The Moral Stance of Theism Without the Transcendent God

by Marvin C. Shaw

Marvin C. Shaw is Professor of Religious Studies at Montana State University. Bozeman, MT 59717. He is the author of The Paradox of Intention: Reaching the Goal by Giving Up the Attempt to Reach It (Scholars Press, 1988).

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.173-180, Vol.18, Number 3, Fall, 1989. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


A sense of the mystery of Being can enrich the sense of meaningfulness in life, setting limits to our attempts to reorder nature. Such writers as Wieman and Heidegger have written of concepts suggesting we seek this experience.

"The letting be of Being is for the religious consciousness grace.

-- John Macquarrie

H. N. Wieman agreed with the American critical naturalists Santayana and Dewey in rejecting the supernatural metaphysical vision, but he did not adopt their religious humanism. Among those who accepted the naturalism and pragmatism dominant in American thought in the second quarter of this century, the Chicago School stood apart in rejecting humanism and in insisting that human life is fulfilled not through intelligence and effort alone, but through commitment to a source of creative transformation which is beyond human knowledge and power, yet within nature.

Wieman was deeply involved in the debate among the Chicago naturalists over humanism and theism, and was particularly responsible for the development of its unique naturalistic theism. He sought to constrict this naturalistic theism, at first through speculation about the creative source of cosmic convergence, and later in the psychological conception of creative interchange between persons. In both of these phases, despite the alteration in the content of his naturalistic theism. Wieman insisted that human life reaches its fullest development only when proper adjustment is made to a creativity which does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Notice that while he rejects the metaphysics of traditional theism, he retains its moral posture. We could call this the theistic stance. Daniel Day Williams regarded this as Wieman’s residual Calvinism; in this way he accounted for the strange (and of course temporary) linking of Wieman and Karl Barth in the early 1930s, for both sought to overcome the subjectivism and self-reliance which characterized the earlier liberal theology.1


Throughout his career, Wieman conducted his quest for a naturalistic concept of the divine guided by what I take to be a formal definition of God. To use the title of his major work, God is the "source of human good." Since in naturalism, the traditional concept of God as above, beyond and before the world is set aside, inquiry must seek within the observable world for a new content which will satisfy this formal definition. The resulting philosophical quest has as its goal ". . . first, to find that behavior of the universe, and second, to make that adaptation to it, which will yield the maximum good" (WRT 140). Note that at the outset, Wieman adopts the perspective which sees the good of human life as dependent upon a factor outside human knowledge and effort.

Another theme which remains constant in his thought is that the fullest development of human life is not a state, but a process in which the person becomes increasingly responsive to a wider and fuller range of the environment. One of Wieman’s most helpful insights is that in any given state of development of the self or society, there is a great "waste of experience," in that our present habits of perception and our existing patterns of interpretation are able to relate us only to a small sector of the richness of the total event of nature. Any arrangement of social relations, and any state of development of the person, will eventually come to be experienced as confining, however freeing it may have seemed when first achieved. The source of human good will then be whatever is found to enable the repeated expansion of awareness.

In the 1920s and 1930s Wieman specified the content of the concept of God as that order of the natural cosmos by virtue of which it is a creative process. He claimed that through religious experience, we come to be open to transformation by that process which actively orders the universe through time. Drawing upon Whitehead’s vision of the organismic universe, Wieman maintained that every existent is a particular way of focusing and embodying the influence of all of being. However, some beings reflect the richness of received influence more fully than others. The ordering process of the cosmos works constantly to transform each existent so that it reflects a wider sector of the data it is capable of receiving in richer and more novel ways; so conceived, the universe’s order is aesthetic.

It is this transforming power pervading the natural universe which is the operative factor in religious experience. In the moment of religious experience the normal selective attention and categorizing activities of the mind are suspended, and we become aware of the total passage of nature in its fullness. Here we are open to that aesthetic ordering which pervades the universe. Since our habitual patterns of interpretation and response are inactive, this order is able to influence the mind more fully, and we are changed such that we come to be aware of and adaptive to a wider range of reality.

