Re: Atheism -- God is Dead

From: george murphy (
Date: Wed May 01 2002 - 14:14:26 EDT

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    John W Burgeson wrote:

    > Two people having requested it, here are the ten (11 actually) meanings
    > of the phrase "God is Dead" as applied to "Christian Atheism."
    > Personally, I probably hold to positions 7, 10 and 11 and have some
    > affinity for positions 3, 4 and 6, although I would not say I hold to
    > them.
    > Notes from the book THE CHOICE CALLED ATHEISM, by Orlo Strunk.
    > The word "atheism," also sometimes called the "Death of God," has at
    > least ten different meanings when used in the context of "Christian
    > Atheism." All of the positions below can be held by a person who calls
    > himself a "Christian Atheist." Some are, of course, more problematical
    > than others.
    > 1. There is no god and never has been. This is "traditional" atheism. But
    > some who hold this position see in Christianity certain propositions they
    > admire, love, compassion, etc.
    > 2. There once was a god, but now there is none such.
    > 3. The idea of "God" and the very word "God" are in need of radical
    > reformation. Possibly totally new words are needed.
    > 4. Traditional liturgical and theological language needs a thorough
    > overhaul; the reality abides, but classical modes of thought and language
    > are obsolete.
    > 5. The Christian story is no longer a "saving" story. It may abide as
    > instruction or guidance, but it no longer performs the functions of
    > salvation or redemption.
    > 6. Certain god concepts, such as "absolute power," or "necessary being,"
    > etc. are obsolete.
    > 7. The gods human beings make in their thoughts (idols) must die so that
    > the true God might emerge.
    > 8. We do not experience God today except as hidden, absent, silent. This
    > time will pass, but we live in it now.
    > 9. God must die in the world so that he can be born in us. (Mystical
    > meaning). This is an idea that influenced Martin Luther and his chorale
    > "God Himself is Dead."
    > 10. Our language about God is always inadequate and imperfect.
    > None of these meanings is new to the 20th century, Strunk writes. He also
    > talks later of an eleventh meaning -- "The god of the philosophers is
    > dead."

             I would agree that 7 & 10 are correct, though I think that the use of
    "God is dead" language
    to express the latter is somewhat misleading. 7 is the sense attributed to
    Christians by pagans in the early centuries when they called Christians
    "atheists" because they didn't believe in the popular deities.
             The real heart of the matter is 9, though the statement of it above
    is inaccurate. First, it was not Luther who wrote a "chorale" with the line
    "God himself is dead" (though this is an error that is often repeated). The
    line in question is from a hymn by the Lutheran Johannes Rist around 1641
    whose theme is the burial of Christ. The second verse is

         O grosse Not,
         Gott selbst liegt tot,
         am Kreuz ist er gestorben,
         hat dadurch das Himmelreich
         uns aus Lieb erworben.

         O great need,
         God himself lies dead.
         He has died on the cross
         and has through this the kingdom of heaven
         out of love gained for us.

    This makes it clear that it is not any "death of God" in the abstract that is
    in view but the death of Jesus on the cross under Pontius Pilate.

             It is significant that - to my knowledge - only one American hymnal
    that includes this hymn ("O Darkest Woe" from its first line) translates
    _Gott selbst liegt tot_ with its full force. Some omit the verse entirely &
    some replace it with something like "The Lord is dead" or "God's Son lies
    Of course these are correct but they flinch at the critical point and thereby
    show that their conception of God is the God of the philosophers - meaning 11
    above. Conversely, a realization that God reveals himself precisely in his
    participation is dying is how the God of the philosophers is killed.

             In order to avoid misunderstandings let me note:
             1) It is better to speak of "death in God" is preferable to "death
    of God" in order to avoid the impression that God simply ceased to exist when
    Jesus expired.
             2) Saying "God himself lies dead" in the above sense is not meant as
    a denial of the resurrection.
             3) It is the need to be able to speak of the one who died on the
    cross as God without simply saying that "God is dead" in a simplistic sense
    that is the ultimate rationale for doctrines of the Trinity.

             I would suggest that anyone who wants to consider the death of God as
    a serious theological issue should consult Eberhard Juengel's _God as the
    Mystery of the World_ (Eerdmans, 1983). But be warned that it isn't easy



    George L. Murphy
    "The Science-Theology Interface"

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