Albert C. Outler: United Methodist Ecumenist

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in the Christian Century February 29, 1984, p. 218. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The mainline churches have not, in code language, recognized the expiration of the Enlightenment and Enlightenment rationalism. The evangelicals have not noticed its expiration either — an irony.

The year 1984, as church people will often hear, is the 200th anniversary of organized Methodism in the United States. One can celebrate it provincially, as the United Methodist church and small Methodist bodies are free to do just as Lutheran churches celebrated Martin Luther last year -- even though both Luther and John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, belong to a larger world. Methodism was expansive and helped shape modern religious response. So it is appropriate that people in the larger Wesleyan fellowship extend the impulse of the movement into our varied traditions and diverse lives.

How to bring that about? If you don’t know furs, know your furrier, the old advertisements used to say. If you don’t know jewels, know your jeweler. If you don’t know Methodism or Wesleyanism, know your Wesleyan, your Methodist. As we cast around for someone who best embodies or exemplifies something of the Methodist movement, one figure came instantly to mind. I interviewed him, urging him to range far beyond the topics of the anniversary year, but to stay very much in its mood. Here he is.

Albert Cook Outler, 74 (retired, Southern Methodist University), is one of the pre-eminent Protestant ecumenists of our years. Since those years often value superficial celebrity over lasting accomplishments, Outler’s name has not become a household word. Yet it is one of the best of the churchhold names, for many reasons. Its bearer, who has no peer as a John Wesley scholar, is a historian with a vast knowledge of Christian theology.

Who’s Who lists the accomplishments that have helped to make him a sage of our time. An ordained minister with four early Georgia pastorates behind him, Outler is a duly educated (Yale, Ph.D., 1938) professor of theology who taught at Duke and Yale before leaving his stamp and seal on Southern Methodist University. The author of numerous books, he is a veteran of the Faith and Order and the Vatican II circuits.

The courtly Georgian, his tongue betraying his origins despite some hardening in the Yale years and some broadening in Texas times, writes, speaks and lives with manifest but unpromoted style. His silver hair is thin, while his waistline remains enviably trim under the gray flannels and tweeds he sports. Imagine him settled back in a study chair or leaning forward in a restaurant in Rome, as we frequently have seen him: senior, knowing and wise, able to listen and to communicate with juniors.

In 1960, The Christian Century exacted some rare autobiographical jottings from Outler. He called, them “The Ordeal of a Happy Dilettante” (1960, pp. 127-29). He too frequently continues to cherish that self-definition, despite its unfitting connotation of the aesthete. I would prefer, for all its risks, the concept of the connoisseur in the sense that Cornelis Verhoeven (The Philosophy of Wonder [Macmillan, 1972, pp. 19-20]) rescues it.

In a down-to-earth conversation, that is, a conversation about actual things, the best partner on all subjects is a connoisseur on any subject, no matter what. This is increasingly true to the degree this person’s knowledge is less pretentious and more specialized, more concerned with concrete things with regard to which a creative approach is important. The wine connoisseur who is a positive bore as a table companion may surprise us on other occasions with magnificent expressions derived from his speciality but which appear to have a much wider application. Anyone who has immersed himself in a certain subject is infinitely more alive to other things than the person who has stopped short at a general education, even though these subjects be completely outside his special field.

Outler, unlike that wine connoisseur, cannot be positively boring even on Christology and tradition, subjects which do not quicken all modern pulses. But like that wine devotee, he can use his specialized knowledge as a secure base from which to surprise us with magnificent expressions on many topics.

Outler can write in abstract terms about Chalcedon or in concrete images about historic moments like the rearing up of Emperor Theodosius’s horse, as he did in his presidential address at the American Society of Church History. The most respected and informed of the Protestant observers at Vatican II he could be trusted to pick the best dinners in town, whether at the houses of religious orders or at commercial establishments. He has kept the company of the well known and the unknown and respected each equally, What others see as interdisciplinary distractions serve to inform his discipline. No one can match his endurance at editing Wesleyan cryptography or his restlessness on the ecumenical trail.

Despite some ailings that come with aging -- “How’s Dr. Outler’s health?” is the first question one is asked after an encounter with him -- he parks his aches at the door when he approaches platform and interview and has chosen not to be a connoisseur of hypochondrias. Instead he exudes cheer and gives the appearance of being healthy.

Picture yourself as one in the middle generation of Christian historians, who has been given a renewed time with Outler. You see him seated, set an atmosphere, and ask or observe what he might pass on to the next two generations.

