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“The Confessions of a Religious Seeker” by Henry Nelson Wieman

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Henry Nelson Wieman

Henry N. Wieman at age 60 in 1944.

The central concern of my entire intellectual life has been one problem that came to conscious recognition a few months before I graduated from college and has been with me ever since. Put very simply, the decision of 1907 was to seek a better understanding of that which should rightfully command the kind of absolute self-giving which goes by the name of religious faith. Regrettably we have no pronoun fit for deity. We never shall have, so long as the male of the species complacently assumes that God must be masculine, and the female abets his blasphemous arrogance.

The problem is not to discover what people actually do commit themselves to in religious faith, but what should rightfully command it. Amassing knowledge concerning the faiths of mankind is a legitimate field of study, but it was not the problem I undertook in 1907. My problem was to get more reliable knowledge about the nature of the reality, whatever its character, that should command religious faith, whether or not we in fact actually do give to it their supreme devotion. Obviously that which should command our faith is what, under favorable conditions progressively creates man and all the good that he can ever have.

Human power has become so great and is growing so rapidly, that error in matters of religious faith will be suicidal if not corrected. In the past, pursuit of error by way of beliefs that go beyond the evidence could continue without self-destruction of society and the ending of history, but not now. Our power is too great for such irresponsibility in religious belief. If religious leaders and institutions continue to block the way to process, where alone can be found the guidance we must have for right religious faith, they must be pushed aside. The need is too urgent, the danger too desperate, for the practice of deference.

This is the sort of problem that I have pursued ever since it came to consciousness in the year I graduated from college. The first serious article dealing with it appeared ten years later in the summer of 1917 in The Journal of Philosophy under the title, “A Criticism of Coordination as Criterion of Value.” It was part of a Doctor’s thesis which I was then writing under the guidance of Ralph Barton Perry and William Ernest Hocking in the department of philosophy at Harvard University.

Perhaps it is relevant to an intellectual autobiography to describe the conditions and manner in which this problem of a lifetime first came to mind. Then I can go back into my childhood and youth and trace some of the influences that brought me to the place where such a problem could command my whole attention for the next forty years and more. After telling how the problem came to me and what led to it, I can then give an account of the influences, teachers, studies, thinkers, and subsidiary questions, that have shaped my treatment of it throughout the years until now.

Throughout high school and college, I had intended to become a journalist after getting my A.B. degree. The career of Walter Lippmann represents the kind of thing I envisioned for myself although of course Walter Lippmann’s career at that time had not been achieved, and my dream was doubtless a fatuous one, such as young men are likely to have about themselves. Up until the spring of the year that I graduated from college, I never doubted for a moment that journalism would be my work. But one evening in the month of April I returned from the dining hall to my room in the dormitory at Park College and sat alone in the dusk looking out over the Missouri river where the sun had set. I cannot remember that anything in particular was in my mind when I first seated myself there; certainly I was not agitated about anything. But suddenly the idea and conviction came to me with strange compelling power and ecstasy: throughout my life I shall work on the problem of religion. The problem as I then conceived it was at least implicitly what has been sketched above.

The exhilaration of this new idea and purpose reached the dimensions of what I think can be rightly called ecstasy. All night I lay awake and the strange joy of this new purpose did not leave me for several days. Since then I have never ceased to try to do this one thing. I suppose this experience is revelatory of the kind of mind and person that I am. I found these problems fascinating. Then I took a course in philosophy. In this course I found the questions which it seemed to me I had always been trying to answer.

The purpose to enter journalism had been so long and firmly established that it did not yield to the newly developing interest until this subconsciously developing propulsion broke down the obstruction of the long established purpose. The ecstasy, I suppose, was the consequence of the reintegration of personality when the resistance of the outgrown purpose yielded to the absorbing problems that now took possession of my mind. In any case, I seemed to be absolutely certain that the religious problem above described would hold my attention as long as I lived. The subsequent years have confirmed this feeling of certainty.

My father was a Presbyterian minister, and I was the oldest in a family of eight. My mother, herself a graduate of Park College, never revealed to me during my childhood that she wanted me to work on the problem of religion but after I had decided to do so, she told me that this had always been her desire for me.

