Ordeal of a Happy Dilettante

by Albert C. Outler

Albert C. Outler was a United Methodist Minister and a professor at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. He is an authority on Augustine.

Every decade since 1939 the Christian Century has run a series on “How My Mind Has Changed.” This is an answer to that challenge from Albert C. Outler, published on February 3, 1960 in the Christian Century. 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.


Outler: My conversion to liberalism came in the years of the Great Depression — at the very time when the first effective critiques of liberal theology were being noticed in this country. It now seems long ago and far away, but that conversion left with me two significant residues that I still cherish: the liberal temper and the social gospel.

Quite a lot has happened, both in the world and in my mind, in the last ten years. That we -- the world and my mind -- have come through them even partially intact is cause for earnest gratitude, for the odds often seemed stacked against us. It has been a demented time, a cliff-hanging time, a time of portents and marvels.

In it I have tried to be as relevant as possible -- especially when I could tell for certain what that meant and where I could distinguish between the really relevant and the merely novel. I have nothing but scorn for the dogmatists who stubbornly insist that they already have the truth in a handbasket, that they have had it all along and need only to proclaim it to have it heard by the elect. And I have sought sincerely to hear the new sounds and sights of the avant garde -- and their theological chaplains.

My assignment in this series, however, forced me to probe behind the frenzied calendar I have tried to keep this past decade and ask myself what it is that I have really been doing and trying to do. The answer, as far as I have come to one, seems to be that while I have been as busy and as discontent as Martha ever was the one thing needful in my theological career thus far has not been to keep up but to catch up.

For a long time now I have been convinced that one of the hidden causes of our current confusion is the often unrecognized hiatus in our consciousness between the Christian present and the Christian past. The Enlightenment and its theology caused a deep, near-fatal breach of continuity between contemporary Christianity and historic Christianity. The consequences of this are all around us, in the unhistorical and sometimes antihistorical developments in Christian thought. How can this breach be healed? How can a man be a modern Christian, one who has assimilated the theological impact of the nineteenth century, and still claim his full share of the whole of the Christian heritage? I have been puzzling over these questions a long time. Alongside a hundred practical ventures of one sort or another the one constant and continuing project I can see in my distracted labors has been the effort to recouple the past and the present -- and to persuade others that it must be done or at the very least attempted. To explain how I got started on such a project and what has happened to it in the past decade I have to go back to the beginning of my theological career.

Speaking in terms of atmospheres rather than dates, I was born and reared in the eighteenth century -- in a parsonage-home of warm, vital piety and in a college still devoted to a classical curriculum. My years at seminary and in the pastorate (1928-35) marked a brief but exciting passage into and through the nineteenth century. My conversion to liberalism came in the years of the Great Depression -- at the very time when the first effective critiques of liberal theology were being noticed in this country. It now seems long ago and far away, but that conversion left with me two significant residues that I still cherish: the liberal temper and the social gospel.

It was not until my years in the Yale graduate school (1935-38) that I was thrust boldly into the twentieth century -- this in the course of a degree in historical theology. There I first read Barth and Irenaeus, concurrently. I was "all shook up" by A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society and T. S. Eliot’s "The Wasteland." At Yale, I first heard of Kierkegaard and existentialism, and I actually met Paul Tillich. I took seminars in the Institute of Human Relations and wrote a dissertation on Origen that was passed by Robert Calhoun, Roland Bainton and Erwin Goodenough. What a jumble it all was -- and what an adventure! If I spread too wide and too thin at least I gained a range of insights and outlook that I would not even now exchange for a narrower specialization.

In this swift journey through three "centuries" I discovered for myself the radical tension between the Enlightenment and the relatively continuous Christian tradition down to the end of the eighteenth century. The nineteenth century stood -- and still stands -- as a sort of gap between my own theological childhood and maturity. I had pondered the previous breaks in the history of the church -- the transplantation from Jewish to Greek soil, the transition from an illicit to an established religion, the passage from the ancient to the medieval world, the upheaval of the Reformation and so on. In each of these instances the further development of Christianity depended on the way the transition was handled or mishandled. It seemed to follow, therefore, that one of the specific and fundamental tasks of twentieth-century Christianity was to deal with the nineteenth century. As a matter of fact, this has been the strongest impulse in those theologies which have dominated this century thus far. In Barth, Niebuhr and others I saw a variegated pattern of protest and assimilation; in others such as Tillich and Bultmann there was an equally variegated pattern of assimilation and protest. Similar configurations appear in the new biblical theology and in the theological work of the ecumenical movement.

