John Warwick Montgomery on “Contemporary” Christian Thought

I have made it a goal to listen to a lecture series each month this year. Some of these will be short 3-5 hour sessions, like the Signum University Tolkien features this past spring (now on Youtube); others will be semester-length classes of 30-36 hours. I became intrigued by John Warwick Montgomery after a sudden release of dozens of his lectures on ChristianAudio.com. I purchased a 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 higher ed credentials—including doctorates in theology, philosophy, and law—and is literate in several languages. Born in 1931, Montgomery had an intellectual 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 work turned toward religious freedom from a legal human rights perspective. In his mid-80s he is still practicing law, now in France. He is like the Catch Me If You Can guy, except with real credentials.

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 post-Christian Bishop James Pike and situation-ethicist Joseph Fletcher. In the legal-political sphere, he worked with East Germans to help them escape from behind the wall in 1968, was in Fiji during its 1987 revolution, and in China during June of 1989, the time of the failed uprising. He has written 50 books in 5 languages on 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 several academic posts.

The reason I dip into his biography is because it is Montgomery’s personality that drives 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 walked through these topics:

  • 19th century philosophy and theology
  • the Modernist (Liberal)-Fundamentalist (Evangelical) debate
  • the Neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann
  • Christian Existentialism
  • Paul Tillich
  • Secular Theology (aka, bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God conversation)
  • the 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. Montgomery’s discussion of Barth, however, made me wonder whether he really understood Barth’s full project. Karl Barth’s influence is growing, and the Neo-orthodox (Post-liberal) section is the weakest in Montgomery’s lecture.

Where Montgomery was strongest was in the question of ethics, in Secular and Process theologies, and in the God is Dead debate—moments that he has written about. Montgomery very briefly developed a succinct look at the death of God movement from five different angles that brought clarity to me (someone who has never really understood the temptation to think that way). His argument about situational ethics—which would lead to a debate with situation-ethicist Joseph Fletcher and a co-published book—was also very strong. 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 of ethics 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 dominant 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—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 movements. Though Dr. Montgomery is a global figure, his is a narrowly 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 and it is interesting how culture has diversified and evolved.

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 1970. 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, only a few of them Christian. 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 lost its footing (now we seem to be in a season of neo-absolutism combined awkwardly with moral relativism). I am especially interested in Process Theology—an idea I tried very hard to find sympathy with at graduate school 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 theologies 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. We would be wise to seek diversity of understanding from across the globe and through history (roughly translating C.S. Lewis’ “On Reading Old Books”).

On the flip side, in not giving a full reading of some of these movements, Dr. Montgomery does away with them too quickly. Tillich might be waning in influence, but there are a couple of his ideas that have found their way into evangelical theology. Montgomery suggested in 1970 that Jürgen Moltmann had peaked and that his Theology of Hope had no shelf life. Not only was that a bad prophecy, but it was a misunderstanding of Moltmann’s work, as his 1973 Crucified God would demonstrate. Indeed, Moltmann, Barth, and Bonhoeffer are going to remain in the 21st century as important resources to conservative and evangelical (and Roman Catholic) theologians, despite their embeddedness in the liberal community.

Besides learning the lay of land now lost to me, there are some of the normal 1970ish moments of interest. Montgomery 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 (but would make us cringe). He references editorial cartoons frequently—remember those?—and you can feel the tension of the 1960s in his work. He understands the pastoral and theological problems of abuse, but lacks the social awareness that has since arisen that gives us access to more wisdom in speaking about difficult things.

Despite all that time-embeddedness, there are some critical moments of value for today beyond the Lewisian realization that we are living in an age. First, Dr. Montgomery calls for a turn to epistemology, to the question of 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, he shows us the importance 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 hear. 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; 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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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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3 Responses to John Warwick Montgomery on “Contemporary” Christian Thought

  1. I took a Philosophy of Law class from JWM in spring 2008. He’s an interesting fellow.

    Like

  2. L.A. Smith says:

    Interesting! Thanks for this, I have never heard of him, which shows more about me than him. He sounds like he had a full and influential career!

    Like

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