In 1970 Dr. Montgomery was the visiting Reveille Scholar at the University of California—San Diego. This audio set is comprised of the series of lectures in which he surveyed the theological scene in the 20th Century.
- A very engaging series by an evangelical gadfly in lost tapes from the 1970s of very poor quality
I became intrigued by John Warwick Montgomery and a sudden release of dozens of his products on ChristianAudio.com. I purchased this 10-hour lecture series on “Contemporary Religious Thought” during the annual $7.49 sale as it is regularly priced at a puzzling $49.
John Warwick Montgomery has a terribly interesting biography, which you can see in long form at his kind of hilarious website from the 1990s (the subtitle to the website is “Meet a Christian Apologist and Engage in Apologetic Games and Challenges). Dr. Montgomery is a degree hoarder, having earned 11 degrees—including doctorates in theology, philosophy, and law—and is literate in several languages. Born in 1931, Montgomery had a dramatic conversion to Christ when he was 18, in the context of the neo-evangelical rebirth after the ashes of the Scopes trial, the Depression, and WWII. As he was converted to Christ based on historical evidence, he turned to apologetics and was influential in that flush of American evangelical apologists in the late-1900s (you might remember Josh McDowell the best). After teaching theology and philosophy in the US and Canada, his worked turned toward religious freedom from a legal human rights perspective. In his mid-80s he is still practicing law in France.
John Warwick Montgomery styles himself as a maverick, and there might be some reason to agree with him. He debated Thomas Altizer, the God-is-Dead guy featured in the famous Time issue, as well as Bishop James Pike and situation-ethicist Joseph Fletcher. In the legal-political sphere, he worked with Each Germans to escape from behind the wall in 1968, was in Fiji during its 1987 revolution, and in China during June of 1989, during the failed uprising. He has written 50 books in 5 languages in diverse topics such as writing research papers, the “Is God Dead?” controversy, Lutheran Theology, apologetics, history, library science, Evangelical-Roman Catholic relations, the Occult, situational ethics, Marxism, law and human rights, China, and the quest for Noah’s Ark. He has also written a couple of hundred essays and has held a number of academic posts.
The reason I dip into biography is because it is Montgomery’s personality that drivers the lectures. Recorded in 1970, Montgomery was a visiting scholar to the University of California, offering a free and abbreviated course on 19th and 20th century Christian theology such as you wouldn’t see offered for credit in most campuses at the time. Religious Studies departments have since grown and offer creative and diverse topics on secular university campuses, but there was clearly a hunger in the heady days at the close of the 1960s. The lecture hall was packed and the audience tuned in as Montgomery as he walked through these topics:
• 19th century philosophy and theology
• the Modernist (Liberal)-Fundamentalist (Evangelical) debate
• Neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann
• Christian Existentialism
• Paul Tillich
• Secular Theology (bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God conversation)
• New Morality and the Death of God
• Process Theology
Montgomery is skillful in giving very concise definitions of what can be fairly complex movements. This sometimes results in over-simplification, as we might imagine. He takes a fair amount of time to cover Paul Tillich, whose influence today might be waning, but was important enough at the time that Martin Luther King, Jr. did his PhD thesis on Tillich. But Montgomery’s discussion of Barth made me wonder whether he really understood the full project. Karl Barth’s influence is growing, and the Neo-orthodox (Post-liberal) section is the weakest.
Where Montgomery was strongest was in the question of ethics and in the God is Dead debate—two moments that he had written about. Montgomery very briefly developed a succinct look at the death of God movement from five different angles that brought clarity. His argument about situational ethics—which would lead to a debate with situation-ethicist Joseph Fletcher and a co-published book. In a logical critique of situational ethics, Montgomery rightly challenges the situational ethicist to see the problem of regress: what situations take precedence over other situations? Simply calling for radical love as both means and end begs the question of the definition of love, and fails to recognize the embedded cultural biases we bring into our decision making.
This sort of critique is offered throughout the course, with varying success. Montgomery is especially good at the tidy, memorable ability to get the principles. For example, Montomery pits legalism against situation ethics, arguing that legalism makes moral law dominant and ignores the situation, while situational ethics makes the situation ethics and ignores the moral law. He argues for a Christian love ethic that moves between the two, taking into consideration both absolute or foundational principles as well as the context of the question.
The reason I was interested in this lecture series is not just because of Dr. Montgomery’s dynamic personality—and he is fun to listen to—but because of its embeddedness in its time. He is speaking well before I was born and a generation before I knew anything about Christianity. I was curious about how Contemporary Theology would look in 1970 after such a dynamic decade.
On this front the series is particularly interesting. Note that there is no section on feminist theology, ecotheology, liberation theology, narrative theology or postmodernism—moments that are growing in the 1960s but have not yet found a voice of dominance. I would never teach a course like this without spending time in those moments. Though Dr. Montgomery is a global figure, his is a highly Euro-American conversation. We have no sense of the global growth of the Charismatic movement, the results of Vatican II, or the great migration of religious people and their ideas—both digitally and in human migration—that will define the 21st century. I doubt that Montgomery was an outlier in these limitations
Just look at the title: in a lecture series entirely about Christianity and its conversation partners, Montgomery and UC San Diego thought “Contemporary Religious Thought” was the right title. In the United States today, there are a couple of dozen religious movements that would have to be surveyed in a course of that title. Times change, and this lecture series allowed me to linger in the context of my theological grandparents.
Dr. Montgomery also focused on some things that have become footnotes in history. The question of the death of God was all the bomb in the 60s, but is no longer a serious conversation (though still a fun one on campuses). Logical positivism has slipped away, and even situational ethics has disappeared (now we seem to be in a season of new absolutism combined awkwardly with moral relativism). I am especially interested in Process Theology—an idea I tried very hard to find sympathy with at seminary because some of the students at our mainline seminary down the road found it meaningful. I could never find its value, but Montgomery lectured about Process Theology in a moment where he felt that this was the rising idea of the day.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? So many of these are ideas of the generation. And the generations get smaller, as Dr. Montgomery points out. Some of these movements are blips on the theological timeline, while others have a long amplitude and a significant impact. It serves to remind us that we, ourselves, are in an age, influenced by our cultures and wise to seek diversity of understanding from across the globe and through history (roughly translating C.S. Lewis’ “On Reading Old Books”).
Besides learning the lay of land now lost, there are some of the normal 1970ish moments. He treats homosexuality as psychologists of the day did, and uses the word “savages” in a way that the faculty and students of UC would understand. He references editorial cartoons frequently, and you can feel the tension of the 60s in his work. He understand the pastoral and theological problems of abuse, but lacks the social awareness that has since arisen that allows us more wisdom in speaking about difficult things.
Despite all that time-embeddedness, there are some critical moments of value for today. First, Dr. Montgomery calls for a turn to epistemology, how we know things. This turn is in place right now, to the point that we can never seem to get past this question. Second, shows us the important of shedding light on what seems like a life-changing idea by setting it within historical context. And, third, Montgomery shows us the value of critical thinking—even if we disagree with him.
This series is not worth $50, but is probably worth $7.49 to the right listener. The lecture series is incomplete, with missing tapes, disrupted talks, incoherent questions, and moments of audio disruption that make it hard to here. There is an odd but very cool audio of an NBC film interview of Paul Tillich in the middle of the series because Dr. Montgomery was going to be late to class that night, and I doubt proper copyright was sought. It is a mess of a production, but I am grateful for its place in the available catalogue.
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