Arthur C. McGill: Conversation and Tribute

Posted by: Richenda at Sunday July 15, 2012 in

A few months ago I encountered a book by a theologian who was new to me, his name was Arthur C. McGill. If newly released imprints and new publication (see Wipf and Stock Publishers) are any indication, there is currently a resurgence of interest in McGill’s work. This interest has to include my own. With this article, I hope to offer some information about McGill, who passed away in 1980, to the ‘google-sphere’ that hasn’t been available. This article includes the story of my encounter with McGill, my attempt to find information about him, and finally my effort to put together a biography for those who, like me, want to know more about him.

The cover of a newly published compilation of seventeen of McGill’s sermons thanks to Wipf & Stock Publishers and edited by David Cain. This book is the first in the series “Theological Fascinations” and includes previously unpublished works edited by Cain, with the next volume upcoming. Working title for the second volume is ‘Inverted Values: Arthur C. McGill on Gospel of Need and Dying unto Life.’

My Encounter with McGill:
It is fairly typical of me to first rant about someone, and then subsequently to fall madly in love with them. Such seems to be the case with Arthur Chute McGill.

New reprinting of Suffering, a Test of Theological Method, originally published by McGill in 1968, and Death and Life, which are lectures published posthumously in 1987. Thank you to Wipf & Stock Publishers for reprinting.

I came across his book Suffering when it showed up on a ‘extra reading’ list in a theological studies class. And about half way through the book, I posted a facebook rant that went like this:

Why go to all the trouble to prove … God’s essentials ‘love,’ if McGill is only going to swallow the pill of ‘Satan’ whole without questioning it? So the ‘evil one’ comes from where? God allows the pretense of power from the demonic why? If we don’t know from what we are redeemed, can we be said to be redeemed, at all? McGill … distracts us with his shiny, give-and-take God, and ignores the snake and the mouse altogether.

It wasn’t long, however, before my thinking shifted, first to:

Well, McGill is still somewhat irritating, but … I think his enthusiasm is worth something, and he’s got some good ideas.

And then to this:

Still thinking about McGill. And thinking how something brilliant he did was to shift the way Suffering could be perceived. He rejects the idea that humans are just inwardly sinful and any suffering we have is caused by our condemnable actions that separate us from a perfect God. Instead, he places suffering in the context of a world filled with difficult and unfathomable and harmful ‘powers’ that will attack and disorient and try to dissuade you from following God. Although I don’t love his solution, I absolutely ascribe to the idea of ‘powers.’ I have not decided exactly how I believe these ‘powers’ manifest, but certainly I agree with McGill that it is wrong to say people are inwardly sinful and awful and so if we suffer it is because we are perverse and willful…. I like that he rotates traditional thinking on this AND that he speaks to evangelicals in doing so…

And finally, to this:

Consider me in love. Or dare I say enraptured. I appreciate his energy, his enthusiasm, and his concrete common sense. I love that he dares to speak this concreteness out loud when those who would posit a monistic God are listening. And I love even more that the ‘concreteness’ of his perspective culminates in his own assertion that God is anything but concrete or static or unchanging. God, he asserts, is a God of change.

Googling “Arthur C. McGill”:
Thus began my first Google searches on “Arthur McGill.” What happened next was frustrating as there is/was next to nothing on the web I could find about him, including his obituary! No Wikipedia Article, nothing. (I have remedied that, wiki article here). Even my ticket to the vast digital holdings at the Seminary turned me up very, very little in terms of bio and theological dialogue. He seems to have disappeared into thin air, with only the persistent work of David Cain to keep his voice and work alive. (A big thank you to David Cain, by the way. David Cain is a Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Mary Washington. His primary interests include religion, literature, and theodicy, and the work of McGill, Wiesel, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky.)

My own interest in McGill’s theology is paired with my interest in the man himself. Who was he? In an age where your ‘social context’ is studied as part of the text of who you are and what formed you, I wanted to know more.

A screengrab from Google Maps, Streetview of McGill’s Office at Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA.

Below you will find a basic biography of Arthur McGill. Please consider my providing it as both a service and a request. If you knew Arthur McGill, please email me and tell me about it. I know he touched a lot of lives. I know his enthusiasm was infectious and contagious and that he inspired many young theologians as well as everyday Christians while he lived. I would like to hear about him. I would like to post some of those testimonials here on this blog. And I would like a photograph of him that I could post with this article!

