyphony of life (1949, 42). And Powell invited the young German theologian into the full life of the community.

Back in Berlin in the fall of 1931, as I mentioned above, Bonhoeffer fell in love with the Bible and embraced a rich devotional life, often animated by African-American spirituals and gospel standards. He organized spiritual retreats at his hut in the forest near Brenau, and he encouraged his students to read Scripture with an openness to God’s voice and attention to the outcast and the reviled. He was drawn into an intimate reading of the Sermon on the Mount, the most radical of the teachings in the Gospel narratives, and at the same time affirmed the importance of the Christian religion’s rootedness in Judaism and the Hebrew Bible. Bonhoeffer was now moving in response to a new understanding of faith, and, as we know, he would only come to speak more passionately of communities of “obedience and prayer,” of costly grace, of the cost of discipleship, of disciplines that bring “purification, clarification and concentration upon the essential thing,” and of responsible action “in a world come of age” (Bethge 2000, 203). The year inspired—as he put it—a “turning from the phraseological to the real.”

Bonhoeffer had moved directly into the heart of Rorty’s venerable old Left, the vanquished generation of scholars and intellectuals committed to piecemeal social reform: into the tenement ministries of New York, into the Deep South weeks after the Scottsboro boys went to trial, into a six-month immersion in the black church. He engaged the National Women’s Trade Union League and the Workers Education Bureau of America. He wrote notes on the labor movement, poverty, homelessness, crime, and the social mission of the churches. He met with officials from the American Civil Liberties Union. And guess what? Rorty’s old venerable Left was mostly peopled by radical Christians, Jesus-haunted idealists, Bible-thumping organizers. By theologians!

It is true that in the closing decade of the nineteenth century one heard frequent complaints within the ranks of the labor movement about the church’s lack of involvement. In 1892, Terence Powderly, for example, a member of the Knights of Labor, said, “You can count on the ends of your fingers all the clergymen who take any interest in the labor problem” (cited in Bingham 1961, 135). But that same year, Walter Rauschenbusch (who was Richard Rorty’s maternal grandfather) led a group of Protestant ministers and theologians to pledge their allegiances to the “practical realization in the world” of the Kingdom of God, to “the marching hosts of labor” (Bingham 1961, 135).

By the 1930s, social activism in America and especially the progressive experiments in agricultural cooperatives and labor organizing in the South was saturated with theological conviction. The radical Christians who comprised the Southern Tenants Farmworkers Union, the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, the Highlander Folk School, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, as well as labor organizing campaigns and agricultural cooperatives all spoke passionately of justice for workers, the revolt of the rednecks, “land for the landless,” “full and decent employment,” the holding in common of “all natural resources and all scientific processes,” and “the liberation of all workers from enslavement to the machine” (Dunbar 1981, 258). These men and women cared for the poor and oppressed through a broad range of initiatives in community and union organizing as well as in educational reform. They used the power of testimonial and narrative to educate the nation about poverty, presenting heartbreaking portraits of day-laborers who “swelled the ranks of the dispossessed,” squeezed out by the large plantations, insurance companies, and banks; of homeless families combing the South for a decent living, adrift “on the rivers in flat boats, in the coves, swamps and on the barren hillsides, a great mass of wanderers, without homes, food or work, half clothed, sick of body and soul, unwanted and unloved in the Kingdom of King Cotton.” (Kester 1936, 26). “We were trying to call attention to the implications of the Christian faith for all humanity,” Howard Kester said. “Nothing made any difference to us but human need, that was the measure, and you went because people were in need, it didn’t matter who they were, or where or how they lived” (quoted in Egerton 1970, 86).

By 1932, Bonhoeffer had begun working as a student chaplain in a working-class area of Berlin, where he created a youth club for the children of unemployed factory workers. By the end of April 1933, he had made his first public defense of the Jews and condemnation of the Aryan Clause when he told a group of Protestant theologians in Dahlem that, in response to the rising specter of German anti-Semitism, the Christian church was compelled not simply to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to break the wheel itself. From 1933 until 1939, Bonhoeffer led protests against Hitler in the form of ecclesial opposition, but after his second visit to America, a six-week-long dark night of the soul in the summer of 1939, he lived as an enemy of the state with a willingness to offer his life for the struggle.

In 1942, on the last Christmas before he was arrested by the Gestapo, Bonhoeffer wrote an essay to his pastoral colleagues, his family and friends, his fellow dissenters and conspirators, in which he tried to make sense of the tumultuous ten years of the resistance and conspiracy.

He said he had learned “to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering.”

He said, “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds. Experience has rendered us suspicious of human beings, and often we have failed to speak to them a true and open word. Unbearable conflicts have worn us down or even made us cynical.”

Then he asked, “Are we still of any use?” His answer harkened back to the engaged scholars he had encountered in America, whose turning to the real had proved transformative in his own “journey to reality.”

If we are still of any use, Bonhoeffer wrote at Christmastime 1942, it is because of a need not for “geniuses, cynics, people who have contempt for others, or cunning tacticians,” but forsimple, uncomplicated, and honest human beings.” We must “find our way back to simplicity and honesty” (1942, 52).