Start with a surprise “Let’s nominate you the Methodist sage. A sage, we must presume, is a simplifier of life. As the years pass, sages must shrug off the superfluous. What used to bother you that does not any more? What did you once turn to with hope that you now reject?” Score one for the questioner: Outler was caught off guard. It is clear that he is not yet ready to throw away or shrug off anything of worth. Like most historians, he lives happily with a cluttered mental attic and spiritual store room, whose contents he can rearrange in so many ways. Augustine comes to mind, Augustine the accumulator. No, none of the old interests fall away So long as Christ is the organizing center of life and so long as one keeps a Christian curiosity, there will be a repository of options for dealing with the perplexities of life today.

Not pausing, because his conversation partner has asked him not to pause, over the designation “sage” -- “Am I or am I not one?” -- he is able to embody a serenity that has come precisely from his discipline. The study of Christian history has showed him how to achieve without expecting to transcend limits. “I have devoted my whole life to the tasks of clarifying how Christianity relates to culture, and I have not met disappointment, since I early learned that the whole labor does not depend on me.”

Conversationalists play games. Here is one. “The most complex lives are usually those that can best be reduced to an informing phrase. Such a phrase or word summarizes a vocation, a profile, an impact. “I/Thou,” “The Courage to Be.” “Aggiornamento,” “The Responsible Self.” “Creative Fidelity,” “Freedom!” What is Outler’s? After a split second during which his brow furls to spell sheepishness, he recovers: “Is it too corny just to say of me, “Bridge-Builder?” No, it is not corny at all. He can be reassured that his self-image matches the impression others have gained.

“Well, my life has been all bridge-building.” To build bridges assumes that one has firm footings on both sides. Sides of what? “Christianity and psychotherapy, for instance.” Who else was bringing the therapists and theologians together back in 1954, when Outler published Psychotherapy and the Christian Message? “I am still thrilled to see traffic on that very bridge,” he says.

A second bridge was, between Christianity and philosophy, at least in respect to their histories. Graduate student Outler learned this front ancient Origen. Has he conversation partners among current philosophers, or do they dismiss theology and force him to talk solely to those who speak only through books? “There’s less company than there was in the heyday of process philosophy,” he answers. Charles Hartshorne had been helpful then, and metaphysician Paul Weiss was a friend in the Yale years. Outler is eager to see more of Chicago’s Stephen Toulmin, who does adventuring work on reason and the disciplines. Yes, there is less company now: the tone is, for once, a bit wistful.

As for denominational bridge-building, he does not have to spell matters out. Mergers as such interest him less than shared Eucharists across boundaries, mutually acceptant ministries among the formerly competitive and participation in each other’s gifts. No wonder the Methodists chose him to go to Vatican II, and Vaticanologists chose him to represent so much of Protestantism.

Outler has put energies recently into dialogue on a tense and promising front: that between mainliners and evangelicals. One might speak of this front as being at “the right of the left and the left of the right,” for his mainliners care for tradition and his evangelicals are open to other voices. ‘‘No one at these gatherings is called to compromise -- but we do come up with astonishingly fresh formulations.” Some hardlining evangelicals may suspect that Outler is here subverting groups that might otherwise engage in some political takeovers, but have instead stayed around to speak and to listen to the moderate-to-liberal camps. Some hardlining mainliners may surmise that Outler is suspect as one more “neocon” who has gone over the hill and, like other apostates, spends his career taking revenge on his own spiritual past and the colleagues he thinks he has left behind. Neither stereotype works for this subtle and supple mind, and one of his main contributions may lie in helping to destroy such stereotypes.

Christians who want to take no interreligious risks will certainly be put off by the Methodist theologian’s involvement with Dallas’s Thanksgiving Square projects. What could be soft and soupy has instead turned out to show promise as Outler and other Dallas figures have brought together Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu leaders with Christians. “And no one has to be other than what he or she is” in such comings-together.

Entrepreneurs and impresarios come and go; theological bridge-builders need a sustaining philosophy. Outler leans forward when asked about his principle: “Does this sound too formal? I honestly believe that the Logos incarnate does in fact ‘compromise,’ and is, in fact, a sort of bridge.” A prompter suggests the word “mediator,” and Outler permits this, but it was not the precise word he was seeking. “I work with the conviction that all truth is an emergent co-incident with this movement of the Logos between God and man.” What this means needs spelling out, and his life and conversation are exercises in such spelling.

What does this message mean, I ask, for Eileen, who served us breakfast here at Notre Dame today, or for Wally, who keeps the accounts straight, or. . .

