"GOD, SYMBOL, AND COMMUNITY:
SAMUEL THOMPSON'S LATE PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION"
Drew University, MC '57
October 21, 1997
The Thompson Lecture
In the summer of 1972, weeks after retiring from the Monmouth College faculty at the age of seventy, Sam Thompson sent me a manuscript on which he had been working. (Numbers refer to the manuscript page.) Just over one-hundred typewritten pages, it was called "Christian Faith for Modern Man." He was characteristically modest, saying that it needed a lot of work and that he didn't know whether he would try to publish it. As it turns out, "Christian Faith for Modern Man" never saw the light of day. I am able to base this lecture on it because, before sending it back a few months later, I made a copy. Would Sam object to what I am doing? While he never would have suggested it, I think that he would have cautioned me to be careful, then wished me well.
Philosophy of religion was a central, though not exclusive, concern of Thompson's. It was, however, the subject of his major publication, A Modern Philosophy of Religion (1955). That book is a philosophy of religion because it tries "to understand religion, to evaluate it as a source of insight into real existence, and to discover some of its important implications both for philosophy and for life" (vii); it is modern because, rather than making "concessions to . . . obscurantism" (viii), it is thought out and formulated in the context of modern knowledge of human and physical nature.
In "Christian Faith and Modern Man" Thompson writes not only as a philosopher, but also as a member of a religious community. Son and grandson of United Presbyterian ministers, his life-long attachment to the church was recognized when he was selected as Secretary for the Committee that wrote the "Confession of 1967," one of the most important doctrinal statements of our time. But in 1972 Sam Thompson is deeply concerned about the state of Western society and the Christian church. Here is the beginning of his unpublished manuscript: "If Western society survives the last quarter of the twentieth century it may well find itself bereft of its companion of nearly two thousand years, the Christian church. That institution has not yet succeeded in entering the twentieth century, and the prospect of its reaching the twenty-first is fast fading" (3). Thompson traces the church's internal weakness and fading external influence to one central error: "the perversion by the church of its own true power, the power to make men free, into coercive power to enslave men's minds, to debase them as persons, and to manipulate other institutions in the furtherance of its own perverse ends" (4). His name for this error: apostasy.
Behind this indictment of the church's misuse of power is a well-considered and subtle theory of power. Having lived in nine decades of this bloodiest of all centuries, Sam Thompson was especially alert to the abuse of power. Recognizing that "without coercion there is no human society; without coercion there is no human life," Thompson attempts to show the different forms of coercion and its dialectical relation with freedom. He argues that impersonal law, a form of coercion which defines the conditions for the lives of persons in society, is the best protection for persons to pursue the ends of life in freedom.
We are familiar with the principle of the separation of powers in government; that is, of the legislative from the executive from the judicial. Thompson, in developing a general philosophy of power, argues for a complementary series of separations. The one who defines the proper use of power should not be the one who uses it. The one who actively uses power should not be the judge of the action. The one who uses power should always do so as the agent of another. No agent or institution should be given absolute power. Nothing about power, whether defining it or exercising it, should be beyond review.
When these principles of separation are applied to the church, Thompson says, "Among the lessons of history one which rings true is that the Christian church cannot be trusted with coercive power" (6). When the church has had such power, it has regarded itself as responsible only to God, the final authority. But the church also claimed to be the sole authentic voice of him to whom it was responsible. (One thinks here of Thomas Aquinas' defense of capital punishment, which goes this way: since religious truth has the highest importance, divergence from it deserves the highest penalty, death.) Thompson observes that when the agent becomes judge, power snuffs out love and Holy spirit gives way to demonic spirit. The last of his historical examples of how the church has destroyed people in order to save them, is this surprising and powerful one: "In our own century, the church has sent its young men as sacrifices to the War God with the compulsive frenzy of Aztecs in the sacrifice of the pick of their youth to Quetzalcoatl" (8). His conclusion is that "The corporate expression of the Christian spirit has been to divide, exclude, persecute, and destroy. Thus does the Body of Christ reach out its arms to press the crown of thorns again and again into its own Head" (8).