The increase of awareness in persons which is the fulfillment of their potential as humans is here described as the result of openness and submission to an ordering process at work in the natural universe. The growth of good in our lives is not the result of human effort, which at best merely can set the conditions of transformation. And note that first among these would be the letting-go of willful activity based on present conceptions of the good of life, and openness to inner change by an influence which is beyond our control. This factor is, of course, not supernatural; but since it is that upon which the good of our lives depends, it is the functional equivalent of God, and the proper relation to it would be to adopt the moral posture of theism, which involves trust and readiness for transformation.


In Wieman’s writings of the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, the definition of the divine and the conception of the good of human life are retained, but Wieman turned away from the cosmic vision toward social psychology. As before, the increase of good is the expansion of the mind as a system of interpretation of and response to experience, such that we are open to wider reaches of reality, and the divine is whatever is found to bring this about, "transforming us as we cannot transform ourselves." But in these later studies, Wieman claims that this expansion of the mind actually occurs through the creative event of communication, in which new perspectives and patterns of interpretation derived from another are incorporated into the mind, enlarging its scope.

Creative interchange is a certain kind of communication. It begins in the candid expression of one’s unique, personal perspective, and thus goes beyond the superficiality of much conversation. This perspective must be expressed without the desire to impress or to manipulate the other, so that it does not elicit a defensive or rejecting response. The one who hears must be free of self-preoccupation and not project feelings or interpretations onto what is said. If in addition, the hearer does not cling to the present state of the self, but is open to change, the new insight can be integrated, perhaps with modifications, into the mind, and this addition of a new perspective or pattern of interpretation enlarges the mind and increases what it is able to feel and know. Since the speaker and the hearer now share something of each other, further creative interchange may occur more readily.

Notice that throughout the event, what is required is the abandonment of the mentality of willful control and the substitution of submission to a process which will lead us to unpredictable change. Surely, this is the moral equivalent of theism. In Wieman’s view, life grows more full not through human intention and effort, but through submission to a process which can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves:

Religious commitment of the kind defended here is a commitment of the total self, including one’s highest ideals, to a creativity operating in human life to expand the valuing consciousness of each by creative interchange with others. By way of this creativity, I come to include in myself values I previously could not imagine. (RI 18)

Here we find the two important claims that one must be ready to submit one’s highest present values and beliefs to change, and that that which results from the creative event is beyond present calculation. The theistic stance in Wieman is most clearly manifest in these two characteristic ideas.

Again and again, Wieman insists that the solution of human problems is not in the embodiment of present ideals and plans, but in the transforming of the mind through which new ideals and goals arise:

To do what lies beyond the reach of . . . [man’s] imagination, a greater imagination must be created in him. To seek a good beyond what he can appreciate, a greater appreciation must be developed in him. The creative event, not man himself, creates this greater imagination and this more profound and discriminating appreciation. (SHG 76)

This is Wieman’s fundamental criticism of humanism; ethical striving and social reform are inadequate when they seek the good through action based on the best available ideal vision, rather than through commitment to the process which revaluates all values:

Here we see the danger and the evil of the kind of humanism which insists that human purposes and ideals must control the further development of human existence. An alternative would be to submit these purposes and ideals to creative transformation by constantly protecting and improving the conditions under which creative interchange can operate between diverse purposes and ideals. . . . We must have ideals and purposes and we must increase our power, provided that above all else we are committed to that creativity which expands the valuing consciousness of the individual in community with others. We must hold all else subject to this in the sense that, in every time of major decision, we choose that alternative best fitted to promote the transforming power of creative interchange. (RI 30)

Human effort is thus redirected to the task of setting the conditions under which creative communication may occur, in the self, in the family, and in society; but the greater good comes about through this event and not through human effort.

This, then, is the theistic stance without the transcendent God. "Creativity is not God in the traditional meaning of that word. But neither does it operate under the control of human purpose (RI 28). Creativity, not in the sense of a power of the human mind but as a term for that which creates and transforms the human mind, is a natural and observable event in human life; yet since it is the source of human good, it does for us what God was said to do in traditional supernaturalism.

A second way in which Wieman argues for what I am calling the theistic stance is in his well-known distinction between "created good" and "creative good." Williams maintained in conversation that this was Wieman’s most important contribution to process theology. Created good refers to the existing pattern of the mind and society, the result of past operations of creative communication, while creative good refers to the process which is the source of created good. Our commitment should be to creative good and not to the created structures which are its outcome. In fact, we must be willing to sacrifice life as it is, for the sake of further transformation. Notice that the things which we must abandon for the sake of higher good are themselves good; these structures were liberating and enabling when they arose, and are the very beliefs, values, habits and institutions by which we live. They become evil, however, when clinging to them obstructs the perpetual transformation of life which its nature requires.


