Friday, Apr. 08, 1966

"Is God Dead?"

THEOLOGY Toward a Hidden God (See Cover)


Is God dead? It is a question that tantalizes both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he is, and atheists, who possibly suspect that the answer is no.


Is God dead? The three words represent a summons to reflect on the meaning of existence. No longer is the question the taunting jest of skeptics for whom unbelief is the test of wisdom and for whom Nietzsche is the prophet who gave the right answer a century ago. Even within Christianity, now confidently renewing itself in spirit as well as form, a small band of radical theologians has seriously argued that the churches must accept the fact of God's death, and get along without him. How does the issue differ from the age-old assertion that God does not and never did exist? Nietzsche's thesis was that striving, self-centered man had killed God, and that settled that. 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. Less radical Christian thinkers hold that at the very least God in the image of man, God sitting in heaven, is dead, and—in the central task of religion today—they seek to imagine and define a God who can touch men's emotions and engage men's minds.


If nothing else, the Christian atheists are waking the churches to the brutal reality that the basic premise of faith—the existence of a personal God, who created the world and sustains it with his love—is now subject to profound attack. "What is in question is God himself," warns German Theologian Heinz Zahrnt, "and the churches are fighting a hard defensive battle, fighting for every inch." "The basic theological problem today," says one thinker who has helped define it, Langdon Gilkey of the University of Chicago Divinity School, "is the reality of God."


A Time of No Religion.

 Some Christians, of course, have long held that Nietzsche was not just a voice crying in the wilderness. Even before Nietzsche, SÖren Kierkegaard warned that "the day when Christianity and the world become friends, Christianity is done away with." During World War II, the anti-Nazi Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote prophetically to a friend from his Berlin prison cell: "We are proceeding toward a time of no religion at all."


For many, that time has arrived. Nearly one of every two men on earth lives in thralldom to a brand of totalitarianism that condemns religion as the opiate of the masses—which has stirred some to heroic defense of their faith but has also driven millions from any sense of God's existence. Millions more, in Africa, Asia and South America, seem destined to be born without any expectation of being summoned to the knowledge of the one God.


Princeton Theologian Paul Ramsey observes that "ours is the first attempt in recorded history to build a culture upon the premise that God is dead." In the traditional citadels of Christendom, grey Gothic cathedrals stand empty, mute witnesses to a rejected faith. From the scrofulous hobos of Samuel Beckett to Antonioni's tired-blooded aristocrats, the anti-heroes of modern art endlessly suggest that waiting for God is futile, since life is without meaning.


For some, this thought is a source of existential anguish: the Jew who lost his faith in a providential God at Auschwitz, the Simone de Beauvoir who writes:


"It was easier for me to think of a world without a creator than of a creator loaded with all the contradictions of the world." But for others, the God issue—including whether or not he is dead—has been put aside as irrelevant. "Personally, I've never been confronted with the question of God," says one such politely indifferent atheist, Dr. Claude Lévi-Strauss, professor of social anthropology at the Collège de France. "I find it's perfectly possible to spend my life knowing that we will never explain the universe." Jesuit Theologian John Courtney Murray points to another variety of unbelief: the atheism of distraction, people who are just "too damn busy" to worry about God at all.


Johannine Spirit.

 Yet, along with the new atheism has come a new reformation The open-window spirit of Pope John XXIII and Vatican II have re vitalized the Roman Catholic Church.


Less spectacularly but not less decisively, Protestantism has been stirred by a flurry of experimentation in liturgy, church structure, ministry. In this new Christianity, the watchword is witness: Protestant faith now means not intellectual acceptance of an ancient confession, but open commitment—perhaps best symbolized in the U.S. by the civil rights movement—to eradicating the evil and inequality that beset the world.


The institutional strength of the churches is nowhere more apparent than in the U.S., a country where public faith in God seems to be as secure as it was in medieval France. According to a survey by Pollster Lou Harris last year, 97% of the American people say they believe in God. Although clergymen agree that the postwar religious revival is over, a big majority of believers continue to display their faith by joining churches. In 1964, reports the National Council of Churches, denominational allegiance rose about 2%, compared with a population gain of less than 1.5%. More than 120 million Americans now claim a religious affiliation; and a recent Gallup survey indicated that 44% of them report that they attend church services weekly.


