On April 8, 1966, a five-thousand-word cover story appeared in Time magazine, sending the country into a panic over a group of theologians few had heard of then and nobody remembers now. Paul van Buren, Thomas Altizer, and William Hamilton are forgotten. The cover, however, remains memorable. The first in the magazine’s history not to feature a photograph or illustration, it shocked readers by asking, “Is God Dead?”
The author, John Elson, worked on the story for more than a year. It’s an exceptional piece of journalism. He introduced the nation to a school of thought that would come to be known as “Death of God theology.” Although its proponents differed on matters of substance and style, they shared an idea that was easily sensationalized: Christianity can and must dispense with belief in the divine. A “theology without theos,” as Elson put it, seemed ill timed—97 percent of Americans still professed belief in God. Reaction to the article was overwhelmingly hostile. The theologians fared no better. Attacked by the public and shunned by the academy, their careers never recovered.
Elson and his editors at Time, however, were prophetic in giving Death of God theology such attention. The United States today looks a lot like the society van Buren, Altizer, and Hamilton wished to midwife. Their ideas about the relationship between Christianity and secularization express, in exaggerated form to be sure, some of the most deeply felt religious intuitions of our culture. They also anticipated a crucial but under-examined phenomenon of our time: the institutional defeat and cultural victory of liberal Protestantism.
And so, fifty years on, to revisit the Death of God movement is not to witness the absurd apotheosis of sixties-era religion. It is to encounter a moment, at once traditional and radical, when liberal Protestantism sought a new dispensation to justify the moral supremacy over American life that it continues to enjoy to this day.
What does it mean to say that God is dead? The phrase unsettles, even menaces, and much of the antipathy directed at Death of God theology reflected a misunderstanding. The phrase was not a call to action. It announced a historical event. Something has happened in Western culture over the last three centuries, altering the conditions of human experience. Man has learned to understand the world and to order his life apart from God. God is dead in the way Latin is dead.
The Death of God theology gained wide notice because it argued that Christians should welcome this course of events rather than resist it. They took as their main inspiration and guide the prison writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the dissident pastor and theologian executed by the Nazi regime in April 1945. Bonhoeffer was not an atheist, but near the end of his life he rethought the nature of Christian belief. “We are moving towards a completely religionless time,” he wrote his close friend Eberhard Bethge in the summer of 1944. “People as they are now simply cannot be religious.”
Bonhoeffer expressed surprise at the direction of his thinking and feared it would alarm others. (It did just that when his prison writings were published in 1951.) He wrote that it was wrong for Christians to lament or oppose the liberation of human beings from the “tutelage of God.” Intellectual honesty should compel Christians to acknowledge that modern people no longer need religion, and perhaps no longer need God. “Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working-hypothesis’ called ‘God,’” he conceded. Bonhoeffer’s views grew more radical, as well as more cryptic, as the summer wore on. In letters written in July, he declared that Christians must learn to live “as if God does not exist” and that “God is teaching us that we must live as men who can get along without him.”
Bonhoeffer called this way of life “religionless Christianity,” an explosive idea for his most radical interpreters. It suggested that the theological oppositions that had fractured modern thought could be overcome. Modern theology has been largely concerned with reconciling competing commitments: the value of human freedom with obedience to divine commands; the scientific account of the natural world with the doctrine of creation; the necessity of critical inquiry with the authority of revelation. Bonhoeffer hinted that these were false dichotomies. He even considered the possibility that the most intransigent of oppositions—between belief and unbelief—was perhaps not so intransigent after all. Denying what seem like core Christian claims about God could be a way of affirming Christianity, perhaps the proper way for modern man. Thus the paradox of a theology without God.
Paul van Buren’s The Secular Meaning of the Gospel was the movement’s first widely read publication. Van Buren, then a theologian at Temple University, argued that traditional religious language no longer makes sense in modern societies. The term God, he wrote in 1963, is “either meaningless or misleading.” Since it cannot tell us anything about reality as such—at least, nothing that can be made intelligible empirically—its only function is to express our attitudes, preferences, and feelings. And if that’s what the word God does, the essential ethical message of Christianity can be expressed without reference to the divine. One can be secular—living and believing without reference to a transcendent Supreme Being—and still be Christian.