In the field of church history and the history of doctrine, however, no such progress is apparent. Contemporary Christian historians have been caught in a bind between their historiography and their theology. Time was when the first Christian historian, Eusebius, could follow the simple maxim that history was the stage on which the struggle between God and the devil was being acted out. But it has now come to pass that the modern historian is committed to the contrary maxim: God does not intervene in history -- no appeal to divine action or causality will serve as an historical explanation. But what happens to church history when God is left out of it?

And yet we cannot escape our own church history, whatever it is. We do not do so even if we attempt a leap of faith directly from the present moment to the New Testament -- seeking to hear God’s Word, so to say, from out of time. The fact is that we hear what we hear with the apperception produced by our own histories, and these affect what we hear and what we do in response. Nor is it better to select one or another segment of Christian history, such as the first or the fifth or the sixteenth century, and make that the norm for our own. Both these approaches ignore the question of the identity and the continuity of the Christian community and its message throughout the total historical experience of that community. But this is the question that has to be solved if we are to deal with any major instance of discontinuity.

Grandiose as it may be, and ill equipped for it as I am, I came to believe that this inquiry into the continuity of historic Christianity in contemporary Christianity was my theological vocation. This has meant a double effort to comprehend the Christian tradition in its historic continuity and the modern world in its intellectual and spiritual ambiguities. I have of course sought to merit the respect of my fellow historians and to speak to the condition of my fellow moderns. But I’ve had no illusions that I could master such a job, even by my own standards of excellence. It was bound to make a man a dilettante. A perfectionist in my shoes would have gone down in despair. But a happy dilettante is like a dog walking on his hind legs: rather pleased with himself that he can manage it at all!

The master image of the nineteenth century -- man redeeming himself and his society -- has been shattered beyond easy repair. Zealous as I was in that iconoclasm I have come to think that we must now attend to the other face of Christian man -- his original righteousness and the basic health that God sustains even in his rebellious and sinful children. This idea has shaped my work on the relations between psychotherapy and the Christian message. But every shift in anthropology entails a readjustment in soteriology -- and this means that we must have a new Christology: a modern doctrine of the Savior of modern sinners. Again, if a modern man is to witness to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, what sort of language, derived from what noetic categories, can he rightly use to celebrate his new life with God in Christ? Finally, how can he learn to think of himself in real relation with all other Christians "in this world and the next"? These are some of the "new" questions which I have seen emerging in the last few years and which I expect to see influencing the shape of theological things to come. At any rate they are the questions which have exercised my mind for the past decade, accounting for whatever changes have occurred.

In 1949 I was on the faculty at Yale and pastor of the Methodist church at Wallingford, Connecticut. It was an arduous and vastly stimulating situation. It signified that I wanted to be in close touch with the life of the church, to fill out my understanding of the Christian tradition and the contemporary world, and to work out a systematic theology on historical foundations. Presumably I could have done this as well at Yale as anywhere else. But like many another southerner who "left home’’ I was feeling a strong pull to go back -- to help with the development of theological education in a region where Protestantism was still vigorous and to work directly with the churches through a university set down in their midst. The call to Southern Methodist University in 1951 seemed to provide such an opportunity. So we moved, though not without a few backward glances in the course of the early years. On the whole it has turned out rather as we had hoped.

In this new setting I have become a more loyal churchman than I was before without ceasing to love academia one whit the less. I think I am as critical as ever of the churches’ failures -- of nerve, of wisdom, of vision. Certainly I am still distressed at the stale, flat and unprofitable business that often goes by the name of Christianity in all too many places. But I have also found an opportunity to work for something different and better within the churches themselves and to help with the training of ministers furnished for the future with the resources of the past. Moreover I have discovered more authentic life and power in the churches themselves than even the pious cynics ever see. The residence of the Holy Spirit among the people of God is still a reality -- and this has given both promise and hope, even in the midst of discontent.

