Bernard Eugene Meland

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Bernard Eugene Meland

Historian of liberal theology in the modern period and professor at the Chicago School of Theology, Bernard Eugene Meland (1899-1993) articulated a postmodern and postliberal theological vision in a constructive mode. A theologian of culture, his radical empiricism incorporated aesthetic dimensions of experience both in construing the meaning of "God" and in interpreting theological method.

Bernard E. Meland was born June 28, 1899, in Chicago, Illinois. His parents were Erick Bernhard and Elizabeth Hansen Meland. He acquired skills as a carpenter and a spirit sensitive to the ambiguity of life and appreciative of what he called its problematic good. After a period of military service in 1918, he received a bachelor's degree at Park College (Missouri) in 1923. Study at the University of Illinois at Champaign (1923-1924) and at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago (1924-1925) followed.

He transferred to the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and took a Bachelor of Divinity degree there in 1928. He was ordained to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in the United States in that year and honorably retired from its ministry at the time of his retirement from teaching in 1964. He married Margaret Evans McClusky on August 6, 1926. She died as he was entering retirement. Their son, Richard Dennis, lived with Meland in the 1990s. Meland died in 1993.

During his student days his mentors were his teachers at the Chicago School—Shirley Jackson Case, Shailer Mathews, and especially Gerald Birney Smith, who died while Meland was studying at the University of Marburg. Upon his return he obtained a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1929 and began to publish prolifically in liberal religious journals.

Meland taught at Central College, Fayette, Missouri, from 1929 to 1936, and at Pomona College, Claremont, California, from 1936 to 1945. While at Pomona College he brought the arts to chapel worship with the help of his student assistant, Robert Shaw. He was professor of theology in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago from 1945 to 1964. During this time he gave the Barrows Lectures in India on two occasions. In retirement he continued active writing, teaching, lecturing, and responding at conferences on his theology until 1988, when his health confined him to his home.

Attentive to work in cultural anthropology, philosophy of science, history of religions, and phenomenology, Meland identified in experience converging streams of meaning under what he called the powers of the mythos and the Iogos. These meanings find form and are lived out in three interrelated "vortices": the self, the cultus, and the culture. His work focused on the embodied self and the "appreciative consciousness" shaped by culturally-mediated symbols in tension with critical consciousness shaped by science and theory. Life and faith shared an elemental organic ground in what Meland called a "stream of experience." But this was not without a pluralism of "structures of experience" that made elusive the quest for demonstrable knowledge in religion. Theology, he wrote, was a discipline midway between art and philosophy.

His constructive theology and method were most fully worked out in Faith and Culture (1953), The Realities ofFaith: The Revolution in Cultural Forms (1962), and Fallible Forms and Symbols: Discourses on Method in a Theology of Culture (1976). His critique of modern culture was developed in The Secularization of Modern Cultures (1966). Meland's appropriation of James' radical empiricism and his treatment of the appreciative consciousness was clear in Higher Education and the Human Spirit (1953). His indebtedness to Gerald Birney Smith was acknowledged in the book he wrote with Henry Nelson Wieman, American Philosophies of Religion (1936), and in The Future of Empirical Theology (1969). His aesthetic, mystical naturalism and early influences can be seen in Modern Man's Worships: A Search for Reality in Religion (1934) and in a compilation of early and later essays also informative about his method, Essays in Constructive Theology: A Process Perspective (1988). Seeds of Redemption (1947) and The Reawakening of Christian Faith (1949) were important brief statements of his theological vision.

Further Reading

A bibliography of Bernard E. Meland's work appeared in Process Studies, 5 (1975). Meland's work was receiving critical and appreciative attention from American scholars interested in postmodernism and the empirical tradition in theology. Their work has appeared in the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, edited by Larry E. Axel and W. Crighton Peden. See the Meland items in the ten-year index in Volume 11 (January 1990), the essays in Lori Krafte-Jacobs, editor, "Bernard Meland and the Future of Theology," American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, 5 (1984), and the special issue of The Journal of Religion, 60 (1980). Meland's thoughts are discussed in volumes published by The Highlands Institute for American Religious Thought (1989).

Important books that discussed Meland's work are William Dean, American Religious Empiricism (1986); History Making History: The New Historicism in American Religious Thought (1988); Nancy Frankenberry, Religion and Radical Empiricism (1987); and Dolores Jean Rogers, The American Empirical Movement in Theology (1990). A short account of Meland's theology was found in Edgar A. Towne, "God and the Chicago School in the Theology of Bernard E. Meland," American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, 10 (1989). □

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Bernard Eugene Meland

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