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Tillich's Theological Influence on Langdon Gilkey (1919-2004)

Andrew Linscott, Boston University, 2012

 

Langdon Gilkey (from here)

The theological influence of Paul Tillich on the thought of American theologian Langdon Gilkey is a fascinating and ambiguous one. Gilkey was an influential Protestant theologian during the latter part of the twentieth century, who spent most of his academic career at The University of Chicago Divinity School.

Though a prolific academic theologian, Gilkey is perhaps best remembered for his autobiographical book Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure (1968), which details his internment at a Japanese POW camp during the second World War. Shantung Compound not only recounts the harrowing travails of life in an internment camp, it also discloses the significant ideological shifts that this experience precipitated for the young Gilkey. Perhaps most importantly, the experience in Shantung all but dissipated the humanistic optimism of his liberal upbringing. For life “under pressure” in the internment camp revealed his fellow prisoners (and himself) at the nadir of their selfish, ignoble selves. Where Gilkey had hoped to find some modicum of goodness and humanity he found instead only a bleak, Hobbesian image of the human condition. With regard to his theology, this experience served to illuminate the power and truth of the traditional Christian symbols of the Fall and original sin. Gilkey’s experience in WWII left him perfectly primed for the “crisis” theology of Neo-orthodoxy that was in vogue at the time.

After the war, Gilkey went on to pursue doctoral studies at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University, where he worked under Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. Though he worked more closely with Niebuhr, Gilkey writes of his encounter with Tillich: “at once I was puzzled, fascinated, and lured by his very different way of viewing existence, namely, ontologically rather than ethically as did Niebuhr. Soon I felt I was beginning to understand him; for a time I became his assistant and interpreter in his classes on systematic theology—and a devoted listener in his seminars on Augustine and Luther. I did not suspect then—nor did I for a number of years—that a new theological blood type, if I may put it that way, was entering my arteries, one that would later become almost dominant” (Gilkey, 1990: xi). Gilkey goes on to note, “I did not become explicitly aware of how my own modes of theological reflection were dependent on him until the mid-sixties…” (Ibid: xii).

Gilkey’s dissertation on the doctrine of creation served as the basis for his first book, Maker of Heaven and Earth: The Christian Doctrine of Creation in the Light of Modern Knowledge (1959). As we shall see, this work exhibited a curious amalgamation of theological and philosophical influences ranging from Barth to Whitehead to Tillich. Setting aside the philosophical influence of Whitehead, the divergent theological currents at work in the book made for an awkward, if not incoherent theological position.

However, in order to understand Gilkey’s ambiguous theological stance in Maker of Heaven and Earth, it is important to place this work in proper historical context. For a brief time after the First World War it was common for theologians as diverse as Tillich and Barth to be lumped together under the banner of “Neo-orthodoxy.” There were, of course, some common elements amongst the theologians who (for a time) bore this epithet, e.g. they often wrote in the philosophical idiom of existentialism and shared—in varying degrees of outrage—a general dissatisfaction with the liberal theology of the later 19th century. Nevertheless, over time it became vividly apparent that these similarities were more surface-level than substantial—indeed, Barth and Tillich could not be more divergent in their approaches to theology.

Gilkey’s handling of the doctrine of God in Maker of Heaven and Earth exhibits perhaps the clearest instance of Tillich’s influence. Throughout the text, Gilkey insists, in good Tillichian fashion, that God is “Being-itself,” and therefore cannot be understood as one entity alongside others. For instance, Gilkey cites the first volume of Tillich’s Systematic Theology, and repeats Tillich’s assertion that “A conditioned God is no God” (Gilkey, 1959: 111). However, only several pages later we find Gilkey arguing, this time in a robustly Barthian vein, that the Divine freedom is such that God is totally free to act upon his creation in various ways to accomplish God’s purposes. Consequently, God is not just Being-itself, but also the God of Heilsgeschichte, or salvation history. Gilkey writes, “the essence of the biblical view of God is that He is not confined merely to that ontological relation to the world which He has as Creator. Rather He is ‘free’ to have other sorts of relations to creatures, depending upon His ‘intention’…the biblical God is the God of history, who acts within certain unique events of history and is thus known through His ‘mighty deeds’” (113).

