Theology: The God Is Dead Movement

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The "God Is Dead" Movement We must recognize that the death of God is a historical event: God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence.

The words would seem shocking enough coming from someone like Jean-Paul Sartre. As it happens, they were written not by a moody French existentialist but by Thomas J. J. Altizer, 38, associate professor of religion at Atlanta's Emory University, a Methodist school. Moreover, Altizer is not alone in proclaiming his "atheism." Today, one of the most hotly debated trends in U.S. Protestant seminaries is a radical new brand of Christian thinking that takes as its starting point Nietzsche's 19th century rallying cry: "God is dead!"

The death-of-God theologians do not argue merely that Christianity's traditional "image" of the Creator is obsolete. They say that it is no longer possible to think about or believe in a transcendent God who acts in human history, and that Christianity will have to survive, if at all, without him. Altizer notes that this new kind of Godless Christianity is a uniquely American phenomenon, although it acknowledges an intellectual debt to certain European thinkers, religious as well as secular. From Sören Kierkegaard, the death-of-God thinkers developed the idea that organized Christianity is a kind of idolatry that has obscured the real message of the Gospel behind irrelevant and outdated cultural forms. And they follow closely in the footsteps of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi German martyr of World War II whose prison-cell writings speak of the need for the church to develop a "nonreligious interpretation of Biblical concepts," and of a secular world "come of age" that no longer finds God necessary as a hypothesis to explain the sun and stars or as an answer to man's anxiety.

The proclamation of God's death is only the negative starting point of this new radical theology. In various ways, these theologians are trying to redefine other tenets of a Christianity without a Creator. Something of the variety and scope of the movement can be judged from the work of the four best-known advocates of a death-of-God theology: Altizer, Paul van Buren of Temple University, William Hamilton of Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and Gabriel Vahanian of Syracuse University.

Buddhism & Blake. There is a strong streak of mysticism in Altizer, whose eclectic theology borrows from such diverse sources as Buddhism and William Blake. One of his key themes is the ultimate reconciliation of opposites. Man, he argues, has by now lost the sense of the sacred that was so vivid in the medieval world. Instead of trying to put God back into human life, says Altizer, the Christian should welcome the total secularization of the modern world, on the ground that it is only in the midst of the radically profane that man will again be able to recapture an understanding of the sacred.

Thus Altizer sees the collapse of Christendom and the onset of a secular world without God as necessary preludes to the rediscovery of the sacred. In his next book, to be called The Gospel of Christian Atheism, Altizer in fact analyzes the death of God as essentially a redemptive act.

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