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Radical Theology and the Death of God by Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton

Thomas J.J. Altizer is a native of Charleston, West Virginia. He attended St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland, and received his degrees of A.B., A.M., and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. He was Associate Professor of Bible and Religion at Emory University, Atlanta Georgia. William Hamilton is a graduate of Oberlin and Union Theological School. He received his Ph.D. degree from St. Andrews in Scotland in 1953. He is Professor and Dean at the College of Arts and Sciences, Oregon State University, in Portland. Published by The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. A Subsidiary of Howard W. Sams & Co. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

The Death of God Theologies Today by William Hamilton

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe. . . .

What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm of beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself. . . .

Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning

We have been aware for some time that modern atheism has become a subject of special theological concern to Christians, but only recently has it moved so close to the center of theology and faith itself. The British publication of Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God partly created and partly released forces that may well be coming together into a new theological movement in that country. (Ronald Gregor Smith’s The New Man [1956] was perhaps the first piece of secular theology in the British tradition. In the debate over Honest to God the most significant representatives of the "radical theology" come from a group of laymen which includes scientists like John Wren Lewis and James Mark, and journalists like Monica Furlong and Christopher Driver. Mark’s material in the Theological Colleges Department [SCM] brochure "The Death of the Church" is worth study.) And there is an American counterpart to this British movement, though it goes back in time a bit before Honest to God. This American movement is the death of God theology. It is a movement, though until quite recently there was no communication between the participants. But they have begun to talk to each other and to discover that there are a handful of people here and there who one day may all contribute to a common theological style. Right now, the American death of God movement seems to be more radical than the British "radicals," more radical on each of the three main points of Honest to God -- God, ethics and the church. To the death of God theologian, Robinson is far too confident about the possibility of God-language. To use Paul van Buren’s terms, Robinson is perfectly right to reject objectified theism, but he is wrong to think that his non-objectified theism is any more satisfactory. Van Buren would claim that modern philosophy has done away with both possibilities.

But unlike many American theologians, the death of God people do not patronize Honest to God. They take its publication as an important event in the life of the church, and they note particularly its enthusiastic reception by the laity as a sign that they may have a theological vocation in the church after all, in spite of the fact that their writing has up to now given more ecclesiastical offense than they expected. In any case, the purpose here is not to study the British radicals but to describe this American theological tradition and to ask under what conditions it might become part of the very lively theological discussion going on right now in this country.( In a recent series of lectures [entitled "Is God Dead?" and "God Is Not Dead."] published in The Voice [Crozier Theological Seminary], Dr. Langdon Gilkey of the University of Chicago has made a provisional exposition and criticism of this theological position. Gilkey is in a kind of horrified sympathy with the death of God theology, and he has made a number of shrewd criticisms and raised some important questions.)

What is meant by the phrase "death of God"? My colleague, Thomas Altizer, likes to say, for example, that the death of God is an historical event, that it has happened in our time and that we should welcome, even will it, not shrink from it.( In citing Altizer I am by no means suggesting that he is alone in his emphasis. Gabriel Vahanian of Syracuse has done some important work in his The Death of God and Wait Without Idols, in "Beyond the Death of God," Dialog, Autumn, 1962, and in "The Future of Christianity in a Post-Christian Era," The Centennial Review, Spring, 1964. John Cobb of Claremont has an excellent descriptive article, by no means in sympathy with the movement, in "From Crisis Theology to the Post-Modern World," The Centennial Review, Spring, 1964. Mention should also be made of the work of the New Testament scholars Robert Funk and Edward Hobbs; of the work of the Jewish scholar Richard L. Rubenstein, especially his excellent "Person and Myth in the Judaeo-Christian Encounter," The Christian Scholar, Winter, 1963. Rudolf Bultmann himself has written, not perhaps at his best, on this tradition in "Der Gottesgedanke und der moderne Mensch," Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche, December, 1963. (ET. in Translating Theology into The Modern Age, Harper, Torchbooks, 1965 ) But if we call it an event, it is so in a special or odd sense, for it has not been experienced in any regular or ordinary way. The reference to Nietzsche’s Gay Science is deliberate, and perhaps we ought to have the relevant material before us.

The Madman. -- Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the marketplace calling out unceasingly: "I seek God! I seek God!" -- As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why! is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea-voyage? Has he emigrated? -- the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. "Where is God gone?" he called out. "I mean to tell you! We have killed him, -- you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move?

Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction?-- for even gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife, -- who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event, --and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!" -- Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. "I come too early," he then said, "I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is traveling, -- it has not yet reached men’s ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star, -- and yet they have done it!" It is further stated that the madman made his way into different churches on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam deo. When led out and called to account, he always gave the reply: "What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God?" . . .( No. 125. An important recent study of Nietzsche which places "the death of God" at the center of his thought can be found in Erich Heller, "The Importance of Nietzsche," Encounter, April, 1964.)


What does it mean to say that God is dead? Is this any more than a rather romantic way of pointing to the traditional difficulty of speaking about the holy God in human terms? Is it any more than a warning against all idols, all divinities fashioned out of human need, human ideologies? Does it perhaps not just mean that "existence is not an appropriate word to ascribe to God, that therefore he cannot be said to exist, and he is in that sense dead"? It surely means all this, and more. The hypothetical meanings suggested still all lie within the safe boundaries of the neo-orthodox or biblical-theology tradition, and the death of God group wants clearly to break away from that. It used to live rather comfortably there, and does so no longer.( Dr. Gilkey has clearly observed the senses in which the death of God theology is not a return to liberalism and has a very interesting remark on the connections between it and neo-orthodoxy:

From Barth this movement has accepted the radical separation of the divine and the secular, of God and ordinary experience, and so of theological language and philosophy; and it approves his further separation of Christianity and religion, and the consequent centering of all theological and religious concerns solely on Jesus Christ. From Tillich it has accepted the campaign against theism, and against personalist and mythological language about God. From Bultmann categories in theology, which polemic needed only to be enlarged to include biblical-kerygmatic as well as objective-interventionist theological language about God to become very radical indeed. It also agrees with Bultmann that objective ontological and dogmatic language about God is impossible, with the consequence that theological language is reduced to language about the figure of Jesus Christ and about man’s self-understanding.

