Death of God Theology

views updated


Death of God theology was the generic title given to a movement in American theology during the 1960s. Although there were echoes of the death of God theme in the writings of Jewish theologians, especially Richard L. Rubenstein, and Catholic thinkers were influenced by it, the death of God movement remained a primarily Protestant one.

Notion of God and Christianity. Reflecting on Martin luther's famous phrase, "God is dead," which Friedrich nietzsche had transformed into a striking expression of modern man's total rejection of Christianity, the death of God theologians endeavored to elucidate the theological significance of the precipitous decline of religious faith and practice in contemporary society. They were agreed that this startling decline should not be treated simply as a problem in pastoral sociology. The widespread rejection of traditional religion, which is one of the marks of modern society, cannot be attributed solely to social and cultural changes. Contemporary science and philosophy have exposed fundamental deficiencies in the notion of God proposed by traditional theology that have rendered the traditional God meaningless to men whose minds have been formed by contemporary culture. Consequently, unless these deficiencies are removed by a radical revision of our notion of God, God will continue to be meaningless to modern man.

An important consequence of this necessary revision of the notion of God would be an equally radical reconstruction of the meaning of Christianity. "Otherworldly" Christianity, centered on the Incarnate Word of Chalcedonian theology and focused on the Church as the source of supernatural salvation through her rites and preaching, is incompatible with the revision of the notion of God demanded by contemporary science and philosophy. The revised notion of God would call for a secular, "Churchless" Christianity, whose primary expression would be social involvement. This new Christianity would be focused on the human Christ. Christ's religious function would be to give modern man through the Gospels the inspiring example of a truly human life lived totally for others.

The death of God theologians not only shared a number of common preoccupations; they had also undergone a number of common influences. Like many theologians of their generation, they had been influenced by the debate between Karl barth and liberal Protestantism during their theological formation. They had also been influenced by Rudolf bultmann's demythologizing approach to exegesis and a radicaland disputed interpretation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity," based largely on the latter's Letters and Papers from Prison. As a result of these theological influences, and the influence of a variety of contemporary philosophies, the death of God theologians manifested a strong distrust of the traditional metaphysical approach to Christianity. Modern man, in their view, can no longer accept the notion of an infinite, immutable, transcendent God who gives witness to His nature through His creation and to His revealed word by signs and miracles. This immutable, transcendent God is the God who has died because the purely immanent intelligibility of our secular, scientific world no longer speaks of Him. Metaphysical notions, such as the hypostatic union, the Trinity, grace, and sacrament have lost all significance for modern man. Whether personal survival has any factual basis or not, it has ceased to be a matter of pressing concern to the socially involved Christian. For the death of God theologians prayer no longer figured as a central element in a religious life.

Hamilton. Despite these common characteristics, the death of God theologians remained too diverse in their philosophical and theological thinking to create a clearly definable theological school. Indeed, William hamilton, one of the more radical among them, preferred to use the method of shorter essays, "theological fragments," to express his thought rather than work out a consistent large-scale synthesis. Writing in a highly autobiographical style, Hamilton described the lack of faith that besets even the theologian today. The immensity of human suffering in the world today has destroyed man's faith in the providential God who watched over man and cared for his needs. The collapse of metaphysics has eroded modern man's belief in the God of paradise whose enjoyment alone could satisfy the inborn drive of the human spirit. Since the strictly immanent intelligibility of the contemporary scientific world excludes any knowledge of a transcendent divine nature, and there is no void in the human soul that calls for God to fill it, not even the theologian today can maintain any interest in dogmatic statements about God. Therefore the time has now come for contemporary Christians to radicalize the movement initiated by the Protestant Reformers. All Christians, including the theologians, must leave the Church and move out into the world. They must give up their concern for personal supernatural salvation and abandon their preoccupation with rites and dogmatic statements. Instead, they must devote themselves wholeheartedly to the contemporary struggle for the improvement of man, stirred on in their new intraworldly religious work by the inspiring example of Christ.

