Mar 2, 2012

'Death of God' theology by any other name

There's a very standard critique of "Death of God" theology that says it was a fad, a single magazine cover, essentially a flashy package with nothing inside. It's taken to be either theological liberalism all jazzed up or atheism with a catchy name. It was just bad ideas mashed up again and sold with a new label.

The only new thing, the only part that worked, the critique goes, was that name: Death of God theology.

This is exactly backwards.

The main thing wrong with Death of God theology is the name. The theology that has gone under that name, though, is significant, interesting, and worth thinking through.

The reason that thinking isn't considered isn't because the thinking is facile, failed and re-packaged, but because of that package. It's not that the name made people consider the thinking and they then found it worthless, but, rather, that the name made is possible to completely ignore the thinking in the first place, to just take that shiny package with the headline-friendly name and set it aside.

Say the label, and it's easy wave away the whole project. Stated without the label, the questions this thinking tries to think through don't seem so dismissable. They are just:

How do we talk about God where God is not part of the human experience of the world?
How do we talk about God without our statements being false idols of God?
How do we talk about God when there's so much evil?

The project, when actually get through the packaging, was about being clear about these problems of theological language, and working them out, and finding language for theology that rightly respected these problems.

Thomas J.J. Altizer -- who, it seems, gleefully embraced the label and thought it good and necessary -- said the project was "most fundamentally in quest of a language and mode whereby it can speak. Above all it is in quest of a language whereby it can speak of God." William Hamilton, whose death this week has put my in mind of these things, did not think the publicity was helpful. The Oregonian, in a profile a few days before he died, said Hamilton "was frustrated with the public perception of his work. Some didn't understand his argument or care about its subtleties. The response to all the publicity was hostility."

It was the name, not the thinking, that evoked that hostility. For the name made the thinkers seem hostile to people of faith, where in fact their thinking was deeply religious, a deeply embedded in a tradition of Christian and Jewish thought.

They weren't not taking religion seriously, but, in a way, trying to take it more seriously.

When you read Hamilton, he doesn't read like re-hashed liberalism, nor like disguised atheism. He reads as someone who is, above all, devout. Who is, like Jacob in the desert, wrestling with an angel. Who is trying to be like Moses, who turns to God and says "What is your name?", or Elijah, who hears God in what he cannot hear. He's following after Augustine, who asked, "What do I say I love when I say I love my God?", and Karl Barth, who said "Religion brings us to the place where we must wait, in order that God may confront us -- on the other side of the frontier of religion," for God "is made known as the Unknown, speaking in eternal silence."

Hamilton starts with the problem of needing and longing for a God who will not suffer idolatry: "We cannot objectify God, but we must speak about him. So we get into trouble, our words become distorted."

This is the thinking through of the "Death of God," and yet, with that name, it's taken to be cavalier. The critique is it's religious dandyism, dismissing the divine, the transcendent, the hope of "more," with scoff and snark and academicese.

That's not what Hamilton does, though. It's not the project he describes. He writes, speaking for the movement, naming those who go by this unfortunate name:
"We seem to be those who are trying to believe in a time of the death of God .... of the death in us for any power to affirm any of the traditional images of God. We mean that the world is not God and that it does not point to God. Since the supports men have always depended on to help them affirm God seem to be gone, little wonder that many take the next step and wonder whether God himself is gone. Little wonder that Lent is only season we are at home, and that that cry of dereliction from the cross is sometimes the only biblical word that can speak to us. If Jesus can wonder about being forsaken by God, are we to be blamed if we wonder?"
Perhaps this would have been ignored under any name. Certainly I don't have an alternative title for it to go by -- God forsaken theology? Name of God theology? Christian atheism? The problem of theology theology? -- and historical counterfactuals are speculations, at best.

I can't help but see these thoughts in a lot religious thinking about God, though, and seeing ways these questions are embedded unnamed in all sorts of theologizing. I think many theologies would be well served by the challenge of taking them up directly, and they might have, if only "Death of God" theology had been called something else.

There's a moral here: A good, "successful" brand and a bit of publicity can guarantee the irrelevance of your thought almost as well as complete obscurity and lack of a name.