A deeply serious and original book, The Fathers Refounded will be welcomed by other scholars of Christianity in late antiquity because of its genealogy of their specialization in the United States. (The origins of the study of early Christianity, whether it be characterized as “Patristics,” “Ancient Church History,” “Christianity in Late Antiquity,” or what have you, are notably divided by nation, religious confession, and ancillary disciplinary field.)
But why should it interest a wider readership? Its intense focus on key transitional figures sheds valuable light on how mainstream American Christianity became intellectually respectable and modern. The era of Christian liberalism framed in The Fathers Refounded soon went into temporary eclipse during the three decades of war and depression that began with World War I. But the issues liberalism addressed did not go away and returned with postwar peace and prosperity (an instructive parallel story could be told about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s complicated dance with religious liberalism). This applies to Catholicism every bit as much as to Protestantism. The Modernist crisis repressed problems without solving them. Ditto for the little ice age of Pius XII’s last decade, which only deferred the constructive efforts of the nouvelle théologie without providing an alternative. For that we had to wait for Vatican II.
One of those problems was the integration of historical consciousness into Catholic thinking—the reconciliation of claims to unchanging dogmatic truth with the facts of historical change, a challenge Bernard Lonergan tried to meet with his work on theological method. Commonweal readers may be more familiar with the books of the late John Noonan, who wrote so brilliantly on changes in teaching on usury, contraception, religious freedom, and slavery. I just learned that Noonan’s M.A. thesis at Catholic University had been on Alfred Loisy, Rome’s enemy number one among the original Modernists. Lonergan was essentially a philosopher and Noonan a jurist. But both sought for the coherence and intelligibility beneath change and development. (So did Loisy, at least initially: he rebutted Harnack’s primitivism by arguing that maturity was necessary to judge meaning in development.)
Lonergan and Noonan’s concern for continuity across time separates them, it seems, from the rather ruthless stress of Clark’s subjects on the gap that separated ancient past from modern present, so important was it to them to bring Christianity into harmony with the dominant values of their own time. That meant telling a story about Christian origins and development that met expectations and standards of “scientific” history, standards that they regarded as self-evident. Case may have favored social history, La Piana institutional history, and McGiffert the history of ideas. But they all embraced the same methodological canons of historicism (interpretation in historical context), naturalism (rejection of supernatural causation), and relativism (bracketing providentialist assumptions about Christian distinctiveness and superiority), though the last of those rather inconsistently. They were certainly right to do so. Postmodern thinkers like Foucault, Michel de Certeau, and others may have added further astringencies to chasten what we think we know about the past, but they did not repeal the critical standards established by their modernist predecessors.
Still, the triumph of criticism has not come cost-free, and the Catholic historian is obliged to consider the cost with a cold eye. The further the epistemological distance that historical method puts between us and the past, the more remote and alien the past may come to seem. The Frankfurt School and the sociology of knowledge have taught us how powerfully “knowledge and interest” are linked. The pursuit of a domain of knowledge depends on a social interest that justifies and subsidizes it. Take away the interest and the rationale for supporting it starts to erode. We see this happening now with the commodification of the contemporary university, which is putting tremendous pressure on the social prestige of the humanities and, a fortiori, of theology, which ultimately depends on communities of faith to justify its existence. The decline of organized religious traditions then undercuts the social relevance of studying the historical and textual origins of those traditions.
McGiffert, La Piana, and Case were largely immune to such pressures because they taught at liberal Protestant institutions that shared the cultural hegemony of the great universities with which they were affiliated. They also shared the same establishment donor classes, an identity most vividly demonstrated in Chicago’s case, where the largesse of a single person, John D. Rockefeller, created both university and divinity school at one stroke, barely two decades before Case’s appointment in 1908. But their cultural dominance was fated to weaken with the decline of the Protestant establishment that created them. Venerable Harvard Divinity School, founded in 1816 as a Unitarian seminary and the first school built outside the historic Yard of Harvard College, suffered a near-death experience in the 1950s when the super technocrat James Bryant Conant was president of Harvard—but it was spared the chopping block because his successor, Nathan Marsh Pusey (note the WASP names), was personally soft on religion.
Harvard and Chicago survived by diversifying their offerings, first by becoming ecumenical, then by presenting themselves as experts in “religion” tout court. Union’s loose association with Columbia is qualitatively different from Harvard’s and Chicago’s relationships with their host institutions. It has retained more of its seminary mandate, and so its Christian heritage is more overt, though in exceedingly liberal form.
I spent much of the 1970s as a graduate student at Harvard and Chicago. At Harvard I took courses with church historian George Huntston Williams, who was La Piana’s successor and confidant in his long retirement. At Chicago, several of my classes were in a seminar room dedicated to Case’s memory. Both schools had strong faculty and programs in the history of Christianity—I think it was still called church history at Harvard. But it was clear even then that thinking of “the church,” however one understood it, as the subject of a continuous, two-thousand-year history was academically unsustainable. Since then the fracturing has continued apace at the disciplinary, curricular, and faculty level.
I remain grateful for the extraordinary resources both institutions offered a young Catholic scholar who wanted to be a church historian. But I’m less sure today about why they exist. Clark’s new book does not answer that question—not that she intended to. For her, the ongoing exploration of the religions of late antiquity, now ramifying to embrace the rise of Islam and the whole integrated world stretching from Britain to central Asia and from the Baltic to the Nile Valley and the Arabian peninsula, seems inherently worth doing. Similarly, her chosen subjects in The Fathers Refounded appear to have been more concerned with securing the academic freedom they needed for their work than with justifying the value of the work itself.
La Piana felt the sting of censure and rejection in a poignant way that neither McGiffert nor Case did. He left his native country in both a literal and a spiritual sense. Perhaps in retaliation for the way he had been treated by Rome, he served as proofreader and counselor to anti-Catholic controversialist Paul Blanshard when he wrote American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949), a professional service Clark does not mention. I regret my church’s panicked expulsion of La Piana and others. His love of democracy and hatred of tyranny win my respect. And he was not immune to the appeal of mysticism, though that was more characteristic of his friend Buonaiuti. McGiffert’s prospective vision of a social Christianity seems cold comfort for surrendering resurrection and Eucharist. Did Case even have a prospective vision? In any event, The Fathers Refounded can make the reader more aware of the legitimate necessity of historical method, but also of its risks and consequences.
The Fathers Refounded
Protestant Liberalism, Roman Catholic Modernism, and the Teaching of Ancient Christianity in Early Twentieth-Century America
Elizabeth A. Clark
University of Pennsylvania Press, $79.95, 448 pp.