U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Unlikely Alliance: Pragmatism and Theology at Chicago

(Or Theology in the Age of Fracture)

The following is a guest post by Lilian Calles Barger. Lilian notes: “This is an edited version of a paper presented at the S-USIH 2015 conference, Thank you to my co-panelists, Paul Murphy and Trevor Burrows, for joining me on the panel ‘Transgressing Boundaries between the Social Sciences, Religion, and Secularism in the Twentieth Century.’ Thank you also to Kevin Schultz for his comments on this and all the papers presented.” (Editor’s note: we welcome more submissions drawn from the recent S-USIH Conference.)

U.S. historians are focusing on the late twentieth century as a period in which post-war America passed and something new emerged. Daniel Rogers called it “the Age of Fracture.” More recently, Andrew Hartman has focused on unpacking the breakup of normative America in the culture wars. Yet the story is not complete without considering the change in religious thought; its political fragmentation from an outlook situated, if not contained, within the private world of self-actualization to an outlook of social awareness brought to the public sphere. In the late twentieth century, a general religious quietism and affirmation of the American way of life gave way to engaging in a political challenge. The ensuing battles cut across sectarian divides and involved religious neoconservatives, liberals, radicals, and fundamentalists. Underlying these battles was the secularization of theology and a display of its previously obscured political commitments. [1]

The secularization of theology can be defined as a shift from a previously existential concern for the individual, and the abstraction of idealism, to a deep historicism that begins with the world rather than transcendent truth. Instead of doing away with divine transcendence, thus the end of religion, a secular theology relocates transcendence to immanence in history. As a result, the political sphere gains ultimacy in defining the lived values of society—the world and its politic matter. Diverse and competing religious claims flood the public sphere on the way to a new political culture.

The secularization of theology leads back to the progressive era and the University of Chicago Divinity School. There, theologians built an important bridge over the fact/value divide that kept social science and theology apart. Acutely aware of the rapid secularization of society and the academy, as well as the growing industrial crisis, they sensed the obsolescence of idealism and moved to reconstruct Christian theology on a scientific and pragmatic basis.

Although much scholarship is available on the development of religious pragmatism, its political ramifications for the end of the century have not been adequately explored. This change involved more than an accommodation to modernity, or religion’s last appeal for relevance. Evidence suggests that the Chicago theologians sowed the seeds for later political mobilization of religion. This had a disruptive effect in culture and reconfigured the political sphere.

This paper is part of a larger project in which I am examining one facet of religious change: the theologies of liberation that moved through the American hemisphere in the 1970s. I argue that liberation theologies (black, feminist, and Latin American) represent a radical secularization of theology ushering in militant religious activism across the political spectrum. The theological orthodoxy of the post-war consensus was replaced by politically situated orthopraxis. My research on liberation theology, with its historicism and pragmatism, inadvertently led me back to the Chicago theologians. [2]

There was a parallel change within social science and theory with regard to religion. Post-war intellectuals such as C. Wright Mills, Werner Stark, Walter Benjamin and the New School for Social Research, Peter Berger, and Ernst Bloch, among others, reconsidered religion as carrying the possibilities for cultural change and not just as a conservative force. Understanding the political role of religion requires noting the dialogue between social theorists and theologians. Here I will not be able to fully articulate the long connections among social science, theory, and theology. Rather, I will focus on a salient point of confluence evident in the progressive era.

Within 10 years of its founding in 1890, the Chicago Divinity School had replaced its inherited New England Calvinism with a full-blown historicism and pragmatism. The luminaries of the University of Chicago philosophy department, John Dewey, James Tufts, and George Mead, and the theologians, including Shirley Jackson Case, Edward Scribner Ames, Shailer Mathews, and Yale theologian Douglas C. Macintosh (an alumnus of Chicago Divinity), and others, were engaged in decades-long intellectual exchange.

The Chicago theologians accelerated the shift away from the nineteenth-century questions of epistemology, such as “Can religion claim an exclusive knowledge or insight into the world?” They turned instead to social ethics and asked, “How does religious faith relate to the world in crisis?” Building their theology on German historicism, Chicago theologians took on socio-historical methods to focus on the nature of the religious experience, committed themselves to scientific inquiry, and used moral reasoning that would encourage social sympathy. Pragmatism became an unlikely, but natural, ally of theology.

