American Theology, Radicalism and the Death of God by William Hamilton

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

American Theology, Radicalism and the Death of God by William Hamilton

Christianity and Crisis recently began a series about new forms of American theology. This is a good thing -- good for Christianity and Crisis because some of its friends had begun to suspect that it was becoming the house organ for spirited defenses of the theological and ethical consensus in Protestantism. And good for American theology because new lines between theology and the rest of the academic, ecclesiastical and cultural community are badly needed right now. It is important not to be satisfied with the news magazines, the weekly religious journals and The New Yorker.

Funny things are happening to theology in America. First, it is a far less important discipline today than it has been for some time. This means that the seminary, the place where theological work is usually done, has also become less important. The theological movement called neo-orthodoxy was centered there. During the time of its hegemony the seminary was the most exciting place to be, and it tended to look down on the church, the college religion department, the student movement, councils of churches. But today, seminary students -- the best ones at least -- are more interested in the Street than in the Academy or the Temple. For many of them theology has become a charming but minor art and the seminary a way station.

The disappearance of both theology and seminary from their central position can be demonstrated by noticing where the really exciting Protestant work is being done on the racial issue today: seminaries have shown themselves quite incapable of creative institutional action, while groups from national and local councils of churches are providing the brains, the guts and the leadership.

Second, theology in America is not only losing its prestige, it is changing its mode of communication. Until quite recently it was a solid, slow moving "book-discipline," an academic discipline in which most of the important material was published in hardcover books.

This no longer seems to be the case. Developments are too fast moving for books or for solid quarterly articles which often take as long between writing and publication as do books. Also, many quarterlies, monthlies and weeklies contain so much filler and hasty work that it is not easy to find the solid stuff.

In this period of rapid theological change no satisfactory means of information-passing has been devised. Communication is by telephone calls, improvised luncheon meetings attended by people who have cut an important conference session, and letter-writing (my guess would be that the key to America’s future lies somewhere in private letters). Unlike the biblical people, who seem to have mastered this art of finding out what articles are going to say before they are published, theologians are still perplexed by these changes.

Third, no agreement has been reached on what is behind the sense of swift change or on what things are changing to. However, this seems to me roughly what the situation is:

There are four camps; the lines dividing them are porous, and some have pitched their tents on the boundaries. A large group still feels at home in the ecumenical, Barthian, neo-Reformation tradition. Most of the American contributions to the ecumenical movement lie here, as do most of the Protestants engaged in dialogue with the Roman Catholics.

This position may become more important in disciplines ancillary to theology than in theology itself; as liberalism left systematic theology and went to live with psychology of religion and Christian education for a while, so neo-orthodoxy may have its immediate future in history of doctrine, Old Testament and perhaps in ethics.

For instance, one of the most interesting recent events was the reception in some circles of Harvey Cox’s elegant pastiche The Secular City (pop Barth?) as a new language for this neo-orthodox tradition. This admirable book came, one might say, as a cool glass of salt water to the thirsty Establishment.

The second group contains the Bultmannians and new hermeneutics people; a great deal of solid New Testament work is, of course, being done under this banner. Theologically it is exciting and unstable, particularly at the left margin, where a drift to the third or fourth groups is discernible.

Third is the group which is hopeful for a new kind of natural, metaphysical or philosophical theology. The ontological argument is being restudied; so are Wittgenstein, Whitehead and Heidegger. Looking at this growing, enthusiastic and intelligent group, it is clear that liberal theology is by no means as dead as some of the older funeral orations implied.

The fourth is the radical or "death of God" theological group. A number of names are given to this fourth group, none of which is entirely satisfactory. One hears of the "new" theology, the secular, the radical, the death of God theology. I think radical is perfectly adequate, though there is often a kind of arrogance in ascribing this to oneself. However, if it is used, it should be carefully distinguished from other forms of radicalism. We have radical radicals today; they are nonmoderate and in general can be identified by their attitudes toward James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones, Martin Luthur King and civil disobedience. There are sexual radicals, and they, too, are easy to spot. They are radically uninterested in pre-marital sexual chastity; they believe in being radically open to others, and they are firmly against "Puritanism."

We also have the ecclesiastical radicals who say critical things about the present form of the institutional church. Members of this group write study books for the student movement and speak about secular, worldly and non-religious theology. (They are often confused with the theological radicals for this reason.)

The classic statement of this position is found in J. C. Hoekendijk’s World Student Christian Federation address at Strasbourg in 1960. I suspect that a good deal of the interesting neo-orthodox theology in the next few years will be done in this mode. On the whole it is a creative and practical movement. New strategy and new structures may well be forthcoming, but we probably should not expect new theology in the strict sense.

One person may participate in all four of these forms of radicalism, and there is no reason why the term "radical" should not be used for all four, so long as they are distinguished. The name I prefer for theological radicalism is the death of God theology.

The death of God radical theologians, recently given far more visibility than they either desired or deserved, are men without God who do not anticipate his return. But it is not a simple not-having, for there is an experience of loss. Painful for some, not so for others, it is loss nonetheless. The loss is not of the idols, or of the God of theism, but of the God of the Christian tradition. And this group persists, in the face of both bewilderment and fury, in calling itself Christian. It persists in making use of the phrase "death of God," in spite of its rhetorical color, partly because it is a phrase that cannot be adapted to traditional use by the theologians today.

The death of God tradition is beginning to see the work laid out before it: historical, exegetical, apologetic, ethical. It is not out to appeal to modern man or to "take him seriously," nor is it enchanted with being new or relevant. Wisely, it knows that many secular modern men like their theological foes to be as orthodox as possible so they can be rejected as irrelevant. (Known as the Walter Kaufman syndrome, it has recently been repeated by secular critics of Bishop J. A. T. Robinson.)

Some connection may be discernable between the death of God theology and the Jew today, and I would hope it would be possible to set down some theological rules for a Christian, or at least a Protestant, dialogue with the Jew -- both secular and believing. Many have noted the psychological affinities between certain kinds of Protestants and certain kinds of Jews (Freud named a son for Oliver Cromwell), and I think this may partly be explained by saying that both the Protestant and the Jew are men caught between a having and a not-having and are never satisfied by a verbal resolution of this plight.

The believing Jew is the man with God and without the Messiah; the death of God Protestant is the man without God but not without something like the Messiah. They may not have much identity of content, but a formal kinship exists that could lead to some levels of theological dialogue not made possible by other forms of Protestant theology.

What is the relation of radical theology to the Church? It certainly must be clear that this theology has neither the power nor the ability to serve the Protestant Church in most of its present institutional forms. I do not see how preaching, worship, prayer, ordination, the sacraments can be taken seriously by the radical theologian. If there is a need for new institutional forms and styles, however, this theology doubtless has a great deal to say. If theology is tested by its ability to shape new kinds of personal and corporate existence in the times in which it lives, then it would seem that radical theology may be able to pass such a test.

The radical theology is beginning to receive criticism, but as yet most of it seems to be composed largely of patronization, accusations of moral flaws (usually arrogance) and warnings against faddishness. The radical theologians are aware of their moral flaws, which seem about the same as those of their friends in other schools of theological thought. And they quite simply deny that this movement can be disposed of as a flashy new fad. Radical theology isn’t everything and doesn’t claim to be. For the Christian in today’s world it claims only to be able to work out a way of "making it."