The American philosopher and theologian Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975) developed an "empirical theology" which opposed both orthodoxy and humanism and claimed that through the scientific method one could discover "God"—that is, "that creative good which transforms us in ways in which we cannot transform ourselves."
Born on August 19, 1884, the son of a Presbyterian minister in Richhill, Missouri, Henry Nelson Wieman became the most famous proponent of theocentric naturalism and empirical method in American theology. As a student at Park College, he had dreamed of following his uncle into a career in journalism—until a fateful experience one April evening in 1907. As he sat alone looking over the Missouri River in the faint light of dusk, a sudden conviction came over Wieman—a conviction that he should devote his life to religious inquiry and its central problem.
The central problem of religious inquiry, as it presented itself so forcefully to him that evening, was to seek a better understanding of the nature of whatever it is in human life and experience that transforms us in ways that we cannot transform ourselves, that rightfully deserves the kind of ultimate commitment and total self-giving that we associate with "religious faith." What is the nature of that process or structure of events or reality actually at work in the universe which, in religious language, has been designated "God"? And how can human lives be so adjusted to this reality that the power of creative good can be unleashed and thereby human life enriched? It was this problem, and the attendant questions which emerged from it, that came to consume Wieman during all the rest of his life.
Graduating from Park College and San Francisco Theological Seminary, he later earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard. His attempts to construct a philosophy of religion which paid virtually no heed to supernatural revelation or to biblical authority or to historic Christianity soon brought Wieman to public attention, and he was invited to join the faculty of the University of Chicago Divinity School, an institution known in the 1920s as a hotbed of Modernism in religious thought. There the question of the reality of God was at the center of controversy. Some professors were opting for humanism, while others were attempting to develop a form of "conceptual theism." For example, some believed that "God" was the concept people have for the forces or activities in the cosmos that give rise to personality. It was suggested by many at Chicago that in the study of religion we could examine the history and development of people's concepts and ideas about God; we could study cultural ideals and human values, but we could not know anything about the existence or nature of divine reality itself.
Into this setting Wieman came in the 1920s proclaiming that "God is an object of sensuous experience," that God is "as real as a toothache," and therefore that religious inquiry should not be focussed on socio-historical issues or on human ideals. Thus, he sought to clarify the nature and workings of "God," which Wieman defined as "that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare, and increasing abundance." This approach caused Wieman to develop and support definite ideas about how religious inquiry should be reformed. It should not concentrate upon biblical studies, church history, or ecclesiastical doctrine. Neither should it utilize some trans-experiential method which gives authority to "revelation" or ecclesiastical dogma. Rather, religious inquiry must give centrality to sense experience, guided by reason, as the inquiry seeks to discover how we can put ourselves in the keeping of that good not our own, that power which is the integrative activity at the heart of the cosmos. While a number of scholars felt that Wieman's empirical method truncated religious inquiry, and while many criticized his disregard for history, Wieman gained a tremendous following.
His major books included Religious Experience and Scientific Method (1926), The Wrestle of Religion with Truth (1927), The Source of Human Good (1946), Man's Ultimate Commitment (1958), and Creative Freedom: Vocation of Liberal Religion (1982). In these works Wieman developed his defense of naturalism and empiricism in religion, his opposition to humanism, his assurances concerning the reality of God, and his focus on creativity and creative interchange. His was a naturalistic world-view. In religion, just as in science, said Wieman, there are not two realms of reality, namely, natural and supernatural. There is but one dimension of reality, and it must be studied through the observations of the senses. This does not mean there is no god. But God, for Wieman, is a natural creative process or structure—superhuman, but not supernatural. Our supreme devotion, then, must be to the creative good that is the activity of God, not to the created relative goods of human construction or the social ideals of the human mind. For Wieman, this was an ultimate commitment to what in his later years he increasingly came to label "creative interchange."
Through charting a course which at once affirmed the scientific method instead of reliance on revelation and which advocated theism instead of the new humanism, Wieman offered a unique alternative in theology between orthodoxy and liberalism. Many scholars have argued that he is the most distinctively "American" of our theologians and that his system is the most profound and well-developed attempt to provide an empirical and naturalistic theology. Wieman died on June 19, 1975, at the age of 90, having influenced generations of American theologians who sought to carry on his legacy, his commitment to scientific method in religious inquiry and to creative interchange in the human community.
The most substantive set of commentaries on Wieman's theology is Robert W. Bretall, editor, The Empirical Theology of Henry Nelson Wieman (1963). Also very helpful, though uneven, is a more recent collection, John A. Broyer and William S. Minor, editors, Creative Interchange (1982). Important studies of the movements of which Wieman was a part, or to which he was reacting, are Kenneth Cauthen, The Impact of American Religious Liberalism (1962); Bernard E. Meland, editor, The Future of Empirical Theology (1969); Randolph Crump Miller, The American Spirit in Theology (1974); and William R. Hutchinson, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (1976).