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American Theological Society Presidential Address 2002

The Necessity of Impossible Dreams:

 Why American Theology Cannot Dispense with Idealism

American Theological Society (Midwest Division) Presidential Address
April 26, 2002
David L. Weddle

In his presidential address to this Society three years ago, Paul Parker listed four requirements of theology today: clarity, eloquence, grounding in common experience, and use of the visual. These features may be hard to achieve, but they are admirable goals at a time when too much theology is obscure, colorless, esoteric, and exclusively verbal. I shall not avoid all those defects, but let me begin, if not with a picture, at least with some local color, following the example of Laurel Schneider in last year’s presidential address, by disclosing something of my personal history that has led me to the conviction expressed in my title.


Soon after I lost my first teaching job for reason of heresy, Krister Stendahl consoled me with the observation that “Harvard Divinity School lives off the fresh blood of fundamentalists.” By then my neck bore the puncture wounds to prove it. Six years earlier, I had walked out of a revivalist pulpit in a tiny church in a Michigan village into a seminar room in Cambridge. It was like stepping on the planet Mars. Herbert Richardson later claimed he was responsible for my being there by challenging Robert Bellah to agree to admit a down-home fundamentalist to demonstrate just how truly liberal Harvard is, or at least was in 1966. So there I was, on a dare really: a gift of Richardson’s raw audacity striking a spark on the cultured flint of Bellah’s elitism. Since I was blissfully ignorant of their Pygmalion experiment, I proceeded as if the fire of my witness to the Word of God would illumine the dark chambers of Andover Hall— and be received with gladness. The quenching rain was not long in falling.

     When I appeared to register for the qualifying exam in Greek, I commented to the woman behind the desk that I assumed the test was over a passage from the New Testament. Removing the fashionably slim cigar from her mouth, she blew a stream of aromatic smoke in my direction and observed, “If it were a passage from the New Testament, young man, I could pass the exam.” Well, it wasn’t, and I didn’t. When I went to get the results from Dean Stendahl, his pious evaluation was that I was “a long way from the kingdom.” I took comfort in the fact that it was at least a biblical reference.

     And that wasn’t the only comfort to be found. Gordon Kaufman was about to publish his Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective, drawing heavily on Barth’s Heilsgeschichte. In those days God had not yet become simply “the problem” for Kaufman. Back then his lectures resonated with the grand old words—God, revelation, faith, sin, grace—and he spoke with enthusiasm about making intelligible Christian claims regarding the creation of the world and the salvation of the soul. Lifted up by Kaufman’s rhetoric, sitting in the front row, I encouraged him in the only way I knew: by loudly pronouncing “Amen!” The ensuing silence made clearer to me than any rebuke that theology, at Harvard Divinity School, was practiced with a dignity untouched by the vulgarity of religious enthusiasm.

     The subject of the graduate colloquium that year was Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, volume 4. The assignment sounded manageable until we first-years confronted those four immense books that constitute that “volume.” We were assigned the initiatory labor of writing summaries of long stretches of text, including the excurses in small print. I drew paragraph 69 on “The Glory of the Mediator.” Wow! Here was language I knew; Barth even quoted hymns. I typed (some of you will remember that primitive technology) my summary with prayerful enthusiasm. Wolfhart Pannenberg, already regarded as a rising star, sat in on the colloquium that year. I didn’t know enough to be impressed by him, and I have no idea what he made of my devotional rendering of Barth’s Christology.

     But Richard R. Niebuhr removed his glasses with a deliberation that approached agony and massaged his eyes with one hand reaching under those menacing brows. He sighed mightily, eloquently, as one sighs when the world has met one’s lowest expectations. We waited, I idiotically expecting a word of praise. “Mr. Weddle,” he slowly breathed, “could you express yourself in language the rest of us can understand?”

     Gene Klaaren later said it was as if my whole life passed before my eyes. I was sinking beneath the waves with no hope of love lifting me. Niebuhr had never heard me preach; he didn’t know that was my native language—biblical, Christological, hymnic—and he apparently didn’t appreciate that it was Barth’s mother tongue as well. But I grasped the point instantly: I was in Babylon now, and how could I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? So in answer to Niebuhr’s weary request, I reached back to some college courses for the abstract terms of philosophy. My education as a theologian had begun.

