The Death of God, Again by Ed Simon

The fullest affirmation of God comes in His denial.

Image via Wikimedia Commons
Image via Wikimedia Commons

A young, attractive blonde woman with a fashionable pixie haircut sits anxiously in the waiting room of her exclusive Upper West Side gynecologist’s office. She is a few months into her first pregnancy, and she fidgets nervously as she waits to see the doctor, as she has felt increasingly isolated since moving to the city with her actor husband.

Recently she has had a series of recurring nightmares, and she has become paranoid about the smothering attention she has been receiving from her wealthy neighbors in the Dakota. There has, she thinks to herself, been a feeling of the demonic as of late.

To distract herself she reaches for a copy of Time Magazine sitting on the office’s coffee-table. There, on the cover, in stark blood-red words against a black background is the question “Is God Dead?”

Many will recognize this scene from Roman Polanski’s 1968 horror classic Rosemary’s Baby, but though the title character’s satanic pregnancy is fictional, the magazine used as a prop is not. For audiences watching Polanski’s film the magazine would be instantly recognizable, a dark joke. Indeed that cover would go on to become iconic, repeatedly listed by designers as one of the most provocative of the twentieth-century, though the contents of the article have been less discussed, both then and now.

The piece “Towards a Hidden God” by John Elson, and edited by the otherwise staid, conservative Otto Fuerbringer, was Time Magazine’s cover story appropriately enough around Easter of 1966, and it was released to immediate public backlash, as was a previous article published in October 1965 entitled “The Death of God Movement.” Though this April marked the fiftieth anniversary of its release, “Is God Dead?” remains that periodical’s best selling issue.

In that precursor article Elson wrote about a group of theologians who “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.”

The Death of God movement found a home, however controversial, in some of the liberal Protestant seminaries that were once a mainstay of American intellectual life, as well as at secular universities. Since the rise of the religious right in the last generation and a half, we have become accustomed to thinking of issues surrounding faith as dividing easily between traditionalists and the secular. But as the scholar William R. Hutchinson made clear, many mainstream American Protestants starting in the nineteenth century encouraged seminaries to develop an approach to religion that went “beyond Christianity,” setting the groundwork for the paradox of “atheist theology” being developed at those same seminaries a half-century later.   In short profiles Elson considered the philosophy of scholars like “Paul van Buren of Temple University, William Hamilton of Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and Gabriel Vahanian of Syracuse University” as well as Thomas J.J. Altizer at Emory University, a Methodist school.

The earlier article begins with a quote from Altizer, where he says “We must recognize that the death of God is a historical event: God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence.” For Altizer it was the task of the worshiper to understand what it meant to be a “Christian atheist,” and to perhaps move towards what the German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer, martyred at the Flossenbürg concentration camp two decades before, meant when he wrote of a “religionless Christianity.” 

The four thinkers profiled, to whom Rabbi Richard Rubenstein could be added, represented a diversity of thought drawing from eclectic sources, including (perhaps obviously considering the movement’s name) most prominently Friederich Nietzsche. In short, the Death of God movement broadly believed that Nietzsche’s infamous declaration in Thus Spake Zarathustra was not a nihilistic challenge but rather a prophetic injunction.

The general reading public in the mid-century United States did not agree, and the four profiled theologians were subject to denunciations from pulpit and press, and the target of scorn, derision, and threats. The reaction is not surprising, for even though progressive seminaries were willing to entertain these sort of provocative theologies, historian David Hollinger has pointed out how many within the mainstream had derided liberalizing Protestants as “too worldy.” Indeed what shocked many of Time Magazine’s readers was the perception that when it came to their seminaries and universities (be they Methodist, Baptist, or Episcopal) that it seemed as if it was the right hand that didn’t know what the left was doing.

This backlash—which was arguably equally against the provocative cover—ironed out the stirring, radical, and in many ways profoundly moving interpretation of the gospels that the Death of God movement was exploring. These assorted thinkers faced the silent ineffable with not a spirit of defeated skepticism but rather existential responsibility. As Elson explained “The current death-of-God group believes that God is indeed absolutely dead, but proposes to carry on and write a theology without theos, without God.”

Death of God theology was in part developed as response to the twin specters of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the Holocaust and the bomb. Yet the question of theodicy, the “problem of evil,” appears as far back as Job’s anguished cries unto the whirlwind. Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov may maintain that the suffering of a single innocent child makes God’s existence untenable, and the Death of God theologians may have agreed, but like the Russian novelist they weren’t quite done with God either.

John Caputo is one contemporary theologian who has frequently engaged with Death of God theology, especially in his own work that draws connections between deconstruction and post-structuralism with radical theology. In an exchange with me where I asked him what role he felt the death of God could play in our contemporary moment he answered, “I do not think that God exists (my death of God), but that God insists, and calls for our response, which gives birth to God in the world.”

Echoing Marx, he continued by explaining that radical theology is “the heart of a heatless world, and offers an alternative to the greed, narcissism and self-aggrandizement of a purely secular culture which prizes nothing other than its stock portfolio,” and that radical theology does this by “formulating the notion of something of unconditional worth that lays claim to us unconditionally.”

While modernity may have posed new circumstances on which to contemplate God’s death, a crisis of faith has supposedly haunted the west since the sixteenth century. God’s metaphysical status was called into question by the scientific revolution, his ontological definition was disrupted by the fracturing of Christendom during the reformations, and his ethical justification was confused by the bloody wars of religion during early modernity up unto the hideous atrocities which marked our own era. There were many pallbearers at God’s funeral.

