Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms. Wikimedia Commons

Approaching American Protestantism

Giussani’s book contains judgments about American Protestantism that are still valid today, more than thirty years after the first edition was written. An “informational” book, it starts from the Puritan origins and goes up to the 1960s.
Elisa Buzzi

“America’s Protestant theology has not been given much space in Italian research.” This judgment with which Fr Giussani began his preface to the first edition of his book Profilo Storico della Teologia Protestante Americana (Historical Profile of American Protestant Theology) is still substantially valid today, more than thirty years after its writing. In the meantime, many things have changed in the field of studies of American thought. In the spheres of philosophy, ethics, politics, and law, American thought has taken a less and less marginal position in contemporary debate, and indeed, in some cases, has become a protagonist, challenging and reshaping the patterns of European tradition. And yet, the vast theological scene that serves as a background to the “adventurous spiritual life of America” remains today a virtually unexplored territory. Giussani’s book traces a rare and invaluable map of this “terra incognita,” organically complete in its overall view of the development of Protestant theology in America from its Puritan origins to the mid-1960s, and is rich in details and information, condensing into the graspable format of a book an enormous mass of readings and references.

A Solid Structure of Interpretation
These observations alone would be sufficient to justify the upcoming republication by Marietti of Teologia Protestante Americana, issued for the first time in 1969. The work maintains intact the validity of the “informational nature” which the author expressly claimed for it. But there is another, more solid reason for bringing it out again: the strong presence of “elements of judgment and factors of a discourse that substantiate the description and discreetly make it more precise.” Just this solid interpretational framework that structures the text with an aware clarity of thought constitutes the work’s most enduring value. In it, the delineation of categories and judgments which would later be more fully developed in Fr Giussani’s best known works, such as the trilogy and The Religious Conscience in Modern Man, can be traced in the direct confrontation with the historical developments of American Protestantism. Thus, while on one hand his investigation is completely imbued with his appreciation, indeed his evident esteem, for the “religious depth from which Protestantism is born or which it can reach,” especially in the great figures of thinkers and men of faith like Edwards, Bushnell, Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr, and Tillich, on the other the idea of a “reduction of Christianity in the way its nature is lived,” which is revealed in the subjectivism, the individualistic moralism, and the weakening of the organic unity of the Christian fact in its vital and historical heft–what would later be called the “Protestantization of Christianity”– emerges precisely from the analysis of the historical and speculative itinerary of American Protestant thought and finds here its first application and verification.

Profound Contradictions
This is a process of reduction that Protestantism itself has known and experienced within itself because of the manifestation of profound theological and anthropological contradictions, and overall has been a determining influence in the definition of the unmistakable physiognomy of the American ethos. As he describes and explains the complex history, the movements, figures, schools, and currents of thought, Giussani confidently identifies the fundamental pivotal points of this difficult course of development, which has led the “religious potency” of the Puritanism of the origins, ie, its dramatic, overarching sense of divine mystery, affirmed however in “pure faith conceived as an event of grace, detached from any human context,” to become watered down into an “activist and optimistic humanism,” into the anthropocentrism “with increasingly moralistic and pragmatic overtones” typical of the liberal movement, up to the radically secularist products of contemporary theologies, passing however through the great attempts at a renewal of the Protestant religious tradition made by Tillich and Niebuhr. Giussani devotes two more specifically philosophical essays to Niebuhr’s concepts of ethics and history, which are published in an appendix, along with an article on the philosopher of personalism from Boston, ES Brightman, enriching this new edition with further investigations marked by great theoretical depth.