Theology for a Time of Troubles

by Langdon Gilkey

Langdon Gilkey is Shailer Matthews professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 29, 1981, pp. 474-480. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


All of us alike face the same issue of understanding our own tradition in the light of our modem cultural and social situations — only let us, in assaying that problem, not forget the present precariousness, the moral temptations and the religious requirements of that infinitely risky modern situation!

It was some 16 years ago that I was graciously invited (challenged?) by The Christian Century to write one of the articles in the series "How I Am Making Up My Mind" ("Dissolution and Reconstruction in Theology," February 3, 1965). Now, 16 years later, writing for the awesome series "How My Mind Has Changed," I prefer, if I may, to say "How My Mind Is Changing." Instead of having the sensation of motion followed by present rest and clarity ("has changed"), I am now overwhelmed by the sense of being theologically still in passage, as yet unsolidified and unclear. Whatever is here in motion is only beginning or embarking on its journey; it is not at all completing or fulfilling it. What is more, I have the feeling of being in quite another sort of passage than that which dominated my experience 16 years ago.

Gasping for Breath

Since this all sounds like a fairly heady trip, let me begin with the contrast I note between the sense of change characterizing the present, and the upheavals and radical changes experienced in the middle ‘60s and recorded in that earlier article. In each case (1965 and 1981) it is evident (and somewhat embarrassing) that my sense of theological dislocation is hardly a matter of my own new insight or innovation, but one of a somewhat panicky, sloppy and inept reaction to external events, to massive and threatening cultural and historical changes that, quite against my will, force on me a different procedure, a different viewpoint, a different set of questions -- a different theology.

Theology (at least as I do it) is hardly serene, self-generated, or in control; it is barely able to get the ship in before the unexpected storm, or the clothes in out of the rain -- and it is always gasping for breath! I was, therefore, relieved to note that Reinhold Niebuhr, in speaking of one of his own articles in this series (1959-60), also suggested a title expressive of the experience of reactive passivity:

"How My Mind Has Reacted to World Events."

The sense of upheaval, of radical change and of the need for a new mode in theology was acute in 1965. I referred in that article to "shifting ice," "the sudden thaw of theological certainties," and "rushing depths of dark water." The problem raised for us as theologians or preachers came from renewed awareness of the reality, power and value of the "secular," as we liked to call it -- that is, of the scientific, technological, pragmatic, liberal and democratic culture that made up the "modern world" in which we theologians lived. This was a serious problem for us, if not a lethal menace, because this culture asked empirical questions about the meaning and the validity of our religious language -- questions that were embarrassing to our early theological certainties (mostly "biblical theological" certainties). And this secular culture challenged a church (and most theologians) concerned with private and personal, "existential" problems to become active and involved in the more serious public Issues of a segregated and an imperialistic America.

In comparison with this "modern" world with its demanding cognitive criteria and its high social ideals, the traditional religions seemed anachronistic and outdated, empty and uncertain, narcissistic and undemanding -- and incurably white and bourgeois. Most of us felt this contrast as a deep challenge, and it was a challenge precisely because the secularity that threatened our theology and even our religion represented such a compelling lure to us -- in fact, as we recognized, it represented in many respects a major, or the major, aspect of our own self addressing us.

A Secular World

Consequently, many of us spent the next decade working through an answer to the question of the meaning of religious language in terms of ordinary experience, in terms of a "revision" or "re-presentation" of the Christian tradition "intelligible to modern minds," and worked on formulating an appropriate and strong political theology. Even if the "God is dead" theology has itself long since been interred, these problems which a secular culture poses to religious meanings have by no means vanished. That same secular world with its nagging empirical criteria of meaning and validity remains in power in academia and among the middle and especially the professional classes -- and we who try to do theology are still ourselves very much a part of that same world.

Correspondingly, the questions of justice, liberation, and peace represent the predominant moral issues of our present cultural life. Thus in our present situation the hermeneutical problem (how traditional words, concepts and symbols are to be interpreted intelligibly in our cultural present) on the one hand remains the problem for those concerned with the theoretical issues of theology, and on the other the issue of liberation represents the center for those concerned more with the meaning of theology in life and in action. And there is hardly any constructive theologian worth her or his salt who does not try to do both.

Although these issues arising in the ‘60s still remain central for theology, the world has meanwhile changed and (as usual) changed radically. The fundamental balance of things that created that former set of problems has itself shifted, uncovering some new and quite different issues. I find myself seeing quite a new scene when I look out the same windows, sniffing different winds from another direction, and thus sensing quite different theological problems moving rapidly toward me over the same old terrain.