The faith that surrounded me in my home was not put in the form of doctrines. I never had any theological arguments with either of my parents. I always felt entirely free to think and to seek and to believe whatever seemed to me at the time to be the direction of truth. I never discovered fundamentalism until long after the controversy had been raging around me. My parents were not interested in the issues and neither was I. I never have been. It all seemed foolish and irrelevant to me from the time I first became aware of the dispute.

My father never discussed what was called the higher criticism of the Bible, and when I later went to a theological school at a time when theological professors were in danger of being discharged according as they took sides in the argument, I was bored by the controversy. The issues seemed to me to have no bearing whatsoever upon the religious problems that concerned me. What difference did it make who wrote what and how and when except as it might help to get at the correct meaning of certain passages in the Bible? The Bible itself seemed to me to be a vastly overrated book. Certainly it is a great body of literature, and some passages in it are profoundly revealing for religious faith. But to call it “the inspired Word of God” and all the rest of the hullabaloo, has given it a false prestige.

The statements just made are not set forth here as controversial issues; they are made to reveal the intellectual and religious atmosphere of my home and my own state of mind. My parents prayed at meal time with the children. We called it “Asking the Blessing.” But it was not that; it was prayer, sincere and earnest.

My father’s first ministry was in Richhill, Missouri where I was born. My father went on to Corning, Kansas, where he was pastor for four years. I was four years old when we arrived in Corning and eight when we left. My parents moved to a little desert community in the San Joaquin valley where my mother’s parents had gone a short time before. The dozen or so houses in the midst of the desert stretching treeless and houseless all around as far as the eye could see across a land as level as a floor, contained only five boys near my own age. Three of them were brothers, and all of them except the youngest of the three brothers were a little older than I.

They were my only possible associates outside my own family. Before my arrival these five boys had heard of the “preacher’s kid” who was coming to town. They planned to show him how to behave. Trouble began at once, perhaps the first day I attended the local school. It began by their plaguing my younger brother. In Corning all the boys fought not with their fists but by wrestling, so I rushed in to throw the other fellow down. I was strong for my years and more skilled in wrestling and so could throw them singly, but that did me no good. There were five of them and one of me, and they were all against me. Furthermore, there was no other child in that locality with whom I could have company. So I became a pariah. The physical encounters did not trouble me but it was the social isolation. Everywhere I turned I found hostility, exclusion, taunting. The school teacher, older sister of one of the hostile boys, was also against me. No one befriended me. This continued for a year, and I think that I have never entirely gotten over it. For years a nameless, unreasoning fear would at times come over me in small groups where everyone else was happy and convivial if the group was small enough to be at all comparable to the group of boys in that desert town. It was never the fear of physical harm but the feeling of being outcast and excluded. I think it has always hindered the freedom and spontaneity of my association with groups. I never feel it when alone with one individual. In the desert I never had trouble with the boys singly. When I was alone with any of them, they were unusually friendly and seemed to put themselves out to be pleasant. But whenever the group formed, they turned on me.

Wieman 1912

Wieman, circa 1912.

When I first went to the preparatory school connected with Occidental College at the age of seventeen, I played on the college football team. I played right tackle while Dean Cromwell, now for years coach and athletic director at the University of Southern California played right half just behind me. I was the youngest on the team, newly arrived from a little rural community, unacquainted with the ways of the city and the college. Cromwell was powerfully and beautifully built, and it was a joy to see him move. When the other side had the ball, Cromwell would crouch directly behind me, and if the runner on the other side started to go around our end, Cromwell would give me a tremendous boost. Sometimes he would hurl me over the line or through it, so that I could tackle the runner behind his own line. I could never have done this myself. It was Cromwell who did it. But his part was inconspicuous while mine was spectacular. It seems to me that throughout my life I have again and again been boosted in this way. Football is not exactly part of an intellectual autobiography except as the event described illustrates much more complicated intellectual boosts which have given me opportunity and recognition I do not deserve. The last of these was the placing of me in The Library of Living Theology.

Schooling preparatory to college was intellectually uneventful. The stimulating and transforming influences were outside the school in books I read on my own initiative, books by Tolstoi, Thackeray, Dickens, Longfellow, Tennyson, Byron, and Browning. These poems excited me in a way I cannot well describe. They aroused a feeling of something immensely important that I could not articulate. I suppose that is typical of early adolescents reading poetry, but I think some ideas were dimly and vaguely beginning which later became explicit. It seems to me that I have always felt important realities before I could think them, and by realities I mean events obscurely and potently occurring. Indeed, my whole intellectual life seems to have been largely a struggle to formulate into propositions what I was all the time experiencing in the form of events.

