walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: April 4, 2012
Death of a Theologian

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.”

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  • WigWag

    “Dear Mr. Nietzsche. You are dead. Yours very truly, God.” (Bumper Sticker seen in Harvard Square)

    “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water, suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.” (Blaise Pascal from Pensées)

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    As for the “self liquidating” nature of atheism, one need only to look at birth rates.

    Sociologist Wade Clark Roof in his book American Mainline Religion produced the following data on the average number of births per woman by religious family:

    Family Total Avg. 45 yrs.+ Under Age 45
    Liberal Protestant 1.97 2.27 1.60
    Moderate Prot. 2.27 2.67 1.80
    Black Protestant 2.62 3.08 2.24
    Conservative Prot. 2.54 3.12 2.01
    Catholics 2.20 2.75 1.82
    Jewish 1.69 1.96 1.37
    No religious
    (“Nones”) 1.39 2.30 1.18
    National 2.25 2.75 1.73

    (Wade Clark Roof, American Mainline Religion, page 161).

    The population replacement rate is 2.1 children per woman. As can be clearly seen, the less religious, the more self liquidating the religious “family.”

    Whether or not there is life after death is a matter of faith. But in this life there is perpetual life of offspring. Even a theologian such as Ludwig Feuerbach might agree.

  • IA

    I’m not sure what resonance a believer would find in a bumper sticker that uses God as a ventriloquist’s dummy for a bad joke. I hope that Nietzsche will go on being read long after the Judeo-Christian God has turned to dust.

  • Gary L

    IA is like I hope that Nietzsche will go on being read long after the Judeo-Christian God has turned to dust.

    So why would any one bother to read Nietzsche after the Judeo-Christian God turns to dust? Even the most incisive and stylistically brilliant critics of the Babylonian, Hittite and Etruscans Gods ceased being read at virtually the same moment that the aforementioned faiths became extinct.

    But if that bumper-sticker God declares that Niezsche is dead, perhaps He would still grant him a requiem mass.

  • R.C.

    You say: “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.”

    Yes: You did once opine that.

    Not that it’s actually true, in either case.

    Gynecologists looking at ladyparts deconstructively as the sum of their parts are ignoring two or three of Aristotle’s four causes and are thus intentionally preventing themselves from understanding the whole item in order to focus on their job. But this has not, as a historical matter, prevented male gynecologists from having happy marriages and children. They need only, when they get home, take off their deconstructionist blinders and see their wives as beloved persons, their lovemaking as a great gift, and their passion for one another and their children as the natural outcome and intended end of all the above. What could be more natural? A gynecologist who has problems with this has “issues,” as they say, and they are not so much related to seeing too many vaginas, as to not accurately perceiving and understanding a particular one.

    And so too with New Testament scholars. In the last 100 to 150 years or so many seminaries have become overrun with the faithless and the heterodox and the unsaintly; that is not newsworthy. And it is not surprising that the faithless and the heterodox and the unsaintly have trouble being Christian while studying the New Testament; the best explanation is that they would be equally faithless and heterodox and unsaintly were they studying geography or history. It takes a saint — or at least someone with his heart intent on becoming one — to make a good theologian. But saints, on the rare occasion that they apply for a position teaching theology in academia, as a rule are rejected by their would-be colleagues: Saintliness is considered backward and rejection of trendy heterodoxy is considered un-collegial. In this fashion, such populations are self-selecting.

    But it is not the study of the New Testament that makes a man faithless, heterodox, and unsaintly. That happens easily enough on its own! But faithlessness, heterodoxy, and unsaintliness are merely signs that the man has “issues.” It is not that he has seen too much of the New Testament or the Old. It is that he has seen their Subject and their Author too little.

  • RR

    With all authors and adherents of secular theology “God is dead” movements, it comes down to a final choice: “Am I willing to take a chance with my eternal soul that I am right to the extent that I want to convince others?” If I am right which I truly believe that I am and bet my eternal future upon, I have helped a few understand they are aimlessly wrong needing a new outlook on life – that is my reward. However, if I am wrong, I will be reading this book I wrote or believed in to the Creator of my soul realizing that I have been deceived and intentionally deceived others keeping them from their true destiny in Christ. This will be rewarded with the accompanying eternal penalty even though I did not believe it to be possible. Intentions were honorable but the execution of obedience was sadly misled and lacking. It is that clear – all or nothing – that is the choice each one of us needs to make?

  • B. Stanfield


    Great post. Having just finished a long theological discussion with an acquaintance your comments really ministered to me this morning. Sometimes using the technicalia of theological discourse can cause us to lose sight of the thing we are discussing as we apply our “deconstructionist blinders”.

    Thanks for the encouragement.

  • JAS

    Well said R.C.!
    You clarified the cynical statements of this otherwise good article.

  • Alan K

    Bonhoeffer did not like Barth? Reread the biography of Bonhoeffer by Bethge–Barth is the only theologian Bonhoeffer truly respected.

  • Chuck

    Theologians are an amazing breed, like philosophers, they make a living talking about things that they admit they have no idea what they are talking about.

