Interview with William Schweiker

William Schweiker, MDiv., PhD., is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics in the Divinity School and the College at the University of Chicago, and Director of the Martin Marty Center. His work focuses on the global implications of theological ethics. JLE recently met up with Dr. Schweiker to discuss the project that he calls theological humanism.

JLE — What is your favorite aspect of teaching theological ethics?

WS — One of the great things about the intersections between religion and morality is that everyone is already interested. You don’t have to provoke people to think about moral questions because they face them every day. You don’t have to provoke people to take some interest in religion because they are either for it or against it, as it were. So that means that what one is doing is articulating, refining, directing, challenging sometimes, and honing people’s natural interest in these questions for the sake of being more precise about moral and religious matters. The fun thing is seeing people bring their most basic questions to the fore and then learning the resources to address them more precisely.

Interview with William Schweiker

JLE — As the director of the Martin Marty Center, you organized a D.R. Sharpe and Hoover Lecture entitled “Humanity Before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ethics.” This conference and the resulting book were inspired by your own ethical project that calls for a “theological humanism.” What motivates this call?

WS — Often it’s easier to get folks from different cultures, different traditions, and different religions to speak about shared, common moral problems than it is to talk about their religious convictions. And so I have always been interested in how ethical issues provide an entrance point into thinking about how we inhabit our religious traditions. That also means a commitment to certain norms of human flourishing and well-being that might be used to reinterpret our religious heritages that have not always acted for the sake of human flourishing. What brought it home to me, aside from some personal experiences, was an awareness that we are living in a time when religions are shaping global realities in profound ways, too often in violent ways and in environmentally irresponsible ways. Therefore, we have to learn how to inhabit them in ways that are more humane — hence the notion, theological humanism.

JLE — What is theological humanism?

WS — It’s meant to be a shocking term. Many people can’t imagine theology and humanism going together. Many Christians cannot believe they should be a sort of humanist even though the center of our faith is a truly human being, Jesus Christ. Some secularists can’t imagine that one should be interested in theology. So it is meant initially to be a jarring term in order to provoke a space of thinking in non-customary ways. Beyond that it is important to realize that theology as I use the term denotes a specific activity, and that is the activity of thinking about the meaning and truth of religious convictions. A theologian is one who doesn’t simply recite creeds, doesn’t simply preach sermons, but rather is asking about the meaning and truth of the church’s faith and action. What I am trying to suggest is that those of us who are committed to humane expressions of our religious traditions have to ask theological questions about our beliefs. If you want the long term, I would be a theological humanist drawn from Christian resources, [and] my friends that are Jews would be theological humanists drawn from Jewish resources and so on with other traditions. I use this cumbersome phraseology because, while there is a long tradition of what is called Christian humanism, not often enough within that legacy has there been emphasis on the theological demand for assessing the meaning and the truth of faith claims. They have just assumed Christianity to be true and meaningful, and from there worked to specify its implications for human life.

JLE — How can humanism be Christian?

WS — I think it’s good to see this on three different levels. Humanity comes from the Latin term that related both to humility and the earth — humus. To be a human being is to be an earth creature. This is seen in the Garden of Eden story in Genesis with the creation of Adam from dust. On a deeper level, theological humanism coming from Christian resources is making a claim about ourselves as human beings connected, but different from, the rest of creation (dust), the rest of finite reality. The first level is rooted in creation. Second, the core of Christian faith is the confession that in Christ, God has reconciled the world to God’s self. And it’s been an insistence of the church from the very beginning that this was a truly human Messiah, and therefore there are Christological reasons for being a Christian humanist. Third, if one thinks about the purpose of the Christian life, I would understand that as experience of new life in Christ beyond the powers of sin and death. Irenaeus, the great early theologian, once said that “the glory of God is man fully alive.” For me the purpose of Christian faith is to be fully alive, here and now — and if we believe in eternal life — eternally. So now we have creation reasons, Christological reasons, and reasons of salvation or soteriological ones: these seem to me to be fairly comprehensive reasons why one should be a Christian humanist. On each of those levels, it’s interesting that Christianity has always affirmed the interconnection between human beings and other forms of life. Christian humanism does not mean anthropocentrism. It does not mean human beings are somehow disconnected from other forms of life or that God only cares about them. We’re from dust, and so is everything else.

JLE — As in the Christian tradition “man fully alive” is morally contingent on the double love command — love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as your self — what is the notion of “self” in Christian humanism?

WS — That is the hundred-thousand dollar question! What does it mean to be a “self?” Who am I? How is this question related to my actions and relations with others? Generally speaking, Christian humanists have talked about human beings as mixed creatures. We are both dust, we are radically finite, and also creatures of thought, wonderment, and love. We are always caught between finiteness, dust, and the capacities for love, thought, and responsibility. And our relations with others also have these elements. So we are creatures that are in between. In between what? The medievals would say we are between angels and animals. I’ve tried to render that a little more complex by looking at different dimensions of goods that are found in human existence and our relationships to other forms of life. We are those creatures that have to integrate these various goods. That is the work of being a self and a self in community with others.

