Scholar known for “Death of God” dies

Details:

William Hamilton was a tenured professor of church history at a small divinity school in Rochester in April 1966 when Time magazine created a sensation with a cover article featuring some of the ideas he had been writing about for years in journals read mainly by ministers and theologians.

In large red type against a black background, Time boiled those ideas down to three words: “Is God Dead?” It became one of the magazine’s most famous covers, and it upended Dr. Hamilton’s quiet life as an academic theologian.

The article, appearing in the season of Easter and Passover, gave a primer on the history of the war between religious and secular ideas in Western culture going back to Copernicus. It quoted Billy Graham and Simone de Beauvoir as exemplars of the two sides, and it introduced the world to Dr. Hamilton as the leader of a new school of religious thinking it called the “Death of God Movement.”

Dr. Hamilton became the target of death threats in the year after the article was published. He left his job, feeling ostracized. And he spent a good deal of the rest of his life — he died on Feb. 28 at 87 — adding air quotes with his fingers around the word God, which was what he had meant when he referred to “the death of God,” he said.

But the article was basically accurate about his views. He believed that the concept of God had run its course in human history. Civilization now operated according to secular principles. And churches should, too, by helping people learn to care for one another unconditionally, without illusions about heavenly rewards.

For better or worse, it was not something he would have said out loud at the Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, where he and his family attended services for many years until he started meeting icy silences after the Time article appeared.

To him it was a scholarly idea, written for scholarly journals, intended to address the big theological question of the postwar era: how to reconcile the notion of an all-powerful God with an overwhelmingly secular and often brutal modern life. The question was being explored from every angle by theologians, who were as likely to quote Camus, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard as the Bible.

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Comments

  1. pagansister says:

    It was an article—-and apparently it ticked off folks, which is a shame. Why would anyone consider an opinion involving religion a reason to issue death threats? This country has given our citizens the right to worship as they wish or not follow any faith. He was entitled to his opinion but I guess in 1966 it was considered a “sin” to actually mention that there was no God or was or that that God had died. He lived a long life—-and brought controversy to a huge nation. Not a bad legacy.

  2. pagansister says:

    OOPS, “——correction ——mention that there was no God or that that God had died.

  3. Deak Pete says:

    …and, of course, now he knows the truth!

  4. I’ve read Hamilton’s works, and studied the fallout from it all. As was said in the article, he was a Navy Vet from WWII, and I believe that had a great deal to do with not only Hamilton’s thought, but the explosive meltdown of Western Civilization in the post-war years.

    Some 86 million people perished in WWII, and the Jewish Holocaust was a sister to the Holocaust against Christians, 7 million of whom died alongside them in Hitler’s camps. Add to that the civilian deaths in the scores of millions from bombs, bayonets, rape and torture, and it’s a wonder that anyone escaped that period with any faith in God at all. The question with which Hamilton wrestled was no light question: If God is Omnipotent, how could this have happened?

    Somehow, “Free will,” even though it gets to the heart of the answer, sounds trite and unpersuasive to one who has had such violence done to their soul. I have great sympathy for those who experienced that unparalleled opening of Hell’s floodgates onto the world, and I suspect God does too. Trauma can permanently distort the lens of perspective. I’m sure Hamilton is with the Lord tonight, healed and whole.

  5. Deacon Norb says:

    Greg:

    Thank you for this post. Unlike Gerard, I have not studied Hamilton at all — in fact, I do not even remember that TIME cover.

    I have studied the Holocaust and have visited both Auschwitz I (praying over Kolbe’s death cell) and Flossenburg (praying over Bonhoffer’s execution site).

    For my next trip to Poland, I have the agenda of visiting Majdanek, which still exists as a historical site — both Sobibor and Teblinka were destroyed and the camps leveled by the Germans before the Russians invaded.

    This coming Wednesday, my class in Ethics at our local college will cover the philosophical underpinnings of the Holocaust and how the chaotic thinking of Nietzsche impacted it. That session is usually an “eye-opener” for my students, particularly when I give my “witness” of the overpowering sense of evil those two places still exude.

    Saints Maxmillin and Dietrich, pray for us.

  6. I’m glad God held back enough IQ points in my brain to leave these sorts of philosophical ponderings to more competent cerebral contortionists. The subject leaves me cold, and with no interest. Having faced a deadly illness I no longer fear dying. What else but a fear of death could fuel such a stupid question–is God dead. He should’ve used his brain to try to cure cancer instead.