“Oh. you mean the people to whom we are preaching all the time.” Outler is indeed preaching all the time. He has never hidden in his study with Origen and the Wesley scribbles. But he is a historian, and historians’ answers are usually complex. What does the tradition teach him about how to speak of this Logos who is active in personal and communal ordinariness?

“Three things. Somehow you have to be gracious. Then you have to show graciousness, and talk about it. It can be talked about. Finally, you call forth from people some sort of response to grace as unmerited favor, to the fact that our lives are gifted.” (Pounce: the mind triggers, “This really is a Methodist!”) Life, Outler goes on, “is not merely fortune or luck, good or bad. When we preach, we tell people that God loves them -- and then we let them go.

The sermon could have ended there, but, like most sermons, this one goes on a moment longer than one expects: “The preacher has to say, ‘I live by grace. You live by grace. We can therefore be thankful. We can love.”’ Why does that sound banal from many lips, but startling from this “dilettante” or connoisseur who has dipped into the finer points of Cyril of Alexandria’s thought?

Dare I press one step further and ask a learned savant to unbutton his vest and risk sounding simplistic by translating all this for children? I, for one, make this a central test for sages. Are they spiritually available -- do they have Gabriel Marcel’s disponibilité -- to children? How would Outler talk about any of this version of the Christian tradition to, say, his six-year-old grandchild during a walk in the woods?

“How would I? I have!” It goes something like this, without apologies for the corniness of family namings. “So many good things happen to us,” he tells the child, “but look twice. Someone who is loving has been fooling around here, bringing excitements and joys even in the midst of the bad things that happen in life. That someone is not just ‘nanna and gaffa’ or ‘mom and dad’!”

“What the child would really like to know is: ‘Am I cared for? Do I matter?”’ The gospel, says Outler, murmurs its “Yes, yes,” to help carry the child through the harder questions and times. “And so,” Outler tells the six-year-old, “it’s a joy for us to be around.” Then comes an afterthought,”... and a joy to be around you.”

Historians need contexts, and Outler has found his in conversations, colleagues and, most of all, the family. Some sages may be hermits, but this one shows that he is not. What about Carla, the children, the other grandchildren? “That’s the most interesting thing of all that happened to me,” the professor sparkles back. “The gift of the family. I have always had an invincible notion that we were all special to each other.’’

Why, the question comes to mind, is this family context so rich with you, but suppressed by many with whom we speak? Outler lets this pass with a confident mumble about “grace.”

 “Of course,” he says, “no marriage is pure romance. We think of ours as a ‘negotiable partnership’ at times. But if I have pursued my own ambitions, as she has hers, we have mutual respect, though we do not share all the details of each other’s lives.”

Outler makes no pretense that life is all one “have a good day” smile, and his pleasant expression bears the marks of being worn by someone who cares and has cares. As for his own transits, for instance, “I’ve had a terrible time with retirement, as I watch my school get on with the next chapters to which I know it must turn without me.”

Can the invincible elements of family and professional security and mutuality be taught to new generations? Outler is not sure about how the passage occurs. Through words? He has told students that spouses are not to be their auxiliaries, that they have entitlements of their own. He hopes they will find “negotiable partnerships” if they marry.

Once the subject of transmission comes up, it is natural to ask about passing his approach to Christian thought along to new generations. Must the young comers learn as much as he knows about Origen and Augustine, Wesley and Rahner, in order to be able to simplify creatively? He answers that, of course. he would like to see them knowing more. They will be greatly enriched as they do enlarge their repository of options for the future out of the Christian past. “I have always lived with my own versatility quite happily because I feel there is a coherence in the sources on which I draw, in everything, I always try to center on the source among the resources.”

For this man of tradition, “reconnecting” students and laity with the source means the biblical story and what it says about human existence. He cannot connect people with everything that happened in his favorite centuries, the 20th, 18th, 16th or 4th. Not even the 18th, his first choice; he was, he says, “born in a Georgia parsonage in the 18th century -- the Wesleyan one.” But, he insists, one can reconnect moderns to the primal visions of human horizons in the Bible. If students quicken curiosity and conscience there and in the surrounding world, they are well on their way.

I mentioned the four theological sages whose names come up when you inquire about those who influenced Outler most. Who helps in bridge-building between the biblical worlds and our own? John Wesley. He is editing Wesley’s sermons and did edit more of Wesley for a classic Oxford edition. He works with 14,000 cross-reference cards on Wesley’s sermons, notations from his seasons in the British Museum Library.

