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Channing and Modern Theology

David Burton

Mason Neck, Virginia


The famed 19th Century American Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing was not a systematic theologian. He did not write long books defining terms, tightly arguing philosophical points and systematically setting forth a coherent, self-consistent, comprehensive theology or metaphysics. He was, after-all, a parish minister who preached sermons, published the occasional essay and served his congregation.

Modern theologians or philosophers of religion, even those working well outside of conventional parameters, rarely grant himself so much as a footnote. This may be because they do not wish to bring attention to Channing’s  heterodox views. More likely, perhaps, it is because most such theologians were educated in orthodox environments where Channing is only occasionally fleetingly mentioned and almost never seriously read. This ignorance is undoubtedly also compounded by the fact that it is the rare contemporary Unitarian Universalist pastor that even invokes his memory let alone seriously engages his ideas. And the two UU divinity schools have long since ceased regarding Channing and his ilk as anything more than something to be relegated to a course on the history of Unitarian Universalism. Furthermore, much of the faculty of the UU divinity schools have effectively written themselves out of the larger theological conversation by severing their work from God and the greater Western religious tradition.

Yet, Channing was a remarkable theologian nonetheless. Although Channing held views regarding the Bible and the miracles of Christ with which many contemporary Unitarian Christians would disagree, in Channing, one finds clear, distinctively Christian and sophisticated expressions of ideas today associated with panentheism and process theology a full century or more before Alfred North Whitehead [1], Charles Hartshorne [2], John Cobb [3] and others systematized these ideas and brought them to the attention of academia and the wider theological community. Channing was a pioneer more than a century ahead of some the most celebrated modern theologians and philosophers of religion.

The modern process theologians and panentheist philosophers posit a God that is both immanent and transcendent, a God that infuses or dwells in the world but is not coincident with the world, and a God that is not indifferent but loves the world, shares in its suffering and draws the world’s creatures toward God. They argue that God has a established a world that is populated with free agents able to make their own decisions, a world where God is the foundation of being or becoming but does not dictate how the world evolves or emerges over time. They proffer a world where it is possible to have a relationship with God and where God is not merely a passive, immutable observer or occasional interloper, but instead a world where God experiences the world and changes over time. With Channing, they reject many of the traditional conceptions or attributes of God where God is omnipotent, omniscient, the sole cause of all events, unchanging or immutable, and wholly transcendent.

Compare Channing to Charles Hartshorne. Channing wrote:

One of the greatest of all errors, is the attempt to exalt God, by making him the sole cause, the sole agent in the universe, by denying to the creature freedom of will and moral power, by making him a mere recipient and transmitter of a foreign impulse.  This, if followed out consistently, destroys all moral connexion between God and his creatures.  In aiming to strengthen the physical, it ruptures the moral bond which holds them together.  To extinguish the free will is to strike the conscience with death, for both have but one and the same life. It destroys responsibility.  It puts out the light of the universe ; it makes the universe a machine.  It freezes the fountain of our moral feelings, of all generous affection and lofty aspirations.  Pantheism, if it leave man a free agent, is a comparatively harmless speculation ; as we see in the case of Milton.  The denial of moral freedom, could it really be believed, would prove the most fatal of errors.  If Edwards's work on the will could really answer its end, if it could thoroughly persuade men that they were bound by an irresistible necessity, that their actions were fixed links in the chain of destiny, that there was but one agent, God, in the universe ; it would be one of the most pernicious books ever issued from our press.  Happily it is a demonstration which no man believes, which the whole consciousness contradicts.[4]

Charles Hartshorne wrote:

They too have supposed that Deity must be the transcendental snob, or the transcendental tyrant, either ignoring the creatures or else reducing them to his mere puppets, rather than the unsurpassably interacting, loving, presiding genius and companion of all existence.[5]

Consider Channing’s description of the call of the Divine Mind and compare it to John Cobb’s own discussion of Wieman and Whitehead:

I affirm, and would maintain, that true religion consists in proposing, as our great end, a growing likeness to the Supreme Being. Its noblest influence consists in making us more and more partakers of the Divinity. For this it is to be preached. Religious instruction should aim chiefly to turn men's aspirations and efforts to that perfection of the soul, which constitutes it a bright image of God. Such is the topic now to be discussed; and I implore Him, whose glory I seek, to aid me in unfolding and enforcing it with simplicity and clearness, with a calm and pure zeal, and with unfeigned charity.

It is possible, that the brevity of these hints may expose to the charge of mysticism, what seems to me the calmest and clearest truth. I think, however, that every reflecting man will feel, that likeness to God must be a principle of sympathy or accordance with his creation; for the creation is a birth and shining forth of the Divine Mind, a work through which his spirit breathes. In proportion as we receive this spirit, we possess within ourselves the explanation of what we see.[6]


Whitehead's analysis allows us to understand what both Dewey and Wieman are saying without the curtailments which their philosophies impose upon them. We can see that it is indeed the unrealized ideal possibilities which act upon us, as Dewey says, without undercutting the point by treating these possibilities as mere projections of the human imagination. They come to man with their own self-authenticating quality. At the same time we can recognize that the conscious entertainment of such ideals is a very limited feature of the forward call, and that, as Wieman argues, this needs to be seen in its continuity with the whole movement of human growth. However, whereas Wieman's presentation is limited to a description of the process in which such growth occurs, Whitehead can explain it in more encompassing terms. Thereby Wieman's sense that this process is a power in itself distinct from man and from the determinisms of the past is given full force.  …

My own view, however, is that what calls us forward has the unity and actuality as well as the worthiness of worship and commitment which warrants our use of the word "God."[7]

But none of this helps the questioner who wants to know where, in spatial terms, he can think of God as being.

