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The Dangerous God: A Profile of William Hamilton

by Lloyd Steffen

Lloyd Steffen is chaplain at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 27, 1989, p. 844. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


"In some ways I had the worst possible preparation for becoming a theologian. I grew up in a very bland, very liberal, Yale-Divinity-School-pastor. Baptist, suburban, middle-class parish that bored me silly as soon as I was able to read and write. And I left it."

These remarks by radical theologian William Hamilton tell only part of the story. Hamilton went on to receive the best kind of preparation for becoming a theologian. After graduating from Oberlin College and studying at Union Theological Seminary in the glory days of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, Hamilton was ordained and went on to earn his doctorate at St. Andrew’s in Scotland under Donald M. Baillie. Appointed to the faculty of Colgate Rochester Divinity School where he would soon assume the school’s chair of historical theology, Hamilton established himself by frequently contributing to theological journals and writing Reader’s Guides to the Gospels and short books on theological anthropology, including the well-received New Essence of Christianity. He gained even wider recognition when he hosted a nationally broadcast CBS television series devoted to explaining religion and theology.

In the early 1960s Hamilton was a jewel in the crown of up-and-coming American theologians; the most promising part of a traditional academic theological career was ahead of him. Then, as the philosopher Karl Jaspers liked to say, "something serious happened." With the 1966 publication of Radical Theology and the Death of God, a book he wrote with Thomas Altizer, Hamilton joined several other young theologians in shaking the foundations of the American theological establishment. The wider society looked on in amazement, granting Hamilton more notoriety than theologians have any reason to expect. Before the storm he helped to create passed, Hamilton was featured in a Time magazine cover story, had his chair of theology "removed," and reported receiving death threats.

What brought about this radical change? Hamilton would explain it with characteristic directness: "God died." The radical theologians -- Hamilton, Altizer, Paul van Buren and, from another angle, Richard Rubenstein -- were a small but energetic group. All eventually settled in secular universities to teach, and, for the past 25 years, all have continued to make significant scholarly contributions.

But changes in vision, direction or setting have occurred: van Buren became a leader in Christian-Jewish dialogue, Altizer has been working in a department of English to deconstruct God-talk, and Rubenstein has continued a psycho-sociological inquiry into religion. As for Hamilton, he has been preoccupied for two decades with the work of Herman Melville, and he commands the Melville literature today as he once did that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth.

In 1965 Hamilton was an acknowledged leader of what became known as the "death of God" theology. Altizer once said of Hamilton that he was 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." Hamilton, Altizer said, had become "the most articulate leader of the death-of-God movement in America."

Altizer’s assessment still holds. Hamilton is still thinking and writing about the death of God, still trying to come to terms with its implications, still working to articulate the project of radical theology. But the movement itself appears to be extinct. The death of God is no longer a topic of conversation in the seminaries or at cocktail parties. All indications are that the death of God has died.

Some say that the radical theology movement died like so many fads of the ‘60s; it was a "theology of the month" that made a flash and disappeared. There is some truth in this, as Hamilton himself is willing to concede. The death of God was a media event and, as Hamilton has written, "Any event the media create they can uncreate." But in another sense death-of-God theology has not disappeared at all; it has simply been transformed. It has entered, or is in the process of entering, mainstream theology.

Explicitly, the death-of-God theology is instrumental in various postmodern or "deconstruction" theological projects, Altizer and Mark C. Taylor being perhaps the best-known examples. Implicitly, the death of God idea has appeared in such repositionings as Gordon Kaufman’s presidential address before the American Academy of Religion. Analyzing the peril of nuclear holocaust, Kaufman found himself dispensing with any notion of divine Providence. He argued that God certainly would not will nuclear destruction, yet we cannot trust God to intervene in history to prevent it: therefore human beings as autonomous and free agents will determine their ultimate destiny. This is a radical rethinking of God’s nature, one that Christians who believe in the meaningfulness and providential course of human history would be hard pressed to accept without affirming in some sense that God, the God of Providence, had died.

