Langdon Brown Gilkey (born 1919) was the preeminent American ecumenical Protestant theologian in the last half of the 20th century. A thinker of diverse interests and profound existential, ethical, historical, and scientific insights, his theology mirrored the rise and fall of the dominant Protestant neo-orthodoxy of the middle years of this century and proposed a theological agenda for the new religious and cultural pluralism appearing on the horizon toward the end of the century.
Langdon Brown Gilkey, Shailer Mathews Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School since 1977, formally retired in March 1989 after 25 years at the school where he taught with distinguished theologians and students of religion as Mircea Eliade, Bernard Loomer, Bernard Meland, Paul Ricoeur, Joseph Sittler, Paul Tillich, and David Tracy. The author of fourteen books and more than one hundred articles, Gilkey's theological method, like Tillich's, was "correlational," a discussion that reflected a more basic pattern of thinking, namely, "to ponder the character of our existence, both personal and historical, before God in the light of the historical and social situation, the massive contours of events, in which we find ourselves." He characterized the half-century in which he self-consciously matured and worked as a "theologian" as a "Time of Troubles," the apparent beginning of a process of social disintegration and historical decline. It was within this context of personal and social crisis that Gilkey thought, wrote, and spoke forcefully and creatively; reinterpreting the classical Christian symbols of the transcendence and mystery of God, the fall and sin of humans, and divine providence and the direction of history in relation to a secular and scientific culture and the plurality of religions as they encounter the post-Christian and postmodern culture of the West.
Gilkey was born in Chicago, Illinois, on February 9, 1919; the son of Charles Whitney and Geraldine Gunsaulus (Brown) Gilkey. He attended the famous University of Chicago Laboratory School before graduating from the Asheville (North Carolina) School in 1936 and enrolling at Harvard where he received his A.B. in philosophy magna cum laude in June 1940. Looking back on that prewar period, Gilkey wrote that in college "Religion, or interest in it, played absolutely no part in my personal or my intellectual life…. I was, I suppose, an ethical humanist if I was anything." This despite being raised in an exhilarating atmosphere of theological (American Baptist) and political "liberalism" in Hyde Park, where his father was the first dean of the university's Rockefeller Chapel and his mother an equally prominent and successful early feminist.
In September 1939 while touring France with the Harvard-Yale tennis team, Gilkey saw the early manifestations of Hitler's Third Reich. Although he and his student generation detested Hitler, many detested war more. However, in the spring of 1940 something quite unpredictable happened. Gilkey went to the Harvard Chapel to hear a friend of his father, the noted Protestant neo-orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He left that service "converted" to an entirely new view of the power struggles among nations; shortly leaving behind the optimistic illusions of his humanistic idealism.
A major turning point in Gilkey's life was his departure in mid-August 1940 for Peking to teach English to Chinese students at Yenching University. This experience in the Orient—he did not return to the United States for five years— was unquestionably the most significant and formative experience of his life. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Gilkey and other "enemy nationals" were placed under house arrest. Fifteen months later, in March 1943, they (mostly British and Americans) were sent to an internment camp in Shantung province, where Gilkey remained until the war ended in August 1945. At the camp Gilkey served as helper to the camp mason, the cook and the kitchen administrator. The extraordinary impact that captivity with some 1,500 to 2,000 men, women, and children had on his future theological reflection is powerfully recorded in Shantung Compound (1966).
After returning to the United States and experimenting with the possibility of a career in law and international diplomacy; Gilkey began the formal study of theology, philosophy of religion, and ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City under the tutelage of his "spiritual father," Reinhold Niebuhr. From 1951 to 1954 he taught at Vassar, and after receiving his Ph.D. in Religion from Columbia University in 1954 he moved to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he remained for nearly a decade. The years at Vanderbilt were memorable for his participation with the divinity school faculty in the university's civil rights struggle over the expulsion of a Black divinity school student, James Lawson, for "coaching" neighboring protesters in the techniques of nonviolent resistance. In the end, virtually the entire divinity school faculty and five medical school faculty resigned over this issue.
Gilkey moved to a new teaching position at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1963. During his years at Vanderbilt Gilkey received a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Germany in 1960-61. For the next 23 years Langdon Gilkey exercised an extraordinary influence as a member of the theological faculty of the divinity school there. His brilliant lectures, concern for students, and social activism added renewed vigor to the "Chicago School." He completed three distinctively neo-orthodox books—Maker of Heaven and Earth (1959), How the Church Can Minister to the World Without Losing Itself (1964), and Shantung Compound (1966).
