Chapter 8: After the ‘Death of God’

The 'Last Things’ in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 8: After the ‘Death of God’

The furore over the ‘death of God’ theology seems to have died down in the United States, but to Continue undiminished in Britain. Perhaps this is because the publication in Britain of the writings of the advocates of this position was rather delayed; hence the impact which they make is very much a present reality. In the States, William Hamilton, among the first who talked and wrote in this vein, has said that the ‘death of God’ emphasis belongs to the past -- the recent past, surely -- and that today we must go beyond it. Whatever may have been the contribution it made, the contribution has been made; what comes next?

I do not myself subscribe to the view that theology works in the fashion which Hamilton’s remark suggests -- a sort of drunkard’s progress, with no real direction and without obvious continuities. But I agree on three points: first, that the ‘death of God’ literature has made a contribution to theology, even if it is not the contribution which its spokesmen might think; secondly, that the movement is just as dead as its leaders said that ‘God’ was dead; and thirdly, that we must go forward to a doing of theology, in the Christian mode, which will take account of what that particular literature had to say. I wish to speak about these three points.

The talk about the ‘death of God’, I believe, was an extraordinarily misleading, even if highly provocative, way of saying something important. For what was really involved in the talk was the death of certain concepts of God, rather than a supposed death of God himself. One realizes that this interpretation has been denied by Thomas Altizer and other advocates of the view; they insist that they are talking about a genuine death of God as an historical occurrence. But even they show that the contrary is the case, as Altizer himself demonstrates when he claims that he is talking about the absolute immanence or ‘presence-in-this-world’ of the Word or Spirit, in consequence of the radical kenosis or self-emptying of the transcendent deity usually denoted by the word ‘God’. That Word or Spirit most certainly is not dead; and Altizer’s ‘gospel’ is precisely the reality in human experience and in the world-order of that Word or Spirit with whom men must reckon whether they wish to do so or not.

I am convinced that what has died, that whose death has been announced, is a series of models, images, pictures, or concepts of deity which for a very long time have been taken by considerable numbers of people to be the Christian way of understanding God. It is important in this connection to note that each of the three leading advocates of the position is in reaction against a notion of God that represents just such a series of models. Paul van Buren was a disciple of Karl Barth, under whom he wrote his excellent doctoral dissertation on Calvin’s teaching about Christ as the true life of men; Hamilton was an opponent of natural theology in all its forms, even if he studied at St Andrews under Donald Baillie -- but it was the so-called ‘rico-orthodox’ line which had attracted him, theologically; Altizer is a slightly different case. He worked under Paul Tillich and with Mircea Eliade, but his reaction has been against the aspects of Tillich’s thought which stressed ‘being-itself’ in God and for those aspects which emphasized the need for radical re-conception of Christian thought.

Whitehead, to whom I shall return, wrote in Process and Reality many years ago that the Christian theological tradition has tended to conceive of God in three ways, each of them mistaken: as ‘the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover’. It has failed to give central place to what he styled ‘the Galilean vision’, in which God is shown as persuasion or love. Hence, in his striking phrase, ‘the Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar’, seeing him ‘in the image of an imperial ruler’, ‘in the image of a personification of moral energy’, or ‘in the image of an ultimate philosophical principle’. With certain qualifications I should say that Whitehead stated the facts here.

In various combinations and with differing emphases, the concept of God with which many Christian thinkers have tended to work has been composed of exactly those ingredients; absolute power, stark moral demand, and unconditioned (essentially unrelated, in the sense of a two-way movement) ‘being-itself’ as the ultimate cause of everything not-God, but not in anyway affected by that which was not itself -- and the neuter here is highly significant, ens realissimum. Great theologians, like Augustine and Aquinas (to name but two), have worked in this fashion; but they were also strangely discontented in doing so, since their real faith was in the biblical God of unfailing love-in-action, effecting his purpose of love in nature and history, and most profoundly open to and receptive of what went on in the world. Hence the ambiguity which (as I think) one can see running through so many of the great theologies.

