Death of God

An important symptom of secularization has been the birth of Death of God theories during the twentieth century. The notion indicates the most spectacular collapse of faith in the notion of God which meant salvation for millions for thousands of years. Originally one of the central symbols of Christianity, the death of a divine person, Christ, has been enlarged into an existential theory about the experience that ‘God is dead; God died of his pity for mankind’; or even that ‘we have killed him’, as Nietzsche formulated it.[1] Martin Heidegger offered an influential interpretation of Nietzsche’s dictum and understood it as pointing to the end of Platonism as the ‘beginning of nihilism’ when the notion of the God of the biblical revelation has become implausible.[2]

Death of God theories emerged especially in the works of Gabriel Vahanian, Paul van Buren, William Hamilton, John A. T. Robinson, Thomas J. J. Altizer and Rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein. Vahanian’s groundbreaking work of 1957, The Death of God, was a critical reflection on liberal theology, a theology attempting to face the explosion of a non-Christian secular culture. There have been two characteristic reactions to this development. On the one hand, strong Death of God theologians, such as Vahanian, van Buren or Hamilton, argued for the end of theism, because ‘[t]he mythological view of the world has gone, and with it went the possibility of speaking seriously of a Heilsgeschichte: a historical “drama of salvation”, in which God is said to have acted at a certain time in this world to change the state of human affairs’.[3] Weak Death of God theologians, such as Robinson, Altizer, Rabbi Rubenstein and the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, are in line with the diagnosis of the former group, but proceed to a different conclusion, namely the need to renew theology in accordance with the challenges of modern secular culture, especially the post-Second World War situation and the emerging new media world. For some decades, the notion of the Death of God expressed poignantly the collapse of faith in Western societies, a collapse from which most of these societies have not recovered.

  • [1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, ed. Adrian Del Caro and RobertPippin, trans. Adrian Del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 5 and 69.
  • [2] Martin Heidegger, ‘Nietzsche’s Word: God Is dead’, in ed. and trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes,Off the Beaten Track (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 157-199 (166).
  • [3] Paul M. van Buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (New York: Macmillan, 1963), pp. 11-2.
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