This is a very shrewd observation by one who probably knows as much about what is really happening in American theology today as anybody. This passage shows the connections between the death of God movement and some of the left-wing Bultmannians who have not advanced to metaphysics.) Perhaps we can put it this way; the neo-orthodox reconstruction of the Christian doctrine of revelation seems to have broken down for some. It used to be possible to say: we cannot know God but he has made himself known to us, and at that point analogies from the world of personal relations would enter the scene and help us. But somehow, the situation has deteriorated; as before, we cannot know, but now it seems that he does not make himself known, even as enemy. This is more than the old protest against natural theology or metaphysics; more than the usual assurance that before the holy God all our language gets broken and diffracted into paradox. It is really that we do not know, do not adore, do not possess, do not believe in God. It is not just that a capacity has dried up within us; we do not take all this as merely a statement about our frail psyches, we take it as a statement about the nature of the world and we try to convince others. God is dead. We are not talking about the absence of the experience of God, but about the experience of the absence of God. (Thus, we are moving in quite a different direction from the rather vague remark by Martin Heidegger: "the phrase ‘God is dead’ means that the supersensible world is without effective force." Holzwege, Frankfurt, Klostermann, 1957, p. 200.) Yet the death of God theologians claim to be theologians, to be Christians, to be speaking out of a community to a community. They do not grant that their view is really a complicated sort of atheism dressed in a new spring bonnet. Let us look more carefully at their work.


Thomas Altizer’s book, Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred, was published late in 1963 and has so far attracted very little attention. In the book Altizer has not decided whether to do a book on Eliade (to whom he owes a profound debt) or an original piece of theological exposition. He comes up with a little of both, and the result is not structurally satisfactory. But it is a brilliant book in many ways and an important piece of material in the movement.

Altizer begins by declaring that his basic presupposition is the death of God in our history, for us, now. A theology of the word can ignore this death, he says, but only by keeping the word quite untouched by the reality of modern existence. So Altizer lays out the problems raised for him by the death of God in terms of the sacred and the profane, and this enables him to make interesting use of Eliade’s studies of the meaning of the sacred in archaic and modern religion. Altizer’s question becomes, then, how to recover that connection with the sacred that modern men have lost. He grants that gnosticism, the negation of the profane, is a powerful temptation at this point, and he tries very hard to reject it. We must not, he says, seek for the sacred by saying "no" to the radical profanity of our age, but by saying "yes" to it. Thus, he writes, "the task of the theologian becomes the paradoxical one of unveiling religious meaning in a world that is bathed in the darkness of God’s absence."

This statement suggests that Altizer, like Nietzsche, finds it a painful thing to have to affirm the death of God, and it is clear that he wishes things were otherwise. But he refuses to follow Eliade’s tempting advice to return to some sort of precosmic primitivism and to recover the sacred in the way archaic religion did. How does the sacred become a possibility for a man who refuses to think himself out of his radically profane contemporary existence, who refuses in other words to archaize himself, with Eliade into primitivism or with Barth into the strange new world of the Bible?

Apparently the answer comes in Altizer’s use of the Kierkegaardian idea of dialectic, or -- what comes to the same thing -- in his reading of Eliade’s version of the myth of the coincidence of opposites. This means that affirming something passionately enough -- in this case the full reality of the profane, secular, worldly character of modern life -- will somehow deliver to the seeker the opposite, the sacred, as a gift he does not deserve. At times, Altizer walks very close to the gnostic nay-sayer whose danger he ordinarily perceives. His interest in the religious writing, such as it is, of Norman 0. Brown is a sign of his own religious-gnostic temptations. Brown not only mounts an undialectical Freudian attack on the profane and the secular, he sees both history and ordinary genital sexuality as needing to be radically spiritualized and transcended. His religious vision, both at the end of Life Against Death and in his more recent thought, is mystical, spiritual and apocalyptic. This temptation is not a persistent one in Altizer, and in one important section of his book he makes the most ungnostic remark that the sacred will be born only when Western man combines a willing acceptance of the profane with a desire to change it.

For the most part Altizer prefers mystical to ethical language in solving the problem of the death of God, or, as he puts it, in mapping out the way from the profane to the sacred. This combination of Kierkegaard and Eliade makes rather rough reading, but his position at the end is a relatively simple one. Here is an important summary statement of his views:

If theology must now accept a dialectical vocation, it must learn the full meaning of Yes-saying and No-saying; it must sense the possibility of a Yes which can become a No, and of a No which can become a Yes; in short, it must look forward to a dialectical coincidentia oppositorum. Let theology rejoice that faith is once again a "scandal," and not simply a moral scandal, an offense to man’s pride and righteousness, but, far more deeply, an ontological scandal; for eschatological faith is directed against the deepest reality of what we know as history and the cosmos. Through Nietzsche’s vision of Eternal Recurrence we can sense the ecstatic liberation that can be occasioned by the collapse of the transcendence of Being, by the death of God . . . and, from Nietzsche’s portrait of Jesus, theology must learn of the power of an eschatological faith that can liberate the believer from what to the contemporary sensibility is the inescapable reality of history. But liberation must finally be effected by affirmation. . . . .( See "Theology and the Death of God," in this volume, pp. 95-111.

This is an ebullient, crotchety statement, full of linguistic and logical difficulties. Some of Altizer’s Kierkegaardian or Nietzschean or gnostic uneasiness in the presence of the vulgar historical can be seen in it. But it is also powerful and poetic, with a good deal of the radical eschatological message of the New Testament in it, calling men out of the world into the presence of Jesus.