Van Buren thought he had found a secular way of preserving the moral message of the New Testament, but to Thomas Altizer, a young theologian at Emory University, such an approach was theologically inadequate. It implied that modern Christianity should come to terms with the godlessness of secularity, showing how it can be accommodated in a secular interpretation of the Bible, rather than reject God outright. It will not suffice “to merely accept the death of God,” Altizer countered. Christians “must will the death of God.”
There was nothing conventional about the atheism of Altizer, the most brilliant of the Death of God thinkers. He insisted that the modern eclipse of God was not rooted in the findings of science or critical biblical scholarship. We have left God behind because of God’s actions in Jesus Christ. God has willed his own death.
Altizer did not hide his indebtedness to Friedrich Nietzsche, and he probably came as close as possible to making a credibly Christian interpretation of the German philosopher. Nietzsche popularized the slogan “God is dead” in the third book of The Gay Science. He conjures an arresting scene. As townspeople go about their everyday tasks, a madman bursts into the public square announcing to a confused crowd, “God is dead, God remains dead. We have killed him.”
Nietzsche did not mean simply to point out that atheism had at last triumphed over superstition through enlightened thinking. Instead, atheism is a product of Christian faith, which he saw as “slave morality.” He meant that Christianity inculcates an inversion of values. Instead of encouraging strength, it celebrates weakness. Instead of pursuing life’s expansion, it requires a unique capacity for self-abasement and submission. Traditionally, this is exemplified in subservience to God.
Nietzsche saw Western culture as a further development of Christian self-abasement. Belief in God offers consolations, and over time these too must be denied. Submission to God eventually gives way to a self-denying subservience to truthfulness, and slavery to truth requires sacrificing belief in God. In Nietzsche’s thinking, modern Protestant Christianity led the way. It “killed” God, he argued, because its intellectual probity and scrupulous concern to believe only the right things in precisely the right way eventually made God appear an obstacle to intellectual integrity.
Altizer was taken with Nietzsche’s idea that Christianity generated its own fatal undermining. But he challenged Nietzsche on a critical point: It was not Christians who murdered God, but God who abolished himself. Altizer arrived at this conclusion through a controversial reading of other theologians. Among them was Karl Barth, who according to Altizer had initiated the Death of God movement. (Alasdair MacIntyre made a similar reading of the Swiss theologian in 1967.)
A central thesis of Barth’s theology is that God’s nature is bound up with his revelation in salvation history. Since we cannot know God apart from his self-revelation, argued Barth, we have true knowledge of the divine only through Jesus Christ. Altizer translated this claim about knowledge into a metaphysical thesis. He stipulated that God has no being apart from the historical person of Jesus. This allowed Altizer to say, with quite shocking matter-of-factness, that God is dead because he died in history, on the cross. God is incarnate in Jesus—and he dies in Jesus. “The radical Christian,” Altizer wrote in his 1966 manifesto The Gospel of Christian Atheism, “proclaims that God has actually died in Christ, that this death is both a historical and cosmic event.”
Altizer argued that this conclusion does not represent a radical departure from the essential truth of Christianity, but instead completes or fulfills a pattern of thought present in the New Testament itself. To explain how, he turned to the second chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians where the apostle speaks of the self-emptying or kenosis of God: “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . . [and] humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
Christian theology has traditionally parsed this passage as follows: The second person of the Trinity humbles himself by taking on human nature, while still retaining his divine, transcendent nature. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther were in exegetical agreement on this point. Paul’s statement that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” meant that God graciously chose to reveal his deity in the form of one who humbly serves others. In his Commentary on Philippians, Aquinas wrote that God’s “emptying” does not mean that God has “put off” his divine nature, only that he has “assumed” a lowly human one. In his Palm Sunday sermon of 1522, Luther agreed: “Not that God could have divested himself of his divinity, putting it to one side, but he put aside the form of divine majesty and did not act like the God he truly was.” God renounces his dignity, as it were, not his divinity.
Altizer accused this approach of failing to take the Incarnation with absolute seriousness. The Incarnation involves a real movement of God out of his eternity and into time and space. Altizer aimed to be as Christocentric as a theologian could be. He argued that in Jesus, God empties himself so completely, so unreservedly, that he ceases to have a transcendent reality of his own. The Incarnation is thus an act of genuine self-sacrifice, a complete emptying out of God’s being.
From the perspective of classical Christian theology, Altizer’s views can only appear nonsensical, but his understanding of God differed in fundamental ways from that tradition. Its roots were in the nineteenth-century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who interpreted history as the progressive realization of human freedom. Hegel’s main idea was that contradiction—or more precisely, the overcoming of contradiction—is the law of life.
