First International Congress on Ecstatic Naturalism at Drew University

corringtonThe first International Congress on Ecstatic Naturalism was held at Drew University on April 1-2, 2011. Organized by Robert Corrington (pictured at right), this inaugural edition of what will hopefully be an annual event offered an opportunity to celebrate Corrington and his influential ecstatic naturalist writings.

The highlight of the conference was an evening lecture by Corrington, in which he read the latest version of his unfolding categorial scheme. In dramatic fashion that called to mind Wittgensteinian’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, the presentation took the form of reading numbered, nested propositions, moving through the various elements of his system. There was no introduction and no conclusion, just the scheme itself. A beautifully crafted dramatic event, it was a fitting celebration of Corrington’s systematic philosophical imagination.

The evening lecture by Corrington was preceded by Robert Neville’s insightful introduction to Corrington’s life and thought. The preceding afternoon and the morning after the central evening events involved the presentation of a dozen papers, mostly by students and colleagues of Corrington. This display indirectly demonstrated the reach of Corrington’s influence.

An excellent micro-account of ecstatic naturalism is furnished on the web site for the congress. A key passage from that site furnishes a compact definition.

An ecstatic naturalism is a perspective that seeks to move toward an aesthetic phenomenology of nature’s “sacred folds”—special centers of numinous meaning and power that may be found throughout nature, where “nature” may be understood to mean an encompassing reality that has no other, there is no referent “for” nature nor any outside “to” nature. Nature is all that there is: nature is whatever is, in whatever way. From nature’s sacred folds emerges a fierce self-othering, nature naturing, where “it” moves ecstatically ejecting semiotically dense momenta. Nature naturing is the inexhaustible well of nature’s atemporal creating underconscious, “it” is the not-yet-in-time mode of preordinal expression. This preordinal expression manifests itself as created nature, a plane of immanence composed of innumerable orders, or nature natured. The plane of nature natured is not without access to its depth dimension however, and the creativity of the depth dimension does not necessarily evidence a telic plan, either. Nature naturing is not the unified will or intelligence of a supreme Being, and “it” is not the sacred, for there is no “whatness” to nature naturing, but only “its” “how.” Unlike other theological perspectives friendly to the tradition of naturalism (process thought, for example) an ecstatic naturalism denies that nature naturing molds nature natured simply into pleasing shapes. Melancholy, pain, and anguish are just as much to be accounted for in the aesthetic phenomenology that an ecstatic naturalism employs. For ecstatic naturalism, naturing naturing is “beyond good and evil” and “sustains the just and the unjust, beautiful and the demonic, the fragmented and the harmonious, the honorific and the detestable, the living and the dead (via effects) and the realms of the possible and the actual.”

From the ecstatic naturalist standpoint, as noted, the distinction between nature naturing and nature natured colors and specifies almost all aspects of, and possibilities for, human life. It indicates, among other things, that the unconscious is far more important, both religiously and philosophically, than has usually been acknowledged. While the conscious represents only one set of aspects of our relation with nature natured, the unconscious is our direct connection both to wider aspects of nature natured, and in certain respects, to the potencies that emerge from nature naturing. The conscious life is much more precarious than traditional monotheisms would allow, but also more magical than traditional naturalisms could recognize. Hits 10,000 Visits per Month

ibcsrlogoThe Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion ( is a site that brings cutting-edge research in the scientific study of religion to the general public, journalists, and researchers in the field. The web team at IBCSR has been working hard to increase capacity and speed at the site, while continuing to producing first-rate content. has also been redesigned as a membership site that offers members special benefits. These benefits include a discounted subscription to the Taylor & Francis journal Religion, Brain & Behavior, a unique online searchable database of journal articles and books in the scientific study of religion, and a variety of other benefits.

The site is easy to navigate and full of valuable discoveries presented in an entertaining and informative way. Just a few minutes browsing on the site generates ideas for articles by journalists and helps writers keep their ideas straight. Regular visits can transform understandings of the world through accumulating insights about the way religious beliefs, behaviors, and experiences function in human life.