For Altizer men do not solve the problem of the death of God by following Jesus, but, it seems, by being liberated from history by him. In spite of his insight that ethics (or transforming the profane) can be a real way of handling the problem of the ambiguity of the profane realm, Altizer ultimately prefers the categories of neither Christology nor ethics but of mysticism. Thus his vision, beginning with man accepting, affirming, even willing the death of God in a radical sense, ends with man willing to participate in the utter desolation of the secular or the profane, willing to undergo the discipline of darkness, the dark night of the soul (here Altizer’s affinity with the religious existentialists, who may not have God but who don’t at all like not having him, is clearest), while the possibility of a new epiphany of the sacred, a rebirth of the possibility of having God once more is awaited. Sometimes Altizer would have us wait quietly without terror; more often it seems he would have us attack the profane world with a kind of terrible hostility so that it might give up its sacred secret.

Altizer’s vision is an exciting one, logically imprecise, calculated to make empiricists weep, but imaginatively and religiously it is both sophisticated and powerful.( In "Word and History," in this volume, pp. 12l-l39, Altizer makes one point not found so strongly in his other writings, and it is a point that the death of God writers tend to have in common. It is that America has a theological vocation today that is likely to be quite separate from the European experience. The group has a strong sense of being in a particular place, urban America, and at a particular time; born in the twenties, just old enough [usually] to get into World War II, products of the affluent society, very conscious of being white. This intense, and perhaps overemphasized Americanism, should not be dismissed as chauvmism, nor should it be passed off as some sort of guilt for having loved Barth or Bultmann too much. All of us have drawn from many non-American sources, not the least important of which is the later Bonhoeffer. But this special sense of a vocation to America should be noted, and it is no doubt part of the whole post-existentialist self-consciousness so characteristic of the group.

See the important article by Robert Funk, "Colloquium on Herme- neutics," Theology Today, October, 1964.)


The work of Paul van Buren says something about the rather strange sense of community that one finds in the death of God group that two such different personalities as van Buren and Altizer could have a common theological vocation. Altizer is all élan, wildness, excessive generalization, brimming with colorful, flamboyant, and emotive language. Van Buren is ordered, precise, cool. While he has certainly moved beyond the position of his book, it is in fact his book, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, that has placed him firmly in the death of God camp, and we must briefly recall its major emphases.

Van Buren begins by citing Bonhoeffer’s plea for a nonreligious interpretation of the Gospel, appropriate to the world come of age. The title of his book reflects this Bonhoefferean concern, though the book as a whole does not, and the Bonhoeffer introduction is really extraneous to his argument.

He next moves on to a consideration of the method he proposes for his non-religious theology, and it turns out to be a certain species of linguistic analysis, but the theological context within which van Buren puts his method to work is, after all, that created by Bultmann and his demythologizing project, and van Buren very clearly sees the sense in which Bultmann, taken seriously, means the end of the rhetoric of neo-orthodoxy and the so-called biblical theology.

The mythological view of the world has gone, and with it went the possibility of speaking seriously of a Heilsgeschichte: a historical "drama of salvation," in which God is said to have acted at a certain time in this world to change the state of human affairs.

He rejects Barth who is described as forfeiting the world as we live in it today (precisely the reason for Altizer’s rejection of the theologies of the word), and he rejects also the left-wing Bultmannians who have, he justly remarks, given up the his- torical basis of faith for an idea of authentic existence. In van Buren’s debate with a left-wing Bultmannian like Schubert Ogden we can see what he is after. What he attacks in Ogden is the belief that there is any trustworthy language about God at all, either analogical language or retranslations such as the odd one Ogden uses: God as "experienced non-objective reality."

Van Buren is inclined to assume that analytical philosophy has made all language about God impossible. He is not talking about the deterioration of our experience of God, and he is not talking about the loss of the sacred. He is talking about words, and how hard it is to find the right ones. "Simple literal theism" is out, he says, but so is the kind of sophisticated and qualified non-objective theism that he finds in Ogden, Tillich, Karl Jaspers, and that he ought to find in Bishop Robinson.

It is not necessary to raise the question as to whether van Buren is guilty of taking this philosophical tradition too seriously, of receiving the impressive blows it is able to deliver with too radical a retreat. The fact remains that he has set about to do his theological work without God. There is something remaining in the vacated space, and perhaps the idea of one’s historical perspective or point of view can be used to rebuild the old notion of faith as assensus and fiducia before God. Perhaps. But apart from this, we do without God and hold to Jesus of Nazareth.

Thus, the urban and methodologically scrupulous van Buren joins hands with Altizer the ecstatic and complex proclaimer of the death of God. The tone of voice is quite different; indeed the languages are not the same, but the meaning is unmmistakable in both: God is dead. For Altizer the disappearance of the sacred is a sort of cosmic event; for van Buren it can be more precisely described: the rise of technology and modern science, the need in our thinking to stick pretty close to what we can experience in ordinary ways. Both are referring to something that has happened to them, not to someone else or to modern man in some generalized sense, and they are willing to admit it.

