[note, the service also included an excellent story, 'The Tear', written by storyteller Dan Keding]
In this morning’s sermon, I’m going to take a bit of a chance. I am going to talk about theology – and not just theology but one particular theologian – Henry Nelson Wieman. I don’t usually do this sort of topic because I am afraid that it will absolutely bore you to tears.
I have to admit that, like most of you probably, I find little inspiration in the work of most theologians. It often seems to me that they are working to elucidate and make rules for a fantasy world – a world created by stories written thousands of years ago by human beings who were very much of their times and for their times. So, I take most theological works like a dish I dislike at a dinner party – no choice but to partake, but I’m certainly not enjoying it.
Wieman is different. I’d voluntarily take a second helping and his writings leave a good taste in my mouth. In fact, they have helped to shape my view of the world, my place in it, and the divine reality. This is just one way of seeing the world, but I hope that it will be a useful one to you as it has been for me.
And I will try to keep it interesting…
Henry Wieman was born in the US in 1884. He began his theology writing in the early decades of the 20th century. Wieman lived in a time of deep religious change: traditional religious belief had begun to weaken. It was becoming harder for people to believe in miracles and even the stories about God simply because a book and church teachings told them to.
It was a time when reason and objectivity had come to be seen as the best way to view the world. Society had begun to believe in the power of science to solve problems -- and also accepted the scientific approach as the best way to gain understanding. With unquestioning faith on the decline – Wieman sought to take a scientific approach to the big questions of religion. He set out to use modern evidence-based methods to understand God.
Interestingly, Wieman did not seek to prove or disprove the existence of God. In fact, he took the existence of God as a given. Atheists and agnostics – don’t be dismayed, there is something here for you too. The key is not in the word God, but in how it is defined.
And so Wieman, in a way that is maybe even more relevant today than it was 60 years ago, sought to find a faith consistent with science. His intention was to elaborate a faith that is revealed by direct observation of the world – not requiring unquestioning belief without evidence -- not hidden and available only to certain select people in ancient times – but available to our own senses.
Not surprisingly, Wieman wasn’t much interested in the bible, which he called ‘a vastly overrated book.’ Church doctrine similarly held little interest for him.
And so, Wieman went looking for God in this world and the modern day.
He had to define how to look for God. His best known book is titled “The Source of Human Good.” And that notion – the source of all good – is central to his search.
Here’s how he described it near the end of his career:
“The problem which has engaged me for the past fifty years can be put in the form of a question: What operates in human life with such character and power that it will transform man as he cannot transform himself, saving him from evil and leading him to the best that human life can ever reach…?”
Wieman was looking for something that can transform us – change our hearts – in a way that we can not do on our own. How many times have you committed to be more tolerant to someone? How often have you thought that you needed to try to listen more and be more understanding of others? Have you thought to yourself that you could be more compassionate or a better, more caring, more committed, more engaged person than you have been?
I have certainly had all of these thoughts and I’m sure that most of you have had at least some. And I also know that, despite my best intentions, making those kinds of changes is hard, if not impossible, to do by sheer force of will.
Wieman says that this is where God comes in to the picture – that God is what moves us as we can not move ourselves. It’s a fascinating definition for God. I should also add that Wieman doesn’t necessarily think this is all that God is. It’s possible that God is more than this, but for Wieman, there is no point in working with what we can not observe it acting in our lives and no way to approach it.
Well, then, what is it – what is this God that transforms us?
For some, certainly, this could be a traditional image of God, the all-powerful, all-knowing supernatural being. But Wieman wasn’t having that. He rejected the notion of a supernatural answer. His objective was to search the natural world of experience to know what there is that we can observe that changes us toward goodness.
Wieman started his search by asking ‘what is the good?’ And he concluded that there are many things that are sometimes good, and maybe even usually good, but they are not good all the time and in every circumstance.
It may be good to feed and clothe people. But what if they are the Nazi army? Charity is good, but what if it is used to buy drugs or weapons?
Wieman searched for a crucial something that is always a good – under all circumstances. And he found it in what he calls qualitative meaning. As he describes it:
‘Qualitative meaning is that connection between events whereby the present happening conveys to me the qualities of other happenings and some qualities pertaining to what will happen in the future, as the future is interpreted by the past.’
What Wieman is describing is a growing fabric of meaning that connects people and events, past, present, and future. It is the creation of a way of life where understanding pervades human interactions and our lives in their totality. This is qualitative meaning. It is what keeps our individual lives and their joys and sorrows from being isolated, empty, and insignificant by binding them into a shared connection throughout life.
Wieman puts his concept also into more traditional Christian religious language too, as he paints a picture of a world where qualitative meaning is abundant:
“The struggle was, and the struggle still is, to save man from self-destruction and from internal, disruptive conflict within the individual and within society and, finally to establish the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is a world so transformed that every part responds with rich delivery of meaning to every other part and supremely to the spirit of man.”
And so, for Wieman, the great good is qualitative meaning. And God is what creates qualitative meaning. This is where the non-theists can get a breath. God, the creator of qualitative meaning, need not be a being. For Wieman, God is not person – does not have a personality. In fact, God is a process – the process that creates qualitative meaning – the process that brings events and people into deep connection and understanding.
This process – what Wieman identifies as God - is the ‘creative event.’ Wieman says that ‘This creative event always yields the best possible in each situation… provided that we make this creative event our primary concern, and succeed in setting up the conditions it demands in order to occur.’
If we can understand the creative event, we not only begin to understand God but we are also guided toward the right action for us to take in any given situation.
Wieman turns to the bible to provide an illustration of the creative event and I think this helps to explain it. In the group of Jesus’ disciples, he tells us, there arose ‘a miraculous mutual awareness and responsiveness toward the needs and interests of one another.’ Following from this came meanings, derived ‘each from the other’ that became integrated with what each one had previously gained through individual experience. ‘Thus each was transformed, lifted to a higher level of human fulfilment.’
The transformation of Jesus’ disciples was the action of the creative event. The power was ‘not in the man Jesus. The power was in the interactions that took place among these individuals – it was in the process, not the person. The creative event, says Wieman, ‘transformed their minds, their personalities, their appreciable world, and their community with one another and with all men.’ And that power, he calls the source of all good in human existence.
The creative event happens between us and among us. In our faith, some of us may wonder sometimes how our way of being religious amid diverse beliefs can work and how that relates to God or the divine. One answer comes from Wieman’s work. In our emphasis on the worth and dignity of each person, in our valuing of connection, supporting each other, and respect, we are not only following the lead of our values, we are actively creating the conditions where the process called God can happen.
Wieman tells us that we can participate in God – in the process that brings about heaven on earth – by entering into and assisting the creative event. And we do that by our interactions with each other. By sharing our stories and hearing the stories of others and incorporating them into our own selves.
This is not something that happens in isolation or without deliberate action. It happens in a community committed to practicing this way of living. Our religious lives help us to live in a way that allows God to happen.
And Wieman, the objective inquirer, he of the scientific method, calls us to be faithful. It might sound like a contradiction, but faith is not essentially belief in a story or a book or the edicts of a pope or archbishop. It is committing ourselves to something when we can not possibly be certain of the outcome. It is committing ourselves despite discomfort and the uncertainty. Wieman calls us to give ourselves to the process that creates the good, to commit to the needs of that process that can create heaven on earth.
The boy looked deep into the dragon’s eyes and said, “I can’t be afraid of you. I know your story.”
May it be so.