As Gerald Birney Smith viewed it in 1912, the consequences of a critical method went beyond appeals to subjective experience or dogma to a theology that embodied the specific demands of political, social, and economic life. Christianity, Smith asserted, had to be made “safe for democracy” or else become a “social parasite.” [3] This clearly moved the theological project from a concern for substantiating “truth claims” to social ethics and ultimately to a full-blown political theology.

The Chicago theologians had grown up under the shadowy memory of what Mark Noll has called the “theological crisis” of the Civil War. [4] Dogma, the certainty of truth, and moral absolutes appeared ill-suited to avert war or social crisis. These theologians sought a “critical theology” and a “prophetic message” to address the political and social problems of the day. [5] Far from the nation’s Eastern power centers, they made their presence known at the height of the social gospel and progressive reform. It was for them to reformulate an empirical theology suitable for new times. [6]

Seeing themselves as participants in the advancing science, Chicago theologians adopted empirical methods for arriving at a universal moral ethic and for reconciling religious values with social facts. They moved Friedrich Schleiermacher’s religious subject into a fuller “relationality of experience,” focusing on religious knowledge as a reflection on social experience. [7] Committed to realizing Christian values by arguments based in science, rather than on divine mandate, they recognized both the concreteness and limits of life and the possibility of transcending human experience. [8] With evangelical fervor, they promoted a theology based in the history of the believing community and offered a theology open to a contingent and dynamic world, not only to their intellectual peers but also to believers in the pew.

The pragmatism went to the heart of religious idealism. Charles Peirce was a deep, if unorthodox, religious thinker, believing that his philosophy would eventually reconcile science and religion. He considered religion a communal process of proposing potential ethical and universal truths, a process that would finally be judged by experience. He noted that pragmatism was the culmination of the principles laid down by Jesus: “by their fruits you will know them.” [9] He called for a scientific theology and for regarding theologians as “scientific men” in search of new knowledge, rather than dogmaticians. [10] Peirce’s epistemological idealism gave way to William James’ and Dewey’s radical empiricism, what the theologian Gary Dorrien has referred to as holding “the key to making theology truly modern.”[11]

James rejected the dualism of fact/value and thought/action for “a pragmatic method” in approaching the world. Human beings as historically constituted and ideas as products of history, nevertheless, left room for religion. Thus, pragmatism had “no a priori prejudice against theology.…If theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true…for how much they are true, will depend entirely on their relations to other truths that also have to be acknowledged.” [12] In the essay “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth” (1907), James argued that the test of truths, including religious truths, was always practical and “its validity is the process of its validation.” [13] A pragmatist, James proposed, “turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action, and towards power.” [14] By the 1960s, James’ description of a pragmatist, concerned with action and power, could be applied to many theologians and religious activists involved in the Civil Rights movement and the New Left.

James was interested in the effective fruits of mysticism, even with its tendency toward fanaticism, and mysticism’s power to unleash human initiative and encourage social transformation. He called on Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections as an authority in measuring the effectiveness of religious experience in producing practical change, quoting Edwards’ “The degree to which our experience is productive of practice shows the degree in which our experience is spiritual and divine.” [15] It was this attitude of making religious truths tangible that energized American reform movements.

Post-Enlightenment theology’s idealism and notions of absolute truths were by their very nature opposed to a pragmatic approach to determining the divine will. The potential clash between pragmatism and theological idealism caught the attention of Arthur O. Lovejoy. His 1908 essay “Pragmatism and Theology” noted how theology’s search for certainty in the face of religious doubt was encountering the revolutionary epistemological doctrine of pragmatism. Theology had been built on the foundation of monism, in which all things work together toward some good end; now, pragmatism’s understanding of truth as plural had opened up the world as malleable, with a future that remained genuinely open. This opening of the world to multiple possibilities, Lovejoy predicted, would find a place in the future of theology. [16]

Lovejoy’s prediction was being fulfilled as Shailer Mathews, dean of the Chicago Divinity School, defined and elaborated on the socio-historical method and applied it to systematic theology. In a 1912 essay, “The Social Origins of Theology” in the American Journal of Sociology, Mathews argued, “theology arises when men undertake to organize religious experience, beliefs, and customs in harmony with other elements of experience.” The political was never far from that experience. [17] In The Faith of Modernism (1924), his reply to fundamentalists, he examined the evolution of Christian dogma based on socio-historical methods to meet the needs of social reform. He asserted that like any other set of ideas, theologies were attempts to resolve particular social problems of their age. The value of religion was in meeting human needs, not in its truth.

