“Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes”

Rchard Rorty was an American philosopher who is not well known outside of academic circles. I certainly have not read him extensively and do not know a lot about him. But I have recently read, and have been impressed with, his 1998 essay titled “Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes.”

Rorty, who died six years ago this month (in 6/07) at the age of 75, was the grandson of the noted German-American theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, the son of the latter’s oldest child. But unlike his grandfather and mother, Rorty was a secular humanist rather than a Christian believer.

ImageStill, Rorty had great appreciation for his grandfather. That is evident from the afterword he wrote for “Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century,” the centennial re-issue of Rauschenbusch’s classic work “Christianity and the Social Crisis” (1907).

From his secular humanist viewpoint, Rorty compares the New Testament and the Communist Manifesto in the 1998 essay. He avers that

both documents are expressions of the same hope: that some day we shall be willing and able to treat the needs of all human beings with the respect and consideration with which we treat the needs of those closest to us, those whom we love.

 That glorious “hope for social justice,” says Rorty, is “the only basis for a worthwhile human life.” And, according to Rorty, the idea of social justice includes the hope that “the world might be changed so as to ensure that no one goes hungry while others have a surfeit.

 Rorty realized that if social justice is to be achieved there will have to be some redistribution of wealth. Echoing the emphasis of his grandfather on the “social gospel,” non-Christian Rorty declares, “There is no way to take the New Testament seriously as a moral imperative . . . without taking the need for such redistribution equally seriously.”

 Then, alluding to the Communist Manifesto, Rorty writes,

To say that history is the history of class struggle is still true, if it is interpreted to mean that in every culture, under every form of government, and in every imaginable situation . . . the people who have already got their hands on money and power will lie, cheat and steal in order to make sure that they and their descendants monopolize both for ever.

But, alas, both the New Testament and the Manifesto of Marx and Engels have to this point been “failed prophecies.” We in the United States have no trouble seeing the miserable failure of Marxism in most of the countries where it became dominant.

 Cambodia is a good example. The Khmer Rouge was the Communist Party of Cambodia under the despotic rule of Pol Pot. It may have embraced a glorious hope for social justice in the beginning, but it is hard to imagine a more dismal failure. More than 2,000,000 Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

Certainly the New Testament has not failed so miserably, especially in recent decades. And yet, from the time of Charlemagne through the era of European colonialism to rather recently, political and military rulers who have claimed to be Christians have led to the slaughter, enslavement, and oppression of people around the world.

I am not as pessimistic as Rorty was. Many Christians are still seeking social justice based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and the New Testament. But, sadly, there are many others who are not. Rorty’s pessimism was not completely unfounded.

 Things would have been much different, though, if the ideas of Rorty’s grandfather had been implemented more widely, rather than being largely rejected by the fundamentalists of the 1920s and afterward.

[This blog posting (and more than 300 previous ones) can also be found at http://theviewfromthisseat.blogspot.com.]

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About Leroy Seat

* Born in Grant City, MO, on 8/15/1938 * Graduated from Southwest Baptist College (Bolivar, MO) in 1957 (A.A.) * Graduated from William Jewell College (Liberty, MO) in 1959 (A.B.) * Graduated from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY) in 1962 (B.D., equivalent of M.Div.) * Received the Doctor of Philosophy degree in theology from SBTS. * Baptist missionary to Japan from 1966 to 2004. * Full-time faculty member at Seinan Gakuin University (Fukuoka, Japan) from 1968 to 2004. * Adjunct professor at Rockhurst University from 2006 to 2014.
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4 Responses to “Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes”

  1. Leroy Seat says:

    From time to time I receive responses to my blog postings from my son-in-law (and Thinking Friend) Tim Laffoon, who lived for many years as an MK (missionary kid) in East Africa. I thought the following comments I received yesterday were especially worth making available for others to read, so here they are:

    “This comparison needs to be heard, especially by the Church. It should be received as a goad from an outside prophet to return to our mandates given by God to His people throughout history. We are to GIVE generously and cheerfully to support those in need. This part of the concept of orthodox theosis. One does not see that much in the Church as a whole, especially in the American churches. (The reformed sects of Christianity seem to be appalled at this concept serving Christ, and focus rather on “knowing” Christ – or at least making an initial confession to that which is viewed to be sufficient for eternal salvation.) Details of this are laid out in the holy scriptures from beginning to end. It is my prayer that the new Bishop of Rome, Francis can begin to unify Christians into the holy catholic Church with a restored mission of generous service in the name of Christ our Lord. Those together must be the Church’s apologetic to the world. David Platt tried to get the Southern Baptists back on track, but his prophetic message was just another fleeting curiosity.

