What's the point of Jesus? - Advent 3. Emerging, integrating, expanding and deeping - Henry Nelson Wieman and "Creative Interchange"

The Memorial (Unitarian) Church
before this morning's service
Readings: Luke 12:54–57

From the preface to The Plain Sense of Things – The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism (Penn State University Press, 1997 p. ix) by James C. Edwards:

This book is no apology for any form of religious belief; far from it. But it does suggest we need, and luckily still have available to us, practices that can concentrate, and transmit the sacramental energies – energies for limitation in the face of hubris and for transformation in the face of complacency – that used to be bound up in the stories of the gods. If the distinction were not both too crude and too familiar, one might say that the book is about what it might mean for us to be religious without explicit religion.


A couple of weeks ago I gave an address which asked the question, "what, for us today, is the point of Jesus?" I asked it, of course, because we are in the season of Advent, the period of preparation for Christmas, the season when we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I tied this question in with the two key sacramental religious energies James C. Edwards thinks remain available to us.

The first energy is that which can limit us in the face of hubris. The second energy is that which can transform us in the face of complacency. My aim two weeks ago was to suggest what might be the point of Jesus for us today in relation to the first energy.

I took you, very briefly, through the main points of our liberal Christian genealogy as it unfolded during the course of our four-hundred and fifty years of existence. What we saw was our move from understanding the point of Jesus as being "very God of very God" to, in the late sixteenth-century, understanding him as God's unique, divine *human* representative on earth and then, from the mid-nineteenth on, to understanding him more and more as a wholly human teacher and exemplar. This has allowed us to say to come to say that we feel the point of Jesus is not as an absolute, authoritative divine figure but rather an inspired human teacher who is, in terms of the other great wisdom teachers of human kind, for us a "primus inter pares" - a first among equals.

The hubris that is limited by the energy released by our genealogy is the dangerous human tendency to believe that Jesus (or any other religious teacher) could or should ever be thought of as an infallible, "strong" divine figure - even God himself - who brings with them only unchanging, eternal religious truths that could, and should, be imposed upon all human-kind. That kind of hubristic religion has been shown to be highly destructive and dangerous.

I suggested that this weakening of old absolutist religious certainties about a divine Jesus in favour of the "weaker" human wisdom of the man Jesus surely has more hope of bringing to pass the joyous message Luke imagines the angels brought to the shepherds at this season: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men" (Luke 2:14).

This week, I'd like to turn to the second sacramental energy of religion available to us, namely that which can transform us in the face of complacency. What might be the point of Jesus for us in helping to access this energy?

For me, no one in our own circles has managed to suggest what this might be better than Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975) who taught for many years at the University of Chicago. In 1929 (Methods of Private Religious Living) he placed before his readers a question that he never lost sight of during the next fifty years of his life:

"What [he asked] operates in human life with such character and power that it will transform men and women as they cannot transform themselves, saving them from evil and leading them to the best that human life can ever reach, provided they meet the required conditions?" 

He came to think the answer lay in something he called "Creative Interchange" or "Creative Process" which Wieman saw as equivalent to understanding God as "Creative Event".

Wieman thought this creative process could be divided into four parts or "sub-events":

  • 1) emerging 
  • 2) integrating 
  • 3) expanding and 
  • 4) deepening. 

Here's how they relate to each other.

Firstly, he thought that new experience or information helped us gain an *emerging* awareness of the world - of people, relationships, culture, plants, animals and all other kinds of things. Particularly through our use of language and other kinds of symbolic sharing of *quality*, we seem to have been able to make huge leaps in awareness above that which can occurs in the natural world where such language seems not to have emerged.

The second sub-event involves us in the process of *integrating* this new awareness; it is when our "[n]ewly acquired meanings are integrated with others previously acquired" (Charley D. Hardwick, Events of Grace, Cambridge University Press, p. 244). Wieman thought that this moment of integration was "largely unconscious, unplanned and uncontrolled by the individual" except, and in so far as, we may consciously, "provide conditions favourable to" this integration occurring - for example in a university setting or, I hope, a liberal, openly critical church like this. Wieman felt that it was at this level of integration that what he he called God as "Creative Event" most powerfully worked to transform us we cannot transform ourselves.

Thirdly, following this integration we are next enabled to begin to experience an *expanding* appreciation and understanding of the world as a complex, dynamic whole. Wieman wrote that there occurs an "expanding and enriching of the appreciable world by a new structure of inter-relatedness pertaining to events." He's talking, of course, about those moments when new paradigms suddenly show up which radically expand our understanding of how everything and event in the world and universe hangs, or might hand together and interrelate.

Fourthly, and lastly, these various sub-events help us to achieve a level in which, in community, we can begin to ask better kinds of questions, know better what we might listen for, look at and seek out and, in the process, we may say our individual and community understanding undergoes a "deepening".

These four sub-events do not, of course, simply stop at the moment of deepening but continue to cycle around.