For uncounted millions, faith remains as rock-solid as Gibraltar. Evangelist Billy Graham is one of them. "I know that God exists because of my personal experience," he says. "I know that I know him. I've talked with him and walked with him. He cares about me and acts in my everyday life." Still another is Roman Catholic Playwright William Alfred, whose off-Broadway hit, Hogan's Goat, melodramatically plots a turn-of-the-century Irish immigrant's struggle to achieve the American dream. "People who tell me there is no God," he says, "are like a six-year-old boy saying that there is no such thing as passionate love—they just haven't experienced it."


Practical Atheists.

 Plenty of clergymen, nonetheless, have qualms about the quality and character of contemporary belief. Lutheran Church Historian Martin Marty argues that all too many pews are filled on Sunday with practical atheists—disguised nonbelievers who behave during the rest of the week as if God did not exist. Jesuit Murray qualifies his conviction that the U.S. is basically a God-fearing nation by adding: "The great American proposition is 'religion is good for the kids, though I'm not religious myself.' " Pollster Harris bears him out: of the 97% who said they believed in God, only 27% declared themselves deeply religious.


Christianity and Judaism have always had more than their share of men of little faith or none. "The fool says in his heart, 'there is no God,' " wrote the Psalmist, implying that there were plenty of such fools to be found in ancient Judea. But it is not faintness of spirit that the churches worry about now: it is doubt and bewilderment assailing committed believers.


Particularly among the young, there is an acute feeling that the churches on Sunday are preaching the existence of a God who is nowhere visible in their daily lives. "I love God," cries one anguished teenager, "but I hate the church." Theologian Gilkey says that "belief is the area in the modern Protestant church where one finds blankness, silence, people not knowing what to say or merely repeating what their preachers say." Part of the Christian mood today, suggests Christian Atheist William Hamilton, is that faith has become not a possession but a hope.


Anonymous Christianity. In search of meaning, some believers have desperately turned to psychiatry, Zen or drugs. Thousands of others have quietly abandoned all but token allegiance to the churches, surrendering themselves to a life of "anonymous Christianity" dedicated to civil rights or the Peace Corps. Speaking for a generation of young Roman Catholics for whom the dogmas of the church have lost much of their power, Philosopher Michael Novak of Stanford writes: "I do not understand God, nor the way in which he works. If, occasionally, I raise my heart in prayer, it is to no God I can see, or hear, or feel. It is to a God in as cold and obscure a polar night as any non-believer has known."


Even clergymen seem to be uncertain. "I'm confused as to what God is," says no less a person than Francis B. Sayre, the Episcopal dean of Washington's National Cathedral, "but so is the rest of America." Says Marty's colleague at the Chicago Divinity School, the Rev. Nathan Scott, who is also rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Hyde Park: "I look out at the faces of my people, and I'm not sure what meaning these words, gestures and rituals have for them."


Hydrogen & Carbon.

 To those who do formulate a God, he seems to be everything from a celestial gas to a kind of invisible honorary president "out there" in space, well beyond range of the astronauts. A young Washington scientist suggests that "God, if anything, is hydrogen and carbon. Then again, he might be thermonuclear fission, since that's what makes life on this planet possible." To a streetwalker in Tel Aviv,


"God will get me out of this filth one day. He is a God of mercy, dressed all in white and sitting on a golden throne." A Dutch charwoman says: "God is a ghost floating in space." Screenwriter Edward Anhalt (Becket) says that "God is an infantile fantasy, which was necessary when men did not understand what lightning was. God is a cop-out." A Greek janitor thinks that God is "like a fiery flame, so white that it can blind you." "God is all that I cannot understand," says a Roman seminarian. A Boston scientist describes God as "the totality of harmony in the universe." Playwright Alfred muses: "It is the voice which says, 'It's not good enough' —that's what God is."


Even though they know better, plenty of Christians find it hard to do away with ideas of God as a white-bearded father figure. William McCleary of Philadelphia, a Roman Catholic civil servant, sees God "a lot like he was explained to us as children. As an older man, who is just and who can get angry at us. I know this isn't the true picture, but it's the only one I've got."


Invisible Supermen.

 Why has God become so hard to believe in, so easy to dismiss as a nonbeing? The search for an answer begins in the complex—and still unfinished—history of man's effort to comprehend the idea that he might have a personal creator.


No one knows when the idea of a single god became part of mankind's spiritual heritage. It does seem certain that the earliest humans were religious. Believing the cosmos to be governed by some divine power, they worshiped every manifestation of it: trees, animals, earth and sky. To the more sophisticated societies of the ancient world, cosmological mystery was proof that there were many gods. Ancient Babylonia, for example, worshiped at least 700 deities. Yet even those who ranked highest in the divine hierarchies were hardly more than invisible supermen. The Zeus of ancient Greece, although supreme on Olympus, was himself subject to the whims of fate—and besides that was so afflicted by fits of lust that he was as much the butt of dirty jokes as an object of worship.