     As I later read in Barth, “theology begins where the Bible ends.” What an astounding discovery that was to me! I had been preaching from my well-thumbed Scofield Bible since age twelve, “rightly dividing the Word of truth” as we dispensationalists believed Paul was directly admonishing us to do. It was a demanding intellectual challenge just to get all the biblical books into their proper places on the elaborate charts we drew of “God’s Plan for the Ages.” Sometimes, as in the Book of Acts, it was necessary even to distinguish between chapters—for where, exactly, among those founding events of Christianity you located the beginning of this dispensation made all the difference. The authorities at Dallas Theological Seminary settled on Acts 2, but they didn’t speak in tongues so we thought them inconsistent. We debated between Acts 9 or 13, depending on whether you thought Jesus’ disciples were members of the Body of Christ or belonged to the age of Israel. We didn’t practice water baptism and at Dallas, and in most Bible colleges, our group was designated a cult.

     To our right were the Acts 28 folks, “Bullingerites” we called them after their British teacher, who eschewed the Lord’s Supper as well and anticipated a private rapture into heaven of their own. Some were members of the small church Sharon and I served while I finished college. The church followed an old tradition: they hired us as a team and paid me the only salary. Sharon worked at the local bank, taught Sunday School, and ran the children’s church downstairs, maternally dispensing the “milk” of the Gospel, while the adults dined on the “meat” St. Paul talked about and which they expected me to serve upstairs. (We didn’t know much about Freud then, and it was probably just as well. We didn’t call Paul “saint” either, but that’s another story.)

     As for the Acts 28ers, they never missed communion Sunday, taking their accustomed seats in the front pews and refusing the bread and grape juice with a gesture of righteous disgust, as an aristocrat might employ in refusing to share table with peasants. They were also more selective in their Bible reading. While we concentrated our study on all of Paul’s letters, they found their instruction in the prison epistles only. The point is that none of us ever thought about theology because our minds were fully occupied with understanding the Bible.

     But on that spring afternoon in Cambridge, I had a Socratic glimpse into the abyss of my own ignorance. My head seemed suddenly empty, though I had no question about my heart. It had been early and “strangely warmed” by a faith I have never entirely relinquished, will never fully realize, and am constantly revising: fides reformata sed semper reformanda, to paraphrase a Presbyterian motto. And I’ve always known exactly what Kierkegaard meant when he ridiculed those who talked about surpassing Abraham: “Faith is the highest passion… Many in every generation may not come that far, but none comes further.” But if I were ever to do theology, I would have to go further than the Bible—and how could I find my way beyond its sacred pages?

     The lesson of the colloquium was that philosophy could provide “categories of understanding” that allow theologians to communicate with those outside the immediate circle of their own faith and who are ignorant of the argot that governs its discourse. Once having learned that lesson, I could see confirming illustrations on every hand: Plato in Augustine and most of the Greek fathers, Aristotle in Aquinas, Kierkegaard in Barth, and Hegel in Tillich. Jonathan Edwards made free use of Locke and the Cambridge Platonists; Walter Rauschenbusch followed the trajectory of Marx beyond the prophets. The list goes on, but I was beginning to get the point.

     I had read philosophy at Hope College under the formidable D. Ivan Dykstra. Magisterial in white mane and beard, twirling his eyeglasses in one hand and covering the boards with the other, D. Ivan lectured in a fury of exposition that often sent broken ends of chalk flying across the room. Here was Reformed intellectual passion of mesmerizing power. He taught everything from Heraclitus to Heidegger, and I took every course. But the philosophical vocabulary that most entranced me was the one I learned reading Whitehead in a seminar with Arthur Jentz. For over thirty years the spell has not entirely broken—in part because process metaphysics has always seemed to me more compatible with the Bible than Greek ontology.

