On Good Friday in April 1966, fifty years ago this month, Time magazine published its famously controversial cover story, “Is God Dead?” Placing that stark query in bold red lettering against an all-black background, the weekly informed readers that those “three words represent a summons to reflect on the meaning of existence.” Written by Time’s religion editor, John T. Elson, the article attempted to capture the nation’s shifting theological mood from the complacent faith of the 1950s to the metaphysical confusion of the mid-1960s. The cover itself quickly became an icon of the period’s social and religious transformations—apiece with John Lennon’s suggestion that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus among contemporary youth or with Timothy Leary’s imperative to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.”
Elson framed his story as a clarion of “the new atheism” of the 1960s, a testimony to a cultural crisis of faith in which the very premise of a personal God was coming undone. In the arts, for example, he pointed to the “scrofulous hobos” of Samuel Beckett—“the anti-heroes of modern art”—who made it plain that “waiting for God” was futile “since life is without meaning.” Likewise, in contemporary Jewish philosophy, the eclipse of God in the lengthening shadow of the Holocaust remained unavoidable (Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz appeared in 1966). In social anthropology as well, Elson suggested, the “politely indifferent” atheism of Claude Lévi-Strauss made “the God issue” seem like little more than an irrelevance. Even at the grassroots level of American churchgoing, there was cause for concern. With historian Martin Marty as his authority, Elson indicated 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.” Most portentous of all, though, was “a small band of radical theologians,” self-described Christian atheists, who were quite sure “that God is indeed absolutely dead.” This “current death-of-God group” had managed to enshrine Nietzsche’s “taunting jest” inside American Protestantism’s own theological citadels.
Elson drew attention to three academics as the principal purveyors of the death-of-God theology: Thomas J. J. Altizer, a professor of religion at Emory University and a lapsed Episcopalian; William Hamilton, a professor of theology at Colgate Rochester Divinity School and an ordained Baptist; and Paul Van Buren, a professor of religion at Temple University and an Episcopal priest. These three, along with a handful of other academics such as Gabriel Vahanian at Syracuse University, were unlikely harbingers of a trendy religious movement. Beyond occasionally connecting on the conference circuit, they were not organized in any discernible way. Taking measure of this small bunch of “existentialists,” “secularists,” and “profane mystics”—of which he was a prominent member—William Hamilton dubbed them “a loose coalition of drinking companions.” Elson’s story, along with much wider media coverage, extended the reach of this death-of-God clique well beyond hotel bars and professional meetings. Altizer especially became a celebrated spokesman for “Christian atheism”—a prophetic sloganeer who very much capitalized on the existential urgency, anguish, and exhilaration of the moment. “God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence,” Altizer proclaimed, and the collapse of traditional faith communities was the inevitable correlate of that death.
Infamous for giving cover-story visibility to the death-of-God theology, Elson’s article actually dwelled more on the possible reawakening of the divine than it did on the shock value of the new atheism. Was all this religious doubt and alienation, Elson wondered, but an indication of “a new quest for God”—one that was moving beyond ordinary church boundaries into new patterns of insight and discernment? Elson was not keen on all those seekers who “desperately turned to psychiatry, Zen or drugs” to assuage their search-for-meaning anxieties, but he could hardly deny their prevalence. Striking an ecumenical, almost post-Christian tone at the end of his piece, Elson averred that “God is not the property of the church” and that a “reverent agnosticism” toward ecclesial doctrines was now in order. Significantly, the death-of-God group, especially Altizer, warmly embraced that questing posture and took it far beyond Elson’s modest formulations.
