The Confessed Failure of Modernism No. 2

A look at the modernism of Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick.

By W. W. PRESCOTT, Washington, D.C.

The third specification in the series by Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick on the failure of Modernism, is this:

"In the third place, Modernism has even watered clown and thinned out the central message and distinctive truth of religion, the reality of God. . . . The intellectual culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centu­ries, to which Modernism adjusted itself, was predominantly man-centered. . . . And because I have been and am a Modernist, it is proper that I should confess that often the Modernistic movement, adjusting itself to a man-centered culture, has encouraged this mood, watered down the thought of the divine, and, may we be forgiven for this, left souls standing, like the ancient Athenians, before an altar to an unknown god. . . . Yet all the time, by right, we had an independent standing ground and a message of our own, in which alone there is hope for humankind."

Here we certainly find a frank and truthful confession of the failure of Modernism to teach and to maintain the genuine gospel of the true God, but the fatal defect is revealed in the per­sistent claim that in spite of this failure, Mod­ernism has a message "in which alone there is hope for humankind." I now ask in all serious­ness, and from a sincere desire to witness for true Christianity, on what secure foundation can Modernism rest such a claim which it has been unable to demonstrate. Having repudi­ated divine authority, having asserted that God "has never uttered His final word on any sub­ject," and having surrendered to the visionary theories of an evolutionary science, what ground is left upon which to base any authoritative revelation of a saving gospel? Such a time as this, when there is no sense of safety in the political world, when chaos prevails in the economic world, when the old standards are being nullified in the moral world, and when so much uncertainty prevails in the religious world, there is no promise of real deliverance from such a distressing situation in a philo­sophical daydream, in a return to a worn-out and discredited paganism, and in discarding Him in whom "dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily," in favor of an abstract ideal­ism which is entirely unable to realize itself.

But now let us give heed to the last specifi­cation of the failure of Modernism:

"Finally, Modernism has too commonly lost its ethical standing ground and its power of moral attack. It is a dangerous thing for a great religion to begin adjusting itself to the culture of a special generation. Harmonizing easily slips into compromising. To adjust Christian faith to the new astronomy, the new geology, the new biology, is absolutely indis­pensable. But suppose this modernizing proc­ess, well started, goes on, and Christianity adapts itself to contemporary nationalism, con­temporary imperialism, contemporary capital­ism, contemporary racialism—harmonizing it­self, that is, with the prevailing status quo and the common moral judgments of our time —what then has become of religion, so sunk and submerged in undifferentiated identity with this world?"

I have quoted at some length from this ser­mon by Doctor Fosdick in order that I may give a clear view of the inadequacy of Modern­ism as revealed in its own failure to maintain its own interpretation of Christianity in the face of untoward influences.

It seems proper to ask now, How much has been accomplished in the year since this sermon was preached in the campaign to go "beyond Modernism"? Instead of placing the emphasis in the religious experience upon the personal relation between God and the soul of man, the liberals transfer this emphasis to the relation between man and man, and proclaim the social gospel as the only hope for Christianity. The greatest Preacher who has ever taught the gos­pel to the world, laid down this fundamental principle: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." Matt. 6:33. The Modernists reverse this principle, and make the temporal blessings primary. Do the results, as seen in the world today, justify this interpre­tation of the gospel? It requires only a cursory survey of the situation which we face to demon­strate the failure of Modernism to provide "the abundant life" which it has promised. The simple facts are the best answer to the boast­ings of liberalism.

In an editorial in its issue of November 20, 1935, the Christian Century, the leading Mod­ernist publication, approves of the first three charges made by Doctor Fosdick against Mod­ernism, saying with reference to them, "It is difficult to see how anyone can take exception." But it adds, "With respect to his fourth point, a vigorous demurrer should be entered." Its closing paragraph presents a real challenge to genuine Christianity:

"That the Christian church is entering a new era both in its thinking and in its organization, is, we believe, beyond question. It can be saved from much sterile controversy if its intellectual leaders, while frankly confessing the inade­quacy of the Modernism of yesterday, make it clear that the new insight does not mean the acceptance of something which liberalism once rejected, but the rejection of something which conservatism has taken into the bosom of Christianity and which it is the task of liber­alism to cast out."

Here again "the inadequacy of the Modernism of yesterday" is plainly acknowledged, and yet its mission to reform degenerate Christianity is assumed. Now I admit with equal frankness that much of what now passes under the name of Christianity has departed from the original Christianity as taught by Christ and the apos­tles, but I cannot accept the teachings desig­nated as Modernism as either a return to the original Christianity or an authoritative inter­pretation of genuine Christianity to meet the needs of the present generation. Any system of religious instruction which denies the super­natural and allows modern science to discredit the inspiration of the Scriptures, is self-con­demned, and can never restore to the world the Christianity of the first century, even though the teaching of John and Peter and Paul was "formulated in prescientific days."

Well may we repeat the instruction given more than twenty-six centuries ago through the gospel prophet Isaiah: "To the law and to the testimony! if they speak not accord­ing to this word, surely there is no morning for them."

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By W. W. PRESCOTT, Washington, D.C.

March 1937

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