     I am somewhat confirmed in that judgment by the recent interest in evangelical circles in “open theism.” Even though an advocate like Clark Pinnock insists on the priority of biblical revelation over the natural theology of process theists, he recognizes common ground with philosophers, like Whitehead, who “make room in their thinking for ideas like change, incarnation and divine suffering, ideas which are central to the gospel but awkward for conventional theology influenced by ancient metaphysics.” The impossible dream of a coherent and comprehensive account of reality consistent with both belief in God and also central features of human experience proves necessary even for evangelical theology, as done in America.


American theology is always being birthed in bloody hope from the unstable marriage of idealism and pragmatism, each new proposal a combination of transcendent vision and historical vocation. The paradigmatic figures in our theological and political histories manage, in one way or another, to satisfy both the American longing for individual adventure into an open future and also our need for practical direction in a social order firmly grounded in an exemplary past. Vision and practice—inspiring ideal and restraining reality—these elements cannot finally be entirely separated without losing the power of both to shape a satisfying social order. Thus Wisdom says, “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

     Few theologians have grasped that fact as securely as Jonathan Edwards. Near the end of his career, Edwards insisted that true virtue is “a beauty that has its original seat in the mind.” One might have expected that last phrase to read “in the affections,” but Edwards understood that it is only in the mind that ideas of sufficient compass form to “see” an individual object of benevolence in its relation to the “universal system of existence.” Only by means of metaphysical vision can an individual be loved for the sake of the whole and thus the specific course of action toward that individual be determined in light of what will enhance the good of the whole or “being in general” whose final unity is comprehended in and by the mind of God. Indeed, Edwards can say that “God himself is in effect being in general.” Without the idea of God in this sense, one is at a complete loss to know what action in fact would serve the best interest of any individual, including oneself. Edwards here argues for the necessity of idealistic vision, including belief in God, for the most pragmatic reason: it renders rational morality possible.

     In a curious parallel, John Dewey acknowledged the need for a “moral faith” that unifies the self through “allegiance to inclusive ideal ends, which imagination presents to us and to which the human will responds as worthy of controlling our desires and choices.” These ideals, alluring but unrealized, arise from natural and social realities; and the term God refers to the “active relation between ideal and actual” (51). Dewey recognized that speaking of “God” or “divine” evokes a confidence in the possibility of realizing ideals that guards against “a sense of isolation and from consequent despair or defiance” (53). It is central to his argument that the faith be “common” and that the ideals that constitute its object be unified in each individual. Human beings, he cheerfully asserts, “have impulses toward affection, compassion and justice, equality and freedom. It remains to weld all these things together” (81).

     While the word God traditionally signifies a single source of these virtues, Dewey prefers to avoid any suggestion of a supernatural being and insists on the “transfer of idealizing imagination, thought and emotion to natural human relations” (82). The result is a vivid sense of human solidarity: “Whether or no we are, save in some metaphorical sense, all brothers, we are at least all in the same boat traversing the same turbulent ocean. The potential religious significance of this fact is infinite” (84). Dewey’s life-long project of promoting democratic values depends on the ideal of essential human unity. Louis Menand comments, “Dewey did not consider himself a cultural pluralist. Like [Jane] Addams, he insisted that divisions are just temporary alignments within a common whole. And he preferred to stress the whole.” But the idea of “the whole” is itself metaphysical in nature.

     Thus, I understand Dewey’s recourse to a “common faith” in God as the solder of sociality to be the recognition that pragmatism cannot ground its democratic values in empirical advantage alone because appeal to the common good cannot by itself compel the individual to sacrifice self-interest. There must also be some convincing account of how individual self-interest is implicated in and dependent on promoting the common good, even in those instances where the individual derives no advantage for doing so. The typical “convincing account” entails an argument for some abstract or formal unity of individual and community that is essential to being a personal self. For Dewey the “democratic ideal” is not “already embodied in some supernatural or metaphysical sense in the very framework of existence”—yet he can also say that human community is “the widest and deepest symbol of the mysterious totality of being the imagination calls the universe.” We shall return to the imagination, but for now I point to the necessity—in Dewey as much as in Edwards—for an idea of the whole, impossible to comprehend, but required in order to make moral relations among the parts intelligible.