The God-is-dead tempest had been whirling for more than half a year when Time emblazoned the controversy on its cover. By the fall of 1965 the news coverage had already become extensive. That October The New York Times reported at length on these new “radical Protestant thinkers” who were intent on reimagining Christianity without God and without “traditional church practices.” Highlighting the same trio that Elson would the next April, the Times singled out Altizer as the “most radical,” especially for his “mystical” propensities: “He rejects not only the Christian tradition,” the paper reported, “but much of Western culture to explore Eastern and primitive religious phenomena.” Less than a week later, Time magazine offered its own initial foray into “The ‘God is Dead’ Movement.” Again, it was Altizer’s “eclectic theology”—the merger of his sepulchral atheism with “a strong streak of mysticism”—that attracted particular notice. Altizer looked like a living paradox, if not oxymoron: a Christian who was an atheist, a theologian at a Methodist school who was unusually absorbed with Buddhism. A one-time candidate for the Episcopal ministry—he failed the church’s required psychiatric evaluation—Altizer had found his calling as an elegist of Christendom’s God. Confronting “absolute darkness,” he awaited the dialectical return of the sacred in transfigured form—or, put differently, the affirmation that was to arise from total negation.
After the extensive print news coverage in the fall of 1965, the death-of-God brouhaha reached a crest that winter with a pair of feature stories on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite on back-to-back nights in February 1966. Altizer was again the center of attention, pronouncing God’s death with a wild-eyed, prophetic confidence. The CBS coverage managed to add a new theatrical wrinkle, shocking many viewers by showing “a funeral service for God,” a requiem written by an assistant professor at North Carolina Wesleyan College. Focusing especially on the face of an innocent-looking undergraduate as she chanted the “God is dead” mantra, CBS lingered over the bleak liturgy that Altizer and his colleagues had inspired: “He was our guide and our stay/He walked with us beside still waters/He was our help in ages past … He is gone, He is stolen by darkness … Heaven is empty.”
Two months later the death-of-God commotion reached its cultural climax with Time magazine’s cover story. By then, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report had also given concerted attention to the hullabaloo. The excitement finally played itself out over the summer, slowly dwindling away after Altizer’s especially dismal reception on The Merv Griffin Show that August. Hissed and booed, he found the clock running out on his fifteen minutes of pop-culture celebrity. Within a year or two, his radical theology looked like it had been nothing so much as a passing fad. “Pop Theology via TV,” the Christian Century dubbed one of Altizer’s performances; he had offered little more than “adolescent daydreaming,” the sober mainline Protestant weekly sniped, on par with the espionage show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” For its part, Christianity Today assured its evangelical readership in May 1967 that “the death-of-God stir has passed like an overnight storm” and that Altizer’s “bizarre and aberrational” claims would “soon be forgotten” in the face of the enduring proclamation of the gospel.
Fifty years on, the whole death-of-God hubbub warrants reexamination. The advent of the Christian atheists revealed a fissured religious terrain: evangelicals seething over the God-is-dead heresy as well as the liberal betrayals of the Supreme Court; secularists, atheists, and humanists wishing these radical theologians could get over their lingering Christian hang-ups; mainline Protestants, by turns, proud and wary of the existentialist dissent their theological liberalism had generated; and sundry seekers inviting the death-of-God fraternity to join them in a spiritual counterculture of heady, wide-ranging exploration.
Altizer himself hardly needed that last invitation. After failing to become an Episcopal priest, Altizer had channeled his energies into PhD work in theology and the history of religions at the University of Chicago, ultimately coming under the sway of Mircea Eliade’s comparative, esoteric vision of the field. Altizer’s first book, published in 1961, was on Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology; his second book, which appeared two years later, was entirely devoted to an exposition of Eliade’s work, including the “archaic ontology” of shamanism, with sections on alchemy and yoga to boot. Shaped by his own early visionary experiences of Satan and God, Altizer counted himself a “disciple” of Eliade’s, even reporting that he underwent—some years later—a “contemporary shamanic initiation” at the Chicago professor’s own hands during a ghostly gathering in Hyde Park. The “Is God Dead?” sensation of 1965-1966 had many sources and upshots. Certainly, it gave prominence to a “new atheism”; even more, though, it amplified the diffuse seeker sensibilities of the era and blessed a churchless quest for the sacred through and beyond the death of God.
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