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


Radical theology is a contemporary development within Protestantism -- with some Jewish, Roman Catholic and non-religious response and participation already forming -- which is carrying the careful openness of the older theologies toward atheism a step further. It is, in effect, an attempt to set an atheist point of view within the spectrum of Christian possibilities. While radical theology in this sense has not yet become a self-conscious "movement," it nevertheless has gained the interest and in part the commitment of a large number of Christians in America, particularly from students of all disciplines, and from the younger ranks of teachers and pastors. The aim of the new theology is not simply to seek relevance or contemporaneity for its own sake but to strive for a whole new way of theological understanding. Thus it is a theological venture in the strict sense, but it is no less a pastoral response hoping to give support to those who have chosen to live as Christian atheists.

The phrase "death of God’’ has quite properly become a watchword, a stumbling-block, and something of a test in radical theology, which itself is a theological expression of a contemporary Christian affirmation of the death of God. Radical theology thus best interprets itself when it begins to say what it means by that phrase. The task of clarifying the possible meanings of the phrase, "death of God," is scarcely begun in the essays of this volume, but no student of Nietzsche will be surprised at this inconclusiveness, recalling the widely different interpretations Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God has received in the twentieth century. Nor should the phrase "death of God" be linked to Nietzsche alone, for in one way or another it lies at the foundation of a distinctly modern thought and experience.

Perhaps the category of "event’’ will prove to be the most useful answer to the recurring question, "Just what does ‘death of God’ refer to?" But not even this specification sufficiently narrows the meaning to make definition possible, and if one wanted to, one could list a range of possible meanings of the phrase along such lines as these, moving slowly from conventional atheism to theological orthodoxy. It might mean:

1. That there is no God and that there never has been. This position is traditional atheism of the old-fashioned kind, and it does seem hard to see how it could be combined, except very unstably, with Christianity or any of the Western religions.

2. That there once was a God to whom adoration, praise and trust were appropriate, possible, and even necessary, but that now there is no such God. This is the position of the death of God or radical theology. It is an atheist position, but with a difference. If there was a God, and if there now isn’t, it should be possible to indicate why this change took place, when it took place, and who was responsible for it.

3. That the idea of God and the word God itself are in need of radical reformulation. Perhaps totally new words are needed; perhaps a decent silence about God should be observed; but ultimately, a new treatment of the idea and the word can be expected, however unexpected and surprising it may turn out to be.

4. That our traditional liturgical and theological language needs a thorough overhaul; the reality abides, but classical modes of thought and forms of language may well have had it.

5. That the Christian story is no longer a saving or a healing story. It may manage to stay on as merely illuminating or instructing or guiding, but it no longer performs its classical functions of salvation or redemption. In this new form, it might help us cope with the demons, but it cannot abolish them.

6. That certain concepts of God, often in the past confused with the classical Christian doctrine of God, must be destroyed: for example, God as problem solver, absolute power, necessary being, the object of ultimate concern.

7. That men do not today experience God except as hidden, absent, silent. We live, so to speak, in the time of the death of God, though that time will doubtless pass.

8. That the gods men make, in their thought and action (false gods or idols, in other words), must always die so that the true object of thought and action, the true God, might emerge, come to life, be born anew.

9. That of a mystical meaning: God must die in the world so that he can be born in us. In many forms of mysticism the death of Jesus on the cross is the time of that worldly death. This is a medieval idea that influenced Martin Luther, and it is probably this complex of ideas that lies behind the German chorale "God Himself is Dead" that may well be the historical source for our modern use of "death of God."

10. Finally, that our language about God is always inadequate and imperfect.

There are other pressing questions in addition to the one about the meaning of the phrase. If the death of God is an event of some kind, when did it happen and why? In response to this sort of self-query, radical theology is being more and more drawn into the disciplines of intellectual history and literary criticism to answer the "when" question, and into philosophy and the behavioral sciences to answer the "why" question. One of the major research tasks now facing the radical theologians is a thorough-going systematic interpretation of the meaning of the death of God in nineteenth-century European and American thought and literature, from, say, the French Revolution to Freud. This means finding a common principle of interpretation to handle such divergent strands as the new history and its consequent historicism, romantic poetry from Blake to Goethe, Darwin and evolutionism, Hegel and the Hegelian left, Marx and Marxism, psychoanalysis, the many varieties of more recent literature including such divergent figures as Dostoevsky, Strindberg and Baudelaire, and, of course, Nietzsche himself.

Of course the questions "why did it happen" and "when did it happen," cannot fully be answered in nineteenth-century terms. Nevertheless, it is increasingly true that the nineteenth century is to radical theology what the sixteenth century was to Protestant neo-orthodoxy. For only in the nineteenth century do we find the death of God lying at the very center of vision and experience. True, we can learn a great deal about the death of God in the history of religions, if only because gods have always been in the process of dying, from the time the sky gods fell into animism to the disappearance of a personal or individual deity in the highest expression of mysticism. Yet, it is in Christianity and Christianity alone that we find a radical or consistent doctrine of the Incarnation. Only the Christian can celebrate an Incarnation in which God has actually become flesh, and radical theology must finally understand the Incarnation itself as effecting the death of God. Although the death of God may not have been historically actualized or realized until the nineteenth century, the radical theologian cannot dissociate this event from Jesus and his original proclamation.

The radical theologian has a strange but compelling interest in the figure of Jesus. This must not be confused with the nineteenth-century liberal quest for the historical Jesus. The new theologian has died to the liberal tradition and is in quest of that Jesus who appears in conjunction with the death of God. Radical theology is peculiarly a product of the mid-twentieth century; it has been initiated by Barth and neo-orthodoxy into a form of theology which can exist in the midst of the collapse of Christendom and the advent of secular atheism. It has also learned from Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann the necessity for theology to engage in a living dialogue with the actual world and history which theology confronts. Finally, we cannot fail to add that radical theology, as here conceived, has a distinctively American form. It reflects the situation of a Christian life in a seemingly neutral but almost totally secular culture and society. Hopefully it also reflects the choice of those Christians who have chosen to live in Christ in a world come of age.

The following pieces have little in common stylistically, they are addressed to diverse problems, and in large measure embody distinct assumptions and methods. Yet all of these pieces, however various their form, are directed to the one fundamental problem of a Christian theological response to the death of God. The authors offer this book as a contribution to the new theological dialogue which must begin.

January 1, 1966 William Hamilton

Thomas J. J. Altizer