Shaping and Being Shaped

by Jerry H. Gill

Dr. Gill is professor of Christianity and Contemporary culture at Eastern College, Saint Davids, Pennsylvania.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 23-30, 1975 pp. 685-688. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


One of the chief sources of difficulty in our time is the common, uncritical acceptance of the dichotomy between judgments of fact and judgments of value, between so-called “objectivity” and “subjectivity.” In theology as in art, the question “What does it. mean?” can be answered only after it is reshaped to ask “How does it mean?”

This is the seventh in a series: New Turns in Religious Thought

As I understand the aim of this series of articles, it is not an attempt to garner direct predictions from those who have been invited to participate. Rather, the purpose is to sketch out possible new directions in religious thought in an indirect fashion as they are mediated through the concerns, activities and reflections of the participants. Thus I shall offer here a brief indication of the forces forming the shape of my own life as one who is involved in the interaction between Christian faith and contemporary life.


My work as a college teacher provides the primary context for my activity and thought. This constant involvement with young minds as they deal with old as well as new ideas may be one of the better environments within which to discern future trends. At any rate, the environment is as invigorating and enriching as it is demanding and draining. I find my students today more interested in honest dialogue and more willing to develop discipline than students were a few years back. Like students of those other years, they remain somewhat aloof from established cultural norms and ideas, while putting more energy into "tending their own garden," but they are less wrapped up in the narcissism of the youth culture.

Over the past few years one of my chief concerns has been to create an atmosphere and develop teaching techniques that stress the social, dialogical and ongoing dimensions of the educative process. Learning to learn has become the primary focus of my classroom work, and this focus is expressed in such methods as dividing large classes into rotating discussion groups; assigning shorter, more frequent written work that can be rewritten; structuring group oral examination experiences; and stressing the application of what is learned to other disciplines and life situations. Many students are engaged in independent study, and they show increasing interest in interdisciplinary studies that incorporate religious issues.

These aspects of my teaching situation may indicate something of the posture to be assumed by students of religion in the next decade. It is my own hope that the social, dialogical and interdisciplinary thrust will become more pervasive than the individualistic, isolationist tendencies. Among the many things we need today, one of the more important is the ability to integrate positive commitment and genuine openness, to combine faith and growth. To put it another way -- with a nod to Reinhold Niebuhr, whose work appears even sounder as it ages -- we need a greater capacity to be at ease with limited and partial solutions to problems, rather than continually seeking permanent "peace and prosperity."

The courses I regularly teach include ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of language, theory of knowledge, and art and language. It is my deep conviction that one of the chief sources of difficulty in our time is the common, uncritical acceptance of the foundational dichotomy between judgments of fact and judgments of value, between so-called "objectivity" and "subjectivity." This dichotomy not only separates disciplines from one another and fragments them within themselves; more important, it produces a schizophrenic sensibility within contemporary culture and individuals.

The unquestioning acceptance of this dichotomy has pernicious effects in religious thought and life as well. It lies at the base of existentialist and death-of-God theologies on the one hand and the Jesus movement and "flight to the occult" phenomena on the other hand. In each case it is assumed that human experience divides neatly into objective and subjective realms, and that value, meaning and spiritual concerns reside exclusively in the latter. On the other side of the dichotomy, those who reject or ignore questions of a spiritual or existential nature generally do so in the name of "objectivity."


A dominant theme in nearly all of the courses I teach is that of tracing the character and modes of this dichotomy with an eye to replacing it with a sounder, more holistic and integrated epistemological foundation. In this effort I receive forceful inspiration from the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (cf. Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty). His grounding of language and meaning in the context of human community and "form of life," together with his understanding of linguistic activity as multidimensional in character, goes a long way toward overcoming simplistic dichotomies between fact and value. For neither our language nor our lives divide up as easily as we have been led to believe.

My other primary source in this epistemological reconstruction effect is the thought of Michael Polanyi (cf. Personal Knowledge and Knowing and Being). His insightful emphasis on the personal and tacit matrix of all judgments, be they "objective" or "subjective," provides both the cornerstone and much of the framework for a postcritical, non-dichotomized theory of knowledge and an integrated way of being in the world. Polanyi makes it clear that all judgments are grounded in various subsidiary and somatic factors, which, though they can be neither fully defined nor rationalistically justified, must nonetheless be acknowledged as cognitive and accredited as our own. All judgments arise out of the common tacit yet bedrock structure of social reality, and they seek the agreement of those who take part in this reality. Nevertheless they are judgments made by individuals, and the risk and responsibility for their confirmation in the give-and-take of everyday life rests finally with the individual judgment-maker. Out of this dialogue between the individual and social poles of human existence emerges what we call truth (cf. my "Linguistic Phenomenology," International Philosophical Quarterly, December 1973).