Questioning the Scientific Method

The first element of the new scene may be called the "re-evaluation of the secular"; in this context, by "secular" I again refer to a culture that depends primarily on the empirical, scientific consciousness and that therefore tends to negate any sort of mystical consciousness. Those who like brisker language might wish to define this new scene not as one merely of re-evaluation but as the beginning of the "disintegration of the secular culture" -- but that judgment is probably quite premature. What is clear, however, is the fact of its reassessment or reevaluation.

And the first thing to be re-evaluated has been the claim of the scientific method to represent the method of knowledge solely able to relate cognitively to reality -- a claim that seemed quite dominant and secure in the ‘50s and the early ‘60s. In its place has come a new consciousness of the ambiguity and the inadequacy, even the distorting effect, of that method if it alone contributes to or fashions our fundamental view of reality. It was perhaps the central thrust of the counterculture of the late ‘60s to repudiate this claim of the scientific consciousness (cf. Theodore Roszak’s analysis), and to question the ability of technology to provide, via an expanding industrial and consumer culture, a creative basis for human fulfillment. Since then, for a number of reasons (air and water pollution, health concerns ignored and in fact unknown by scientific medicine, ecological issues), this questioning of the omnicompetence of the scientific method to uncover the truth, and of the creative value of technological "progress," has deepened and spread and now penetrates much further into the culture as a whole.

Corresponding to this new sense of the ambiguity (not the invalidity or inutility) of the scientific and technological base of the culture has come what could be termed the reappearance of the religious. That religious concerns, beliefs and institutions might linger on for some time in a secular age had been ruefully admitted by the children of Enlightenment humanism. But that these concerns would reappear in fresh and vigorous power, not only in the midst of a modern scientific and industrial culture but as a conscious and relevant reaction to the tensions and dilemmas created by that culture -- that was not at all expected.

This is precisely what has happened, and happened in ways that caught theological as well as secular savants by surprise. For what has reappeared in strength has not been at all the kind of mainline, liberal and "modern" religion (Christian Century and University of Chicago religion!) designed to be intelligible to and appropriate for a secular world. On the contrary, it has been precisely those forms of religion believed in one way or another to be antithetical to a secular world, and so vulnerable to "the acids of modernity," that have sprouted up everywhere and have grown at an astounding rate; namely, fundamentalist religion of every variety; ecstatic, charismatic religion; esoteric, cultic religion; mystical, otherworldly religion; religious sectarianism that "opts out" of society, its customs and its responsibilities -- not to mention every possible variety of the occult.

And the further interesting thing is that the forms of religion that are more bizarre or alien to modern Western "scientific" culture -- astrology, occultism, Zen, yoga, Sufism -- appeal to the "intelligentsia" and so ironically tend to cluster about our contemporary university centers (the remaining seats of that culture). Meanwhile the less alien varieties -- that is, fundamentalist or ecstatic forms of our own traditional faiths -- abound amid the non-intellectual portions of our cultural life, in "Middle America."

New Questions

The religious as an authentic, self-evidencing, powerful and healing aspect of experience, yet often also a demonic and destructive one, has made its appearance in every conceivable form in the midst of an "advanced" culture, baffling and alarming both the established secularism of academia and the established religious forces of the ecclesia. Former nagging questions of the meaning and verifiability of religious language a language thought to be totally inapplicable to ordinary experience -- now seemed themselves to be anachronistic questions, reflective of ivory-tower intellectuals or academics quite out of touch with vast ranges of ordinary experience.

The questions about religion and public life, those calling for "public" discussion, no longer focus on the verifiability of religious speech but concern quite other issues: methods of understanding and describing the religious realities, old and new, that we see appearing around us; useful criteria for assessing these religions and for defining and comprehending this new set of powers in our public life; and ways of protecting vital religious groups from the excesses of the public reaction to them, and protecting the public from the excesses of powerful religious groups -- hardly questions a secular culture had thought it would have to take seriously!

The religious dimension of experience appears to have re-presented itself in full force, in all its historic creativity, in answer to real social and psychological needs, and in all its historic explosive and demonic power. One could point as further evidence to the manifest "religious" characteristics of the two dominant contemporary secular ideologies: communism and liberal, democratic capitalism. These characteristics include their concern for commitment by their adherents; their concentration on questions of heresy or revisionism; their endless missionary propaganda; their global claims for their own values, for their unique place in history, for their "God-given" destiny for all of humanity. Whatever the case may be with "God," religion and the religious are not dead in our present cultural or political situation.