But it was the stress on power, on ‘ruthless moralism’, and on transcendence in the sense of non-relationship, which many took to be demanded when one talked of God, although one might also add, as a kind of afterthought, ‘Oh yes, he is also loving’. I do not parody here, for I myself have found often enough that when I have tried to present a theological point of view which made the reality of love absolutely central, and put the other so-called divine attributes in a place secondary to that love, I have been met with the response, ‘Of course God is loving, but we have to begin with His omnipotence, or His transcendence, or His aseity (self-contained and self-existence), or His absolute righteousness with its consequent demands on men.

This procedure seems to me to be entirely wrong, however traditional it may be. What we ought to do is to start with God self-disclosed in human affairs as love-in-action. Then, and only then, can we use (adverbially, as it were) the other so-called attributes. God as love-in-action is more than any particular expression of His love (hence He is transcendent); God as love-in-action is always available (hence He is onmipresent); God as love-in-action is able to envisage every situation in its deepest and truest reality and accommodate Himself to it, so that He can indeed achieve His loving ends (hence He is omniscient and omnipotent); God as love-inaction is unswerving in His love, unfailing in its expression, unyielding in His desire to confront men with the demands of love (hence He is righteous). If we had worked in that way, we should have been saved from many of. our supposedly insoluble theological problems, most of which are based on taking the other, and as I think wrong, approach.

However this may be, the fact is plain that for contemporary men and women, not only of a sophisticated sort but also of quite ordinary attainments, the notion of God as absolute power, as unyielding moral dictator, and as metaphysical first cause never Himself affected, has gone dead. There are many reasons why this has happened; this is no place to discuss them, but among others we may mention scientific constructions, psychological discoveries, awareness of sociological conditions, and all that Bonhoeffer summed up in saying that man has ‘come of age’ (by which he did not mean that man is an entirely mature and adult creature who now can take the place of God, in a fashion not unlike the claim made by the Provost of King’s in his recent utterances; but he did mean that we now know our own responsibility and that God treats us, not like slaves nor like little children, but like sons to whom He entrusts such responsibility). This ‘going dead’ of the notions I have mentioned is stated plainly for us in the writers who speak of ‘the death of God’.

So much for my first point. My second is that the movement called by that name is now itself a matter of the past; it has made its contribution and that is that. It has taught us something, and by now we ought to have learned what it had to teach us. Of course the learning has not been done simultaneously in all parts of the Christian world or anywhere else. Hence for some of us, it might be said, the situation is still pre-’death of God’; and, for those who are in this situation, the lesson is still to be learned. But for those who have got an inkling of what this is all about, who have learned the lesson, the situation is post-‘death of God’; we must now go on to the constructive task.

I shall not spend time in showing how and why we are in that ‘post’ era. I only call in witness the remarks of Hamilton which I have already cited. He at least feels that the ‘calling in question’, the denials, the stark affirmation of the ‘end of sheer transcendence, sheer moralism, sheer power’ (as I like to put it), has been accomplished. So the problem for us, as for him, may be phrased in a typically American way: ‘Where do we go from here?’ And it is with that question that the remainder of this chapter will concern itself. But the one thing that is quite clear is that we do not ‘go back’, as if we could return to the older ideas and concepts, quite unchanged by what has happened during the past few decades. If we cannot retreat, rest content in the denials, the ‘calling in question’, and the like, neither can we into one of the theologies of the past. If I may say so, this is what I find troublesome in the writing of Dr Mascall on the subject. He is usually very sound in his criticisms of the ‘death of God’ school and, indeed, of the whole ‘radical theology’ which in one way or another is associated with it. But because of his failure to understand why such a theology in its various forms has appeared, he is unable to see any other solution than a ‘return’. Leonard Hodgson, in his review in Theology of The Secularization of Christianity, made this point about Mascall; and he made it with such clarity and precision that I need only mention it here.

