A Liberal Bandaged but Unbowed

by Robert L. Calhoun

Every decade since 1939 the Christian Century ran a series on How My Mind Has Changed. Robert L. Calhoun was professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School and was asked to contribute to this subject on May 31, 1939.

This article was published in the Christian Century on that date. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The author has been compelled to recognize that for theology two foundations are equally necessary: specific revelations of reality both divine and non-divine, and the principle of relevance or coherence which is basic to all rational living.

When Dr. Morrison’s thirty years of editorial service through The Christian Century began, I was in the eighth grade. During a full half of these thirty years, his mind has been a salutary factor among the many which have been reshaping mine. It is with an acknowledgment of debt, therefore, that I try to set down here some account of what has been going on in me during a part of this time.

Not that it matters much, to any but the few people who have to get along with me at close range. What matters most to them, moreover, is how I actually behave, not what I have been thinking and why. But only on the latter point is there anything to say here. And there is little assurance that even this can be reported accurately, for ten years back. In the absence of a written record there are only afterthoughts to offer, and afterthoughts in these matters are of course tidied up to suit one’s present mood and the public gaze. What follows, then, should be regarded with suspicion. Especially if it should fit in too neatly with what everybody else says in this series. For that will mean that instead of reporting an individual course of events, I shall have slipped into a current fashion, and simply retailed that.

In any case it seems necessary to start by trying to say what there was of me when the decade began. My mind, or whatever it is, has always been a rather messy jumble of strains never properly sorted out. One of them is an incurably sentimental, Pollyannish one that has to be snubbed continually, and at times is highly embarrassing. Another seems to be a more legitimate sort of emotional irritability that makes for weeping, glowering or wall-banging on various provocations. This sometimes boils over quite suddenly. Another is a combination of indolence, timidity and like ingredients that seem to go along with a distressingly slow basic tempo and chronic tardiness of response in all sorts of situations. Still another, late to appear but seemingly as durable as the rest, is a kind of profane delight in logical clarity and "hard facts." This strain was a dominant one in my lawyer father, but he died before I knew him as a distinct person at all. It probably was strong also in his father and grandfather, both southern Presbyterian preachers who pioneered in Minnesota from territorial days. I have a marked-up copy of Jonathan Edwards’ works that belonged to the former, and another of Calvin’s Institutes that belonged to the latter, and in both it is the hardier passages that are underscored.

This strain of realism cropped out first in my younger brother, who until his death in 1927 was studying medicine and preparing for research in pathology. I slowly learned to prize it in him, and in other medical friends and relatives by-marriage among whom it has been necessary for me to keep some sort of footing for upward of twenty years. The scientific temper and habits of mind concretely embodied in these half-dozen chemists and medical people have been for two decades a part of my household air. Without being able to match them, I have liked their straightforward thinking, and have come to rejoice at finding similar straightforwardness in certain philosophers and theologians from Plato onward.

This relatively late discovery of what "science" means to a scientist was superimposed for me on a small-town, middle-class, midwestern upbringing and a liberal college and seminary course. Both upbringing and education were absorbed like so much milk and eggs, with entire docility and without any intellectual misgivings. There were plenty of emotional headaches, such as a verbally precocious and otherwise immature youngster has to put up with in school and college. But there were no mental or spiritual upheavals, no serious disillusionments, and no fundamental doubts of any sort. Throughout a rather sickly, sheltered, happy boyhood and a more independent but never obstreperous youth, an ingrained confidence in people -- especially older people -- and a naive trust in God never wavered. These were most of all my mother’s gift to me, and she was a person of no lukewarm kind.

With minor though growing disturbances, this outlook of mine had lasted through college, through six years of further study at home and in England during the war and the early "peace," and then through six years of teaching in college and seminary. A decade ago, between 1926 and 1929, for reasons that do not matter here, the whole structure was demolished. Naive trust was gone, and first numbness, then corrosive doubt, took its place. Doubt that there is any God, and that the world’s noise means anything. Doubt that human beings -- even older people -- are fit to run their affairs without such tutelage as they plainly do not have. Doubt that I, in particular, had ever been or would ever be more than a kind of glib, walking lie, made of shiny words. The collapse, long overdue, was thorough.

