Paul van Buren

Alec Gilmore discusses the Death of God 
with Paul van Buren in the summer of 1967,
  subsequently published in 
New Christian, July 1968.

GILMORE. What's happening nowadays to the Death of God movement in the States? Is it fading off the scene? 

VAN BUREN.The first thing to say is that the Death of God movement was an invention of the American press with slight assistance from certain American theologians who should have known better, and that as a movement in the press it came to life suddenly, burst up for as long as it would sell newspapers and magazines, and has now faded out in the light of more interesting things to talk about. 

A.G. Are there people in the States who still pursue this line though not perhaps with the banners and the trumpets? 

P.VB. What gave occasion to this journalistic nonsense has, I think, a much more broad base, but I would want to question whether there's a ‘line' here. What is going on is that a number of the younger theologians are wrestling with the problem of how we are to speak in this day and age. I see no sign of this side of the matter, which I think is the basic one, disappearing from the scene. 

A.G. You have been called a Death of God theologian, and you have been lined up with men like Altizer, Hamilton and Vahanian. Do you accept this classification of your thinking?

P.VB. Well that can be a little like the question, Do I accept the universe? One has to accept what the power of the press does for us, but I would be inclined to think this was a more misleading than helpful classification.

A.G. Talking to people in the States I got the impression that your position has changed somewhat since you wrote The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (SM). How has your thinking changed between the book and your more recent Theological Explorations just published?

P.VB. I think a number of changes are evident in these later essays. For example, In SM I laid considerable emphasis on the historical Jesus. I think I would now be inclined to say that the historical Jesus is a fairly modern construction. In fact the driving force for Christian faith has been not the historical Jesus but the image of Jesus which comes to Christians who read and wrestle with the biblical story. This image has continuity in that it is always the same story that they are reading, but it has been read with different eyes in different periods of history, and the reading is shaped by the way in which people read and understand all kinds of other things.

Then again, In SM I said I thought the word ‘God' was so difficult to make a useful term in Christian theology that it would be better to try to get along without it. I am now inclined to think that this is a hopeless enterprise because the word is so central in the whole biblical story that it will go on being used. I think I would want to say that we must now concern ourselves with the responsible ways in which we can use this word and give some account of what we are doing with our language. 

A.G. In SM are you really saying, 'This is all there is', or 'This is all we can be sure of and communicate'? 

P.VB. If I am asked what I am sure of I suppose I would want to say that I'm sure of a number of things that I can see and touch but I would also say (and find it no more ambiguous to say) I am sure of certain human relationships. But when one is talking about human relationships one is talking in a different way from when one is talking about the things one can see and touch.

A.G. But if, for instance, you take a subject in SM like prayer, where you suggest that action to achieve irrigation is more appropriate than praying for rain and enduring a doubt, many people would agree with all you say, but would want to go on and say that prayer is much more than this.

P.VB. Well, I'm prepared to hear their account of what that ‘more' consists of, but if you wish to talk about a 'more but cannot say what it is, then it's time for both of us to keep quiet. 

A.G. Are you content to say that Jesus is all you can be sure of, and that when you have talked about Jesus and his contagious freedom you have said all there is to be said about him?

P.VB. Well, I think my rule of thumb is to start from saying the least that one can say. I think it is already a puzzling enough business to say what it means to say that we are sure of Jesus. We can be reasonably sure that there was such a man, sure that the early Christians said some of the things they are reported to have said about him, sure (I think) that certain things have happened to the people as a result of their having been exposed to, or having read, the Christian story, which could be described as being caught by, being taken up into, coming to share in some of the freedom which Jesus had.

A.G. You see, one of your critics has said, 'Jesus without Jesus's heavenly father simply is not Jesus' What do you say to that?

P.VB. The assumption seems to be that there is a clear alternative of Jesus-with-his-heavenly-father, which is not to me altogether clear. If it means Jesus as Jesus was, a man of the first century, believing whatever he may have believed about the relationship between the earth and the sun for example, believing that when you planted a seed in the ground it died and a new seed came up, believing that Joshua made the sun stand still, then this same Jesus certainly spoke of a heavenly father, whatever those words meant.

A.G. But you can now have Jesus with his view of the earth and sun, etc? 

P.VB. Yes, but of course it isn't the same Jesus;  we're  already interpreting. And there has never been any other Jesus for the church than a selectively interpreted Jesus.  He  has  always  been Jesus that the Christians of a particular time have seen when they read the New Testament.

A.G. But we have got used to ignoring certain aspects of this Jesus of history.

P.VB. Well, it's always been something of a struggle within the church. For example, Paul had this with the mother church Jerusalem, and what they agreed to do, far as one can see from the records, was to settle for a peaceful co-existence. 

A.G. And are you then suggesting that one of the contributions of our age is discovery of  Jesus  without  the  heavenly father concept?