On the contrary, most counterfactual of all now appears the "secular" confidence, common not so long ago, that as a scientific and democratic culture unfolded, religion would gradually dissipate as an effective force in personal and social life alike. As a consequence, the "secular" understanding both of society and of the religious must be reassessed. This reappearance of the religious in the midst of secular society -- and in forms far different from our traditional religious communions -- raises as well, of course, a host of vital theological issues that cannot be ignored: What is the relation of Christianity (or of Judaism) to these new and old religious communities? What is the relation of Christianity to the "religious dimension" of a social order? Granted that a purely "secular" social order now appears as more a wish-fulfillment than a possible reality, what kind of social order can really encompass the religious in all its creativity, its uneasy pluralism, and its demonic force?

The second and certainly more important element in what I have termed the "re-evaluation of the secular" is the manifestation of the precariousness in future history, if not the imminent mortality, of that secular culture. To itself, as it developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, and to its loyal descendants (at least, in the Anglo-Saxon West) through the first half of the 20th century, that culture defined and was thought to be identical to "modernity." As a result, it was believed that this same culture would shape all the continually developing forms of modernity; that is, would represent the dominant culture not only of the immediate future but of the distant future as well. Would not of a certainty science, technology and industrialism develop, mature and so only increase in extent? And would not the accompanying cultural values of that scientific society -- pragmatic openness; tolerance; freedom of inquiry, of belief and of decision; the democratic process; and self-control -- also increase? And with an increase of democracy and goods, would not equality and justice also steadily grow in strength?

To be sure, Continental Europe -- or some Europeans -- felt by the end of World War I that it was experiencing the gradual disintegration, if not the final end, of its culture. But Americans had not experienced that war in that way; and thus our confidence -- on whatever terms -- in the future stability and even expansion of our own scientific, technological, industrial liberal and democratic society remained unabated through the brief challenge to that culture’s domination represented by the rise of fascism.

Again, to be sure, the appearance of fascism in a highly advanced society effectively dissolved the easy (but to us now strange) identification of advancement in civilization with an advancement in morals -- an identification intrinsic to the conception of historical progress. But the subsequent defeat of fascism seemed to have rescued our culture, to have given it a new start -- and thus covered over once more the possibility of that culture’s ending, the incipient mortality of the democratic and liberal culture which fascism had challenged. In any case, it has remained for subsequent decades to herald that approaching end, to exhibit that possible mortality in ever clearer fashion. For what these decades have done is to uncover internal and yet unknown contradictions in that culture, and unheeded external threats to it, which now seem to portend clearly its objective loss of dominance, its internal disintegration and transformation. Those contradictions and threats might well in the end result in the culture’s ultimate demise.

The Threat to Ecology

These remarks do not represent a prediction. Nothing in history is certain or determined. But it is simply the case that in a "time of troubles" (to borrow Toynbee’s phrase), wisdom, courage and virtue must abound lest the mere possibility of demise be transformed, through our frantic reaction to its menacing appearance, into a virtual certainty.

The first manifestation of this dilemma or contradiction leading to possible mortality is the ecological crisis -- the threat which an expanding technological and industrial culture poses to the nature system and the natural resources on which all life depends, including the life of a technological and industrial society itself. Unless that technological, industrial establishment is radically controlled -- thereby effecting a transformation of vast areas of our political, economic and social life -- the culture has a very good chance of destroying itself through increasingly inadequate supplies, through endless conflicts for those ever scantier materials, and through the systems of control and authority necessary to cope with each of these dangers.

The problem is essential and not accidental for the culture, and thus it is deep, lethal. That is, it arises precisely from what has been most characteristic and creative about modern civilization: its dynamically accumulating knowledge and technology, its expanding industrial system and its emphasis on egalitarian consumerism. It is these that have together caused, and continue to cause, "advanced" culture’s menace to our common resources and to our natural environment as a whole. ‘This menace threatens what is noble as well as what is "earthy’ in the culture’s life: its emphasis on personal individuality and freedom, its democratic processes and rights, its tolerance of variety and pluralism, as well as its high levels of bodily security and comfort, its affluence and its constant hopes for material improvement.