  • Seth

    Touché. God can’t be dead though. Any understanding of an ultimate being as creator or heck, simply a constant in the complicated equation of life alone would negate existence. Perhaps we are created, or perhaps we are characters in one of Gods dreams. Doesnt matter, a dead God could only yield the end of existence, as we know that is….

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  • Jbird

    “Liberalism on the one hand and the religion of the historic church on the other are not two varieties of the same religion, but two distinct religions proceeding from altogether separate roots”

    – J. Gresham Machen

    I sometimes wish that those who do not actually believe the Bible but want to adhere to some vapid, ungrounded universal-ish understanding of morality without judgment for some self-affirming reason would stop calling themselves Christians and be honest with themselves. If you do not believe that Jesus was God and man, the whole thing falls apart.

  • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.

    I am continually amazed at the ignorance of the supposed learned, but make an exception for Nietzsche, one of the most misunderstood philosophers in history. This was his fault. He coined new meanings for words in his many books, but never footnoted the unique meanings is subsequent writings. Hence if you read him out of sequence, or omit one book, you miss his meaning. Moreover, he went mad in the last decade of his life and his caregivers fudged his writings to make them marketable. One scholar has painstakingly unraveled this skein, and revealed his true thoughts (P. Dixon, PhD, Nietzsche and Jung Sailing a Deeper Night).
    In summary, Nietzsche, a devoutly religious man, predicted that if irreligious bourgeois Europe did not sincerely convert, then their god (small “g”) would die and they would descend into hell. A short time later, WWI broke out, and annihilated Germany.

    Of course, aside from Nietzsche, God did die. However He, unique in history, took up His life again, after three days. Happy Easter.

  • Jbird

    IA: well, going on at least 1,950 years (arbitrarily starting with the writing of the New Testament) there are more people worshiping the Judeo-Christian God now than at any point in history across a myriad of continents and cultures. From Chinese home churches to Korean Presbyterians to Nigerian Anglicans to Brazilian Catholics there isn’t a corner of the globe with out a significant Christian population. Even about 10% of Palestinians are Christian. It has survived and flourished under Roman persecution, barbarian invasions, Great Schisms, Medieval church corruption, the rise of Islam, Mongol invasions, religious wars, the Enlightenment, Colonialism, Nihilism, Modernism, and Post-Modernism. No matter how illogical it may seem, Lombards & Slavs adopted it as did African American slaves and Cherokee Indians. I have great confidence in it’s continued popularity. What do you suppose the ratio of people who have read the Bible to people who have actually read Nietzsche is, exactly? 500 to 1? 1,000 to 1?

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  • suibne

    Mr. Berger: Not fifteen minutes after the Time Mag ran the God is Dead issue was there a handwritten note on walls all over the country…..neechheeee is dead. God! It was Not a bumber sticker, but you are very very very late in your defence of the aforesaid divinity. It points out the greater difficulty in the American market place of ideas. You are not only late, but so far off the original argument that it is embarrassing. Don’t worry. Nobody will remember. Nobody will notice, other than those very few dead old white men who knew how to read. Yours, from the grave . Freddy Neeeeeecheeeeee

  • suibne

    oh idea that somehow useless jobs are chased out of the market place is fallacious. You have one. Gas station attendends in Jersey have more than a few. And Obama…..well….his is special isn’t it?

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    As to Dr. Berger’s observation that it is as difficult for a New Testament scholar to be a Christian as a gynecologist to enjoy sex I offer the following evidence.

    Read Barrie Wilson’s “How Jesus Became a Christian”
    Wilson’s book is right out of one of Dr. Berger’s books – The Social Construction of Reality or the Sacred Canopy. It is written from a Jewish perspective of the New Testament.

    Wilson advances a conspiracy theory that Christianity is the result of the ascendency of the Christ Movement over the Jesus Movement.

    He convincingly indicates that the New Testament Book of Acts is a “fraud” meant to bridge the Gospels with Paul’s Letters.

    The book will not leave any taken for granted Christianity or your Sunday School religion the same after reading it. But the book isn’t meant to destroy Christianity a la Nietzsche.

    For an antidote to Nietzsche one might read Rudolph Otto’s book on the experience of the Holy. Actually, some of Luther’s sermons might also be an antidote as well.

  • Sam

    “In summary, Nietzsche, a devoutly religious man, predicted that if irreligious bourgeois Europe did not sincerely convert, then their god (small “g”) would die and they would descend into hell. A short time later, WWI broke out, and annihilated Germany.”

    Nice job of proving your point that a lot of people that talk about Nietzsche have no idea what they are talking about! It is true that Nietzsche was the son of a minister and was initially devout. But he grew away from this, and saw that many, if not most christians of his era actually didn’t really believe in god. He jeered at these people for clinging to christian morality because they simply didn’t grasp the implications of their atheism (i.e., “all is permissible”). These people are now called humanists or liberal christians, and are ironically the subject of a lot of ire from people like the author of this article. So Nietzsche had this in common with the author, though for different reasons!

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  • Quaker Guy

    Please let me know if Quakerism’s anti-institutional/creedal approach to God has found its modern relevance.

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