Death of God – December 1999

Question: “I am doing research on your understanding of the God-world relationship, namely in A “A Christian Natural Theology” and “God And The World.” Through Whitehead I see you reacting to traditional, Greek philosophical conceptions of God. But what role, if any, did the modern conception of God’s absence play in the formulation of your thought (i.e. Altizer and the death of God movement?)”

Publication Month: December 1999

Dr. Cobb’s Response

The question to which I am responding this month is directed more to me personally than to process theology as a whole. “What role did the modern conception of God’s absence play in my thinking about God?” The questioner refers specifically to Thomas Altizer and the death of God movement. It is a perceptive and important question, and my answer will be biographical. I think the experience of others may parallel mine.

My intellectual awakening came during my years of military service in World War II. I was in a Japanese language unit, and most of my fellow soldiers were Catholics and Jews from Eastern universities. My experience in a small Methodist junior college in Georgia had not prepared me for this encounter. I resolved to expose myself to the intellectual life of the modern world before pursuing a career in the church. I chose the interdisciplinary program on the “Analysis of Ideas and the Study of Method” at the University of Chicago as a place to do this. And the topic I selected to focus my studies was “reasons for modern atheism.”

I never completed that program. Although the specific reasons I encountered were not unanswerable, the climate of modernity into which I had entered was fundamentally different from the pious ethos in which I had been raised. The latter simply melted away. The reality of God, which had been central to my self-understanding up until that point, simply faded into absence. God did not fit into the understanding that was taking over my mind through my studies in philosophy, psychology, and literature.

There was no point in continuing my investigation of reasons not to believe. While studying these I had become aware that some of my teachers were fully conversant with the modern world but still believed. Of these, the most important influence was Charles Hartshorne, but I had also encountered Joachim Wach and James Luther Adams of the theological faculty. I shifted from the Humanities Division to the Divinity School, while continuing to take much of my work in the philosophy department.

What I had realized was that, while the understanding of God I had brought with me to Chicago could not survive the acids of modernity, there were other ways of thinking of God that were not so easily to be dismissed. For example, several of my teachers were deeply influenced by Henry Nelson Wieman. Wieman showed that we can discern a process in human events through which human good grows. He called this process “God.” His approach was that of radical empiricism. What he wrote seemed to be at the cutting edge of new forms of modern thought. I wrote my MA thesis on Wieman. I was critical, more because this “God” was more limited than I thought it needed to be, than because I found any valid reasons to reject his positive affirmations. I was troubled especially that Wieman’s God seemed to lack unity.

My reasons for hoping for more were due to the influence of Hartshorne. Although I was hesitant to identify myself with his system, I was deeply impressed by his counterattack against modernity. I became convinced that modernity was founded on dubious assumptions about the nature of reality. Some of these, such as the primacy of substance over event, were inherited from classical theology. Others, especially the use of the mechanistic model and the resultant dualism of matter and mind, were its own contribution. When these assumptions were made explicit, they lost, for me, convincing power. A nondualist, organic, event-oriented vision of reality seemed superior. And, at least on Hartshorne’s reading, this vision reopened the way to a rich theism.

Hartshorne introduced me to Whitehead. Over the years it was Whitehead’s cosmological speculations more than Hartshorne’s metaphysical arguments that shaped my thinking. As early as the mid-sixties I began to call this thinking “postmodern.”

Now I can give a direct answer to the question. The deepest influence on me was not the death of God movement but my personal experience of the death of God fifteen years earlier. Nevertheless, that movement was also important.

I had known Altizer as a student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He understood profoundly that modernity and Christian theism were incompatible. At that time, this led him to reject modernity, and this rejection extended to those more immanental thinkers who were influencing me. He preferred Barth, although he was not a Barthian. I encountered Altizer again at Emory University where we were colleagues on the faculty. He was shifting from his total rejection of modernity to the conviction that we must accept the movement of the Spirit in and through modernity. Only through the death of the radically transcendent God can humanity come to salvation.

I believe that Altizer is an authentic religious visionary, indeed, the greatest of my generation. I am deeply attracted, but I have not followed. What I have been able to appropriate from him and other death-of-God theologians is a realization of the damage to human beings done by supernaturalistic and transcendent theism. Traditional theology is to be rejected not only because it cannot withstand the theoretical criticisms leveled against it in modernity, but also because it is oppressive. It is to be rejected for moral, and specifically Christian, reasons, as well as intellectual ones.

My own path, however, is not to celebrate moving deeper and deeper into God’s death and all its Nietzschean ramifications, but to affirm that God can be reborn for us when freed from those features that have become both incredible and oppressive. Altizer is not interested in such a theoretical possibility, since he rightly sees that the cultural Geist continues to move more deeply into atheism. He places his hope in the coincidence of opposites, so that in the depths of Hell we will find salvation. Process theology, he sees, is hardly a blip on the screen. I, on the other hand, do not have confidence that we will find salvation in the depths of Hell. I fear we will find only Hell. Hence, it is important to me to keep alive another alternative. Whether it will ever play a significant role in the culture, or even in the church, I do not know. If it does become important in the church, we will have a more salugenic form of Christianity. If it does become important in the culture, some of the deep sickness of our society could be healed. Meanwhile it is helpful to a few thousand people.