All these doubts have persisted, and I presume will persist. But their deadly paralyzing force seems to be gone. After the first few months of chaos, a new foundation of confidence began to take shape in me, far below the word-level. At first tenuous and elusive as cobweb, it gradually became a fabric of such strength that neither criticism (which I have courted) nor shock has since broken it. It seems to be one sort of faith in God. But it is so undramatic and matter-of-fact, so lacking in thrills and moral splendor, that if anyone should say he has a better name for it, I am quite ready to listen. I know it is not the outcome of a deliberate "will to believe," nor of an articulate thought process. Of "unconscious wishes," naturally, one can speak with less assurance, but at least I am not wholly unacquainted with the better-known theories about these also, and have tried to take them into account. In any event, the faith I am talking about is something come upon me, not something I consciously produced. Both I and others have tried to break it down by critical analysis, thus far without success.

This new confidence was first prompted, unless memory at this point is all wrong, by two very hard facts: the invincibility of a clear-headed medical student dying of cancer, and the impassive bulk of the Rockies above timber line, which I saw for the first time four months later. To them was added almost at once the departure of another young doctor, my closest friend, for the Rockefeller yellow fever work in Africa, from which he did not return. I worked over his diary later, and read with a layman’s eye the papers in which he had summed up his part of the co-operative research. What even I could see in his mind and in my brother’s, a kind of quiet ruthlessness and candor in search of truth, stood up well alongside the rock masses of the continental divide. It was reassuring beyond words to find that sort of strength so unostentatiously embodied, so close by. It was no less reassuring to realize that the actual world they had faced -- the world of mountains and microbes -- though it had brought death to their bodies had first yielded up some of its secrets to their minds, for other men to use. It was not simply a nightmare world, then. At least in some respects it made sense.

How far it might make sense I do not know. Some of the easier parts of Whitehead, then Plato, then a whole series of thinkers lighted up by these two, helped me to glimpse a few of the simpler presuppositions that scientific men take for granted in their work, and encouraged me to look further. Next it became evident that workmanship of all sorts, from the humblest to the most exalted, calls for similar presuppositions. Little by little the notion grew on me that all of these slow-coming, painfully obvious insights of mine were, without exception, elaborations of the inarticulate confidence which had itself been growing in me all the while. My faith in God, then, born or reborn out of the ruin of thirty years’ attempts at thinking, was slowly taking shape in the midst of close companionship with working scientists, a little of whose temper I may have caught. It was guided by philosophic arguments, a little of whose drift I have understood. And it grew and became interwoven into an everyday working life which has called for so much more than all my resources that I am never caught up.

That tells about where things were and how they were going ten years ago. The personal theology in which these tendencies were trying to articulate themselves was liberalism of a familiar sort. My thinking ranged between the romantic immanentism of Schleiermacher, at one extreme, and the science-minded, sharp-edged theism of Tennant, at the other. Kant was presupposed in both, and Plato (especially in his later dialogues) seemed to me to have laid foundations for them all. Platonism became a growing enthusiasm and "rational theology" a kind of passion.

Along with this went a simple sort of social liberalism: the outlook of a sheltered, small-town person of mild habits, very slightly aware of the more savage forces that operate in the economic and political arenas. Except at one point. The peace treaties and the postwar flood of prewar documents had driven me to a pretty thoroughly disillusioned pacifism, as regards modern war. I knew then a good deal less than everybody knows now about international politics, the forces that underlie it, and the diversity of its problem situations. The detailed pattern of my pacifism, therefore, has changed, like any empirical conviction, in the light of new data, mainly in the direction of pessimism for the immediate future. The tangle of political and economic conflicts is so much worse than I realized ten years ago, and the apparent resources of human intelligence so much less, that I no longer hope confidently for "peace in our time." But the basic conviction has grown stronger, not weaker, with every year that nothing men can do to mankind is worse than the totalitarian war of our era.

