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 other.
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>.