This overall paradigm is central to Weiman's philosophy. Given the subject of today's address we must now see how for us this relates to the "point of Jesus". I hope the extended quote which now follows from his important 1946 book "The Source of Human Good" makes the relationship clear:

Jesus engaged in intercommunication with a little group of disciples with such depth and potency that the organisation of their several personalities was broken down and remade. They became new men, and the thought and feeling of each got across to the others. It was not merely the thought and feeling of Jesus that got across. That was not the most important thing. The important thing was that the thought and feeling of the least and lowliest got across to the others and the others to him. Not something handed down to them from Jesus but something rising up out of their midst in creative power was the important thing. It was not something Jesus did. It was something that happened when he was present like a catalytic agent. It was as if he was a neutron that started a chain reaction of creative transformation. Something about this man Jesus broke the atomic exclusiveness of those individuals so that they were deeply receptive and responsive to each other. He split the atom of human egoism, not by psychological tricks, not by intelligent understanding, but simply by being the kind of person he was, combined with the social, psychological, and historical situation of the time and the heritage of Hebrew prophecy. Thus there arose in this group of disciples miraculous mutual awareness and responsiveness toward the needs and interests of one another.
  But this was not all; something else followed from it. The thought and feeling, let us say the meanings, thus derived by each from the other, were integrated with what each had previously acquired. Thus each was transformed, lifted to a higher level of human fulfillment. Each became more of a mind and a person, with more capacity to understand, to appreciate, to act with power and insight; for this is the way human personality is generated and magnified and life rendered more nobly human.
  A third consequence followed necessarily from these first two. The appreciable world expanded round about these men, thus interacting in this fellowship. Since they could now see through the eyes of others, feel through their sensitivities, and discern the secrets of many hearts, the world was more rich and ample with meaning and quality. Also - and this might be called a fourth consequence - there was more depth and breadth of community between them as individuals with one another and between them and all other men. This followed from their enlarged capacity to get the perspectives of one another and the perspectives of all whom they might encounter. Of course, this apprehension of the other's perspective is never perfect and complete. But the disciples found themselves living in a community of men vastly deeper and wider than any before accessible to them.
  Thus occurred in the fellowship about Jesus a complex creative event, transforming the disciples as individuals, their relations with one another and with all men, and transforming the appreciable world in which they lived".

Wieman concludes this passage insisting that we remember that the creative transformation "was not in the man Jesus" rather "[Jesus] was in it".

In all this I think that Wieman is clearly suggesting that, for us, the point of Jesus is not, precisely, the man Jesus, nor even the specific content of his surviving teachings but, instead, it is the creative event he triggered, an explosive event of open-ended creative interchange that as a liberal religious community we are still committed to today. This explains why we neither can, nor should, believe precisely what Jesus believed, nor can we, nor should, believe precisely what our forbears thought and believed. The open-ended four-fold process of emerging, integrating, expanding, and deepening has thankfully freed us to be ourselves and enter fully into our own world, time and place.

Jesus is for us today the trigger and paradigmatic model of how always to be open to and encourage creative interchange ourselves. This is why here, in our local church's covenant, it says that we meet together, not in the "beliefs of Jesus" but, instead, in the "spirit of Jesus" - a spirit that shows how in a free-religious community we release the second sacred energy which transforms us in the face of complacency.

So to summarise what I say here and in the address from two weeks ago, the point of Jesus for us today, I would argue, may be conceived as follows:

Firstly, remembering and rehearsing together our church's genealogy of weakening belief in Jesus as God and a strengthening belief in him as a human being challenges the human hubristical tendency to think our founding religious figures must be infallible and God-like. Internalising this story of weakening gives us access to the first sacred energy.

Secondly, understanding Jesus as the trigger and paradigmatic model of how as a community we need to be open to and always encourage creative interchange helps us access the second sacred energy that can transform us in the face of complacency.

In this community it is the birthday of this kind of Jesus that we prepare to celebrate in this season of Advent.


Harvey said…
Hello Andrew: My response is that what you have presented from Wieman today seems so general ("open-ended creative interchange" )as to be without much meaning. I have been finding an interpretation of Jesus that while very non literal makes that interchange more specific. I am referring to John Spong's "The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic" and Cynthia Bourgeault "The Wisdom Jesus." Both interpret Jesus from the Jewish Wisdom Tradition, with an emphasis that I find very similar to your favorite, Tolstoy's "The Gospel in Brief." All stress a change in "consciousness" in Jesus' teaching and way of life that promotes an interchange beyond all our usual boundaries of tribe, nation, gender,sect, etc. that if integrated will be very expanding and deepening, and defines how radical (explosive)this can be for our human community.
Thank you for your continuing work in making Jesus relevant for us today. Be Well, Harvey
Dear Harvey,

Good to hear from you. Thanks for your best wishes which I return to you. I hope you have a very happy Christmas and New Year.

Thank you, too, for posing your question because it has quite unexpectedly helped me clarify something important in my own thinking.

I tried to post my longish reply here in the comments but Blogger won't allow more than about 4000 characters in the comments section so I'll have to put it up as a separate post. I'll do that later today.

Of course, I will quite understand if you think that what I write there doesn't really answer your question in a way that satisfies you.

Warmest wishes,