The Ultimate and the Ordinary: A Profile of Langdon Gilkey

by Joseph L. Price

Joseph L. Price is associate professor of religion at Whittier College, Whittier, California.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 12, 1989, p. 380. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Langdon Gilkey recognized that if theological discourse is to be meaningful today, it must be grounded in ordinary experience.

When the winter quarter ended this year at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Langdon Gilkey, the Shailer Mathews professor of theology, retired after a quarter-century at the school, where he had been a colleague of such eminent theologians and scholars of religious studies as Paul Tillich, Mircea Eliade, Paul Ricoeur and David Tracy.

Although he will continue to teach occasionally -- at both the University of Chicago and the Lutheran School of Theology -- Gilkey has formally closed his teaching career, which began almost four decades ago. He has taught at Vassar and Vanderbilt and at universities in Japan and the Netherlands. He has lectured to academic and ecclesiastical groups on four continents, taught Sunday school classes and delivered sermons in Baptist churches in the North and South, attended sessions of Vatican II and participated in tantric yoga sessions sponsored by the Sikh movement in America. His experience, presence and influence bridge the often artificial chasm between the academic study of religion and the parish, between northern and. southern cultures in the U.S., between Protestantism and Catholicism, and between Christianity and other religions.

Throughout his career, Gilkey’s theological interests have ranged from traditional theological concepts, such as creation and providence, to theology’s dialogues with the natural sciences, social sciences, and arts. And recently his interests have turned to Christian theology’s conversation with other religions. Among his enduring achievements have been the publication of ten books and a hundred essays, a term as president of the American Academy of Religion, and the teaching of thousands of students who now lead in the study and practice of religion.

Students and friends remember him most vividly for his adventurous spirit, sense of humor, love of sports, devotion to family and skill as a storyteller. With typical humor and sensitivity, Gilkey tells of his pleasure at being named to the Shailer Mathews chair in theology. His daughter, then in early grade school, was delighted too. "I am so glad, Dad, that you have somewhere to sit down." He realized that he was introducing her to Platonic ideas. Disappointed with the abstractness of his chair, she presented to him a dollhouse-size wicker chair with the comment, "Here is a real chair." He keeps the little chair in his office as a reminder that the significance of the title is relative to one’s respect for Platonic ideas and the nature of higher education.

Gilkey’s stories are more than vivid anecdotes. They expose his existential vulnerability and exemplify how the human condition is fallible, humorous and potentially compassionate; they also provide the ground for meaningful theological discourse.

Gilkey has repeatedly written about the mutual formation of his life and thought, first in Shantung Compound (1966) and most recently in an intellectual autobiography, "A Retrospective Glance at My Work," the introduction to the festschrift volume The Whirlwind in Culture (1988).

In Shantung Compound, he reflects upon his internment in a civilian war camp. After graduating from Harvard, Gilkey began teaching English at Yenching University in China, then under Japanese occupation, and while he was in Beijing the United States entered World War II. As a precautionary action, the Japanese rounded up Americans and other Allied civilians in China and interned them in Shantung Compound. Confined in a small space with 1,500 to 2,000 other people, he had an opportunity to observe the world in a microcosmic form. "This internment camp reduced society, ordinarily large and complex, to viewable sizes and by subjecting life to greatly increased tension laid bare its essential structures." He suggests that what makes this story so interesting and enlightening is not its extraordinary character but its concern with ordinary life. For the problems that he and his fellow captives experienced were caused not so much by their Japanese captors as by their own behavior. For example, they defended their space allocation, making sure that beds were not moved a few inches to create unequal space. Craving eggs, they began to smuggle them into the camp and trade them in a black market. They sought status and influence based on ability to work ‘rind think rather than on an inherited position of privilege. They desired fair distribution of Red Cross packages -- even when the entire contents were ill-fitting shoes of a single size.

Through these events, Gilkey explores the fallibilities and possibilities of the human condition. He discerns the fundamental character of human beings -- their needs, greed, anxieties, fears, hopes, egos and capacity for humor and generosity. The book is more than a religious autobiography: it is autobiography as theology, and as such it provides a contemporary example of the sort of theological reflection found in Augustine’s Confessions.