At the end of my freshman year I left Occidental College. I enjoyed myself immensely while there, but all my time seemed to be occupied with everything except reading and study. I was not only on the football team but also in official positions in various organizations of the student body. I should add that girls also occupied no small part of my time. So I left Occidental to attend Park College. I went there with the resolve to have nothing more to do with girls because they took too much time. Any mature person can predict what happened to a young man making that resolve at the age of twenty. I met and courted the girl I later married. Her name was Anna Orr. But I went to Park College because no intercollegiate athletics were allowed there, and I would not be distracted by them and would have more opportunity to read and think. Also, at Park student life was so organized that everybody worked part of the time on the farm or in constructing and caring for the buildings or otherwise helping to maintain the place. This made the work of helping to pay one’s own expenses a routine part of the college life, so that it did not consume so much of my time as it did at Occidental.

The shift to Park College was far more important to me than at the time I was able to imagine, because there I found philosophy of religion. A rising tide of interest grew with each subsequent philosopher I encountered from the Greeks onward, until I came to Leibnitz and Kant. There it culminated. My teacher was a follower of Josiah Royce first, and Hegel second. For a time, I thought I was a Kantian, and for a longer time a Leibnitzian. But these were the transitory enthusiasms of a youth who had just discovered the works of the great philosophers. I cannot say that I ever studied these men with sufficient thoroughness to make their thought my own.

My teacher gave some attention to William James, who was then prominently before the public. But it always seemed to me that James slipped over and around problems, touching them lightly and entertainingly, making a few brilliant remarks, but never really penetrating them. He always seemed to slip away and pass on just when he should begin to dig down. He seemed to promise much in his approach to a problem but always disappointed me. His brilliance made me feel that I must be missing the point until at last I discovered that he had no point corresponding in importance to the brilliance.

Shortly before I graduated, I changed the purpose of my life as I previously described. My father being a Presbyterian minister, I went to San Francisco Theological Seminary located at San Anselmo, a Presbyterian institution.

In San Anselmo we were taught Calvin. While Calvin’s system of thought never shaped my thinking, Calvin’s rigor, his insistence on defensible propositions for the guidance of faith, above all his undeviating recognition of God as a power over and above every power of man, I respect.

I cannot say that my studies in this theological school made much impression on me. It all seemed rather alien and irrelevant to the real problems as I felt them. I fear that one of the chief bonds that held me throughout the three years was the desire to win the traveling fellowship, which was granted to the man who made the highest record during that period of time. I went to Europe in the fall of 1910. I was twenty-six years old.

I went to Jena to study under Eucken, reputed to be the greatest thinker in the field of philosophy of religion at that time. I went to Heidelberg to study under Windelband and Troelstch. Windelband was a clear and systematic expounder of the great thinking of history. Troelstch, I must confess, did not win from me the enthusiasm that he has aroused in many. He was an energetic lecturer, and you felt there was power in the man. But history does not solve problems, it only presents them.

On returning to the United States, I took a pastorate and married Anna Orr. She died in 1931 of cancer of the stomach after we had lived together for twenty years. We had five children. I could share with her my intellectual problems, and she was a cooperator in dealing with them. She was an ardent student, and I always felt that we understood one another very fully and shared what life might bring.

During the two and one half years that I was a pastor before I went to Harvard, I studied Bergson rather intensively and he influenced me greatly. I never accepted his anti-intellectualism, but Bergson, Eucken, Dewey, S. Alexander, and Whitehead all have something in common. That something—which they all approach from different directions and in different ways—I also try to interpret. Creativity is as good a name for it as any, and they all use that word with different shades of meaning. I am deeply indebted to them all.

After two years at Harvard I obtained the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. My stay at Harvard was the greatest intellectual, educational occurrence in my life up to that time. I went to Harvard to study under Hocking because he had taken that place in the world of scholarship after publishing his The Meaning of God in Human Experience. I was searching everywhere for the best that I could get to guide me in dealing with the problem of religious faith. Hocking I found to be one of those rare men among the great scholars who not only had a profound and compelling faith of his own but who applied all his resources to searching for a better understanding with which to guide faith. Insight into human life and personality emerging from his teaching and writing were most rewarding.

