April 26, 2012

Death of a Theologian

Peter Berger
April 4, 2012

William Hughes Hamilton died on February 28, 2012, aged 87. His passing was barely noted in the media, a fact both sad and instructive. Along with a small group of other individuals, he attained sudden celebrity status in the 1960s as one of the founders of the so-called “death of God theology”. The phrase had all the makings of a classic man-bites-dog story, so it is not surprising that in April 1966 it appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the caption “Is God dead?” At that time Hamilton was on the faculty of Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, in upstate New York. As public attention engulfed Hamilton, he confronted a wave of hostility, both by colleagues and in the Presbyterian church where he worshipped with his family. He found a more friendly haven elsewhere, first at the progressive New College in Sarasota, Florida, and later at Portland State University in Oregon (where he taught for many years until his retirement).

When the “death of God theology” burst onto the American religious scene, it was perceived by many people as the most cutting-edge Christian response to the spirit of modernity. The impact was very short-lived, which reminds one (perhaps uncharitably) of an observation by William Ralph Inge, the late Dean of St.Paul’s Cathedral, to the effect that “he who marries the spirit of the age soon finds himself a widower”. Be this as it may, Hamilton was one of the three central individuals in the founding group, along with Thomas Altizer and Paul van Buren; a Jewish associate of the group was Richard Rubenstein. They all agreed that the traditional God of the Biblical tradition was no longer credible. Hamilton believed that Christians should forget about the hope of heaven, instead concentrate on understanding this world and doing good in it, thus presumably following the moral teachings of Jesus. I think it is fair to say that Altizer was the intellectually most interesting member of the group. He understood the death of God as a cosmic process of God’s emptying himself into the world he created; an ancient Christian term for this has been the kenosis of God, his voluntary humiliation in order to redeem the fallen world. Altizer saw the culminating of the kenosis in the crucifixion of Jesus—at which point God merges with the natural world and no longer confronts it as a transcendent being. (Kenosis, by the way, has a certain resemblance with the idea of tsimtsum in Jewish mysticism—God contracts himself in order to make room for the world. It is in that sense that God died.)

This is pretty heavy stuff. It is not to denigrate them if one says that Hamilton and van Buren have a simpler understanding of the “death of God”. Hamilton insisted that he was not an atheist, that he considered himself a follower of Jesus, no matter whether one understood Jesus as divine. He never changed his mind about this. In a 2007 interview he said: “The ‘death of God’ is a metaphor. We needed to redefine Christianity as a possibility without the presence of God.” The “possibility” here is a moral, not a transcendent one. Van Buren became strongly engaged in Christian-Jewish dialogue, and became affiliated with an institution in Jerusalem interested in this dialogue. He did not like the phrase “death of God theology”, preferring to call his approach “secular theology”. He and Hamilton, more so than Altizer, were very much in the American tradition of liberal Protestantism. Rubenstein came to the “death of God” by way of the idea that one could not believe in the Biblical God in the wake of the Holocaust; logically enough this led him in the direction of heterodox mysticism. (It is not without interest that the idea of tsimtsum comes from the teaching of Isaac Luria, the 16th-century founder of the Safed school of kabbalah. Luria taught God’s exile from the world—that is, his absence—in the wake of an earlier catastrophe in history, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.)

The phrase “death of God” is of course derived from Friedrich Nietzsche. It occurs in an early work of his, The Cheerful Science (1882). (The German title, Die froehliche Wissenschaft was originally rendered in English as The Gay Science. For obvious reasons this would be rather misleading today.) A character identified as The Madman proclaims the death of God from “the scaffolding of the universe”: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives; who will wipe this blood off us?…. Must we not ourselves become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” In his later work, especially in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche sought to answer these terrible questions with his evocation of the “Overman” (Uebermensch).

Nietsche was a pivotal figure. Dying on the very cusp of the 20th century, he has had a multifaceted influence on Western thought ever since. As is only to be expected, the influence affected both profound and trivial successors. Paradoxically, the “death of God” theology had roots in the profound thought of the father of Protestant neo-orthodoxy, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. (Van Buren studied in Basel with Barth, who would have been appalled if he had read what his student wrote later on.) Especially in his early work, which set the feisty tone of the neo-orthodox movement, Barth asserted that Christian faith is the very opposite of all religion: Religion is the human attempt to invent God; the Gospel is God’s unmediated address to humans, all of whose outreaching toward God is sinful illusion. (One must not forget that Barth came out of Calvinism, the most radically transcendent tradition in Christian history.) Thus Barth had no problem with even the fiercest critics of the Christian religion, of whom Nietzsche was certainly one. Another source of the “death of God theology” was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the great martyrs of 20th-century Protestantism—he was the Protestant theologian executed by the Nazi regime for his connection with the conspirators who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944. Bonhoeffer did not like Barth’s theology (he called it “revelation positivism”), but he was affiliated with the Confessing Church, the anti-Nazi movement in German Protestantism, which was influenced by Barthian ideas. In his famous Letters from Prison, written in the months before his execution, Bonhoeffer spoke of “religionless Christianity”. Tragically he did not have an opportunity to develop this idea. Another German source was Rudolf Bultmann, who was prominent in the years after World War II with his program of “demythologizing” Christianity.