Gilkey has consistently interpreted the ordinary character of life with extraordinary clarity and depth. In the footnotes of his 1964 book How the Church Can Minister to the World Without Losing Itself -- a title that Gilkey neither proposed nor liked -- he comments on the character of religious life in the South and his interaction with it during the late 1950s and early 1960s. "Several years of Sunday-school teaching in a Nashville church, and the frequent researches of students into the religious habits, capacities, interests, and learning of their parishioners, long ago convinced [me] that even in the ‘Bible Belt’ the Bible is a relatively unknown book -- sacred, of course, but quite unfamiliar." Similarly, he tells about the occasion when he delivered a lecture at a major Baptist university in the Southwest. Thinking that his presentation would be received more sympathetically if he delivered it in sermonic form, he selected an appropriate biblical text to read at the beginning of his speech. Since he had not taken a Bible with him, he planned to use one from the university chapel. Surprisingly, he discovered that there was no pulpit Bible in the chapel, so he had to use the Bible from his hotel room.

Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock (1985) continues his autobiography as theology. It describes his involvement in the trial that challenged the constitutionality of the Arkansas law prescribing the teaching of "scientific creationism" in public schools. He examines the conflicts between some scientists and religious leaders, observing the ironies that distinguished this trial from the Scopes trial a half-century earlier. In the Arkansas trial the suit was filed by an ecclesiastical coalition, while the defense called scientists to support the "scientific creationist" theory. The religious leaders argued for the non-preferential treatment of their religious traditions, while the scientists sought to expand the aegis of science to include the religiously based premises of "scientific creationism."

Gilkey consummates his published reflections on the mutual formation of his life and thought in his festscrift essay. Here he charts the development of his theological method and concerns from neo-orthodox propositions to a Christian pluralism that accepts the "rough parity" of Christianity with other religions.

What interests him most now is "dialogue among religions and of religions in their interface with cultures." Though reluctant to offer predictions, which he regards as statements "mostly [about] where we think things ought to go, particularly in the direction of the interest of the speaker," he projects that "the plurality of religions will become more of an issue as we become conscious of more variety among religions. The problem of pluralism is going to grow.

In their dialogues with other religions, Gilkey cautions, Christian theologians will face a fundamental problem: retaining that which is essential to the Christian faith while remaining open to genuine dialogue with other faiths. Gilkey suggests that Christians "must hang on to the character of the mystery of the divine. We do know that the divine requires justice and that the divine is love. That is the uncompromising foundation for Christian theology in its dialogue with other traditions."

These projections, however, are subject to the vicissitudes of history. As Gilkey emphasizes, "Events are always the clue. Who knows what Bush will do, how the Ayatollah will act, or where Japanese developments will take us?" The course of theology will be integrally connected with political, cultural and economic events in the coming years, even as Gilkey’s own theology has developed out of the praxis of his life.

As a champion competitor in tennis, Gilkey toured France in the late 1930s with a Harvard-Yale team, barely escaping the outbreak of war. Upon his return to Harvard for his senior year he collaborated with Avery Dulles to organize a Keep America Out of the War Committee. But as the horror of Hitler’s advances continued to mount and as the committee tried to align British colonialism with Hitler’s conquests, Gilkey and Dulles withdrew from the organization. The moral complexities surrounding the war seemed irresolvable to the young, liberal philosopher. On the one hand he aspired to a pacifist position; on the other he upheld the ideals of justice and freedom. The two conflicting urges seemed to pull him in opposite directions -- one toward staying out of the war and the other toward joining the fight for freedom and justice.

Increasingly uncertain about how he could respond to American involvement in the war, he heeded his father’s suggestion that he hear "Reinie" preach. On a Sunday in early April 1940, Gilkey went to the Harvard chapel to listen to Reinhold Niebuhr, who offered an analysis of international power struggles. "Suddenly, as the torrent of insight poured from the pulpit, my world in disarray spun completely around, steadied, and then settled into a new and quite firm and intelligible structure. . . . My conversion -- and that is the right word -- was quick and complete." Within two weeks he read all of Niebuhr’s works, and revised his anticipated course on "Modern Western Thought" to include Niebuhr’s answers to the queries of the progressive humanism that was popular among liberal philosophers. It was a Niebuhrian perspective that provided the framework for interpreting the Shantung experience -- through neoorthodox categories of transcendence, sin, revelation and grace.

At the close of the war Gilkey returned to the U.S. to prepare for a career in international law. But he found the course work boring and turned to the study of philosophy and theology at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, where Niebuhr taught and where he was to meet Tillich. Their influences would pervade his entire career. Like Niebuhr, Gilkey has had a prophetic sense of justice and political awareness; for 40 years he has worked for civil rights, justice and peace. He even risked his own professorial appointment in the early ‘60s when he protested the expulsion of a black activist student from Vanderbilt University. And like Tillich, Gilkey has identified and explored the depths of theological and cultural symbols, finding in them clues to the fundamental religious underpinnings of existence.