In researching McGill, I was blessed by Dr. Ernie Rubinstein, Theological Librarian at Drew University. Those of us who attend Drew know Dr. Rubinstein to be without equal, brilliant and generous. In speaking to him, I discovered the Dr. Rubinstein was a graduate of Harvard and had taken a class, Theology 101, from Professor McGill in 1977. Dr. Rubinstein was generous enough to share not only his own enthusiastic remembrance of Professor McGill, as a caring, vivacious, brilliant and charismatic theologian, but Rubinstein also allowed me to borrow and copy (so that I might share) the careful notes he had made during that class. Dr. Rubinstein’s notes are careful, precise, and can be hard to decipher. But there are places where he made careful note of what McGill said about something in particular, and I have included a couple of those here. Access to the syllabus, as well, offers a good flavor of what McGill saw as some of the key concerns of theology at the time. Unfortunately, by 1977, McGill had already begun to experience health problems, and sometimes had to leave the class lectures early.

Mimeographed and all, the header for the syllabus for Theology 101, taught by A. C. McGill and G. D. Kaufmann, Fall 1977.

Arthur Chute McGill, a basic biography:
Arthur Chute McGill was born in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada on August 7th, 1926 to Chester William McGill and Marjorie Chute McGill. The family emigrated that same year to the United States, settling in Brookline, Mass, and naturalizing in 1930.

Wolfville, Nova Scotia, downtown in 2006. Grabshot by Verne Equinox,

As a boy, Arthur McGill attended Rivers Country Day School in Brookline, where McGill was the boyhood friend of John T. Noonan Jr., who would become a prominent Senior Circuit Court Judge. Noonan mentions McGill in his memoir, The Lustre of Our Country The American Experience of Religious Freedom , who speaks of “…my River’s classmate, Arthur Chute McGill” as a friend “who later became a professor at Harvard Divinity School. But at Rivers I thought of Arthur as my chief academic rival, doubly formidable because his uncle, Austin Chute, was our Latin teacher.”

In addition to his theological interests, McGill had an interest in astronomy. The Biographical Record from Drew University states that McGill “has a six-inch telescope with photographic equipment that he developed himself. His particular interest in this field is the open star clusters, like the Pleiades, which pose a problem of identifying which stars belong to the cluster and which only happen to be in the same line of sight.”

Arthur C. McGill was a Fulbright scholar who earned a B.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D from Yale Divinity School. He married, was ordained in the UCC tradition, and had three children. He taught at Amherst, Wesleyan, Princeton, and Harvard, and was a visiting theologian/lecturer at Drew Theological School, and the University of Birmingham. His last position was that of the Bussey Professor of Theology at Harvard Divinity School where he lived with his family in the homey suburb of Lexington. In addition to university instruction, McGill taught bible studies and was a guest preacher and lecturer at many local churches across the country.

Required reading from McGill’s Theology 101 syllabus, including marginalia.

A list of books required by McGill for his students in Theology 101 included Rudolf Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth; James Cone, God of the Oppressed; Hans Frei, Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative; Van A. Harvey, The Historian and the Believer; H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation; Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy; Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil; Richard L. Rubenstein, After Aschwitz; Max Scheler, Ressentiment; Sallie Te Selle, Speaking in Parables; and Henry N. Wieman, The Source of Human Good.

At Princeton, McGill also taught a Theology 101 course. At the graduate level, his classes included “Medieval Christian Thought,” and two seminars, “Contemporary Theological Issues,” and “Hermeneutics: the Bible as a Means of Salvation.”

McGill’s career statistics are impressive. I have listed them chronologically below, including a couple of biographical dates. Where there were dates in conflict, I listed both dates, with the one in parenthesis being the one I think is less likely:

1947 (1941) : a B.A. from Harvard.
1949-1951 (1950): McGill served as Pastor of the Congregational Church in the miniscule, white rural town of Pettibone, ND.
1951: a BD (Bachelor of Divinity) from Yale Divinity School.
1951: June 14, married Lucille “Lucy” McGill in Pettibone, ND, with whom he had three children, two daughters and a son.
1951 (1952): McGill was ordained in Hamden, CT, as a minister in the Congregational Christian Church (now the United Church of Christ).
1952-1954 (1955): McGill was an instructor at Amherst College.
1953: Elected as a Kent Fellow in the National Council on Religion in Higher Education.
1955-59: Assistant Professor of Theology at Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT.
1957-1958: Fulbright Research Fellow at the University of Louvain, Belgium.
1954-55: Pastor of the Congregational Church, Hatfield Mass.
1959-1968: McGill worked first as a Lecturer, then Associate Professor, then in 1964, made a full Professor at Princeton University.
1961 (1960): Ph.D from Yale Divinity School. His dissertation was titled The Place of Dogmatic Theology in the University.
1961: Promoted from Lecturer to Assistant Professor and named the Arthur H. Scribner Preceptor at Princeton University.
1965-1980: Founding member of the Academic Council Jerusalem Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Research, Jerusalem.
1965: Visiting Professor of Theology, Drew Theological Seminary.
1966: Visiting Professor of Theology, Harvard Divinity School.
1967: Visiting Professor of Theology, Drew Theological Seminary.
1967-1968: Senior Fellow in Humanities at Princeton University.
1969: The Edward Cadbury Lecturer at the University of Birmingham, England.
1971: Elected to the position of the Bussey Professor of Theology at Harvard Divinity School.
1980: September 10, McGill passed away in Boston, Mass.

