The Duty of Man

Christian social ethics in the era of the death of god stands for democratic values, freedom of conscience, rational inquiry as the basis of knowledge, and a commitment to the values taught by Jesus as a guide to the ethical life, including at the least feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, healing the sick, supporting the poor, comforting the lonely, seeking peace and standing with the powerless against the mighty.
Showing posts with label Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Show all posts

Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Death of God

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>.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

A short history of Christian Humanism

Christian Humanism appeared in the late Middle Ages, became a movement in Catholicism in the Renaissance, and has emerged as an important theme among variants of Christian belief that emerged in the last half of the Twentieth Century from Liberation Theology to the emergence of Fundamentalism, Liberalism and the Social Gospel.  Christian Humanism as expounded here is a Christianity that has dispensed with the mythological framework and is therefore a non-theistic religionless Christianity that emphasizes the humanity of Jesus and is guided by a belief in human freedom, individual conscience and rational inquiry. 

Christian Humanism today encompasses those who are more generally at the liberal end of traditional Christianity but want to humanize it by reducing traditional language and moving toward Jesus’ example of compassion, to the more extreme position (that I hold) that dispenses with traditional Christianity entirely and emphasizes ethical conduct following the example of Jesus’ life and teachings as we understand them (while conceding with modern scholars that there is little about his life that we can know with any certainty).

Christian Humanism is the conjunction of two different and typically unrelated concepts and for some readers these terms and the ideas they represent do not fit together comfortably and may even be seen as incompatible.  Christianity is a theological viewpoint that proposes meaning to the world and man’s place in it.  Humanism celebrates mankind’s intelligence as the key to understanding and explaining our world without the need for god or any other rationale external to man and affirms our connection with and dependence on each other for mutual support, concern and care. 

While it is an uneasy conjunction of terms, a look at history shows that Christianity and Humanism have had interesting interconnections going back at least as far as the Second Century when the writer of the Gospel of John and Justin Martyr (St. Justin) were contemporaries and both introduced the Greek concept of the Logos to the Christianity of their time (c. 125
AD), which they had borrowed from the philosophy of the Stoics, the Gospel of John arguing that the Logos (in Greek thought the divine force that underlies the universe) predated but informed Christianity, and Justin arguing to the Roman authorities that Christian thought and values were consistent with the Logos and that therefore the Empire should not molest this new sect because they merely stated the contemporary understanding of religion in a slightly different way that was not inconsistent with Stoic beliefs and values.  In both cases there was an integration of Christianity with the secular beliefs of the time.

​There are many sources for the history of Christian Humanism but perhaps the places to start are the New World Encyclopedia and Wikipedia, both of which have good summaries of Christian Humanism.  Here we will only mention the Middle Ages when Christian clerics controlled education through the monasteries and Charlemagne ordered centers of learning set up throughout the Empire, with monks and clerics morphing into professors.  Subsequently Western universities including Padua, Bologna, Paris, and Oxford were established through Papal decree and began teaching law, medicine, philosophy, languages and the classics (and so we have introduced the “humanities” to our curriculum).

In the Renaissance, perhaps the most significant relevant writing was Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) in which he argued that the religious duty of man is to approach learning from the human perspective, a very clear conjunction of Christianity with a humanistic approach.  In the Reformation human knowledge advanced with the invention of the printing press and the writings of Erasmus, Martin Luther and John Calvin.  The Enlightenment saw further advancement of the connection between humanism and Christianity with the emergence of secularism, liberal philosophy, Deism, bourgeois liberalism, an interest in the historical Jesus, and a non-conformist emphasis on reason and intuition in religious matters. 

We come back to our premise as stated at the beginning of this article—that Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and rational inquiry are not only compatible with Christianity, they are fundamental to a proper understanding and interpretation of Christian belief. 

How far can we stretch the fabric of the umbrella of Christian Humanism to include the extremes that claim a place under it?  It is clear that the movement within Christian Humanism that attempts to humanize Christianity with an emphasis on economic justice and concern for one’s neighbor are legitimate elements of Christian social ethics.  It is not at all clear that dispensing with traditional Christian theology and the willingness to live with only Jesus as teacher and guide is sufficiently Christian to still fall within the broader Christian family.  As most ideologies, much depends on various interpretations of Christianity and who is doing the interpreting and for what objective. 

I stand by my claim, while hearing and taking seriously the objections of those who argue to the contrary, that the version of Christian Humanism for which I argue on this site, a view that dispenses with god and lives with only Jesus as guide, is consistent with the views of other modern Christian thinkers including Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and deserves its place as both Christian and Humanist.