I recently gave a paper called “The New Knowledge and The Old Faith: Considering the Promises and Pitfalls of American Theological Liberalism.” The conclusion goes like this:
These have been pointed critiques, yet I remain attracted to the spirit and intentions of those who shaped modern liberal Protestantism at the turn of the 20th century. I have found much to recommend especially in H. E. Fosdick’s preaching method, and as I prepare sermons I occasionally think back to a chapter in his autobiography called “Learning to Preach.” As he started coming into his own as a preacher, Fosdick saw two trends in liberal American pulpits that troubled him. One was an over-focus on scholarly exposition of the text to the exclusion of any modern, practical concern. “Only the preacher,” Fosdick wrote, “proceeds still upon the idea that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.” Elsewhere Fosdick saw preachers who all but abandoned the biblical text along with traditionalist faith expressions in order to preach topical sermons. Fosdick proposed something of a middle way between the two tactics. He started from an understanding of contemporary human needs, and once he had done so found that the Bible was more relevant than ever. Fosdick writes that once he formulated this middle-way preaching method he “could not deal with any crucial problem in thought and life without seeing text after text lift up its hands begging to be used.” It was human concern that bound together the new knowledge and the old faith, and I suspect that something similar could happen today.
Human concerns, after all, run deeper than worldviews. There are no abstract concepts or points of technical knowledge that can mitigate fear or guarantee peace. And yet it is thought to be very important to separate the people who view the world this way from the people who view the world that way, because we would like to think that the way someone describes the shape of the world is in some way more important than the way that they experience their world. Is it?
Because I can remember when Jesus calmed the seas with three small words.
It was a long time ago, long before we knew better.
People thought that demons caused storms,
and that the winds and seas could be rebuked.
If you had enough faith you could calm the seas, but the disciples, of course,
the disciples lacked faith.
The waves sweep over the boat and the sails are torn to shreds.
Jesus is sleeping as his disciples are scrambling, terrified, shouting
“We’re all going to drown!”
They wake him up,
saying, “Lord save us” and he does.
“Peace! be still!” and the seas are calm.
And in a world we know better there are hurricanes.
You can see them build, develop a long ways off.
We know that forces of nature cause storms;
And they cannot be stopped, but we can be prepared.
If you have enough money then you can probably escape, but some, of course,
some cannot escape.
There’s already flooding, rapids in place of roads.
And they grab the photo albums and climb onto the roof
Just in time to see their neighbors’ house float away.
As they are shaking and thinking “we’re all going to drown!”
As eyes are clenched shut and they are praying “Lord, save us.”
A rhythm is heard above the wind—
And then a chorus of muffled hallelujahs.
“Peace! Be still!” and helicopter blades
and I bet they sound the same.