Cambridge University Press releases Religious and Spiritual Experiences

cover-relexpThis book offers an interpretation of a diverse variety of religious and spiritual experiences, from the mundane to the shocking, from the terrifying to the sublime, and from the common to the exceptionally unusual. It carefully describes these experiences and offers a novel classification based on their neurological features and their internal qualities.

The book avoids the reductionistic oversimplifications so common in both religious and scientific literatures, and instead synthesizes perspectives from many disciplines into a compelling account of the meaning and value of religious and spiritual experiences in human life. The resulting interpretation does not assume a supernatural worldview, nor does it reject such experiences as totally delusory. Rather, the book frames religious and spiritual experiences as contributing to a spiritually positive affirmation of this-worldly existence.

Along the way, the book directly addresses key intellectual and practical questions in a philosophically sound and scientifically informed way. For example, can we trust the apparent meaning of such experiences? What is the value of religious and spiritual experiences within human life? Are we evolutionarily programmed to have such experiences? How will emerging technologies change such experiences in the future?

For more detailed information about this book, look for it on the publications menu.

New Journal Announced: Religion, Brain, and Behavior

rbbA new journal on the scientific study of religion is about to begin publication. The first issue of Religion, Brain & Behavior is to appear in February 2011 from Taylor & Francis journals. Neurologist Patrick McNamara (Boston University), Anthropologist Richard Sosis (University of Connecticut), and Wesley Wildman are the co-editors, with James Haag (Suffolk University) as assistant editor.

The aim of Religion, Brain & Behavior (RBB) is to provide a vehicle for the advancement of current biological approaches to understanding religion at every level from brain to behavior. RBB unites multiple disciplinary perspectives that share these interests. The journal seeks empirical and theoretical studies that reflect rigorous scientific standards and a sophisticated appreciation of the academic study of religion. RBB welcomes contributions from a wide array of biological and related disciplines, including cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, social psychology, evolutionary anthropology, social neuroscience, neurology, genetics, demography, bioeconomics, neuroeconomics, physiology, developmental psychology, psychology of religion, moral psychology, archaeology, mimetics, behavioral ecology, epidemiology, public health, cultural evolution, and religious studies. In summary, RBB considers high quality papers in any aspect of the brain-behavior nexus related to religion.

RBB publishes high quality research articles, target articles with about ten solicited commentaries and an author response, case studies, and occasional review articles. Issues are published three times during 2011, and four times annually from 2012 onwards. All articles published in this journal have undergone a rigorous process of peer review.

The prestigous Editorial Board of Religion, Brain & Behavior and information about how to submit articles for the journal is posted on the journal’s home page at the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion, and also at the Taylor & Francis site for the journal.

LeRon Shults Lecturing in Boston

leronshultsProf. F. LeRon Shults is visiting Boston University in the first week of November, meeting with colleagues and students, and delivering a public lecture.

  • Lecture title: “Transforming Religious Plurality: Applying Family Systems Theory to Interreligious Dialogue.”
  • Time: 4:30pm-6:00pm on Wednesday November 3, 2010
  • Place: 745 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215, room B19 (in the basement lecture hall)

Dr. Shults is well known for his interdisciplinary theological work, especially integrating psychology and theology, but more recently also including religious studies and comparative theology. To find out more about Prof. Shults, visit his website.

Spectrums Project Gets Underway

spectrumsdiagWesley Wildman is working with Dr. Catherine Caldwell-Harris from Boston University’s Psychology Department on a new program of research aimed at learning more about ideological polarization in politics, morality, and religion. Ideological spectrums have been studied intensively in relation to politics, and in recent years morality has received renewed attention. Both spheres of research have yielded fascinating insights into why people adopt the political and moral beliefs they do, what kinds of personality and behavioral correlations exist for various positions on ideological spectrums, and how people change over the lifespan in their moral and political opinions and practices.

To this point, there has been much less research directed toward understanding ideological spectrums in regard to religious and theological beliefs and practices. Fundamentalism has received a lot of attention, and sociologists have given a good deal of thought to the conditions under which religious groups at various places on the theological spectrum thrive or decline. But the religious and theological spectrum itself is in need of more intensive study, integrating insights from a number of relevant disciplinary perspectives.

The particular aims of the Spectrums Project are three.

Literature Review: We aim to conducting a comprehensive literature review to assemble a definitive report on what is known about theological, political, and moral differences.

