- Introduction:Creighton Peden, Scholar of American Liberal Theology
W. Creighton Peden is known for his organizational skill in founding and guiding The Highlands Institute for American Religious and Philosophical Thought (now The Institute for American Religious and Philosophical Thought). He is also known for founding this journal, with Larry Axel and friends. In addition, he wrote some fourteen books and co-edited or coauthored nine volumes plus several articles in American liberal theology. Many of these books are the first major studies of their subjects. Also, he was the founder of the Journal of Social Philosophy, which he edited for fourteen years.
The strengths of Peden’s scholarship, in my judgment, are threefold. First, he has collected major and minor writings of his subjects. This means that the writings of several thinkers in American religious liberalism are now gathered together and easily available for scholars. Second, he has dug into obscure archives and out-of-the-way sources or unpublished essays, and also interviewed family, townspeople, and former students and colleagues to unearth biographical details and documents illustrating the intellectual development of these scholars. Many of these sources throw valuable light on their journeys. For example, the quotations from the letters between A. E. Haydon and Edith Jones, whom he later married, not only are manifestations of young romance. In Haydon’s references to God (conceived of as a personal guide), the letters show, by contrast, how far he traveled in route to his later humanism. And third, as I prepared this essay, I became more and more impressed with Peden’s analyses.
Some of Peden’s volumes are intellectual biographies, others are collected and/or previously unpublished essays or, in the case of Henry Nelson Wieman, two book-length manuscripts, Science Serving Faith and Creative Freedom. He wrote one of the major books on the Chicago School of Theology (The Chicago School: Voices of Liberal Religious Thought), and some of the collections are coedited. He also cowrote, with Charles Hartshorne, Whitehead’s View of Reality.
Peden has chiefly mined two major areas of American liberal religious thought. One is the so-called Chicago School of Theology; the other is the post–Civil War radical movement known as the Free Religious Association. [End Page 279]
The Chicago School of Theology was a group of scholars in or around the Divinity School of the University of Chicago during the first seven decades of the twentieth century. Although not a unified movement, they had the common task of reassessing the Christian tradition in the light of modern knowledge and methods of inquiry and shared a common vision of a world in process. Further, they had a strong emphasis on the function or value of religion for human life. While it would be unfair to say that most of them reduced religion to its function, they affirmed that its function in human life is often a crucial principle in understanding and evaluating religion in a specific context. Process theology is an outgrowth not only of Whitehead and Hartshorne but also of the later Chicago school, although Henry Nelson Wieman, Bernard Meland and the last essays of Bernard Loomer can be thought of as alternatives to process theology.
Peden’s primary historical work in regard to the Chicago school has focused on Shailer Mathews, George Burman Foster, Gerald Birney Smith, Edward Scribner Ames, and Eustace Haydon among the earlier Chicago school and Wieman and Meland among the later school. Three of these—Foster, Mathews, and Haydon—are not treated elsewhere in the essays on Peden published in this issue.
Early on, Foster rethought the “finality” of the Christian religion, finding it rooted in the personality of Jesus, which, as a living spirit, can awaken person-hood and freedom in humans today. Becoming more radical, he later asked about the function of religion in the human struggle for existence. Although he spoke of the death of the supernatural God, he sometimes used the term “God” as a symbol to designate the universe in its ideal-achieving capacity. Just as we have developed an immanent concept of mind, so we should also develop an immanent notion of God.
Mathews was known as an...