Henry Nelson Wieman

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Religious Naturalism
Fields Theology/Philosophy
Institutions Occidental College
University of Chicago Divinity School
University of Southern Illinois
Alma mater PhD - Harvard,1917
Known for Naturalistic religion
Influences Alfred North Whitehead, John Dewey, Henri Bergson, Josiah Royce, Karl Barth
Influenced Loyal Rue, Karl E. Peters, Jerome A. Stone
Notable awards UUA Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Liberal Religion.

Henry Nelson Wieman (1884–1975) was an American philosopher and theologian. He became the most famous proponent of theocentric naturalism and the empirical method in American theology and catalyzed the emergence of Religious Naturalism in the latter part of the 20th century.


Wieman studied at Park College in Missouri, graduating in 1907. In 1910, he graduated from the San Francisco Theological Seminary and then moved to Germany for two years to study at the universities in Jena and Heidelberg. In Germany, he studied under the theologians Ernst Troeltsch and Adolf von Harnack, as well as the philosopher Wilhelm Windelband, but none of these had any significant impact on Wieman.[1]

Wieman moved back to the United States and spent four years as a Presbyterian pastor in California before moving to Harvard to do a doctorate in philosophy under the tutelage of William Ernest Hocking and Ralph Barton Perry. At Harvard, Wieman became interested in the work of John Dewey, as well as the work of Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead.[1]

After Harvard, Wieman started teaching at Occidental College before moving to the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1927 where he became professor of the philosophy of religion. He retired in 1949.[1]

Religious naturalism[edit]

Wieman was instrumental in shaping thinking about religious naturalism. In 1963 he wrote, "It is impossible to gain knowledge of the total cosmos or to have any understanding of the infinity transcending the cosmos. Consequently, beliefs about these matters are illusions, cherished for their utility in producing desired states of mind. . . . Nothing can transform man unless it operates in human life. Therefore, in human life, in the actual processes of human existence, must be found the saving and transforming power which religious inquiry seeks and which faith must apprehend." [2]

In 1971 - "How can we interpret what operates in human existence to create, sustain, save and transform toward the greatest good, so that scientific research and scientific technology can be applied to searching out and providing the conditions - physical, biological, psychological and social - which must be present for its most effective operation? This operative presence in human existence can be called God..." [3] In this statement he is redefining God in a way that some Religious Naturalists would latch on to.

His was a naturalistic worldview, and as it was religious, a form of neo-theistic Religious Naturalism. For Wieman, God was a natural process or entity and not supernatural. This God was an object of sensuous experience. His God concept was similar to The All concept of Spinoza and theistic sectors of classical Pantheism and modern neo-Pantheism[4] but with a liberal Christian tone to it. He had been ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1912 but in 1949 while teaching at the University of Oregon became a member of the Unitarian Church. Nevertheless, he was at the extreme edge of Christian modernism, critical of 20th Century supernaturalism and neo-orthodoxy.

Wieman helped start Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science which was prompted by discussions at the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science. Six days after his death in 1975, he was awarded the Unitarian Universalist Association Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Liberal Religion.

Major publications[edit]

  • Religious Experience and Scientific Method - Macmillan, 1926
  • Religious experience and scientific method Arcturus books - Southern Illinois University Press, 1971
  • The Source of Human Good - Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1967
  • The Wrestle of Religion with Truth - Macmillan, 1929
  • Is there a God?: A conversation by Henry Nelson Wieman - Willett, Clark & Company, 1932
  • Now We Must Choose - The Macmillan company, 1941
  • American Philosophies of Religion - Henry Nelson Wieman, Bernard Eugene Meland, Willett, Clark & Company, 1936
  • Seeking a Faith for a New Age ; Essays on the Interdependence of Religion, Science, and Philosophy - Scarecrow Press, 1975, ISBN 0-8108-0795-5
  • Religious Inquiry: Some Explorations - Beacon Press, 1968
  • Methods of Private Religious Living - Macmillan, 1929
  • Man's Ultimate Commitment - Southern Illinois University Press, 1958
  • Religious Liberals Reply - Beacon Press, 1947
  • The Growth of Religion - Henry Nelson Wieman, Walter Marshall Horton - Willett, Clark, 1938


  1. ^ a b c James C. Livingston and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, ed. (2006). Modern Christian thought: the twentieth century (Second ed.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press. pp. 48–58. ISBN 9780800637965. 
  2. ^ The Empirical Theology of Henry Nelson Wieman - Robert Walter Bretall, Henry Nelson Wieman - Macmillan, 1963, page 4
  3. ^ Religious and Theological Abstracts - Theologial Publications, Inc., 1970
  4. ^ Pantheism

External links[edit]