But now let us go back to what he calls the church's true power, that is the power to make free. This occurs when idea or symbol "expands awareness and sensitizes feeling. It is like the power of light to reveal the colors and forms of things around us, the power of poetry and music and art to breach the walls of our awareness, the power of love received to open to the beloved his own worth" (8). But he reminds us that ideas and symbols can be destructive as well, "for some of them constrict awareness and brutalize feelings" (8). They can draw curtains and build walls so that we fail to apprehend "that total unity of existence which gives meaning to every part" (8).
At this point, Thompson repeats his observation that the Christian church has been unable to move into the twentieth century, then adds two more steps to the questioning that gives shape to his whole discussion: "Those of us who are in the church, and who are also of the twentieth century, must ask whether or not the church itself could possibly survive such a move. The more basic question underlying this one, however, is whether the Christian faith does in truth have the universality it has claimed or, on the contrary, is inseparably bound to the mythos out of which it emerged" (10). This amounts to saying that only if the Christian faith frees itself from the mythos of the first century can it survive in the twentieth. Thompson holds that a modern philosophical inquiry can contribute to accomplishing this double move. In this lecture, I have chosen to highlight three of his main themes: God, Symbol, and Community. God, because it is the basic theistic principle which allows us to see God as the source of existence and the basis for the total unity of existence. Symbol, because that is the proper instrument for the liberating work of religion. Community, because the church is "those drawn to him [Jesus] by being drawn together with each other" (98) and because the church, which exists for world, "can reach the world only through its members" (12). On each of these themes I hope to show how discovering its distinctiveness through philosophical and modern considerations can help the church to survive and flourish.
For Thompson, the question of God is not abstract. It arises when we ask whether the string of one experience after another can ever be completed, whether the meaning of temporal existence can be found in a remembered past or a fancied future. He answers that "there seems for us no escape from utter meaninglessness unless we can relate ourselves not merely to nature but to a source of nature and a source of existence which is not itself a part of that scheme of existence" (21). That source the theistic faiths name God.
The discussion of God in his 1972 writing shows considerable continuity with the argument of the 1955 book and contains some new emphases as well. In 1955 Thompson made an argument for the existence of God based on four premises: (1) that "the world of nature is an actually existing world which includes within itself the real things and events we find by means of our experience"; (2) that "any such world of actually existing things and events is a world which is neither self-existent nor contains anything self-existent as a part of itself," that is, the actually existing world is contingent; (3) whatever is contingent "depends for its existence upon something which does exist in and of itself and does not in turn depend on anything else; and (4) "anything which depends for its existence on something which is self-existent depends for its existence upon a really existing God." (1955, 285) All of this is implicit in the 1972 discussion. What comes out more clearly in the later writing is attention to the question of meaning.
Whereas in 1955 Thompson began with the actual existing world and discovered that its contingency required the affirmation of a self-existing God, in 1972 he begins with worldly events and the question whether they are meaningful. All worldly events come into existence, then cease to be. Considered just in themselves, their meaning and value disappear with their passing. As the old phrase goes, it is just one damn thing after another. From this perspective the very ideas of "the world" and "a life" would only be ways of indicating an aggregation of events. Such a view is rightly called nihilism, the denial that meaning and value have any place in the larger scheme of things, even that it makes sense to speak of a larger scheme of things. Perhaps there have been some self-consistent nihilists. More often there have been self-proclaimed nihilists who have in spite of themselves found value and meaning somewhere, perhaps only in the assertion of nihilism. But the novel thing about Sam Thompson's position is his claim that an affirmation of meaning that does not lead on to an affirmation of ultimate or final meaning is arbitrary and equivalent to nihilism. Let us see if we can follow his line of thought.
The first step toward establishing meaning is to connect one event with another. The event of my awaking this morning has passed. It is meaningful if it can be connected with the next things that I have done, which also have passed. Their connection can be traced to my intention of being here now to speak to and with you. The whole set can meaningfully be called "the day Courtney gave the Thompson lecture." But this lecture, mercifully, will end and the day will end. If they are not connected to the acts of living persons their meaning will end. It will be as if they had not been.
Of course, our lives are made up of making connections among events. Plans are possible because of it. Memories and anticipations depend on it. One could say that the very meaning of a college is the disciplined search for connections in and among all the various aspects of existence. Each time we make a connection, we achieve a finality, little or big. Crick and Watson achieved a finality that day in Cambridge in the 1950's when they ordered and paid for their beers in the Double Eagle pub. They also achieved one when, during their conversation over the mugs, they discovered the structure of the DNA.