Throughout Maker of Heaven and Earth, Gilkey seems to want to have it both ways with respect to the Divine nature: God as both Being-itself—and therefore eternal, impassible and unconditioned—and the temporal, loving, personal God of the Bible who supernaturally intervenes in certain events in human history. Now, in Gilkey’s defense, the attempt to form a synthesis between “the God of the philosophers” and the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” is an ancient one, and he has a significant portion of the tradition on his side in attempting to conjoin the two divergent models of God. That said, for as long as the tradition has attempted such a synthesis it has always been plagued by the specter of philosophical incoherence. As it happens, Tillich is one of a handful of Christian theologians in the tradition to come out and frankly name the incoherence, and then choose cleanly between the two conflicting models of God (See Tillich, 1951: part II). It follows from Tillich’s ontological claim that God is Being-itself that the personalist images of God in the biblical tradition must be interpreted symbolically. Unlike many other theologians, Tillich refused to proceed as if the tension between Jerusalem and Athens could be dissolved with a few fancy flourishes of dialectical language, or by waving the term “paradox” at it like a magic wand.

It seems odd then that Gilkey, who studied under Tillich and cites the first and second volumes of the Systematic Theology in his Maker of Heaven and Earth, nevertheless carries on as if casually yoking the God of the bible with a Being-itself model of God were not a fraught philosophical move; especially given that Tillich’s entire system hinges upon an unusually clear distinction between these two models of God. Over time, however, Gilkey came to recognize the considerable conceptual problems with his position in Maker of Heaven and Earth.

In his wide-ranging book The Word As True Myth: Interpreting Modern Theology, eminent historical theologian Gary Dorrien dedicates two chapters to the unfolding of Gilkey’s thought amidst the tempestuous theological tides of the 1950’s and 60’s. In explicating the historical and theological milieu in which Gilkey was trained, Dorrien illuminates the connection between Gilkey’s muddled theological position in Maker of Heaven and Earth and the broad theological trends of the pre and post-war era, which were replete with conceptual incongruities and equivocations. Dorrien recounts Gilkey’s gradual awakening to the theological gravity of these theological and philosophical issues, especially the notion of God’s action in human history. For Neo-orthodoxy and its close cousin, the Biblical Theology movement, the “mighty acts of God” recorded in the bible served as the historical basis for Christianity. However, Gilkey began to recognize a serious problem with this view, viz., that it “emphasized the historical character of biblical religion, but it also threw history overboard whenever it dealt with biblical events that were historically questionable. Much of its ‘historical’ grounding was theological, not historical in the scientific sense” (Dorrien, 1997: 143). It turned out that Neo-orthodoxy and the Biblical Theology movement were torn between a pre-modern orthodoxy and the exigencies of modern historical consciousness—and, when pressed, they ultimately opted for a fideistic account of salvation history. Gilkey thus came to realize that Neo-orthodoxy was not as modern as he had originally thought, and that continuing down this theological path would entail a sacrificium intellectus that he could not abide. According to Dorrien, Gilkey eventually arrived at the rather embarrassing conclusion that, “theology was obliged to return to Schleiermacher’s starting point” (Ibid: 153).

Perhaps a greater irony—beyond that of wandering through the wilderness of Neo-orthodoxy expecting to find the Promised Land, only to find oneself circling back to the fleshpots of Schleiermacher—was that Gilkey’s newfound liberalism was so unconsciously indebted to Tillich that he was utterly blinded to the extent of this influence. What Gilkey perceived to be an innovative approach to theological reasoning was in fact thoroughly derivative of Tillich. Gilkey’s next major book, Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-Language (1969), was certainly a creative application of Tillichian thought to a new intellectual situation (viz., the “Death of God Theology” movement). However, its main thesis was essentially a rehashing of Tillich’s previous insights about the ultimate dimension of human life, and the inevitability of aligning oneself with an ultimate concern. In his book Gilkey on Tillich (1990), Gilkey relates a telling conversation with Tillich in 1964, in which he shared a recent paper that would serve as the basis for Naming the Whirlwind. After reading the paper Tillich, rather deflated, replied, “But Langdon, I said all this years ago.” Clearly embarrassed, Gilkey responded somewhat sheepishly, “I know Paulus…but in this new situation I have just discovered what it means, and I have, therefore, only now found myself saying it after you, but now in my own way” (Gilkey, 1990: xiv).

Tillich never tired of calling attention to the ambiguous nature of human life under the conditions of existence. It is fitting then that his own theological influence on his pupil Langdon Gilkey was as powerful and pervasive as it was ambiguous.

 

Bibliography

Dorrien, Gary. The Word as True Myth: Interpreting Modern Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.

Gilkey, Langdon Brown. Catholicism Confronts Modernity: A Protestant View. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.

_____. Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock. Virginia: The University of Virginia Press, 1998.

_____. Gilkey on Tillich. New York: Crossroad, 1990.

_____. Maker of Heaven and Earth: The Christian Doctrine of Creation in the Light of Modern Knowledge. Garden City NY: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1959.

_____. Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-Language. Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1969.

_____. Nature, Reality, and the Sacred. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

_____. On Niebuhr: A Theological Study. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

_____. Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

_____. Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women under Pressure. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1966.

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

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