 

The Vocation of the Scholar

Let’s go back to the opening scene in Zabriskie Point. And, in closing, let us ask briefly what happened there. Rorty’s fine—and in so many ways instructive—narrative notwithstanding, it is clear from a close look at the historical record that the decline of a movement that began in the South in the 1950s and dissipated in the late 1960s stemmed precisely from its renunciation of the theological convictions that had animated and for a while sustained it. Clarence Jordan always preferred the phrase “God Movement” to describe the peaceable reign of God, the “hidden meaning” of all movements for liberation and reconciliation, the hidden meaning which “brings us together for these days as strangers and yet as friends” (as the theologian Karl Barth wrote in a different context in 1919 [1978], 274). Beloved community is indeed not ­self-generating; behind it stands the event and the power by which it lives and is nourished.

Thomas Merton once described the civil rights movement as the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States (1968, 131). If this is true, and I think it is, then it bears emphasizing that the logic of the dream was theologically specific: beloved community is the realization of God’s love in lived social relation. Fred Shuttlesworth told us he found strength in “the everlasting arms of Jesus.” The dream exploded from the audacious hope that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself, breaking down the walls of separation.

In the “God-movement,” “community building,” piecemeal social reform, social hope, and progress found their ground and nourishment in the disciplines and practices of gratitude, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Are we still of any use?

Once in an interview, a kindly minister who had been recalling to me his years as a staff member of the National Council of Churches and his role in the 1965 March on Selma, paused and said, “You know, your generation is a bunch of wimps.” The least that I could do for him was to ask a few hard questions about my own vocation as a scholar and teacher and somehow try to make the connection back to life.

To speak of the audacious hope of the engaged scholar (in this context) is to commit ourselves to sober judgment and forthright speech. Merton wrote in his 1968 book, Violence and Faith, “The Church has an obligation not to join in the incantation of political slogans and in the concoction of pseudo-events, but to cut clear through the deviousness and ambiguity of both slogans and events by her simplicity and her love.” Engaged scholarship is a faithful standing in the place where we are, a prayerful openness and discerning attention to the story of God told in creation and history. But it is more than a faithful standing in place; engaged scholarship lives under the storied communication of God’s will for humanity; Jesus Christ born in a manger for there was no room for him in the inn. Hope is neither an ironic pose nor a rhetorical strategy but a lived response to an ontological fact. It is (as Karl Barth said in an early address) to take the whole situation upon us in gratitude to God, and with audacity tempered by love to enter into the movement of the era (Barth 294).

 

Charles Marsh is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia.

 

Notes

1. Rorty based this point on Todd Gitlin’s analysis in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987). Rorty insists that the reformist Left is better remembered by such Progressive Era thinkers and public intellectuals as John Dewey and Herbert Croly. Croly had lamented the “equivocal foundation” on which any nation in the world rests “so long as the great majority of the poor in any country are inert and are laboring without any hope in this world.” And he gave voice to a distinctively American socialism—“a more highly socialized democracy”—based on Christian principles of shared wealth in which public life, as Croly wrote in his book Progressive Democracy (1915), “like the faith of St. Paul, finds its consummation in a love which…[is] a spiritual expression of the mystical unity of human love.” These progressive intellectuals would also include members of the Social Gospel movement, Rorty’s maternal grandfather, the Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, and the Wisconsin economist and theologian, Richard Ely, whose book Social Aspects of Christianity (1880) argued that industrial capitalism had produced the “farthest and deepest reaching crisis known to human history.” Rauschenbusch, like his allies Croly and Ely, preached tirelessly against the “servants of Mammon,” who “drain their fellow men for gain” and “who have cloaked their extortion with the gospel of Christ.”

2. Herbert Marcuse made a similar argument in his influential 1964 book, One Dimensional Man. “In the absence of demonstrable agents and agencies of social change, the critique is thrown back to a high level of abstraction. There is no ground on which theory and practice, thought and action meet” (xliv).

3. Rorty says, “Even though what these authors ‘theorize’ is often something very concrete and near at hand—a current TV show, a media celebrity, a recent scandal—they offer the most abstract and barren explanations imaginable” (1998, 93).

4. It is not clear whether Bonhoeffer knew of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) until coming to the United States, even though the peace organization was founded in 1914 at a railroad station in Germany when an English Quaker named Henry Hodgkin and the German Lutheran social reformer Friedrich Sigmund-Schultze pledged to partner in peace-making even though the two countries were at war. Out of this pledge Christians gathered in Cambridge, England in December 1914 to found the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The FOR-USA was founded one year later, in 1915.

 

Works Cited

Adams, Frank. James A Dombrowski: An American Heretic, 1897–1983. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.

Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1941.

Arrowsmith, William. Antonioni: The Poet of Images. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Barth, Karl. The Word of God and the Word of Man. Douglas Horton, trans. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith Publishers, 1978.

Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Eric Mocbacher, Peter and Betsy Ross, Frank Clarke, William Glen-Doepel, trans. Edwin Robertson, ed. Minneapolis: Fortress 2000. Originally published as Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Eine Biographie (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1967).

Bingham, June Rossbach. Courage to Change: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008. Sixteen volumes. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995–2011.

__________. “An Account at the Turn of the Year 1942–1943.” December 1942. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Vol. 8: 37–52.

__________. “Report on His Year of Study Prepared for the Church Federation Office.” 1939. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Vol. 10: 305–320.

Bosanquet, Mary. The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

Croly, Herbert. Progressive Democracy. New York: Macillin, 1915.

Dombrowski, James. The Early Days of Christian Socialism in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.

Duke, David Nelson. In the Trenches with Jesus and Marx: Harry F. Ward and the Struggle for Social Justice. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003.

Dunbar, Anthony. Against the Grain: Southern Radicals and Prophets, 1929–1959. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981.

Egerton, John. A Mind to Stay Here: Profiles from the South. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

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