We create social, political, and cultural finalities. Think of the teams and clubs to which we belong. Of government at all of its levels. Of orchestras, choirs, poetry readings, and art exhibits. And, of course, religions have been the great definers of finalities. Thompson notes that polytheisms and what he calls nature religions have found their finalities in the powers and forces of the world. The importance of the sun for sustaining life leads to religious myths and rituals directed to a sun god. Similarly for the earth, the ocean, fire, wind, and mighty warriors. All of these religious finalities are powers and realities greater than ordinary human beings. Even though some of them are thought to be immortal, none of them transcend the conditions of worldly existence. Thompson holds, then, that they do not provide a knot for the rope of meaning, that the rope is arbitrarily ended and is vulnerable to being unraveled.
For him, the theistic religions that distinguish God from nature cross "the great divide" (70). The theistic God is not an immortal, a greater being, a master. Rather than being a kind of existence, God is the source of the existence of all else that is. Such a God is incommensurable with creation, and is properly referred to with negative or contrastive terms such as transcendent and infinite. Such a God, beyond the orders of nature, can serve as a finality for meaning and value. Events that can be connected to this God find a proper ground. To take up our image of a moment ago, the knot is tied.
Thompson claims that "two distinctive features of modern thought have their source in theism's idea of God: the idea of an intrinsically knowable nature, and the idea of history" (70). If God is beyond nature, nature is not inhabited by divinities or magical powers. Its rational order can be sought by hypothesis and experiment, without explicit reference to God. On the other hand, seeing human existence as historical requires the idea of a transcendent God, for, as he says, "to have meaning, history requires limits and yet history cannot be self-enclosed. The limits must come from beyond history" (70-1).
Let us go back now to the ideas of meaning, connection, and finality. In some moving lines at the end of this section of his manuscript, Thompson shows the logical power of his ideas, their existential gravity, and also their fragility. I will read from him at some length. "What, then, does it mean conceptually and philosophically for me to assert the existence of God? It means to say that present existence is actual, but that no present existence is complete and self dependent, nor is any series of successive existences. This includes myself. It means that I am nothing in and of myself. What I am makes sense only in the setting of the whole order of existence. But that order of existence does not itself exist. The past has been, and no longer is; the future, if it will be, is not yet. So what I am makes final sense only in its relation to the source and end of this order. . . . What does my little personal world include? It is my lifetime; my family's lifetime, the lives of my parents and the grandparents I knew, of my children and their children; it includes my community with its present problems, my country with its strength and weakness, its victories and defeats; the books and magazines I read, music and pictures I enjoy, my work and those I work with. If this is what makes my world, if this is my life and sets the limits of meaning for me, then my life is made of fragments; and it is itself only a collection of fragments.
"But my life is not a separated fragment; it is a moment of humanity. It reaches further and includes more than I can ever know or imagine. My life came out of a past which goes back in unbroken continuity as far as life itself reaches; and my life now is interlocked genetically with other families of many lands whom I could not possible identify. My community has a history, and its history is part of the history of an era, of a civilization, of a race; it is part of the experience of humanity. No community is an island thrust up from the sea of being, full-formed and complete with inhabitants, goods, tools, produce, libraries and schools, and all the other fittings of its life. To take my life with all I know myself to be, to take this in isolation, is not to get it in its authentic dimensions. Any present existence is linked in lines of unimaginable complexity which run in all directions of time and space; and insofar as we isolate the present from its setting, from past and future and from other places and peoples far and near, we empty our own existence of its substance.
[And now some questions from Thompson's imaginary atheist listener and also from his own honest self.] "Well, why not? Why not be satisfied with the little we are and have now? The answer seems plain to some of us. We answer the question, 'Why not?' in this way: 'Because to do so is to falsify.' The present is not alone in what it is here and now; what confronts us here and now, in its separateness and immediacy, is a caricature of what the present is in truth. The present is the fulfillment of the past, and it holds keys to the future. The future does depend partly on us, and the fuller meaning of this present waits upon the future. But to make sense of this, we have to see the present not in the light merely of more and more future and better known past; our perspective must point to an ultimate, and that ultimate must transcend any and all existence that is or was or will be only a fragment.