Empirical Study: We aim to gather quantitative and qualitative data from online and in-person participants that surface theological, political, and moral spectrum differences; attitudes to such differences; and interactions between such differences and other differences of culture and heritage, belief and behavior.

Educational Laboratory: We aim to develop and experiment with techniques for creatively deploying the assembled information in university programs and classrooms to allow faculty and students safely to address such issues, thus learning about themselves and others in accordance with the living laboratory concept.

This third aim is essentially a practical application of our research findings to the concrete challenges of dealing with ideological spectrums in the higher-education classroom setting. This is nowhere more perplexing than in seminary education, which conducts the training of professional religious leaders. Here above all there should be profound and sensitive understanding of ideological spectrum differences in religious beliefs and practices, but sadly these settings often consolidate wariness toward others more than they educate future leaders about themselves and others.

Seminary students bring assumptions to their theological studies regarding God, the world, and human relationships. Most students adapt more readily to the visible differences of bodies and cultures than they do to more hidden differences of viewpoint. The hidden differences quickly become evident, however, often accompanied by some degree of shock, in classroom discussions and hallway debates. These revelations of political, moral, and theological difference can cause serious problems in the educational process, even as they present important educational opportunities. Unfortunately, and despite noisy signs that such differences dominate media coverage of political and religious issues, little is known about theological, political, and moral differences than should be the case among religious people and within their professional training centers. As the intractability of culture wars demonstrates, the dynamics of ideologically and religiously loaded interactions, both among individuals and across diverse cultures and traditions, can be quite destructive.

In seeking to address these challenges, the Spectrums Project is building on a firm foundation. Dr. Wildman recently co-authored a pair of books on the subject (Lost in the Middle? and Found in the Middle!), based on a large amount of outreach to diverse groups of people. He also hosted a 2009 conference to prepare for the Spectrums Project, bringing together experts and students in the topic with a view to identifying what is already known and what has yet to be studied.

Lecture on Scientific Study of Religion to Visiting Chinese Scholars

wangFor fifteen years, Dr. Zhongxin Wang (pictured with me at right) has been running the Chinese Christian Scholars Association in North America (CCSANA), bringing professors from Chinese universities to the USA for conferences and vice versa. I have had the privilege of going on a CCSANA- sponsored lecture tour through China in 2004-2005 and I participate in the local conferences in Boston whenever I can.

This year, on Friday July 9, 2010, I will present a lecture to the most recent group of visiting Chinese scholars on the flourishing of the scientific study of religion. Dr. Wang tells me that this is a topic of great interest to many Chinese academics and researchers and I can certainly understand that.

This lecture will give the great joy of reuniting with Prof. Liu Xiaoting from Beijing Normal University, with whom I spent many wonderful days in China. I speak no Chinese and he speaks no English but we seem to understand one another just fine. An energetic, witty, and boisterous man, Dr. Liu is respected for his formidable intelligence and his determination to speak the truth as he understands it.

Dr. Wang has worked tirelessly to build scholarly and ecclesial bridges between China and the United States. CCSANA exists solely because of his energy and imagination and fund-raising skill. The lecture tour in China had a profound effect on me and I believe this is true of everyone involved in CCSANA activities.

One-Day “Wisdom of the Ages” Conference Focuses on Religious and Spiritual Experiences

woaThe fifth “Wisdom of the Ages” conference is to be held on Friday July 23, 2010 at the Holiday Inn in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The traditional theme of Bowen Theory in these conferences is being focused on this occasion on my Religious and Spiritual Experiences, to appear with Cambridge University Press late in 2010. My  two keynote lectures during the day are entitled “The Description and Range of Religious and Spiritual Experiences” and “Religious and Spiritual Experiences in the Future.”

The respondents to the lectures are three distinguished thinkers and authors.

Daniel Papero, Ph.D., LCSW, is senior faculty at The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family where Dr. Bowen invited him to serve in 1982. He has written numerous articles and book chapters on various aspects of family systems theory and family psychotherapy and, in 1990, published a basic introduction to family systems, Bowen Family Systems Theory. Dr. Papero is a well known national and international teacher presenting to various professional groups on science and neuroscience as they relate to family systems theory and the functioning of families and society. Dr. Papero maintains his consulting practice in Washington, D.C.

