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Correction to This Article
The Nov. 22 obituary for Langdon Gilkey omitted a son from his first marriage, Mark Whitney Gilkey of San Francisco. The obituary also should have said Langdon Gilkey is survived by two grandchildren.

Langdon Gilkey Dies; Theologian, Author, Educator

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2004; Page B06

Langdon Gilkey, 85, an eminent Protestant theologian who wrote of the relevance of God in a "time of troubles," died of meningitis Nov. 19 at the University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville.

He once quoted theologian Edgar Brightman as having said, "I believe in God because I believe that history represents a steady, moral progress."


Sonja Weber Gilkey and her husband, Langdon Gilkey, are shown in Maine this summer. After Dr. Gilkey retired from the University of Chicago in 1989, the couple settled in Charlottesville. (Family Photo)

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To Dr. Gilkey, whose formative experience was spending World War II in a Japanese internment camp, the opposite was true: "I believe in God because to me history precisely does not represent such a progress."

Long based at the University of Chicago, he wrote about 20 books and hundreds of scholarly papers that explored the meaning of religion in an increasingly secular age. His career also touched on aspects of the civil rights era, Vatican II reforms and the controversy over creationism and evolution.

His testimony in a landmark 1981 case affecting Arkansas public schools helped end a state requirement that gave creation science "parallel treatment" with evolution.

Langdon Brown Gilkey was born in Chicago on Feb. 9, 1919. His father was a liberal Baptist minister and first dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago.

Despite his father's profession, he said, "religion, or interest in it, played absolutely no part in my personal or my intellectual life. . . . I was, I suppose, an ethical humanist if I was anything."

At Harvard University, where he was a classmate of John F. Kennedy's and of future Cardinal Avery Dulles', he began to develop pacifist beliefs. After traveling to Europe with the Harvard tennis team at the onset of World War II, he and Dulles formed a Keep America Out of the War Committee. Both soon felt distress that other members were equating Adolf Hitler's cruelties with British colonialism.

Conflicted between war and his sense of humanistic idealism, he went on his father's suggestion in April 1940 to hear the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr speak at Harvard chapel. Niebuhr lectured on the role of religion and faith in the midst of world power struggles.

"Suddenly," Dr. Gilkey wrote, "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."

The war brought his greatest personal insight into the human condition, much of which he described in "Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure" (1966).

He had traveled to China to teach English to university students in Beijing and was caught in Japanese-held territory shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Captured with thousands of other enemy nationals, he was sent to an internment camp, where he remained in wretched conditions until the end of the war.

As camp mason, cook and kitchen administrator, he saw the effect of living in such cramped quarters -- squabbles caused by limited resources and hope. "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 wrote.

With the war's end, Dr. Gilkey moved to New York to study international law. He grew bored and instead switched to Union Theological Seminary with Niebuhr as his theology instructor.

In 1954, he received his doctorate in religion from Columbia University and then accepted a teaching position at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville. There, he protested the expulsion of a black Divinity School student, James Lawson, who had organized peaceful sit-in demonstrations for civil rights.

He could sometimes be caustic in his reminiscences of the South during that era, once writing that "even in the 'Bible Belt' the Bible is a relatively unknown book -- sacred, of course, but quite unfamiliar."

Joining the Chicago faculty in 1963, he combined his interest in social activism with a brilliant outpouring of scholarly literature that made him one of the most enduring and respected of faculty members.

He also traveled widely, venturing to Rome on a Guggenheim fellowship during the Second Vatican Council. The result was his book "Catholicism Confronts Modernity" (1975), considered a respectful view from an outsider about the reforms of Vatican II.

As the "Death of God" movement came to full prominence by the 1960s, Dr. Gilkey tried to show the relevance of religious discourse about God. He maintained that his personal and social experiences still made religion pertinent in addressing questions of human existence and value.

"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?"

His other books included "Maker of Heaven and Earth: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of Creation" (1959), "Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-Language" (1969), "Religion and the Scientific Future" (1970) and "Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock" (1985).

The last focused on his work as a witness for the American Civil Liberties Union during the Arkansas trial.

Dr. Gilkey argued that religion and science could maintain authoritative voices in their own realms and that one did not necessarily conflict with the other.

Years later, he told a reporter that continued movements "to put God back" in the public schools "are efforts to put somebody's God back in but not somebody else's."

Dr. Gilkey's own spiritual interests spread to Buddhism and Sikhism. He took yoga classes and studied at Sikh summer retreats in New Mexico.

After retiring from the University of Chicago in 1989, he settled in Charlottesville and lectured at the University of Virginia and Georgetown University.

His marriage to Dorothy Gilkey ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 41 years, Sonja Weber Gilkey of Charlottesville; two children from his second marriage, Amos Gilkey of Charlottesville and Frouwkje Pagani of New York; and a grandson.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company