In the essay “Can Pragmatism Furnish a Philosophical Basis for Theology?” (1910), Douglas C. Macintosh argued that the claim of pragmatism, “that indeed all true judgments about reality are actually or potentially useful, so that usefulness of a belief indicates with more or less probability of its truth,” provided a basis for theology. [18] Theologians, he said, had to be prepared to embrace pragmatism as both tenable and compatible. Pragmatism, in turn, needed to accept that religion met fundamental human needs that could not be ignored. To be consistent, pragmatism needed to make room for the essential postulates of the religious consciousness.

Macintosh outlined a scientific theology in Theology as an Empirical Science (1919), in which he called for a discipline grounded in empirical facts rather than any appeal to an autonomous authority. He continued in The Problem of Religious Knowledge (1940), in which truth was the ethical discernment of the good that begins with the existence of God as a working hypothesis. He posited that belief “can be transformed into a categorical knowledge only by empirical verification.” [19]

Case, concurring with the idea that historicism was overtaking the discipline of theology, argued in The Christian Philosophy of History (1943) that “history can be said to make religion,” which would be re-created by each generation for its own time. [20] Theology as the historical product of the social mind demonstrated that what was “true” in one era was inadequate for another. The Chicago School was thoroughly immersed in a progressive and advancing view of history, promising ever-increasing levels of moral achievement.

Theological ideas were also migrating to social theory. The marriage of theological ideas and pragmatism found its way into Dewey’s vision for social democracy, in which the religious imagination was key. Dewey had awarded Ames his Ph.D. at Chicago, and they continued as colleagues influencing each other in the developing concept of religious naturalism. Ames’ 1921 essay “The Validity of the Idea of God” moved away from metaphysics as an explanation of religious truths. His attitude toward theology paralleled Dewey’s pragmatic approach to rooting philosophy in the experience of the community. For Ames, the divine was no longer defined as a transcendent personal being but as the representation of the ideals of the community. [21] God was no longer a supernatural being, outside and above the course of daily life, but redefined as “this active relation between the ideal and the actual.” [22] This moved God into a social and historical context.

In A Common Faith, Dewey explicated how religious values as products of religious evolution could serve current needs. The religious experience, as an orientation toward the ideal, was not contained within formal structures or dogma. Dewey sought to ground “the religious” not in formal religions, but in experience. He proposed the emancipation of the religious feeling from religion, allowing a new faith to emerge in the pursuit of human welfare. By reorienting the vitalism of religious feeling toward the construction of a social democracy, Dewey assigned transcendent meaning to secular ends. His pragmatic move toward religion paralleled the theological search for an authentic world-shaping faith. Theology and social theory were meeting on the common ground of social change.

Under the neo-orthodox backlash to the social gospel, Chicago theology suffered the same fate as pragmatism. Neo-orthodoxy reasserted the transcendent and mystical understanding of religious truth, abandoning any attempt to provide empirical evidence. At its height in the 1950s, neo-orthodoxy had neutralized the political vitalism of the social gospel by separating religious truth from political expediency.

By 1960, the Chicago School of theology was in eclipse. Its optimism and empirical methods were being questioned for their failure to recognize the values embedded in the “neutral” scientific method itself. Nevertheless, pragmatism remained a distinct feature of American theology. Theology’s acceptance of action as the test for religious truth and social science’s concession to the religious impulse for social action brought the two disciplines closer together. While the empirical methods for verification of religious truth receded, the understanding of “truth in action” remained.