John F. Haught, Ph.D. is Landegger Distinguished Professor of Theology at Georgetown University. His area of specialization is systematic theology, with a particular interest in issues pertaining to science, cosmology, ecology, and religion. He is author of numerous books including God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution; Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation, and Deeper Than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution. He established the Georgetown Center for the Study of Science and Religion. His most recent book is God and the New Atheism.

Priscilla J. Friesen, LCSW, has been associated with the Bowen Center since l978. Presently Ms. Friesen is assisting the Bowen Center, Bowen family, and the National Library of Medicine to make the Bowen Archives available to the world. Ms. Friesen’s professional and personal interest has been in the brain, physiology, and relationships. In the fall of 2005, she founded The Learning Space with Regina Carrick and Glennon Gordon. Guided by the framework of Bowen theory, The Learning Space has interwoven self-regulation methodologies, particularly neurofeedback (brainwave training) into its work with individuals, couples, and families. It has also developed programs for professionals and the broader community.

To find out more about the conference or to register for it, contact Joseph Carolin.

Claude Welch Memorial

welch(This address was delivered to the American Theological Society’s annual meeting at Princeton Theological Seminary, March 26, 2010.) PDF version

This evening I begin with a conventional review of Claude Welch’s life and achievements before turning to some more personal remarks.

Claude Raymond Welch (pictured at right) was born March 10, 1922, in Genoa City, Wisconsin. His parents were Virgil and Deone Welch. His father Virgil was a minister and a Professor of Bible Studies at Upper Iowa University. Claude was the second of their four children, growing up in Fayette, Iowa with older brother Robert and younger siblings Wesley and Irene.

Claude showed early intellectual promise, earning the rare distinction of being on the list of top Iowa state high-school students in five subjects. He was also a state-wide and national debate champion, and played the trumpet. He went on to a BA in History at Upper Iowa University. He received a BD and MDiv from Yale University Divinity School in 1945, and was ordained. He took the PhD from Yale in 1950. His PhD dissertation was published as In This Name: The Doctrine of the Trinity in Contemporary Theology (Scribners, 1952). In that book, Claude predicted a revival of interest in the Trinity as a reaction to its near-dismissal in the nineteenth century, taking a stand against other prognosticators who were already celebrating the death of Trinitarian ways of thinking. Claude was right: his book was one of the first works in a significant reconsideration of the doctrine of the Trinity in the second half of the twentieth century.

He taught at Princeton University from 1947 to 1951, while he was still finishing his PhD, and then moved to Yale Divinity School from 1951 until 1960. While at Yale, he worked with historian John Dillenberger to write a textbook entitled Protestant Christianity Interpreted through its Development (Scribner, 1954; a second and extensively revised edition of that book appeared much later in 1988). He also published his second book in systematic theology, The Reality of the Church (Scribner, 1958), which expressed his strong interest at that time in ecumenism. A Fulbright award took him to Germany to study the theology of Karl Barth in 1956-1957.

Claude moved to the University of Pennsylvania in 1960, where he remained until 1971, holding many administrative positions along with his teaching and publishing responsibilities. He was Chair of the Religion Department, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and President of the American Academy of Religion in 1970. He took another Fulbright year in 1963-1964, this time in Switzerland, where he worked intensively on nineteenth-century Protestant Thought. His translation of several important German works on the Incarnation by Thomasius, Dorner, and Biedermann appeared as God and Incarnation in Mid-Nineteenth-Century German Theology (Oxford University Press, 1965).

His administrative expertise in education joined with a significant research effort to yield two important books. The first, Graduate Education in Religion: A Critical Appraisal (University of Montana, 1971)—known informally as the “Welch Report”—was based on research funded by the Luce Foundation and helped enormously to increase the respectability of religious studies as an academic field. In this book, Claude endorsed Max Müller’s maxim “He who knows one religion, knows none” and argued that the standards for teaching religion in the graduate school context should be the same whether or not the teacher is an adherent of the religion under discussion. Religion, that is, should be taught like any other subject, making use of all relevant disciplines and rooting out ideological bias. The second book was Religion in the Undergraduate Curriculum: An Analysis and Interpretation (Association of American Colleges, 1972), and made a similar case.