The Loss of Western Dominance

The second harbinger of possible mortality for Western civilization and culture has been the dramatic shift in the past few decades in the relative global power and influence of that culture. From the time the Turks challenged Vienna in 1456 to the Japanese attack in 1940 (nearly 500 years), no non-Western power had been able effectively to challenge a major Western power, let alone the whole of the West. Western powers challenged and vanquished one another, to be sure; but the entire globe was theirs to take unless they were checked by one of themselves. Thus their arms, as well as their ideas, their modes of existing and operating, their symbols and values, conquered almost everything in their way. (No wonder this expanding Europe thought that history represented progress!)

Since 1945, this situation has altered dramatically and with incredible speed: now only one Western power remains among the four major powers, and no European power any longer by itself enjoys the level of a world power. Europe has begun to acclimatize itself to this precipitous descent. America, being the remaining inheritor of Western world power, has yet even to try to realize that domination is no longer a possibility or a possible goal, that world power must be shared, not only with other groups with their own interests but with groups holding quite other cultural and value systems -- and thus that the continuation of our power (and that of our forms of cultural order) is precarious at best.

The fact of this vast reduction in our relative power is presently writ large on countless world events; it is felt every day by Americans; and it is expressed by them in a wide variety of frustrated, angry, anxious and "macho" ways. The concrete policies of particular administrations can no doubt slow or accelerate this massive historical trend marking the end of an era of Western dominance; no one American administration, however, has created that trend, nor probably can any fundamentally alter its course.

As with the trend represented by the unraveling ecological crisis, policy cannot stop the process, but policy still can be rational or irrational, moral or immoral, and so creative or destructive. We as a nation might (at least in principle) face dwindling common resources by creating rational and fair modes of common control, of mutual sharing and of gradually effective methods of redistribution -- or we can react to the same trend by trying to commandeer those scant resources, by fighting with our rivals and by imposing an authoritarian discipline.

Correspondingly, we can face the loss of dominant authority and power with wisdom and serenity, with an eye to the just aims of newly emerging forces, and, above all, with resolution in maintaining our most creative traditional ideals. Or we can seek to retain our power and affluence intact; support "friendly" dictators here, there and everywhere; and thus corrupt our ideals into an ideology defending remaining islands of privilege, and in so doing render those ideals irrelevant to and meaningless for the newly emerging world.

Human freedom in history never means the freedom to change the fundamental trends of an epoch -- England could not have willed to remain a "great power" in the second half of the 20th century. But still, within the unfolding of a trend, freedom is faced with momentous political choices, choices representing reason or unreason, courage or panic, generosity and compassion or aggressive and destructive sin. An old culture, like an old bear, can suddenly whiff the dank odor of its own mortality; and then it is tempted, and tempted deeply, to sacrifice its ideals for the preservation of its life -- and thus to hasten the very demise in history that it fears so much.

A Worldly Word

Clearly, the secular culture of which we are a part -- and to which we rightly seek to adapt the gospel -- is itself undergoing the deepest of crises. In such "times of troubles," problems mount to seemingly insoluble proportions; fears, basic anxieties and panic increase; conflicts become more lethal; "civil religions" begin to come apart -- and a process of self-destruction on every level -- economic, political, social and ideological -- may well ensue. In such times, questions of policy are, of course, uppermost and in the forefront of attention: economic, political, social and international policy. But within these questions, behind them and through them are woven moral and religious issues of vast import to every political, economic and social decision.

It is, then, to the moral and religious issues of this coming time of troubles -- appearing already but promising more to come! -- that Christian theology and preaching (as well as academic reflection) must also address themselves. For not only are we theologians and our universities part of this common cultural world and so responsible to address it, but our churches and classrooms are in that world, too. It is the people in the churches and in the classes who will share in these common decisions, and it is their communities that will make those decisions.

Theology and preaching must, therefore, address their responsible Word to the world, as well as adapt their Word to it. This Word is, of course, Christian in its sources. But it is worldly, timely and deeply public in its relevance, and it must be said and be heard: a word of. obligation in relation to each public moral issue as it arises; a word of the retrieval of the culture’s most creative ideals and institutions; a world of judgment on the culture’s present and potential sins; a word of forgiveness whenever it is repentant; a word of promise and so of confidence (in God, if not in itself) for the future.

Clearly, more than an expertise in theological or hermeneutical method is here required. Ethical issues of justice, liberation and sharing come starkly to the fore in all relevant reflection and speaking. The question of God’s providence as the principle of historical judgment on the one hand and of new future possibilities on the other is a requirement for any theology fit for the time. And the confidence in the divine mercy and care for a world in agony -- known through the incarnation and the cross -- must be continually reiterated.

