Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Historic Parallels: Rauschenbusch and Cabrini?

Books and Culture's e-letter today contained a review by Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom. Jenkins, with his emphasis on Christianity as a global movement, is always fascinating and thought-provoking.

I've had an exhausting day and am still wending my way through his review of the new, multi-volumed (some still in process) Cambridge History of Christianity but this little bit struck me as especially interesting food for thought:

Equally, Christian movements and trends often transcend the boundaries between Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, though this fact is lost when movements are studied in isolation. In the 1670s, for instance, German Protestantism was transformed by the Pietist movement, which stressed personal devotion and heart-religion in a tradition that overemphasized clericalism and scholarship. At exactly the same time, Roman Catholic mystics elevated the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Protestant-Catholic parallels and connections emerge time and again in the chc volume on the 19th century, inevitably since the various countries were dealing with similar political issues in the aftermath of the European revolutions, and to varying degrees were experiencing modernization and industrialization. In response, Protestants, Catholics, and (later) Orthodox formulated innovative strategies and evolved similar responses—fideistic and devotional movements, missionary enthusiasm, calls for moral purity. The well-known feminization and domestication of Victorian Protestantism finds a close parallel in the complex of Marian devotions in contemporary Europe.

This seems like an obvious "duh" observation, but to my tired mind it seemed pretty profound. We do tend to study movements, especially denominational/sectarian ones, in isolation. I have spent some time studying the Pietist movement, for instance, and I've got more than a passing familiarity with Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart (since I spent almost five years working for the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) but I don't think I ever thought to connect their roots/beginnings. Worth exploring I should think.

I do wonder how often this is true in Christian history...the church, in its varied forms and traditions, responds to key cultural and world events, and those responses naturally look different, coming as they do from such diverse traditions, but perhaps share a deeper core than the traditions might realize.

I am thinking, of course, of my own personal favorite historic era in American history -- the early 1900s, specifically prior to 1925. I've spent a lot of time in company with two almost larger than life religious figures from that era: Walter Rauschenbusch, male, Protestant, Baptist, father of the Social Gospel (about whom I wrote my thesis) and Frances Xavier Cabrini, female, Catholic, Roman, founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart (and about whom I wrote an essay, among other things). On the surface, they were seemingly very different people, but I've often wondered what interesting comparisons might surface if one pushed a bit at their unique responses, as missioners/missionaries especially, to the effects of industrialization in America. Both had a real heart for the poor, though I think all in all Cabrini's activism was more vital (and more theologically healthy) and her legacy more long-lasting. Rauschenbusch's Victorian sensibilities about the family and Cabrini's Marian devotion both seem to be a part of the overarching climate Jenkins' references too.

I need to think more about this.

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