Loosing the Wretched Goose, Only to Shoot It

November 1990By David Hartman

The Rev. David Hartman is the Minister of the Harrodsburg Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

Nathan Soederblom and the Study of Religion.  By Eric J. Sharpe. University of North Carolina Press. 290. $39.95.

During my days at Vanderbilt Divinity School, the story was told of a Methodist ministerial candidate who, having graduated with honors in the field of comparative religion, was sent back to school by his conference on the reasonable grounds that his congregations would need to hear rather more about Jesus and rather less about the great god Vishnu.

Of course, each student in those strange fractured 1970s had his or her own hobbyhorse. The neo-orthodox among us tended to sneer at the comparative religion majors ("the neo-Krishnas") for watching "Charlie's Angels" in the lotus position and murmuring "om" before exams. They, in turn, sneered back, thinking us confessional cave-dwellers with a Teutonic liking for beer. We both smirked at the evangelicals, who took the derision graciously, endowed as they were with the serene assurance that their tormentors were doomed to perdition. The feminists (male and female) were ferocious, the Jesuit grad students knew so much secret stuff they were scary, and the Moonies (we had 'em) looked like they were around the age of 14 and were the only ones who thought the rest of us worth proselytizing. The only issues the majority of us seemed to agree on were that South Africa was beyond redemption, those who persisted in using exclusive language should be disemboweled, and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge was the place to be on a Saturday night. The benign old profs who discerned ecumenism where others saw theological bedlam were thought adorable, and largely dismissed as relics.

Those benign old profs could have been disciples of Nathan Soederblom. If university-related divinity schools reflect the religious world in microcosm, and if that world is fragmenting (as it was then), it's understandable why Soederblom's work almost entirely escaped our notice. In fact, if we students had known more about him, and less about our own hobbyhorses, we might have found more common ground than Tootsie's. During the decade cited above, a committee of the American Council of Learned Societies named Soederblom as foremost among scholars who deserved to be better known. The ACLS was discerning. If the world was just, Soederblom's legacy would loom large on the religious horizon. After all, someone of his attainments -- Archbishop of the Church of Sweden, scholar of comparative religions, "father of phenomenology," hymnist, ecumenist, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1930 -- could have been for Protestants what John XXIII is for Catholics: an ecumenical giant. But he is, at least among Anglophones, largely an invisible giant. Part of this may be explicable. His native tongue was Swedish, his first major works were in French, his German was often obtuse, and only one of his major works (The Living God) has been translated into English -- and stodgy English at that. He was too encyclopedic, too much an ecumenist and conciliator, to rouse the passions of the single-minded. Unlike Gandhi, King, and Bonhoeffer, his life was unheroic and his death undramatic. And he was prone to that pan-Germanic hubris (in 1894 he wrote, "We germaner are the most advanced race of our day") of which the world has seen far, far too much.

Soederblom was born in 1866, in a parish near the Arctic Circle, to a middle-aged and almost pathologically grim Lutheran clergyman. His earliest memories included listening to his father's fire-breathing sermons while stealing glances at a stained glass window that depicted human bodies toppling into the maw of a dragon. His mother, 15 years younger, was gentle, dreamy, musical, and descending into deafness. A Freudian (such as A.N. Wilson) could make much of this. To his immense credit, Eric Sharpe is no Freudian.

At the age of 22, Soederblom wrote a paper that foreshadowed his future interests. Writing of Ansgar, the first missionary to Sweden, Soederblom posed the question: "Was Ansgar a great man? One type of greatness no one can deny him: that moral greatness which lies in a pure, pious life, a life devoted to God. But did he possess that originality, that breadth of ideas, that power…which marks a great soul? Did he possess genius? Was he not rather, for all his devotion and piety, an insignificant personality?"

The question could have been applied to Soederblom. Did he possess genius? He was certainly a skilled synthesist, genuinely decent, and uncommonly bright. But was he an original thinker of compelling originality, or merely the Boswell (no mean achievement in itself) to a whole host of Samuel Johnsons? Let's assume that all true genius is God-given. For what originality, what breadth of ideas, can he be given credit? Did the divine light shine through him? I think so, in this particular: He could see the spark of God's revelation, in greater or lesser degree, in all religions, however primitive or advanced. His doctoral dissertation was on Zoroastrianism and comparative eschatology, and his interest in the major religions of the world never waned. But -- the key "but" -- he never ceased to believe that Christ was the summa of God's revelation, and in his studies he concluded intellectually what he first held doctrinally.

