January 6, 2005
Vol. 24 No. 7

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    Gilkey, interpreted Niebuhr, Tillich, wrote on religion and science

    Langdon Gilkey, the Shailar Mathews Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School and one of the most influential American Christian theologians of the 20th century, died Friday, Nov. 19, in Charlottesville, Va. He was 85.

    “For his many students and readers, Langdon Gilkey was the truest successor of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, and the surest theological guide for the joys and terrors of living as a modern Christian in this Ôtime of troubles,’” said David Tracy, the Andrew Thomas Greeley & Grace McNichols Greeley Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School, a colleague of Gilkey for 20 years.

    Gilkey was raised not far from the neo-gothic architecture of the University, where his father, the Rev. Charles Gilkey, was University chaplain. The author of 15 books and hundreds of articles, he settled at the University in 1963, after teaching at Vassar College from 1951 to 1954 and Vanderbilt University Divinity School from 1954 to 1963.

    “He was a magnificent teacher and was without question one of the foremost interpreters of Niebuhr and Tillich,” said Richard Rosengarten, a former student of Gilkey’s and Dean of the Divinity School, where Gilkey taught until his retirement in 1989.

    “He brought together such important doctrines in Christian theology as providence with immediate lived experience. His capacity to do that in imaginative yet concrete ways was unexcelled.”

    Gilkey was celebrated in academic circles for his work on Niebuhr and Tillich, prominent 20th-century Protestant theologians. Yet Gilkey was more popularly known for his writings on science and religion. He published at length on the topic, fighting on two fronts: against Christian fundamentalist attacks on science, and against secularist attacks on religious meaning and truth. In Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock (1985), he recounted his experience as an expert witness for the American Civil Liberties Union as it challenged the constitutionality of an article passed by the Arkansas State Legislature mandating that creationist views be taught alongside evolutionary theory in high schools. There, in what was called a “modern day version of the Scopes Monkey Trial,” he argued against Christian fundamentalist claims that “creation-science” was a science, as being distinct from religion cloaked as science.

    Perhaps his most widely read book, though, was the story of his own religious-theological journey. In Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure (1968), Gilkey narrates his departure from the liberal Protestant belief system during World War II when he was made a prisoner of war for two-and-a-half years. In China to teach English, Gilkey was interned by the Japanese shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

    It was this experience that led to his subsequent rethinking of Christianity in the modern “time of trouble.” Acutely responsive to the need to reconsider such traditional symbols as sin and grace in the turbulent and so often “barbarous 20th century,” Gilkey renewed and revivified the classical Reformation insights—largely ignored by optimistic liberal theologians—into individual, societal and historical estrangement, self-delusion and sin.

    His early books and articles demonstrated the existential power of his experiences, from his early pacifist professions as a student at Harvard University, where his classmates included, among others, former President John F. Kennedy and Cardinal Avery Dulles, to his teaching in China and his experiences as a POW.

    His teachers, especially Niebuhr and Tillich, at Union Theological Seminary, where he received his doctorate upon returning from the war, helped him with methods and categories to formulate a powerful and creative theological vision of his own.

    Gilkey worked out his own original systematic theology in three major volumes: Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-Language (1969), Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History (1976), and Message and Existence: An Introduction to Christian Theology (1979).

    His interests expanded beyond Christian systematic theology proper. During Vatican II he learned Catholic theology and became one of the major Protestant interpreters of Catholicism in his influential Catholicism Confronts Modernity (1975). His last books include tributes to his two main teachers: Gilkey on Tillich (1990) and On Niebuhr (2001).

    Gilkey’s new theology of history, based on a rethinking of the questions of free will and grace, providence and fate, and eschatology and secular history, is his most important strictly theological work. In his later years, partly influenced by his participation in Christian-Buddhist dialogues and the spiritual reflections of his wife, Sonja Weber Gilkey, he became a leading proponent of inter-religious and pluralist dialogue for Christian theology.

    Gilkey’s wife of 41 years, Sonja Weber Gilkey, their son, Amos Welcome Gilkey, daughter, Frouwkje Gilkey Pagani, grandson, Theo Gilkey Pagani, and son-in-law, Stephane Pagani, and Whitney, Laurie and Sophie Gilkey, all survive him.

    A University memorial service is being planned to take place in February.