- Religion of Democracy: An Intellectual Biography of Gerald Birney Smith, 1868–1929 by W. Creighton Peden
Gerald Birney Smith (1868–1929) is an all too neglected figure among the luminaries of the early Chicago School. No less than the others—Shailer Mathews, George Burman Foster, Shirley Jackson Case, Edward Scribner Ames, et al.—he [End Page 289] is worthy of attention. For one thing, Smith is a unique figure in bridging the historical concerns of his Chicago contemporaries and the more philosophical concerns of the next generation of Chicago theologians, especially Bernard E. Meland and Henry Nelson Wieman. Indeed, Meland saw his early “mystical naturalism” as a continuation of a project that Smith, his mentor, called by that term in his later works. Quite apart from being a bridge figure, Smith deserves attention in his own right. His mystical naturalism is ahead of its time. Emphasizing our “at homeness” in the universe, that is, our being parts of nature rather than superior to it, such naturalism can be considered a form of ecological spirituality. Unfortunately, Smith died before he could develop this idea further. Moreover, Smith is an extremely important thinker in his explanation of the notion of equality. He draws an analogy between, on one hand, the robber barons and the inheritance of their wealth, power, and status by their offspring, the oligarchy of the Gilded Age, and, on the other hand, the hereditary, hierarchical aristocracies the Middle Ages. On this analogy, both groups inhibited the opportunity of most people to improve their lives and to have an effective voice in the making of the decisions that bear on those lives.
If as John Cobb has pointed, process thought has been weak in its treatment of equality (with the exception of Kenneth Cauthen’s A Passion for Equality) and strong in its advocacy of participation, and if the early Chicago School can be treated as part of the process tradition, then Smith provides a potentially important way for the process tradition to deal with the relationship between equality and participation.
Although Creighton Peden does deal with these issues, the task he has set for himself is to let Gerald Birney Smith speak for himself with a chronological, historical presentation of his works. Readers who are waiting for evaluative, critical comments will be disappointed. Yet there is much to be said for letting a thinker speaker for himself/herself and let the reader do the interpreting, and Peden has done an inestimable service in gathering a comprehensive, historical list of Smith’s works as well as presenting an astute exegesis of them.
Some of Peden’s emphases stand out. It seems that the Chicago theologian is always keenly aware that he and his institution are engaged in the training of professional ministers, that both those who are doing the training and those being trained live at the juncture of the modern world and the inherited tradition, and that many of his students come from “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” backgrounds that are opposed to science. Smith, recognizing places of divergence as well as convergence between science and religions, certainly feels that, as modern human beings, we need to accept science. To him, Christian faith expresses itself in the quest for truth (enhanced by the capacity for self-criticism) and not by appeal and flight to authoritarianism. [End Page 290]
In addition to the challenge of modern science, the Christian tradition needs to come to grips with democracy. In Peden’s historical presentation, democracy begins with the affirmation of the innate dignity of each human being and the creation of institutions that reflect that dignity (some of the historical roots of that affirmation, according to Smith, can be traced to the Protestant Reformation). Each person is a child of God and needs to be treated as such. To the Chicago theologian, democracy needs to permeate every facet of socio-politico-cultural life. To Smith, democracy and the sprit of critical inquiry go hand in hand. Only through a willingness to...