The viewpoint of the “death of God” movement is hard to identify precisely, but it seems to boil down to one or a combination of the following propositions:
1. It is no longer meaningful to believe in the existence of God. This proposition cuts across several areas of our experience, (a) It is not meaningful to believe in God because such a belief is irrelevant to the problems of today’s world, (b) It is not meaningful to believe in God because we do not have the language or symbolic categories to discuss him precisely or with genuinely communicable understanding, (c) It is not meaningful to believe in God because propositions about such a being are not subject to empirical verification by any form of controlled observation, and assertions that cannot be verified empirically are meaningless.
2. It is no longer possible to believe in the existence of God. Modern science has brought supernaturalism of any sort into disrepute. Things that are outside the scope of the “natural” and that are not, at least ideally, comprehensible by the methods of science simply do not happen.
3. It is no longer necessary to believe in the existence of God. The “mysteries” of the universe have been or are being explained by scientific concepts and methods, so it is no longer necessary to postulate a God. And our ethical and moral structure finds a sufficient foundation and exemplar in Christ and the attitude of love and service he provided during his ministry; it adds nothing to assume that a transcendent God exists above and beyond that attitude.
These propositions, it is believed, point to the conclusion that God has died. But are the propositions intrinsically and inevitably sound, or do they rest upon some prior assumptions—a particular intellectual point of view’—that might be called into question?
Time quotes Professor Altizer as follows: “We must recognize that the death of God is a historical event: God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence”.… There are several possible interpretations of this quotation:
1. It could mean that people no longer take their belief in God seriously and no longer follow what they believe to be his will in their day-to-day conduct. Certainly there are vast numbers of people for whom God has ceased to exist. There are also vast numbers for whom he has never existed. On the other hand, there are vast numbers of people for whom he has not died, because they have believed and still believe in him and conscientiously seek and follow his will as they understand it. Thus, God has not died in any definitive sense.
2. The statement could mean that the systematic, empirically verified explanations of modern science have replaced God as an effective force in the universe. Here again, the power of the statement is weakened because of the many people for whom the achievements of science have not replaced God. Furthermore, this interpretation assumes that there is no God other than that which man himself “created” as a comfortable, catch-all explanation for phenomena that he does not understand. Further, this interpretation places far too much faith in the ability of science to provide “ultimate” answers; the inevitably partial and limited character of scientific explanation is overlooked. Here we might note the “humble” outlook of such scientific greats as Heisenberg and Einstein in forming our expectations about the kinds of answers science can provide.
3. The statement could mean that God and related biblical concepts have outlived their relevance in that they do not offer any solutions to the widespread personal, social, economic, and political problems that beset today’s world. In a sense, this interpretation combines the assumptions underlying the first two. (a) Since people no longer see or search for any relevance of biblical concepts in the “real” world, God has lost his meaning, i.e., has died, (b) Since people now place more confidence in the effectiveness of so-called rational, non-theistic approaches to their problems, the God that they created to help solve those problems is no longer necessary or useful. Once more, there are many people who see a vital relevance of biblical concepts for today’s world and bend every effort to apply them. For many of these individuals, the systematic and empirically supported advances of the natural and behavioral sciences are considered to augment rather than to replace a God-centered orientation to the world and its problems. A conscientious Christian might well consider it not merely his prerogative but his duty to bring all his resources to bear upon the problems he faces. These resources certainly include his ability to understand and apply the contributions of science.
Can it be that the “death of God” writers have fallen into the trap (so common to purveyors of intellectual abstractions) of assuming that most people see the same and the only reality that they themselves see?
If the “death of God” position is, as seems most plausible, that God has died because men no longer find him believable or useful, then it must follow that God never really lived except in the imaginations of men. Apparently, these men are saying, not that God has died, but that he never really had an independent existence. These theologians never say outright that there is no transcendent, independently existing God. Rather, the essence of their argument seems to be that we cannot know or comprehend God because of our limited perceptual, cognitive, and intellectual abilities. Moreover, such capabilities as we do have are inevitably confounded and trammeled by cultural forms and predefinitions. Here, the question seems not to be one of the nature of God but one of the nature of man as a knowing being.…
The “death of God” theologians seem to hail their admission of his demise as a breath of fresh air. Now that the theological air has cleared and Christianity has become thoroughly secularized, Christians can abandon doctrinal nonsense and express their Christianity in deep, heartfelt concern. The churchman will now be more free to demonstrate his Christian love by actually doing things for the economically deprived, for the undernourished millions, and for the ethnic and racial minorities in their struggle for equality. In other words, the Christian’s concern will shift from an “other-worldly” focus to a “this-worldly” focus.
But is this a safe assumption? Will booting God out of our churches by trying to bury him necessarily mean that church people will show an increased concern for persons and social problems?…
Are the “death of God” theologians really in a position to say that God has died? Or must they limit themselves to saying that within their own particular conceptual frameworks they have not been able to find him? What if they had made different assumptions or accepted the validity of different kinds of data or asked different questions? Would they still, of necessity, not be able to find God? Or does the question of whether God does or ever did exist still boil down to the age-old question. “To believe or not to believe?”
Persons of the more traditional, evangelical persuasion, using different assumptions, accepting different kinds of data, and holding to the validity of faith as a category of belief and experience, say that God does exist. We assume that God could and does reveal himself in various ways, including the written word as found in the Bible. We accept the life and works of Christ as, above all, the material expression of God’s love and grace. To support our sometimes intangible-looking faith, we fall back upon the evidence of history. For example, something happened shortly after the crucifixion of Christ to bring about a miraculous revitalization of his depressed, dejected, and utterly defeated disciples. Something happened that we remember as the “day of Pentecost” that stimulated a social, ethical, and religious movement that has had a tremendous impact upon the world. Is this sort of evidence sufficient reason for believing in God and in Christ as the Son of God? We naïve Christians think so, and we believe.
Assistant Professor of Psychology
The University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, N. D.
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