Whatever became of the death of God? Three years ago it was the most fiercely debated issue in American theology (TIME cover, April 8, 1966). Scholarly journals were thick with discussions of it. No sermon topic was more popular; pulpits rang with denunciations from righteous clergymen. Today, one of the chief apostles of the movement, Thomas Altizer, is quietly teaching English on Long Island. The journals and sermons have turned to other themes. Was it just a passing theological fad? A small idea blown out of proportion by pulpit and press? Or a real cri de coeur, saying something valid not only about 20th century man but perhaps about God as well?
To most theologians, it was a bit of each. And as a sensational catch phrase, they agree, the "death of God" phenomenon is indeed dead. It was a shock, says Chicago Divinity School's Langdon Gilkey, and "a shock can only be discussed so long." But as a point of departure from old forms of theological discourse, the idea is still evoking constructive responses. Even a stern critic like Dean John Dillenberger of Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union is prepared to admit that the movement also "cleared away some simple-minded notions of what the life of God means." Others find it a bit more significant. Lay Theologian Leslie Dewart, at the University of Toronto, thinks that any fur ther theology must now be done from "a new perspective, and a realization that the pre-certitudes are gone."
Back to Nietzsche. One of the problems with the "death of God" phenomenon, argues Anglican Canon David Jenkins of Oxford, was that it generated "too much fear for its positive side to be taken seriously." To many cler gymen, the concept of a dead deity simply hearkened back to the secular atheism of Nietzsche. What was more at issue was not so much the existence but the concept of God, and even the theologians who founded the movement differed sharply in their views. Gabriel Vahanian of Syracuse University spoke of the death of God in the sense that the creator assumed by Western civilization no longer meant anything to the modern mind.
Only to Altizer and William Hamilton, another key thinker in the movement, was there a real death of a historical God. As Altizer saw it, the transcendant God of the Bible had died when he be came Jesus, whose incarnation made God man for all time. From that point on, argued Altizer, God was no longer the transcendant "wholly other" of Karl Barth, but an immanent part of mankind, a divinity that men could reach for in themselves. Altizer, now at the State University of New York, admits that "this talk about the death was really the death of neo-Orthodoxy."