In going forward, then, with Christian theology after ‘the death of God’, we have several options. Let me mention some of them, assuming that we cannot work with Thomism (either ‘classical’ or ‘revised’), nor with that peculiar Anglican affair known as ‘liberal Catholicism’ in the style of Essays Catholic and Critical or the writings of Charles Gore, nor with ‘liberalism’ in its reductionist form as found in Harnack or Harnack redivivus, nor in sheer biblicism in its fundamentalist dress. So I mention the following possibilities, getting some of them from an excellent little book of lectures given in Chicago a couple of years ago, Philosophical Resources for Christian Faith: (1) existentialism in some mode; (2) phenomenological (and in that sense non-metaphysical) enquiry; (3) analytical philosophy and its talk about bliks and various ‘language games’; (4) process thought in its several forms. To these four I should add the so-styled ‘secular theology’ often advocated today, with a side-glance at revived and restated ‘biblical theology’. Here are six possibilities.

Of some of them I must speak very briefly. For example, the kind of ‘biblical theology’ sometimes advocated assumes that we should go forward by taking with utmost seriousness the biblical images or motifs -- not the literal, textual stuff of Scripture, which would involve us in a kind of new ‘fundamentalism’, but the main-line of biblical images. I am very much in sympathy with this approach, so far as it goes. For Christians the biblical images and patterns are of first importance, since it is from them that the Christian picture of God takes its rise. But it must be pointed out that these images and patterns are most diverse; further, they belong, in their explicit shape, to ages in which we do not ourselves live. Hence what is required is just what Leonard Hodgson has so often, and rightly, demanded: we must ask ourselves what the case really is, so far as we can grasp it today, if people who thought and wrote like that, phrased it in the way they did. Otherwise we shall be using the Scriptures in a very wooden and unimaginative fashion, even if we do not succumb to literalism in its obvious sense. Furthermore, if we wish to communicate the deepest meaning of those images and patterns, we dare not rest content with them as they stand. That would be to resemble the Chinese who, when shipwrecked on a desert island, made their living by taking in each other’s laundry. We must translate if we wish to communicate.

Again, the use of analytical philosophy will help us enormously in the way in which we use words. It will enable us to clarify our language, to avoid contradiction, to stop talking sheer nonsense, to look for some kind of referent which will give the necessary verification to what we are saying as Christians. All this is of great importance, lest we fall into the temptation to use high-sounding words for the evasion of difficulties. It has been said that whenever some older theologians got to a hard place they simply quoted a few lines of Wordsworth or Tennyson, thinking that ended the matter; or they made a few biblical citations as if that were the complete answer; or (at worst), when the attack was most fierce, they used the word ‘mystery’ as a kind of ‘escape-hatch’. But analytical philosophy is a neutral discipline-for which we may be grateful -- and it gives us no working conceptuality for the statement of the theological implications of Christian faith with the claims that faith makes about ‘how things really go in the world’.

The kind of phenomenological method which is often advocated is of a non-metaphysical type; that is, it is interested in description, in terms of how living religion, as a matter of deepest intuitive observation, effectively operates in human experience in the world where men live. This seems to me to be most valuable; a van der Leeuw, an Eliade, and others like these, can help us a great deal. How does faith function, what embodiments does it have, what attitudes does it demand? These are questions which ought to be answered. But I cannot think that their answer will provide the general conceptuality which we require if Christian faith is to be grounded in the stuff of reality and if the case for it is to be made in a manner which speaks meaningfully to the men and women for whom it exists and to whom it is supposed to address itself.

We are left with three possibilities: ‘secular theology’, an existentialist theology, and a process theology. I shall say something about each of them -- and, as my ordering indicates, I shall come down in favor of the last of the three, as offering us the best conceptuality available today as we go forward from ‘the death of God’.