  7. “What else but a fear of death could fuel such a stupid question–is God dead.”

    The trauma of a global conflagration that saw almost 100 million humans perish, and which ushered in the use of nuclear bombs. It’s the plaintive cry of millions from that era, not unlike Martha and Mary’s cry upon the death of heir brother Lazarus:

    “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

  8. pagansister says:

    Gerard: Excellent point regarding the horrible events associated with WWII and how it could cause folks to wonder indeed it there was an Omnipotent being and if so, how could those things occur? “War is hell”, was a quote from a famous person whose name escapes me now. There were and probaby still many who doubt the existence of a Divine Being after the events of 9-11.

  9. pagansister says:

    Am glad, Joanc57, that you were successful in combating a deadly illness. But IMO, the question is far from “stupid”. It is a legitimate question, and one I suspect has been asked by many devout believers at one time or another.

  10. Fiergenholt says:

    Gerard:

    “which ushered in the use of nuclear bombs”

    Most folks do not remember — if they ever knew — that the Cold War was a religious war. At the height of that madness, there were over 68,000 individual nuclear weapons available to both NATO and the Warsaw Pact Countries. One can find plenty of historical data to suggest that the Bishops who lived from 1947 – 1990 in the United States were oblivious to the horror of it all. Destroying Atheistic Communism was their sole goal even if — apparently — it meant to destruction of all of civilization.

    One might even argue that the stockpile here in the US — 5,113 deployable nuclear weapons as of mid 2010 — is still way too high. Correct me if I am wrong but the only bishops who ever made that argument have long-since been forced into retirement.

  11. Fingerholt,

    Actually, the bishops have been, and continue to be, very engaged on the nuclear weapons issue. Here’s a whole page of links from their site:

    http://usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/war-and-peace/nuclear-war.cfm

  12. Gerard:
    Continue to publicize the Church’s position on war and nuclear weapons. It my be our “best-kept secret.”

  13. Point taken for legitimate sufferers and the emotionally stricken. This gifted mind should’ve asked “Where did God go?” which would not have come off so much like a petulant rant. Might even be a question I’d entertain if in the mood.

  14. Understood Pagansister, just expect more from such a smart man. I mentioned below “where did God go” is a better query.

  15. pagansister says:

    Read your post below, and I tend to agree that wording the question differently might have brought a different response, Joanc57.

  16. HMS,

    For those who don’t know, here is the American Bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter on nukes. It’s long and noteworthy:

    http://old.usccb.org/sdwp/international/TheChallengeofPeace.pdf

  17. Fiergenholt says:

    Gerard:

    About four years ago now, I did a series on “The Cold War” at our local college. My comments above that the Cold War was a Religious War and that the US Catholic Bishops were oblivious to the rise of nuclear weaponry because they had a obsession with defeating Atheistic Communism still stands.

    The chronology of it all reinforces my point:

    –Historians identify the start of the Cold War began on March 1946 (Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech)

    –The Berlin Wall goes up in August 1961.

    –The Cuban Missile Crisis hits in October 1962 — this was the only time in history that the U. S. Military establishment was on a “Defcon Two” alert. America’s only Roman Catholic president was literally minutes away from sending a swarm of B-52′s (each containing around 4 nuclear weapons of 3 megatons each) aiming for the population centers of the Soviet Union

    –”The Challenge of Peace” — the Bishops Pastoral Letter on Nuclear War — wa issued over twenty years later — May 1983.

    –The made-for-TV movie “The Day After” hit the airways in November 1983. That had a much greater impact than any pastoral letter.

    –Nuclear weapon deployment crested three years AFTER that (in 1986) with over 69,500 in place and ready to go (US count was 24,401; Soviet Union count was in excess of 45,000; the rest were controlled in countries like Mainland China and the consortium of Great Britain and France.

    –The Cold War ends on November 1989 (the Fall of the Berlin Wall) although some might insist that it really did not end until December 1991 (the Soviet Union voted itself out of existence).

    My assertions that the US Catholic bishops were “johnny-come-lately” on this issue stands.

  18. “God is Dead”
    William Hamilton

    “William Hamilton is dead”
    God

  19. History will just see the movement of atheism (which is basically what Hamilton is espousing) as another in a long line of failed -isms.

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