The relation between the two phases of Wieman’s thought poses an interesting problem.2 What is the relation of the later concept of creative interchange, a phenomenon in human life, to cosmic creativity? Wieman evidently became increasingly skeptical of the value of speculative ideas, and more convinced of the need for a concept of creativity which was empirical and could guide human action in quite specific ways. Brief consideration of this will facilitate later discussion of Heidegger’s criticism of those who, like Wieman, seek for great clarity and specificity in their concepts of that upon which the good of human life depends.

In The Source of Human Good, Wieman maintains that the creative event in human communication is a manifestation on the human level of a creativity at work on other levels of the cosmos. It is this larger creativity which gave rise to life and mind, and in the event of the extinction of human civilization on this planet, creativity would continue to work on simpler levels. Wieman also warns that the concept of creative interchange is, though serviceable, incomplete; and like all concepts, it is thin and abstract compared to the complexity of that to which it refers. Commitment in human living should be directed not to this concept, but to the reality to which the concept relates us. In a later work, he states

This creativity which works between people in the form of interchange, and also within each individual, may be only a shallow, superficial manifestation of an infinite Being of mystery. It may be that this Being in its wholeness is what creates, sustains, saves, and transforms human life toward the greater good. But obviously we can make no statement about that mystery except to acknowledge it, precisely because it is a mystery. On the other band, the creativity here under consideration can be known and studied and therefore can guide our commitment. (MUC 33-34)

Wieman thus does have a sense of the mystery and richness of that reality in which our lives are embedded, but in a way which is typical of American pragmatism, he also insists on the need of precise concepts to guide human life within the encircling mist. As we proceed to a consideration of the theistic stance in the great existentialist Heidegger, we will encounter one who insists that we must not make statements about the mystery of Being except to acknowledge it.


In what follows, I will attempt to show that Martin Heidegger also embodies the theistic stance without the transcendent God. As we will see, he rejects dualistic metaphysics and doctrines about a supernatural God, and yet recommends a posture of openness to a source of fulfillment beyond ourselves.

In recommending what he takes to be the authentic attitude toward our existence, Heidegger distinguishes two kinds of thinking. Calculative thinking is goal-directed; it has an intention in mind, wants definite results and serves a specific purpose. It selects for attention only those features of experience which are relevant to its ends, and thus it rushes ahead and does not gain a sense of the fullness of Being.

For this reason, this way of thinking is sometimes called "re-presenting" or objectifying thought. Since it is rooted in willfulness and goal-seeking, it does not attend to things in their wholeness, but abstracts from things what is typical of them and re-presents them to itself in a mental image. We re-present to ourselves what is typical of a tree, a bowl, a stone, and thus we are able to relate to things functionally, but as in Wieman, there is a waste of experience here in that the being of the object is missed. In the world dominated by technology, this mentality seems to many the only way to be or to think.

Heidegger wishes to transport us to the premodern sense that Being is prior to our thought about it. The way in which modern philosophy misleads us is that it stresses the activity of thought in constituting experience.

But does the tree stand ‘in our consciousness,’ or does it stand on the meadow? Does the meadow lie in the soul, as experience, or is it spread Out there on earth? Is the earth in our head? Or do we stand on the earth? (WICT 43)

For the modern sense that thoughts are a kind of representational idea, he wishes to substitute an awareness of that which is prior.

We stand outside of science. Instead we stand before a tree in bloom, for example -- and the tree stands before us. The tree faces us. The tree and we meet one another as the tree stands there and we stand face to face with it. As we are in this relation of one to the other and before the other, the tree and we are. This face-to-face meeting is not, then, one of these ‘ideas’ buzzing about in our heads. (WICT 41)

This is clarified in the interesting example of the relation of the horizon to the region in which it occurs. I notice as I move about that my horizon moves with me, with the result that I come to think of experience as dependent on my willful movements; this is analogous to the emphasis in modern philosophy on the way in which mind Structures its experience by fitting what is received into its categories. But I should also notice that the movement of my horizon is actually dependent on the region in which it moves, which comes to meet me as I advance; that is, Being must be seen as prior to my experience and as its ground and source.

