Matthew Rose’s great First Things essay about the infamous 1966 “Death Of God” cover story in Time magazine is only available online to that magazine’s subscribers, but I think I can quote enough of it here to give you its gist.
Rose discusses the tenets of “Death Of God” theology — that is, how a group of liberal Protestant theologians in the 1960s came to believe and to proclaim that being faithful to Christ meant teaching that God is dead. The Time cover story was hugely controversial in its day, but, says Rose, has been vindicated. Rose:
Elson and his editors at Time, however, were prophetic in giving Death of God theology such attention. The United States today looks a lot like the society van Buren, Altizer, and Hamilton wished to midwife. Their ideas about the relationship between Christianity and secularization express, in exaggerated form to be sure, some of the most deeply felt religious intuitions of our culture. They also anticipated a crucial but under-examined phenomenon of our time: the institutional defeat and cultural victory of liberal Protestantism.
And so, fifty years on, to revisit the Death of God movement is not to witness the absurd apotheosis of sixties-era religion. It is to encounter a moment, at once traditional and radical, when liberal Protestantism sought a new dispensation to justify the moral supremacy over American life that it continues to enjoy to this day.
“God is dead” — the phrase is one of Nietzsche’s most famous — means here that man has no need of the concept of God. As Rose puts it, “God is dead in the way Latin is dead.” What made Death of God theology so controversial is that its advocates believed this was good news that Christians should embrace. Rose tells me something I never knew about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, disclosed in his writings from prison prior to his execution by the Nazis:
Bonhoeffer was not an atheist, but near the end of his life he rethought the nature of Christian belief. “We are moving towards a completely religionless time,” he wrote his close friend Eberhard Bethge in the summer of 1944. “People as they are now simply cannot be religious.”
Bonhoeffer expressed surprise at the direction of his thinking and feared it would alarm others. (It did just that when his prison writings were published in 1951.) He wrote that it was wrong for Christians to lament or oppose the liberation of human beings from the “tutelage of God.” Intellectual honesty should compel Christians to acknowledge that modern people no longer need religion, and perhaps no longer need God. “Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working-hypothesis’ called ‘God,’” he conceded. Bonhoeffer’s views grew more radical, as well as more cryptic, as the summer wore on. In letters written in July, he declared that Christians must learn to live “as if God does not exist” and that “God is teaching us that we must live as men who can get along without him.”
Bonhoeffer called this way of life “religionless Christianity,” an explosive idea for his most radical interpreters. It suggested that the theological oppositions that had fractured modern thought could be overcome. Modern theology has been largely concerned with reconciling competing commitments: the value of human freedom with obedience to divine commands; the scientific account of the natural world with the doctrine of creation; the necessity of critical inquiry with the authority of revelation. Bonhoeffer hinted that these were false dichotomies. He even considered the possibility that the most intransigent of oppositions—between belief and unbelief—was perhaps not so intransigent after all. Denying what seem like core Christian claims about God could be a way of affirming Christianity, perhaps the proper way for modern man. Thus the paradox of a theology without God.
Rose discusses how the Death of God theologians in the 1960s expanded on this principle. Not all the DoG theologians reached their conclusion from the same premises. It’s too complicated to get into the different strands of it here. For our purposes, the most important thing to understand is that “the sacred has collapsed into the profane,” and that being a Christian today allows us to develop our lives from a position of moral autonomy. Rose summary here of a particular theologian’s views makes him sound shockingly contemporary re: the mainstream of liberal Christianity in 2016:
Hamilton’s most important contribution to the Death of God theology was to contrast faithfulness to Jesus with belief in the Christian doctrine of God. They are, on his view, incompatible. Belief in God requires Christians to affirm “absolutist” truth claims, but such claims are divisive, establish relations of authority, and encourage rigid distinctions between right and wrong. This outlook encourages dispositions in us that conflict with following Jesus, “the man for others,” who calls us to live in selfless service to all humanity. “To say that Jesus is Lord,” Hamilton explained, “is to say that humiliation, patience, and suffering are the ways God has dealt with man in the world, and thus are also the ways the Christian is to deal with the world.” The Death of God is good news, because it means the end of a coercive moral regime based on authority rather than autonomy.