His Phenomenology of Spirit told the speculative story of how human beings attain free self-consciousness through conflict that always leads to a higher resolution. In this history, he claimed, we learn to see historical conceptions of God as symbolic representations of the human drama of cultural development.
Hegel was deeply entangled with Christian theology and saw himself as preserving the spirit of Christianity rather than overturning it. He maintained, with perfect sincerity and considerable ingenuity, that his philosophy advanced a rational articulation of the teachings of the Bible. There are many twists and turns to Hegel’s philosophical re-narration of the scriptural story, but its most important claim is that God entered history in order to abolish his separation from it. History’s meaning and purpose are no longer “above,” but instead operate within the ongoing flow of human affairs. God’s coming into the world in Christ represents, symbolically, man’s coming-to-himself as the rational author of his own destiny.
Altizer seized on Hegel’s interpretation of Christian doctrine. In Christ we come to see the revolutionary truth about God. God is not a timeless being that exists over against the world; God is the forward-moving rational process within history that moves all things to overcome alienation and achieve freedom. For Altizer, as for Hegel, there is now no God and the modern world is secular, because Jesus was his Son.
Altizer’s views might seem relentlessly speculative, but to William Hamilton, a seminary professor at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, their importance was almost entirely practical. It’s not difficult to see why. If the sacred has collapsed into the profane, then Christians should be oriented toward the here and now, not the supernatural.
Hamilton turned the sources of Altizer’s thinking into instruments of social criticism, arguing that the true mission of the Reformation was finally being understood. The Reformation was not about the righteousness of God or the primacy of Scripture, but the movement of Christians from the cloister into the world. Secularism was therefore a new spiritual epoch to be welcomed. As he explained in his 1961 book The New Essence of Christianity, it marked the end of human adolescence and the beginning of our moral maturity.
Hamilton’s work reads like a theological synthesis of the existentialism of Albert Camus and the developmental psychology of Lawrence Kohlberg. He argued that God has graciously freed us from the restraining authority of a transcendent judge; we no longer need to live in fear and servility to an alien power that rewards and punishes. This freedom from judgment opens up the possibility of a freedom for human beings to cultivate moral autonomy. Secularism and the death of God are providential. We are now unmistakably aware that we alone are responsible for the character of our own lives and the well-being of others.
With this vision of an ascent from moral subservience to moral freedom in mind, Hamilton maintained that Christians have an evangelical commission to help others move beyond religious belief and toward greater ethical autonomy. “People with Gods are dangerous,” he wrote. “And one of the things you can do to help your brothers and sisters is to take Gods away from [them].”
Hamilton’s most important contribution to the Death of God theology was to contrast faithfulness to Jesus with belief in the Christian doctrine of God. They are, on his view, incompatible. Belief in God requires Christians to affirm “absolutist” truth claims, but such claims are divisive, establish relations of authority, and encourage rigid distinctions between right and wrong. This outlook encourages dispositions in us that conflict with following Jesus, “the man for others,” who calls us to live in selfless service to all humanity. “To say that Jesus is Lord,” Hamilton explained, “is to say that humiliation, patience, and suffering are the ways God has dealt with man in the world, and thus are also the ways the Christian is to deal with the world.” The Death of God is good news, because it means the end of a coercive moral regime based on authority rather than autonomy.
For his Time article, Elson interviewed thinkers from across Europe and North America, including Edward Schillebeeckx, Paul Ramsey, John Courtney Murray, and a young philosopher at Stanford named Michael Novak. Elson gave the impression that the Death of God movement had an influential readership, but in truth it never gained much scholarly attention. It receives only passing mention in Gary Dorrien’s otherwise exhaustive trilogy The Making of American Liberal Theology.
The neglect of the movement is no mark against its importance, however. If these theologians are not the hidden teachers of our age, they are its ignored interpreters. They state explicitly what many today only sense inarticulately: that the most Christian way to live is perhaps not to be a Christian at all. Or, to phrase the claim more directly, it is not Christian to be Christian.
