- The Life and Thought of Henry Nelson Wieman, An American Philosopher by W. Creighton Peden
The thought of Henry Nelson Wieman is ripe unto the harvest. Although several scholars have written extensively on the thought of Wieman, they have tended to concentrate on what has been dubbed the “most” important aspect of Wieman’s thought, namely, his concept of “God.” And these scholars, still more narrowly, have tended to treat Wieman’s concept of God based on their looking at only one book by Wieman, The Source of Human Good. This leaves a great deal of what Wieman had to say about his concept of God unattended to.
In this book, Creighton Peden has gone a long way in rectifying such a gap by focusing more fully on Wieman’s thought, which spanned nearly sixty years. The God concept was only one of Wieman’s matters of concern. Wieman insisted that the God concept was relevant only when it was thought of and acted on in the context of making a difference in human lives with respect to specific times, places, and concerns.
In the six chapters of part 2 of this book, Peden has distilled from his wide reading of the works of Wieman—covering practically all of Wieman’s career—a very important critical analysis of the contextual importance of Wieman for his generation and, I might add, future generations. That is a claim that I can only hint at, but I can venture a question that may provide a basis for the claim: If the God concept is supposed to be that which is the “ultimate concern” of humans, then why is it that, with all the gods and goddesses all over the world, we humans seem to have no concern for the difference that the God concept makes in our lives? Why in the name of God do we choose death so often instead of life?
Further, Peden has done more in this book than just critically analyze Wieman’s thought and its contextual importance for human life and history. Peden has also had the foresight to ask Wieman’s daughter Kendra and her husband, Huston Smith, to write brief remembrances of Wieman. Although each of these statements is short, each reveals Wieman’s influence in an objective manner.
There are three parts to Peden’s work in this book. Other than his part 2 of critical analysis, there is part 1, “The Confession of a Religious Seeker,” written by Wieman (from internal evidence) in 1948 after he had left Chicago; and there is part 3, “A Dialogue with Henry N. Wieman,” conducted in 1971 in Grinnell, IA, where Wieman and his wife were living in retirement. One [End Page 283] has to be impressed with Wieman’s “answers” to Peden’s “questions” in this dialogue, as Wieman turned 87 in August 1971. He was soon to turn 88, and he spoke honestly and critically of his career going all the way back to his days at Harvard, 1915–1917.
Here in part 3, Wieman speaks of those who influenced him, both teachers and those whom he met in interchange or whom he read. He speaks of his ideas and concepts; how he changed his mind about ideas or circumstances or the thought of others; what he considered his weaknesses and his strengths. To the point: Peden was able to structure a final “confession” from a “religious seeker” at the close of his life. I have appreciated what Peden did here ever since I read it years ago in the pages of the journal Religious Humanism.
Part 1, “The Confession of a Religious Seeker” is Wieman’s open and honest assessment of himself and his circumstances. There are fourteen sections to this confession, but I will mention only several—anyone interested in the life and thought of Wieman would do well to read it completely.
Section 8 is about Wieman’s two years at Harvard University in the philosophy department for his doctorate in philosophy under...