The religious pragmatism of the Chicago School continued to demonstrate its long influence in post-war Christian realism, the social action of Martin Luther King, the religious elements within the New Left, the black liberationist thought of James Cone, and the feminist theology of Rosemary Radford Ruether. By the 1970s, the conservative Carl F. H. Henry, theological father of the Christian right, also demonstrated a theology turned toward the world. Henry called for a biblically sound and “realistically possible” vision for a “new social organism” availing itself of the “sociological tools at our disposal.” [23] The turn toward the world and its politics, along with the dictum “truth in action,” had by the end of the century provided theological justification for multiple religiously inspired social movements, on both the left and the right.

The University of Chicago Divinity School theologians initiated the move of religious transcendence into the immediate political sphere. Pragmatism migrating to theology fueled the recognition of what the German theorist Carl Schmitt asserted in 1922: “the political is the total.” [24] The negotiation over lived values of society become much more urgent when notions of salvation leave behind an otherworldly transcendence and migrate to the immediate. “Redeeming America” or establishing the kingdom of God on earth becomes an imperative.

Further research into the exchanges among social science, social theory, and theology may explain religious fragmentation and political militancy. The religious political activism at the end of the century calls for seeing conservative, liberal, and radical religious political engagement as sharing in a secularization of theology. At the end of the century, theology was no longer contained within formal religious institutions but unleashed to make claims in the political sphere. Further analysis into how American theology, as a set of ideas about the relationships among transcendence, the individual, and the world, and changes within social theory in its response to religion may illuminate the reconfigured culture and politics in the age of fracture.

[1] Daniel T. Rogers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011); Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2015).

[2] Peter L. Berger, “ A Sociological View of the Secularization of Theology” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol 6:1 (Spring 1967):3-8.

[3] Gerald Birney Smith, “ Christianity and Critical Theology” The Biblical World Vol 40:6 (Dec. 1912), 390; “Making Christianity Safe for Democracy” The Biblical World, Vol 53:1 (January 1919): 3-13.

[4] Mark Noll, The Civil War as Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[5] Gerald Birney Smith, “Christianity and Critical Theology” The Biblical World, Vol 40:6 (December 2012): 385-396.

[6] W. Creighton Penden, Empirical Tradition in American Religious Thought, 1860-1960 (New York: Peter Lang, 2010) and Charles Harvey Arnold, Near the Edge of Battle: A Short History of the Divinity School and the “Chicago School of Theology” 1866-1966. (Chicago: The Divinity School Association, 1966).

[7] Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 216-217.

[8] Victor Anderson, “Pragmatic Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Intersection of Human Interest” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, 37:1 (March 2002): 161-173.

[9] Peirce, Charles S. “Pragmatism” in The Essential Peirce 2. 2. (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2001), 401.

[10] John R. Shook, “Peirce’s Pragmatic Theology and Stoic Religious Ethics,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 39:2 (2011); John P Diggins. The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

[11] Dorrien, 218.

[12] William James, “What Pragmatism Means” Pragmatism and Other Essays (New York: Pocket Books, 1963), 34.

[13] James, “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth,” Pragmatism and Other Essays, 89.

[14] James, “What Pragmatism Means,” 25.

[15] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 24.

[16] Arthur O. Lovejoy, “Pragmatism and Theology” The American Journal of Theology, Vol 12:1 (January 1908): 116-143.

[17] Shailer Mathews, “The Social Origin of Theology” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol 18:3 (November 1912): 289.

[18] Douglas C. Macintosh, “Can Pragmatism Furnish A Philosophical Basis for Theology?” The Harvard Theological Review Vol. 3:1 (Jan. 1910), 126.

[19] Douglas Clyde MacIntosh, The Problem of Religious Knowledge (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940), 372.

[20] Shirley Jackson Case, The Christian Philosophy of History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1943),164.

[21] J. Caleb Clanton and John Gunter, “Edward Scribner Ames, Pragmatism, and the Religious Pluralism: A Critical Assesment” The Heythrop Journal Vol 55:3 (September 27, 2011) 375-390; John R. Shook “ John Dewey and Edward Scribner Ames: Partners in Religious Naturalism” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy Vol 8:2 (May 2007):178-207.

[22] John Dewey, A Common Faith, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 47.

[23] Carl F H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority Volume IV (Waco: Word Books, 1976) 570, see also Volume VI of same multi-volume text “Supplementary Note: The Christian and Political Duty,” 436-454.

[24] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 2.