In 1917 I left Harvard to teach philosophy and sociology in Occidental College. The weekly journal called The New Republic began to appear. I subscribed for it at once and read it regularly for years. This journal should be added as a further teacher helping me to grow into a better understanding of the creativity in society and history.

I found teaching in college a joy beyond what I imagined it could be. I had not anticipated teaching as a vocation. I had sought the position of teacher as incidental to the kind of research I wished to pursue. But when I discovered what teaching might be, I am convinced that no greater opportunity can come to anyone. If civilization continues, teaching will carry an even greater load of responsibility; it will in time be recognized as the most critically important and strategically effective position a person can take in human life.

While at Occidental College I studied the earlier works of Whitehead, especially his Concept of Nature and Science and the Modern World. These books seemed to open a door which I had vaguely felt was there to be opened but which Whitehead first swung wide. Whitehead, unlike most thinkers of our time, does not keep within the bounds of specialized competence. He plunges radically into all the ultimate problems, but always with deftness and insight. One can find more fault with Whitehead than with thinkers who keep close to a narrow specialization, but also more truth and vision. I consider Whitehead one of my greatest teachers.

Also at Occidental I studied John Dewey. I never quite understand what he is saying, but I am generally enthusiastic about it. I seem always to feel that he is trying to do something that much needs to be done, and his ideas are sufficiently inchoate so that I can almost always make out of them something a little different from what he intended and nearer to what I think he ought to say. A mind that is precise, clear, and neat may be great, but there is also the other kind of greatness, and it can be no less creative. I follow after him, but from afar.

While at Harvard I was introduced to Freud; while teaching at Occidental College I first made intensive study of his work along with Jung, Adler, and the other “depth” psychologists. Apart from the divergent and sometimes fantastic theories of these men, I believe their work marks a new advance in history so far as concerns the understanding of human nature.

John Dewey was kind enough to make commendatory remarks about the article appearing in The Journal of Religion which was also the first chapter in Religious Experience and Scientific Method. Macmillan, the publisher, put these remarks conspicuously on the front of the jacket of the book. The Department of Philosophy and Divinity School of the University of Chicago in those days were through and through devoted to John Dewey. Also, Charles Clayton Morrison, editor of The Christian Century, had studied under Dewey and was his faithful follower in those days. So, when my book came out with Dewey’s commendation, Chicago received it heartily.

Shailer Mathews asked me if I would come to the Divinity School to teach for a year. I said that I had already been released by my college for one half year and could not ask for another year’s absence at that time. He then immediately asked if I would not come permanently as a regular member of the faculty of the Divinity School. I realized that the Divinity School was by all odds the best place for working on my problem and accepted the offer of Mathews. I was asked to teach philosophy of religion, not theology, but was to be put into the Department of Theology.

During the first years of my teaching at Chicago, I felt strangely out of place and in a very alien intellectual atmosphere despite the most exceptional kindness shown toward me by almost all the faculty. The Divinity School was preeminent in masterful scholarship and research devoted to what I have called the tools of the ministry, such as textual and higher criticism, original manuscripts, and technical historical research into times and places whence arose the Christian tradition. As said before, all this has always seemed to me irrelevant to the important problem of religious faith, quite harmless but futile in guiding our devotion. Symbols and doctrines and documents and historical incidents connected with the practice of the Christian religion were searched and criticized with enormous energy and massive scholarship. But what was it all about? What was the nature of that reality which men were trying to serve and put themselves into the keeping of, when they went through all these motions? No one seemed to be interested in that question. If you asked them, they would speak of the highest socially accepted ideals of the time and place concerning which you might ask the question. They would tell you of the beliefs and symbols of the people in some locality and age. But to ask about the nature of God identical in all times and places for all peoples! Some of the faculty would admit that perhaps there was such a being, but we could not know anything about it beyond the myths and symbols and beliefs and ideals that change from age to age and place to place. Others would deny that there was anything at all of any importance sufficient to be worth our investigation except what the various sciences told us concerning the world and man and the highest ideals that people might have. In my opinion, they were ignoring the one and only important problem which a graduate school of religion was established to consider. It seemed to me that in their esteem the church and the facts of history pertaining to religion were much more important than God. The departments of philosophy and the social sciences shared the same view as the Divinity School on all these points. I was devoted to a search and an interest exactly opposite to all this.


Wieman at age 81.

