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Ogden, Schubert Miles

The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers

Franklin I. Gamwell

Ogden, Schubert Miles (1928–) 

Schubert M. Ogden was born on 2 March 1928 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He received a BA (1950) from Ohio Wesleyan University, and a BD (1954) and PhD (1958) from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He also studied at Johns Hopkins University (1950–51) and Philips-Universität in Marburg, Germany (1962–3). With the exception of three years as University Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago during 1969–72, he served from 1956 until 1993 on the faculty at Perkins School of Theology and, following its inception, in the Graduate Program in Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University, from which he retired as University Distinguished Professor of Theology Emeritus. Among many other honors, he was elected President of the American Academy of Religion (1976–7) and was awarded honorary degrees from Ohio Wesleyan University, the University of Chicago, and Southern Methodist University.

Ogden’s specific vocation has been Christian systematic theology, a discipline that, on his view, must define its own task. Many believe that no other recent theologian has more thoroughly and critically articulated the nature of theology. The titles of two of Ogden’s major works, On Theology (1986) and Doing Theology Today (1996), point to his professional self-consciousness. But he has sought to clarify what theology should do in order further to do it. His address to other central theological questions is signaled by the titles of his other major works, including The Reality of God and Other Essays (1966), Faith and Freedom (1979), and The Point of Christology (1982).

Ogden holds that present-day theology, as heir to the modern age, properly reasserts the formal self-conception of theological liberalism. Its theological task is to correlate the Christian faith with contemporary human existence, by explicating the abiding Christian claim so that it is communicated to contemporary men and women and to explicate contemporary existence so that Christian faith is shown to be its proper interpretation. But Ogden also refines this definition. Communicating Christian faith as the proper understanding of contemporary existence is, in the first instance, a task of Christian witness, which is the actual or prospective speech and deeds in which Christians seek to express Christian faith. Hence, he defines theology in the strict sense as critical reflection on the essential claims to validity of Christian witness. Christian witness claims to be both adequate to its content and fitting to its situation. What is said or done takes into account the particular contemporary context in which witness occurs. Critical reflection on this claim is the task of practical theology. In contrast, systematic theology is concerned with the claim of Christian witness to be adequate. This claim, Ogden continues, is itself twofold: (1) the claim to be appropriate to Jesus as Christians experience him, and (2) the claim to be credible to human existence. Acts of Christians witness both claim to represent the understanding by which all Christian belief is properly marked and assert that this understanding represents the way things really are. Theological reflection on this witness is required whenever its appropriateness or credibility becomes problematic, perhaps because one encounters other Christians who understand their faith differently, or finds that certain experiences challenge one’s Christian belief about the way things really are. Thus, theology’s function is to serve Christian witness itself. That service can only be indirect because theology is properly distinguished from witness as the attempt to determine whether the claims of witness are in fact valid.

Ogden also says that systematic theology is critical reflection defined by the twofold question: What is the meaning of Christian faith, and is it valid? In order to render her or his proper service to Christian witness, the theologian is bound to ask about the appropriate understanding of Christian faith, its meaning, and whether this understanding is a valid representation of the way things really are. Ogden’s work as a whole is distinctive because it never compromises the conviction that these two questions are mutually irreducible; neither can be critically answered by critically answering the other. This means that theology should avoid two mistaken alternatives: on the one hand, the conclusion that some understanding is credible because it represents Jesus as Christians experience him and, on the other hand, the conclusion that some understanding is appropriately Christian because it is valid. Asking about the meaning of Christian faith requires a primary norm for what is appropriately Christian. Some theologians have taken the Scriptures or, alternatively, the essential “biblical message” contained within the Scriptures to be this norm; others have affirmed Scripture and tradition; still others have said that the norm is given by the words and deeds of the so-called historical Jesus. All of these accounts, Ogden holds, conflict with the principle on which the church determined the New Testament canon itself: primary authority belongs to writings authored by the apostles as witnesses to Jesus, so that Jesus himself is, as Ogden says, the primal Christian sacrament authorizing that authority. But more than two centuries of modern biblical study have now shown that the New Testament writings were mistakenly thought to be apostolic and are actually dependent on earlier sources. Ogden came to believe that the primary norm of appropriateness can only be the earliest Christian witness behind the New Testament texts and available through historical-critical study of them.

