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‘Religion Unbound’: Jeffrey Stout on Emersonian Democracy

This post is written in response to Jeffrey Stout’s fifth Gifford lecture for 2017, entitled ‘Slavishness, Democracy, and the Death of God.’ It is part of his larger series, Religion Unbound: Powers and Ideals from Cicero to King that has just been delivered at the University of Edinburgh (May 1-11, 2017). My colleague Andrew Johnson is hosting the Giffords blog, where he has posted summaries of the lectures as well as links to the lecture videos. 

Professor Jeffrey Stout has offered a compelling account of Emerson’s importance for the pursuit of ‘ethical religion’. Emerson’s worthy provocations include an incisive critique, later adopted by Nietzsche, of slavishness and the herd mentality. He therefore seeks to evoke others’ ‘self-reliance’, characterised by the expression of ‘unauthorised thoughts’. In Stout’s convincing portrayal, Emerson is not thereby calling for atomised self-assertion; rather, non-conformity is the necessary condition for a ‘sociality of reason’ (in Terry Pinkard’s phrase) that can alone support democracy.…
 
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Community of Foreigners: Bonhoeffer’s Theses for a Time of Resurgent Nationalism

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) knew the grief of love for an embattled nation. He lost family members in the war and then watched punitive measures from the Versailles treaty contribute to a decade of economic hardship for the German people. Bonhoeffer sought to bring these homeland struggles to the attention of an ex-patriate community that he pastored in Spain at the end of the 1920s. His lectures from that period show how deeply love for his people ran, even to the point of disregarding the lives of others in the pursuit of national interests.

Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer’s love of the Christ-community ran deeper still, a commitment that caused him to turn sharply against many of his earlier views. In 1933, when the National Socialists had taken power and suspicion of foreigners had reached a critical juncture, Bonhoeffer nailed his theses to the church door. At issue was the ‘Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service’, which included a paragraph that entailed demotion for civil servants of Jewish descent. Bonhoeffer opposed the enforcement of this law against the church’s ministers, writing and contributing to several statements of which the most succinct was his ‘Theses on the Aryan Paragraph in the Church’. Today, as nationalism surges across Europe and North America, straining commitments to refugee persons, Bonhoeffer’s claims deserve another hearing.…
 
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Confessing Race: Toward a Global Ecclesiology after Bonhoeffer & Du Bois


The fact that today the “black Christ” of a young Negro poet is pitted against the “white Christ” reveals a destructive rift within the church of Jesus Christ.

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism Without Reformation”

Writing as a refugee in New York in the Summer of 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer uses W.E.B. Du Bois’s image of the “color line” to critique racial lines drawn between churches. The broader purview of Bonhoeffer’s essay, “Protestantism without Reformation,” places sociopolitical observations about the black church among American denominations into dialogue with German philosophical assumptions and ecclesial memory. His comments reveal that although a great deal of his deliberation during those two months is focused on an imminent return to Germany, he remains compelled by the witness of the Harlem community that had accepted him during his research fellowship at Union Seminary in 1930–31.…
 
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© David Robinson, 2017