The phrase ‘secular theology’ may be taken to mean one of two things: either a theology of the secular or a theology which confines itself to the secular realm. Since I have spoken critically of Dr Mascall I am glad to say here that I believe that he has written admirably about this distinction in the last part of his recent Theology and the Future. He has pointed out that a theology which is strictly confined to the world of ‘here and now cannot take account of the ultimate questions which men must ask, whereas every sound Christian theology is required indeed to speak of that ‘here and now’, but to relate it to God as a creative principle and to see God at work in the immediacies of human existence in the whole range of what we style ‘secular existence’. In other words, I agree that Christian faith must see God in the world but that it cannot remain content with ‘the world’ as if it exhausted all there is of God. ‘Whitehead once said that ‘God is in this world or he is nowhere’; that is entirely sound. But Whitehead also said that the world and God are not identical; and I should interpret this utterance, along with others by him, to mean that there is in the divine life an exhaustibility which makes possible the wonderful novelty which the created order manifests, disclosing what Gerard Manley Hopkins named ‘the dearest freshness deep down things’.

In any event, if a ‘secular’ approach to theology thinks that it avoids all metaphysical conceptions, it is profoundly mistaken. Of course one can mean what one wants by the word ‘metaphysical’. If one intends to speak of a grandiose construction in terms of supernatural entities, with a schematic ordering of everything according to some superimposed pattern, metaphysics may very well be denied. It seems to me that the present-day attack on metaphysics is nothing more than an attack on idealistic constructions of this type, after the fashion (say) of Hegel or Bradley. But metaphysics can also mean -- and process thinkers would say that it ought to mean -- the inevitable human enterprise of generalizations widely applied, on the basis of a particular point or event or experience taken as ‘important’, to the rest of our experience of the world and the world which we surely experience. It can mean, then, the development of those principles which most adequately express what we experience and know, in the full range of our human encounters; and the result is a ‘vision’ which can be tested by reference back to experience and to the world experienced. Metaphysics in this mode is not some highly speculative system imposed on the world. It is an induction from what is known of the world. Everybody engages in this, usually in a very naive manner; the ‘philosopher’, so styled, is only one who in a more sophisticated and critical manner engages in this attempt at making sense of things, including human experience.

But the self-styled ‘secular theologian’ is doing exactly that. You have only to read Gregor Smith, whose untimely death we all lament, to observe this. Both in The New Man and in Secular Christianity Gregor Smith is actively setting forth this kind of metaphysics, taking as his ‘important’ moment or event the historical encounters of men, specifically with Jesus, and from these developing a view of the generalized situation of man-in-the-world which, in my sense of the word, is inescapably metaphysical, even if he himself rejects the word and thinks that he is also rejecting the enterprise. What he is rejecting, it turns out, is only that ‘supernaturalistic’ species of metaphysics which idealistic philosophers have set forth in a pretentious claim to encompass in their thought all things in earth and heaven.

Thus, as I see it, the options which remain are in fact two: either an existentialist approach or a ‘process thought’ approach, since the ‘secular’ theology in itself does nothing more than deny a particular kind of metaphysic and leaves us open to the possibility of interpreting the secular world, and everything else in human experience, in some appropriate manner.

The existentialist approach in contemporary English-written theology has been associated with two names: one is Paul Tillich, the other John Macquarrie. I cannot mention the name of Tillich without reverence, for that great and good man was a dear friend of mine and I respect, honor, and love him, though he has now gone from us. His theology was an attempt to combine an existentialist analysis of the human situation with a Christian faith interpreted along the lines of German idealistic thought; he himself confessed that Schelling had been his great master. His method of correlation is, I believe, very suggestive and helpful; his masterly analysis of what it is like to be human is almost beyond criticism. But his final ‘system’, as he used to call it, seems to me to be too abstract in its statement to convey the Christian gospel, although in his preaching he was anything but abstract. I think that Professor Macquarrie’s efforts, especially in Principles of Christian Theology, offer a much more ‘available’ approach for most of us. His insistence that every existential analysis presupposes and includes ontological affirmations seems to me right and sound; his way of using Heideggerian thought is instructive. He takes the biblical images with utmost seriousness and employs them effectively as being determinative of the total picture of God -- world -- man in the light of Jesus Christ.