P.VB. Yes, though I want to qualify it. It seems to me one has to say the Jesus of the New Testament did speak of his heavenly father, but do I have to go on a say some things about this heavenly father that Jesus did not say? Do I have to say, for example, that he exists? Do I have say that he is there! These are not, you see, words that Jesus used as a matter fact. Do I have to arrive at certain kinds of philosophical conclusions about his heavenly father, or do I have to say this is a controlling image in Jesus's imagination, in his language, in the ways in which he saw and spoke about the world in which he lived?

A.G. What are we to say then about communion with God? Is this a meaningless phrase?

P.VB. I don't know. I presume if a person talks about communion with God being important it is not for him a meaningless phrase. I should like to hear him talk further about it.

A.G. When you talk, as you do in SM about praying with the Bible in one hand and  the newspaper in the other, are you at this point communicating with yourself;reflecting with yourself? 

P.VB. Yes, but as the picture just mentioned would suggest I is not doing it just with myself — I is doing it with the Bible and the newspaper. There is a three-way conversation going on here: reflection on the Bible story, the world about us (represented by the newspaper) and we who are doing the reflecting. 

A.G. What about adoration in this context? Does this become just a cry of amazement? And is thanksgiving nothing more than a squeak of delight, not addressed to anyone?

P.VB. You have a loaded way of putting these questions,don't you? Why couldn’t we say that adoration is indeed a cry amazement? Or isn't it interesting that there are those who when confronted with one experience  or  another  in  life  cry out in amazement and others who come along and just take everything for granted? 

A.G. What about purpose? In SM you tell us to stop looking for the father, and now in Theological Explorations you say that 'life is making up your mind and there may be no goal to arrive at'. Now I know that I've taken you a bit out of context because there you are speaking about theology, but do you perhaps feel that the same is true of life? Are you, for example, content to say that life is a moral adventure, and do you not see it as a road to be travelled in order one day to arrive at a certain point?

P.VB. Well, it's a road to be travelled, but in the sense that one is building the road as one goes along.

A.G. But you are much more interested in the road and the now than you are in a point to arrive at?

P.VB. I should have thought that the Christian faith as a moral adventure has the particular character of being a hopeful adventure.

A.G. But it's a hopeful adventure which you see very much in terms of this world. Do you have any fears or misgivings about the Beyond or about another world? 

P.VB. ‘This world' and 'another world' of course are terms which come out of a past involving a way of thinking and speaking which I don't think many of us are familiar with; even those who talk more comfortably in this way don't honour this sort of distinction with much of themselves; and a great many of us today, I think, don't live this way at all. When I talk about a future I wouldn't say it's a future for just this world; I would say one's talking about a future of the world, meaning everything there is.

A.G. So can you be content to live in this world, meaning 'everything there is', and not hang on to some idea that there's a kind of eternal world somewhere else to which this world is somehow geared? 

P.VB. Yes, I think I certainly can. I can neither affirm nor deny because I really have no way of making any sense of something that is not part of the universe. 

A.G. If I were to say that this 'other world' might be seen perhaps in terms of this present world in depth rather than another world in the sense of outer space, or another world in the sense of future time, does this make more sense to you? 

P.VB. Yes. One can of course live life and look at this world and understand ourselves and do all the things that we do in very superficial ways. One can also live in all this and look at all this in many different ways, and I should have thought that these differences are important ones in human life; then the question is, what do we find as a helpful and useful way to draw attention to these differences? I should have thought that the terms ‘beyond' or 'other world, were either intentionally misleading and therefore confusing and muddled ways of speaking, or that they were unintentionally misleading and therefore on any evidence that I can see either incorrect or again meaningless.

A.G. This brings us to the question of transcendence. I notice in your forthcoming book you propose a new duality — the ordinary seen as ordinary and the ordinary seen as extraordinary. Now would it be true to say that by the transcendent you understand the ordinary seen as extraordinary? 

P.VB. I don't mean it as a direct translation. I'm quite sure spatial terms are not what we want in trying to make clear what it is that we believe today, so that I am really proposing this distinction of different ways of taking this world, different ways of living in and speaking of this world, as an alternative to talking about the transcendent.

A.G. Is this the same as you mean a little later on when you say that transcendence is imagination (not fact), dreams (not common sense), poetry (not prose), insight (not explanation)? 

P.VB. Yes. In a way I'm trying to get at a variety of different ways, alternatives to the ones I propose, that will not get us back into the problems that the word 'transcendence' brings with it. 

A.G. What would you say then if I said that this seems to me to be a new understanding of God?

P.VB. That depends on how it is meant. If the assumption is that we are all agreed that there is somewhere, somehow, a thing around called God, and now the question is how are we going to understand this entity, then I would say, 'No, this is not what I'm trying to do, because I don't know any way to talk about God as entity except as that strange imaginative figure who is so central in the biblical story and in the Christian story'.

