Archive for the ‘Modernism’ Tag

Feast of Harry Emerson Fosdick (October 5)   5 comments

Above:  Harry Emerson Fosdick

Image in the Public Domain



U.S. Northern Baptist Minister and Opponent of Fundamentalism


…we cannot harmonize Christ himself with modern culture.  What Christ does to modern culture is to challenge it.

–Harry Emerson Fosdick, “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism” (1935); quoted in Dewitte Holland, ed., Sermons in American History:  Selected Issues in the American Pulpit, 1630-1967 (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 1971), 377


Harry Emerson Fosdick was one of the most influential ministers in the United States of America during the twentieth century.  He, controversial in life, has remained so postmortem.

Fundamentalism is inherently ahistorical.  This is not an idea original to me.  Consider, O reader, Karen Armstrong:

…fundamentalism is ahistorical:  it believes that Abraham, Moses and the later prophets all experienced their God in exactly the same way as people do today.

A History of God:  The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1994), xx

One might also consider G. E. Mendenhall, author of The Tenth Generation (1973):

Biblical fundamentalism, whether Jewish or Christian, cannot learn from the past because in so many respects the defense of presently accepted ideas about religion is thought to be the only purpose of biblical narrative.  It must, therefore, support ideas of comparatively recent origin–ones that usually have nothing to do with the original meaning or intention of biblical narrative because the context is so radically different.

–Quoted in W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah:  A Modern Commentary, Vol. IV, Numbers (New York:  Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1979), xiv-xv

Fosdick, born in Buffalo, New York, on May 24, 1878, came from a devout family with a tradition of valuing education.  His father was Frank Sheldon Fosdick.  Our saint’s mother was Amy Inez Weaver.  His brother, Raymond B. Fosdick, grew up to become an esteemed attorney, as well as a friend and associate of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960).  Our saint, baptized at the age of seven years, thought about becoming a missionary before deciding on domestic ministry.  He, having graduated from high school in 1896, matriculated at Colgate University.  He graduated with his A.B. degree four years later, and was the class poet.  Fosdick, ordained a Baptist minister in 1903, graduated from Union Theological Seminary the following year.  He married Florence Allen Whitney (d. 1964) on August 16, 1904.  The couple had two daughters.

Fosdick served in a few congregations and taught at Union Theological Seminary.  He, from 1904 to 1915 the pastor of First Baptist Church, Montclair, New Jersey, began his 38-year-long stint of teaching practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in 1908.  He was an instructor (1908-1915), a professor (1915-1917, 1919-1934), and a part-time faculty member (1934-1946).  In 1917-1919 our saint worked as a chaplain with the Y.M.C.A. in France.  After World War I he returned to New York City, to begin duties as assistant minister (1919-1925) of First Presbyterian Church.

Fosdick became a central figure in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., a denomination to which he did not belong.  In 1922 he preached a seminal sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”  He condemned the intolerance of fundamentalism and criticized minor theological disputes (such as arguments about the Virgin Birth) as distractions

when the world is perishing for the lack of the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith.

–Quoted in Holland, ed., Sermons in American History, 347

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., liked the sermon so much that he paid for the printing and mailing of the text to every Protestant minister in the United States.  Clarence Macartney (1879-1957), conservative pastor of Arch Street Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, replied via a sermon that year.  He asked, “Shall Unbelief Win?” and accused Fosdick of heresy and intolerance.  After much controversy, Fosdick had to resign in 1925.

Above:  Park Avenue Baptist Church, New York, New York

Photographer = Irving Underhill

Image Source = Library of Congress

Rockefeller, Jr., offered Fosdick another position, though.  Our saint accepted the pastorate of Park Avenue Baptist Church on four conditions, which he established:

  1. That baptism by immersion cease to be a requirement for membership;
  2. That the congregation become interdenominational, accepting Christians of all creeds;
  3. That the congregation move to a less swanky neighborhood; and
  4. That the initial salary cap for Fosdick be $5000 ($69,900, adjusted for inflation, to 2017 currency).

Above:  Riverside Church and Grant’s Tomb, New York, New York

Image in the Public Domain

Rockefeller, Jr., financed the construction of the Gothic edifice of the renamed Riverside Church, located near Columbia University and Grant’s Tomb.  The congregation’s first Sunday in the new building, dedicated in 1931, was October 5, 1930.  Fosdick wrote the hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” for the occasion.  For 15 years 1931-1946) Fosdick was the most influential Protestant minister in the United States.  For 20 years (1926-1946) he preached on national radio.  He retired from Riverside Church in 1946.