"What does this argument establish? Read merely as an argument, an exercise in abstract thought, it establishes nothing. But it is actually more than a conceptual delineation of logical relations. It is an explication of a conviction which provides, for many, the only basis upon which human life, including their own, makes sense. It is not a conclusion we draw from our experience; it is the expression of what we discover on reflection to have been presupposed by the meaning claims of that experience. We are witnesses, and this is our version of the testimony we have to give" (83-85).
How could such tight dialectical reasoning be called testimony? Isn't testimony a totally different idiom, more suited to a revival meeting? Sam Thompson can call his reflection a testimony because he never lets the thinking get disconnected from the thinker. The propositions are there, to be sure, and they are set forth in an orderly way. But they are produced by a living human being who is stepping back from his experience in order better to understand it. And that is exactly what testimony is, saying what one has seen.
Let me conclude this section by quoting another passage which carefully draws the line between atheism and theism. After saying that what I am makes final sense only in its relation to my source, Thompson continues, "Perhaps nothing makes sense. This is a possibility that haunts a reflective theist, the possibility that the whole structure of rational understanding is wishful thinking. But it makes no sense to assert that nothing makes sense. If the direction we go brings us against this barrier, either we retrace our steps and move in a different direction or else we can only stop and remain silent.
"Genuine and honest atheism is the view that nothing is final or ultimate. It says that although we may find meanings here and there, meanings which seem to give a certain intelligibility to events, yet those eventually evaporate into nothing. A theist agrees with the atheist that existence in the world makes no final sense of itself. But a theist insists that what exists in the world does make sense, and so he is forced to admit also that it does not exist in and of itself" (81).
Perhaps the best way to begin our presentation of Thompson's views on religious symbol is to recognize that for him "God" is a symbol. Our familiarity with this term may tempt us to think that the term "God" is related to its object in the same way that the term "chair" is related to its object. If we do this, we have brought God down into the realm of worldly existence; but that is precisely what God is not. He says, "The idea of God is the attempt to express meaning in terms of the ultimate, in terms of that frame of reference which transcends all specific content. We cannot put ourselves into that frame of reference; we can only point to it. But all we can point to is its beyondness; we cannot specify anything of what it is in itself. To say this is also but a pointing; the pointing is fashioned from our language, our concepts, and moves entirely within our own little world" (71-72). We can come to understand that there must be a reality which is the source of all finite existence. But since our thinking and speaking is from this side of that relation, since we are unable to speak of God as such, our thought and speech necessarily is symbolic. Sam once said after class that the only literal thing that can be said about God is that God exists, and even that needs to be carefully qualified. Failure to treat "God" as symbol is to fall back onto the wrong side of the great divide. Early in the chapter on God, he says, "Such confusion always threatens to turn theistic faith into a nature religion. As the Jews saw so clearly, the seat of the Most High in the holy of holies of their Temple had to be an empty seat. Our God is hidden; he is nowhere to be found. He finds us; but he shows himself to us only as he hides behind masks, behind the masks his people have devised" (67).
If "God" is a symbol, then all specifically religious meaning is symbolic. Have we, then, turned religion into something fanciful and abandoned all hope of finding religious truth? Thompson would say no, and he would agree with Paul Tillich who cautioned against using the phrase, "only a symbol." Symbolic meaning is different from conceptual meaning and symbols in religion are different from symbols in art; each kind of meaning must be considered on its own terms. The central chapters of the 1972 manuscript deal with these issues. They are called, "Religious Faith and Truth" and "The Power of the Symbol." Let us bring into review some of the main points.
You will not be surprised to hear that Sam's inquiry into truth and symbol has an existential starting point. He says, "We know our own existence, and need no proof to know this. Every waking moment confirms that knowledge, and all I need to do to become aware of my existence is to turn my attention reflectively upon any state of awareness which I recognize as my own. It is true, of course, that such knowledge of our own existence is often vague, but unless we have it to begin with we have nothing to make more coherent and intelligible" (41). Whereas Descartes insisted on an indubitable and certain truth on which he could build a deductive system. Thompson is willing to settle for vagueness as long as he has a toehold in existence. Descartes' insistence on certainty was purchased at the price of mind-body dualism which eventually led to skepticism about the existence of the world. Thompson the person and Thompson the thinker are always already embarked. Fundamentals do not need justification; moreover such justification could not be given.