As a final note, let us recall how important it was that Augustine, contemplating the dismemberment of the glorious Roman Imperium, conceived of the gospel in such terms that it transcended that Hellenistic culture to which he had also so deftly and profoundly adapted it. It was precisely out of that transcendence effected by Augustine’s work that there arose new and seemingly endless cultural and ecclesiastical possibilities for other historical epochs, the medieval and our own included -- possibilities of which he could not then conceivably have dreamed.

An Uncharted Sea

The long-term trends that define our cultural epoch set for us the form of our major theological problems. They do not give us our symbols: the biblical and Christian traditions do that. But they do determine what we worry and think about, and how we go about that concerned reflection. These same long-term trends have set before us one more problem that must be mentioned -- namely, the question of the relation of Christianity to other religions. This is by no means a new problem for Christianity; nevertheless, it appears now in a radically new way. Theologically, therefore, it represents a quite uncharted sea, one where even the major rocks, let alone the clear channels, are as yet completely unknown. This question of the relation of Christianity to other religions has been raised both at home (as noted above) and in the now close encounter of cultures in the wider world.

Certainly it has been the sociological reality of one world" that has brought the wide variety of religions of the world into continual and intimate contact with one another, both abroad and here at home. But it has been the sharp decline of Western dominance that has recently made that contact qualitatively different. For that decline has set these religions into a situation of equality as they meet one another, rather than a situation characterized by the clear dominance of one over the others. (In fact, here in the U.S. the aura of dominance, of a preponderance of illuminating and healing power, seems now to hover about the newcomers!)

Whenever religions encounter one another as equals, the sparks of theological problems -- important for each -- immediately shower out in all directions. If there is truth and grace in this other religion -- and how can I now deny that? -- how am I now to interpret the truth and grace I experience or hope to experience in my own? Am I to deny the latter, my own "stance" in my own faith, in order to recognize the former, the truth of the other’s stance -- and thus to have a dialogue among equals? Possibly -- but then, having scuttled my own position, are we now in any sense equal? And what if my Buddhist friend does the same? Then neither of us represents a religious tradition, and no dialogue ensues; in fact, we have both joined a common "secular" tradition, and all we can now discuss are methods for the study of the religion of others.

Surely, then, I must continue to affirm the truth and grace in my own tradition and continue to stand there, if we are to speak meaningfully with one another; and yet at the same time I cannot, for the same reason, deny the truth and grace in his or her position. At that point, I am forced to try to understand theologically how to make sense of such a weird amalgam of an "absolute" position in my own faith with a "relative" view of it in relation to his "faith" -- an amalgam that characterizes both of us in the dialogue.

As is evident, these questions raise all sorts of fundamental issues for Christian theology: about God, about "revelation," about the decisiveness of the event of Christ -- and corresponding questions for members of each of the other faiths (e.g., how veridical or "absolute" in this context is the ‘higher level of consciousness" of the Buddhists?). That few know answers to these new theological issues, or even how to approach them, is obvious. But that this new situation of encounter calls for a new sort of theological discussion, and that this represents another very significant task of theology, seems to me unquestioned.

Requirements of a Risky Situation

I said at the start that I felt myself to be in a radically new situation in theology, encountering theological issues that seemed quite new and about which I felt little present clarity or as yet little real hint of an answer. And more mystifying still, while the one (the necessity of a Christian Word to a culture in mortal distress) seems to call for a sure, a clear and a well-founded Christian theology of history, the other (the necessity of dialogue with other religions) seems to relativize, though it cannot in the end dissolve, any particular religion’s answer to culture’s problems.

Nevertheless, these two new issues, arising as implications of the same worldwide trends, interweave and support as well as oppose or contend with each other. The ecological center of our culture’s agony calls for a new view of nature -- and therefore for Christians as well as secular humanists to listen carefully and receptively to the attitudes toward nature characteristic of other religious traditions. Meanwhile, the problem of a theological understanding of history -- necessary if we in the west or those in Asia are to address either the ecological issue or the new shape of world culture -- is precisely that element in our tradition for which other religions have the greatest respect and for which, on their own admission, they in turn have the greatest present need.

And, to sum this up; it is the hermeneutical problem with which we began which all modern religious traditions share in common, for which they each offer their own unique procedures, and so about which they can endlessly dialogue creatively with one another. For all of us alike face the same issue of understanding our own tradition in the light of our modem cultural and social situations -- only let us, in assaying that problem, not forget the present precariousness, the moral temptations and the religious requirements of that infinitely risky modern situation!