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Smith, Ronald Gregor (1913–1968), theologian, was born in Edinburgh on 17 April 1913, the second son of George Henry Smith, marine biologist, and his wife, Helen Wilson, née Dea. Educated at George Heriot's School, Edinburgh, he studied English literature at Edinburgh University from 1930 to 1934, when he graduated MA with first-class honours. Along with a love of poetry (many were later to say he was as much a poet as a theologian) his student days were marked by an earnest evangelicalism, and while he soon discarded this form of piety the relationship of faith to a love of humanistic culture remained a lifelong source of fascination and challenge for him. Another allurement was Germany: having already acquired a command of the language he spent the year 1934–5 studying philosophy and literature in Munich, and while there met and fell in love with a doctoral student in English literature, Katherina (Käthe) Wittlake (1905–1999), his future wife.

Gregor Smith (Gregor was incorporated into his surname in adult life) had long intended to enter the ministry of the Church of Scotland, and in 1935–8 took the divinity course at New College, Edinburgh, where his influential teachers included Professor John Baillie, and among his student peers were others destined for eminence such as T. F. Torrance. He graduated BD in 1938, again with prize distinction, but his outstanding achievement while still a student was to make the first English translation of Ich und Du, the seminal work of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, which appeared as I and Thou in 1937. There followed a year in Denmark at the University of Copenhagen, studying Søren Kierkegaard, and in Germany attending the lectures of Rudolf Bultmann at the University of Marburg.

In 1939 war put an end to plans for further such studies (and immediate marriage) and Gregor Smith undertook the parish ministry at Lawson Memorial Church, Selkirk. This nevertheless enabled him to cultivate his ideal of being a modern version of the poet–priest George Herbert, touched by Buber's sense of the divine presence in ‘I–Thou’ relations, Kierkegaard's discomforting stress on faith as costly decision, and T. S. Eliot's contemplative use of language. He wrote prolifically for religious and theological journals as well as producing his first book, Still Point, under the pseudonym Ronald Maxwell, in 1943. In 1944, however, he abandoned the seclusion of his study for an army chaplaincy with the Scots Guards. With another officer he wrote an account, both reflective and witty, of army life, Back from the Front, under the pseudonym Sam Browne (1946).

In 1946 Gregor Smith joined the Allied Control Commission in Germany as education officer at Bonn University and so was engaged in re-establishing academic life on a non-Nazi basis. Karl Barth, protestantism's most eminent theologian, returned to Bonn as a visiting lecturer during this period and in 1947 among other duties conducted the service for the marriage of Gregor Smith and his fiancée, Käthe Wittlake, reunited after nearly eight years' separation. There were no children of the marriage.

In 1947 Gregor Smith was appointed associate editor of the Student Christian Movement (SCM) Press in London, and in 1950 succeeded Hugh Martin as managing director and editor. Here Gregor Smith was in his element: the opportunity and need to keep abreast of the latest theological writing (especially German) and translating many such works himself; meeting (and dining with) prospective authors; and not only seeing into print but advocating through articles and radio broadcasts what he perceived to be the most significant voices of the hour. Under his editorship SCM Press rapidly grew from being a rather church-focused, if liberal, concern into the foremost British publishing house for serious academic theology of that time. Buber and Kierkegaard continued to feature in his own studies and translations, joined by the enigmatic figure of J. G. Hamann, a precursor of the Romantic movement and Kierkegaard's existentialism.

It was to two modern German theologians that Gregor Smith increasingly turned: Rudolf Bultmann, who was now shaking the protestant world with his proposal to strip the New Testament message of its first-century miraculous framework in favour of a ‘demythologized’ proclamation of the word of God's grace; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis in 1945, whose prison writings, posthumously published in Germany, included the startling call for theology to recognize that the world had ‘come of age’ and no longer needed ‘God’ as traditionally taught, and who proposed instead the working out of a ‘non-religious Christianity’. Gregor Smith became a foremost promoter of Bonhoeffer in the English-speaking world and saw into print the first translation of his now famous prison letters. While he became a personal friend of Bultmann, confessing that he found his own thinking very difficult to distinguish from Bultmann's, a still closer friendship grew between the Gregor Smiths and Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer's friend and biographer, and his wife, Renate, Bonhoeffer's niece, from 1953, when Bethge came to be pastor of Bonhoeffer's former German congregation in London.