JLE — So this notion of “self” is a very responsible notion?

WS — Yes. It’s an interesting question to ask if the irresponsible self is a full self. Why? Well, to be responsible means to have the capacity willfully and in matters of choice to decide how to respond to others and to be accountable for one’s actions. The irresponsible self is not thinking about how to respond to others or how to be accountable for its actions. It is not a true self, morally and spiritually understood.

JLE — Only to respond to one’s own needs, which is very restricted….

WS — That’s right. Irresponsible egoism is a truncating down of one’s self. It’s interesting that some early Christian thinkers clear up to Jonathan Edwards in the 18th century talked about the self as expanding or contracting. Sin is the contraction of the self. Redemption is an expansion of the self in ways that you can love more, care more, and you have more connections. Sin is always an isolating, demeaning, truncating phenomenon.

JLE — In your essay “Distinctive Love: Gratitude for Life and Theological Humanism,” you focus on the 20th century mainline Protestant understanding of agape. Why is the notion of divine love as agape particularly important to Christian humanism?

WS — It’s important partly through the need to reject some other interpretations of agape. This was made famous in the early decades of the 20th century by a theologian named Anders Nygren who contrasted agape, which is the Greek term for love in the New Testament and sometimes translated in Latin as caritas, from which we get the word charity and other kinds of love. He said there was a radical distinction between agape which is Christ-like love, a constant pouring out of care for others and no regards for one’s self, with eros, erotic love or lust, and philia, the love of friendship. He thought the distinctive thing about Christianity is [that] it stresses this radical Christ-like caring for others. From a Christian humanist viewpoint, that [distinction] cuts off parts of human life that are important for human flourishing. We are erotic creatures. We are social creatures that have to have friendships and other social relations, like families, in order to exist. So what I was trying to do in the essay was to rethink the notion of Christian love and how it had to be connected to other forms of love. There is a distinctiveness to Christian conceptions of love — hence the title of the essay. But there is not a uniqueness to Christian conceptions of love. This difference between distinctiveness and uniqueness is important to get. I want to say that Christian concepts are distinct from other religions but not so utterly unique that there is no connection whatsoever in kinds of love. I think there are analogues in other religious traditions to what Christians mean by agape.

JLE — On that note, within the pluralistic world in which we live, in which people hold a myriad of different faiths, how can theological humanism be shared?

WS — Well this happens on two levels, as I’ve tried to develop theological humanism. I’ll go from the hardest, and yet on some level conceptually the easiest, and then go to the more complicated level. I recently published a book with my colleague David Klemm entitled Religion and the Human Future: An Essay on Theological Humanism, and it was reviewed at the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion. They had a session on it in which a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, and a kind of a secularist all responded to it and they could each find, because they agreed with the basic premise, that we need to learn to interpret our religions in more humane ways. They could all agree with that claim, even though the Jew wants to remain a Jew and the Buddhist wants to remain a Buddhist. They would be theological humanists drawn from Judaism or Buddhism. That just requires good will. It requires on the level of religious leaders, believers, pastors, and rabbis the willingness to interpret their religion in these humane ways. On one level that is the easiest way, conceptually, and on another level it’s the most difficult. To get people to reinterpret their religions is extremely difficult.

Now, the second level which is conceptually more difficult but existentially easier, ironically, is that I’ve tried to argue that there are five different levels of goods, that is things that contribute to the flourishing of life, that human beings share, and the task is how these are to be properly integrated. For instance, everyone on this planet requires a certain amount of calories a day to be alive. We have bodies. Those are good for us because without them, we don’t flourish, so there is a level of bodily goods. Every human being on this planet needs social relations to family, to friends, to the larger societies. We know what happens when social relations break down; it results in a kind of chaos. Human beings cannot flourish without just social relations. We always exists in some place, so we also have goods of place in natural environments, stable social situations. Human beings are creatures that seek meaningfulness in their lives. We want to have meaningful relationships. We want to understand the meaning of suffering and loss. We are creatures most fundamentally that use language, and are therefore driven to make sense of life; so there is also a level of reflexive goods, goods that have to do with meaning. Finally, there are goods that integrate all of these others together, and clarify how one relates them. Those arguments about types of goods are something that I believe can go beyond a specific tradition, because they are rooted in the nature of human beings. Theological humanists will interpret their traditions with respect to how they impact those levels of goods.

JLE — In your most recent book Dust that Breathes: Christian Faith and the New Humanisms, how did you forward your project on theological humanism?

