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Theology: The God Is Dead Movement

8 minute read

The “God Is Dead” Movement We must recognize that the death of God is a historical event: God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence.

The words would seem shocking enough coming from someone like Jean-Paul Sartre. As it happens, they were written not by a moody French existentialist but by Thomas J. J. Altizer, 38, associate professor of religion at Atlanta’s Emory University, a Methodist school. Moreover, Altizer is not alone in proclaiming his “atheism.” Today, one of the most hotly debated trends in U.S. Protestant seminaries is a radical new brand of Christian thinking that takes as its starting point Nietzsche’s 19th century rallying cry: “God is dead!”

The death-of-God theologians do not argue merely that Christianity’s traditional “image” of the Creator is obsolete. They say that it is no longer possible to think about or believe in a transcendent God who acts in human history, and that Christianity will have to survive, if at all, without him. Altizer notes that this new kind of Godless Christianity is a uniquely American phenomenon, although it acknowledges an intellectual debt to certain European thinkers, religious as well as secular. From Sören Kierkegaard, the death-of-God thinkers developed the idea that organized Christianity is a kind of idolatry that has obscured the real message of the Gospel behind irrelevant and outdated cultural forms. And they follow closely in the footsteps of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi German martyr of World War II whose prison-cell writings speak of the need for the church to develop a “nonreligious interpretation of Biblical concepts,” and of a secular world “come of age” that no longer finds God necessary as a hypothesis to explain the sun and stars or as an answer to man’s anxiety.

The proclamation of God’s death is only the negative starting point of this new radical theology. In various ways, these theologians are trying to redefine other tenets of a Christianity without a Creator. Something of the variety and scope of the movement can be judged from the work of the four best-known advocates of a death-of-God theology: Altizer, Paul van Buren of Temple University, William Hamilton of Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and Gabriel Vahanian of Syracuse University.

Buddhism & Blake. There is a strong streak of mysticism in Altizer, whose eclectic theology borrows from such diverse sources as Buddhism and William Blake. One of his key themes is the ultimate reconciliation of opposites. Man, he argues, has by now lost the sense of the sacred that was so vivid in the medieval world. Instead of trying to put God back into human life, says Altizer, the Christian should welcome the total secularization of the modern world, on the ground that it is only in the midst of the radically profane that man will again be able to recapture an understanding of the sacred.

Thus Altizer sees the collapse of Christendom and the onset of a secular world without God as necessary preludes to the rediscovery of the sacred. In his next book, to be called The Gospel of Christian Atheism, Altizer in fact analyzes the death of God as essentially a redemptive act.

Human Imagination. By contrast, Paul van Buren, 41, an Episcopal minister and associate professor of religion at Temple, gloomily concludes that any talk of God—including the prospect of his reappearance—is philosophically meaningless.

Van Buren is an advocate of linguistic analysis, which attempts to clarify language by examining the way words are used and denies the objective truth of statements that cannot be verified empirically. In The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (TIME, July 10, 1964), Van Buren tried to work out, in terms of analytical philosophy, a restatement of the Chalcedonian doctrine that Christ is truly man and truly God. Since then, he has been exploring ways to rephrase the Christian doctrine of man and examining “the human imagination as a central theological category. That is, how much is religion part of a person’s imagination, and how important is imagination for all aspects of his life?”

“A Place to Be.” In an essay called Thursday’s Child, William Hamilton of Colgate Rochester argues that the theologian today has neither faith nor hope; only love is left to him. Perhaps the most ethics-minded of these thinkers, Hamilton, 41, concludes that awareness of God’s death summons man all the more to follow Jesus as the exemplar and paradigm of conduct— which, for today, means total commitment to the love and service of his fellow man.

Hamilton defines Christ not as a person or an object but as “a place to be” —and the place of Christ, he asserts, is in the midst of the Negro’s struggle for equality, in the emerging forms of technological society, in the arts and sciences of the secular world. “In the time of the death of God, we have a place to be,” he says. “It is not before an altar; it is in the world, in the city, with both the needy neighbor and the enemy.”

Only God Knows God. While Altizer, Van Buren and Hamilton proclaim the death of God with prophetic force, Syracuse’s Associate Professor Gabriel Vahanian, 38, is urbanely content to explain why the funeral is necessary. More conservative than the others, Vahanian is a sociologist of religion and a cultural historian with a primary interest in analyzing man’s perception of God. He argues that God, if there is one, is known to man only in terms of man’s own culture, and thus is basically an idol: “Theologically speaking, any concept of God can only be an approximation,” he says. “Only God can have a concept about God.”

Vahanian believes that the church’s concept of God today is the product of the encounter between primitive Christianity and Greek philosophy, an idol that is no longer relevant to secular culture and has been either neutralized by overexposure or rejected entirely. Thus, he declares, God is dead, and will remain so until the church becomes secular enough in structure and thought to proclaim him anew in ways that will fulfill the cultural needs of the times. Since the spirit of the times is irretrievably secular—with all notions of transcendence and otherworldliness rejected—Vahanian in his current study is working toward a historical explanation of how secularization came about.

Symbolic Language. Some God-minded Protestant thinkers concede that this new radical theology has considerable merit. Gordon Kaufman of the Harvard Divinity School believes that the movement is forcing other thinkers to undertake a long-overdue re-examination of the doctrine of God. And Paul Tillich, whose own writings point to a “God above God” that stands beyond the man-made deity of traditional theism, concedes: “I say yes to this movement insofar as it points to something above the symbolic language concerning God.” Tillich also says no to the new theologians on the ground that they are abandoning all symbolic language about God.

Harvard’s Harvey Cox, 36, another radical young thinker whose book The Secular City concludes with the idea that Christianity may have to stop talking about God for a while, complains about the writers’ imprecise language. “Is it the loss of the experience of God, the loss of the existence of God in Christianity, or the lack of adequate language to express God today?” he asks. The Union Theological Seminary’s Daniel Day Williams sums up the inner contradictions of the movement with an aphorism: “There is no God, and Jesus is his only begotten son.” Many ministers, moreover, complain that the death-of-God thinkers reduce Christianity to just another kind of humanism with a Jesus-inspired morality.

The Godless Christian thinkers admit that they are a long way from working out a coherent theology. Understandably, they feel a certain anguish because the direction of their thought leads them to feel greater sympathy for Camus than for clergymen of their own churches. Nonetheless, they argue that God’s disappearance from human history cannot be denied, and that there is nothing wrong with a Christian accepting this as a fact. As Hamilton asks, in his book The New Essence of Christianity: “If Jesus can wonder about being forsaken by God, are we to be blamed if we wonder?”

Those who are still with God, on the other hand, are likely to reply by quoting that old play on Nietzsche’s statement. It goes thus:

GOD is DEAD! (Signed) Nietzsche.

NIETZSCHE is DEAD! (Signed) God.

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