William Hamilton is Associate Professor of Theology at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and a Baptist minister. Before joining the Colgate Rochester faculty, he was Dean of Chapel, Hamilton College.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 8, 1975, pp. 872-873Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
“The death of God” movement has proved a liberating and stimulating religious event. It is still the decisive theological event of our time.
October 1965 is as good a time as any from which to date the media event known as death-of-God theology. Ted Fiske’s article in the New York Times was followed, in less than a week, by a notice in Time, and that attention was sufficient to transform a few articles and reviews, plus an extended personal correspondence between Tom Altizer and me, into a media event.
From its beginnings, radical theology was both Christian (van Buren, Hamilton) and religious (Altizer) -- and later Jewish and religious (Rubenstein). At its core was the proposal that attention be given to the doctrine of God. Radical theology’s intention was theological; its effect was to tempt many to turn from theology to the world.
Radical theology was not only Christian, religious and theological; it was in many ways profoundly conservative. It accepted the portrait of God found in the neoconservative theology of the period -- the God of Job, Second Isaiah, Augustine, Luther and Kierkegaard -- as the portrait of the God with whom we must deal. Radical theology said No to this God and insisted that it remained Christian (or Jewish), religious and theological in so doing. It spawned a genuinely radical set of movements to its left: new post-Christian monotheisms and, of course, new religious polytheisms closely related to the rising religiosity of the counterculture. In general, mainstream theologians who attacked radical theology as a threat to the church were more accurate than those who proposed friendly reinterpretations of what the radicals really meant: i.e., "What they are really saying is that we need to reformulate our ideas of God; the old theism has to go."
Mainstream Protestantism, in general, went with Humpty Dumpty; radical theology was Alice.
"There’s glory for you."
"I don’t know what you mean by glory," Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don’t -- till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knockdown argument for you.’"
"But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knockdown argument,’" Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty "which is to be master -- that’s all" [Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll].
So mainstream Protestants turned to hope, to play, to liberation, to find a god to whom it was easier to say Yes. What they found, of course, was a series of idols, the human mind being a perpetual factory of them. And Luther was again proven right: Entweder Gott oder Abgott (either God or idol). Besides, who could dare be so stodgy as to deny a dancing god? (I for one always had trouble with that dancing god, since the choreography seemed to have been done by Agnes DeMille.)
As Philip Rieff noted:
Theologians might well reconsider, therefore, who is more dangerous: Freud or Jung. Better a forthright enemy than an untrustworthy friend. Jung’s psychological religiosity is too strictly for therapeutics, those for whom a god is the need of needs. Freud declared that God did not exist -- and identified Him as the universal figure of authority. I am not sure whether one should not prefer Freud’s strong nonexistent God to Jung’s weak existent one [The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Harper & Row, 1968, p. 91)].
Radical theology stood, and still stands, balanced between an outmoded monotheism and a with-it polytheism, closer to (indeed, a species of) the former; between what the Victorians called faith and doubt, but closer to faith. When God died, he came back as a metaphor and brought with him all the old gods, also as metaphors.
Radical theology had only tenuous connections with secular theology, which was primarily a reformist species of the classical biblical theology of creation. On the other hand, radical theology and the experience of the death of God appear to have been profoundly connected to the outburst of American religiosity, Oriental and otherwise, in the late 1960s. To affirm the death of God is to remove the Mosaic-Calvinist censor from the door of the Holy of Holies, to allow that door to open, and -- without the presence of the custodian -- to let the demons in.
The death of God in 1965 served as psychological preparation for the black theology of the late 1960s. It made black theology possible as ideology, if not convincing as theology, for -- as James Baldwin had earlier observed in The Fire Next Time -- the God that died in 1965 was white.
The death of God in 1965 also made the feminist theology of the 1970s possible as ideology, if not convincing as theology, because it removed the masculine-aggressive principle from the Christian drama of redemption. In that sense, there was something Oedipal about the death of God. It may be that feminist theology will have to move from Oedipus to Orestes, who discovered that the corrupt mother had to be killed before the Furies could be tamed and the city purified.
What happened to the death-of-God theologians when the media event erupted? Some said, "Oh no, not me; I’m OK." Some said, "Sure." Many changed their professional locations for reasons that do not need to be spelled out. At that time I was working in a seminary in upper New York state. I saw my academic chair removed by my colleagues. No problem -- one can teach standing up. I next observed that I was not to be allowed to teach the required introductory course. I got the message: death of God for me; death of Christian character for them. Fair exchange. The students, at least, were splendid.
How does the death-of-God theologian see the continuing professional task? That task was and is threefold: (1) to examine authentic speech about God from the past, to discover what made it authentic; (2) to explore the reasons why such speech is impossible today; and (3) to monitor contemporary language and experience to determine the conditions under which authentic speech about God may reappear, to discern the new gods as they rise and fall, and to learn whether he, she or they are Christian, post-Christian or something else.
Radical theology was never particularly secular and relevant; nor was it immanentist. Current defenses of transcendence (today’s relevance) are irrelevant to the problem of God; they are evasions of it.
"Before God and with God we live without God" (Bonhoeffer from prison, July 16, 1944). In that statement one can discern the precise distance between Bonhoeffer and radical theology. Bonhoeffer’s view is dialectical, so much so that one suspects he is working with two different conceptions of God. Radical theology took the dialectical statement and made it historical. "Before God" referred to the past (memory) and perhaps to the future; "without God" came to describe the present. Not only Bonhoeffer but the whole mystical tradition lies very close indeed to death-of-God theologies today.
The idea of God continues to haunt the work of the radical theologians, putting them in many ways closer to the new conservatives than to the liberal revisionists who busily analyze our experience in order to spin off plausible intimations of transcendence. God has always lurked behind Altizer’s affirmation of God’s death, and God does appear, after his death, as the totality of a guiltless and unrepressed life. For Rubenstein, God merges with that death to which all life inevitably moves; to be homo religiosus is to be aware of death. I would be inclined to affirm Eros with Altizer, and Thanatos with Rubenstein, without trying to give either of those gods new or divine names.
I see the radical theologian as critic of all the new polytheisms and syncretisms, as well as of the new archaisms (whether emerging from Hartford or any other life insurance center): standing like some latter-day Moses or Calvin before the unoccupied space once filled by the Christian God prohibiting re-entry by either demon or spirit) murmuring piously, "He is not here; see the place where they laid him." This stance is an obedience, almost a faith, which insists that No is the proper word to utter in our time to the Christian God. You see, we are still on speaking terms.
Death-of-God theologians today are a modest and relatively confident intellectual-spiritual community doing now, only more carefully and monographically, what they began to do ten years ago. The one thing this community does not do is to weep in print about "What Has Happened to Theology?" Whatever vocational and professional bruises have been delivered (all those honorary D.D. degrees we didn’t receive!), "the death of God" has proved a liberating and stimulating religious event; it is still the decisive theological event of our time.