Temperament and Theology

Theologians all have a given temperament just like anyone else. Should it be any wonder that features of that temperament would be reflected in their theological approach and the ensuing content that emerges. I have often wondered about the psychological dynamics of great thinkers and how it effects what they produce. It is an area that, in my opinion, has been sorely neglected in the history of thought. Although the arguments of these thinkers can be taken on face value, it is often enlightening to see “where they are coming from”. There are exceptions to this neglect.

Biographies of great minds often give some insight into the “background” from which their thoughts emerge. Gary Dorrien’s books(three volumes), “The Making of American Liberal Theology” take a biographical, narrative approach that offers opportunities to see how temperament might have shaped the thought of the great liberal theologians. Of course, Carl Jung was a pioneer in psychological typology and things like the Meyer-Briggs Personality tests have extended it. Two comparisons that have particularly struck me in Dorrien’s books are those between Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, and Bernard Meland and Henry Weiman. They are examples of how temperament can profoundly affect a theology. In both these cases there was a stark difference in the aesthetic temperament. Paul Tillich had a profound aesthetic sense whereas Niebuhr did not. Dorrien recounts an example where, when crossing the campus Tillich pauses to admire a flower and calls Niebuhr over. Niebuhr just rolls his eyes and dismisses the suggestion. Like Niebuhr, Weiman was not interested in the aesthetic dimension as it relates to religion whereas Meland was. This presence or lack of an aesthetic temperament can be obviously seen in the works of these individuals. Both Tillich and Meland embraced and included into the core of their theologies the aesthetic as a profound source of religious experience. Here’s an example from Tillich’s own experience. Niebuhr and Weiman were more interested in a well defined, rationalistic approach to theology and Weiman classified himself as an empirical theist. Another example is Charles Hartshorne. His philosophy/theology is exclusively reason based. In this interview when asked if he had ever had a mystical experience, he says no. Should it be any wonder that Hartshorne’s thought would be delimited by this? Is it any wonder that personal temperament can have a profound effect on opinion? No. After all, the positions one takes can only come from the psychological given and the experiences one has.

What it means for theology is that people will probably tend to align themselves with theologians of like temperament. Conservatives will align themselves with conservative theologians. Liberals the same. In other words, theology is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Instead there are, at least in the literature, a vast number of temperament influenced offerings available. If there are to be theologies that find a broad following they will have to easily accomodate and integrated a variety of personality types. Obviously the great traditions have been successful in this to a large degree. However, the traditions are now facing an increasing challenge from modernity and postmodernity. Particularly individuals who find themselves in the STJ categories who also are science friendly or empirically inclined are having an increasing difficulty with the current religious traditions. While there are professional theologies out there which could appeal to them, they are not found at the grass roots level where people look for religious offerings. Theologies like those of Weiman, Hartshorne, and Tillich(who mediates for many personality types) are not commonly known. While this may represent a small segment of the overall population, it is also a segment that has come to have an enormous influence on culture. It is an area that I think theologians in the future must pay particular attention.


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