To portray the way in which the region is an activity antecedent to me, which comes to meet me, Heidegger uses the odd phrase "that which regions"; the horizon is the "side facing us" of "that which regions." We must come to see Being as a process or activity which takes the initiative in our experience. But awareness of "the openness that surrounds us" is made difficult by our sense that the horizon moves in response to our will (DOT 64, 66).

One of the painful results of calculative thinking is that objects appear to receive their meaning from their relation to our purposes, and thus it seems to us that they are otherwise meaningless. This is the vision of the meaningless world which haunts modem literature. But there is a kind of thinking which "contemplates the meaning which reigns in everything that is" (DOT 46), and the ability to enter into this must be recaptured and preserved in an increasingly technological time.


In contrast with calculative or objectifying thinking, there is a nonobjectifying type called meditative thinking. This is not rooted in goal-seeking; it arises when we do not analyze and manipulate, but when, as in the earlier reference to the encounter with the tree, we simply are.

Heidegger says that genuine thinking begins when we "willingly renounce willing" (DOT 59). In a sense, we will to cease our willfulness, but in another sense, the new mode is "let in" from outside of us. In explicating the idea of non-willing, Heidegger uses the term Gelassenheit from the Dominican mystic Johannes Eckhart. To enter into the new mode of being, there is a king of yieldedness or releasement.

Yet in nonwilling we enter a mode which is not merely passive, but entirely beyond the active-passive dichotomy. To understand this, I think we must distinguish two meanings of "non-willing"; firstly, there is the act, and secondly, the mode of being which ensues. Both being active and being passive are modes of the will, but when we decide to set aside willing, we enter a way of being which is neither active nor passive. We need a term for this, and for reasons which will become clear later, Thomas Hora suggests the term "responsiveness." This is neither activity nor passivity, or perhaps it is both activity and passivity; it is "a higher activity which is no activity" (DOT 61).

If we assume that at all times we are either active or passive, we will misunderstand this concept of responsiveness. An example would be floating; here we are neither actively dominating the situation nor do we passively abandon ourselves to the water; rather, we are lucidly aware of the movement of the water and responsive to its buoyancy (EM 60-61). Only in this way can we discover the supportiveness of Being which surrounds us.

Responsiveness to that which lies before us is a different relation to Being. and may even enter into practical activities in a way which improves them. This is seen in Heidegger’s example of the woodworker:

If he is to become a true cabinetmaker, he makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood as it enters into man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its nature. In fact, this relatedness to wood is what maintains the whole craft. (WICT 14)

Now a craft is obviously a goal-seeking activity; but the point here seems to be that prior to and underlying the best sort of manipulation of objects is a responsive attitude toward their integrity and uniqueness. In this mode, our work is not merely an imposition on Being, but openness to its gifts.

Genuine thinking leads us to an awareness of Being. For Heidegger, thinking appears to modems as "grasping, attacking, manipulating" what lies before us, but to the Greeks it was simply "letting it lie before us" and "taking it to heart" (WICT 211, 215). To moderns, whether in technology or epistemology, thinking is rooted in willful restructuring. We forget that neither experience nor technology would be possible without Being which underlies both, and makes them possible.

This awareness should evoke in us a sense of the gifted character of existence. Heidegger makes much of the etymological link between the words "thin" and "thank." He asks, "Is thinking a giving of thanks?" and concludes that in authentic thinking we turn toward Being in thankfulness, with openness to that which is. Here the heart "thinks of itself as beholden, not in the sense of mere submission, but beholden because its devotion is held in listening" (WICT 139, 141).


Listening and waiting are terms Heidegger uses for the direct relation to Being. He claims that the nature of this waiting cannot be grasped by objectifying thought; any description would re-present it, substituting the mental image for the actual experience. Similarly, we cannot objectify or represent Being which is disclosed in the mode of waiting. Heidegger’s unusual way of saying this is that "waiting is not awaiting, waiting for." When we await, we move still within the objectified, re-presented world, and we name that for which we are waiting. But "in waiting we leave open what we are waiting for" (DOT 68).

