New Christian

The Death of God

When John Robinson was making waves in Britain in the 1960s with Honest to God, and biblical scholars were airing their radical academic theology in Soundings. Essays Concerning Christian Understanding and Objections to Christian Belief (both edited by A R Vidler), a similar radical controversy in the USA focused on scholars, four in particular, exploring the idea of the Death of God. They were

Gabriel Vahanian
then a French Protestant Christian Theologian, Member of the Faculty of Syracuse University, USA,
and author of The Death of God (George Braziller)

William Hamilton
then Lecturer at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School,
and co-author (with Altizer) of 
Radical Theology and the Death of God (Bobbs-Merrill).

Thomas J. J. Altizer  
then Associate Professor of Religion at Emory College, Atlanta,
and author of The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Collins). 

Paul M. van Buren
then Professor of Religion at Philadelphia University,
and authpr of 
The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (SCM).

For a summary and critique of their views see 
Thomas W Ogletree, The ‘Death of God’ Controversy (SCM).

In the summer of 1967, on a UK/USA Exchange of Preachers plan, organised by the World Council of Churches, I had time during the week for research and made it my business to interview two of them, both sympathetic to the notion though one more obviously cautious than the other. Subsequently extracts from the conversation were published in New Christian, a new publication which ran for five years and reflected some of the pros and cons of more liberal Christian thinking at that time.

Gabriel Vahanian, a professor at Syacuse University and a churchgoing Presbyterian who grew up and was educated in the tradition of John Calvin and Karl Barth, struck first in 1961 with his book, The Death of God: The Culture of our Post-Christian Era, hailed by Rudolph Bultmann as a landmark of theological criticism. It was a scholarly work in which he argued that modern secular culture had lost all sense of the sacred, the sacramental, transcendentalism and providence, and criticised efforts to modernise Christianity, taking the church leaders to task for what he considered to be the trivialisation of Christian teaching in the secular age.

He was an iconoclast, a radical who described himself as a lifelong, practicing, disgruntled Protestant Christian. Though inevitably allied with the other Death of God theologians he had a totally different theological map from most of them, and remained very much on the fringe. Described by some advocates of Christian atheism as ‘hopelessly conservative’ he nevertheless shared their sensitivity and religious passion that animated the movement. 

William Hamilton, a student of Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich (Union Theological Seminary) and Donald M. Baillie (St Andrews, Scotland) quickly established himself as a Baptist minister and distinguished theologian, regarded in the early 1960s as a jewel in the crown of up-and-coming American theologians with a promising traditional academic theological career ahead of him. 

Altizer rated him ‘the most articulate leader of the death-of-God movement in America. . . the first theologian to break through the barriers of Protestant neo-orthodoxy and formulate a theological acceptance of the death of God’, which he accomplished by ‘entering into an open dialogue with modern culture.’

His alliance with Altizer in Radical Theology and the Death of God (1966) and his association with other young theologians of a similar mind, however, shook the very foundations of the American theological establishment, considerably undermined his credibility and changed his future, but he never lost his commitment to confronting difficult questions and seeking honest answers.

Critics of ‘death-of-God-theology’ find it comforting to dismiss it as nothing more than a ‘theology of the month, like Jonah’s gourd which rose and perished in a night and many similar 60’s movements. Hamilton agreed there was some truth in this; it was an event and ‘any event the media create they can uncreate’, he wrote, but he then went on to claim that far from disappearing, ’death-of-God theology has simply been transformed and nowadays has a significant place in mainstream theology.

Two examples he cites are feminist theology where the patriarchal, culturally bound God no longer ‘lives’ for many women (and men) who still want to identify themselves as Christians, and black theology of the late 1960s owed its origins to the psychological preparation provided by the death of God theology in the 1950s.

See also William Hamilton, ‘Looking Back after Ten Years of Death of God Theology’ in Christian Century, October 8, 1975, pp 872-873, and quoted in www.religion-online.org.


 

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© Alec Gilmore 2017