Futures Projected

Let’s step back this week from the overdoses of religion-in-public-life evidences which are candidates for Sightings these seasons and look for some perspective by using the rear-view mirror provided by historians, theologians, and ethicists

By Martin E. Marty|March 14, 2016

Let’s step back this week from the overdoses of religion-in-public-life evidences which are candidates for Sightings these seasons and look for some perspective by using the rear-view mirror provided by historians, theologians, and ethicists. Recently, while rearranging some books in my library, I saw a skinny orange-colored paperback tumble from the shelf and bid for attention: The Future of the American Church.

Fortunately, it was a book of projections, not a book of predictions. The latter almost always turn embarrassing when they deal with American religion. This orange gem, edited by friend Philip J. Hefner, happened to have been published in 1968, a fact that tantalizes: how would the American church (etc.) look or fare today had its members followed courses envisioned by four leading projectors exactly fifty years ago?

First, “Prospects for the Church in America,” by Sidney E. Mead, my mentor and dissertation adviser, leads off. After reviewing the legacy of the American Enlightenment and American Evangelicalism (early 19th century style), which Mead saw as focal in history and for projection, he concluded with Paul Tillich that “Christianity will be the bearer of the religious answer (only) as long as it breaks through its own particularity.” It must pass from its “Templeism, which was being destroyed by the technological revolution toward what Dietrich Bonhoeffer envisioned as ‘religionless Christianity.’” The “particularity,” we observe, is partially recast in the era shaped by ecumenism and interfaith tendencies, while secularity and Christianity remain entangled.

Second, James M. Gustafson, premier theological-social ethical thinker, posed “Two Requisites for the American Church: Moral Discourse and Institutional Power.” He concluded that “a moral community is a purposive and initiating community,” while an historical community must “reshape its intentions and its forms to be effective at a new point in cultural history.” Then: “Either we catch such a (double) vision and follow it, or we become an interesting vestige of an age gone by…. Confidence in God and in the gospel, we have; but we are the secondary agency of part of God’s work. Ours is the obligation to make the work effective, which is to say, efficient.” It is hard to picture emeritus-colleague Gustafson finding that this vision is being well-pursued.

Third, Joseph Haroutunian, leading Presbyterian-based historical theologian, chose to project future tasks in pursuit of “Freedom and the Churches.” He included Jews and, implicitly, people of other faiths, in his lament that their religious adherents were “notoriously indifferent to thinking.… Despite much talk about ‘church theology,’ there is hardly such a thing,” and as for the potential contribution of theology to enlarging freedom, including religious freedom, little was going on. He had to nudge the churches, and to hope, but his assessment fifty years ago was rather discouraging.

Finally, Leigh R. Jordahl, Lutheran-based church historian, offered a close-up vision of what the other three dealt with on a vast scale of generalization by concentrating on two 19th century denominational leaders as they assessed how to respond to American culture. Conclusion: now “we need to take our tradition seriously and we need equally to develop a theology of freedom and change that can help us to avoid both an absolutizing of the fruits our fathers have passed on to us, and an adaptionism [Jordahl’s coinage] that is little more than forced improvisation.”

Those four essays, chanced upon after fifty years, reflect the issues of their cultural moment, but they also suggest enduring problems that come with attempts to serve faith-communities and help them serve the larger culture. Did many pay attention to what the projectors of fifty years ago were anticipating and for which they were hoping?  


Hefner, Philip J., ed. The Future of the American Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968. The book’s essays originated as the Zimmerman Lectures at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1966.
Image Credit: U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado / wallyg flickr creative commons.

Martin E. Marty headshotAuthor, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at  www.memarty.com.



To subscribe: Sign up here. You will receive Sightings by email every Monday and Thursday. For updates about new issues of Sightings, follow us on Facebook or @DivSightings.

To comment: Email the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at DivSightings@gmail.com. To request that your comment appear with this article, provide your full name in the body of your email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece]. For Sightings' comment policy, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings-policies.