Much closer to the deity of modern monotheism was the Egyptian sun god Aten, which the Pharaoh Amenophis IV forced on his polytheistic people as "the only god, beside whom there is no other." But the Pharaoh's heresy died out after his death, and the message to the world that there was but one true God came from Egypt's tiny neighbor, Israel. It was not a sudden revelation. Some scholars believe that Yahweh was originally a tribal deity—a god whom the Hebrews worshiped and considered superior to the pagan gods adored by other nations. It is even questionable to some whether Moses understood Yahweh to be mankind's only God, the supreme lord of all creation. Even after the emergence of Israel's faith, there is plenty of Biblical evidence that the Hebrews were tempted to abandon it: the prophets constantly excoriate the chosen people for whoring after strange gods.


The God of Israel was so utterly beyond human comprehension that devout Jews neither uttered nor wrote his sacred name.* At the same time, Judaism has a unique sense of God's personal presence. Scripture records that he walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam, spoke familiarly on Mount Sinai with Moses, expressed an almost human anger and joy. Christianity added an even more mystifying dimension to the belief that the infinitely distant was infinitely near: the doctrine that God came down to earth in the person of a Jewish carpenter named Jesus, who died at Jerusalem around 26 A.D.


It was not an easy faith to define or defend, and the early church, struggling to rid itself of heresy, turned to an intellectual weapon already forged and near at hand: the metaphysical language of Greece. The alliance of Biblical faith and Hellenic reason culminated in the Middle Ages. Although they acknowledged that God was ultimately unknowable, the medieval scholastics devoted page after learned page of their summas to discussions of the divine attributes—his omnipotence, immutability, perfection, eternity. Although infinitely above men, God was seen as the apex of a great pyramid of being that extended downward to the tiniest stone, the ultimate ruler of an ordered cosmos cooperatively governed by Christian church and Christian state.


Undermining Faith.

 Christians are sometimes inclined to look back nostalgically at the medieval world as the great age of faith. In his book, The Death of God, Gabriel Vahanian of Syracuse University suggests that actually it was the beginning of the divine demise. Christianity, by imposing its faith on the art, politics and even economics of a culture, unconsciously made God part of that culture—and when the world changed, belief in this God was undermined. Now "God has disappeared because of the image of him that the church used for many, many ages," says Dominican Theologian Edward Schillebeeckx.


At its worst, the image that the church gave of God was that of a wonder worker who explained the world's mysteries and seemed to have somewhat more interest in punishing men than rewarding them. Life was a vale of tears, said the church; men were urged to shun the pleasure of life if they would serve God, and to avoid any false step or suffer everlasting punishment in hell. It did little to establish the credibility of this "God" that medieval theologians categorized his qualities as confidently as they spelled out different kinds of sin, and that churchmen spoke about him as if they had just finished having lunch with him.


The Secular Rebellion.

 The rebellion against this God of faith is best summed up by the word secularization. In The Secular City, Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School defines the term as "the loosing of the world from religious and quasi-religious understandings of itself, the dispelling of all closed world views, the breaking of all supernatural myths and sacred symbols." Slowly but surely, it dawned on men that they did not need God to explain, govern or justify certain areas of life.


The development of capitalism, for example, freed economics from church control and made it subject only to marketplace supply and demand. Political theorists of the Enlightenment proved that law and government were not institutions handed down from on high, but things that men had created themselves. The 18th century deists argued that man as a rational animal was capable of developing an ethical system that made as much sense as one based on revelation. Casting a cold eye on the complacency of Christianity before such evils as slavery, poverty and the factory system, such 19th century atheists as Karl Marx and Pierre Joseph Proudhon declared that the churches and their God would have to go if ever man was to be free to shape and improve his destiny.


But the most important agent in the secularizing process was science. The Copernican revolution was a shattering blow to faith in a Bible that assumed the sun went round the earth and could be stopped in its tracks by divine intervention, as Joshua claimed. And while many of the pioneers of modern science —Newton and Descartes, for example —were devout men, they assiduously explained much of nature that previously seemed godly mysteries. Others saw no need for such reverential lip service. When he was asked by Napoleon why there was no mention of God in his new book about the stars, the French astronomer Laplace coolly answered: "I had no need of the hypothesis." Neither did Charles Darwin, in uncovering the evidence of evolution.

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