Death of God Theology

Death of God Theology

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

In the 1960s, DOG, or "Death of God," theology became a buzzword. Completely missing the point of Harvard University's Harvey Cox in his popular book The Secular City, people jumped on the idea that DOG theology meant that what would come to be called "secular humanism" had triumphed. Conservative clergy heaped great scorn on those who even tried to understand what the so-called "DOG scholars" were trying to say.

Time magazine brought the issue to the front burner of public opinion when they placed Thomas Altizer of Emory University squarely in the hot seat. The bold cover story with the words "Is God Dead?" made Altizer a household name.

Charlotte Bruce Harvey, in Emory Magazine, recalls Altizer's interview on television's Merv Griffin Show.

As the theologian stood backstage in a New York theater waiting for the show's taping to begin, the producer approached him with the query, "So, what's your act?" Bemused, Altizer simply stared at the man.

"I mean, what do you do?" the producer tried again.

"I'm a theologian."

"You a pro?"


"Well, you know what to do, then. You have two minutes."

The orchestra struck up Griffin's theme song, the crowd clapped on command, and when Altizer's cue came he strode on stage and confidently launched into his two-minute homily on the death of God. He was, in many ways, the perfect talk-show guest: a handsome man in his late thirties with flashing green eyes, dark, wavy hair, and a movie star's sensuous lower lip (more than once compared to Glenn Ford), he exuded charm, quick wit and a flair for the dramatic. But as he stood on stage that day, the hot television lights bearing down on him, the audience responded not with applause but with the refrain, "Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!" Griffin pointedly disdained to shake his hand, and after taping was over, Altizer was shuffled out the theater's back door into a waiting taxicab, only to find the crowd reconvened, still chant ing, "Kill him. Kill him."

That's life in America—God-fearing land of free speech and religious freedom.

Harvey continues:

"Tom just doesn't use moderate words," says Jack S. Boozer, who as chairman of the department of Bible and religion was Altizer's boss at the time. "We tried to get him to use another phrase than the death of God, because we thought it was a symbol that had such [far-reaching] implications for people, children included, that no one would understand what he was saying.... But he said no, so much is at stake that there is no other way to say it."

Most scholars who contributed to Death of God theology were trying to make an important point. Gabriel Vahanian, in The Death of God (1961) and Wait without Idols (1964), was trying to discover why belief in God had somehow become irrelevant in Western culture. Harvey Cox, in The Secular City (1965), made the point that modern culture was something to embrace and infuse with new meaning, not something to run away from in fear that it is somehow antithetical to traditional religion.

Both authors believed in a transcendent God who was "other," while still being present in human endeavor. They were joined by others who felt the crucifixion symbolized the end of the historical idea that God was just "out there" somewhere, uninvolved. If God is alive, they insisted, God must be found within human society and culture—imminent, not transcendent. The phrase "death of God" represented more a new understanding of God, or of the concept of God, than the destruction thereof. "God is dead," went the refrain. "Long live God."

All were attempting to redefine traditional understanding in terms of modern culture and experience. It is still not clear what their influence has been, but the suspicion is growing that, like many revolutionaries, they were not so much wrong as simply ahead of their time. People seeking to discover what it is to be religious in a secular/scientific age seem much more open to thinking about God in nontraditional terms.

References in periodicals archive ?
There is a recurrence of Hegel's death of God theology, speculative Good Friday, kenotic Christology, and seductive dialectical philosophy that touched thinkers, dramatists, musicians, poets, and painters of the century.
From this moment we hear words and phrases of a new generation: Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity," Bultmann's call to demythologize the scriptures, Tillich's God as the "Ground of All Being," Robinson's Honest to God and a call for "worldly holiness," and even a Death of God theology.
But like the earlier existentialist reception of Nietzsche, the death of God theology (at least in the central work of Thomas Altizer) is dependent, above all, on a notion of presence -- indeed, as Altizer does not hesitate to state, "total presence.