     Whitehead is explicit about the necessity: “Religion requires metaphysical backing,” he declares in Religion in the Making. The reason is that “unless in this present you can find general principles which interpret the present as including a representation of the whole community of existents, you cannot move a step beyond your little patch of immediacy” (82).  If theology tries to dispense with metaphysics, “it admits that its dogmas are merely pleasing ideas for the purpose of stimulating its emotions” (83)—or we might add, promoting its politics. For Whitehead, on the contrary, the self-constitution of any individual is an act that bears responsibility for the entirety of being: “Each actual entity is an arrangement of the whole universe, actual and ideal….” (98). The metaphysical idea that unites every creature in this matrix is, once again, God. In language parallel to that of Edwards Whitehead claims, “Since God is actual, He must include in himself a synthesis of the total universe” (95). That synthesis is the achievement of an aesthetic order “derived from the immanence of God” (101). In his later work On the End for Which God Created the World Edwards also speaks of the divine presence emanating through creation; and in the companion essay On the Nature of True Virtue he argues that the effect of divine immanence is not only the existence of creatures but also “their beauty.” For both only metaphysical language can express an idea sufficiently capacious to imagine the whole of reality in an ideal order, not of logic or morality, but of beauty.


These days, however, it is a philosophical and political faux pas to talk about “ideal order,” much less “essences.” It is said that such ideas are invariably imperialistic and so work against the democratic ideals that American theology is commissioned to uphold. For example, Sheila Greeve Davaney, in her book Pragmatic Historicism: A Theology for the Twenty-first Century, claims to succeed in exorcising what she calls “the specter of relativism that has haunted historicism” since Troeltsch. But does she make good on that claim? Having disdained universal principles, she can offer only a procedural guideline: that disputes be aired in public in order to generate “a commitment to radically inclusionary strategies and democratic practices,” leading to “local consensus.” But is an elastic procedure up to the task of liberation?

     Consider how fundamental changes in consensual morality come about. Men and women of noble intention are inspired by a sense of solidarity with other humans and are moved to acts of beneficence, even sacrifice, in the cause of peace and justice. Can it be fairly said that their ideas—often drawn from a robust essentialism—fail the pragmatic test of living “fruitfully and responsibly within our complex and interdependent universe”? They are the prophets and saints who struggle against provincial morality and instrumentalist politics in their own traditions, not to enter into the free association of a “normless” conversation, but to claim a universal vision compelling all humans toward mutual respect. It is their visions that inspire campaigns against slavery, torture, poverty, and tyranny—all on the ground that those who are free and safe and wealthy are essentially one with those who are not. It is precisely the acknowledgement of a common nature, endowed with inalienable, and therefore ahistorical, rights, that has driven the greatest advances in the human condition. That day in Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of a “dream” not a procedure. As Menand comments: “Pragmatism explains everything about ideas except why a person would be willing to die for one.”

     What is true in social reform applies also to theology. Davaney describes God as “the symbolic personification of theistic communities’ understanding of the ultimate in terms of which human life is to be led.” This definition stipulates that in order to be theistic a community must symbolize God as personal; but since that requirement imposes an “essential” characteristic and thus fails the test of consistent historicism, we must conclude that even this minimal claim is accompanied by the sound of the hermeneutical circle snapping shut. Yet Davaney insists that we are able to make tentative and partial judgments about the relative adequacy of theological proposals on the basis of their pragmatic value in caring for those excluded and disadvantaged and in promoting responsibility for the natural world. But surely these tests imply a hierarchy of values that is both universal and essential.

     Denouncing all “essentialist” views, however, Davaney quotes Linell Cady to the effect that the ought of public responsibility is derived from nothing else but the is of our common world, our shared participation in nature and history. But it is a familiar observation in the history of ethics that moral duty never arises from the mere description of the given. It is precisely in the difference between any state of affairs and its better that moral vision and passion are born. To envision that difference requires some capacity to transcend, at least in imagination, the limits of what is and what has been. Thus, transcendent vision expressed in universal categories is indispensable for concrete and consistent ethical direction. As impossible as King’s dream seemed, it was necessary for the moral reform he championed. Idealism and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, there is a necessary synergy between them. The task of theology is to articulate that unity in a creative, even imaginative, way.