Heidegger thus has a sense of life and experience as gifts bestowed by Being. The mode of awareness which is required to see this I will attempt to capture in the phrase "thankful responsiveness to that which lies before us."3 This is much like the attitude embodied in theism, but of course it is not undertaken in relation to the transcendent God. In this, we find a clear similarity with Wieman.

And yet there is a strand in the thought of Heidegger which would surely lead him to find Wieman’s pragmatism and scientific rationalism deficient.

From Heidegger’s point of view, it might well seem that Wieman has violated the taboo against naming that "for which we wait"; in fact, I have done so myself in inserting the term "Being" in the exposition of Heidegger’s thought. To refer to "that which lies before us" and upon which our most complete existence depends as "Being" or "God," or "cosmic order" is to leave the modality of openness and to retreat to the level of objectifying concepts. Recall that concepts are developed, according to Heidegger, as tools and maps to be used in our attempt to subdue and control nature; therefore, to introduce a concept of that which encompasses us means that we are functioning on the level of willful goal-seeking. And this way of living, just because it seeks to command and manage things, is incapable of sensing the way in which our lives are graced by Being.

Wieman might reply that he has a sense of the richness and mystery of Being beyond all concepts, but that decisions regarding the conduct of life must be made, and these require guidance in the form of ideas like creative interchange. This is, just as Heidegger would have expected, the problem-solving mentality so characteristic of classical American philosophy. To Heidegger, it is precisely this mentality, propagated by technology, which threatens what I have called the theistic stance. For Heidegger, technology is inescapable, and the calculative mentality is appropriate in its sphere. But if this type of thought dominates, the sense of the mystery of Being wanes and we lose both the feeling of the meaningfulness of existence and the awareness of the integrity of Being which might set limits to the pretensions of our power. He trusts that "openness to the mystery" underlying the world upon which technology operates will change our attitude, such that we may use the tools of technology without being dehumanized by them. (This must have been the point of the example of the woodworker.)

But if this were to occur, this would itself be an instance of creative interchange. That is, if we come to have a sense of the mystery of Being, and this enriches the sense of meaningfulness in life, and sets limits to our attempts to reorder nature, then it will be because writers like Heidegger have constructed concepts which suggest and make us seek this experience. The mere fact that Wieman’s theory describes the operation of the process through which this new and saving awareness comes about would not in itself prevent it. Wieman would admit, I believe, that the concept of creative interchange is a calculative construct, a means to a richer awareness which is itself beyond concepts. But if Heidegger’s notion of meditative thinking succeeds in evoking in us that openness which can sense the fullness of Being, and this enriches our awareness of meaningfulness, then this is itself an instance of creative interchange; and merely having a name for this process will not prevent it from occurring.

Thus I would turn from this disagreement of Wieman and Heidegger and conclude by drawing attention to their agreement. Wieman and Heidegger reject the transcendent God, and yet affirm that life is fulfilled in the attitudes of openness and trust toward an encompassing mystery whose richness is our delight and whose power lets us be.



DOT -- Martin Heidegger. Discourse on Thinking. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

EM -- Thomas Hora. Existential Metapsychiatry. New York: Seabury Press, 1977.

MUC -- Henry Nelson Wieman. Man’s Ultimate Commitment. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958.

RI -- Henry Nelson Wieman. Religious Inquiry. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

SHG -- Henry Nelson Wieman. The Source of Human Good. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946.

WICT -- Martin Heidegger. What Is Called Thinking? New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

WRWT -- Henry Nelson Wieman. The Wrestle of Religion with Truth. New York: Macmillan, 1931.



1Daniel Day Williams, "Wieman as Christian Theologian," In Robert W. Bretall, ed., The Empirica1 Theology of Henry Nelson Wieman (New York: Macmillan Co., 1963). Henry Nelson Wieman, "God and Value," in Douglas C. Macintosh, ed., Religious Realism New York: Macmillan Co., 1931). An earlier version of this essay was presented at a symposium on the thought of Wieman and Bernard Meland at their alma mater, Park College. April 19, 1986.

2See my essay, "Two Phases in Wieman’s Thought: Wieman’s Concept of the Divine," Journal of Religion 61/1 (1951): 59-72.

3The phrase is suggested by a similar one in an unpublished lecture of Thomas Hora, "Responsibility," Union Theological Seminary, Dec. 19, 1961 (Cf. EM 69).