If I were to make any criticisms of this existentialist mode of theologizing it would be to say that it is not sufficiently regardful of nature, in the strict sense of the physical world and the material stuff of things. And I should add that it lacks something of the dynamism which I believe is required of any Christian theology, not only because of the dynamic quality of biblical thought itself but also (and more significantly) because of the evolutionary way of things which men like Teilhard de Chardin have so insistently pressed upon us. But I confess that if I did not find process theology more appealing I should opt for Macquarrie’s approach. At the same time I must say that if those two criticisms of mine were met sufficiently, there would not be too much (I think) to differentiate his way from the one to which I now turn in conclusion.

It is not necessary for me to outline my reasons for preferring process thought; I have already indicated these in my book Process Thought and Christian Faith. It will suffice if I note that process thought regards the world as a dynamic process of inter-related (and hence social) organisms or entities, whose intentional movement is towards shared good in widest and most inclusive expression; and that it interprets deity along those lines. God is no unmoved mover, dictatorial Caesar, nor ‘ruthless moralist’; He is the cosmic lover, both causative and affected, ‘first cause and final affect’ as Schubert Ogden has so well phrased it. He is always related, hence always relational; He is eminently temporal, sharing in the ongoing which is time. His transcendence is in His sheer faithfulness to Himself as love, in His inexhaustibility as lover, and in His capacity for endless adaptation to circumstances in which His love may be active. He does not coerce; He lures and attracts and solicits and invites. He waits for free response from the creaturely agent, using such response (which He has incited by His providing ‘initial aims’) to secure the decisions which enable the agent to make actual his own (the agent’s) ‘subjective aim’. In the historical realm and in human life He discloses Himself, precisely as love-in-action, in the total event which we name Jesus Christ. Since His love-in-operation is His essential nature -- He is love, which is His ‘root-attribute’, not aseity, as the older theology claimed -- the other things said about Him (transcendence, immanence, omnipotence, omniscience, omni-presence, righteousness, etc.) are to be understood, as I have already argued earlier, as adverbially descriptive of His mode of being love rather than set up as separate or even as distinct attributions.

We live in a ‘becoming’ world, not in a static machine-like world. And God Himself is ‘on the move’. Although He is never surpassed by anything in the creation, He can increase in the richness of His own experience and in the relationships which He has with that creation. He is the living God; in that sense, we may say (as the title of a recent book of mine dares to do) that God is ‘in process’. In other words, the basic point of the biblical images of God as the living, active, loving, personalizing agent is guaranteed.

But above all, since He is no dictator after the model of Caesar, no self-contained being after the model of the worst sort of man we know, no moralist after the model of the puritanical and negative code-maker, He is truly to be worshipped. Worship means ‘ascribing worth’; and this we can do only to a lovable because loving One. We cringe before power expressed coercively and arbitrarily; we tremble in the presence of rigid moralism, when we do not react against it in wild and desperate efforts to be ourselves; we can only be puzzled by the kind of absolute essence which is without affects from what goes on around and about it. But we can worship, truly ‘ascribe worth’, to the perfection or excellence which is love in its eminent and supreme form. God is that; hence He is adorable.

What is more, He is imitable. And with that affirmation I must end. We are to imitate God; both Aristotle and Plato said so, whilst Jesus gave it content by saying that we were to be ‘like our Father in heaven’. Known as love-in-action, disclosed as that love by the event in which Jesus is central, caught up into life ‘in love’ (which, if I John 4 is right, is life ‘in God’), we are enabled to become what God intends us to be, created lovers. That is why we are here; that is our destiny -- or else Christianity is a fraud.