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Death of God School

The thought of the death of God dates from before the nineteenth century. The German poet, Jean Paul, wrote a “Discourse of the dead Christ from atop the cosmos: there is no God” (Siebenkäs, 1796-97). Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind (1806) spoke of the death of God in Christ, signifying his belief that through him God ceased to be pure, abstract spirit by becoming immanent in the profane. Whereas Hegel* retained the thought of divine immanence, Nietzsche rejected God altogether. For him the death of God meant cessation of belief in God, and hence meant that man is free to be master of his own destiny (The Joyful Wisdom, 1882). In Existentialism and Humanism (1946), Jean-Paul Sartre took as the starting point for existentialism* the remark of Dostoevsky: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted.” Since God does not exist, man is the author of his own existence, creating his own values and making his own decisions unaided. He may not, like some humanists, abandon belief in God and yet try to retain Christian values and morals.

In the 1960s, the thought of the death of God became a rallying cry for certain radical theologians, especially in the USA. It is doubtful, however, whether they could be called a school in view of their sharp differences. In The Death of God (1961) and Wait without Idols (1964), Gabriel Vahanian has attempted to analyze why belief in God has become culturally irrelevant. God dies as soon as He becomes a cultural accessory or a human ideal. Vahanian himself believes in a God who is wholly other, the transcendent God who can never be objectified. In The Secular City (1965), Harvey Cox argued that, in the light of biblical faith, secularization and urbanization are not curses to be escaped but opportunities to be embraced. Through art, social change, and teamwork relationships, the transcendent may eventually reveal a new name, for the word “God” has perhaps outlived its usefulness. We must come to terms with the hiddenness of God, even in Jesus. Nevertheless, Cox believes in a transcendent God.

T.J.J. Altizer's The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1967) rejected divine transcendence in favor of an immanent dialectic based on Hegel, but influenced also by Nietzsche and William Blake. William Hamilton and Paul van Buren both changed from a more orthodox position comparatively late in their careers. At the age of forty, Hamilton began to feel that his grounds for belief in God were giving way, though he still retained a belief in Jesus as the one to whom he may repair. Van Buren, on the other hand, abandoned his Barthian position under the influence of linguistic analysis, feeling the word “God” is no longer meaningful. His Secular Meaning of the Gospel (1963) urged a purely secular restatement of Christianity in which the doctrine of creation expresses an affirmative view of the world, and the mission of the church the practice of the liberty for which it has been set free.

Such views make it difficult to see what advantages they have to offer over atheism and agnosticism. They also raise the question whether the God who is allegedly dead was not a figment of the scholar's imagination all along. Nevertheless, the views of these writers pose the valid question of the basis and content of Christian belief in God and the form in which it is presented.

E.L. Mascall, The Secularisation of Christianity (1965); T.J.J. Altizer and W. Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God (1966); C.I. Glicksberg, Modern Literature and the Death of God (1966); T.W. Ogletree, The “Death of God” Controversy (1966); Ved Mehta, The New Theologian (1966); J.W. Montgomery, The “Is God Dead?” Controversy (1966) and The Altizer-Montgomery Dialogue (1967); R. Bultmann, “The Idea of God and Modern Man” in R.G. Smith (ed.), World Come of Age (1967), pp. 256-73; D. Peerman (ed.), Frontline Theology (1967); C. Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith (2nd ed., 1971); A. Kee, The Way of Transcendence: Christian Faith Without Belief in God (1971).