This is not to call war "absolute evil," nor to say, "there never was a bad peace." Nothing human is absolute evil, not even war; and Versailles and Munich -- those "open covenants, openly arrived at" -- cry to heaven how bad a peace can be. The point is simply that however bad the alternative, a general war is almost certain to be worse. Moreover, if and when general war comes again, there will be need for a much larger minority than there was in 1914 to resist the inevitable war hysteria, the orthodox dehumanizing of the enemy, and the making of another nationalistic peace. I am still a pacifist, then, set against war -- most of all against expeditionary war in defense of democracy, peace, freedom, religion, or anything else high and noble. Even wars for self-defense, legally justifiable and pulse-stirring as they are, seem in most cases to retard rather than to advance the labored struggle of mankind toward humane living. In some cases it may be otherwise. I do not see how one can know in advance, unless one can get very clear answers to the questions: "What precisely is to be defended? Is it likely to survive mobilization of industry and the public mind for war? What other methods have been tried, and are still to be tried?" But trying to answer these questions is likely to bring into the foreground problems of quite another sort, though it took me a good while to see it.

If the aftermath of 1919 ruined my taste for war, it was the aftermath of 1929 that has ruined my complacency about our kind of peace. Before the Coolidge bull market I took American capitalism for granted. Worse than that -- and my ears redden at the memory -- I was more than a little dazzled by the noisy prosperity of 1928-29, and mistook it for boisterous, if somewhat immoral, good health. Economic crises were to me only vague words, and economic morality chiefly a matter of individual honesty and good will. Mea culpa. It took three years of growing disillusionment and anxiety to cure me of that particular blindness. But the cure promises to be lasting. I read some samples of Veblen and then of Marx and Lenin and various lesser image-smashers, trying hard for the first time to see what they were driving at. This was not easy for an economic illiterate, but it seemed all the more necessary for that reason. At the same time, it seemed necessary also to try for some notion of what more orthodox economists were saying; so I tried to read a little of Moulton, Slichter and Keynes as well.

Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace had dropped at my feet like a meteorite back in 1920, and stirred me to a fine moral indignation, but it had been an isolated impact. Now, with the predictions of that book being visibly fulfilled on all sides, I began to sense in some living fashion a really concrete relation between ethics and economics. For the first time it began to dawn on me in what sense moral values may be recognized as interwoven with, and "dialectically" exemplified by, the massive order of economic facts. Instead of seeing moral obligations simply as individual and social ideals externally related to the factual order of life and physical reality, I began to see them as demands on human life no less intrinsically real than gravitation. Familiar words about God in history, and a moral order of the world, were becoming concrete for me as I struggled to come to terms with economic determinism, both as theory and as an increasingly evident and momentous fact.

Not, however, as the most ultimate nor the most important kind of fact. The still more ultimate world of mountains and microbes and the uneasy animals we call men, once established in my thinking, remained unforgettable even for a little while. Human nature, in the sense of man’s basic physical, emotional, impulsive and intellectual constitution, somehow moral at the core, seemed plainly more fundamental than any particular sort of human behavior, even economic; and human nature itself emerges in a world order far more ancient and more fundamental still. Against that background, dogmatic collectivism has seemed only a little less shallow than naive individualism. Less shallow because it recognizes at least that the individual is not master of his fate and cannot live for himself alone, but still shallow in supposing that the human group -- class, race or species -- can do so.

There is no particular elation, but there is a grim sort of reassurance, in seeing men’s latest collective efforts in Russia and Germany to seize for themselves by violence a kingdom of heaven, colliding once more with stubborn nature and human nature. Whether the totalitarian governments collapse or change their ways and whether the change comes soon or late, the epidemic of purges and the spreading disaffection of once enthusiastic followers reinforce the old lesson that power in itself is no cure for man’s ills, and that human institutions are not equal to the task of assuring human salvation. Man himself is still more important than any of his actions or institutions, and much more difficult to make over. For that very reason, man is less important even to himself than the God whose world has brought mankind to birth, and who must save it if it is to be saved.