Here again my concern with the social, dialogical and integrative dimensions of the human situation comes to the fore. These are the dimensions which have been torn asunder by the "modern sensibility" and whose repair alone can provide a fruitful basis for the continuation of human life. This is why the insights of Wittgenstein and Polanyi strike me as so sound and important. Thus they find their way, in some form or other, into nearly every course I teach and form the context for most of my research. I take as my main task to shed light on how the heart can have "reasons that the reason knows not of" while avoiding the arrogance of empiricism and the muddles of existentialism (cf. my The Possibility of Religious Knowledge [Eerdmans, 1971] and "Saying and Showing," Religious Studies, fall 1974). My commitment to this task grew out of my encounter with William Poteat at Duke University, a man for all seasons plus one.

The one theological thinker whose thought most closely parallels that of Wittgenstein and Polanyi is the late Ian Ramsey (cf., Religious Language, Models and Mystery and especially Christian Empiricism). His understanding of the major elements of contemporary philosophy, his careful and penetrating analysis of the multidimensional nature of the religious use of language, and his grasp of the tacit and mediated character of religious awareness and knowledge all exhibit a kind of thinking badly needed in religious circles today.

Ramsey was a self-acknowledged "bridge-builder" who sought to correlate the focal emphases of Christian theology with issues and developments in a wide variety of fields, while avoiding a "pontifical posture’ on the one hand and a "pandering posture" on the other. In his view, religious meaning grows out of, comes in and through, the other, more "objective" dimensions of human experience, while being neither exhaustible in terms of them nor separable from them. And his efforts to explore these issues always began with and never strayed far from the way religious people actually talk (cf. my forthcoming book Ian Ramsey: To Speak Responsibly of God).


The second major influence shaping my life and thought is found in engagement with and reflection upon the vastly complicated dimensions of contemporary popular culture. For me this engagement and reflection take place within the context of a Christian perspective which, guided by the insights of H. Richard Niebuhr, seeks a responsible and transforming relationship between the Christian gospel and cultural life. Such a posture demands both empathetic involvement with and prophetic criticism of the moods and movements of our world.

One point of cultural interaction arises out of involvement with the life situation of college students. My students are expected to read what I suggest; it behooves me, in turn, to be conversant with what they are reading, listening to and seeing. I have, for example, made a place in my life for rock music, though I must admit that soul music does more for me.

More recently I have spent a good deal of time studying and discussing the four books by Carlo Castaneda on the teachings of Don Juan. Th intense and widespread interest in these books warrants serious attention at both the appreciatory and evaluatory levels. Don Juan, be he historical or fictitious, has much to offer by way of counteracting the materialism and egotism of our Western heritage. Both his overall vision -- the life of peaceful and powerful self-reliance -- and his down-home proverbial wisdom ("choose the path with heart") are worthy of practice. At the same time his excessive individualism and "warrior" motif -- to say nothing of the conceptual difficulties attendant upon his notion of "a separate reality" -- need to be challenged, both philosophically and religiously (cf. my "The World of Don Juan: Some Reflections," Soundings, December 1974).

Another important aspect of contemporary culture with which I feel it imperative to be involved is film. Although I see a fairly wide variety of films, it is the work of Ingmar Bergman that impresses and influences me most. I offer a course on his work every other year. To my mind -- and viscera -- his particular combination of medium and message provides a most penetrating presentation and expression of contemporary existence. Bergman’s depth and popularity make his work a key juncture at which the meaning of modern existence and religious thought converge. Keeping in touch with film will be an increasing responsibility of religious thinkers in the years ahead. I might add that while I think that Bergman’s diagnosis of the human condition is telling and provocative, I find his vision a bit too pessimistic and his understanding of love too simplistic to keep pace with those of Christian theology (cf. my Ingmar Bergman and the Search for Meaning [Eerdmans, 1969]).


Yet a third point of reference for engaging and reflecting upon the contours of our time is provided by my teaching of social and political philosophy especially that of Marxism. Following, and to some degree participating in, the experience of minorities in America has helped me see the viability of the Marxist critique of capitalism as a socioeconomic system. The inequities and oppression constituting the reality within which blacks, Chicanos and native Americans live have begun to press in on our consciousness. One hopes that they will serve as well to make us -- religious and nonreligious people alike -- increasingly aware of the inequities and oppression created and perpetuated for nations of the "underdeveloped" Third World by the "overdeveloped" nations East and West.

Most of my time abroad has been spent on Crete studying the life and work of Nikos Kazantzakis (cf. Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ, Saviors of God and Report to Greco) and the ancient Minoan culture. My American students are very much challenged by the former’s emphasis on growth through struggle and by the latter’s achievement of a large, nonaggressive, stable society. My Greek friends are tired of Greece’s being used, whether as a tourist attraction or as a military pawn. In order to be viable in the next decade, religious thought and activity are going to have to strike a more international posture and address themselves to the problems of imperialism and oppression in the Third World (cf. Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Ivan Illich’s Church, Change and Development, Dom Helder Câmara’s Revolution Through Peace).

