HT to Louis D. for this article, posted on Facebook.
The article features an interview with Dr. Ann Douglas, author of the book The Feminization of American Culture. I found this portion of the interview to be very interesting, since “”one of Dr. Douglas’s main theses is that the demise of Calvinism led to a sentimentalism in religion that shaped the larger society.”
Modern Reformation: You talk a lot about sentimentalism. Is that part of the dismantling process in the 19th century?
Dr. Douglas: Yes, it is. Calvinism had experienced sustained attacks, especially in the eighteenth century, with the founding of such groups as the Universalists and then, of course, the Unitarians. The liberals, headed by Unitarians and Universalists and some Congregationalists as well, began to say as we enter the 19th century, ‘No, if God loves human beings, he understands and sympathizes with human beings. He wouldn’t ask them to do something or believe something that would go against their own needs or desires.’ There’s that line in Job: ‘Though he slay me, yet will I worship him,’ and this was the Calvinistic ethos that the liberals simply could not accept—that idea that God is much greater and larger than our own happiness. Calvinism wasn’t saying that God wanted to be cruel, but that his plans are so much vaster and grander than anything human beings can conceive. The liberals could not accept this view of God, … .
Modern Reformation: Today, especially in what is being called the church growth movement, we hear, in varying degrees, that we must tone down doctrinal distinctives and meet felt needs, focus on healing and wholeness, and prefer soft inspiration to hard sayings. Soft lights, soft sermons, soft choruses caressing the air, have become the rage. Instead of “Eternal Father, Strong To Save,” we sing about walking with Jesus alone in a garden “while the dew is still on the roses,” or, in the words of one chorus, “I keep falling in love with him over and over and over and over again.”
Doctor Douglas: Right, this is straight out of the liberal Unitarian, sentimental tradition of the last century. Women, by far, comprised the largest number of churchgoers and they were staffing mission boards, Sunday school classes, and any other church position they could, at a time when they could not vote or purchase property. As writers, moral reformers, Sunday school teachers…women transformed the church and they wondered, ‘Why do we have to have all this theology and an emphasis on sin and the need for redemption? Why isn’t the home the model for God? Why shouldn’t the things we do and hear in church suit us where we are and woo us where we are, rather than expecting this radical change of heart that Calvinism had required?’
Modern Reformation: That’s an interesting point. A few years ago, Christianity Today ran a cover story on a so-called “megashift” in evangelical theology, from the ‘courtroom’ model that emphasizes sin, guilt, judgment, and the need for an atonement and justification, to a more ‘relational’ model. It was a switch from the courtroom to the family room, toning down the tough theology in favor of a more therapeutic approach. Do you see this as in some way the arrival of the sentimental creed firmly within that same evangelical Protestant establishment that ended up leaving liberal Protestantism over these same issues early this century?
Doctor Douglas: Oh, it is. I could quote you chapter and verse of ministers and evangelical women writers and reformers in the 1830’s who said exactly the same thing—a sense that we need a more human God, a God who is nearer and will understand us better. It’s a tough issue, and Calvinists weren’t saying that God is not uncaring [caring?]. The problem with this whole sentimental tradition, which you’re describing in the 20th century and I’m describing in the 19th, is that once you drop the idea that God is a judge, you do seem to weaken things. To some extent, my own sympathies lie with the Calvinist tradition, because I have enormous respect for the intellectual and spiritual endeavor of trying to understand a world that, you admit, is not necessarily there just to make you happy.
There are probably many factors involved in these shifts (attempting to blame the problem on only a single factor or two tends to be simplistic and reductionistic), but this is a rather astute observation. It not only helps explain the overall feminization of the church in our day, but also provides of a glimpse of a way out of the mess. The problem is that the churches that have bought into the sentimental mindset hold too much sway; a movement back to a more robust theology is a must in reversing the trend. Hopping (hoping?) on the bandwagon is only going to make things worse.