The woman who telephoned me long distance was in great distress. She had stumbled for the first time on the “death of God” controversy, didn’t know what to do with it, and thought maybe I did. “Well, what’s wrong,” I said. “This man says that God is dead so I’ll just answer him and tell you that God is alive. Now where are we?”

“But the trouble is,” she said, “the man who said it is a professor.” “Well,” I replied, “I’m a professor too, and I say God is alive. People have been saying that God is dead for a long time, and the only reason everybody is so excited this time is because the matter is getting a lot of space in the newspapers and magazines and on television. If a professor stands up on a street corner and says God is dead, that is news. If another professor says God is alive, that is not news.” And so we went on. But I am sure that nothing was settled in her mind, and that she went away still a little panicky and unsure about a lot of things.

One thing is perfectly evident. The “death of God” controversy is not going to be settled by a shouting match. One person says God is dead and the other one says he is not dead, and the first man says he is so dead, and the conversation has degenerated into the kind of argument children have in a sandbox. Just what can be said?

First of all, we should note that the argument is a very old one. This fact might give us some perspective. The battle of the Israelites was to push into the general thinking of the ancient world the fact of God, and they had plenty of opposition. The psalmist must have been facing some kind of an argument when he wrote, “The fool has said in his heart, there is no God.” Paul was on the subject when he said, “Spiritual things are spiritually discerned.” The world of the early Church was full of unbelief. And in the last century Robert Ingersoll practically made a living by going up and down the country lecturing in support of atheism. I had a very rough experience myself when I was a high school student and read Tom Paine before I was “ready” for him. Practically every book on philosophy and theology since Anselm has brought forward arguments or “proofs” for the existence of God. It is likely that we shall not settle the question Q.E.D. in 1966.

There are several turns in the argument right now, however, that I think were not common in times past. The new atheism is being pushed by professors involved in religion or the history of religion, and colleges and universities related to Christian foundations do not seem to be willing or able to dismiss them or hush them up. Meanwhile, all kinds of religious organizations are making the atheistic views more current by inviting the “God is dead” theologians to speak on the subject. Somehow the enemy is within. This, perhaps, is what was most distressing to the woman who called me to inquire about it all.

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There is some alleviation of the problem, at least in some minds, when the whole matter is reduced to one of vocabulary or semantics. What some of the proponents of the “God is dead” viewpoint are saying, apparently, is that our old theology has more or less worn out and that what have really died are the words we use or the concepts they seem to convey. We get a touch of this in Kierkegaard’s Attack on Christendom, where he says it is evident to him that “Christendom” as an organized religion did not very well portray the living Christ. We catch it again in a very sensitive spirit such as Bonhoeffer, who, under the pressure of the concentration camp experience, found most of what we call “religion” or “Christianity” insufficient to sustain him in the pressure and suffering of personal despair. We catch it again in Robinson in Honest to God, and among his disciples. And we pick it up surely in Tillich, who changes the vocabulary in order to discuss God philosophically as “ground of being” or “ultimate concern.”

In some ways the “God is dead” controversy, insofar as it is a problem in semantics, can be a very healthy though very radical criticism of Christianity in our day. Just exactly what are we talking about when we talk about God? And, if we talk about God in the usual ways, to what extent is he relevant to the strange and awful and complex days in which we live? It seems evident that this part of the “God is dead” controversy is wide open for conversation.

Professor Altizer of Emory University and some like him, however, consider the semantics controversy superficial. If I understand Altizer rightly, he wants to say very plainly and bluntly that God is really dead, and that he died at a definite moment in history.

In the National Observer (January 31, 1966), we have a clear statement of Altizer’s position: “I really want to insist on the word ‘atheism.’ Any word less than that will miss the fundamental point. I want to insist that the original sovereign transcendent God truly and actually died in Christ, and that His death in Christ has only slowly and progressively become manifest for what it was—the movement of God to man, the movement of Word to flesh.” To continue with the comment of Lee Dirks, who wrote the article in the Observer, “God literally lived in history … but then He literally died on the cross.”

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Theologically the question rests on what happened in the incarnation and what happened on the cross. No one can deny the mystery and wonder of the incarnation, “God in the flesh,” and no one can ignore the puzzling question of what we mean when we say Christ died on the cross. Did Christ on the cross die only “according to the flesh,” or are we trying to say that God qua God really died? The whole question drives us to the mystery of the Trinity. One does not move with great confidence in solving the mystery when one remembers what Christ himself said to the Father, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?,” or “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

Altizer insists that at this point God qua God literally died, and that he is now alive only as Christ is alive or the spirit of Christ is incarnate in humanity. When God “took on humanity” at the time of the incarnation, he began a different kind of being, engaged now in a different kind of task. We do not now find God in the heavens above (transcendent) but only in the incarnation (God immanent).

Altizer puts it this way: “Wherever there is a moment that is alive, real, and compassionate, that’s Christ.”

The theological debate finally settles on the interpretation of the kenosis, and we do well to keep it there.

At the same time, we need to remember that all religions, including the Christian religion, have had to deal with God as being transcendent and immanent at the same time. Altizer is merely dismissing the problem of transcendency in order to underline immanency. It is not a bad emphasis, but it is a half truth, and a frightful conclusion.

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