WS — A Christian theological humanist or a Jewish theological humanist is someone who is committed to showing the truth of their beliefs by engaging other human beings rather than appealing to, say, the Bible alone. One can and should appeal to the Bible but not alone to approve the truth of something–or some personal revelation. Those can be important too, I suppose. The theological humanist is going to want to show the meaning and truth of their convictions by engaging others. What the book you mentioned does is engage a range of nonreligious thinkers who are raising these questions about the flourishing of human life in ways to show that the position I’m forwarding can stand its ground, that it has something to contribute to as well as learn from these other modes of thought. Deep within that book is the question: On what grounds is it right for us to hold our religious convictions?

JLE — That’s a very good question. [laughter]

WS — Yes, it is. Many people would answer, it’s just the way of the Bible or it’s just because it’s the way Mom and Pop taught me, or the way my community is, but I’m trying to say that a Christian humanist has something at stake in terms of engaging other positions. One of the oldest definitions of theology coming from Saint Augustine is fides quaerens intellectum, that is, faith seeking understanding; that’s all the book, in a sense, is doing.

JLE — Do you have any new projects that you would like to share with our readers?

WS — There are a couple of things. One is, I’m writing an introduction to religious ethics that is trying to develop some of these things as a way to conceive comparative thinking among the religions on moral and political issues. The next project, though, is trying to bring my systematic position to expression around what I think is really the pressing question of our generation. We are living in a time in which simultaneously all forms of life are endangered: biological life, ecological life, human social life, on and on, in a variety of ways, most of which are connected to the radical increase of human power through the use of technology. We can now alter the genetic structures of species, including ourselves. We are endangering the fragile ecology of the planet. We see how certain advances in technology, especially media technology, alter social relations and endanger some forms of social life while creating new ones. I’ve tried to address those issues in this book, which will be entitled Ethics and the Integrity of Life. It will be written from theological humanist perspective, and will link into those different levels of goods I talked to you about.

JLE — Given this framework for theological humanism, how do you see this actualized?

WS — Well, that’s the ultimate question, and it poses a certain kind of paradox for the theological ethicist, such as myself. People often want to study ethics and theology in order to hear the answers or to get the answers from the theologian or the ethicist as if ethics is a sort of tool box of answers and you just open the tool box, pick out this problem, and answer it; or that theology is just going through the creeds of the church, and doing what they mean. Both of those descriptions, I think, are incorrect. What ethics does is provide a framework for people freely to engage the complexity of their own lives and the lives of others, and try to come to an informed and reasoned decision of what they should do. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his ethics, a good Lutheran theologian, said that the job of the ethicist is not to answer all questions for people. Why? Because if one has the ethicist answer one’s own questions, one is no longer really free. The trick in ethics is to decide how to provide a framework of thinking that still preserves the freedom of people to wrestle with their own moral lives. The same is true with theology, and so the question becomes how to allow for people to wrestle with their faith convictions.

Why is that important? It is important because I can’t just go out to folks and say “Do this.” All I can do is provide a framework in which moral issues can be debated. Happily, these issues are getting discussed in churches and elsewhere, but it really requires national meetings. Ultimately, it will be a matter of whether or not religious leaders and religious believers start picking these questions up and wrestling with them. I think one has to be cautious optimistic about the influence of scholarly work, especially in a society that is as incredibly contentious as our own.

JLE — Well, as they say in the Muslim tradition “Insha’allah” or “God willing.” One final question: How has this agape love and your work in theological humanism affected your life, not merely as a scholar but as a person?

WS — Well, as a Christian, I say, “in Christ’s love.” And, in fact, my work on the topic of theological humanism has had some surprising impact on my personal life. It has allowed me to expand and deepen friendships with scholars in other traditions. So, I have, for instance, been able to co-teach doctoral seminars on the topic of humanism with a Jewish colleague of mine and in doing so to develop what is now a close and abiding friendship. One Muslim scholar here in the States, who has responded to my books, has used my stuff in conversation with other Muslims in the Middle East. It has also created connections for me with fellow Christian thinkers around the world, not only in Europe but also, and importantly, in South Africa and Hong Kong. I now have invitations to speak in China. Each of these connections has been made possible because of the open and practical attitude of theological humanism drawn, in my case, from Christian sources. Yet it must also be said that I am now perceived by some as a man representing a vision of Christian life decidedly different than Church-centered theologians or those who champion new forms of “orthodoxy.” I am more excluded from the Christian community than from other traditions! All of this, I believe, is the consequence of advocating freedom within religion as a hallmark of theological humanism. We hear a lot about freedom of religion and freedom from religion, which are important ideas. But we also need to claim freedom within religion, that is, the possibility and responsibility freely to live one’s faith in a humane way.

Libbi Williams

Libbi Wiliams is a third year in the College at the University of Chicago. She is studying philosophy and religious studies with a focus in theological ethics. This summer, Libbi interned for Studies in the Office of the Presiding Bishop at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.