There was a movement back in the 1960s that many of us only have read about, while others vividly remember. Philosophers and theologians explored what was labeled the “Death of God” movement. Interest in the subject has re-emerged particularly as of late because William Hamilton, one of the more prominent voices in the Death of God movement, died last week at age 87.
The movement inspired TIME Magazine’s now-famous cover (seen here) in 1966, raising the question in the public forum: Is God Dead? The cover has since been listed by the Los Angeles Times as one of the “Ten Covers that Shook the World.”
Hamilton’s faith was shaken during his teenage years when three of his friends were making a homemade pipe bomb. The project went wrong and detonated, killing two of the three boys.
The two killed were Christians. The lone survivor, an atheist.
Hamilton’s crisis of faith centered around a theological concept known as theodicy, which explores the question: why do bad things happen to good people? More specifically, why does misfortune seem to befall the faithful, while those lacking faith enjoy what seems to be a providential hall pass?
History reads that the Death of God movement emerged as a direct result of science beginning to explain much of the machinations of the universe. For example, why believe that God created the world in seven days when we now know that the Big Bang was at the origin of the entire universe?
I agree that something indeed dies when science presents an understanding of our universe that stands in opposition to a literal understanding of Biblical scripture. Something also dies when we ask why a loving, all-powerful, all-present God could let the faithful suffer while others prosper.
But those things need to die. In fact, it is essential for them to die if we are to grow in our faith.
What we witness in those examples is the death of a construct of God; one of our own making. What dies is a set of preconceptions, a mental collage we’ve assembled over time that, if we’re not careful, actually becomes God for us.
There’s a word for this phenomenon in scripture: idolatry.
We find comfort in the image of a loving, present God that is directly involved in the good in our daily lives. But then something inevitably happens that challenges this image. So we have to scramble to reassemble the image with justifications, pithy dismissals like “everything happens for a reason,” or abject, willful ignorance.
Or we welcome the opportunity to join in the deconstruction process, tearing down the false God that we’ve been worshiping, with the hope that, in doing so, we actually will grow in our understanding of the Divine.
It will not look like what we’ve understood God to be before. It can’t. But the Bible itself calls us to this. Although many Christians embrace the idea of dying to our old selves and being reborn in Christ, we hedge at the idea that this is not meant to be a one-time event. Rather, we’re called, every day, to die again to our old constructs of ourselves and of God, to explore the mysteries of the universe and of human existence with fresh eyes and an unencumbered heart.
Theodicy has been with us for thousands of years. Even scripture reminds us that the rains fall on both the “just” and the “wicked.” So why expect anything else? Because we long to make sense of an existence that is mysterious, chaotic, and that in many ways has, does and will continue to defy human logic and confound human faith.
The fear for many is, in blowing up these constructs we’ve built to be our surrogate gods, that there will be nothing left. If so, sit in the nothingness, rather than desperately seeking to fill the void with another facade that will keep us from exploring anew the nature of God. Trust that, in the stillness, in the openness of a heart and mind freed from false idols, the inspired Breath within us all still stirs.
I Am, that I Am, that I Am…
Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press. His memoir on faith, family and parenting, PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date, hits bookstores eveywhere April 1.
(Face of Jesus from an old cemetery statue. Photo by Brasiliao/Shutterstock.com.)