Fosdick was a prolific author of books and articles.  Some of these were volumes of sermons.  Many other books were psychological-theological in nature.  Examples of these included Twelve Tests of Character (1923) and On Being a Real Person (1943).

Fosdick, who preferred modernism to fundamentalism, was critical of modernism, too.  In 1935 he preached a sermon, “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism.”  Modernism, he said, was a necessary advance.  However, our saint stated, the church needed to move beyond it, for modernism was imperfect.  It was simultaneously preoccupied with intellectualism and too sentimental, according to Fosdick.  He also argued that modernism had

largely eliminated from its faith the God of moral judgment.

–Quoted in Holland, ed., Sermons in American History, 373

Our saint also asserted that modernism had accommodated too much to the world that it (modernism) had placed people at the center and relegated God to an advisory capacity.  Modernism, Fosdick argued, had also surrendered the moral high ground.  Our saint was arguing for Neo-orthodoxy.

Fosdick stood up for a range of controversial positions.  His adopted pacifism, evident in his hymn, “The Prince of Peace His Banner Spreads” (1930), was more popular at certain times than others.  Our saint also advocated for the civil rights of African Americans when doing so was often unpopular.  The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. (1939-1968) thought of Fosdick as a prophetic figure.  Fosdick, eschewing anti-Semitism, also sympathized with displaced Palestinians.  He, not a Zionist, opposed the creation of the State of Israel.

Fosdick wrote four hymns, all of which have remained germane:

  1. God of Grace and God of Glory” (1930),
  2. The Prince of Peace His Banner Spreads” (1930),
  3. O God, in Restless Living” (1931), and
  4. O God, Who to a Loyal Home” (1956).

Fosdick, aged 91 years, died in Bronxville, New York, on October 5, 1969.

Perhaps the précis of Fodick’s life was the following excerpt from “God of Grace and God of Glory”:

Save us from weak resignation

To the evils we deplore;….







O God, by your Holy Spirit you give to some the word of wisdom,

to others the word of knowledge,

and to others the word of faith:

We praise your Name for the gifts of grace manifested in your servant Harry Emerson Fosdick,

and we ray that your Church may never be destitute of such gifts;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit

lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Wisdom of Solomon 7:7-14

Psalm 119:97-104

1 Corinthians 2:6-10, 13-16

John 17:18-23

–Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), 720


Feast of George Tyrrell (July 16)   1 comment

Above:  The Union Jack

Image in the Public Domain



Irish Roman Catholic Modernist Theologian and Alleged Heretic

Anyone who was on the wrong side of Pope St. Pius X (in office 1903-1914) had a high statistical probability of being closer to God than the Supreme Pontiff.

The tension between tradition and modernity has long been a controversial subject in organized religion.  Some have converted tradition into an idol.  Others have thrown it out like a proverbial baby with the equally proverbial bathwater.  Some have made modernity into an idol.  Others have thrown it out with the bathwater too.  There have always been many shades between the polar opposite.

George Tyrrell strove to find the balance of tradition and modernity.  He, born in Dublin, Ireland, on February 6, 1861, grew up an Anglican.  At the age of 18 years he converted to Roman Catholicism.  He joined the Society of Jesus in 1880 and a priest in 1891.  As a Jesuit Tyrrell took the mandatory course in Scholastic theology.  That theology he found unsatisfactory and inadequate.  Tyrrell’s reading of Church Fathers and Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) led him to conclude that the Roman Catholic Church needed to teach the faith differently in the modern age.  Our saint accused Holy Mother Church of mistaking divine revelation for theology, resulting in the teaching of “truths” without connecting them to human experience.  Tyrrell also accused the Roman Catholic Church of committing the “dogmatic fallacy,” that is, turning prophetic mysteries into

principles of exactly determinable intellectual value.

Tyrrell, a friend of fellow Roman Catholic Modernists Baron Friedrich von Hügel (1852-1925) and Maude Dominica Petre (1863-1942), identified himself as a faithful Roman Catholic.  Pope St. Pius X and the Society of Jesus disagreed.  The Jesuits expelled Tyrrell in 1906.  The following year St. Pius X, a reactionary who cast a pall over Roman Catholic intellectual life for more than half a century, issued the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis.  He condemned Modernism as

the synthesis of all heresies

and required all priests to take an oath condemning Modernism.

