Nurturing Faith with Harry Emerson Fosdick

Faith As A Personal Adventure

“Religion at its source is personal adventure on a way of living. A new idea of life’s spiritual meaning, incarnate in a leader, summons men, and they cut loose from old entanglements and try the challenging venture.” [i]

Adventurous Religion, Harry Emerson Fosdick

“This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.”

John 15:12 (Common English Bible)

Fosdick wrote of a letter he received from a man who never united with a church. The author of the letter shared with Fosdick that there is a teaching of the church, a church doctrine, which he simply cannot embrace. Fosdick identified the man as one who is reverent, spiritually-minded, and essentially religious but thinks he must stay outside of the church. That conviction was inextricably bound to his understanding that the church demanded belief in this one teaching where he was unable to believe. Fosdick continues that Jesus never mentions the one teaching that presented such difficulties for the man—that the teaching developed in the church centuries after Jesus lived. This is the peril, argues Fosdick, with which the church must now wrestle.

My ministry once presented a similar difficulty—a difficulty that a church member had with a particular teaching of the apostle Paul. That teaching, “At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit. In this way, there is equality. As it is written, ‘The one who gathered more didn’t have too much, and the one who gathered less didn’t have too little'” (2 Corinthians 8:14, 15). In my office, the man instructed me that this particular teaching was socialism and shouldn’t be read again. Taking a leadership lesson from William Willimon, I told him that my baptismal burden, as his pastor, is to teach the Bible – the whole Bible. His baptismal burden was to work out with God what he would do with the Bible’s claim upon him.

From my perspective, neither the man who wrote Fosdick nor the man who spoke to me in my office has paid much attention to Jesus. Perhaps Fosdick and I are to blame. Perhaps preaching, in general, has veered off from teaching as Jesus taught. Jesus neither espoused religious doctrine or political ideology. Jesus simply asked that we love one another. Perhaps the fault is much larger. Our nation has become snared in debate, politically and doctrinally, over what an American and a Christian look like. There is little humility and less civility. Returning to Willimon, our baptismal burden is freeing ourselves from political and doctrinal entanglements to really listen to Jesus and seek the wisdom to live as Jesus lived. The great adventure of the Christian faith has been reduced to unpleasant rhetoric.

Fosdick argues that “faith” has acquired a meaning far removed from the day of Jesus. It has ceased being primarily a daring thing—a mountain-mover, as Jesus understood faith, or a victory that overcomes the world, as John called it. Increasingly, in Fosdick’s day, and continuing in the present day, “faith” is stereotyped and organized until it means acceptance of creedal and political positions. What remains is unquestioned acceptance from the faithful. Sadly, it seems, the climate has changed from the day of the New Testament. Who would imagine Jesus facing such rhetoric and debate? Except, a closer examination of the New Testament discloses that, in fact, Jesus faced the same each day. Jesus’ response was to demonstrate what love looked like. Perhaps, that is where we need to return.


[i] Fosdick, Harry Emerson, Adventurous Religion and Other Essays. New York: Blue Ribbon, 1926, 1, 2.

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