One is thankful that some Christian thinkers -- and doers -- have begun to awaken to the radical meaning of the Christian message. The central thrust of Jesus’ life and teaching, in my reading of the New Testament, was directed against all forms of oppression, and it is imperative that we step up our efforts to unpack and apply the ramifications of the "gospel of liberation." Fortunately we are increasingly being forced to face these issues by blacks, Chicanos, Indians, the women’s movement, and by the peoples of Africa, South America and the Arab nations. I hope that we will not take a defensive or evasive stance vis-à-vis these confrontations (cf. James Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation, Frederick Herzog’s Liberation Theology, Rosemary Ruether’s Religion and Sexism).


The invitation to participate in this series came as I was putting the finishing touches on a sabbatical year spent studying -- and that means doing -- the arts. One reason for investing a year in this way was strictly personal: I felt aesthetically deprived in my upbringing and education, and it was time to begin to do something about it. Another reason was professional: our college had recently reorganized itself, and I had assumed responsibility for a large part of the required interdisciplinary courses in the Creative Arts Collegium. Thus it behooved me to experience firsthand the fields in which my students were laboring. In addition, I had a growing interest in exploring art as a way of knowing. Both the creative process and the employment of artistic skill seem to me to be based firmly in tacit knowing, and so I have spent this year incarnating that possibility.

My close friends Jim Crane (Eckerd College artist, cartoonist, and perpetual brainstormer) and Leon Arksey (literature professor par excellence at Seattle Pacific College) have been my primary goaders and guiders in this undertaking.

I took courses in a wide variety of fields -- ceramics, music, imaginative writing, drawing, dance and literature; I have begun to get an idea of how aesthetic awareness feels and what it entails. The vast bulk of my work was devoted to sculpture; I worked in clay, plaster, bronze and alabaster. My teacher was Harriet Hughes, a young woman possessed of great skills and diverse interests. Patiently but forcefully she put me through the rudiments of modeling, critiquing, casting and finishing more than a half-dozen major projects. I learned as much about myself as I did about art, but this is not the place to discuss either.

This is the place, however, to share three motifs which have been playing in and around my consciousness for several months as a result of my encounter with sculpting. One has to do with the notion of apprenticeship or discipleship. I am increasingly convinced of the value of placing oneself at the lower end of a master-apprentice relationship in fields where one knows next to nothing, where who one is and what one knows in one’s own field are unrevealed and beside the point. Having to take instructions and orders from someone much younger and less experienced while keeping my own ideas to myself has been a humbling and enlightening experience. To have demands placed upon me in areas where I do not know my way about has been good for the soul. I trust I have profited a good deal from this sort of discipline, and I cannot help’ thinking of it as a possible source of renewal for others as well. I would hope that Christian communities might call us back from a life of talking and softness to the wisdom of patient listening and fortitude. In my bones I know that this discipline has a great deal to do with Jesus’ teaching about servanthood.


Another motif arising from my sculpting experience is a growing respect for material reality -- I mean that sort of understanding of and loyalty to the medium in which one is working that marks all sound artistic endeavor. It is essential to listen to the materials, to come to know their basic characteristics and limitations and, to borrow a phrase from Heidegger, "to allow Being to speak through them." Usually we are so addicted to using materials for our own ends that this is an extremely difficult lesson to learn. Further, by a respect for material reality I also mean a deeper awareness of my own embodied existence.

Perhaps the most important difference between this year and others has been that for the most part I have had to shut my mouth and work with my hands, to think less with my mind (explicitly) and more with my body (tacitly). It is undoubtedly no accident that my recent religious and theological probings have centered on the ramifications of the incarnation. What does it mean that God was in Christ, that the Word became flesh? What does it mean for me to present my body as a living sacrifice in worship of God? Clearly God has a greater respect for material reality than is dreamed of in our traditional and contemporary religious perspectives.

In this connection I should mention that I am continually surprised by how often my current musings dovetail with the emphases of my seminary mentor, Robert Traina, who insisted that theology must be grounded in the incarnation and the atonement, that all other doctrines must flow from and be in harmony with these basic revelatory motifs.

Finally, I have begun to do some thinking about how theology and art might be employed in order to shape each other. The notion of mediation is crucial to both. Meaning in the arts -- aesthetic awareness -- is mediated through the nature and elements of the medium without ever being directly present itself. It is "incarnated" in the theological sense. In like fashion, theological meaning -- religious awareness -- is mediated in and through the other dimensions of human experience. In both cases we destroy the meaning if we seek to extricate it from its concrete form of expression. In theology as in art, the question "What does it. mean?" can be answered only after it is reshaped to ask "How does it mean?"