Every syllable reverberated loudly in my ears. In a scene wildly reminiscent of one of these God’s Not Dead movies, my philosophy professor stood his tallest and shouted Nietzsche’s words repeatedly at the front of our classroom. Sensing our fear, he demanded a response.
For many years, I ruminated on Nietzsche’s words. I’m glad I did. Presently, they form the basis of my faith.
Fifty years have passed since Time magazine asked the question, “Is God Dead?” on its infamous April 8, 1966, cover. The question arose out of a desire to explain the growing uselessness of the idea of God in a modern age. The provocative cover words were a reference to Nietzsche’s claim. I was browsing through a history book when I saw the red and black cover for the first time. Ferociously searching online, I found the accompanying article, “Toward a Hidden God.” My theology would never be the same.
Leaning in to engage deeply, I read the article multiple times. Though writer John Elson identified American Christian professors Thomas J.J. Altizer, William Hamilton and Paul Van Buren as the primary leaders of the Death of God movement, I later realized that French philosopher Gabriel Vahanian and Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein were also highly influential. The influence of Paul Tillich on the movement is also worth noting. In their collective audacity to declare God dead, the Death of God thinkers unintentionally made room for the resurrection of God.
People don’t realize that God has to die before a God worth believing in can be resurrected. I read as many works connected to the Death of God movement as I could get my hands on. For the first time in my life, I realized that a dead God might be the only path to the real God. When my mind journeyed back to my philosophy professor’s Nietzsche stand, I was grateful. I realized that those were the words I needed.
Thinking deeper, I knew that evangelism had to do with killing. If we’re going to search for the resurrected God, we must become experts at killing. Since God is always beyond the God that we can conceive of, it is evil to not be about the killing of God. In our faith, death and resurrection go together. Liberation isn’t possible without some God killing.
The liberation theologians that followed the Death of God movement understood the importance of killing God. James Cone could not have resurrected the blackness of God without the slaughter of a white God. Rosemary Radford Ruether or Mary Daly could not have resurrected the feminine God without the slaughter of the male God. Gustavo Gutiérrez could not have resurrected the poor God without the slaughter of the rich God. Nancy Eiesland could not have resurrected a disabled God without the slaughter of the abled God. The names and ideas are endless.
Though these theologians are far from perfect, there is no question that they each represent significant movements in theology that would not have been possible without the boldness of the Death of God movement. The idea that we can kill God is foundational to liberation thought and practice. In the midst of our age of marginalization and injustice, we need new killers.
Baptists used to be a bold people. Baptists were willing to drown rather than give up their beliefs. Baptists used to give their lives to the poor. Baptists fought and died for the civil rights of others. Baptists used to be a bold people. Now, Baptists are on the wrong side of nearly every major social issue of our time. How could such boldness die?
Baptists lost their killer instinct. Baptists traded the danger of the mystery of God for the safety of the certainty of false constructions of God. If your church is homophobic, kill your homophobic God. If your church is racist, kill your racist God. If your church is sexist, kill your sexist God. Baptists need to get back to killing.
Resurrection is always the promise for the theological killer. Death does not get the final answer. Looking back at the Death of God movement, I am reminded of our responsibility to be serial killers in search of the God beyond God. In the words of Nietzsche, may we all stand together and proclaim for the future of our church, “God is dead … we have killed him.” The resurrection won’t be far behind.