Tyrrell, much like Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), another one of my favorite heretics who was not actually a heretic, was too caustic and sarcastic for his own good.  (In Tyrrell’s defense, how was he supposed not to be caustic and sarcastic when dealing with St. Pius X and his ilk?)  Tyrrell, a priest without a bishop and therefore lacking a ministry since 1906, was living and writing in a cottage that belonged to Maude Dominica Petre.  Our saint criticized the encyclical in strong terms.  He, alluding to the absolutist French King Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715), summarized the Pope’s position as,

The church, c’est moi.

St. Pius promptly excommunicated Tyrrell in 1908.  The excommunicated priest was defiant:

If, however, my offense lies in having protested publicly, in the name of Catholicism, against a document destructive of the only possible defense of Catholicism and of every reason for submitting, within due limits, to ecclesiastical authority–a document which constitutes the greatest scandal for thousands who, like myself, have been brought into, and kept in, the Church by the influence of Cardinal Newman and of the mystical theology of the Fathers and the Saints–for such a protest I am absolutely and finally impenitent.

–Quoted in Robert Ellsberg, All Saints:  Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (New York:  The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), 305

Tyrrell, aged 48 years, died of Bright’s Disease in Storrington, England, on July 15, 1909.  A sympathetic priest had administered the last rites, heard Tyrrell’s confession, and granted absolution.  The Church refused to bury our saint in hallowed ground, so his corpse went to repose in an Anglican cemetery instead.

His grave marker reads:

Of your charity

pray for the soul of


Catholic Priest who died

July 15, 1909, Aged 48 years

Fortified by the Rites

of the Church

R. I. P.

Tyrrell was one of the Roman Catholic theologians who, had he lived long enough to witness the Second Vatican Council (1959-1965), would have found vindication during his lifetime.


Loving God of timeless truth, we praise and thank you for George Tyrrell and all others who,

standing within tradition, have not idolized it.

May we faithfully engage the outside world,

regarding it as our neighborhood, not as the enemy camp,

and shining the light of Christ into it in effective and reverent ways, to the glory of your Name;

in the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Job 12:1-6

Psalm 84

2 Corinthians 5:11-21

Matthew 5:13-16








“Alternative Facts”   1 comment

Look, alternative facts are not facts.  They’re falsehoods.

–Chuck Todd, January 22, 2017


If I wanted alternative facts, I would use a ouija board.

–Joe Scarborough, January 23, 2017


I respect objective reality.  In that sense I am a modernist in the Enlightenment sense of the term.  (I am also a modernist in the theological sense of the term, by the way.)  As John Adams famously argued,

Facts are stubborn things.

I cling to objective reality stubbornly.  As a teacher of history I cling to the objective reality of the past tenaciously.  Whenever I get a detail wrong  and realize it, I admit my error and strive never to repeat it.  I hold my students to the simple standard of being objectively accurate.  The penalty for inaccuracy is a grade lower than it would have been otherwise.

Facts are stubborn things.

With regard to certain current events I conclude that Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway are either postmodernists, easy liars, or people who have difficulty telling the difference between accurate and inaccurate statements.  I lack sufficient information to arrive at a definitive statement at this time.  I am certain, however, that, in the realm of mathematics, some numbers are of greater value than others. That is an accurate statement.

Facts are stubborn things.

I keep in mind the difference between a lie and an accidental falsehood.  A lie is an intentional deception; motivation marks the difference between a lie and a merely inaccurate statement.  Either way, an inaccurate statement, regardless of whether it is a lie or an accidental falsehood, is false.  And that is not an “alternative fact,” for there is no such thing as an “alternative fact.”

Facts are stubborn things.





In light of today’s development, in which Spicer expressed his willingness to “disagree with the facts” yet, oddly enough, not to lie (an oxymoron), I conclude that he is a liar.  As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the great empiricist noted, each person is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.



Feast of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (April 10)   2 comments

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Above:  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Image in the Public Domain



Roman Catholic Priest, Scientist, and Theologian


Lord, since with every instinct of my being and through all the changing fortunes of my life, it is you whom I have ever sought, you whom I have set at the heart of universal matter, it will be in a resplendence which shines through all things and in which all things are ablaze, that I shall have the felicity of closing my eyes.

–Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, quoted by his friend, Father Pierre Leroy, S.J., in the biographical sketch in The Divine Milieu:  An Essay on the Interior Life (first Harper Torchbook edition, 1965), page 42


Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), 73 years old, died of a stroke on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955, in the City of New York.  He was more famous as a scientist than as a theologian, for the Roman Catholic Church, of which he was a priest, had forbidden him to publish any spiritual, theological, or philosophical works since the 1920s.  He was, by the standards of the Roman Catholic Church at the time, a heretic.  His funeral was a small event, with ten friends present.  Teilhard de Chardin’s reputation grew posthumously with the publication of once-forbidden works.  His death created the opportunity for his spiritual, theological, and philosophical writings to go to the printing presses.