Gilkey' was challenged by the Second Vatican Council, which had been called by Pope John XXIII in 1961. In the summer of 1965 Gilkey received a second Guggenheim Fellowship and moved to Rome for the next several months to study the "new theology" in Roman Catholic circles that was making this extraordinary ecumenical event possible. A decade later after continuous research, public lectures in Catholic colleges and universities, and teaching many Catholic students entering the divinity school, Gilkey published the results of his ecumenical inquiry in Catholicism Confronts Modernity (1975).
Another unforeseen development during the 1960s and early 1970s was Gilkey's involvement with the "Death of God" theological movement. His earlier philosophical pursuits at Harvard—his senior thesis had explored the atheistic naturalism of George Santayana—alerted him to the novelty of Protestant theologians affirming secular humanism's central thesis regarding the loss of religious transcendence in the post-Enlightenment world. However, Gilkey's personal and social experience had assured him of the continuing relevance and validity of the classical Christian theological symbols. Indeed, his next four major theological works—Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-Language (1969), Religion and the Scientific Future (1970), Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History (1976), and Message and Existence: An Introduction to Christian Theology (1979)—are each a deliberate attempt to respond to these arguments and show that religious discourse is meaningful in interpreting our uniquely human experience and our quest for existence, meaning, and value. According to Gilkey, civilization remains as precarious and as ambiguous a venture as ever, requiring faith in a grace and providence to address religious conflicts brought about by the disintegration of modern secular faith. This cultural critique is developed in his collection of essays Society and the Sacred: Towards a Theology of Culture in Decline (1980).
In the late summer of 1981, Gilkey was unexpectedly invited to be a witness for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the "Creationist Trial" in Little Rock, Arkansas. What was surprising about this trial was the mutual support provided the ACLU plaintiffs by the local Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities versus the Creationist proponents' defense based on the testimony of witnesses well trained in the method and content of modern science! "Creation Science" thus bore all the marks of earlier forms of religious absolutism rooted in a cultural crisis when social, political, and historical anxieties mount in search of reliable moral authority. In response to this theocratic urge of religious fundamentalism, Gilkey argued that genuine science always needs the protection of the legal, political, moral, and religious constraints of the culture within which it functions to preserve itself from ideological distortion. The details of this trial and argument appeared in his book Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God in Little Rock (1985).
Gilkey published three more books: Gilkey on Tillich (1990), Through the Tempest: Theological Voyages in a Pluralistic Culture (1991), and Nature, Reality, and the Sacred: The Nexus of Science and Religion (1993). In the most recent book, Gilkey proposes that theology and science depend on each other for their completion. He demonstrates that science draws its presuppositions from a broad cultural context that includes religious perceptions about the power, life, order and unity of nature.
Gilkey's thought later moved in the direction of a "liberal" or "post-liberal" interest in the post-Christian dialogue with other world religions, especially Buddhism and modern Sikhism; stimulated by the writings of Mircea Eliade, the opportunity to teach at Kyoto University (Japan) in 1975, and his own active participation in yoga classes and Sikh summer retreats in New Mexico. What he called the "rough parity" among religions was first manifest to him in these experiences and, together with his earlier interest in the relations of science and religions and the relativity of our historical, political, and cultural judgments, formed his theological agenda at the end of the 1980s.
In 1997, Gilkey remained active on the faculty at Georgetown University in the Theology Department. His main pedagogical concern, as he once stated in Reader's Advisor, 14th Edition (1994) continued to be "not will religion survive as much as will we survive and with what sort of religion, a creative or a demonic one?"
An excellent overview of Langdon Gilkey's career is available in Joseph L. Price, "The Ultimate and the Ordinary: A Profile of Langdon Gilkey," in Christian Century (April 12, 1989). The best single introduction to Gilkey's life and thought is the Festschrift, The Whirlwind in Culture, edited by Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price (1988), which contains a detailed autobiographical essay and a complete bibliography of Gilkey's work through 1985. Shantung Compound (1966) is the most popular and accessible guide to the existential roots of Gilkey's religious sensibility, and his theological methods are summarized in his short systematic theology Message and Existence (1979).
For biographical resources about Langdon Gilkey see: Walsh, Brian J., Langdon Gilkey—Theologian for a Culture in Decline, 1991; Who's Who in America, 46th Edition, 1990-91; Who's Who in Religion, 4th Edition, 1992-93; and Sader, Marion, Reader's Advisor, 14th Edition, R.R. Bowker, 1994.
For periodical articles about Langdon Gilkey see: Commonwealth, May 20, 1994.
For on-line resources about Langdon Gilkey see:<http://www2.uchicago.edu/divinity/fac.html> and <http://www.georgetown.edu/departments/theology/faculty/gilkeyl>. □