Langdon Brown Gilkey

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Langdon Brown Gilkey
Langdon Brown Gilkey.jpg
Born (1919-02-09)February 9, 1919
Died November 19, 2004(2004-11-19) (aged 85)
Academic background
Alma mater Harvard University,
Columbia University
Academic work
Institutions Yenching University,
University of Chicago Divinity School,
University of Utrecht
Kyoto University

Langdon Brown Gilkey (February 9, 1919 – November 19, 2004)[1] was an American Protestant Ecumenical theologian.

Early life and education[edit]

A grandson of Clarence Talmadge Brown, the first Protestant minister to gather a congregation in Salt Lake City, Gilkey grew up in Hyde Park Chicago. His father Charles Whitney Gilkey was a liberal Theologian and the first Dean of the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel; his mother was Geraldine Gunsaulus Brown who was a well known feminist and leader of the YWCA.[2]

Gilkey attended elementary school at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, and in 1936 graduated from the Asheville School for Boys in North Carolina. In 1939 he earned an A.B. degree in Philosophy, magna cum laude, from Harvard. The following year (1940) he went to China to teach English at Yenching University and was subsequently (1943) imprisoned by the Japanese, first under house arrest at the University and later in an internment camp near the city of Weihsien in Shantung Province (where Eric Liddell was a fellow internee).[3]


After the War, Gilkey obtained his doctorate in Religion from Columbia University in New York, being both mentored by and a teaching assistant to Reinhold Niebuhr. He was a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge University (1950–51), and went on to become a professor at Vassar College from 1951 to 1954, and then at Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1954 to 1963.[4] He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1960 to study in Munich; another Guggenheim in the mid-1970s took him to Rome. In late 1963 he became a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, eventually being named Shailer Mathews Professor of Theology, until his retirement in March 1989. While on sabbatical in 1970, he taught at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands; in 1975 he taught at Kyoto University in Japan, his lecture series there focusing on the environmental perils of industrialization. After his retirement he continued to lecture until 2001 at both the University of Virginia and Georgetown University.[1] During this last period of his teaching career, he was also for one year a visiting professor at the Theology Division (now Divinity School) of Chung Chi College, the Chinese University of Hong Kong.


He died of meningitis on November 19, 2004 at the University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville.[1] He was 85.

Theological work[edit]

Gilkey was a prolific author, with 15 books and over 100 articles to his credit.[4] Perhaps his most widely read book was the story of his own religious-theological journey. In Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure (1966), Gilkey narrates his departure from the liberal Protestant belief system during World War II when he was made a prisoner of war in the "Civilian Internment Center" near Weihsien for two-and-a-half years (1943–1945).

This experience was the basis for his modern interpretation of classical Reformation insights about individual and societal estrangement and self-delusion. Gilkey's new theology of history rethought Christianity and traditional views on sin, free will, providence, grace, eschatology and secular history.[4]

Gilkey once responded to fellow theologian Edgar Brightman, who believed in God because man's history (to him) represented steady moral progress, saying "I believe in God, because to me, history precisely does not represent such a progress."[1]

Gilkey was respected academically for his work on Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich,[5] but was popularly known for his writings on science and religion.[4] He argued against both Christian fundamentalist attacks on science and secularist attacks on religion. He was an expert witness for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas lawsuit against an Arkansas State law mandating the teaching of creation sciences in high schools.[6]

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, future President John F. Kennedy, Pete Seeger, 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, helped him with methods and categories to formulate a powerful and creative theological vision of his own. In the 1970s and 1980s, Gilkey's theological vision was colored by the growth of Buddhism, and Sikhism as both religions began to influence religious life in America. He held the view most world religions enjoyed "rough parity". "The question for our age," he once wrote, "may well become, not will religion survive, as much as will we survive and with what sort of religion, a creative or demonic one?"[1]



  1. ^ a b c d e Bernstein, Adam (22 November 2004). "Langdon Gilkey Dies; Theologian, Author, Educator". Washington Post. p. B06. 
  2. ^ Kyle A. Pasewark; Jeff B. Pool (1 December 1999). The Theology of Langdon B. Gilkey: Systematic and Critical Studies. Mercer University Press. pp. 13–. ISBN 978-0-86554-643-1. Retrieved 8 March 2013. 
  3. ^ Phillips, Timothy R. (2001). "Gilkey, Langdon Brown". In Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Baker Reference Library. p. 482. ISBN 0-8010-3413-2. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Gilkey, interpreted Niebuhr, Tillich, wrote on religion and science". The University of Chicago Chronicle. 24 (77). 6 January 2005. 
  5. ^ Fox, Margalit (26 November 2004). "Langdon Gilkey, 85, Theorist on Nexus of Faith and Science, Dies". New York Times. 
  6. ^ Gilkey, Langdon (1985). Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock. University of Virginia Press. ISBN 978-0-8139-1854-9. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Gilkey, Langdon (29 April 1981). "Theology for a Time of Troubles". Christian Century: 474–480. 
  • Price, Joseph L (12 April 1989). "The Ultimate and the Ordinary: A Profile of Langdon Gilkey". Christian Century: 330. 
  • The Theology of Langdon Gilkey: Systematic and Critical Studies, Kyle Pasewark and Jeff Pool, editors, Merer University
  • Whirlwind in Culture: Frontiers in Theology—in Honor of Langdon Gilkey, D. W. Musser and J. L. Price, editors
  • "Plurality and Its Theological Implications" in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, John Hick and Paul Knitter, editors
  • Religious Language in a Secular Culture: A Study in the Thought of Langdon Gilkey, J Shea
  • Langdon Gilkey: Theologian for a Culture in Decline, B. Walsh.