Van Buren. Hamilton's conviction that metaphysical or dogmatic statements about God were no longer possible was reiterated in a more systematic way by Paul van Buren. Using the verification principle of the logical positivists, according to which only tautologies and empirically verifiable statements can be called meaningful, van Buren drastically reduced the meaningful content of the New Testament. Statements about the divine nature, the divinity of Christ, the supernatural life, etc., are clearly neither tautologies nor empirically verifiable statements. Thus the meaningful Christ who emerges from van Buren's New Testament is the man who was "free" to give Himself for others, and the meaningful content of the Easter message is the "contagion" of Christ's freedom that His disciples caught from Him. The contagion of Christ's freedom transformed the lives of His immediate disciples and they in their turn transmitted it to others through their preaching. Borrowing the term from R. M. Hare, van Buren describes Christianity as a "blik," a sound though nonverifiable worldview. Because of his Christian blik, the Christian looks on the world through the optic of Christ's freedom. Thus, in the manner described by R. R. Braithwaite, the Christian can devote himself to a life of generous social interaction with his neighbor under the inspiration of the Christ of the Gospels.

Van Buren was the most philosophically unified and coherent of the death of God theologians. His Secular Meaning of the Gospel was a consistent application to the New Testament of a rather narrow logical empiricism. Van Buren's consistency, however, was also his weakness. The narrowness of logical empiricism, especially in relation to the verification principle, has been severely criticized by other linguistic philosophers. Many of the criticisms leveled against logical empiricism can also be leveled against van Buren's theology, which is largely dependent on it.

Hamilton and van Buren proclaimed themselves theologians who were content to go about their work without any affirmable knowledge of a transcendent God. Hamilton indeed asserted that the contemporary theologian must be willing to dispense with even religious faith in a transcendent divinity. As a result of their skepticism, Hamilton and van Buren reduced Christianity to a fundamentally ethical enterprise. The Christian is distinguished from the secular humanist because he has chosen to perform his human work for the world under the inspiration of Christ. Neither the intelligibility of the world, the exigencies of human nature, nor religious experience provide any compelling evidence for God's existence. Biblical revelation can solve no problems that the unbeliever cannot cope with just as effectively as the Christian. Since our modern age has reached adulthood, it now realizes that the world no longer needs God to solve its problems. Christianity has become simply one of many possible ways in which modern man can live a rich human life. The Christian is distinguished from other men because he has chosen the Christian option for his own.

Altizer. Thomas J. J. Altizer approached the death of God in a much more metaphysical and theological manner than either Hamilton or van Buren. He agreed with them that the widespread rejection of traditional Christianity is a social fact. He also saw in it a challenge to Christians to revise radically their notion of God and embrace a secular Christianity characterized by its strong affirmation of the value of worldly reality. Altizer, however, did not regard the decline in religious faith as the result of epistemological and cosmological advances that had undermined the credibility of the traditional conception of God. He saw it rather as the reflection in human society of a progressive ontological change that is taking place within God Himself. The death of God, the effect of which has now become visible in modern society, is the ontological process of God's kenosis. God "emptied Himself" ontologically when His Word became flesh in Christ. The Incarnation marks the inception of an ongoing metaphysical identification of God with the finite universe. This self-identification of God with His finite universe is an irreversible movement of God into the world. For, through the "self-emptying" of the Incarnation, God definitively abandoned His state of isolated transcendence in order to unite Himself inseparably with the temporal process of His worldly creation. Since this progressive identification of God with His creation is the true meaning of the Incarnation, the Christian's fidelity to the Incarnation does not mean that the Christian must define his faith in the traditional way by looking back upon the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ as past events that have left the transcendent God fundamentally unchanged. On the contrary, fidelity to the Incarnation means that the Christian must identify himself with the God who has united Himself through His Incarnate Word with the evolutionary process of creation and human society.