Altizer comes finally to depend on mystical categories to deal with the death of God, to save himself from undialectical atheism. Van Buren is too loyal an erstwhile Barthian to want to use mystical categories: for him ethical terms will do. When the theisms have gone, literal or fancy, as they must, and after faith has been Ramseyed and Hared, Christianity still stands as an ethic, public and private, and its character is largely derived from the sovereign freedom of Jesus the Lord. The Christian without God is a waiting man for Altizer, daring to descend into the darkness, grappling with all that is profane to wrest from it its potential sacral power. The Christian without God for van Buren is Jesus’ man, perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.( The contemporary religious philosopher closest to van Buren, in mood at least, is Alasdair MacIntyre in "God and the Theologians," Encounter, September, 1963, an extended review of Honest to God, a valedictory to the Christian faith, and an interesting and confused piece of work. His chief point is that all three of Robinson’s theologians, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann and Tillich, are atheists, which he apparently defines as those rejecting literal objectifiable theism. But this is to swallow the apologetic strategy of Karl Barth without a murmur. Barth has always loved to dangle the threatening figure of Feuerbach before anyone interested in the self, modern man, or despair, and to say, in effect, "Look out, gentlemen; if you leave my protection and go down the slippery path towards Bultmann or Tillich you will be unable to stop until you arrive at Feuerbach, who was at least honest in his atheism." MacIntyre has apparently been beguiled by this device. Using the same tools as van Buren, he has declared for overt atheism rather than the death of God, and also, with Feuerbach, has chosen the historical fate of man and his freedom in this world, to salvation and the next. It is, incidentally, unfortunate that modern Protestants have trusted Barth as an interpreter of Feuerbach. Robert Tucker has pointed out [Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx, p. 93 ] that Feuerbach mistakenly assumed that his foe, Christianity, was identical with Hegelianism. Since he was unable to see how deeply anti-Christian Hegelianism really was, his inversion of Christianity was really an inversion of Hegelian Christianity and thus, to say the least, more Christian in substance than Hegelianism ever was.)

Altizer and van Buren, thus, may be said to share a common vision which we have been calling the death of God, though this actual phrase is doubtless more congenial to the fiery Altizer than to the lucid van Buren. Both men, furthermore, deny that this vision disqualifies them as religious or Christian men. It may cripple, it may weaken or threaten, but they are both inside the circle. And each uses a different strategy to deal with the problem raised by the vision. Altizer, as we have seen, uses images from the world of mysticism: waiting, darkness, a new epiphany, the dialectic of opposites. Van Buren does without and does not really need God, preferring to point to Jesus as a way of standing before the neighbor. We will meet later in the book this distinction between mysticism and a Christological ethic as different ways of living in the time of the death of God.


My own point of view belongs in this general tradition. If Altizer begins with the cosmic event of the disappearance of the sacred, and if van Buren begins with the language problem, my starting point may be said to have two parts, one negative, the other positive.

The negative part is the perception, already referred to, of the deterioration of the portrait of the God-man relation as found in biblical theology and the neo-orthodox tradition. This theological tradition was able to portray a striking and even heroic faith, a sort of holding on by the fingernails to the cliff of faith, a standing terrified before the enemy-God, present to man as terror or threat, comforting only in that he kept us from the worse terrors of life without him. This God, we used to say, will never let us go. But he has, or we have him, or something, and in any case this whole picture has lost its power to persuade some in our time.

But our negations are never very important or interesting. There is a positive affirmation or starting point by which I enter into the country inhabited by the death of God settlers. It has to do with the problem of the Reformation or being a Protestant today. At the end of the last century the Reformation was interpreted as a victory for the autonomous religious personality, freed from the tyranny of hierarchy and institution, while man’s relation to God was described as unmediated and available to all. This is what the Reformation means, for example, in A. von Harnack’s What is Christianity? It was characteristic of liberal Protestantism as a whole, and it achieves its symbolic expression in Luther, standing alone at Worms, refusing to go against his conscience.

As the century wore on, and wars, depressions, bombs and anxieties came our way, we found ourselves seeing the Reformation in a new light. The old approach was not wrong, it was just that the new approach fitted our experience better. In this new approach, which we might call yesterday’s understanding of the Reformation, the central fact was not the autonomous religious personality; it was the theological discovery of the righteous God. In that portion of our century when men and nations knew trouble, sin and guilt, we needed to receive this theological truth of the Reformation, just as earlier the psychological truth needed to be heard. Thus, we learned to say that the Reformation was a theological event. It centered in Luther’s discovery of the meaning of justification or forgiveness, and its symbol proved to be Luther, storming about his room in Wittenberg, cursing the God who demands righteousness of men.

Today we may need to look at the Reformation in a third sense, no more or less true than the earlier approaches, but perhaps needing special emphasis just now and fitting new experiences in both church and world. This approach is more ethical than psychological or theological, and its focus is not on the free personality or on justification by faith, but on the movement from the cloister to the world. Of course, there is no specific event in Luther’s life that can be so described, but the movement is there in his life nonetheless, and it is a movement we need to study. From cloister to world means from church, from place of protection and security, of order and beauty, to the bustling middle-class world of the new university, of politics, princes and peasants. Far more important than any particular ethical teaching of Luther is this fundamental ethical movement. Here I touch some of Altizer’s concerns, but I am not as anxious to recover the sacred, since I am starting with a definition of Protestantism as a movement away from the sacred place.

This view of the Reformation, along with my preliminary negative comment, does allow a kind of picture of faith. It is not, this time, holding on by the fingernails, and it is not a terror-struck confession before the enemy God. It is not even a means of apprehending God at all. This faith is more like a place, a being with or standing beside the neighbor. Faith has almost collapsed into love, and the Protestant is no longer defined as the forgiven sinner, the simul justus et peccato, but as the one beside the neighbor, beside the enemy, at the disposal of the man in need. The connection between holding to the neighbor and holding to Jesus will be dealt with in a moment.

Here I reflect the thought of the later Bonhoeffer more than either van Buren or Altizer wants or needs to. My Protestant has no God, has no faith in God, and affirms both the death of God and the death of all the forms of theism. Even so, he is not primarily a man of negation, for if there is a movement away from God and religion, there is the more important movement into, for, toward the world, worldly life, and the neighbor as the bearer of the worldly Jesus. We must look more carefully at these two movements: toward the world and away from religion.