There are different orders of coherence and of intelligibility. There are different kinds of realities and different kinds of question that can be asked about the same reality. According to Thompson, the key to an understanding of Christian faith which makes sense to the modern mind is properly to sort out these differences. In particular, there are different kinds of symbol, dependent on the question that is being asked. Thompson distinguishes transparent symbols from opaque ones.
A transparent symbol is one that gives the user access to the thing symbolized without calling attention to itself. There are three parties to the transaction: the symbol user, the symbol, and the thing symbolized. An example would be my using the symbol chair to refer to that object. The symbol has done its job if it helps me to refer to the chair. Symbols such as "chair" serve well when we are in an impersonal or objective cognitive situation. Even if my interest in any particular chair or in chairness as such is minimal, I can appropriately use the symbol. I may simply want to define "chair" and distinguish it from stool, bench, and couch. My interest can be greater, as in the case of my wanting to purchase a chair in the furniture store. Or still greater, when I am tired, there is only one empty chair, and I ask, "Is this chair taken?" In all of these cases, the symbol functions transparently in so far as it accomplishes its task of referring objectively. We have seen that the range of the symbol "chair" is quite large. The range is even larger for the most transparent of symbols, those in mathematics. For example, the number "2" is very meager in content, but it applies to all the two's that there are, whether they be chairs, unicorns, or to take another fictional example, wins by the Chicago Bears.
Thompson is concerned to show that in all the respects we have mentioned religious symbols are different from symbols such as "chair." That is why he calls religious symbols opaque. He does not choose that term because religious symbols are unintelligible or lacking meaning. He says that religious symbols are opaque because the relations among the several parties to the transaction are different.
In the first place, our attention is drawn to the symbol itself. The object is apprehended not so much through the symbol as in it. For example, the flag of the United States refers to the nation. But since the nation is such a complex entity, involving geography, citizenry (present, past, and future), history, institutions, and ideals to set forth just an incomplete list, the flag does not represent the nation in any simple sense. It is perhaps better to say that the flag presents the nation. The flag stands for the nation differently than "chair" stands for the chair. If "chair" takes us to a chair either cognitively or physically, we leave it behind. By contrast, the nation is present in the symbol so that it makes sense to say that we "rally 'round the flag." Thompson says that the flag "draws together into focus and makes into a presence what we cannot identify and experience directly" (52).
Second, an opaque symbol affects the one who apprehends it. It is appropriate for me to have feelings about the flag. It can help instill attachment to the nation; it can evoke feelings of loyalty. Did you ever notice that we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America? Some may say that that is going too far. But it makes the point about the relation between symbol and participant. Thompson says that opaque symbols can become moving forces, "crucibles within our awareness in which conflicts of meaning and motive work upon each other to bring forth from each self a new creation" (54).
Third, whereas transparent symbols stand in logical and syntactical relation to one another, opaque symbols stand in what Thompson calls dramatic relation to one another. The flag, for example, is related to oaths, parades, songs, stories, poems, and traditions of all sorts. The great variety of things that "rally" around the flag need have no particular order. The order is given by the way the symbols and adherents constitute a life together.
With this brief characterization of opaque symbols in hand, let us consider its implications for a key concern of Sam Thompson, namely, whether we of the late twentieth century can engage with traditional religious symbols. The first point to be made is that if religious symbols are regarded as transparent, they will not be viable. A transparent symbol relates to what can be directly experienced through it. But God is not available for direct experience. Alice Walker, in The Color Purple, vividly draws the distinction between two ways of symbolizing God by way of a conversation between Celie and Shug. Shug asks Celie to tell her what her God look like. She is taken by surprise and a little embarrassed, but she decides to go ahead and "stick up for him, just to see what Shug say." "He big and old and tall and graybearded and white. He wear white robes and go barefooted. Blue eyes? She ast. Sort of bluish-gray. Cool. Big though. White lashes, I say. She laugh . . . then tell me this old white man is the same God she used to see when she prayed." They go on to agree that this God is the one found in the churches where white folks have been in control. Then Shug says what she thinks: "God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don't know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit. It? I ast. Yeah, It. God ain't a he or a she, but a It. But what do it look like? I ast. Don't look like nothing, she say. It ain't a picture show. It ain't something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you've found It." (176-8) Shug never heard of the theistic principle, but has grasped the point, namely, that God is not an object like other objects and that God is connected with all that is.