Since God is identified with the world, revelation has not closed with the last Apostle. Therefore the Christian will hear God's revealing word addressed to him through successive prophetic voices in the course of history. According to Altizer, three of the great revealing voices through which God speaks to contemporary Christians are those of G. W. F. hegel, William blake, and Nietzsche. Hegel has revealed that God truly becomes Himself only by identifying Himself with His manifestations in finite being. Blake has revealed that the God who is worshiped in the traditional Christian churches is not the true God. Nietzsche has forced Christians to admit that saving truth can be found only in their powerful affirmation of the worth of worldly reality.

The progressive revelation of God through His prophetic voices in modern history requires a transformation of the Christian's understanding of the sacred and the profane. Primitive man, as Mircea eliade has shown, considered that worldly being, "the profane," was unreal in comparison with the sacred, the changeless transcendent God. Profane being was given its true value only when it was denied, i.e., reduced to the status of an "unreal" manifestation of true being, the sacred transcendent God. Once Christians have come to realize that the death of God means God's irreversible identification of Himself with the process of His creation, their understanding of the relation of the sacred and the profane must be reversed. Sacred, "real" being is no longer found above the world in a transcendent God. The sacred, real, divine being is found in the only place in which it can exist after the death of God, in the ongoing secular process of the world itself.

If the practical conclusions of Altizer's death of God theology were very similar to those of Hamilton and van Buren, its philosophical foundations were completely different. Although Altizer's writings contained the germ of a powerful philosophical theology, he never worked out the implications of his major metaphysical assertions. Consequently the many ambiguities of his system, e.g., the immanence or transcendence of God, the relation of creation to the Incarnation, the relation of grace to nature, the precise significance of the Word of God, remained unresolved. As a result Altizer's death of God theology remained a series of provocative suggestions. It never became a coherent theological synthesis capable of exerting a lasting influence.

Robinson and Vahanian. Although the theology of the Anglican bishop of Woolwich, John A. T. Robinson, resembled the theology of the death of God movement in many respects, Robinson was not a member of the movement. Like the American death of God theologians, Robinson rejected the notion of a transcendent God described in personal categories. Under the influence of Bultmann he refused to accept the concept of a God who worked within our empirical world through signs and miracles. He found Paul tillich's conception of God as the unobjective ground of being more satisfactory than the traditional notion of a transcendent God standing over against the human subject as a sort of superperson. Nevertheless Robinson did not draw the radical conclusions that the death of God theologians drew from his revised understanding of God and God's relation to the world. A radical revision and updating of religious practice to make the Church more significant to modern man rather than an abandonment of the institutional Church was the theme of Robinson's much discussed Honest to God.

Similarly, Gabriel Vahanian, whose name was often linked to the death of God movement, was not a death of God theologian. Vahanian was concerned with the death of God, the general decline of religious belief and practice, as a historical fact. Since he was an orthodox Protestant theologian in the Barthian tradition, however, he looked on this cultural death of God as a call to return to a purer and more biblical conception of God.

Bibliography: t. j. j. altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia 1966); ed., Toward a New Christianity: Readings in the Death of God Theology (New York 1967); t. j. j. altizer and w. hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God (Indianapolis, Ind. 1966). w. hamilton, The New Essence of Christianity (New York 1961); "Thursday's Child: The Theologian Today and Tomorrow," Theology Today 20 (January 1964) 487495; "The Death of God Theology," Christian Scholar 48 (Spring 1965) 2748; "The Shape of Radical Theology," Christian Century 82 (Spring 1965) 121922. j. a. t. robinson, Honest to God (Philadelphia 1963); Exploration into God (Palo Alto, Calif. 1967). g. vahanian, The Death of God (New York 1961); No Other God (New York 1966); ed., The God Is Dead Debate (New York 1967). p. van buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (New York 1963); Theological Explorations (New York 1968). Secondary sources. l. gilkie, Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God Language (Indianapolis, Ind. 1969) esp. 107145. v. mehta, The New Theologians (New York 1966). t. w. ogletree, The Death of God Controversy (Nashville 1966).

[g. a. mccool]