Religion is committing oneself with the kind of self-giving called faith to what one holds to be the source of all human good, to serve and obey it above all and to be transformed by it in any way that it may require. It is important to notice that the word “belief” is not used: one commits himself to what “he holds to be,” not merely what he “believes to be.” What one holds to be the source of all human good, whether this be Nirvana, or the tribe symbolized in the totem, or the Aryan race, or the economic determinism of history, or God revealed in Christ, is not determined by intellectual assent to propositions, which is belief. It is determined by the impact of a society and a history, a tradition and a fellowship, which mould the sub-intellectual structure of personality and direct its governing propensity. This sub-intellectual structure and governing propensity of personality is in most cases so moulded and directed that what one holds to be the source of all human good is not in truth of that character. Hence most religion is evil or worthless. This is true regardless of what one may profess, calling it Christianity or whatever.

When revelation again came by way of Jesus Christ and his early followers, the same tragic consequence ensued. A neo-orthodoxy equipped with Greek philosophy declared that the God revealed in Christ was not in time and process, where alone he might be found by intellectual and empirical search; the God revealed in Christ is beyond time, in eternity, declared the neo-orthodoxy of that time. As a consequence, down to this day Christian leaders repudiate process (events) as the realm where God exclusively resides and can be found.

Always the revelation is lost and the subsequent civilization goes down in self-destruction because neo-orthodoxy seizes on the form of the revelation and blocks the way to the only kind of religious inquiry that might achieve the knowledge and conserve the revelation. How many civilizations must fail in self-destruction, producing a state of social confusion in which a new revelation occurs giving man still another chance to find the way of salvation, only to have the path of discovery blocked by some new form of neoorthodoxy? How long history can endure this tragic sequence without bringing the human story to an end, no one can say. History is patient and humanity is tough, so it may go on for several thousand years yet.

I am deeply indebted to others and without these others would never have found the path I am following. There is a fellowship of seekers who have devoted their lives to the endeavor to get more authentic knowledge about God. Charles Hartshome is one of these. He combines ardor of religious devotion with rigor of logical analysis, and both are developed to an extraordinary degree. There are times when he and I seem almost to meet and merge in our views of the religious issues which have absorbed our lives.

Edgar S. Brightman is another who belongs to this fellowship of intellectual seekers for the faith. I agree with him in refusing to accept any affirmation about God that is not sustained by rational evidence. Furthermore, he seeks everlastingly with full confession of his liability to error. He belongs to the fellowship of lifelong seekers, and that is the important thing.

Another group of fellow seekers I must mention are my students. I am proud of them and deeply indebted to them, not only for important contributions to my own thought, but for personal support in time of need. I shall make no predictions about my students but a number of them have remarkable ability and great promise. I am farther along in my own search because of them.

I have adopted naturalism as the name for my way of thought in religious matters. Naturalism is a correct name for any philosophy that asserts that nothing has causal efficacy except actual events, causality being identical with any predictable order of events. Such an order may reach indefinitely back into the past, but it must also extend into the future and so provide basis for prediction. Prediction depends upon this extension into the past just as much as into the future. God is the form (structure, character) of actual events which distinguishes the source of all human good so far as this source operates in a way qualitatively different from human operations, and produces values more important for human existence and human improvement than man can produce on his own initiative. I have tried to show in The Source of Human Good that this character of actual events which distinguishes God from man, and from every other kind of reality, is a kind of creativity. These creative events (or this creative event) operate in a way to expand the range, variety, and vividness of qualities which a mind can appreciate in the form of meanings. This occurs when required conditions are present, some of which man can provide. The most important of these required conditions which man must provide is his own self-giving in religious faith. It demands obedience to the commands of this reality to which commitment is made. The commands are always to doing everything in one’s power to provide the other conditions, beyond one’s own faith, that are required for this creative source to produce the values of life most abundantly.

This is religious naturalism because the reality to which this commitment or self-giving is made is interpreted to be an order of actual, temporal, spatial, I material events. The events are also spiritual, but they always have a material base in as much as they occur in this material world and not in some other world.

This sketch of my intellectual history in dealing with religious problems is already too long. I have been intensely interested in history in the making. It would require another sketch, fully as long as this already written, to sketch my social thinking and any ventures in social action. So for the present I must leave it unwritten.

— Abridged from Wieman’s intellectual autobiography, courtesy of Special Collections, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.