Review — Union Made (Heath W. Carter)

Carter, Heath W. Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. ISBN: 9780199385959. Hardcover, e-book. 296 pages.

The social gospel is often (and understandably) linked to the work of liberal theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden, or prominent activists such as Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. To be fair, their respective efforts were influential on the progressive movement in general, and they should not be discredited, however the rise of what became known as “social Christianity” owes far more debt to the localized efforts of working people and sympathetic clergymen within the Chicago area. In his lucid and extensively documented work Union Made, historian Heath W. Carter offers a counter-history to prevailing notions of the social gospel as a top-down movement for radical change.

Carter begins by detailing the preexisting conditions in Chicago which, unfortunately, created economic and existential disparity between the clergy and their mostly working-poor congregants. As Chicago experienced high levels of industrial development in the mid-to-late 1800’s, the working class began to experience the overbearing brunt of the wealthy elite and their predilections for unfettered capitalism. Progressive efforts to reform the workplace were discouraged and at times outright rejected—seen in resistance to eight-hour workdays, union organization, higher pay, and better treatment for women—from both management and the press (who were often shills for some of the business magnates in Chicago). Ironically, the income of many clergymen rose as well, financed in large part by the wealthy elite who paid for preferential treatment, such as reserved seating or new, ostentatious places of worship, in stark contrast to the decrepit working and living conditions of their fellow congregants. This particular element of Carter’s research is the most disheartening, but it perfectly captures the tragic irony at work: despite the overwhelming majority of working-class congregants sitting in their pews, many clergy were willfully ignorant of their plight for the sake of material adornment.

While institutional Christianity remained relatively ambivalent or oppositional toward the aims of working-class reform, the working-class at large in turn remained unified in their insistence for change. The power of the press comes out clearly in Carter’s work. Circulars across the city continued to arise from differing streams within the working class (e.g. differing denominations, political ideologies, etc.) and helped spread progressive ideas while illuminating the disparity at work between the clergy and the working class. Because progressive reforms remained fundamentally class-oriented, they were able to transcend ideological or cultural differences within the city to embrace a wide swath of the population. These differences were certainly not erased, but they were unified by common struggle against the wealthy elite.

Moreover, Carter goes on to document the tension between the working class in Chicago and the wealthy elite, detailing how repeated strikes and protests galvanized support for reform and helped swing institutionalized Christianity in favor with at least some of the aforementioned progressive reforms. Carter also details the common thread between radical individuals within the progressive movement in how they understood the contextual application of scripture and the role of Christ, in contrast to their clergy. While the oppositional clergy remained fixated on Christ as a strictly spiritual figure interested only in personal salvation separate from the material conditions of society, these radical reformers understood Christ to be a materially liberating figure, a champion of the working poor. The amalgamation of progressive economic theory and theology gave rise to what became known as social Christianity, or the social gospel. Because the clergy became the most prominent detractors of the working class, those advocating for reform were able to subvert traditional Christianity and offer a substantive critique of the clergy while remaining distinctly theological in their activism. While the debate often centered on the ills of capitalism or socialism in strictly political terminology, the working class movement led a distinctly theological campaign for reform. Thus, for the working poor, activism was thoroughly Christlike, sustaining the impetus for continued resistance to the efforts of the wealthy elite.

As years passed, clergy were forced to confront the reality that their ignorance had cost them far more than a decline in church attendance, but a growing distrust of institutional Christianity for its allegiance to unfettered capitalism, even as this same resistance drew life from a radical interpretation of Christian theology. Although the majority of institutional Christianity remained ambivalent at best toward the efforts of progressive reform—and only settling for a rather conservative union presence in the final years documented within the book—there are many examples of clergy giving clear public support for the working poor. These efforts are a welcome contrast to the aforementioned resistant clergy.

Union Made is a wonderful resource for those interested in the progressive movement and the social gospel. Readers will find the extensive research to be clear and well-written. Yet this book’s greatest achievement is not merely its expansive exposé of social Christianity in Chicago, but how closely it mirrors current movements for economic justice. Will institutional Christianity once again learn the bitter lesson of what happens when it sides with the wealthy elite against the working class? Readers will receive a healthy dose of history, yes, but also encouragement for continued efforts to limit the expanse of unfettered capitalism for the sake of the working poor. This struggle for justice is nothing new, but it is indeed a struggle worthy of the “Christian” descriptor.

Paul Tillich’s Understanding of Theology

This is the inaugural post in a series I will publish while working through Paul Tillich’s three-volume Systematic Theology. This series will run chronologically throughout the work itself, but will cover specific themes and not every section. You may read the introduction to this blog here.

Theology is the situational outworking of divine revelation for the needs of the church. In contradistinction to pure apologetics, where truths derived from theological discourse are made palatable for the unbeliever in the hopes of “reasonable” argumentation, theology is intended to serve the historic-existential needs of the church. Theology is an act of the church, by the church, for the church.