Cinephiles among the readers of this post might know The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), a pious movie with a flawed script which leaves too many dangling plot threads.  Anthony Quinn does a wonderful job of portraying Pope Kiril (I), a native of the Ukraine.  Kiril is a compassionate man with a Pope Francis-like common touch and desire to effect peace where military conflicts rage.  Among Kiril’s friends is Father David Telemond, whose theological orthodoxy is suspect.  Telemond is the Teilhard de Chardin figure in the story, based on Morris West’s 1963 novel.


Our saint was a Frenchman.  The native of Orcines, Auvergne, France, was the fourth of eleven children of Emmanuel and Berthe-Adele Teilhard de Chardin.  Emmanuel was a gentleman farmer, and Berthe-Adele was a great-grandniece of Francois-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), a.k.a. Voltaire, snarky author of Candide, or Optimism (1759) and one of the most famous author of the Enlightenment.  The 18-year-old Teilhard de Chardin entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) at Aix-en-Provence in 1899.  The realities of French government policy required him to continue his studies in Jersey, England, from 1902 to 1905.  Our saint taught chemistry at the Jesuit high school in Cairo, Egypt, from 1905 to 1908.  Then, from 1908 to 1911, he studied in Hastings, England.  There, in 1911, he became a priest.

A scientific career followed.  In 1912 Teilhard de Chardin commenced doctoral studies in paleontology and geology at the Sorbonne.  World War I (1914-1918) interrupted those plans, for he was a stretcher-carrier in the French Army for a few years.  After the war our saint returned to the Sorbonne, where he completed his doctorate in 1922.  That year he became the Chair of Geology at the Institute Catholique, Paris.

That was when the trouble started for Teilhard de Chardin.  Pope Pius X (reigned 1903-1914), with the anti-intellectual mindset he learned from his peasant background, was a theological stalwart.  He condemned Modernism, born out of an effort to reconcile faith and theology with developments in science and other secular knowledge.  Among these developments was evolution, extant since Greek antiquity yet restated and revived powerfully in the writings of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Wallace (1823-1913).  Pius X (beatified in 1951 and canonized three years later) unleashed what J. N. D. Kelly described in The Oxford Dictionary of Popes as

a widespread, often embarrassing harassment of scholars which widened the breach between the church and the intelligentsia.

–Page 314

Although Pope Benedict XV (reigned 1914-1922) calmed that conflict, official Roman Catholic suspicion of evolution and Modernism persisted for decades.  For example, in Humani generis (August 12, 1950), Pope Pius XII (reigned 1939-1958) wrote:

A glance at the world outside the Christian Fold will familiarize us, easily enough, with the false directions which the thought of the learned often takes.  Some will contend that the theory of evolution, as it is called–a theory which has not been proved beyond contradiction even in the sphere of natural science–applies to the origin of all things whatsoever….These false evolutionary notions, with their denial of all that is absolute or fixed or abiding in human experience, have paved the way for a new philosophy of error….The Teaching of the Church leaves the doctrine of Evolution an open question, as long as it confines its speculations to the development, from other living matter already in existence, of the human body…..Original sin is the result of a sin committed, in actual historical fact, by an individual man named Adam….

–Quoted and excerpted from The Papal Encyclicals in Their Historical Context:  The Teachings of the Popes from Peter to John XXIII (edited by Anne Fremantle, 1963), pages 294-298

The opening of the proverbial church windows to the world had to wait until Pius XII’s successor, John XXIII (reigned 1958-1963).

Teilhard de Chardin’s superiors suspected that he stood outside of Roman Catholic tradition.  In some ways he did.  Roman Catholicism has long contained mutually exclusive traditions, actually.  Critics in the mold of Pius X stood in the anti-intellectual tradition, which has existed within Roman Catholicism for more than a millennium.  Distrust of scientific knowledge has long run amok there.  Teilhard de Chardin stood within the also longstanding Roman Catholic tradition of reconciling faith and reason, informed by science.

