"Is God Dead?"

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Ken Cedeno / Corbis

A 43-ft cross stands at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego.

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Prestige of Science.
Faith in God survived scientific attack only when the churches came to realize that the reli gious language of the Bible is what Theologian Krister Stendahl calls "poetry-plus, rather than science-minus." Nowadays not even fundamentalists are upset by the latest cosmological theories of astronomers. Quasars, everyone agrees, neither prove nor disprove divine creation; by pushing back the boundaries of knowledge 8 billion light years without finding a definite answer, they do, in a way, admit its possibility. Nonetheless, science still presents a challenge to faith—in a new and perhaps more dangerous way.

Anglican Theologian David Jenkins points out that the prestige of science is so great that its standards have seeped into other areas of life; in effect, knowledge has become that which can be known by scientific study—and what cannot be known that way somehow seems uninteresting, unreal. In previous ages, the man of ideas, the priest or the philosopher was regarded as the font of wisdom. Now, says Jenkins, the sage is more likely to be an authority "trained in scientific methods of observing phenomena, who bases what he says on a corpus of knowledge built up by observation and experiment and constantly verified by further processes of practice and observation." The prestige of science has been helped along by the analytic tradition of philosophy, which tends to limit "meaningful" ideas and statements to those that can be verified. It is no wonder, then, that even devout believers are empirical in outlook, and find themselves more at home with vis ible facts than unseen abstractions.

Socialization has immunized man against the wonder and mystery of existence, argues Oxford Theologian Ian Ramsey. "We are now sheltered from all the great crises of life. Birth is a kind of discontinuity between the prenatal and post-natal clinics, while death just takes somebody out of the community, possibly to the tune of prerecorded hymns at the funeral parlor." John Courtney Murray suggests that man has lost touch with the transcendent dimension in the transition from a rural agricultural society to an urbanized, technological world. The effect has been to veil man from what he calls natural symbols—the seasonal pattern of growth—that in the past reminded men of their own finiteness. The question is, says Murray, "whether or not a contemporary industrial civilization can construct symbols that can help us understand God."

Teach-in for God.
Secularization, science, urbanization—all have made it comparatively easy for the modern man to ask where God is, and hard for the man of faith to give a convincing answer, even to himself. It is precisely to this problem—how do men talk of God in the context of a culture that rejects the transcendent, the beyond?—that theologians today are turning. In part, this reflects popular demand and pastoral need. "God is the question that interests laymen the most," says David Edwards, editor of the Anglican SCM Press. Last month the University of Colorado sponsored a teach-in on God, featuring William Hamilton and Dr. George Forell of the University of Iowa's School of Religion; more than 1,700 people showed up for the seven-hour session—a greater turnout than for a recent similar talkfest on Viet Nam. At the University of California at Santa Barbara, students and faculty jammed two lecture halls to hear Harvey Cox talk on "The 'Death of God' and the Future of Theology."

"If you want to have a well-attended lecture," says Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a visiting professor at Manhattan's Union Theological Seminary, "discuss God and faith." Ministers have found that currently there is no easier way to boost Sunday attendance than to post "Is God Dead?" as the topic of their next sermon.

The new theological approach to the problem of God is not that of the ages when solid faith could be assumed. No serious theologian today would attempt to describe the qualities of God as the medieval scholastic did with such assurance. Gone, too, is any attempt to prove God by reason alone.* For one thing, every proof seems to have a plausible refutation; for another, only a committed Thomist is likely to be spiritually moved by the realization that there is a self-existent Prime Mover. "Faith in God is more than an intellectual belief," says Dr. John Macquarrie of Union Theological Seminary. "It is a total attitude of the self."

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