This paradoxically Christian justification for anti-Christian sentiments is among the most powerful religious impulses in modern Western culture, as well as one of the best disguised. Our culture harbors a sense—not so much unconfessed as unformulated—that the true mark of Christian faith is an inclination to doubt and even deny its own truth. If its workings are concealed, its effects are unmistakable. You recognize it in every Christian scholar, university, church, or society that subjects its own religious tradition to critical standards that it would never apply to others. The same dynamic is at work when those same scholars and institutions exempt their own traditions from the respect and support they extend to those of others.
The Death of God movement identified this impulse not as an intellectual pathology, but as a necessary out-working of the Gospel itself. The ability of Christianity to expose itself to critique and engage in self-refutation is, these theologians argued, the highest and purest expression of its message of love and human freedom. Following Jesus means subverting every claim to truth, authority, and consolation that could interfere with a life of self-emptying agape. Altizer insisted that “Christianity must will its own death,” and Hamilton agreed that it must “negate itself.” The rhetoric is foreign in its blunt directness, but the demand is suspiciously familiar. We live in a culture in which Christian teachings are accused of being unchristian, Christians are expected to engage in unending criticism of themselves in the public square, and Christians are asked, in the name of Christian charity, to reject their claims to truth.
The Death of God movement was part of a tradition of liberal Protestantism that sought to turn critics of Christianity into allies who could help midwife a fuller realization of the essence of faith. In this respect, van Buren, Altizer, and Hamilton were heirs of the German biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann, whose project of “demythologization” sought to separate the “mythical” content of the Bible from its message of authentic spiritual freedom. Bultmann turned the skepticism of modern atheism into a Christian hermeneutic. By clearing faith of its archaic supernaturalism, Bultmann argued in Jesus Christ and Mythology, “demythologization will eliminate a false stumbling block and bring into sharp focus the real stumbling block, the word of the cross.”
As descendants of this theological tradition, the Death of God theologians believed that Protestantism was being led to understand, perhaps for the first time, what Christian faith really means. Christianity is not about possessing knowledge of God or salvation in a world to come; it is about the inauguration of a new way of life that breaks down every barrier to inclusion. Inspired by the New Testament’s vision of human community, they argued that Christianity is a fundamentally social movement, and the job of theology is to purify the Christian tradition of its interest in heaven above.
In building this inclusive community, the Protestant Church plays a vital, if provisional, role. It is called to serve as a model for a society founded not on metaphysical truth claims but on the overturning and transgressing of all such claims for the sake of harmonious and loving coexistence. Hence the Church is a people ahead of time, a morally enlightened community that now knows through conscience what it once knew through faith. The Church’s vocation is to employ its historical teachings “to shape new kinds of personal and corporate existence,” as Hamilton put it. Are the Church and her historical teachings therefore necessary? Only so long as the wider culture has not yet adopted its message of tolerance, pluralism, and individual freedom. Once it does, the Christian mission is complete, and secular society itself becomes the kingdom of God.
In this we see the larger ambition of Death of God theology—and its enduring relevance. The Gospel forms a community that, following the biblical injunction to die in order to live, extinguishes itself so as to spread its message into the secular world. And has not exactly that come to pass? The central fact of American religion today is that liberal Protestantism is dead and everywhere triumphant. Its churches are empty, but its causes have won. In 1995, the sociologist N. J. Demerath observed that mainline Protestantism has a paradoxical status in American life. It has experienced both “institutional defeat” and “cultural victory.” Mainline Protestantism has succeeded in communicating its progressive moral and political values to the surrounding culture. On virtually every issue that consumed its postwar energies—from civil rights to feminism and gay rights—the mainline churches have been vindicated by elite opinion. At the same time, their membership has evaporated. The institution that once brokered the postwar cultural and moral consensus for America has now almost vanished.
In 2010, the YMCA decided, in light of the “vibrancy and diversity of the organization,” to eliminate the word “Christian” from its official title. Henceforth, it would be known officially as “The Y.” An organization conceived in the nineteenth century to promote Christian social reform and founded “to put Christian principles into practice” thus declared itself functionally secular. Why and how this happened to the YMCA and countless other communities and institutions is something we do not yet understand fully.
When that story is eventually told, we will need to understand the deep and often invisible theological dynamics that were at work in forming secular progressivism. The Death of God theologians, allowing for their intellectual idiosyncrasies, are part of the story of how many Americans came to sense that it is not Christian to be traditionally Christian. Paul van Buren, reflecting on the Time article, lamented that “behind all that journalistic nonsense lay an important issue.” He has been proven right.
Matthew Rose is director and senior fellow at the Berkeley Institute.