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God is Dead: Avant-garde Theology for the Sixties JOHN W. RATHBUN The God is Dead movement does not seem to have survived the decade of its birth, thus providing another echo of God's response to Nietzsche. Its cut was modishly sixties. Entranced by the descriptive phrase, people tended to slight its substance. But the substance itself was often hesitant and provisional, deficient in full explication of argument, and at times downright limp. Indeed, the substance appeared at times so spindly that critics diagnosed a bad case of intellectual rickets. Even Paul M. van Buren has remarked that we can "push the flaccid remains to the back of the drawer reserved for mementos of our more foolish exploits." 1 Yet the movement has not lost all vitality. Books recently published - Gustave Todrank's The Secular Search for a New Christ, Michael Novak's A Theology for Radical Politics, John Cooper's The New Mentality, and Aaron Ungersma's Escape from Phoniness - all testify to a surviving preoccupation with issues raised by the God is Dead movement. From the point of view of an intellectual historian, what seems to warrant some exploration is the contemporary popularity of the movement as typified in the work of four men: Thomas J.J. Altizer, William Hamilton, Harvey Cox, and Paul M. van Buren.2 Certain propositions can be advanced . First of all, it was indeed a movement. That is, the God is Dead theologians were representative voices of an attitude that became increasingly imperative during the sixties. In that capacity they offered a world-view which, while it varied from man to man in detail, was interesting and consistent within itself. The public may have held inappropriate or simplistic views of what constituted that world-view., but the fact that a world-view was involved was acknowledged by everyone. Second, the movement gained a certain intellectual currency by being taken up by aficionadoes of the avant-garde, those cultivators of the latest who enlarge their stock of intellectual tidbits by levying on almost everything: from the psychological reflections of Abraham Maslow and Rollo May, to the novels of Saul Bellow, to the latest nmonumental" construction of Claes Oldenberg. This widening of interest in the God is Dead movement had several implications. It rescued the movement from the purgatory of THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. V, NO. 2, FALL 1974 theological discourse in the academies, and it revealed that the purposes and problems of avant-garde and theological thought in the sixties had points (if not solutions) in common. Despite the fact that collectively the four men constitute a movement, there are sharp differences in strategy, tone, and temperament. Thomas J.J. Altizer is certainly the most abstruse. His radical theology, which puts Hegel, Nietzsche, and William Blake under contribution, is abstract, totally dialectical, and visionary, embracing as it does the death of God in history, his transmutation into the profane, and the consequent emergence ofa new hypostatic humanity. Altizer's books are hard going, but the main intent is clear. To him Christianity fell into a Gnostic passion for the past which arrested its development. And this in turn trapped Christianity in a non-dialectical dogmatism that could not adjust to changing conditions. Altizer's theology, which had its origin in Altizer's interpretation of Mircea Eliade's treatment of the history of religion, is intended to stand as a corrective to these two errors. William Hamilton, who collaborated with Altizer on one collection of essays, agreed with Altizer that God is indeed dead.But God's death is phrased less in terms of speculative theology than in terms of personal dilemma. God died because he is no longer accessible to man's subjective self. To Hamilton, this is at once poignant and lifeaffirming . Poignant because God's death leaves a vacuum where before there had been ground for belief and action. Life-affirming because it puts the responsibility squarely on man to rectify the wrongs of this world through a provisional ethic modeled on Jesus as the humiliated, humble, and neighborly Lord. Hamilton is essentially a personal essayist who adopts a mildly confessional tone, whereas Paul M. van Buren is...


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pp. 166-180
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