An intellectual movement known as Death of God Theology
has been widely discussed but not very well understood since it first came to
public attention in the post-war era more than 60 years ago. The “death of god” was not a new idea in the
1950s. It originated in the writings of the 19th Century German philosopher
Friederich Nietsche but what made it a topic of considerable public interest in
more recent times was that it was being discussed by a small group of avant
garde Christian theologians who initiated this trendy movement in
theological seminaries and religion departments of several major universities
in the 1960s.
One of the leading thinkers in this movement was William H.
Hamilton, Professor of Theology at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in the
1960s, under whom I studied for several years and whose books and other
writings were always interesting, provocative, thoughtful, creative,
influential and controversial. I liked
his style and I was intrigued and excited by his ideas. His teaching and writing have had a larger
influence on my thinking than any other single source, and yet after having
read and re-read everything he has written several times in the more than 60
years since my graduate school days, I still do not fully understand his
thinking on a number of critical issues.
This may be due to some limitation in my comprehension rather than to
some obtuse quality in his writing. The
fact remains that he was and has continued to be a very strong influence on my
thinking about the meaning and implications of our use of the concept of god.
In this short article I will not say very much about death
of God theology except to make a few observations.
First, there was not a particular set of common beliefs held
by those who talked about the death of God; it was a common phrase and theme by
different thinkers and writers who appeared to have one foot inside
Christianity and the other foot firmly planted in the secular modern world but
whose approach, beliefs and interests were actually very different from each
Second, in some sense all the proponents of death of God
theology owed some of their thinking to a small volume of letters written from
a Nazi prison camp by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran minister who was part of
the Christian underground in Germany during World War 2 and a conspirator in a
plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was arrested, tried and ultimately
hanged in April 1945 a few days before his prison camp was liberated. He wrote of a world in despair where god
seemingly was absent and where we needed to learn to get along without him.
Third, it was not at all clear to me what these writers meant
when they said ‘God is dead’ and at different times in different writings that
odd phrase seemed to mean different things to each of them.
That said, I think there is an underlying theme central to
the various writers. At its most basic
level ‘god is dead’ means that we as modern persons live in a secular rather
than a religious world, a world in which the rituals, ideas and forms of religious
expression no longer have the power to convince or persuade us, and we no
longer feel the need to use god as an explanation for what we do not
know or understand. It is not so much
that we do not believe in god or are hostile to religion so much as it is that
we are no longer very much interested in religion and don’t think about it or
take it very seriously.
In short, for many of us in the West the death of god
means that god has ceased to exist as a meaningful part of our lives and our
vocabulary and has become irrelevant to our understanding of ourselves or our
world. It is as if god had died, we
missed him and were sorry that he was gone, but now we must learn to get on
with our lives without him. It is not
hostility to religion or rejection of religious belief so much as it is a realization
that god is no longer available as explanation or comforter, something like the
loss of a friend that we missed but could not bring back and we had to accept
the loss and move on. For me it means
turning away from religion and toward the secular world not with joy or the
sense of ‘good riddance’ but with sadness at the declining roll and influence
of religion in our post-modern world.
Curiously some Christian writers who use the phrase god is
dead seem to be saying something more, that god is dead quite literally,
that he used to be alive but he has died, that the meaning of the Incarnation
is that god gave up his ‘godness’ and became a man living among us, that with
the death of Jesus god willingly, willfully, literally and actually died, that
we are left with Jesus as our model and point of ethical reference and that we
are to become Jesus to our neighbor. It
has a certain curious appeal to it and it may reflect some ideas that have a
legitimate place in Christian thinking, but in the end it seems to me both odd
and unpersuasive and I have a hard time making sense of it or taking it
seriously as more than word play.
The Time cover is from Good Friday, April 8, 1966 and
the accompanying article can be found <here>. A comment by Time on the 50th
anniversary (2016) of that issue can be found <here>. An in-depth retrospective in Religion
& Politics on the 50th anniversary of that Time cover
written by Professor Leigh Eric Schmidt, a member of the faculty of Washington
University in Saint Louis, can be found <here>.