To such a question there are just two possible answers, answers which are not as different from each other as they seem. One may say, first, that God is nowhere. The primary import of this is to deny that God has a place alongside other places such that one could be closer to him by moving from one place to another. In this view space is understood essentially in terms of external relations, whereas God is related to us internally. Or space is a function of the kind of extension which physical bodies have, and God is not extended. God as Spirit, it is said, transcends radically our categories of space and time which derive from sensory experience of a physical world.

There is no religious objection to this understanding of God as nonspatial, and it is probable that Whitehead himself held it, but I find it more intelligible to say that

God is everywhere. In the first instance this means, what adherents of the other view also hold, that God is immediately related to every place, that there is nowhere one can flee from him. Certainly it agrees with the first view in the insistence that God is no more at one place than another and that, when space is conceived visually, it fails to apply to God. But the visual understanding of space has been overcome also in physics without the abandonment of the idea of space in general.[8]


I am aware, that it may be objected to these views, that we receive our idea of God from the universe, from his works, and not so exclusively from our own souls.  The universe, I know, is full of God. The heavens and earth declare his glory. In other words, the effects and signs of power, wisdom, and goodness, are apparent through the whole creation. But apparent to what? Not to the outward eye; not to the acutest organs of sense; but to a kindred mind, which interprets the universe by itself. It is only through that energy of thought, by which we adapt various and complicated means to distant ends, and give harmony and a common bearing to multiplied exertions, that we understand the creative intelligence which has established the order, dependencies, and harmony of nature. We see God around us, because he dwells within us.[9]


The truth is, that the union between the Creator and the creature surpasses all other bonds in strength and intimacy. He penetrates all things, and delights to irradiate all with his glory. Nature, in all its lowest and inanimate forms, is pervaded by his power; and, when quickened by the mysterious property of life, how wonderfully does it show forth the perfections of its Author! How much of God may be seen in the structure of a single leaf, which, though so frail as to tremble in every wind, yet holds connexions and living communications with the earth, the air, the clouds, and the distant sun, and, through these sympathies with the universe, is itself a revelation of an omnipotent mind! God delights to diffuse himself everywhere. Through his energy, unconscious matter clothes itself with proportions, powers, and beauties, which reflect his wisdom and love. How much more must he delight to frame conscious and happy recipients of his perfections, in whom his wisdom and love may substantially dwell, with whom he may form spiritual ties, and to whom he may be an everlasting spring of moral energy and happiness!  How far the Supreme Being may communicate his attributes to his intelligent offspring, I stop not to inquire.

God is our Father, not merely because he created us, or because he gives us enjoyment; for he created the flower and the insect, yet we call him not their Father. This bond is a spiritual one. This name belongs to God, because he frames spirits like himself, and delights to give them what is most glorious and blessed in his own nature.

The conviction of this near and ennobling relation of God to the soul, and of his great purposes towards it, belongs to the very essence of true religion; and true religion manifests itself chiefly and most conspicuously in desires, hopes, and efforts corresponding to this truth. It desires and seeks supremely the assimilation of the mind to God, or the perpetual unfolding and enlargement of those powers and virtues by which it is constituted his glorious image.

But remember, that this attribute is particularly proposed to you as your model; that God calls you, both by nature and revelation, to a fellowship in his philanthropy; that he has placed you in social relations, for the very end of rendering you ministers and representatives of his benevolence; that he even summons you to espouse and to advance the sublimest purpose of his goodness, the redemption of the human race, by extending the knowledge and power of Christian truth. It is through such views, that religion raises up the soul, and binds man by ennobling bonds to his Maker.[10]

Reading modern liberal theologians who are doing serious constructive theology and then rereading Channing makes it clear that Channing was a pioneer in many respects and deserves to be recognized as such.


1 English-American, Mathematician and Philosopher, Cambridge University then Harvard University.

2 American, Professor at the University of Chicago, Emory University and the University of Texas.

3 American, United Methodist, Claremont School of Theology.

4 William Ellery Channing, from “Introductory Remarks” Collected Works (1841).

5 Charles Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time (1967, 1992).  See also, Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (1983)

6 “Likeness to God,” William Ellery Channing, Discourse at the Ordination of the Rev. F.A. Farley, Providence, R.I., 1828.

7 “The One Who Calls,” in God and the World, John B. Cobb, Jr. (1969).

8 “The World and God” in God and the World, John B. Cobb, Jr. (1969).

9 “Likeness to God,” Discourse at the Ordination of the Rev. F.A. Farley, 1828, William Ellery Channing.

10 Ibid.



© 2006 American Unitarian Conference