    “I have misplaced my copy of the Communist Manifesto, but as I remember from reading it, the foundation seemed off base. It is a forced redistribution which is militant in its means. I have seen this when I was growing up – Ujamaa (which expatriots called UjaMao). It was a complete failure which cost innocent people there lives by corralling them into communes at gunpoint, where they could not support their families. It was short-lived, thankfully, as Mwalimu Nyrere saw his mistake and abandoned the practice. When forced on those not like-minded, it just builds animosity (or poverty and death) in its means of forced taking of resources from one party to give to another. Redistribution does not work except in isolated instances where all members are committed to the well-being of the others – a family, a monastic religious order, or a like-minded group of individuals committed to a common philosophy. (Some socialism does seem to work among those who desire it, but it has limits as well.)

    “Christianity on the other hand is built on hope – which should lead to generous giving to support and build up those in need. Sadly, the American churches seem to be built on Capitalism (sometimes as corrupt as Communism). Some of the worst excesses are viewed in the extravagant incomes of those leaders who fleece the flock while tickling itching ears, “Christian” summer camps costing hundreds, even thousands of dollars for children to find and “grow” in Christ, even “mission” trips – which really appear to be costly “Christian” vacations to go preach at the world and do a small project and some touristy things, when God has already sent the world to us (just check the number languages represented in our local, metropolitan school districts.)”

  2. Leroy Seat says:

    Canadian Thinking Friend Davis also send important comments by email:

    “Leroy, I don’t have any insightful response to your posting, but it occured to me that while you and I and Rorty and his grandfather might agree that social justice means a redistribution of wealth so that none go hungry (or unsheltered or unemployed or uncared for or un-oppressed…), there are many social and theological conservatives who claim the name “Christian” but who, nevertheless, buy into the unfettered capitalism that preaches the gospel of limitless economic growth in a free market which will lead to the trickle-down of wealth to the poor if they (the poor) will just get off their butts and get a job. Their notion of social action (rarely referred to as social justice) is narrowly defined as making donations to the food bank and protecting society from the scourge of abominations like equality for homosexuals, abortion, gun control and socialized medical care. I think we need a way to find a common agreement on what social justice means, especially as it is portrayed in the Bible.”

  3. Leroy Seat says:

    Canadian Thinking Friend Glen Davis also sent the following thought comments by email:

    “Leroy, I don’t have any insightful response to your posting, but it occurred to me that while you and I and Rorty and his grandfather might agree that social justice means a redistribution of wealth so that none go hungry (or unsheltered or unemployed or uncared for or un-oppressed…), there are many social and theological conservatives who claim the name “Christian” but who, nevertheless, buy into the unfettered capitalism that preaches the gospel of limitless economic growth in a free market which will lead to the trickle-down of wealth to the poor if they (the poor) will just get off their butts and get a job. Their notion of social action (rarely referred to as social justice) is narrowly defined as making donations to the food bank and protecting society from the scourge of abominations like equality for homosexuals, abortion, gun control and socialized medical care. I think we need a way to find a common agreement on what social justice means, especially as it is portrayed in the Bible.”

  4. Leroy Seat says:

    Local Thinking Friend Ed Chasteen gave me permission to post his comments:

    “Leroy, rich and powerful people have always done pretty much as they pleased. They got Karl Marx kicked out of the German university when he wrote a defense of the wood cutters who cut wood on rich owner’s land. He went to France to study. Wrote a student paper sympathetic to the working poor and was kicked out of France.

    “He went to England, where he spent years in the library reading history and writing, supported by his friend, Frederick Engles, whom he had met in France. Mark was never granted a teaching position. His family was poor and sickly. He was never well known or widely read during his lifetime. He died a failure in his own eyes. And we know what the rich and powerful did to Jesus.

    “Those of us who are not rich and powerful and have sympathy for the poor and oppressed must live with this tension: the rich are fearsome adversaries; the poor are undependable allies.”

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