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John Macquarrie, 87; theologian combined his faith with existentialism

June 08, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

The Rev. John Macquarrie, a Scottish theologian who combined his Christian beliefs with existentialist philosophy in works that were praised for their wise and hopeful perspective, has died. He was 87.

Macquarrie, a former professor of theology at Oxford University and Union Theological Seminary in New York City, died of cancer May 28 in Oxford, England, according to news reports.

At the start of his academic career in the 1950s, Macquarrie's interest in German existentialist philosophy led him to translate "Being and Time," a seminal work by influential philosopher Martin Heidegger, who strained to define the experience of being human.

Macquarrie also was influenced by Rudolf Bultmann, a German theologian who interpreted the New Testament in light of existentialist views on such topics as free will and responsibility.

Macquarrie acknowledged these two prominent voices in "An Existentialist Theology: A Comparison of Heidegger and Bultmann." The book was published in 1955 and helped establish Macquarrie's scholarly reputation.

During World War II, Macquarrie served in the British army and was an army chaplain from 1945 to 1948.

He saw how violence and suffering can topple faith, and addressed the issue in several of his books, including his major work, "Principles of Christian Theology," published in 1966. In the book, he laid out his interpretation of basic Christian teachings.

Unlike some religious thinkers who question whether God is indifferent or worse, Macquarrie took it as a given that God is good.

A later work, "In Search of Humanity" (1982), explored the spiritual nature of human beings and the potential for change and transformation. He used such topics as freedom and conscience as windows on his discussion.

In more than 20 books, Macquarrie returned to questions of the nature of God, human existence and aspects of human spirituality.

"Unlike some modern theologians, John Macquarrie writes about God as though he believes in him," N.K. Bruger wrote in a 1972 review of "Paths in Spirituality" for the New York Times.

Macquarrie was born June 27, 1919, in Renfrew, Scotland. At the University of Glasgow, he earned highest honors in philosophy as an undergraduate. He later earned master's and doctoral degrees at the university.

He was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1945. Along with parish ministry work, he was a lecturer at the University of Glasgow until he joined the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1962 and taught systematic theology.

While he was living in New York City, he was ordained an Episcopal priest.

In 1970, Macquarrie joined the faculty at Oxford University and continued to teach, write and serve as a priest.

Macquarrie is survived by his wife, Jenny; three children; and two grandchildren.

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