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  • The Foundational Theology of Donald Gelpi, SJ
  • John J. Markey OP and Greg Zuschlag

I. Introduction

Donald Gelpi, SJ (1934-2011) saw his life's work as an attempt to construct an integral systematic theology during a time when such projects were deemed passé and undesirable. Such attitudes did not deter him though, and he worked quietly in his office at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley for several decades developing such a system and teaching it in his classes and lectures. During those years, he produced works on theological method, sacramental theology, the Trinity, and Christology.

Grounding his systematic theology was a theological method defined by his fellow North American Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan. In his seminal work, Method in Theology, Lonergan articulated eight "functional specialties" for carrying out the various tasks in theology. He described the fifth function, "Foundations," as a normative account of reality that bridges the first four (Research, Interpretation, History, and Dialectic) and the last three (Doctrine, Systematics, and Communications). The concept of "conversion," for Lonergan, played an important role in the bridging function of "Foundations."

This article provides a basic overview of Gelpi's theology and focuses on how he integrates aspects of classical American philosophy into Lonergan's method. After providing some background for Gelpi's project, the article will detail his neo-Peircean metaphysics of experience and his concept of conversion. It concludes with an estimation of the import of Gelpi's project for contemporary theology.

II. Background

Gelpi had a synthetic and encyclopedic mind. A theologian steeped in the Catholic Christian tradition, Gelpi also wanted to explore the possibilities of inculturating this tradition in the thought forms of North America.1 He studied theology in the Jesuit tradition both here in the US and abroad (Belgium). [End Page 167] The cornerstone of his theological education was the Neo-Thomism-Neo-scholasticism and Transcendental Thomism that characterized Jesuit education immediately before and during the second Vatican council.2

During this period, Gelpi was profoundly influenced by the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. Rahner was so central to Gelpi's early thought that he wrote a book on Rahner's theology before he finished his doctorate.3 He especially admired Rahner's ability to reformulate traditional catholic theological doctrine in terms of modern philosophical concerns and cultural sensibilities. Although Gelpi would eventually offer a serious critique of the philosophical foundations of Rahner's system, he nevertheless spent his early career largely trying to articulate Rahner's thought in terms of American philosophical insights. In this process, he would not only emulate Rahner but transform his theology.4

Although thoroughly schooled in European forms of theology, Gelpi believed that his most important contribution to theology lay in his ability to interpret theology in terms of North American and US modes of thinking, thus anticipating and pioneering so-called "inculturated theology."5 To this end, he began his doctorate in Philosophy at Fordham University with a desire to further study the work of American philosophers like charles sanders Peirce, Josiah Royce, and William James. Gelpi eventually realized that the locus of a distinctively North American frame of reference derived more from the work of the great Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson than any other individual thinker. Gelpi's painstakingly detailed analysis of Emerson yielded a doctoral dissertation and eventually a book.6

The study of American sources also created in Gelpi an insatiable desire to learn even more about the work of the New England Puritans and especially the creative synthesis of the calvinist preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. He combined this with a thorough study of the American Enlightenment. The thought of the "founding fathers"—particularly Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and the authors of The Federalist Papers[End Page 168] comprised a type of American rationalism that reacted both against the British monarchy and the Calvinism that came to its most stark formulation in the American Puritan movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.7

Gelpi found in the work of this extremely diverse body of thinkers many common threads of thought that, woven together over time, created a uniquely American way of interpreting reality. Among the most important insights that links these thinkers...


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