William Hamilton died last week, aged 87. While he was a tenured professor of church history–my father’s calling and profession–William Hamilton, who taught at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in the early 1960s, wrote a book with Thomas Altizer called Radical Theology and the Death of God. Its publication in 1966 generated a Time Magazine review, and according to the NYTimes obituary, roused no great interest. (Note: links to all articles and books mentioned in this essay are found at the end) So Time went all-out and in the 8 April 1966 edition, published the single most famous cover of its history, with a very long article inside that didn’t come to the main point until readers had gotten well lost inside an extensive church and religious history lesson.
The article was, I suppose, meant to offer an adequate context for the shocking question on the cover. Even reading the article now, notwithstanding all the pictures Time included, I am as bored as I was then. At the time I was both informed about and interested in church history up to the 19th century, but Time’s writers didn’t have the courage to make the point that church history underlined the theology of the cover’s question. I needed then–and now–much more direct thought about the contemporary social and religious contexts for the questions Hamilton and his fellow theologians had been asking, ten years before the article was published.
Time Magazine fudged the real question being asked, in favor of sales and in favor of the status quo that the magazine’s right wing editors were constantly defending. The writers weren’t up to framing a serious argument around the death of the gods who were male, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist, racist, dominating, violent, exclusively Roman Catholic or exclusively Protestant, and so on. The right wing influence at Time Magazine wasn’t ready, even in 1966, to question Christian theology in light of current American society and the growing secularism in the nation’s heart and spirit.
Who is an intentional Christian now, and of the youth fellowship age then, who does not recall something about the impact that article had on religious communities at the time? One of the theologians quoted in the New York Times obituary for William Hamilton, Ellen T. Charry of Princeton Theological Seminary, asserted that “the call to action inherent in ‘Death of God’ ideas stirred an interest in social justice among liberal Christians and influenced the liberation theology movement of the 1960s and ’70s.” She might well have added that we owe our 21st Century advances in feminist theology and gay and lesbian ordination, to Hamilton’s work.
But I think Professor Charry barely touches the hot topic of religion in a secular society. That shouldn’t be a seminary professor’s job anyway–that articulation should be the work of any thinking believer in any religous setting today. We Christians are too willing to respect that fact that we have beliefs; we aren’t willing to ask ourselves the hard and obvious questions that non-believers ask. We rightly stand accused of fearing the answers, and no amount of doing good deeds for righteousness’ sake will help us erase that cowardice. For instance, we don’t reckon the consequences of ducking the tough thinking about truths we can’t deny. Instead, churches are willing to hang by the fingernails on crumbling walls and old, dry ivy vines of dogma and doctrine, hoping to survive by means of praise bands or interior decoration like big screens in sanctuaries. In this case, we’ve all checked our brains at the door, as it is said, no matter what denomination the doors open into.
The Christian church in America anyway, whether Roman or Protestant, had pretty much been domesticated by American culture by the 19th century, and as a result, 2oth century Christianity in general offered a social setting very much out of step with society. In some cases, the Christian setting was deliberately against society, but by the 1960s, fewer and fewer families could boast that all their children were church members and attended regularly.
Listen to the lyrics of Billy Joel songs, or of most popular songs about the 50s and 60s written in the 1980s, and you hear the clash of church culture with American culture at large–the secular culture–in line after line. Comedians and playwrights, sitcom writers and novelists, essayists and journalists all flocked into the very large, open, public spaces with their mocking, dismissive, critical voices knocking down Christian and Jewish religious culture from the privileged places of respect occupied for a thousand years without fear of secular opposition (even through the Enlightenment and the industrial and scientific revolutions of the 19th century).
Time Magazine missed its chance to be on the cutting edge of the end of the 20th century, because the writers and editors all thought they knew the answer to their question. Of course not, they thought. Even if I don’t believe in God the way my grandparents did, of course God isn’t dead. Now, half a century on, if anybody self-aware enough to recognize the false shelter of personal defensiveness is still inclined to such cardboard theology, an hour watching Bill Maher or Ricky Gervase ought to shoot that paper tiger to hell and gone.
I began to follow Hamilton–unintentionally and unaware–in the spring of 1985. Not from a doubt of God but from a conviction that the Holocaust demanded attention, I challenged myself to watch the Claude Lanzmann documentary Shoah. It changed the ground on which I based my life. In the cruel and bleak light of that film, the God of reconciliation and love in my theology and experience showed up as too small and insignificant and made of too much assumption, to encompass or defeat the evil exposed by the interviews of Holocaust survivors in that film. A lifetime of listening to sermons had given me nothing at all with which to cope when that darkness came over me.
