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  • Naturalistic Empiricism as Process Theology
  • Gary Dorrien (bio)

The founders of the Chicago School of Theology sought to develop a fully modernist theology, the first one by their standard. They swept aside the a prioris of Kant and Schleiermacher, declaring that nothing is given and no norm from the past holds legitimate authority. Theologian Shailer Mathews, philosopher of religion George Burman Foster, church historian Shirley Jackson Case, and psychologist of religion Edward Scribner Ames were the founders. They agreed with Ernst Troeltsch that Ritschlian historicism is not true historicism and with William James that lingering over the mystery of subjectivity is a loser for theology and philosophy. Theology had to change to deserve the modernist name. Instead of claiming that religious knowledge is a product of religious experience, theologians should say that religious knowledge is a product of disciplined empirical reflection on experience, especially the experience of external relations. Moreover, the Ritschlian approach of employing a Christian framework to get a Christian answer is illegitimate. The only way to make theology truly modern is to make it as scientific as chemistry, or at least, sociology.

The Chicago School had a quintessential figure in each of its first three generations. Mathews was the emblematic founder, Henry Nelson Wieman defined the second generation, and Bernard Meland defined the third generation. Each generation had a process orientation that distinctly ventured theological claims. Mathews led the Divinity School as dean from 1908 to 1933, crafting a socio-historical theology of evolutionary process, functional patterns, value theory, and cultural progress. Wieman developed a theological behaviorism that touted its empirical objectivity and opened the door to the organic metaphysical system of Alfred North Whitehead, though Wieman subsequently tried to close the door. One stream of Wieman’s protégés stuck with his approach and another stream tacked back to Whitehead. Meland synthesized the history of the Chicago School, pulled it in Whitehead’s direction, and later regretted that Whitehead, philosopher Charles Hartshorne, and process theology were too scholastic. Process theology, Meland believed, should be more theopoetic, more culturally attuned, and less scholastic—a prescription with an ample future once feminist theology entered this field. [End Page 5]

I. Shailer Mathews and the Early Chicago School

The University of Chicago was the product of John D. Rockefeller’s money, Midwest Baptist anxieties about falling behind other denominations, and William Rainey Harper’s vision of a modern Baptist university. Harper, a Hebrew Bible scholar, and a phenomenally enterprising administrator, founded the university in 1890, stocking it with faculty stars he plucked mostly from New England colleges and universities. Mathews was not a star, or thought to be brilliant. Raised in the staid, thoroughly middle-class, evangelical ethos of Portland, Maine, he was educated at Colby College in Maine, befriending sociologist Albion Small, who became Colby’s president in 1888. Small opened a succession of doors for Mathews—seminary at Newton Theological Institution, a faculty position at Colby in public speaking, graduate study in sociology at the University of Berlin, teaching sociology at Colby, and in 1894, two years after Small moved to Chicago to found the nation’s first sociology department, following Small to Chicago. Harper chaired the Old Testament Department, Mathews’s former teacher at Newton, Ernest DeWitt Burton, chaired the New Testament Department, and Mathews was hired to teach New Testament history, never mind that he had no training in it except whatever Burton had taught him. Burton told Mathews not to worry—his Berlin training in sociology should apply just fine to New Testament history. The University of Chicago had a mission to make religion relevant again, and Mathews could help with that.1

Harper enlisted him to serve as an extension of himself in Harper’s numerous endeavors. Mathews was really good at representing Harper, speaking for him on the road, hustling back to Chicago for classes, and enjoying his dual role. To ground himself in his acquired field, Mathews wrote a series of articles on “Christian Sociology” that became his first book, The Social Teaching of Jesus (1897). Christian sociology, he explained, was the use of social science to explicate the objective meaning of Christianity, an overdue enterprise. A scientific reading...