Concerning both of these more basic matters, man and God, my thought has moved from a primarily philosophic toward a more definitely theological orientation. Ten years ago I scarcely distinguished these terms, except as regards their scope. Theology seemed to me essentially a more specialized kind of religious philosophy. Eight years ago my first serious encounter with Barthian thought, embodied in Visser ‘t Hooft, Pierre Maury and Hanns Lilje, left me puzzled and combative, and I fear not much enlightened. But Richard Niebuhr’s patient, resourceful flank attacks were already making me see that something was there which could not be ignored, something which makes theology a discipline more clearly distinguishable from philosophy than I had suspected.

Six years ago began in earnest my post-graduate theological education: six years of continuous hammering by the more "dialectical" members of a theological discussion group which still retains the fire, if not the innocence, of its younger days. The vigorous impacts of these men -- Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, Wilhelm Pauck, John Mackay, and later Paul Tillich and Emil Brunner, are some of them -- have beaten upon me not only during semiannual week-end sessions, but day in and day out, through their writings and through my vivid, ever present memories of their minds (and bodies) in action. It has been drastic discipline, not always easy to take, but invaluable; the more because of lively counter-disturbances emanating from Edwin Aubrey, John Bennett, George Thomas and other sound liberals whose heads, like mine, are bandaged but unbowed.

It has become more and more plain that I am no fit material for a good Barthian, nor for any kind of theologian except some obstinate sort of liberal. The more extreme kind of revelation-theology, whether Barthian or other, seems to me all too likely to slip into the very subjectivism it deplores. Special revelations -- the only sort recognized by this kind of theology -- have always needed to be checked by some more general frame of reference: the written Scriptures coolly and historically studied, the tradition and common experience of the church, and the still more general experiences and tested beliefs of mankind. I cannot see any reason to suppose that this need for objective criticism of immediate insights is less today than it was in St. Paul’s time, or in Luther’s and Calvin’s. Nor can I see that a single test, least of all a simple reference to the Bible as understood by the recipient of the special revelation, is now or ever will be a sufficient safeguard against the vagaries to which intensely sincere minds are sometimes even more liable than those whose convictions are less fiercely one-sided. In short, I see no way in which theology can get on safely without history, philosophy and common sense.

In principle, most if not all the members of the group just mentioned would agree, though in detail we are still healthily far from agreement. Such agreement and disagreement, with mutual understanding and respect, is the essence, I take it, of the liberal tradition in its broad sense, from the beginning of Christianity until now.

On the other hand, I have been driven, willy-nilly, to recognize that theology cannot get on without special revelations, either. Indeed, I have been convinced that it must start from such revelations, above all from those which center about Jesus Christ, and the faith which they evoke. This amounts to a Copernican change in my orientation. With it has come a new sense of the special significance -- long obvious enough to others, but to me unsuspected -- of the Bible, the creeds, theological tradition and the Christian Church. For years I tried to resolve these simply into illustrations of familiar logical formulas, the while overlooking or apologizing for their more refractory aspects. Now, with the sort of relief that comes when one moves from thin ice onto solid ground, I find myself taking them still more simply as concrete instances of living give-and-take among men, and between God and man, which both demand and resist logical inquiry. That they resist it is no reason to adjourn the effort to get them into rational perspectives. On the other hand, in their presence our logic seems clearly to have neither the first nor the last word.

I have been compelled, in short, to recognize that for theology two foundations are equally necessary: specific revelations of reality both divine and non-divine, and the principle of relevance or coherence which is basic to all rational living. Without the former, there would be no data for theology. Without the latter, all data would be meaningless, and none of them could be construed as revelations of God. Fides quaerens intellectum would more nearly describe my thinking today than at any prior time in these ten years.

The rise of the more blatant neo-paganisms has reinforced my conviction of the need for both these factors. If human decency is ever to be won, more plainly than ever it must be in part through the widening and deepening of the rational insights against which the cults of blood and soil are in revolt. But whatever hope I now have for such growth of man toward rational decency is rooted in faith that Jesus Christ has given us men our best clue to the natures of both man and God. If that be true, the Herods and the Caesars will not have their way.