Theologians of practically every persuasion have now accepted as commonplace Gordon Kaufman’s claim that theology is “fundamentally an activity of construction not of description or exposition….” Further, many have taken up the challenge he issued in 1975: “…we must now take control (so far as possible) of our theological activity and attempt deliberately to construct our concepts and images of God and the world; and then we must seek to see human existence in terms of these symbolical constructions.” This view of theology, hardly original, is a direct application of what Louis Menand calls the “idea about ideas” that was the primary contribution of pragmatism to modern American thought. In his brilliantly written book, The Metaphysical Club, Menand offers Dewey’s version: “Dewey thought that ideas and beliefs are the same as hands: instruments for coping. An idea has no greater metaphysical stature than, say, a fork.” Even the idea of God is valuable, only to the degree that it “works” to achieve some end or fulfill some interest.

    Thus, as a consequence of Kaufman’s invitation for others to try their hand at inventing theology, in the last quarter century we have been carried along in a rushing stream of imaginative constructions, designed to cope with social and political crises of all sorts. There are now as many “theologies of” as there are interest groups and market niches—not unlike editions of the Bible.


     Many of these theologies are astonishingly innovative, but are they imaginative? If theology is formed in the imagination, like poetry, then we must ask how it is distinguished from arbitrary invention, a mere random assemblage of interests and images, what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “fancy.” Coleridge saw deep religious significance in the creative power of what he called “primary Imagination”; for him it is the imago dei in the human mind. But the poet (and a fortiori, the theologian) exercises “secondary Imagination…co-existing with the conscious will…It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify.” But what sort of unity does imagination effect in theology?

     To be imaginative theological construction must have a unity analogous to the aesthetic wholeness of a poem or the beauty of any work of art. Of course, this criterion is not meant to imply that a work of theology, any more than a play by Beckett or a composition by Cage, is a static whole, a neat and tidy completion with a single “meaning.” A work of theology is not—despite the titles of many—systematic, implying an exhaustive account of a precise list of loci of reflection, after writing which there could be nothing for the theologian to do but tear up any remaining contracts with publishers. Theology, like all imaginative construction, produces riven work, broken texts through whose fissures we may glimpse more than we read on the page. Yet, even though cracked by indefiniteness, its jagged end covered by the gauzy hoax we conspire with the desperate author to accept as a “conclusion,” there is in any work of theology, inasmuch as it is imaginative construction and not mere idiosyncratic rambling, a unity.

     But of what sort? The unity is precisely a synthesis of vision and action, of transcendence and immanence, of the divine and human. But there is much working against that achievement. First, to do theology is to seek to deform one’s mind in such a way as to include the idea of God with full awareness that such deformity, if ever achieved, may bring ecstasy or madness with no way of telling the difference. Second, we know that any idea of God poses the danger of becoming an idol, of the sort that Luther warned the mind never tires of manufacturing. Thus theology is a work of reflection that lies in a range between fantasy and falsehood, between taking leave of reason and betraying faith. It is no wonder that so much theology is done in fragments, tentatively, and with side glances to what is currently regarded as “knowable” and “doable.” But theology, like all acts of faith, requires courage—what might be called, with apology to Tillich, “the courage to see”—to dare to open one’s to the essential unity of creatures that, in whatever language it is expressed, displays compelling beauty.

     Edwards and Dewey, in different locations in the history of American thought and with very different views of the ontological status of that essential unity, agreed on this point. For Dewey the word God “represents a unification of ideal values that is essentially imaginative in origin”; but he adds, “an ideal is not an illusion because imagination is the organ through which it is apprehended. For all possibilities reach us through the imagination.” Similarly, when Edwards speaks of God as the “fountain of all being and all beauty,” he is not describing an object of cognition but imagining a symbol of the “head of the universal system of existence” on whose creative flow all creatures are borne together. The strength of American theology derives from this courage to imagine the compelling beauty of “the whole.” To exercise that courage one must dare to imagine God as more than what validates our current preferences in politics or morality or religion. To do theology one must “go further”—to the idea of the whole that both embraces and relativizes the part. For only that vision can affirm as valuable and judge as inadequate any of our particular interests.


