On April 1, 1975 Worldview Magazine published “An Appeal for Theological Affirmation: The Hartford Statement”. The themes of this Appeal were first thought up on evening in January 1974 at the home of Peter Berger, an eminent and respected sociologist. There Richard John Neuhaus and Berger, with great fun, made up a list of major themes in mainline Protestantism that irritated them. The irritation came from what they saw as serious problems arising from the assumptions being made in so much Christian engagement with public life in the United States.1 They shared this list with a small number of theologians who greeted these themes with enthusiastic endorsement. With this positive response Neuhaus and Berger put together a conference held at Hartford Seminary where theologians from across the spectrum gathered and affixed their signatures to what has come to be known as the “Hartford Appeal.”
Of special importance for us as Orthodox Christians, are the signatures of Fathers Alexander Schmemann and Thomas Hopko. Out of my respect for both men and the critical work they have done for shaping the mind of many in the Orthodox Church, especially here in North America, I think we should take a deeper look into this Appeal. What I think we will find is something extremely beneficial for us to reflect upon. That is specifically the way in which Orthodoxy is articulated and understood in North America. Orthodoxy does not exist in some kind of vacuum here, but is naturally shaped, for good or for ill, by the prevalent modes of thought.
Another point of why I would like to work through this Appeal is the fact that the themes that Schmemann, Hopko, and the other signers found troublesome in the broader Christian landscape are still with us to this day. Since at least the days of Freidrich Schleiermacher, the Father of Liberal Theology, there has been a continuous trend in theology of attempting to address the cultured despisers of Christianity by a critical reassessment of the tradition and an “updating” or “translation” of the content of the faith into a new situation. While there is something admirable in attempting to translate and articulate the Gospel in new situations, it was the trend of “liberal theology” to dull many of the sharp corners of the dogmatic teachings and historic self-understanding of Christianity. In many instances stripping the historic faith so heavily as to radically alter it into something which St. Paul, St. Benedict, or St. Gregory Palamas could not comprehend or reconcile this with the faith once delivered to them. To assume that we are immune to the pressures of this trend or that we do not possibly have voices assuming the same posture is to blind one’s self to reality and to the ever abiding temptation to conform in the face of the challenging winds of change.
The opening paragraph of the Appeal immediately launches into their presuppositions. The first is the Church’s need to take up the hard task of constantly examining the assumptions which “shape the Church’s life.” This is a hard task because it requires vigilance and a sharp nose for what we all take for granted. To become aware of assumptions is to step back and really critically assess what is generally accepted as normative. Very few people are able to do so, for the work is arduous and taxing. And yet, for the signers of this appeal this is necessary for the “renewal of Christian witness and mission.”
What the Appeal summarizes as missing in the discourse of Christian theology of the 1970s was the “apparent loss of a sense of the transcendent” which they saw undermining “the Church’s ability to address with clarity and courage the urgent tasks to which God calls it in the world.” This loss of transcendence is a hallmark of liberal theology. Put simply, the truths of the Gospel are equivalent to something found within the resources of humanity. What is wrong or off about the human situation is something which generally requires more education, community, technology, or an assortment of other human virtues or values, e.g. tolerance, diversity, love. This effectively rules out the need for revelation from God.
The loss of transcendence is the loss of revelation and therefore the loss of God. Thus the goal of the Church shifts from the salvation of human souls and the transfiguration of the cosmos via the presence of God to more and more circumspect and limited ends. This ends up in the downplay of dogma, the eroding of the authority of Scripture, the questioning of the primacy of the spiritual, and ultimately the loss of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ becomes a teacher of ethics at best or platitudes at worst and not the Son of God, a revolutionary and not the King of the cosmos who sits at the right hand of God the Father, a generic prophet of brotherhood, toleration, and democracy, etc. etc. When Jesus Christ is demoted from being the Son of God and Lord of creation he ends up serving many other ends or “gods”. Liberty, equality, fraternity, the themes of the French Revolution rush into the void. The emancipation of “fill in the blank” as the goal of our Lord’s teaching. The teaching of St. Paul becomes optional. The authoritative voice of St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil the Great are treated as time bound and worthy of scant attention. The fabric of tradition is torn and the conveyance of the presence of God is cast into severe doubt. Who needs God if the point of God is the up building of society? Whether by liberal democracy and capitalism or by authoritarian governments or communism or any other political, economic, or social ideology?
No longer is the vocabulary employed one found and bound by the Bible or the tradition of the Church, as we find eminently in the works of say St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, or even say St. Theophan the Recluse. Rather we find the harried and ever changing cast of socio-political concerns becoming the content of Christianity. From the stale Christianity that only teaches the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man that we find in Adolf von Harnack to the solipsistic materialist message found in the prosperity Gospel or in the nationalist and theocratic messages found in other corners of American Christianity. This loss of transcendence, the authority of the Fathers, and the mind of the catholic Church are lost for what is seen to be more pressing. This is rather obviously seen in the history of the World Council of Churches. What first began as a serious dialogue of theologians and Churchmen slowly descended into a cheap version of the United Nations. No longer were the conversations being held about significant topics of doctrine, worship, and the Christian discipleship flowing from this. Rather differences were slowly but surely downplayed and the more important matters of signing documents about various political and social concerns became paramount. It only takes a minute of scanning their homepage to find this abundantly clear. The long and involved conversations which Fr. George Florovsky and other Orthodox theologians and Hierarchs had with other eminent Churchmen are truly relics of a long lost era.
This is not to say that Christianity has no voice in matters of politics, economics, ethics, etc. It is the specific loss of the transcendent, the peculiarity of the salvation of our souls through the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ and the concomitant need to take up our crosses and crucify the passions within us, the coherence of the Christian religion and its tension with all systems of thought ancient and modern, the loss of the telos of the Church as a divine-human organism or institution which is oriented to the redemption of all mankind, and so many other concerns that brought about this Appeal. The Church was slowly but surely becoming the praying arm of whatever political party and philosophy one deemed more accurate for human flourishing. This reality is still with us. God help us.
As we move forward I will be engaging with the various themes found in the Appeal. We will be looking at the work of Frs. Alexander Schmemann and Thomas Hopko to supplement and expand upon these themes and how these concerns cropped up in their own writings and work. First up however will be taking up the first three themes of the Appeal and bringing them into conversation with the work of Fr. Georges Florovsky.
- Richard Boyagoda’s Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square, 181.