We need to be very careful in how we put this Protestant "yes" to the world. It is not the same kind of "yes" that one finds in that tradition of theology of culture today that makes use of the world as illustrations for its doctrines of sin and redemption. This "yes" is also in considerable tension with a number of themes in modern literature. Recently, Lionel Trilling called attention to Thomas Mann’s remark that all his work was an effort to free himself from the middle class, and to this Trilling added the comment that all truly modern literature can be so described. Indeed, he goes on, modern literature is not only asking for a freedom from the middle class, but from society itself. It is this conception of the modern, I am saying, that should be opposed by the Protestant. Who are the characteristically modern writers in this sense I am criticising? Any such list would surely include Henry James, Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Lawrence, Kafka, Faulkner, Beckett. Is it possible to affirm the value of the technological revolution, the legitimacy of the hopes and claims of the dispossessed, most of all, of the moral centrality of the Negro revolution in America today -- is it possible to affirm all these values and still to live comfortably in the modern world as these writers portray it? Surely not, in some important senses.

To say there is something in the essence of Protestantism itself that drives us into the world is not to say that we are driven to the world of these "modern" writers. But in many ways it is into the world they reject -- to the world of technology, power, money, sex, culture, race, poverty and the city -- that we are driven. Lawrence’s protest against the mechanization of life now seems a bit archaic and piquant, and his aristocratic hostility to the democratic ethos of Christianity is rather more than piquant, it is irrelevant and false. In a way, I am describing not a move away from Puritanism, but a move to it, and to the middle class and to the city. Perhaps the time has come when Protestants no longer need to make ritual acts of hostility to Puritanism, moralism, and to all the hypocrisies and prohibitions of middle-class culture. The chronicle of middle-class hypocrisy may well be complete, with no more work on it necessary. There are those in our world today who would like to be a little closer to the securities of middle-class existence so they too might become free to criticize them, and who must indeed be granted political, economic, and psychological admission to that world. Attacks on the silliness of middle-class morality have almost always had an a-political character, and it is to that element in the modern sensibility that the Protestant takes exception. Thus the worldliness affirmed by Protestanism has a post-modern, pro-bourgeois, urban and political character. This may mean a loosening of the ties between the Protestant intellectual and avant-garde modernism and it might even mean the start of some interesting work in the shaping of a contemporary radical ethic.

The Protestant protest against religion is related to, but it must not be confused with, this affirmation of the world. (Both are clearly implied by our formula, from church to world.) Assertions that Protestantism is against religion, or that Christianity or revelation is an attack on religion, have, of course, been with us for a considerable time now, and nearly everybody has had a word to say on the subject. Karl Barth’s long discussion in Church Dogmatics I/2 has had a massive and perhaps undeserved influence. Barth defines religion, in his attack on it, as something like man’s arrogant and grasping attempt to become God, so it is hard to see what all the posturing is about. If by definition religion equals sin, and you then say revelation ought to be against religion, you may bring some delight to careless readers, but you have not forwarded theological clarity very much.

More immediate in influence, of course, is the plea for a religionless Christianity in the prison letters of Bonhoeffer. We really don’t know what Bonhoeffer meant by religion, and our modern study of the problem of religionlessness must be carried on quite independent of the task, probably fruitless, of establishing just what Bonhoeffer meant.

There are two schools of interpretation of Protestant religionlessness. In the moderate, Honest-to-God, ecclesiastical school of interpretation, religion generally means "religious activities" like liturgy, counseling, going to church, saying your prayers. To be religionless in this sense is to affirm that the way we have done these things in the past may not be the only way, or may not be worth doing at all, and that radical experiments ought to be attempted in the forms of the church and ministry. Bishop Robinson’s lectures on "The New Reformation" delivered in America in the spring of 1964 are an able presentation of this moderate radicalism. A good deal of the material out of New York, Geneva, and the denominational headquarters on the church and ministry reflects this promising line, and a good many religious sociologists and radical religious leaders on the race issue tend to use Bonhoeffer and religionlessness in this way.

This is an important trend, and we need more and not less experimentation on these matters of the ministry, for we are well into the opening phase of the breakdown of organized religion in American life, well beyond the time when ecumenical dialogues or denominational mergers can be expected to arrest the breakdown.

The religionlessness I wish to defend, however, is not of this practical type. At no point is the later Bonhoeffer of greater importance to the death of God theology than in helping us work out a truly theological understanding of the problem of religionlessness. I take religion to mean not man’s arrogant grasping for God (Barth) and not assorted Sabbath activities usually performed by ordained males (the moderate radicals), but any system of thought or action in which God or the gods serve as fulfiller of needs or solver of problems. Thus I assert with Bonhoeffer the breakdown of the religious a priori and the coming of age of man.

The breakdown of the religious a priori means that there is no way, ontological, cultural or psychological, to locate a part of the self or a part of human experience that needs God. There is no God-shaped blank within man. Man’s heart may or may not be restless until it rests in God. It is not necessarily so. God is not in the realm of the necessary at all; he is not necessary being, he is not necessary to avoid despair or self-righteousness. He is one of the possibles in a radically pluralistic spiritual and intellectual milieu.

This is just what man’s coming of age is taken to mean. It is not true to say, with Luther, entweder Gott oder Abgott. It is not true to say, with Ingmar Bergman, "Without God, life is an outrageous terror." It is not true to say that there are certain areas, problems, dimensions to life today that can only be faced, solved, illumined, dealt with, by a religious perspective.

Religion is to be defined as the assumption in theology, preaching, apologetics, evangelism, counseling, that man needs God, and that there are certain things that God alone can do for him. I am denying that religion is necessary and saying that the movement from the church to the world that we have taken as definitive of Protestantism not only permits but requires this denial. To assert that we are men moving from cloister to world, church to world, to say that we are secular men, is to say that we do not ask God to do for us what the world is qualified to do. Really to travel along this road means that we trust the world, not God, to be our need fulfiller and problem solver, and God, if he is to be for us at all, must come in some other role.