Once the primary norm of appropriateness has been identified, its meaning can be interpreted. For Ogden that interpretation depends on clarity about the question the earliest Christian witness was meant to answer. In continuity with the theology of Rudolf Bultmann, Ogden interprets Christian faith to answer the existential question: What is the meaning of ultimate reality for me? This is, he holds, the human question, because it is asked and answered in some way or another by all humans at the deepest level of their consciousness. However different those answers may be, he argues, we all share an ineradicable confidence that life is ultimately meaningful or worth living. This is because humans not only exist but also understand that they exist, so that what they become is always determined to some extent by how they choose to understand themselves as a part of the encompassing reality in which they are set. Since we live by way of decision for a self-understanding, our activities always express some answer to the question of our worth within the whole of reality. Ogden also calls this self-understanding the decision of faith, and its authentic possibility is, according to the apostolic witness, represented explicitly through Jesus. Hence, the point of Christian faith is, for Ogden, entirely an existential one. It is fully interpreted when the self-understanding decisively disclosed through Jesus is set forth. Christian faith is this: the primal source and final end of human life and everything else in the world is the God of boundless love, who gives to all things everlasting worth and calls all humans always to lead their lives in unreserved love for this God and, accordingly, for the world God loves. But if that formulation states appropriately what Christian faith claims to be valid, it is another question whether the statement is credible. For this, among other reasons, Ogden holds that the systematic theologian must also be a philosopher; the task of validating and invalidating answers to the existential question is a philosophical task. Indeed, all implications taken into account, critical reflection on the universal nature of human existence and reality is the philosophical task. Thus, theological reflection on the credibility of Christian faith is responsible to the norm of common human experience and reason.

In so defining the norm, Ogden’s point is that all humans are existentially aware of ultimate reality; in that sense, its meaning for us is commonly experienced. This is not to say that every human being always decides for the authentic possibility. But decision for a false or unrealistic self-understanding makes no sense unless authenticity was an alternative, just as it makes no sense to speak of an immoral choice if the chooser was ignorant of what she or he ought to have done. Thus, a statement about the meaning of ultimate reality for us is validated by appeal to what is ever-present in human experience or, put another way, validated through reasons authorized by human existence itself. Making the point in more traditional theological terms, Ogden says that ultimate reality is originally revealed or present in the innermost or implicit awareness of all human beings, and the credibility of Christian faith depends on whether the authentic possibility universally presented to human beings is presented again explicitly or decisively revealed through Jesus as Christians experience him.

In these same terms, the defining object of philosophical reflection is the original revelation. Because human beings are commonly aware of ultimate reality as authorizing their authentic possibility, Ogden says that the defining philosophical task is metaphysical on the one hand and ethical on the other. On this formulation, metaphysics is critical reflection on the universal nature of reality and of human beings in relation to it, and philosophical ethics is critical reflection on the moral law, to which all human decisions or actions ought to conform. Because it is authorized by ultimate reality, the moral law may also be called metaphysical, in the sense that it articulates the authentic relation of human beings to reality as such. Assuming that metaphysics includes what has been called the metaphysics of morals, in other words, we can say that metaphysics is the inclusive philosophical task. Still, the distinction between metaphysics and ethics is important to Ogden because it makes clear that the credibility of the Christian faith involves not only the truth of its beliefs about the nature of things but also the rightness or justice of its principles for human action, an understanding Ogden explicitly formulated through his encounter with twentieth-century liberation theology.