But perhaps nowhere is death-of-God thinking more evident today than in aspects of feminist theology. The God who is dead to many women (and men) who still want to identify themselves as Christians is the God who has been imprisoned by culturally bound and contingent patriarchal symbols. Recognizing that their critique has rendered images of God no longer absolute, feminists have discovered that the religious power structure is reluctant to admit that patriarchal symbols for God are culturally influenced (as if God really were male) or contingent (as if use of a feminine symbol to point to a nonrepresentable God is more inadequate or idolatrous than use of a male symbol) To read Mary Daly or Naomi Goldenberg, to consider Rosemary Ruether’s demasculinizing of the Gospel stories or to ponder the renewed attention to "goddess" theology and the development of a lesbian theology is to see the basic language of theological discourse upset and transformed. Hamilton has always contended that the death of God was a language event -- "A lot of my friends kept their seminary jobs by using that way out" -- and a phrase that comes easily to mind when considering the radical changes brought to theology by feminist thinking is this: "God is dead" -- although now one hears above a whisper, "Long live the Goddess."

Remarks Hamilton: "Feminist theologians are coming to the point where they are going to have to deal seriously with the masculine God. Radical theology and feminist theology are going to have to join hands. And that attempt to find a Goddess behind the God is going to fail because they will find that She can castrate just as well as He did, although with different instruments." Hamilton, recognizing that there are feminists who will have to "give up the task of trying to preserve Judaism and Christianity by altering God’s gender or by discovering female images for God in Hosea and Joel," will have to look elsewhere to "find religious shape for our identity." Hamilton believes feminist theology will have to face "the possibility that the idea of God is an absolutely invaluable piece of first-century ideology that we can do without."

Whatever one thinks of Hamilton’s theo-thana-tology, it is clear that few contemporary theologians have been as passionately preoccupied with the God question as Hamilton. He has shifted his emphasis in that preoccupation over the years, particularly with respect to explicating the experience of the death of God. In one approach, which Hamilton has called the "detective" experience, a body is found. The body, of course, is God’s -- God is found dead in the culture, and the theologian must determine how to do "God-talk" in a godless world. In the ‘60s, the revisionists said "secularize" or "reformulate": the radicals said "do without"

In the "detective" scenario, a radical theologian would seek to discover how the body -- the dead God -- got there, who killed it, and what kind of evidence will establish the death given the obvious lack of a corpus delicti. Hamilton worked in the detective mode in his 1974 book On Taking God Out of the Dictionary (McGraw-Hill) a book that went unadvertised, mostly unread and was distinguished for having won an art award for the dust-jacket design. The book is significant, however, not only because it suggests the important role Melville was to play in Hamilton’s theological development, but because the book served as a "reality check" in which Hamilton sought evidence in the culture for what he had been saying. In making the case that the death of God was permanent, the book initiated a wide-ranging and innovative -- some would say undisciplined -- conversation about the nature of post-Christian existence. Hamilton used a self-interview, one-act plays. short stories, a meditation on Norman Mailer and various other devices to think through the question that the death of God was posing to modem men and women. It is no accident that the book is replete with quotations -- few from theologians, since Hamilton was seeking confirmation from the culture for a theological understanding that the theological community had rejected.

Hamilton was ironic and playful in this book. "One of the metaphorical meanings of ‘death of God’ is the end of all absolutes in the spiritual life, so not even the death of God can be treated as an absolute," he wrote. But his deep concern for retaining ethical coherence in a postmodern world was also evident, as was his traditional allegiance to Jesus: "In his baptism, his teaching, his healings, his passion, death and resurrection -- in all of it, there is a demand laid on us, or an offer tendered, and it is the task of the Christian to embody that offer in his world, being as candid as he can about the difference between Jesus’ beliefs and his." For Hamilton, the death of God, rather than rendering Jesus superfluous, makes him all the more indispensable -- for Jesus is a comrade who provides a place to stand.