Gregor Smith's own theological explorations bore fruit in The New Man: Christianity and Man's Coming of Age, a series of lectures given in Australia in 1955 and published in 1956. Slim and deftly written, while drawing much on Bultmann and Bonhoeffer (and Paul Tillich) its originality lay in its emphasis upon ‘this-worldly transcendence’: history, not some realm beyond history, is where God in Christ meets humankind and is in turn the sphere into which faith leads the believer in full responsibility for society. It foreshadowed, but was more insightful and nuanced than, much of the ‘secular theology’ of the 1960s.

Moreover 1956 saw Gregor Smith's appointment as primarius professor of divinity at Glasgow University. He provoked controversy on arrival by denying the right of the kirk to ratify his appointment, going to court to confirm that this was indeed a secular, not ecclesiastical, academic post. Glasgow's reputation as a centre for radical and existentialist theology, greatly enhanced by Gregor Smith's own interests, was soon attracting postgraduate students from as far afield as the USA and Australia. In turn Gregor Smith was in demand as a visiting lecturer in the USA and in Germany, and addressed a wide variety of gatherings, from ecumenical conferences of the World Council of Churches to meetings of industrial chaplains. Acquiring a reputation as something of a maverick and a radical as regards both theology and church, he was nevertheless aware that many of his students were ordinands and in his lectures he sought to show the bearing of the doctrinal tradition on a contemporary understanding of humanity and society. A refined and sensitive soul with a Kierkegaardian aversion to the ‘brutish mass’, Gregor Smith was nevertheless quietly sociable. He and Käthe belonged to a discussion circle of academics, psychiatrists, writers, and artists in Glasgow, while a crofter's cottage by Loch Lomond was their favoured retreat for much of the year.

Gregor Smith's own central concern remained the meaning of faith in the context of secularization, resulting in his most substantial book, Secular Christianity (1966). While the title suggests merely yet another version of the ‘secular’ or ‘death of God’ theology then being popularized, its central thrust is in fact a critique of contemporary secularism which he distinguishes from the proper ‘secularity’ of faith. ‘Modern secularism is not secular enough’, he argued, for it denies any sense of transcendence, which alone can engender both freedom and responsibility for historical life (Secular Christianity, 172). How to conceive of this ‘transcendence’ as the reality of God yet met within this world of human experience was the challenge Gregor Smith set himself in preparing his Warfield lectures to be given at Princeton in 1969. It is, he suggested, in the interhuman realm, the ‘between’ where encounter of person with person takes place, that we are touched by what truly transcends yet enfolds us as ‘spirit’. The writing was still incomplete on 26 September 1968 when, after returning with Käthe from vacation on the continent, he collapsed in Hull with a heart attack and died in the Royal Infirmary. He was buried in Balmaha churchyard.

Gregor Smith's death at fifty-five deprived British theology of one of its most creative figures just when his thought seemed to be coming to fullest flower. As translator and theological interpreter his mediation of so many leading continental thinkers was itself an immense contribution, as recognized by the honorary doctorates given him by the universities of Marburg and Edinburgh in 1963. The material from his Warfield lectures was later edited and published as The Doctrine of God (1970). Unlike some would-be radical theologians he maintained a respect for the doctrinal tradition while believing that something quite new has to be said arising out of it, together with a recognition of the mystery of a God who is present yet hidden. His attitude is well expressed by a statement in The Doctrine of God: ‘The real audacity does not consist in declaring that God is dead, but in daring at all to take that name upon our lips’ (Doctrine of God, 22). One of his Australian doctoral students said that what above all he gained from Ronald Gregor Smith was the example of a life lived in faith.

Keith Clements

Sources  

K. Clements, The theology of Ronald Gregor Smith (1986) · E. T. Long, ed., God, secularization, and history: essays in memory of Ronald Gregor Smith (1974) · N. Blackie, ed., A time for trumpets: Scottish church movers and shakers of the twentieth century (2005) · private information (2012) · d. cert.

Archives  

U. Glas. L., special collections department, papers

 

SOUND

 

‘Still point’, BBC Radio 3 programme, Sept 1978


Likenesses  

photograph, c.1965, repro. in R. G. Smith, The doctrine of God (1970), jacket; also repro. in Clements, Bonhoeffer and Britain (2006)