Theses Doctoral

Against the World: International Protestantism and the Ecumenical Movement between Secularization and Politics, 1900-1952

Reynolds, Justin M.

The ecumenical movement was the major international expression of organized Protestantism in the first half of the twentieth-century. This dissertation reconstructs the intellectual origins of the movement and its principal institutions, showing how ecumenical ideas and practices were transformed in response to geopolitical cataclysms, such as World War I, the collapse of European order in the 1930s, the Cold War, and decolonization, that divided international Protestant and Orthodox elites in the North Atlantic and Asia. Focusing on church leaders and lay intellectuals like John Mott, Joseph Oldham, Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Willem A. Visser’t Hooft, John Foster Dulles, and M. M. Thomas, the project shows how a new relation between Christian faith and politics emerged from Protestant-led efforts to internationalize religious authority.
Seeking to manifest world unity through common faith, ecumenists successively redefined the meaning of Christianity in their efforts to secure international consensus on the public role of the church among a politically polyglot constituency that included liberals, conservatives, communists, and fascists. This dissertation argues that the ecumenical movement went through three stages between 1900 and 1952: the first oriented around building the Kingdom of God on earth (1900-1925), the second seeking the realize the worldwide church as the basis of universal community (1930-1950), and the third mobilizing Christians for political revolution (1946-1952). The focus of the dissertation – chapters 2 through 5 – concerns the rise and decline of the ecumenical project to realize the church, which I argue was the first systematic and internationally successfully effort to articulate “ecumenicity” as a form of Christian pluralism. I show how this project was grounded in a missionary theology of anti-secularism that attributed a breakdown of social and international order to modern civilization’s repudiation of God. First defined at a conference of the International Missionary Conference in 1928 as a new “system of life and thought” that had displaced other religions as Christianity’s chief global rival, “secularism” identified an enemy that Allied and German Protestants, estranged since World War I, could unite in opposing. Mobilizing dialectical theology against the “totalitarian” claims of the state and the cogito alike, ecumenical anti-secularists jettisoned the historicist theological liberalism on which earlier forms of Protestant internationalism was based. In the 1930s, organizations like the Universal Christian Council of Life and Work and the World Council of Churches institutionalized theological dialogue as a mode of submission to God’s sovereignty; for the architects of these bodies, Christian faith was the only possible basis of community life in an age of global fracture. A strategy of international consolidation that ascribed political polarization to spiritual alienation, the ascendant anti-secularism of the 1930s did not anathematize the Nazi-sympathizing Reich church but sought to incorporate it into a world Christian community prioritizing the subordination of “political” to religious loyalties.
After 1948, however, the ecumenical program to realize the church collapsed as its leaders struggled to surmount the ideological divisions of the Cold War. While Eastern European church leaders attacked the World Council as a mask for Western imperialism, critics in the West attacked the Council as an agent or stooge of world Communism. To escape the ideological impasse of East and West, the movement turned to the Third World in search of a new basis of global Christian unity. Reinventing the ecumenical project in the postwar world, a younger generation of theologians from the global South argued that the universal fellowship of the church would be actualized not by overcoming politics, but by specifying political commitments in solidarity with the liberation struggles of the poor, the non-white, and the colonized. In this paradoxical denouement, those struggling to surmount internal political divisions embraced political action as the essential expression of religious faith, and Christianity, long declared to be the basis of social order, came to be seen as its revolutionary solvent. By locating the ecumenical movement within a history of the ideas that made its institutional functioning possible, this project breaks from common narratives that lodge the movement within trajectories of secularization that rely on problematic attempts to adjudicate the boundaries between theological and non-theological thought and practice.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Moyn, Samuel A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 5, 2016