In addition McGill won numerous academic prizes, taught classes and bible studies, led seminars and lectured in local churches, and may have taught or lectured Union Theological Seminary. He was a guest minister and/or supply pastor in the countries and places he visited, was a member of a number of societies, including the Society for Religion in Higher Education, served on the Borough Council for Rocky Hill, New Jersey, and was a Democrat.

The Obituary printed by the Wilmington Delaware Morning News states that McGill suffered from diabetes and had undergone a kidney transplant in 1978. He died in 1980, in his sleep, at age 54. The memorial service was held at the Harvard Chapel. The Obituary notes that McGill was to be buried in Wolfsville.

Conservative? Evangelical? Liberal?
Arthur McGill, known as ‘Art’ to his friends, was a Christian Minister ordained in the United Church of Christ. In general, Arthur McGill seems to be someone we would call ‘liberal minded.’ In articles printed in the Princeton university newspaper, he is recorded as speaking up for the inclusion of women in higher education. In other places, and in snippets, McGill seems to suggest he felt it was men who suffered most from being separated from women academically, as it prevented young men from developing a healthy self-identity respective to women. McGill is also very vocal regarding his dislike of dogmatic doctrines and institutional Classic/Catholic teachings.

Notes taken by Rubinstein from McGill’s class Theology 101. “Two themes for the course: Theology and the Bible, Good and Evil.” 1977. Used with permission.

Notes taken by Rubinstein from McGill’s class Theology 101. “Theology: 1.) worked within a tradition, attempting to express it (ultimate reality). 2.) attempted to articulate what was believed about God in the tradition. The chaotic status of theology stems from the questioning of tradition.” 1977. Used with permission.

Notes taken by Rubinstein from McGill’s class Theology 101. “General Discussion 10/3/77. The question of evil—process thought vs tradition.” 1977. Used with permission.

By today’s standards, McGill might be considered both conservative and liberal, but certainly evangelical. As a Theologian who advocated for a God of change, he is both liberal and evangelical. By his stance on ‘powers’ and ‘evil,’ he would perhaps be categorized as conservative and evangelical. With his emphasis on experience as authoritative, I cannot doubt that he must himself have had experiences of God and the Divine. Additionally, I think his particular mix of theological belief speaks to his enthusiasm for both the common people and an accessible faith as well as a belief that we, each of us, are part of the Vitality that is God. He is ‘conservative’ in the attention he pays to bible-basics in the literature of the New Testament, and he offers an unblinking look at the cosmologies that inform the biblical text, particularly in how the New Testament treats ‘powers’ and ‘evil.’ (McGill’s assertions regarding ‘powers’ reminded me much of the work of the late Walter Wink, whose book ‘Naming the Powers’ shares a kind of kinship with McGill, here, I think.)

Notes taken by Rubinstein from McGill’s class Theology 101. In this notation, Rubinstein has marked where McGill has made a personal assessment and remark in addition to the summary information of the lecture. “Frei’s notion of appreciation [of/&] literary form—the literary form must give us [access?] to reality, but simply attending to the lit[erary] form needed to reveal reality to us.” 1977. Used with permission.

Notes taken by Rubinstein from McGill’s class Theology 101. Here, Rubinstein has made note of “McGill’s Criticism” of the topic. See larger image here. 1977. Used by permission.

McGill was radical for the same reasons he was conservative. He dared oppose a philosophically monistic, absolute God and declared for a God of change. He believed God was accessible to the common believer so much so that that believer could become a true authority of and participant in the creation/fruition of the Kingdom of God. This isn’t the same as Luther’s Priesthood of Believers. Luther wanted to expose a corrupt priestly culture and challenge the ‘set apartness’ that allowed it by bringing the believer up, too. It was a democratization of authority, but one that stayed high. McGill, on the other hand, has a much sweatier perspective. He dismisses all things dogmatic and static and insists that God is down to earth and slogging it out here, with us. When reading McGill’s book Suffering, I can almost imagine hand to hand combat in the streets.

For McGill, theology is an experience. Even in the rhetoric and energetic style of his book he seems to offer us a taste of this experience. ‘Reason’ is a plaything for someone else, perhaps. But ‘experience’ is what erupts from the playground around McGill. And, in this prioritizing of experience, I sensed that McGill saw this as so much more than ‘personal’ experience. Though there is attention to the individual, yes, and emphasis on the importance of individual effort within the constantly shifting ground of theological witness, still, what I really imagined in reading it were clusters and waves and leagues of things all together. It seemed important, vital (for Life!) that we recognize our togetherness. Divine encounter, he seems to declare, is experience to be entered into together, wrestled with together, and altogether shared.