That conclusion brings me back to philosophy, specifically to the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, my preferred basis for theological reflection. Process and Reality has inspired a muddle of interpretations, ranging from the impenetrably technical to the insufferably sentimental; but it still serves as an instructive example of imaginative construction that achieves an original unity of transcendence and immanence. Whitehead set out what he considered a coherent set of general principles adequate to account for every concrete fact and compatible with the current scientific description of the world. Thus what the book may lack in clarity it more than compensates for in ambition.

     For Whitehead everything begins with ambition: the formation of an initial aim, or appetite. “Appetition is immediate matter of fact including in itself a principle of unrest, involving realization of what is not and may be.” It is “the germ of a free imagination.”   The character of this “appetite” is given within an ordered unity of ideal possibilities. Whitehead describes God’s vision of what may be as accompanied by “yearning after concrete fact” because God’s primordial nature is deficient in actuality. God’s vision of ideals is thus imaginative and best expressed in the subjunctive, not the indicative, and never in the imperative. God wishes, or desires, that the world realize certain possibilities, but God does not decree or command matters of fact. God imagines what may be and offers those desires to actual occasions. God is “the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire.”

     God yearns for the divine vision to be expressed in the creatures. Yet God’s longing need not be satisfied in order for the desire to be perfect. For the persistent longing for the ideal to become actual in each moment is the heart of God—whose ardor no amount of actual evil can ever still. The divine vision of what could be is “the light that shines in darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:9). Thus, in a well-known passage, Whitehead writes, God “does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.” But how is God’s creative vision formed? Not by morality or truth or justice; “the teleology of the Universe is directed to the production of Beauty.” Beauty is the harmony of diverse and inter-related occasions that evokes such intensity of feeling as to stimulate further creativity. There is nothing as simple as moral commands or as brutal as sovereign power in this notion of the divine will for the world. God creates by luring creatures into the adventure of creating themselves.

     But they cannot do so alone. In the “center” of each existent being there is a directed responsiveness to other beings to which it is related and to the whole of which it is an ingredient part. It is that directed responsiveness, even in an electron, which is the ontological form of what we recognize in ourselves, and some favored animals, as consciousness. If there is one grand, unifying principle of all reality, then, we should expect its chief exemplification to be a form of consciousness. Accordingly, process metaphysics chooses to take life as the key to being, rather than death; vitality, rather than inertness; organisms rather than crystals. The view of the whole is grounded in the essential identity of all creatures—and their unity with God. In Whitehead’s view God and World are mutually defining, inseparable companions in the adventure of becoming. In light of God’s dipolar nature, Whitehead concludes, “it is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God.” By virtue of that faithful reception of the world into God’s own experience, the great diversity of creatures becomes one. Thus, when Whitehead describes God as “the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands,” he is not indulging in sentiment, but advancing a metaphysical claim.

     But, to ask the pragmatic question, what value does God’s sympathy have for any given individual? And what difference does any particular life make in the grand sweep of ceaseless becoming? Whitehead answers that every occasion achieves “objective immortality”—a cold comfort that Charles Hartshorne interpreted as “contributionism,” viz., that “the one primary good” in the universe is “that the creature should enjoy rich harmonies of living, and pour this richness into the one ultimate receptacle of all achievement, the life of God.” The experiential basis of process theism is not the “the feeling of absolute dependence,” but “the feeling of relative creativity.” This phrase recalls the ancient Hebrew belief that humans are called to be co-creators with God, free and responsible for bringing further order and value into the world and called to share in God’s dominion over the earth —a sense of vocation not foreign to Americans as well. The ethics of “dominion” requires respect and care for all creatures whose unified experience constitutes the consequent nature of God. The language here is not altogether different from Edwards’s definition of true virtue as benevolence to being in general. Since God is “the head of the universal system of existence,” it follows that one must love God in order to love any particular being, just as “God’s goodness and love to created beings is derived from and subordinate to his love to himself.” Even God’s ethical disposition issues from an awareness of essential unity with creatures.