Transparent symbols work best when we take up an impersonal attitude. But religious symbols concern us as persons, define who we are, transform us. Transparent symbols are instruments of objective knowledge. But religious symbols are about values and ultimate ends, not facts. Let us examine this last point with reference to the Bible.
For more than two centuries a debate has raged over what is called higher criticism of Scripture, that is, the application of secular historical analysis to the texts of the Bible. Historians have regarded the Bible the same as other documents from the past. They have asked for external confimatory evidence of the events recorded in the Bible and insisted that the Bible be consistent with scientific knowledge of nature. Representatives of the church have challenged this enterprise by saying that any inquiry into the Bible must involve a prior commitment to Christian doctrines. Thompson says that "both disputants . . . shared the same basic assumptions. They both assumed that the religious truth of Scripture implies the historical accuracy of the documents. Doubts that the events described in Scripture did happen as described became doubts about the religious authority of Scripture. One side affirmed the authority of Scripture and so affirmed also its consequence, that the accounts are historically accurate. The other side denied the historical accuracy of the accounts and so denied also the authority of Scripture. Each side proceeded logically, but both failed to examine the common premise of their reasoning. In this the two sides were equally uncritical and naive" (27). His way out of the impasse is to remind us that what governs the method of inquiry is more the kind of questions asked than the subject matter. Thus, Thompson can be modern by acknowledging that it is appropriate to ask historical questions about the Bible. But he can also be religious by insisting that it is also appropriate, and even more important, to turn to the Bible with religious questions. Unlike the fundamentalists, Thompson does not attempt to rule certain questions out of order. As a fully modern man, he believes that he can with integrity take his place in the long Christian tradition by finding an alternative to literalism and naive orthodoxy. He says, "As a Christian I repeat the same creed my father and my grandfathers and great-grandfathers repeated. The accent has changed, but the words are from the same text. I know that I do not understand those statements as my father understood them, and I suspect his father and I would not even have had a common basis for theological discussion. But together we could repeat the same creed, with complete sincerity and integrity" (58).
Because religious truth does not depend on historical accuracy, Thompson can say without regret, "the story is all we have" (89). In order to understand how that story is effectively communicated, we must turn to our final theme, Community.
We have covered the ontological part of this philosophy of religion by presenting a transcendent self-existing God as the reality with which religion deals. We have covered the epistemology by presenting opaque symbols as the primary vehicle of religious meaning. It remains to deal with the practice of the religious life.
Thompson observes that "the way to religious faith is by exposure. Some who are exposed find themselves caught, some do not. Those who have been caught know what people of faith are talking about" (38). With religion, as with friendship and love, it begins with mutual response of person to person. There is no guarantee, of course, that what is caught will turn out to be reliable and true. But one must embark before there is anything to evaluate.
Perhaps the best way to share with you Sam Thompson's thought on religious community is to turn to the final chapter of his manuscript and give his interpretation of the Christian symbols of Incarnation and Resurrection. By Incarnation Christians mean that the nature of God is revealed in the form of a human being, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, humbly born, even scandalously born, called beloved of God at his baptism, yet despised by the religious and political establishment, and cruelly put to death, is the one "in whom Christians profess to see the incarnation of God" (90). Jesus was a man of love who did all that he did, even unto death, in order to spread love and bring about reconciliation. How is God made manifest in this? Thompson says, "Through the Incarnation the reconciliation of men with themselves and with each other is also their reconciliation with God. They become the expression in human life of that transcendent unity which is the source of all existence and meaning and value" (91).
If we approach this same point from the human side it looks like this. "Man cannot love God directly. He can love God only in his love for fellow men. The symbol of God become man makes us see that the obedience man had paid to God in fear, and awe of the unknown power which governed him, is to give way to participation in that community of which Christ is the head. Here in the presence of the Spirit, is the community of love. To know that he, as man, can have reconciliation with God he has to see that reconciliation revealed in the act of a man; and the symbol of God become man brings man and God together" (91-2).
