Theology: The God Is Dead Movement

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Human Imagination. By contrast, Paul van Buren, 41, an Episcopal minister and associate professor of religion at Temple, gloomily concludes that any talk of God—including the prospect of his reappearance—is philosophically meaningless.

Van Buren is an advocate of linguistic analysis, which attempts to clarify language by examining the way words are used and denies the objective truth of statements that cannot be verified empirically. In The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (TIME, July 10, 1964), Van Buren tried to work out, in terms of analytical philosophy, a restatement of the Chalcedonian doctrine that Christ is truly man and truly God. Since then, he has been exploring ways to rephrase the Christian doctrine of man and examining "the human imagination as a central theological category. That is, how much is religion part of a person's imagination, and how important is imagination for all aspects of his life?"

"A Place to Be." In an essay called Thursday's Child, William Hamilton of Colgate Rochester argues that the theologian today has neither faith nor hope; only love is left to him. Perhaps the most ethics-minded of these thinkers, Hamilton, 41, concludes that awareness of God's death summons man all the more to follow Jesus as the exemplar and paradigm of conduct— which, for today, means total commitment to the love and service of his fellow man.

Hamilton defines Christ not as a person or an object but as "a place to be" —and the place of Christ, he asserts, is in the midst of the Negro's struggle for equality, in the emerging forms of technological society, in the arts and sciences of the secular world. "In the time of the death of God, we have a place to be," he says. "It is not before an altar; it is in the world, in the city, with both the needy neighbor and the enemy."

Only God Knows God. While Altizer, Van Buren and Hamilton proclaim the death of God with prophetic force, Syracuse's Associate Professor Gabriel Vahanian, 38, is urbanely content to explain why the funeral is necessary. More conservative than the others, Vahanian is a sociologist of religion and a cultural historian with a primary interest in analyzing man's perception of God. He argues that God, if there is one, is known to man only in terms of man's own culture, and thus is basically an idol: "Theologically speaking, any concept of God can only be an approximation," he says. "Only God can have a concept about God."

Vahanian believes that the church's concept of God today is the product of the encounter between primitive Christianity and Greek philosophy, an idol that is no longer relevant to secular culture and has been either neutralized by overexposure or rejected entirely. Thus, he declares, God is dead, and will remain so until the church becomes secular enough in structure and thought to proclaim him anew in ways that will fulfill the cultural needs of the times. Since the spirit of the times is irretrievably secular—with all notions of transcendence and otherworldliness rejected—Vahanian in his current study is working toward a historical explanation of how secularization came about.

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