Ogden’s major philosophical contribution unites an existentialist account of human being, indebted in part to the early Martin Heidegger, with a neoclassical account of reality indebted to the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. The existentialist account provides the main resource for analyzing the structure of human existence and explicating the question to which the Christian faith (and, in Ogden’s understanding, every religion) claims to be a credible answer. Process metaphysics provides the main resource for analyzing the structure of reality and explicating a credible concept of God and the world. In uniting the two, Ogden argues that existentialist philosophy specifies to human subjectivity the process formulation of reality, even while the former is rescued from a merely existentialist account of human freedom through a social conception of God and the world. The neoclassical theism of process metaphysics is an especially important resource because, for Ogden, the Christian theological tradition as a whole has been, from its earliest appropriation of classical Greek metaphysics, so thoroughly controlled by an understanding of God that is now widely seen to be incredible. The classical account speaks of God as inclusively absolute or eternal and therefore incapable of change. Among the many philosophical difficulties with that account, Ogden underscores the incoherence between its understanding of God and the existential question. If the divine reality is eternally incapable of change, nothing done in the world can make any difference to it, and therefore the abiding confidence in our ultimate worth, expressed by all human activity, makes no sense. In contrast, neoclassical metaphysics, as presented by Ogden, defines God as the universal individual, the supremely temporal being that necessarily coexists with everything else throughout all time, receiving completely and preserving forever every change in the world. Only this individual can be the objective ground for the “invincible faith” that our decisions “somehow make a difference which no turn of events in the future has the power to annul” (1966, p. 36). With this conclusion, Ogden completes his distinctive argument for the reality of God.

Ogden has also advanced a consequential revision of neoclassical metaphysics. He argues, against both Whitehead and Hartshorne, that thoroughly critical statements about reality as such are properly transcendental, by which he means that their terms apply to all things, including God, literally or in the same sense. For this reason, he holds that speaking of God in psychic terms, for instance, calling God a person who is conscious or knows or loves or commands, is symbolic speaking. This is not to deny that such statements may be valid. But if the statement “a divine person exists” is true, it is symbolically true, and it cannot be validated until it is reformulated in the terms of a transcendental metaphysics, as Ogden does in speaking of God as the universal individual. This accounting is important, he believes, in a context where many doubt that ultimate reality can be credibly conceived as personal and where dialogue between Christianity and other world religions is especially imperative. At the same time, true symbolic formulations have their own distinct importance, because speaking of God primarily has a religious function, namely of expressing an answer to the existential question for the sake of living authentically. Accordingly, Ogden never wavers in his conviction that “Jesus is the Christ” means “through Jesus, God is decisively disclosed as boundless love.” Whenever and wherever the future seeks a reasoned response to the Christian witness of faith, the human adventure will find in Ogden’s legacy an exceptional servant.


Christ Without Myth: A Study Based on the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (New York, 1961).Find this resource:

    The Reality of God and Other Essays (New York, 1966).Find this resource:

      Faith and Freedom: Toward a Theology of Liberation (Nashville, Tenn., 1979).Find this resource:

        The Point of Christology (San Francisco, 1982).Find this resource:

          On Theology (San Francisco, 1986).Find this resource:

            Is There Only One True Religion or Are There Many? (Dallas, 1992).Find this resource:

              Doing Theology Today (Valley Forge, Penn., 1996).Find this resource:

                Further Reading

                Beck, William D. Schubert Ogden on the Relationship between Theology and Philosophy. PhD dissertation, Boston University (Boston, 1980).Find this resource:

                  Caraway, James E. God as Dynamic Actuality: A Preliminary Study of the Process Theologies of John B. Cobb, Jr. and Schubert M. Ogden (Washington, D.C., 1978).Find this resource:

                    Devenish, Philip E., and George L. Goodwin, eds. Witness and Existence: Essays in Honor of Schubert M. Ogden (Chicago, 1989). Contains a bibliography of Ogden’s writings.Find this resource:

                      Franklin I. Gamwell