The major transition of his career came in 1971 when he moved to the Graduate Theological Union, nestled beside the University of California at Berkeley. He began as Dean (1971-1987) and the following year was also appointed as President (1972-1982). With John Dillenberger, Claude worked tirelessly to lay the foundations of an institution that now produces a very large number of academic doctorates in religious and theological studies within a uniquely integrated ecumenical and multi-religious consortial environment. He strengthened ties to UC Berkeley, enhanced relationships with affiliated centers and institutes, raised money for programs and buildings, and defined the intellectual commitments and institutional trajectory of an exceptional institution in a complex context. He also planned and oversaw the first stage of construction of the Graduate Theological Union’s magnificent central library and administration building.

It is in this period that Claude published the first of two volumes on Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century (Yale University Press, 1972). Eminent historian Peter C. Hodgson reviewed the first volume (Journal of the American Academy of Religion 41/4 (1974): 591-596), describing it as “the first truly significant history of nineteenth-century Protestant Thought in the English language” and declaring that “the appearance of this book is a publishing event of the highest significance for the theological world” (591). Despite his grueling administrative duties, Claude carried out the research for the second volume, which was published in 1985, and equally well received. These volumes are his magnum opus, the work of a lifetime, and a priceless gift to fellow scholars and to generations of students. They express not only the historian’s precision and sensitivity to contextual details, but also the nuanced insight of the systematic theologian.

Claude retired from the Graduate Theological Union’s Deanship in mid-1987 but continued teaching and advising graduate students in historical and systematic theology for twenty more years.

Claude met Eloise when they were at Upper Iowa University. They married and raised three children—Eric, Thomas, and Claudia—before divorcing in 1968. Eloise died on August 31, 2009. In 1971 he married Theodosia (Ted) and became step-father to her children, Brad and David; she died of breast cancer in 1978. He married Joy in 1982 and became step-father to her two children, Eric and Keith; Joy died of cancer in 2005. Shortly after, in 2006, Claude moved to Freeport. Illinois, to live near his son, Eric. He passed away on November 6, 2009.

Many of you know these biographical facts. And many of you knew Claude personally or as a colleague or teacher. I have heard a number of stories about Claude’s earlier years and I wish I had known him for longer than I did. When I first met him, his busy life had been transformed by his retirement at age 65 as Dean. The year was 1987 and I was just beginning my doctoral studies. Claude had no intention of retiring from teaching and continued running seminars and advising students. I was one of the doctoral students he advised and I treasure the photograph of his beaming face beside me at my graduation.

My first significant memory of Claude was in the Fall of 1987 in the classroom. He was teaching his signature seminar on nineteenth-century theology to a group of about thirty doctoral and advanced masters students. Having just retired from 16 years of administrative investment in the Graduate Theological Union, Claude was deeply respected and surrounded by an aura of dignity and gravitas that instantly commanded respect from his students. Those seminars on nineteenth-century theology were master-classes, in the sense that he demonstrated comprehensive depth and breath of knowledge, inspiring enormous effort on the part of his students without having to demand it. Some students remember those seminars as uncomfortable events, with Claude silencing over-eager doctoral students with a pointed question or assuming a level of competence that students struggled to attain. Most relished them, though, and I certainly did.

I never met Claude’s first two wives, but I knew his third wife, Joy Neuman, quite well. She was an accomplished editor and I was a frequent visitor in their home, sharing meals with them and watching their semi-retired life unfold over the years. I stayed in touch with them as long as they lived—two decades of wonderful conversations, mutual encouragement, and occasional shared work. Joy died shortly before Claude moved to Illinois.

With some people, the aspect of them that stands out to me is their smile, or their physical stature, or perhaps the timbre of their voice. In Claude’s case, it was his eyes. Claude’s eyes always conveyed something about his personality and state of mind—helped along, I am sure, by the magnifying effect of his thick glasses. It is because of people like him that people use the phrase “the eyes are windows onto the soul.”

Sometimes Claude’s eyes would gleam with pride, as they did when he hooded me at my graduation, or when he held my new-born children in his arms.

