Monday, January 24, 2011

* Robert L. Calhoun

A Liberal Bandaged but Unbowed by Robert L. Calhoun
Every decade since 1939 the Christian Century ran a series on How My Mind Has Changed. Robert L. Calhoun was professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School and was asked to contribute to this subject on May 31, 1939. This article was published in the Christian Century on that date . . .

Robert L. Calhoun
Sterling Professor of Historical Theology Emeritus
Yale University Divinity School

When I first arrived at Yale in the fall of 1915, Douglas Macintosh was completing a six-year term as assistant professor of systematic theology.  The next year he became Dwight professor of theology, and used a leave of absence to serve as chaplain with the Canadian forces in England and France.  My first classroom experience with him was in 1916-17, in his second-year course in systematic theology.  When the United States joined the allied forces against Germany  in the spring of 1917, the rights and wrongs of participation in the war became an issue more fiercely debated in the Divinity School than any customary theological problem.  Both faculty and student body were overwhelmingly for participation, and the tiny group of student pacifists ( I can think of four, all close friends of mine though I was not one of them) were subjected to shocked, incredulous abuse by fellow-students and teachers alike.  Douglas Macintosh was one of  two faculty members who dealt fairly with the dissenters, whose view they did not share.  His sturdy insistence on the claims of conscience - - - an insistence that later almost blocked his effort to become a citizen of the United States - - - was evident during all the years I knew him.

Personal; memories of those years are too many and varied even to be summarized here.  It is easier to talk about his characteristic temper as theologian.  In 1915 he had published his first big book, The Problem of Knowledge.  It had served notice that his interest in philosophy was not less than his concern with the ususal problems of theology.  To my mind, his most persuasive self-portrait as a thinker took shape when he borrowed a title from John Locke and delivered in 1925 his Taylor lectures on The Reasonableness of Christianity. For him, belief that could not commend itself to careful, honest thinking was belief he as a thinking Christian could not hold.

In pressing this demand for reasonable truth-seeking, he laid himself open to misunderstanding when he talked and wrote about "theology as an empirical science."  People trained in the natural sciences could too easily mistake that phrase  - - - especially when somewhat whimsically he tried to clarify it with pseudo-equations - - -  as an unwarrantable claim to quantitative exactness.  Over against them, churchmen committed to more traditional dogmatics could and did suppose that he intended to substitute bloodless reasoning for faith. He did not.  His intent was much less rash.  To call theology "an empirical science" meant that as every science must have a distinctive body of observable data ( not necessarily sensible data ) and must seek to interpret them by means of suitable hypotheses, in the hope of discovering patterns general and dependable enough to be called laws, and thence developing coherent, relevant theories, so theology.  Its distinctive data are revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the actual experience of personal salvation. its "laws" are the recurrent, generally experienced patterns of life and thought disclosed within this range of discoverable and believable being.  Its appropriate theories must be worked out on these essentially familiar grounds.  The intended issue of this "empirical science," then, is a reasonable Christian faith.

Even so, this academic reading of his thought says far too little of the warmth and depth of Mac's profoundly religious and humanly responsive, if somewhat shy, personal being.  It was that, really, that made possible his theology.


No comments: