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Death of a Theologian by Peter Berger.

William Hughes Hamilton died on February 28, 2012, aged 87. His passing was barely noted in the media, a fact both sad and instructive. Along with a small group of other individuals, he attained sudden celebrity status in the 1960s as one of the founders of the so-called “death of God theology”. The phrase had all the makings of a classic man-bites-dog story, so it is not surprising that in April 1966 it appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the caption “Is God dead?” At that time Hamilton was on the faculty of Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, in upstate New York. As public attention engulfed Hamilton, he confronted a wave of hostility, both by colleagues and in the Presbyterian church where he worshipped with his family. He found a more friendly haven elsewhere, first at the progressive New College in Sarasota, Florida, and later at Portland State University in Oregon (where he taught for many years until his retirement).

When the “death of God theology” burst onto the American religious scene, it was perceived by many people as the most cutting-edge Christian response to the spirit of modernity. The impact was very short-lived, which reminds one (perhaps uncharitably) of an observation by William Ralph Inge, the late Dean of St.Paul’s Cathedral, to the effect that “he who marries the spirit of the age soon finds himself a widower”. Be this as it may, Hamilton was one of the three central individuals in the founding group, along with Thomas Altizer and Paul van Buren; a Jewish associate of the group was Richard Rubenstein. They all agreed that the traditional God of the Biblical tradition was no longer credible. Hamilton believed that Christians should forget about the hope of heaven, instead concentrate on understanding this world and doing good in it, thus presumably following the moral teachings of Jesus. I think it is fair to say that Altizer was the intellectually most interesting member of the group. He understood the death of God as a cosmic process of God’s emptying himself into the world he created; an ancient Christian term for this has been the kenosis of God, his voluntary humiliation in order to redeem the fallen world. Altizer saw the culminating of the kenosis in the crucifixion of Jesus—at which point God merges with the natural world and no longer confronts it as a transcendent being. (Kenosis, by the way, has a certain resemblance with the idea of tsimtsum in Jewish mysticism—God contracts himself in order to make room for the world. It is in that sense that God died.)

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