This combination of a certain kind of God-rejection with a certain kind of world-affirmation is the point where I join the death of God movement. What distinguishes this position from ordinary Feuerbachian atheism? Earlier we distinguished between mysticism and Christological ethics as ways of handling the historical experience of the death of God. Both of these responses are valid and useful, and in answering the question about atheism I would like to propose my version of them.

I am in full sympathy with much of the mystical imagery used by Altizer, perhaps most of all with the idea of "waiting." There is an element of expectation, even hope, that removes my position from classical atheisms and that even removes from it a large amount of anguish and gloom. In addition to the idea of waiting for God, I am interested in the search for a language that does not depend on need or problem. Perhaps the Augustinian distinction between frui and uti will prove to be helpful. If God is not needed, if it is to the world and not God that we repair for our needs and problems, then perhaps we may come to see that he is to be enjoyed and delighted in. Part of the meaning of waiting for God is found in this attempt to understand what delighting in him might mean.

To the valid theme of the Christological ethic worked out by van Buren add the emphasis on Protestant worldliness both as an interpretation of the Reformation and as an attack on certain forms of modern sensibility.

By way of a provisional summary: the death of God must be affirmed; the confidence with which we thought we could speak of God is gone, and our faith, belief, experience of him are very poor things indeed. Along with this goes a sharp attack on religion which we have defined as any system using God to meet a need or to solve a problem, even the problem of not having a God. Our waiting for God, our godlessness, is partly a search for a language and a style by which we might be enabled to stand before him once again, delighting in his presence.

In the time of waiting we have a place to be. It is not before an altar, it is in the world, in the city, with both the needy neighbor and the enemy. This place really defines our faith, for faith and love have come together in the interim of waiting. This place, as we shall see, is not only the place for the waiting for God, it is also a way to Jesus Christ.( This combination of waiting, enjoyment and a Christological ethic brings my position close to that of Hanfried Müller, the East Berlin theologian and author of the best book to date on Bonhoeffer, Von der Kirche zur Welt. Müller’s basic theological principle is the theology of the cross, and as he interprets this -- no present experience of Incarnation or resurrection, etc. -- it is close to, but not perhaps as extreme as the vision of the death of God. But to the theologia crucis Müller adds, and this is a real source of interest and distinguishes him from Kierkegaard, a social-political optimism which, in his case of course, is derived from Marxism. One wonders whether the Negro revolution in America may not provide a context for a similar combination of the cross and optimism. Cf. J. M. Lochman’s essay on Müller, "From the Church to the World," in New Theology No. 1., edited by Marty and Peerman.)


It seems clear to me that American theological thought and action has been, for perhaps thirty years, in what might be called an Oedipal phase, and the time has come for it to move into its post-Oedipal situation. The hero of the new situation must no longer be Oedipus at all, but Orestes. In other terms, the post-medieval hero of the (Christian consciousness has been Hamlet, and we have all made our struggle for faith in his shadow. But we must move beyond Hamlet, and the Shakespearean hero that can guide us is Prospero.

It is interesting to observe how Orestes has come to fascinate writers of widely different perspectives today. O’Neill has treated the whole saga in Mourning Becomes Electra. Eliot in The Family Reunion and Sartre in The Flies have each left their stamp on the Greek hero, and today even Jack Richardson in The Prodigal has brought Orestes into the world of modern experimental theater. In a fascinating article, "Orestes: Paradigm Hero and Central Motif of Contemporary Ego Psychology," in The Psychoanalytic Review, Fall, 1963, Herbert Fingarette has suggested that Orestes has the power to become the hero in the modern world of ego psychology and identity crisis. This may or may not be the case, but it is true that Orestes can serve as a symbolic theological guide. What does this mean? Oedipal theology today asks such questions as these: "Who is my Father? Is rebellion against the Father permissible, or must I submit? What can I love in the loveless world? Where is the true locus of authority? Is there any Father for me to love?" And it is a theology based on a sense of sin: "I am a sinner, I love my mother and I desire to kill my Father." The Oedipal believer is a man standing still and alone in a desolate place. He is looking up to the heavens, he has no eyes of flesh, only eyes of faith, and he is crying out his questions to the heavens.

Psychologically, as Fingarette shows, Oedipus stands for the individual as he moves into his central crisis of growth, as he solves the problems of his adolescence or coming of age. Orestes, on the other hand, is the individual having moved beyond this crisis. Oedipus shows us the individual’s psychological bondage, Orestes shows us his freedom and struggle for harmony. Orestes, as Aeschylus portrays him, returns from exile to his royal home. He comes back to the place where his father was murdered and where his mother took up her liaison with Aegisthus, who aided her in the murder. Now grown, Orestes comes back to the Oedipal situation. He could have remained in exile, but he did not. He chose to return. Unlike Oedipus, he does not perform his acts out of fate, but out of a destiny. Unlike Oedipus, he has a direction. Orestes had made a vow to Apollo to take up his responsibility as son and heir. It is not fate, but his own free vow to Apollo that binds him. As he returns, he comes to see that he must destroy the faithless mother.

Oedipus inadvertently kills the father, while Orestes chooses to kill the corrupt mother, out of loyalty to the father. Psychologically, we are in a new world beyond the Oedipal state, and religiously we are in a new world as well. Out of loyalty to both the gods and to the memory of the murdered father, the mother must be destroyed, the mother who represents security, warmth, religion, authority, but who has become corrupt and an evil bearer of all that she is supposed to represent.

This readily points to the theological task of post-Oedipal, Orestean theology. To be freed from the parents is to be freed from religion, the religious a priori, religion as necessary, God as meeter of needs and solver of problems. Orestean theology means the end of faith’s preoccupation with inner conflict, of the struggle of faith, of the escape from the enemy God, of the careful confession of sin. When the believing man can thus abandon this mode of introspective self-scrutiny, "then the center of a man’s existence is himself as a man among men, a man of the real world and not merely in it." Fingarette goes on to say:

. . . a man of the world, in the sense here intended, is a man at last open to the world and to his fellow men as his fellows. And, although in a certain sense men’s existence is the center, this does not imply, either in the play or in life, a denial of the marvelous, both holy and profane.