In the end, the Death of God theologians argued that the most authentically Christian thing any Christian could do would be to accept that God doesn’t exist. This is the only way to create the world that Jesus told us we should seek:
In building this inclusive community, the Protestant Church plays a vital, if provisional, role. It is called to serve as a model for a society founded not on metaphysical truth claims but on the overturning and transgressing of all such claims for the sake of harmonious and loving coexistence. Hence the Church is a people ahead of time, a morally enlightened community that now knows through conscience what it once knew through faith. The Church’s vocation is to employ its historical teachings “to shape new kinds of personal and corporate existence,” as Hamilton put it. Are the Church and her historical teachings therefore necessary? Only so long as the wider culture has not yet adopted its message of tolerance, pluralism, and individual freedom. Once it does, the Christian mission is complete, and secular society itself becomes the kingdom of God.
In this we see the larger ambition of Death of God theology—and its enduring relevance. The Gospel forms a community that, following the biblical injunction to die in order to live, extinguishes itself so as to spread its message into the secular world. And has not exactly that come to pass? The central fact of American religion today is that liberal Protestantism is dead and everywhere triumphant. Its churches are empty, but its causes have won. In 1995, the sociologist N. J. Demerath observed that mainline Protestantism has a paradoxical status in American life. It has experienced both “institutional defeat” and “cultural victory.” Mainline Protestantism has succeeded in communicating its progressive moral and political values to the surrounding culture. On virtually every issue that consumed its postwar energies—from civil rights to feminism and gay rights—the mainline churches have been vindicated by elite opinion. At the same time, their membership has evaporated. The institution that once brokered the postwar cultural and moral consensus for America has now almost vanished.
If you missed it a while back, the historian and Presbyterian layman James Kurth’s essay on “The Protestant Deformation and American Foreign Policy” is fascinating reading. Here’s the gist of his argument that Protestantism degenerates into secular liberal humanitarianism:
1. Salvation by grace. At the personal level the original Protestant (and the original Christian) experience is that of a direct, loving, and saving relationship between the believer and God. This direct relationship and state of salvation is brought about by God, through his sovereign love or grace, and not by the person, through his own efforts or works. This is the experience of being “born-again” into a new life.
Obviously, anything that could stand in the way of this direct relationship, e.g., any intermediaries, traditions, or customs, must be swept aside. The original Protestant and born-again Christian experiences his new life as an open field, a blank slate, a tabula rasa. This enables him to also experience a release of previously-constrained energies and an intense focus of them upon new undertakings. This in part explains the great energy and efficacy of some newly-Christian persons. When the number of such persons is greatly multiplied, as it was at the time of the Reformation, it also in part explains the great energy and efficacy of some newly-Protestant nations (e.g., the Netherlands, England, and Sweden).
2. Grace evidenced through work. However, a serious problem soon arises, within a generation and indeed with the next generation. The children of the original born-again Protestants are born into a Protestant family and church, but they themselves may not be born-again Protestants, i.e., they may not have personally experienced grace, and the direct relationship with God and the state of salvation that it brings. As Max Weber famously discussed in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, this can give rise to great anxiety about just what kind of state that the second generation Protestants are in.
For persons in some Protestant churches, especially the Anglican and Lutheran state churches of Europe but even the Episcopal and Lutheran churches in America, there was something of a solution close at hand. These churches had remained hierarchical (but with the Pope removed and replaced with the state monarch) and even somewhat communal. Perhaps, in some way that was not theologically – clear but was psychologically – reassuring, the state of salvation could be reached by participation in the rituals and works of the church. In these churches, therefore, the focus upon grace gradually shifted in practice to a focus upon works, as had been the case in the Roman Catholic Church before the Protestant Reformation.