Thompson here is using the classical words of Christian teaching. Has he abandoned his effort to be intelligible in the modern world? It might seem so, until we remember that for him understanding follows upon experience. He says, "As we witness and participate in the drama of worship, our minds are open to an awareness of the true significance of the ordinary events of life. We are so transformed in feeling and attitude that we go back to our own world armed with the power of the symbol to discover the authentic meaning of the events and tensions, . . . to carry the ministry of reconciliation into those . . . events which engage us" (92-3). The confession that Jesus is Lord does not run counter to the modern mind because it is not a statement of fact or theory. But why this confession? His answer is that it has transformed and enlightened us and brought reconciliation as the fruit of repentance.
Notice that he has not made a part of his interpretation the thought forms and images of the first century. He is free to do this because for him they are not absolute. They are "bearers of the Word. What they deliver to us we incorporate into our own thought and purpose. What those symbols from a by-gone age carry within their antique and archaic forms, they offer to all ages" (94).
As for the symbol of the Resurrection, it cannot, in the first century or the twenty-first, mean the reanimation of a corpse. The meaning of the Resurrection is "that death is a part of life, not its negation. . . . Resurrection is the symbol by which I affirm that the authentic meaning of my existence is not in my own self-centered and private awareness . . . . In death we no longer stand apart; we are incorporated in that unity which is sustained in existence by the transcendent One" (95-6). If a modern questioner wants to know about the facts of the case, Thompson would insist that the question be about the right fact. It is not a question of physiological or historical fact, but rather, of the fact "that the story exists . . . we have it, and . . . we know what it does to us" (97).
Thompson refuses to take over archaic thought forms, but he nonetheless affirms a basic religious continuity. "Their experience of the Resurrection was the way in which the followers of Jesus were aware of his continued presence, and out of that experience came the Christian Church. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is his presence to us who are members of his body, and this is fact enough for us. That presence is no mere memory of a man long gone, a man of whom we read in our versions of ancient documents of uncertain origin. His presence to us is in his body, which is the church. His presence is in his transformation of our lives and in the power we feel when he draws us to himself by drawing us together with each other. The true church which is his body exists in our communion together, and is the transformation which that communion works within our lives" (98).
Thompson's interpretation makes the relations between persons the center of the religious life. Neither Holy Writ nor doctrine nor ecclesiastical authority are central. Without the engagement of human lives, these symbols are empty shells. Used wrongly, they can be deadly. I'd like to think that Sam would appreciate Philip Roth's little short story, "The Conversion of the Jews." Ozzie Freedman got into trouble at Hebrew school because when Rabbi Binder told the kids that God created the heaven and earth, including light, in six days but that Jesus could not have been born of a virgin, Ozzie had a question. He asked if God could make all that in six days, why couldn't He let a woman have a baby without having intercourse. It seemed that he always had a different question, one that wasn't satisfied by the standard answers. When he told his mother about the latest incident, she slapped him for the first time ever. When the discussion began again at the synagogue the next week, Rabbi Binder, perhaps only accidentally, hit Ozzie on the nose and made it bleed. Ozzie ran up three flights of stairs with Binder in pursuit, wriggled through the trapdoor and out onto the roof. He threatened to jump. A crowd gathered. The fireman came with a net. Mrs. Freedman arrived. Finally, as the price for not jumping, Ozzie made everyone say that they believed in Jesus Christ. (That's the conversion of the Jews part.) But he actually came down only after extracting from his mother the promise that she never again would hit anybody about God. (And that's the real punch line of the story.)
If we adopt Sam Thompson's philosophy of religion, we will agree never to hit anybody about God. Grateful for the gift of existence itself, we will dedicate our lives as thinkers to finding connections and unity. And as doers, whenever we come upon conflict, we will work for reconciliation.
I am struck how with a very small number of key categories, God, Symbol, and Community, Thompson has been able to generate an interpretation of religion and the Christian religion which allows him to be thoroughly modern and wholeheartedly engaged with the constitutive story of his tradition. I am confident that the principles of his philosophy of religion could be used to interpret other religions and their interrelations. But that is the topic for another lecture.
I count it a blessing to have been Sam's student; obviously, I am still learning from him. You have done me a great honor by asking me to give the Thompson Lecture. Thank you.