My sense of movement from faith to unfaith was never at all decisive or clear, and rye never had any difficulty in continuing myself as a Christian whatever other people have said. I think it is because I have always defined ideology as a commitment to comrades. Do you know [Ignazio] Silone’s marvelous piece called "Choice of Companions"? He talks about what we do when communism has died and one cannot be a Catholic in Italy -- what did the refugees do at night? They lit campfires and sat around it and told stories. The most important thing about a person is who are the comrades he or she chooses. So that is the way I define my Christian existence -- and my friends.

For Hamilton, the nature of Jesus’ self-understanding remains beyond our historical reach. It is not the historical Jesus but the Christ of the kerygma whom Hamilton affirms, the Jesus "bringing the Kingdom, the new age, here and now into the midst of ordinary lives" who shows us a "way to be human," who establishes a bond of comradeship, who draws us out of our private lives into the world, who provides us with a place to stand. "What he was is hidden; what he proclaimed, offered, defined, is not." Hamilton has repudiated God, not Jesus -- not the Christ of the kerygma.

In the detective mode, God is found dead, "dead in the souls of one’s contemporaries," as Camus said. But lately Hamilton has moved out of the detective approach and into the "killer" mode: "Now I am more interested in the murderer," he says. Here God is not dead at all, "but very much alive, murderous and needing to be killed. And ‘illustrated’ by your own choice of imams, generals, politicians, TV shills." In the killer mode, a body is not found, a death is required. As Hamilton has written in his latest book, Reading Moby Dick and Other Essays (Peter Lang, 1989) :

Today, the death of God experience in its second coming is less like Angela Lansbury finding an unexpected corpse on Sunday night in her kitchen and more like the murderer who put the corpse there in the first . . . . In its present form, the death of God experience suggests that the God of the great Western monotheistic faiths -- at least in the First and Second Worlds -- is too male, too dangerous, too violent to be allowed to live. Death of God today is not finding a body and figuring out who and why. It is the capture, understanding, and abolition of a dangerous 20th-century ideology.

"Obviously, because of what is going on in Christianity and Islam," Hamilton has concluded, "people with Gods are dangerous. And one of the things you can do to help your brothers and sisters is to take Gods away from people so their weapons won’t be quite so sharp as they are with monotheism."

I asked Hamilton, "Is that the danger of Ahab? Is that the reason for your interest in Melville?"

I got into Melville because I needed to have somebody to look at very carefully who tried and failed to escape from a powerful religious tradition. He just simply could not get rid of it. And bland Nathaniel [Hawthorne] sitting there in his little farmhouse couldn’t figure out why his young friend, 15 years his junior, got so hung up on all these Puritan things. He didn’t understand how Melville got so hot. I’ve always been closer -- in belief or in disbelief -- to the passion of Melville than to that serene [Hawthorne].

Hamilton has found in Melville a difficult but kindred spirit. Melville navigated the waters of death and disbelief in a way that Hamilton believes provides reliable guidance to those who would today seek to understand and explicate our religious situation. Melville has been to Hamilton not only a scholarly preoccupation but also a source of inspiration. The title On Taking God Out of the Dictionary came from a Melville letter – "Take God out of the dictionary, and you would have him in the street." Hamilton used this quote to consider the cultural-linguistic developments in death-of-God thinking, arguing that the word "God" no longer serves to cover the territory it once did. "God" is an instance of archaic usage, and the problem with "God" is lexigraphical.

Hamilton’s command of Melville has led to other developments as well. In 1985 he published Melville and the Gods (Scholars Press) , a scholarly but elegant study that focuses on what Hamilton calls Melville’s pilgrimage through "deconversion." With the death of God providing hermeneutical access, Hamilton explores Melville’s religious quest in a manner befitting traditional "religion and literature" studies. But he drops his most explicit theological reflection in the "killer mode" in a footnote at the end of the "Ahab" chapter: "Perhaps we should say that God became man so that man now no longer needs to become God or even to believe in him. Man may now cease striving for what he is not, making a monster of himself, so he can attend to becoming what he is." Hamilton’s Melville leaves behind the Christian God, for, as Ahab demonstrates in Moby Dick, that God is evil, perhaps mad, and a death-dealer that ought not to be worshiped.