I cannot assess to what extent these highly sophisticated thinkers influenced the “death of God theologians” of the 1960s. But there are much more popular sources in the history of liberal Protestantism in America. Within that community, whose piety differs greatly from the beliefs and practices of Evangelicals, it may well be a majority for whom God may be “dead”—not of course in the sense of atheism, but because all the emphatically supernatural dimensions of the Gospel are translated into naturalist terms. Van Buren’s preferred term “secular theology” fits better here than Nietzsche’s “death of God”. The latter idea is dramatically metaphysical, the former soberly mundane. In most cases the naturalist/secular translation of the Christian message has a strongly moral content. The sociologist Nancy Ammerman has called this “Golden Rule Christianity”. It is based on the alleged “teachings of Jesus”. Needless to say, there are different views on just what these teachings are. Some are primarily personal—the virtues of decency and compassion. Others are more concerned with the public sphere. The most influential representative of this more political view of Jesus’ teachings was Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), the prime advocate of the so-called Social Gospel. He wrote that the Kingdom of God, proclaimed by Jesus, is “not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life of earth into the harmony of heaven”. One might say that Rauschenbusch was the father of the liberal ideology of the mainline Protestant churches in the 20th century and beyond, characterized by a politically moderate reformism (which, along with American liberalism in general, has shifted to the left since the 1960s). The “teachings of Jesus” have also been interpreted as those of a revolutionary, a pacifist, even as the “world’s greatest business executive” (that one in the words of the advertising executive Bruce Barton, who wrote the 1925 bestseller The Man Nobody Knows). Every religious tradition that survives over centuries is subject to endless, often bizarre, re-interpretations.

What is the trouble with all these attempts (whether sophisticated or not)? The first problem is sociological: When the supernatural dimensions of Christianity are stripped away what remains are various secular agendas that can be embraced without religious trappings. In other words, every social Gospel tends to be self-liquidating. The second problem is historical: Just what did Jesus actually teach? Admittedly, New Testament scholars are not unanimous, regardless of whether they are themselves Christian believers. (As to the latter group, they are a particularly troubled bunch: I once opined that it is as difficult for a New Testament scholar to be a Christian as for a gynecologist to have sexual intercourse.) It is noteworthy that the oldest portions of the New Testament, the letters of the Apostle Paul, show no interest whatever in what Jesus taught: Paul preached what Christ did—as the divine Lord, whose incarnation, death and resurrection brought about a tectonic shift in the reality of the cosmos. As to the Sermon on the Mount (generally taken as the summation of Jesus’ teaching), it was almost certainly not delivered as a single sermon, but was composed as a collection of Jesus’ sayings: Since we don’t know the context of each one, it is difficult to know how it was intended. The British writer Ferdinand Mount described the Sermon of the Mount as perhaps the greatest sermon ever, but that it was written for bachelors—that is, for individuals with no responsibility for the future. Probably Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God was apocalyptic—a message about a radical shift in the nature of reality (which means that Paul was not far off). We know that many of his followers, and perhaps Jesus himself, expected that the apocalyptic event would happen in their own lifetime. Thus, as some scholars have put it, the moral teachings of Jesus (and possibly Paul’s as well) were an “interim ethic”—how to live in the short time before the coming of the Kingdom. If you expect the world to end next week, you won’t bother to change the oil, though you still want the windshield wipers to work. In that interpretation, the Sermon on the Mount was meant to describe the world after the coming of the Kingdom (though some of Jesus’ followers may want to anticipate this blessed condition in their present lives). Be this as it may, it is very doubtful indeed that Jesus intended these teachings to be a behavioral code for the next two millennia. In any case, any society larger than an Amish village would not survive for very long if it tried to live by such a code.

If the “death of God” is understood as an affirmation that God does not exist, Christianity (and any other religion) is debunked as an illusion (I think that this was fully Nietzsche’s intention): Theologians, like typewriter repairmen, should retrain for other employment. If on the other hand the phrase is understood as a metaphor for secularization, thought to be an inevitable accompaniment of modernity, the empirical evidence does not support it: Most of the modernizing world today is intensely religious. To say the least, the “death of God” has been very much relativized.

I have written all of the above as an objective observer, not as a Christian believer. I will only add one brief postscript in the latter capacity. As a believer, I resonate with a bumper sticker I saw, of all places, just off Harvard Square: “Dear Mr. Nietzsche. You are dead. Yours very truly, God.”