However, for persons in other Protestant churches, especially those known at the Reformed churches — the Calvinist churches of Europe but also the Presbyterian and Congregational churches in America — the solution to the dilemma of the Protestants who were born-in but not born-again had to be a different one. The stricter Reformed theology of these churches did not easily permit the fading-away of the necessity for grace. Further, their relative absence of hierarchical and communal features meant that they had a less developed structure for the exercise of rituals and works. And yet, without the personal experience of grace, what evidence was there that the second-generation or birth-right Protestants had received it?
As Weber discussed, the evidence for grace became a particular and peculiar kind of works, not the performance of works in the church, but the success of work in the world. This was how the Protestant ethic became the capitalist spirit. Because the Reformed churches had reformed away the legitimacy of hierarchy, community, tradition, and custom, this work in the world could be unconstrained by these obstacles. Thus, this second-generation and later-generation version of Reformed Protestants also could experience worldly life and worldly work as an open field, a blank slate, a tabula rasa. This enabled them also to experience a release of previously-constrained energies and an intense focus of them upon new undertakings. Indeed, this version of Protestantism in its worldly work was so focused that it became methodical and systematic in ways that previously had never been seen. This also in part explains the great energy and efficacy of some second-generation and later-generation Reformed Protestants. Again, when the number of such persons was greatly multiplied, it also in part explains the great energy and efficacy of established Protestant nations, not just for the second generation, but for several generations thereafter (e.g., the Netherlands and Sweden until the eighteenth century; England, Scotland, and America until the nineteenth century).
3. Salvation by works. After several generations of this kind of Reformed Protestantism, a certain Protestant culture, even traditions and customs, developed. The number of Protestants who had experienced the culture, but who had not experienced the grace, greatly increased. Finally, even in the Reformed churches (Calvinist, Presbyterian, Congregational), the idea of the necessity of grace began to fade. Work in the world no longer was seen as a sign of grace but as a good in itself; work as a good became a new version of good works.
4. The unitarian transformation. As the focus on grace faded, so too among some was there a fading of the focus upon the agencies of grace, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, the second and the third persons of the Holy Trinity. Thus Reformed Protestantism, with its highly-articulated trinitarian doctrine, turned into unitarianism, with its abstract concept of a Supreme Being or Divine Providence. Unitarianism was an actual denomination, complete with its own churches, but it was also a more widely-held theology and philosophy. This was the stage in the Protestant declension that some of the American political elite, including some of the Founding Fathers, had reached by the beginning of the nineteenth century. At least the public documents of that time frequently made reference to the Supreme Being or Divine Providence and rarely to Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.
5. The American Creed. The fifth stage in the Protestant declension was reached when the abstract and remote God, the Supreme Being or Divine Providence, disappeared altogether. Now the various Protestant creeds were replaced by the American Creed, which reached its fullest articulation in the first half of the twentieth century. The elements of the American Creed were free markets and equal opportunity, free elections and liberal democracy, and constitutionalism and the role of the law. The American Creed definitely did not include as elements hierarchy, community, tradition, and custom. Although the American Creed was not itself Protestant, it was clearly the product of a Protestant culture and was a sort of secularized version of Protestantism.
6. Universal human rights. The sixth and final stage in the Protestant declension was reached only in the 1970s, i.e., in the last generation. Now the American Creed was replaced by the universal conception of human rights or, more accurately, the elements of the American Creed were generalized into universal goods. Finally, in the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist ideology, with the stagnation of the German social market and Japanese organized capitalism, and recently with the debacle of the newly industrializing Asian countries and their developmental capitalism, all of the alternatives to the American economic and political conceptions have been discredited, at least temporarily.
Back to Matthew Rose’s essay for a second. It seems to me important that not only has that mentality captured liberal Protestantism, but that it also has a Catholic version: one that wants to hold on to the outward forms of the Roman Catholic tradition while denying that tradition’s authority when it conflicts with the individual’s moral autonomy.