Radical Christianity #4: The Death of God Movement
Words by Wilson Huang
Secularism and religion are generally seen as distinct and apart, as opposites on a spectrum. However, there have been attempts to combine them. During the 1960s in the United States, there was a movement by mainly liberal Protestants theologians (yes, theologians) accounting for the rising secularism and the rejection of traditional Christianity. This was called Death of God theology, which postulates that God has died in the modern world and that belief in God is pointless or impossible in the modern age.
In April 1966, when TIME magazine asked, “Is God Dead?” on its cover – one of its biggest-selling issues – death of God theology reached its peak. The cover story written by John T Elson described the ideas coming from young theologians in American seminaries. They were declaring – in the sayings of Friedrich Nietzsche – "God is dead!"
Death of God theologians, in essence, were convinced that contemporary philosophy and science exposed extensive problems with the idea of God shown by traditional theology (for example, see these Crash Course Philosophy videos on the philosophy of religion) and instead there needed to be a radical re-understanding of religion’s place in society. Yet the movement itself was diverse with different understandings.
For example, Thomas JJ Altizer wanted to reframe theology by affirming that a world in the absence of God was able to be redeemed by faith in human creativity. He believed that upon Christ’s death, there was the final self-emptying of God’s spirit onto the world. His ideas nearly caused him to lose his job at Emory University.
However, another death of God of theologian William Hamilton was not so lucky, losing his job due to his ideas. Hamilton collaborated with Altizer, and in Radical Theology and the Death of God (1966), they said of radical theology as "an attempt to set an atheist point of view within the spectrum of Christian possibilities."
To Hamilton, the massive human suffering in the world and the collapse of metaphysics made traditional notions such as the benevolent God intelligible. Modern-day Christianity instead needed to give up personal salvation and any rituals and dogma, and instead, follow the example of Christ in the struggle for what could be described as social justice.
Similarly, another Death of God theologian, Paul van Buren argued we should focus on the historical Jesus’ ethics and abandon the inadequate language of ‘God’.
Ultimately, the death of God theologians radically challenged traditional ideas of Christianity even if their legacy is debatable. To some, it was the last attempt of liberal Protestant theology against the rising fundamentalist evangelical forms of Christianity.
For more on the Death of God movement have a look here.