Sometimes they would grow intense as he concentrated on conveying some subtle point of theological debate in a seminar or in conversation.

Sometimes those eyes would get dull as he grew tired and grumpy, though he did that with much less frequency as the years went on. He was a tender and solicitous husband to Joy, a gentler and more perceptive man than he may have been when busier and younger. The competitive, ambitious, and razor-sharp elements of his personality were ideal for ranking graduate programs in the “Welch Report” and for making hard administrative decisions, but he had little use for them in his later years. Gradually—with some degree of satisfaction and even relief, I suspect—Claude became more avuncular and jovial, an easy presence with a ready smile, loyal, peaceful, and happy.

Lest this portray an impossibly congenial person, it is vital to recall that sometimes Claude’s eyes would grow hard as steel as he became impatient with foolishness or girded his loins to engage in criticism or debate. I arrived at the Graduate Theological Union formed in the world of mathematics, where the ideas are everything, the game of criticism and debate is central to the sociality of experts, and it is extremely bad form to take any criticism personally no matter how bluntly it is delivered. Claude instantly understood that about me. In an educational environment full of welcome sensitivity that occasionally crossed over into excessive political correctness, Claude relished the game of criticism and debate over ideas, especially theological ideas. I never needed to explain myself to him and he seemed to relax and let his guard down with me. This led to many wonderful experiences and some interesting revelations.

Claude’s eyes would sometimes grow distant and pensive as he contemplated the arc of his career. He trained early as an historian but his dissertation and second book were more systematic theology than historical theology. In some ways he thought of his eventual concentration on historical theology as the arresting of his most fundamental aspirations. When he was joking around, he would say that he was a washed up systematic theologian who got stranded in the nineteenth century. In quieter moments, he confessed to a failure of nerve. I think temperament and circumstances were at least as important as insufficient chutzpah in his decision to focus on historical theology. Claude cared about the robustness of knowledge, including especially the importance of subjecting knowledge claims to data capable of correcting and refining them. He found through long experience that he could achieve that far more effectively in the mode of historian than as a systematic theologian. Moreover, his personal religious beliefs steadily migrated toward the increasingly radical and more agnostic end of the spectrum, where he vacillated between a kind of mystical theologian for whom ultimate reality gloriously defied speech and an exhausted historian who had lost the taste for trying to eff the ineffable. Still, his wistfulness about systematic theology never completely left him and helps to explain why he was so supportive of his doctoral students in theology who leaned more toward systematics than history. Though he probably thought they were more prone to fantasy than is seemly in an academic, Claude also appreciated their artistic flair and their intellectual boldness. Perhaps he saw some of his own theological longings partially satisfied through their efforts.

Sometimes Claude’s eyes would become mischievous. I would love to have in my own mind the memories some of you have in yours of his younger years. I am sure he must have loved to have fun and to make fun, every bit as much as he loved to work and think hard. We played bridge together frequently. Often his eyes would get that mischievous twinkle and an outrageous bid would spring from his reckless imagination, accompanied by a sheepish grin, and burdening his partner—often enough that was me—with an impossible contract. He loved to play, he loved to break the rules, and he loved to make his bridge partners wince and subsequently chuckle at his crinkly eyes and only partly repentant face.

Claude also loved the rituals of life—not so much the religious rituals as the academic and family rituals that mark the passage of time on this twisted rock of a planet. His eyes would sink comfortably into rest at those times. At a meeting of the Pacific Coast Theological Society—a group much like this one—I once saw Claude go outside into a courtyard at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary with well known historical theologian Jim Duke. I watched, fascinated, as they embarked on what seemed to be a sacred ritual together. In perfect synchronization, they lit their pipes, held them in one hand with the other hand behind the back, and paced, lock step, around the courtyard, never looking up, just moving together and chatting quietly. Moments like that grounded him.

Sometimes Claude’s eyes would grow dark as he recalled the painful moments of his life. When he recalled his early divorce, or his second wife’s struggle with cancer and her eventual death, his eyes would tear up, glistening atop an abyss of sadness. To misquote Hamlet, Claude did not remain untouched by the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.

Those eyes, dancing and glinting and gleaming, steely or dark or misty—it is his eyes that stay with me.