     For both Edwards and Whitehead God loves the World as Self, and we are called to participate in that creative loving which cherishes our contributions everlastingly, even though we, with all creatures, shall also perish. Yet, as do some nuclear forces, humans release energy even as we decay. Here is a ground of religious satisfaction which does not require any eternal actuality in the world or the self, only the everlasting contribution one’s life has made to the divine experience, what Whitehead imagines as “a tender care that nothing be lost.” Divine wisdom “uses what in the temporal world is mere wreckage.” While not everything in the world achieves value by function, in a vision of the whole as divine, everything is valuable by nature. So idealism is inclusive, of individuals and cultures, in a way pragmatism can never be.


Is there, finally, a metaphysical reality that grounds the unity of all creatures from which aesthetic values, moral duties, and even democratic policies can be derived? Dewey thought not; Edwards and Whitehead thought so. But all found the idea of such a reality indispensable. Whitehead puzzled over this requirement in his observation that the universe is a vast harmony of contradictions: “All the ‘opposites’ are elements in the nature of things, and are incorrigibly there. The concept of ‘God’ is the way in which we understand this incredible fact—that what cannot be, yet is.” This is a confession that both inspires and chastens theology: it is the recognition of the necessity of impossible dreams.


Paul Plenge Parker, “Radical Monotheistic Benevolence,” read to the American Theological Society (Midwest Division), April 23, 1999.

Laurel C. Schneider, “What if it is a Choice? Some Implications of the Homosexuality Debate for Theology,” read to the American Theological Society (Midwest Division), April 27, 2001.

Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, tr. Alastair Hannay (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 146.

Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids: Paternoster Press, 2001), p. 142. 

Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue in A Jonathan Edwards Reader, edited by J. E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and K. P. Minkema (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 244.

Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960), p. 100.

John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934, 1964), p. 33. Subsequent citations to this work in this section will be enclosed in parentheses.

Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), p. 407.

Dewey, A Common Faith, p. 85.

Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960), p. 81. Subsequent citations to this work in this section will be enclosed in parentheses.

Edwards, True Virtue, p. 6.

Sheila Greeve Davaney, Pragmatic Historicism: A Theology for the Twenty-first Century (New York: SUNY, 2000), p. 11.

Ibid., p. 162.

Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001),

Ibid., p. 375.

Gordon D. Kaufman, An Essay on Theological Method, in American Academy of Religion Studies in Religion, Number 11 (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1975), p. x.

Ibid., p. 37.

Menand, The Metaphysical Club, p. 361.

Biographia Literaria, volume 1, edited by J. Shawcross, orig. ed. 1907 (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 202.

Dewey, A Common Faith, p. 43.

Edwards, Nature of True Virtue, p. 15.

Process and Reality, p. 32.

Ibid., p. 344.

Ibid., p. 346.

Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: New American Library, 1933), p. 264.

Process and Reality, p. 348.

Process and Reality, p. 351.

Divine Relativity, p. 127.

It should be noted that Jon Levenson objects to this characterization of the biblical view.  He argues that “the priority of God and the lateness of the creation of human beings make the term ‘co-creator’ or ‘partner in creation’ inaccurate” (Creation and the Persistence of Evil, p. 117).  Yet he also insists that humans participate in the “cosmogonic process” by keeping the Sabbath as a “mimetic reenactment of the primordial divine repose” and by obeying dietary laws in “the scrupulous observance of the boundaries that define the categories of creation” (p. 118).  In fact, Levenson’s thesis is that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is inadequate because it fails to include the role of humanity in sustaining the world order through cult and covenant.  I agree with his analysis entirely and regard such a role as participation or partnership in divine creativity.

Nature of True Virtue, p. 257.

Yet Michael Welker shows that such placid resignation to the “deified world” does not mean losing one’s individuality.  “Cosmic piety, which holds fast to a universal, trans-individual world in which all individuals concrescences of the world are preserved without having their individuality and actuality destroyed, does not ignore our experiences of chronic solitariness and of being chronically in danger of living in illusions in real life” [“Cosmic Piety in Whitehead’s Works,” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 7:3 (September, 1986), 130].

Process and Reality, p. 346.


Ibid., p. 350.