In closing, I will share a wish that I could have been present for this conversation Rubinstein makes note of as having taken place on September 26, 1977:

Notes taken by Rubinstein from McGill’s class Theology 101. “9/26/77, I Method, A. Objective Psychology, B. Otto & Introspective [phenomenology]. II Religion against humanism. III Two questions, A. The status of experience. B. The status of Xianity.” 1977. Used with permission.

(Note: I understand the word ‘Xianity’ to be slang, as it doesn’t show up in the OED. It is a short form of the word ‘Christianity’—similar to Xmas. The X is in reference to the Greek spelling of Christ, Χριστός. The word can be used in a derogatory way, and can imply dogmatic belief. There is no reason to believe McGill himself is using the word as a derogation, though he is known to dislike dogmatic thinking.)


McGill’s Publications:
McGill, Arthur C. The Twilight World of Popular Songs, Religious Education 49, 1954. p 382-88
McGill, Arthur C. Reason in a Violent World, The Distrust of Reason. Wesleyan UP: Middletown, CT. 1958. p 34-50.
McGill, Arthur C. The Place of Dogmatic Theology in the University Ph.D Diss. Yale University. 1961.
McGill, Arthur C. The Celebration of the Flesh: Poetry in Christian Life. Association Press:NY. 1964.
McGill, Arthur C. The End of Intimacy. Christian Faith and Higher Education Institute: East Lansing, MI. 1965.
McGill, Arthur C. The Education of Specialists. The Christian Scholar, Spring 1966.
McGill, Arthur C. The Many-Faced Argument. John Hick Ed. Macmillan:NY. 1967.
McGill, Arthur C. The Death of God and All. That in Radical Theology: Phase Two. C.W.Christian and Glenn R. Wittig Eds. Lippincott: Philadelphia. 1967. p 45-58.
McGill, Arthur C. Technology and Love—A Human Problem Man in Nature and the Nature of Man. Fifth Combined Plan Conference, Arden house, Harriman, NY, 5-8. Nov. 1967.
McGill, Arthur C. Suffering: A Test of Theological Method. Geneva: Philadelphia. 1968. Reprinted Westminster Press, 1982.
McGill, Arthur C. Critique II. Theology Today 25 (1968) 317-19.
McGill, Arthur C. Is Private Charity Coming to an End? Vanguard: A Bulletin for Church Officers 6 (1969) 3-6, 16.
McGill, Arthur C. The Ambiguous Position of Christian Theology, Paul Ramsey and John F Wilson Eds., The Study of Religion in Colleges and Universities. Princeton UP: Princeton. 1970. p105-38.
McGill, Arthur C. The Crisis of Faith Thesis Theological Cassettes: Pittsburgh. 1974.
McGill, Arthur C. Structures of Inhumanity. Alan M. Olson Ed. Disguises of the Demonic. Association: NY. 1975.


Sources for this blog article:
Arthur Chute McGill. Directory of American Scholars, Volume 4, 1982. Science Press. Page 335

Cain, David. Arthur McGill:A Memoir. Harvard Theological Review, Vol 77 1. 1984. p 95-111.

McGill, Arthur C., Suffering: A Test of Theological Method. Geneva: Philadelphia. 1968. Reprinted Westminster Press, 1982.

McGill, Arthur C., and G. D. Kaufman. Theology 101, Class Syllabus. Fall 1977.

Noonan, John T., Jr., The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of Religious Freedom. University of California Press, 2000. 23.

Rubinstein, Ernest. Class notes, Theology 101. 1977.

Who’s Who in America, Marquis Who’s Who, Inc. (1978)

United Church of Christ. Arthur Chute McGill. United Church of Christ, Year book. Vol. 1982, New York, N.Y., p. 452.

From the Drew University Archives:
Biographical Information: Dr. Arthur Chute McGill. Faculty Biography. Special Collections and Archives. Drew University Library. Madison, NJ. c. 1965.

Dr. A.C.McGill dead in Boston. Obituaries. Morning News, Wilmington Delaware. 18 September 1980. (Clipping)

From the Harvard Library Archives:
Report of the President of Harvard College and Reports of Departments. 1980-1981. Official Register of Harvard University. Vol. LXXIX July 2, 1982. Page 45. April 28, 2012

From the Princeton Library Archives:
The Daily Princetonian. Volume 85, Number 82, 13 September 1961. Princeton University Library. April 28, 2012.

Simons, Todd. McGill. The Daily Princetonian Volume 89, No 21, March 1965. Princeton University Library. April 28, 2012.

SCA Convocation Emphasizes Women Students’ Importance. The Daily Princetonian, Volume 89, Number 21. 1 March 1965. Princeton University Library. April 28, 2012.

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