A.G. When you say this, then people often remark,'WelI, that's just humanism'. Do you regard yourself as a humanist? 

P.VB. It's not at all clear to me just what is meant by the word ‘humanist’. If a humanist is a man who is centrally concerned with human beings I should like to hope that I am at least a humanist.

A.G.  You say, 'at least a humanist'. What else would you like to be? 

P.VB. Having said one is a humanist one then has to go on and specify what sort of a humanist. In what way is one concerned about man?  What sort of images of man is one operating with? What are one's moral ideals or norms for understanding oneself and others as human beings? What sort of ideals and hopes does one have for human life? And at that point I could imagine considerable diversity coming into the scene. 

A.G. In SM you seemed to identify the church as the community where this contagious  freedom  can  be caught.  How  far is this a satisfactory image of the church? 

P.VB. I am, I'm afraid, in something of a bind here over the diverse ways in which we use the word ‘church'. I think for most of  us  the word refers first  of  all  to  a building — we can say how much it cost to repair its roof. Then   sometimes, more broadly, it refers to the professional clergy, as when people say, 'Why doesn't the church do something or say something?' I think these are different from what is meant by the ecclesia in the New Testament. There it referred to a group of people. So that when I want to find some way of talking about what the New Testament is talking about when it talks  about  the church,  I should prefer to say simply 'the Christians'. And if you talk about the Christians among whom there  is  some sharing of the contagious  freedom, then I should think this is perhaps a useful way to talk about what the New Testament meant by 'church’. 

A.G. Do you see contagious freedom as the identification mark of the Christians? 

P.VB. No; I don't know. A historian friend of mine has made the point that the only satisfactory historical definition is that anyone is a Christian who says he's a Christian. I think that's fairly good; it's nice and clear. I think what I want to say is that a Christian is anyone who cannot get away from the biblical story as being for him in some way an important factor in his moral existence as a human being. 

A.G. What then is the relationship between the Christians and the religious institution, because in your book, you say you would be interested to know. Have you come to any further conclusions on this? 

P.VB. No, I meant that I should really be interested to know what the results of an empirical investigation would be. Let me give you an example. I have run across quite a lot of people in Britain and in the United States who I should have thought by my understanding of it were thoughtful Christians; human beings who were deeply concerned as to what they ought to be doing in their life, and these are people who in many cases seem to have almost no relationship with the ecclesiastical institution, and I should be interested to know what then provides for them the support traditionally provided by the Christian community. Is it their conversations with other people who themselves go to church or do they find they don't need any support from other persons?

A.G. What about the Kingdom of God? This is a phrase you don't use, I think.

P.VB. No, but I've been working this year a bit on problems relating to this. I think it has to do with the question of hope as an important part of what one means by faith; that is, the character of Christian faith as moral decision involves a decision as it were to aim toward something, the fulfilment of which is not yet in evidence, and yet something which one hopes for. I should have thought that this is what the kingdom of God is about. 

A.G. Is it a future thing? 

P.VB. Yes, a future thing in the way a moral ideal is a future thing; that is, the realisation of this ideal is primarily in the future, though one can look back to some indications of it as a possibility, and perhaps one finds here and there signs of its coming. 

A.G.  How do you see the role of theology in Christianity today? 

P.VB. Well I think that theology is parasitic on the confusion of Christians. As long as there are people around who read the Bible story and who, having read  it, are concerned with what it has to say but who then find themselves confused in what they say or are in disagreement about what to say, then there is a place for theology. As long as there is uncertainty, doubt and disagreement about what it is we want to say ourselves, then theology has a place. At  the  present  time, in  other  words,  today is a great day for theology. 

A.G. One last question. How do you see the future of Christianity? 

P.VB. Well that's hard to say. I think we are in a period of considerable sorting out, but I see no sign of Christianity dying out though I do see signs of it changing. I expect that the church as any kind of official expression of the community of Christians is going to be a smaller institution than it has been in the past. But I judge that Christianity presents an image of life, a moral challenge to man, and holds out a moral hope which for two thousand years has stirred men's imagination and set them loose in the battle of life. I see no reason why one would expect this to stop happening today.

At the time of the conversation Dr Paul M. van Buren is Professor of Religion at Philadelphia University and author of The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (SCM Press). Alec Gilmore is Minister of West Worthing Baptist Church and also on the editorial staff of the Lutterworth Press.

At the time of the conversation Dr Paul M. van Buren is Professor of Religion at Philadelphia University and author of The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (SCM Press). Alec Gilmore is Minister of West Worthing Baptist Church and also on the editorial staff of the Lutterworth Press.


© Alec Gilmore 2014