From then on, no answer of knowledge could be enough to meet the question “why, God?” and my following question, “where was God?” I began letting go of the certainties about God that were staples of my Presbyterian church and worshiping community at the time. In fact, these certainties about God were leading the clergy of the denomination to argue violently with each other about abortion and ordination of gays or lesbians. Nothing about sin or redemption could reach the horror of truth that went on showing itself–and has continued to this day–as total violence dominating so completely, and so reverently worshipped. By the end of 1985, I was done with the God of certainty. That god had long since died and I could see the idol standing in its place. Was I really alone in this? It seemed so. All that arguing about proof of God’s existence in one social challenge after another turned on the pivot of the survival of churches, and rarely did I sense a struggle over true Christian integrity at issue.
I worked at the time for a parish with a sanctuary ceiling covered in dark blue paint and decorated with bright golden stars spangled about in no particular order–not even a constellation in view. My metaphor for being Christian inside the church became that sanctuary–and I decided that I’d rather see the real sky and risk being blown to outer space and left to move alone in reality, than accept the ignorant and clergy-benefitting conventions of church life. I wouldn’t leave the Christian community completely, but I would stay on the porch of any institution where I found myself–pitching a tent if necessary.
The adult who handed me (and my companions in the youth group) the April 8, 1966 issue of Time Magazine, was mostly interested in the way we all would react. I regret that he was not more interested in the maturing of our thought. William Hamilton wrote many decades later that he never talked about that April 8 Time cover without putting air quotes around the word ‘God’. I think with regret of all the years I spent in intellectual cowardice because I didn’t know from the start that in the question’s intent, the word God was not an absolute. I was not frightened or shaken in conviction when I thought about the death of the ‘god’ of the Reformers who killed each other over words indicating or denying transubstantiation, or the death of the ‘god’ that Tomas de Torquemada held supreme as he pursued heretics in the Inquisition.
Not until I came upon Thomas Merton’s tough little book, No Man Is an Island did I begin to move forward on my own. While the clergy and staff of my congregation were occupying themselves with discussing butterflies as symbols for the Resurrection and the benefits of attracting legacies to the newly established endowment fund, I began reading Walter Wink’s life changing sinewy series, Naming the Powers, UnMasking the Powers, Engaging the Powers and The Powers that Be. Walter Wink shot me into space from my safe space on the porch of the church. Thomas Merton gently reeled me back in with his books on living in search of nothingness as Christianly as possible in whatever shape or size of community I found myself.
Why didn’t I just pack it in and depart, shaking the dust from my feet? My brothers had done this. Many of my companions from high school had done so. I stayed among Christians because outside and beyond their communities, nobody I knew was curious about the questions that William Hamilton asked all his life long. Instead of being bored by them, I wanted to work on those questions. And I stayed, too, because something about the experience of the Eucharist didn’t yield to dismissal by intelligence. Because I stayed, I was blessed by the gift of Walter Brueggemann’s work on scriptural texts of the Old Testament. Many of the questions that William Hamilton asked seem posed in a Biblically textless world of society’s secular illnesses and technological highs. Bruggemann puts the ancient texts into current settings that include the questions Hamilton asks. So does Rosemart Ruether and Phyllis Trible and a host of women theologians raised up in the 2oth century.
What I notice here is that all the people whose work I was reading are theologians who were writing for seminarians. The work is like fresh organic food found in farmer’s markets. By contrast, parish clergy and churches are recycling canned goods, passing off bullet peas and tinned asparagus for the real thing. And it’s only fair to point out that timorous but vocal parish members will rise up and point weaponry at any pastor or preacher who offers red meat or fresh vegetables in place of the fast food and preserved ingredients long past prime, that most people in churches are used to.
The reward is not in getting answers to questions like Is ‘God’ dead? The reward is in asking questions like that and increasing the room for more and harder questions, bringing ever more challenging sources of understanding into play. The reward for Christians is in being as fully intelligent as full maturity requires.
The clergy in our churches are not as courageous as they should be, in opening windows for air and doors for exit and entrance without dogmatic objections. There is much that we in our worshiping communities would reveal to each other and to the clergy in place, that might well lead to a renewal of relevant Christian practice in today’s circumstances. But if that is to happen, the clergy must let go of their exclusive control of practicing Christianity. Christians meekly wander on in the illusion that the real Christians are the ordained clergy. The concept of ‘lay’ people in the church remains in the way of any change in the church. A lot needs to be done at that thick, gnarled and deeply buried point before any substantial effect of being Christian will be felt in history again.
I hope interest in William Hamilton’s work will be revived in the general Christian population. Below is a link to an article about his ideas, written by Lloyd Steffan, then chaplain at Lehigh University, and published in the Christian Century in 1989. Links to all sources cited in the essay follow.