- Life and Thought of Bernard Eugene Meland, American Constructive Theologian, 1899–1993 by W. Creighton Peden
This book offers another in a long line of Creighton Peden’s contributions to understanding the thought of perhaps neglected religious thinkers in the American liberal tradition. Peden has stated that his approach in writing about figures like Gerald Birney Smith, George Burman Foster, and Edward Scribner Ames has not been critical or even comparative, but explicative. His goal is to make more of their work more accessible. And Peden is especially well positioned to do so in the case of Bernard Meland, as he has been a long-standing student, colleague, interlocutor, and ultimately literary executor to Meland.
The book has a slightly quirky structure. The first twenty or so pages are an intellectual autobiography delivered by Meland in 1979 and are presented without comment by Peden. Part 1 follows with a brief overview of Meland’s thought and its development. Part 2 concludes the book with brief commentaries on Meland’s publications after his retirement from The University of Chicago in 1964. Peden comments here on some unpublished works from this period, but he also often suggests that the ideas found therein can be found in published works as well. Peden and John Gaston have edited a volume meant to be a companion entitled Bernard Eugene Meland’s Unpublished Papers, also with Cambridge Scholars Publishing. [End Page 292]
Perhaps the most helpful parts of Peden’s analysis of Meland’s thought are those that deal with Meland’s theological method. Peden titles one of four sections of his exposition of Meland’s thought “Method,” but further exposition and evaluation are peppered throughout the book, including the short section titled “View of Religion,” which seems mostly to deal with methodological issues.
Peden suggests that “Meland’s method was the reverse of demythologizing” (49). For Meland, myth is a kind of primal response to a depth dimension in human experience and results in a cultural outgrowth that can be termed mythos. Meland “defined myth as an elemental response to what is ever present as an ultimate force shaping the human psyche by generating sensibilities, expectations and reflections that are enduring. The mythos is the deep-lying orbit of meaning, giving structure and direction, both at the level of the human psyche and within the realm of imaginative and cognitive experience” (93–93). Myth is a primary datum of theology, then, and can be studied empirically as a response to meaning-making and value-making forces within the world. Demythologizers erred in attempting to penetrate the myth to a deeper philosophical meaning and thereby replacing the myth with the philosophical analysis proposed. Meland, to the contrary, ventured to give an account of how the myth functions as myth and to give an historical analysis of how the mythos that results changes over time, thus “developing a margin of intelligibility between the primal mythos and the contemporary understandings of the mythos” (51). To be sure, Meland employed philosophical concepts, namely process and pragmatic concepts, in clarifying how the Christian mythos could be understandable to a contemporary audience, but he wanted to be careful that this philosophical understanding did not supplant the myth itself or the historical traditions that attempted to interpret the myth for each new age.
In his evaluation of Meland’s method, Peden offers a gentle and subtle correction. “If a change is occurring in the mythos, it is necessary for his method to be restructured at this point to include a demythologizing which separates the myth from the mythos, not rejecting either the myth or the mythos but attempting to understand better their essential insights, and then to include a procedure of re-mythologizing in order to make traditional and contemporary myth forms relevant to modern persons, based on a relationship between the traditional and contemporary mythos” (75). It may be that this is not so much a critique or modification of Meland’s method as it is a clarification...