Tillich in turn begins the introduction to his Systematic Theology by drawing the boundaries in which theology arises and flourishes. “Theology, as a function of the Christian church, must serve the needs of the church. A theological system is supposed to satisfy two basic needs: the statement of truth of the Christian message and the interpretation of this truth for every new generation.” It is important to note the distinction made in the preceding quote. Truth—specifically, the truth of the Christian kerygma, or the revelation of Jesus as the Christ—is refracted by the historic-existential situation, which by nature denotes the possibility of change. Theology seeks to actualize this truth for each historic-existential context, therefore, the truth contained in theological discourse cannot be absolutized or universalized, but must be interpreted anew in each approaching context. Revelation, specifically that of the divine in the person of Christ, is an ongoing event, and cannot be misconstrued with a singular “happening”; the existential crisis inherent to the human existence affirms that revelation is necessarily evermore-interpreted. Moreover, the reality of contextual mutation necessitates a historic-existential relativity insofar as the truth of theological discourse is concerned. Theology exists in tension, fluctuating between “the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received.” Its grounding or life-source (truth-itself) is eternal, but its actualization is temporal, and subject to change. In short, theology speaks of something (revelation) which cannot neither be fully absolutized nor relativized, both of which are acts of limiting its transcendent and historic-existential presence.

Tillich surmises that the interest of theology is not God specifically, but the “contents of the Christian message,” insofar as these contents are able to speak to the “ultimate concern.” Our ultimate concern is not God as the metaphysical object, but how the reality that “Jesus Christ the Logos has become flesh” answers the existential question of being and non-being inherent to the human experience. Both theology and philosophy are therefore exercises in answering this ontological question, even as they approach the question of being from different places. “Philosophy deals with the structure of being in itself; theology deals with the meaning of being for us.” In Tillich’s eyes, however, theology is necessarily philosophical, and philosophy is necessarily theological, even in part. Because both are concerned with the ontological question of being, the two will overlap; theology must discern the structure of being in some form to answer the question of meaning, and philosophy must reach some conclusion after describing the structure of being through its respective categories. Consider the following section (emphasis added).

Philosophy necessarily asks the question of reality as a whole, the question of the structure of being. Theology necessarily asks the same question, for that which concerns us ultimately must belong to reality as a whole; it must belong to being. Otherwise we could not encounter it, and it could not concern us. Of course, it cannot be one being among others; then it would not concern us infinitely. It must be the ground of our being, that which determines our being or not-being, the ultimate and unconditional power of being. But the power of being, its infinite ground or “being-itself,” expresses itself in and through the structure of being. Therefore, we can encounter it, be grasped by it, know it, and act toward it. 

Thus, for Tillich, theology is primarily a methodology for answering the existential crisis inherent to the human condition. “The criterion whether or not a discipline is theological is not its assumedly supranatural origin but its significance for the interpretation of our ultimate concern” (emphasis added). Theology is not concerned with a being separate from the human experience, but one which is universally integral yet historically and existentially distinctive to reveal the answer to the crisis of being and not-being.

In the last half of the introduction to Volume One of Systematic Theology, Tillich undertakes a painstakingly detailed explanation of the structure of theology. His interest is showing how the traditional interests of theological discourse (e.g. practical theology, ethics, et. al.) are components of a unifying “circle” revolving around the “ultimate concern” of human existence in light of Christ as the “New Being.” He contends that “systematic theology” is an exercise in interpreting the contents of the Christian message in a particular historical context. As mentioned previously, the ultimate concern of theology is the ontological question, or the existential crisis inherent to the human condition, of which the Christ-event is necessarily integral.

There are two overarching themes of this latter section of the introduction which are worth detailing, the first being the sources of systematic theology. Tillich rejects the aims of “biblicist” theologians who deem the Bible the only source of revelation. In light of the aforementioned possibility for contextual mutation, Tillich notes that scripture is necessarily a product of its historical development. One cannot separate the document from its historical context, nor can its message be contained solely in the document itself—the Christ-event rejects the limitation of revelation to the Bible alone. “The Bible is both original event and original document; it witnesses to that of which it is a part.” For the interests of the theologian, the Bible is a foundational element of the methodology to answer the ontological question, but it works alongside other elements to carry divine revelation. Tradition, reason, and human experience  are all equally valid receptor-conduits for divine revelation to speak to the question inherent to human existence.

The second theme featured predominantly in the introduction is that of experience. Tillich acknowledges the importance of Schleiermacher’s “experiential method,” which described religion as the “feeling of absolute dependence.” As he rightly notes, Schleiermacher was not speaking of a “psychological feeling” but an awareness of “something unconditional in the sense of the Augustinian-Franciscan tradition.” However, Tillich also recognizes the temptation to make experience the origination of theological content. Instead, Tillich suggests that experience should be a “medium” by which we receive said content. Drawing upon the Lutheran “School of Erlangen,” Tillich writes, “The event on which Christianity is based…is not derived from experience; it is given in history. Experience is not the source from which the contents of systematic theology are taken but the medium through which they are existentially received.” Because theology is concerned with the question of being inherent to human existence, the experience of the individual cannot produce the answer, but it can (and does) ask the question itself. Nevertheless, human experience is vital to the theological method because it is an encounter with and response to reality as such—as a complement but not the sole arbiter. Because the human cannot separate from reality, their respective experience is merely a receptor to the divine revelation of the Christ-event. This in turn affirms the necessity for experiential discernment, while affirming the transcendent revelation of God over and against experience.

Thus, to summarize the introduction, Tillich establishes the boundaries in which theological discourse arises and flourishes. Its “ultimate concern” is the question of being inherent to human existence, thus it looks to the revelation of Christ as the “New Being” for its answer. Jesus as Christ is both universally integral yet existentially distinctive to the human condition in order to reveal both the structure and meaning of being, and thus creates the capacity for humanity to experience existential liberation from the crisis of being.