At the close of the Aeschylean trilogy, Athena sets Orestes free, and Apollo and Orestes leave the center of the action, and the city, the polis, dominates our attention at the end. Orestes has returned home in obedience to a vow, cleansed the state of the evil infecting it (which happened to be his own mother) and takes up his role as prince and ruler. The psychological interpretation of the hero refers to the need for mastering and accepting our anxiety and finding a constructive role in society. Theologically, we must also claim Orestes as our paradigmatic hero, for we too must reject the mother. Unlike Orestes, who kills the mother because of a loyalty to the father, we must kill the mother in order to discover the as yet unformed meaning of our loyalty to the father. In order to overcome the death of the father in our lives, the death of God, the mother must be abolished and we must give our devotion to the polis, to the city, politics and our neighbor. Waiting for God, expecting the transcendent and the marvelous, searching for a means of enjoying them, we go out into the world and the city and, working, wait there.

Thus, Protestant men, Protestant churches, and, most important here, Protestant theology, belongs in the street if it is to be truly Orestean. The academy and the temple can, for now, no longer be trusted as theological guides. Not only our action but our thought belongs with the world of the city, which in our time means power, culture, art, sex, money, the Jew, the Negro, beauty, ugliness, poverty and indifference. Thought and action both must make the move from Oedipus to Orestes, from self and anxiety and crying out to the enemy-God, to the neighbor, the city, the world.

But the movement from Oedipus to Orestes has an Elizabethan counterpart. It is also the move from Hamlet to Prospero. What does it mean to say that Hamlet-theology is at an end and that we need to discern some clues in Prospero? Hamlet-theology, like that of his spiritual ancestor Oedipus, is about authority and about the father. Is the ghost really the father, and should he be obeyed? Shall I acquiesce in his demand, even though it is for blood revenge, or shall I rebel against the father? The Hamlet theology, thus, is one in which man is largely alone, in which he is obsessed by his own and his people’s rottenness, and in which he, in his solitariness, wonders about God and what God wills. If there is any action (or ethics) that emerges from such a theology, it is fairly arbitrary and does not proceed out of interior soliloquy at all, but comes rather in response to surface stimuli. To mark the end of solitariness as a theological posture, of obsessive senses of sin, of crying out to God, absent or present, is to mark the end, in Protestant circles at least, of the existentialist mood.

But to move beyond Hamlet is to come to sit before Prospero. What does this mean? The Prospero I would propose as a model is not the forgiver but the man who gives up his magic, his charismatic power, and releases Ariel. We hear him say, "this rough magic I here abjure" (V.I. 50-51) and "Now my charms are all o’erthrown" (Epilogue). Prospero is the man who leaves the place of mystery and magic and returns to his Dukedom in Milan. He moves from the sacred, from magic, from religion, to the world of the city. Prospero’s abjuring of magic is parallel to Orestes’ killing of the faithless mother, and his return to his rightful Dukedom is parallel to Orestes’ return to Argos and his princely duties.


I must now attempt to draw some of these themes together, so that this death of God tradition may have as good a chance as possible of taking on a theological life of its own along with the other theological styles and visions that we are beginning to discern in this new post-existentialist, post-European period. (Professor Gilkey has listed five marks of the death of God tradition, and they should perhaps be set down: (1) the problematic character of God and of man’s relation to him today, (2) the acceptance of the secular world as normative intellectually and ethically good, (3) the restriction of theological statements to what one can actually affirm oneself, and with this the rejection of certain traditional ideas of tradition and authority, (4) the centrality of Jesus as one who calls us into the world to serve him there, (5) uneasiness with mythological, super-historical, eschatological, supernatural entities or categories. Gilkey goes on to note how each of these five points is a direct attack on a certain portion of the neo-orthodox tradition.)

In a recent critical review of Julian Huxley’s Essays of a Humanist, Philip Toynbee makes an attack on all psychologically inclined Christians, biologists who listen to Bach, mystical astronomers and humane Catholics. What can we put in their place, he asks.

And the answer? Simply to wait -- on God or whatever it may be, and in the meantime to leave the general alone and to concentrate all our natural energies and curiosities on the specific, the idiosyncratic, the personal.

This combination of waiting and attention on the concrete and personal is the theological point I have been trying to make. Waiting here refers to the whole experience I have called "the death of God," including the attack on religion and the search for a means by which God, not needed, may be enjoyed. We have insisted all along that "death of God" must not be taken as symbolic rhetoric for something else. There really is a sense of not-having, of not-believing, of having lost, not just the idols or the gods of religion, but God himself. And this is an experience that is not peculiar to a neurotic few, nor is it private or inward. Death of God is a public event in our history.

Thus we wait, we try out new words, we pray for God to return, and we seem to be willing to descend into the darkness of unfaith and doubt that something may emerge on the other side. In this way, we have tried to interpret and confirm the mystical images that are so central to the thought of Altizer. (This emphasis on a passive and letting-be attitude to the world will suggest several other related themes in current theological thought; for example, it can be found in a quite different, and most interesting form, in some of the recent work of Heinrich Ott and of others working with the problem of the theological use of the later Heidegger. The theme is also found in the emerging reaction against existentialism in the post-Bultmannians. Ernst Käsemann has written: "The cardinal virtue of the historian and the beginning of all meaningful hermeneutic is for me the practice of hearing, which begins simply by letting what is historically foreign maintain its validity and which does not regard rape as the basic form of engagement." ["Zur Thema der urchristlichen Apocalyptik," Zeitschrift, für Theologie und Kirche, LIX, 1962, pp. 262 ff. ])

But we do more than play the waiting game. We concentrate our energy and passion on the specific, the concrete, the personal. We turn from the problems of faith to the reality of love. We walk away from the inner anguish of a Hamlet or an Oedipus and take up our worldly responsibility with Prospero and Orestes. As Protestants, we push the movement from church to world as far as it can go and become frankly worldly men. And in this world, as we have seen, there is no need for religion and no need for God. This means that we refuse to consent to that traditional interpretation of the world as a shadow-screen of unreality, masking or concealing the eternal which is the only true reality. This refusal is made inevitable by the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and it is this refusal that stands as a troublesome shadow between ourselves and the Reformation of the sixteenth. The world of experience is real, and it is necessary and right to be actively engaged in changing its patterns and structures.