Was this merely the shadow of scholarship in the service of dogma? I think not. His vast research gave his work an enormous integrity. It is one thing to remain a Christian out of fear and ignorance of its challengers; quite another to remain a Christian with great knowledge of, and compelling respect for, the other faiths of the world.

Of course, one could say that Soederblom never got off the confessional mountaintop; but it is no sure thing that his study of the world's religions would not, at some time or other, have led him to think other peaks equally or more inviting. People of simple minds can always discern the lowest common denominator among religions; it takes genius to discern the highest common denominators and avoid lapsing into relativism He sought God's revelation in all religions, and concluded that God's highest revelation was in Jesus Christ.

Nor did his scholarly achievements ever cause him to lapse into that persistent bias that has done so much to discredit intellectualism: a disregard for the basic human integrity of every living person. Immediately upon receipt of his doctoral degree, he left to minister to his flock of merchant seamen.

Soederblom's Weltanschauung did not all derive from the mind. He was, in fact, irrevocably marked by two profound mystical experiences. The first, when he was 24, reassured him of the love of Christ. The second, at 27, was cataclysmic. Writing in the third person, Soederblom recalled: "There came over him what might be called a direct perception of the holiness of God. He understood what he had long felt indistinctly, that God was far stricter than he could imagine or than anyone can really comprehend. God is a consuming fire...."

Thereafter, the holiness of God was an unbroken thread in all his work, and the mystical experiences the referent points for his faith. As I said, a Freudian (remembering Soederblom's parentage) could make a lot out of this; but Sharpe is no Freudian. He takes Soederblom at his word. Compelling mystical experiences have been determinative in countless lives, though they are oft explained away, and are doubtless rare among scholars of the historical-critical method. But is not the joining of the mystical and the intellectual dimensions of life a sign of a greater personality rather than a lesser, encompassing as it does a totality of human experience that mere scholarship can never attain? These mystical encounters may help provide another reason for Soederblom's uncertain reputation: The religious intelligentsia is uneasy that one of its number should have had them.

This book could have been that which does not now exist, Soederblom's definitive English-language biography. Sharpe knows Swedish, has an impressive grasp of theological movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, and was a friend of Soederblom's widow. While his prose is stolid, he occasionally rises to eloquence and authentic insight. For example, he notes, "Is it too crude to characterize the members of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule as HISTORIANS of religion, and of the post-Ritschlians (among them Soederblom) as historians of RELIGION? The former were pulled away from the church, while the latter were drawn closer to it. Neither group was necessarily better or worse informed than the other where factual material was concerned. But whereas the former group made use of the historical evidence to relativize the transcendent and encapsulate it in the categories of a given time and place, the latter used the identical evidence to transcendentalize the historical process itself." I don't know if I've ever read a finer summation of the modus operandi of the two schools of religious history.

But Sharpe runs out of gas. It's as if he began to write an authoritative biography and then, overtaxed by the dimensions of the subject, decided, once he got into it, that he really only wanted to deal with Soederblom's scholarly work, and with only one dimension at that (comparative religion).

So, Soederblom's archbishopric is given short shrift, as is the event most likely to spark interest among those who know him not -- the Stockholm conference on international religions that secured him his Nobel Peace Prize. Indeed, Sharpe develops a tic that starts off as slightly annoying and soon becomes positively maddening: He raises a subject of immense importance and then immediately drops it. In Constantinople in 1911 Soederblom had "his first real insight into the living world of Eastern Orthodoxy. This was to be of the greatest significance for his coming ecumenical work. That, however, falls outside the bounds of this study…." World War I must have played havoc on the soul of a Christian and a Germanophile like Soederblom -- surely a subject of major significance in considering the man. Of this cataclysmic event, Sharpe notes: "His love of Germany was still very great…but almost at once Soederblom threw himself into the ministry of reconciliation among warring Christian factions…. That, however, falls outside the range of this study…." There is much more in this vein. Why loose the wretched goose at all if one only means to shoot it?

What Sharpe has done is to write part of what could have been a fine and immensely useful biography of an unjustly neglected figure. I hope he someday rouse himself and finishes it.

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