As I began to pack up the appartment for our move I pulled of a light read from my shelf, The Death of God Movmement: A Study of Gabriel Vahanian: Paul Van Buren: William Hamiton: Thomaj. j. Altizer. ;-] The book was published in 1967, two years before I was born nearly 40 years ago. I am not sure whether I bought the book at a used bookstore or if it is one of the books I picked up in seminary when profesors culled their personal libraries.
I was drawn to the book not so much to learn about Radical or Death of God Theology, since I was familiar with and had read in seminary all of these thinkers except Vahanian, but because I was intreagued by reading after the fact a book writen in the midst of the controversy over the Death of God theology. I was doing a little historical investigation and study of development in theology in the past 40 years.
What is striking is the degree to which thinkers were convinced of the finality and victory of secularization as a monolithic reality. Not only do I not believe this to be the case but it has not been my experience, rather seculariztion has brought about a plurality of religious and spiritual options, the least common of which is any sort of atheism. Plus with both the Religious Right in this country and various forms of reassertion of Islamic belief and practice in whole societies in the Middle east and Islams growing presence in the US and Europe, makes any claim to the final victory of secularism seem a bit short sighted. Yet, at the same time I know that there are large numbers of people in the US and Europe for whom religion does not form a central or even preriferal vision of the world for them. In that light some of the claims of Death of God theologians was correct there has been and remains a shift, today we talk about these two realities in terms of "culture wars" or "clash of civilizations". There is considerable resistance to the secularized Western view of reality.
So, while I don't share the view point of the thinkers reveiwed in this book, I don't feel the power of their thought, nor the urgency that the author of the book has in addressing these thinkers from an orthodox Catholic perspective.
What was most intreaguing though was to see how the concerns of these radical theologians are now being articulated by various evangelicals and some portions of the Emergent Church movement. Namely the concern that Christianity has lost relavance and the need to jetison or reformulate the forms of Christianity. Now granted the forms that need to under go change for evangelicals do not include many of the core teachings of Christianity, but there is this agreement between these radical thinkers and many current conservative Evangelical thinkers that the form Christianity takes isn't as important as ensuring some content that can be divorced from all forms is preserved and passed on. For both much current evangelical and Charismatic and Pentecostal thought and Death of God theologians, Christianity is without form or forms essentially and fundamentally. Christianity is a disembodied idea or ideal, that can take on any or at least many differing, possibly even contradictory forms. What is clear from Death of God theology, this assertion of a formless faith that is essentially simply an idea or thought content poured into any container, is that this is ultimately a gnostic claim that can only value history by valueing the present moment over all other moments, and thus can only see the movement of God or the spirit in the now. the past only has value in giving the raw materials for reconstructing a faith or spirituality in the image of the current moment. It is also a very harsh Christianity that demands Christians be a supermen.
What is striking is that this attitude was not new with the Death of God Theologians nor new now with the various "gnostic" like evangelical, charismatic, and pentecostal thinkers and prophets. There have always been Christians who hae claimed that the forms of faith were dead or irelavant. The first to do this were those who attacked judaism and the hebrew scriptures and the God of the Jews and the God of those scriptures. Everything including the god, that came before Jesus was to be jetisoned, and Christian faith was to be articulated primarily in the terms of mystery religions, Helenistic philosophy and revelations from the Spirit. They also believed that true Christians were those who were by virtue of gnosis or revelations or visions superior to all others, that the church failed in keeping tight enough discipline in the common ranks, ie. that Christians were supermen. These Christians who rejected the forms of faith in favor of a suprior spiritual race are known to us as Gnostics, Montanists, Marcionites, Valentinians, etc.
But at least these people were more honest than either the Death of God Theologians, or especialy the contemporary evangelicals and charismatics: These early christians new that to declare a old forms dead, or to speak of radical new revelations was to speak of a new God, radicaly different from the old, thus the likes of marcion rejected not only the Hebrew Scriptures but the God of the Jews as well. It was scandalous to him that Christians would claim Jesus to be the fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures and the final revelation of the Jewish God. Judaism was an old dead form and needed to be jetisoned for the new revelation of Christ. The church was too jewish for these early Christian thinkers, Bishops priests and Deacons were too tied to old dead forms of Jewish fiath.
What I am coming to see is that there is still the temptation within Christianity to see God's ever newness as radical discontinuity and a belief that all htat really matters is some idealistic esence without form, but that unlike those who fell for this tempation in the first few centuries of the faith those today are less honost and want to say both that there is only a formless discontinuous faith and that they have the truth that was from the beginning prior to their new revelations.
It is also interesting that varios Gnostic found baptism as the entrance into the church and the body of Christ as offensive because the Bishops readily baptized anyone and everyone, no demand for a supriority in ethics or spiritual insight was required. In various degrees we still see this aversion to the breadth of Baptism, as we struggle to understand how the church can be filled with people who don't act like Christ. The point is you don't have to be perfect to submit to the waters of baptism, but are called to a journey of sanctification, thus the chruch is full of the imperfect the superficial and those lacking in understanding. I wonder if in the end what those of us both inside and outside the church really want from the church is a race of superior human beings. The problem with that is in reality a community of superior human beings are harsh and exclusive and we hate those who claim to be superior as much as we hate a church full of imperfect people.
We are currently confused and some of us simply don't have the courage and the audacity of a Marcion to simply say I have a new God forget the old God of the Jews.
I for one though find Marcion to harsh, I'll walk with the Jewish carpenter who was God come to earth in human form, and trudge along with the rest of us messy confused humans on whom the Jewish God promised to pour out the Holy Spirit, and try to live into that community of faith we call the church that was created by God when the spirit came upon some confused uncertain Jews and followers of Jesus some 2000 years ago. I gladly embrace the old forms of the Hebrew Scriptures and Sacraments and 2000 years of church practice. In another 40 years there will be other thinkers saying again that they have the new key the new revelation the new manifestation of the spirit that trumps all others, even the supposedly new of today, more relavant than anything else. But it will be the same old game that Marcion played: the same old rejection of continuity and refusal to submit to a revelation and a God we can never control nor invent. Ultimately it is a rejection of the struggle of being human of being spiritual and flesh, and of being in the process of being redeemed never being able to say, I have arrived, until God brings all things to completion in God's self.