Outler has not only dug, he has used what he came up with. Wesley, he says, “got the order of salvation right,” and that order Outler spells out in eight stages. Why, one cannot resist asking, does today’s Methodism so seldom get this order and its consequences right? “There may be more of us who do than you realize. We’ve done what we could, and it wasn’t enough.” More sadness than defensiveness is in his voice.

Origen. “Does that choice surprise you?” The son of the Georgia Methodist parsonage encountered Origen when philosophy pressed hard on his young mind. Origen connected the Bible with contemporary culture, “and it is desperately important that we learn to do so, too.”

Among the moderns, Karl Rahner stands out. “His Christian wisdom is certainly for the ages. What does he mean by ‘God’s self-communication’? We’d be well advised to reflect on that.” Since Rahner has spent more energy than has Hans Kung on relating theological adventure to ecclesial responsibility, it is clear that Outler identifies more with the German sage than with the stormy petrel. “And Rahner’s Spirit in the World (Crossroad, 1968) opens us to a psychology that goes far beyond what Christians usually work with.”

If this historian of theology is well aware of the surrounding world and church today, he has to be concerned about the malaise many currently identify with mainline Protestant life. He knows that many of its local churches and movements are vital. But has he a diagnosis for low morale on the national and international levels’? Instantly, two themes come to his mind.

First, the churches have overbought the managerial revolution. Max Weber’s all-integrating, meshing and enmeshing Rationalität -- my summary, not his words --  dominates. Outler cannot think of a church body that has not put too much hope in expensive and energetic restructuring during the past 25 years.

Bridge-builder Outler will not, however, let the simple antibureaucrat come charging with a lance against “the organized church,” even at this vulnerable point. No romantic simplist, he is on good terms with the elected and managerial leadership of the churches. He simply insists that to look for evangelical reform from structural reshuffling is a diversion. Look elsewhere. Such as?

“Such as networking.” He almost apologizes for a term that sounds faddish, but recovers. “I know that sounds like a slogan, but it is really very apt. Look around and you will see.” He describes spontaneous combustions, voluntary associations, movements which come into being without a charismatic leader or celebrity to whom members swear fealty and from whom they pick up jargon. The good ones of these outlive their founders. They are not “parachurch” rivals to the churches. Their members do not turn their backs on everyone else’s congregation; they live off the church and feed into it. Outler is reluctant to cite examples, since exposure often makes the networks vulnerable to public-relations hype and consequent disappointment or decline.

Outler’s second case against the mainline is that it has not, in code language, recognized the expiration of the Enlightenment and Enlightenment rationalism. (An irony: the evangelicals have not noticed it either, and misfight it in some of their charges against “secular humanism” and adopt it in some of their rationalist defenses of biblical authority.)

Outler cites chapter and verse from Langdon Gilkey, a theologian he respects for having seen the limits of the secular promise. “Funny, the old Fundamentalist and Modernist controversy (which, I find it astonishing to have to say, still continues) takes place between people who never understood the terms of Enlightenment life.” It also lives on in mainline churches when they overbuy the human potential movement or have too much faith in the motivating aspects of purely rational discourse.

Instead, Outler feels, “mainline congregations would be well served if they were told not, ‘You must love’ (which is true and which they’ve heard often enough), but rather ‘You can love’ because ‘You are loved.”’ This message centers on the personal encounter with Jesus Christ. “You are loved. Therefore, you are free to be thankful. You are free to be useful.” Is this a long way from Origen and Wesley and Rahner? Not in Outler’s mind. “We can tell the congregations this, or we can try one more time to say, ‘Pull up your socks, set your goals, you can do it!’ Wise people, however realize how difficult that is.”

Have we missed anything essential? Outler has to mention once more what is going on in Catholicism. to which he has spent years building bridges. “Even Paul VI and John Paul II are not, and knew or know they are not, Pius IX,” says Outler. as if eager to spread cheer and promote stamina among currently frustrated Catholics. The new popes know that they are primi inter pares , firsts among equals. who have to make their way through the theology and politics of persuasion more than coercion. His hopes for the Catholic future are measured, but “the reality is less dreadful” than the impatient might think.

We need a benediction from this Wesleyan: can he find something in the question, “What is the Holy Spirit for us today?’ Outlet chooses the words with care: “The Holy Spirit is the personal presence, the power of God, building and making selves, building and making the church, building and making human community.” And. we might add, building and making bridge-builders like Albert Outler.