This concentration on the concrete and the worldly says something about the expected context of theology in America today. It means that the theological work that is to be truly helpful -- at least for a while -- is more likely to come from worldly contexts than ecclesiastical ones, more likely to come from participation in the Negro revolution than from the work of faith and order. But this is no surprise, for ever since the Civil War, ever since the Second Inaugural of Lincoln, the really creative American theological expressions have been worldly rather than ecclesiastical: the work of Walter Rauschenbusch and the work of Reinhold Niebuhr are surely evidence for this. (It is not yet clear how the civil rights movement is going to take on its theological significance, but it has begun, as the radical, southern Negro student comes out of the movement to seminary. He brings a passionate interest in the New Testament doctrines of discipleship and following Jesus and very little interest in the doctrine of sin. One of the most pressing intellectual responsibilities of the Negro student and minister today is that of working out some of the ethical and theological clues that the Negro revolution is teaching him and us all.)

The death of God Protestant, it can be seen, has somewhat inverted the usual relation between faith and love, theology and ethics, God and the neighbor. We are not proceeding from God and faith to neighbor and love, loving in such and such a way because we are loved in such and such a way. We move to our neighbor, to the city and to the world out of a sense of the loss of God. We set aside this sense of loss or death, we note it and allow it to be, neither glad for it, nor insistent that it must be so for all, nor sorry for ourselves. And, for the time of our waiting we place ourselves with our neighbor and enemy in the world.

There is something more than our phrase "waiting for God" that keeps this from sheer atheist humanism. Not only our waiting but our worldly work is Christian too, for our way to our neighbor is not only mapped out by the secular social and psychological and literary disciplines, it is mapped out as well by Jesus Christ and his way to his neighbor. Our ethical existence is partly a time of waiting for God and partly an actual Christology. Our being in the world, in the city, is not only an obedience to the Reformation formula, from church to world, it is an obedience to Jesus himself. How is this so? How is Jesus being disclosed in the world, being found in the world in our concrete work?

First, Jesus may be concealed in the world, in the neighbor, in this struggle for justice, in that struggle for beauty, clarity, order. Jesus is in the world as masked, and the work of the Christian is to strip off the masks of the world to find him, and, finding him, to stay with him and to do his work. In this sense, the Christian life is not a longing and is not a waiting, it is a going out into the world. The self is discovered, but only incidentally, as one moves out into the world to tear off the masks. Life is a masked ball, a Halloween party, and the Christian life, ethics, love, is that disruptive task of tearing off the masks of the guests to discover the true princess.

In the parable of the last judgment (Matthew 25:34 ff.) the righteous did not know it was Jesus they were serving. The righteous today don’t need to know it either, unless they are Christian, in which case they will say that what they are doing is not only service, work, justified for this and that structural reason; it is also an act of unmasking, a looking for, a finding and a staying with Jesus.

In this first sense, the Christian life, ethics, love, is public, outward, visible. It is finding Jesus in your neighbor: "as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).

There is another form of the presence of Jesus Christ in the world. Here, we no longer talk about unmasking Jesus who is out there in the world somewhere, we talk about becoming Jesus in and to the world. Here, the Christian life, ethics, love, is first a decision about the self, and then a movement beyond the self into the world.

The form, if not the content, of the parable of the Good Samaritan should be recalled. Jesus is asked a question: which one, among all the many claimants out there, is my neighbor? Jesus answers the question with one of his characteristic non-answers: "Don’t look for the neighbor, be one." Or, to put the form of his answer to work on our problem: "Don’t look for Jesus out there, in scripture, tradition, sacraments, Ingmar Bergman movies, in the world behind a mask -- become Jesus." Become a Christ to your neighbor, as Luther put it.

In this form, the Christian life is not a looking outwards to the world and its claims, it is first a look within in order to become Jesus. "For me to live," cried Paul in one of his most daring utterances, "is Christ." Ethics and love are first a dangerous descent into the self. And in this form, the Christian life, ethics, love, are not so active or worldly. At this point the Christian is the passive man, and doubtless tempted into all of the easily noted dangers of confusing the self with Jesus.

The Christian life as the discernment of Jesus beneath the worldly masks can be called work or interpretation or criticism; while the Christian life as becoming Jesus looks a little different. At this point the Christian is the sucker, the fall guy, the jester, the fool for Christ, the one who stands before Pilate and is silent, the one who stands before power and power-structures and laughs.

Whichever of the paths one takes to find or define Jesus in the world, and perhaps some of us are called to choose both ways, and some only one, the worldliness of the Protestant can never, because of this, have an utterly humanistic form. I may be proposing a too simple marriage between Christology and ethics, a too narrowly ethical approach to Christological problems, but it should at least be noted that however acute the experience of the death of God may be for us, however much silence and loneliness are entailed during our time of waiting for the absent God, we are not particularly cast down or perplexed by this. A form of obedience remains to us in our time of deprivation. We dechristianize no one, we make no virtue of our defects, and we even dare to call men into the worldly arena where men are in need and where Jesus is to be found and served.


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