This closer involvement in denominational affairs has had the effect of strengthening my commitment to the cause of ecumenical Christianity. I know now that the way to unity does not lie in the aggressive reassertion of our respective virtues or the recombination of the separated members of Christ’s body. If it comes at all it will be through the mutual discovery and affirmation within the separated churches of that common Christian history which we share as Christians. If we are able to do this, however, we must also prepare our peoples for the mutations in form and policy that are bound to follow.

I have already mentioned the fact that Christology has come to confront us again as if it were almost a new question. Along with many others I have spent the past ten years exploring this maze and mystery -- trying to rehearse its history and reformulate its import in modern terms. The gist of my conclusions thus far can be scantily summarized in five theses: (1) the definition of Chalcedon, understood in context, is still the basic text for a valid, modern Christology; (2) since Chalcedon, "orthodox" Christology -- East and West -- has failed to maintain a proper doctrine of the full and real humanity of Jesus Christ; ( 3) the Protestant stress on the work and corresponding de-emphasis on the person of Christ is a misunderstanding; (4) Enlightenment Christology was the function of Enlightenment anthropology and hence is now as archaic as its scholastic counterpart; (5) modern personality theory is a major new resource for the interpretation of the biblical and Chalcedonian witnesses to the Man of God’s own choosing. I would like to see a modern restatement of the two-natures doctrine that would move from our knowledge of the agent of our salvation to an understanding of the act of our salvation, to that faith-acting-in-love which is the Christian life.

Ten years ago, as I can see by my lecture notes, I was still laboring traditional phrases -- rational and irrational, natural and supernatural, transcendent and immanent, finite and infinite -- as metaphors about God and the world. Aided by biblical theologians I have come to see that this split-level language does not ring true in terms of the Bible or Christian experience. I have come to believe that it is better to begin with the fact that God is always present and acting, whether "known" or not. Then one can speak of the two different ways that he is present: either in his mystery or his manifestation. God-Mysterious is utterly ineffable; God-Manifest is actually knowable, but only when, where and as he chooses to reveal himself. We are aware of God-Mysterious -- and this awareness is as primitive as our awareness of motion, causality or self. We are also grasped by the presence of God-Manifest, and this supplies the data of religious knowledge. In neither case is God at our disposal.

Thus faith and reason are not two different ramps to two different levels of reality. Rather, they are two different responses to the two different modes of God’s presence and action. Faith cannot verify itself; reason cannot originate its data. Our language-games -- of worship and theology -- must reflect these two dimensions of experience. The language of worship adores God-Mysterious, confesses God-Manifest, and speaks of repentance, forgiveness and new being. It is therefore essentially doxological and confessional. It confesses, without rational proof, that the supreme manifestation of God-Mysterious is Jesus Christ -- in manifest fullness and not merely as symbol.

The language of theology is both like and unlike the language of worship. Theology is reflection upon the reality of worship and an explication of it. As such it is a rational affair -- receiving its data as given, testing its methodology, trying to make sense -- faith seeking to understand. The function of theology is to guide the dialogue between faith and understanding and to prevent either from excluding the other. Significantly new and somewhat unexpected resources for developing these notions are being provided for us in the work of those linguistic analysts who are exploring the meaning of theological explanations.

The happy dilettante, who believes in justification by faith and hope, prays to be judged by his intention as well as by his performance. He is as much concerned with what he can see as needful as with what he himself can provide. If I could choose my own epitaph I would want it to speak of one who was sustained in a rather strenuous career by the vision of a Christian theology that gives history its full due; that makes way for the future without having to murder the past; that begins and ends with the self-manifestation of God’s Mystery in our flesh and our history; that binds itself to Scripture but also claims scriptural authority for a rational hermeneutics; that Opposes human pride and speaks of God’s healing grace without despising or exalting the creature; that unites justice and mercy without resorting either to legalism or to antinomianism; that organizes the Christian life by the power of grace and the means of grace; that celebrates our redemption by the invincible love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord - in sum, a theology that does justice to the reality it reflects upon. It is enough for any man to believe that he has been called to labor in some such task as this, for he cannot doubt that whether it is given him to plant, to water or to harvest, God will give the increase.