Historical events and personal relationships prompted Gilkey to write Naming the Whirlwind (1969) , an extended prolegomenon for theological method. During the mid-1960s, the death-of-God theology had denied the meaningfulness of theological discourse in our modern, secular, technological age. Gilkey himself was the midwife at the birth of death-of-God theology. Intrigued by the common concern about the seeming meaninglessness of theological language, Gilkey had introduced William Hamilton, Thomas J. J. Altizer and Paul van Buren to one another’s works. But Gilkey’s critiques of the death-of-God position were also frequent in the following months and years, and his arguments in Naming the Whirlwind performed the euthanasia on the movement. This may have been the first time in history that a single theologian helped both form and dissolve a major theological position.

In this work he provides a foundation for the reasonability of theological language. To accomplish this, he pursues the limits, significance and possibilities of ordinary, personal, secular experience. He identifies in the structure of existence a latent dimension of ultimacy; this dimension is found beneath and through the contingent, temporal and relative character of existence itself. In turn, the indeterminate character of existence constitutes the basis of human freedom in which people have distorted and aborted the possibilities for doing good that the structure of existence itself affords. Restoration of the full possibility for good, he concludes, cannot emerge from the ambiguous and contingent possibilities in existence itself. Renewal or healing must come from some dimension beyond the limits of the ordinary, secular order.

This line of reasoning does not prove the existence of God or the adequacy of Christianity. What Gilkey does establish is the reasonability of theological language and the reasonability of people’s quest for meaning and queries about the significance of history. Having established the feasibility of theological discourse, Gilkey recognizes that the challenge for the Christian theologian is to interpret and apply Christian symbols to the problems and hopes of the present age. Like Tillich, Gilkey calls this method of theology "correlational." The theologian explores the hidden depths of historical experience and relates the biblical witness to God as creator, providential caregiver, savior, judge and transcendent mystery to the questions that emerge from the latent dimension of existence.

Gilkey attempted to implement this process while still a graduate student. He attended a conference for American Baptist ministers and theologians at Green Lake, Wisconsin. The denomination, he recalls, had long been divided between conservative evangelicals and liberals. At the meeting a group of young theologians, like Gilkey, supported the kind of theological perspective espoused by the evangelicals, one that focused on revelation, sin and grace. Gilkey pleaded that to interpret modern history one must use such specifically theological motifs as divine judgment and the Second Corning. After the meeting, much to Gilkey’ s surprise, a conservative sought him out and remarked, "I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to hear the younger men talking this way about the Second Coming! It’s going to come soon, isn’t it? And where do you think it will be? Just outside Jerusalem?" Astonished that the man was projecting literal expectations into his symbolic framework, Gilkey realized that theologians must clarify the nature and meaning of theological symbols, as well as employ them appropriately in discourse.

Some 40 years after that experience, Gilkey continues to reaffirm that "the perennial task of theology is so to state the Christian faith that it is a help to the people of the church." But having established the ground for theological discussions in the nature of ordinary experience, Gilkey does not limit theology’s influence to the realm of believers. As he puts it, "Theology has an inner and outer role."’ In a recent conversation he commented about theology’s "outer" or public role: "It should set in its own terms the best ideals of the culture that it is in." but it should not merely advocate the cultural ideals. "At its best," he concluded, "theology should be a prophetic critic of church and culture."

Whereas in the aftermath of World War II Gilkey emphasized Christian themes of crisis, he now calls for a renaissance of thought on the mystery of God, because "reality is pretty much a mystery." In its dialogue with modern science, in exploring the structure and sustenance of reality, and in its encounter with other religions, theology constantly confronts dimensions of divine mystery. "The mystery of the divine is crucial for understanding" the nature of reality and the goal of theology.

More than any theologian since Tillich, Gilkey has addressed the existential, cultural, social and political issues that our "time of troubles" (one of his favorite descriptions of our era) has pressed upon us. In this regard, his work has been significant not only for Christian theology’s understanding of reality and its relation to the divine, but for Western culture as a whole, since he has repeatedly and creatively examined the structures and meaning of groups, events, actions and art.

With grace and perception, Gilkey has explored the ordinary anxieties and fallibilities that perplex us. Through his analysis of ordinary experience, he has Uncovered and surveyed the ground for theological discourse. Through personal testimony, historical analysis and biblical awareness, he has established a contemporary foundation for a Christian interpretation of the dimension of ultimacy within ordinary experience. In so doing, he has made theology intelligible for our secular and troubled age.