Teilhard de Chardin not only accepted human evolution as fact but gave it a prominent place in his theology.  He wrote that the emergence of humans constituted the birth of reflection.  Physical evolution, he wrote, had gone about as far as it could.  The current phase of evolution, he insisted, was human socialization, that is, cultural convergence toward a single society in which love is the highest radial energy, or inward tendency, toward self-perfection.  The culmination of evolution, Teilhard de Chardin wrote, will be the Second Coming of Christ, the physical center of evolution, and the source of the love energy in that process.

Teilhard de Chardin’s optimistic theology had Christ at its center.  Our saint understood the human-divine relationship as being properly collaborative.  Jesus, he wrote, was the Divine Milieu, always at work in creation.  Since “milieu,” in French, indicates both “center” and “environment,” the use of that word was especially expressive and compact.

Certain critics noted that our saint did little theologically regarding issues of sin and evil, and that his treatment of them was either wrong or inadequate.  St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) had, for example, defined sin as disordered love, which was not Teilhard de Chardin’s opinion.

No human being is perfect, hence no human system of theology avoids flaws.  No theologian has ever been infallible, so yes, Teilhard de Chardin committed some theological errors, as did his critics and St. Augustine of Hippo also.  My primary question regarding our saint’s theology is whether the core of it was sound.  Integrating science and religion and placing Christ at the center of the evolutionary process seems sound to me.

Teilhard de Chardin got into trouble with Holy Mother Church initially because of a paper he wrote on the relationship to original sin to human evolution.  No draft of it satisfied his ecclesiastical superiors, who forced him to sign official renunciations of the views contained in that paper.  In 1925 the Jesuit Superior General removed our saint from the position of Chair of Geology at the Institut Catholique, Paris.  The Vatican forbade Teilhard de Chardin to publish anything in the realms of spirituality, theology, or philosophy, and in the late 1920s, exiled him to China.  Our saint spent most of the next almost twenty years in Asia, living in China until 1934 and again from 1939 to 1946.  He participated in many expeditions, including the one which discovered the 400,000-year-old school of Peking Man in 1929.  Teilhard de Chardin visited France periodically, and traveled in India, China, Japan, and the United States from 1934 to 1939.

Troubles with the Church continued to follow Teilhard de Chardin after World War II.  He returned to France in 1946, but had to leave after a few years.  Our saint served as the director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research.  In 1948 the Jesuit Superior General prevented him from standing as a candidate for the Chair of Paleontology at the College de France.  Teilhard de Chardin eventually left for the United States, where he accepted a position with the Wenner-Grenn Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Our saint had a joie de vivre, for he enjoyed pleasures such as good food and humor.  Nevertheless, official rejection and interference caused him much distress.  Teilhard de Chardin’s friend, Father Pierre Leroy, S.J, wrote:

There was no contradiction in his soul, no ambiguity between his humble loyalty as a son of the Church and the boldness of his philosophical views.  But in the depths of his being there raged the excruciating torment of reconciling his complete submission to the Church with the integrity of his thought.

–“Teilhard de Chardin:  The Man,” in The Divine Milieu:  An Essay on the Inner Life (first Harper Torchbook edition, 1965), page 37


Teilhard de Chardin left an astounding legacy.  He wrote 10 volumes of hard science and 15 of anthropology, philosophy, spirituality, and theology.  He had to endure the Vatican’s official frown during most of his life, but recent Popes have affirmed parts of his theology.  Our saint wrote in The Divine Milieu (written, 1926 and 1927; published in French, 1957; published in English, 1960):

Nothing is profane to those who know how to see.

By that standard, Roman Catholicism knows how to see better after the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II, 1962-1965) than it did before.





Eternal God, the whole cosmos sings of your glory,

from the dividing of a single cell to the vast expanse of interstellar space:

We bless you for your theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,

who perceived the divine in the evolving creation.

Enable us to become faithful stewards of your divine works

and heirs of your eternal kingdom;

through Jesus Christ, the firstborn of all creation,

who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns,

one Gd, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Isaiah 55:6-11

Psalm 65

Revelation 21:1-6

John 3:31-35

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 321



I have not attempted to write a comprehensive account of Teilhard de Chardin’s life and theology, for others have done that already.  For more complete yet not tome-length accounts, O reader, I refer you to three sources:

  1. The American Teilhard Association;
  2. “Teilhard de Chardin:  The Man,” by Father Pierre Leroy, S.J., in the Harper Torchbook edition of The Divine Milieu; and
  3. The chapter on Teilhard de Chardin in A Handbook of Christian Theologians–Expanded Edition (1984), edited by Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman.

There are also Teilhard de Chardin’s writings, of course.