Indeed the perennial nature of theodicy is seen in the author Elie Wiesel’s brilliant 1979 play The Trial of God. The play is set in the mid seventeenth-century during the Khmelnytsky Uprising, which was a period of far-reaching and bloody anti-Jewish violence. In his play, a rabbinical tribunal charges and condemns God as guilty for His crimes. In setting his play in the distant past Wiesel reminds us that the issues of theodicy are not a purely modern problem; indeed our days have always been a shadow upon the Earth. Wiesel witnessed a similar rabbinical tribunal while in Auschwitz. At a Holocaust Educational Trust dinner in 2008, the author recounted that  upon delivering their verdict there was an “infinity of silence” after which all of the rabbis broke for evening prayers to the God who they had just convicted.

It’s an existentialist parable that was particularly true to the Jewish Death of God theologian Rubenstein (indeed the movement was by necessity and definition ecumenical), for this theology allows us to worship a God whom we have condemned. The insight of this movement was that faith is not mere affirmation of a positivist claim that is subject to empirical verification, but rather how to ethically live in spite of nothingness’ reality. That is to say that true faith (as opposed to the “cheap grace” which Bonheoffer wrote against) is not to live ethically because God exists, but in such a way that it doesn’t matter if He exists or not.

It’s this profound critical vocabulary offered by theologians like Rubenstein, van Buren, Hamilton, Vanahain and Altizer that a half-century after they briefly entered popular culture reminds us that we still need this mode of thought. It is a sentiment that Altizer still agrees with, undaunted and still working fifty years after the Time Magazine article. He wrote to me that, “contemporary scholarship is alienated from theology itself, and my real hope is for a rebirth of theology.”  Or as Caputo told me,  this type of thought is the “last, best hope for making theology believable in the world.” We have a need for the death of God, again.

This may seem untenable to some, after all the new millennium saw religion return with an apocalyptic fervor in politics both domestic and foreign. The “secularization hypothesis” that religion would slowly die out has been delayed as long as Christ’s return. And yet this is precisely why we need Death of God theology right now. It may be cliché to argue that the “New Atheists” and religious fundamentalism are necessarily similar, and yet both largely trade in anemic thought, empty creedal recitation, and anti-intellectualism. If atheism is what we deserve, and it may be, then at least we deserve a better class of atheist than Richard Dawkins. Death of God theology offers us a means to admit the importance of existential questions while avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of the positivist pair of religious literalism and boring suburban New Atheism.

While it’s true that “Is God dead?” has seemingly been answered in the negative from a sociological perspective, the philosophical questions that it addresses stubbornly remain an undeniable aspect of modernity, no matter how many people tell pollsters they attend church (or don’t attend church).

Death of God theology raises questions that are important to many of us for whom the massive poetic, metaphorical, literary, and cultural edifice which constitutes religion is still a narrative vocabulary for expressing these questions, but for whom modern orthodox faith can seem hollow. It is the “better atheism” we have needed, since the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not as profound as his followers may think. It is a movement that recognizes both the ontological realities of modernity, but also the profound beauty and power of religious mythopoesis, it is a way of pouring new wine into old skins.

The thinkers profiled by Elson a half-century ago saw themselves not as abolishing Christianity, but rather fulfilling it. In their writings they sometimes drew on radical currents within orthodox Christianity, and many of these thinkers (including Altizer and Caputo) constitute the syllabus of contemporary Northern Irish theologian Peter Rollins’ cheekily, yet brilliantly named “Atheism for Lent” digital course, which provides a model for how complex radical theology can be reconceptualized in an iconoclastically devotional way. Atheism for Lent presents a series of readings over the Lenten season which engage first with philosophical and then theological atheism. As its website explains, the course “seeks to use some of the most potent critiques of Christianity as a type of purifying fire that might help us appreciate and understand Christ’s cry of dereliction on the Cross in a new way.”

Rollins explained to me that radical theology “could capture the popular imagination and potentially coalesce into a practice and influence the way Christianity was approached and acted out.” One of the founders of “pyrotheology,” Rollins envisions a “religionless Christianity” along Bonheoffer’s lines, and has organized faith communities in Europe and the United States, such as ikonNYC in Brooklyn.

My own vocation is to set up communities that attempt to be faithful to the disruptive event that Death of God theology articulates,” Rollins explained to me. That he has helped to found a community of atheist Christians worshiping in Brooklyn need not be confusing, after all the earliest Christians were accused of atheism by classical pagan writers. It’s part of a venerable tradition.

Indeed Christian atheism drew upon the radical philosophy of the religion it originated from. With the incarnation, trinity, and crucifixion Christianity was always comfortable with paradox. In its origins Christianity was always an oppositional and counter-cultural faith, Death of God theology is in many ways the rightful inheritor of that as a tradition.

Rollins sees this as central to Christianity being understood as a “rupturing of worldview” rather than a worldview in itself. In this way Christ’s promise is that He “lends an ear to the liberating potentials promised in, but not delivered, by our religious, political and cultural realities.”

Much as Christianity understands God to be incarnated as a simple man, the death of God is a divine theophany. It reminds us that that which is the least can be the highest, and where it is the darkest there is hope. It is not simple atheism; it is a divine atheism that understands that it’s possible that the fullest affirmation of God comes in His denial.  If central to some religious practice is a stripping away of all idols to get closer to the ineffable, than an iconoclasm of language, even belief, is paradoxically that which brings one closest to God, since the spoken God is not the real God.

For the Death of God movement a dead God was not a repudiation of Christianity, but rather the strongest affirmation about what precisely made that religion so beautiful in a fallen world. To paraphrase a later Jewish prophet, it is a testament written in the language of a broken and holy hallelujah. The central insight of the Death of God theologians, needed now more than ever, is that even if God isn’t real, His love very much is.