Hamilton argues that Melville finally resolved his theological crisis in an 1888 poem, "Pebbles." "The hurt of which [Melville] is here healed is not only the general hurt of life, but it is also the hurt of faith that God himself inflicted. When God dies, or is finally killed, other gods sometimes mercifully appear if you need them." Melville found healing and resolution in the sea -- the pitiless and inhuman sea, which does not flatter or deceive and that, for all its connections to death, is life. Hamilton ties his religious quest to Melville’s own torturous journey: "When God died, I went to sea with Ishmael, and have gladly remained there."

Hamiton said he had one more Melville book in him, and Reading Moby Dick and Other Essays contains a rollicking guide to Moby Dick in which Melville’s treatment of the "dangerous God" motif is highlighted. Hamilton’s pursuit of death-of-God themes also appears in essays on "Shakespearean Death," "The Conversions of Michelangelo," and a sermon delivered on the text "To Cast Fire Upon the Earth." The essay "God as Monica’s Breast" is worth the price of the volume, and the "Consenting to Die" essay, which discusses suicide and death as something to do" rather than just wait for, breaks into a fictional discussion between a doctor and a cancer patient. This book, his eighth, contains some of Hamilton’s best -- his wittiest and most personal -- writing, and the originality of Hamilton’s work is all the more pronounced because the world hardly has room for one more look at Moby Dick. Hamilton, arguably one of our most innovative and courageous theological minds, demonstrates again, as he did when writing about Dostoevsky or Camus, that he also is one of our most insightful theological interpreters of modern literature.

Having retired from his positions as dean and university professor at Portland State University, Hamilton has settled in Sarasota, Florida. He keeps current on political matters. A former civil rights activist and outspoken opponent of U. S. involvement in Vietnam, he has been greatly disturbed by the success of the Reagan revolution and the values, especially that of privatism, that it has fostered. "I do not think socialism has a future in this country at all, although I suppose instinctively my economics are socialist, as my ethics are conservative and my politics are liberal. My theology is radical -- and I’m just trying to keep those balls up in the air, but they don’t fit."

Hamilton identifies himself as a Protestant who "has always believed relief of the human condition is what we must be doing. You cannot really define the meaning of human life other than to find some particular point at which the relief of the sorrows of the human condition is your business." He makes no apology for this doctrinally empty ethicality: "I’ve never lived or been trained in a tradition that has defined Christian existence in terms of doctrine anyway. Doing Christian thought and action is still the most interesting thing to me."

At one point he remarked:

It seems to me that to find yourself in the midst of the Jewish, Christian or Islamic worlds is to say in a number of different ways -- the religion-politics mix of Islam is one way, the prophetic tradition is another way, the New Testament tradition is another -- that there is one nonnegotiable absolute, an it’s not a principle, it’s not a moral value: it’s an answer to the problem of where you look, where you belong, where you pt your body in this world. Not at the altar, and not in the private realms, but out there in the world at the service of human beings. That’s where you are. That’s what Christianity drive you to; and that for me is the element and the comment of the Western religious traditions which I use to attack the temptations to privatism in myself, in my kids, and in my students.

Hamilton continually challenges other Christians t come to grips with their experience of a godless world, world in which God is either absent altogether or present ii the worst way: in the selfish impulses and evil acts of small minds, so that God comes to represent in fanaticism and hatred death itself. Doing away with God may, Hamilton says, make us more bereft, but it may also make us "more human, more tentative, more able to live easily with both adversaries and friends."

I sometimes wish, especially when I hear colleagues slight Hamilton or his contributions, that they would look more seriously at the Hamilton who has embodied in his passion, his restlessness, his intellectual daring and his care for others something authentic to the heart of the Christian message. When I think of Bill Hamilton I am reminded of Dostoevsky’s comment that if it turned out Jesus were a fraud and wound up in hell, he would rather be in hell with Jesus than in heaven with all the saints. It may turn out that Hamilton will wind up in hell just as many of his critics expect him to; but if so, I hope his critics are prepared for a most surprising development -- that he will be there engaged in animated conversation, with Jesus.


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