Easter, 1966, Time recognized with a classic magazine cover the work of Hamilton and Thomas J. Altizer (with quite a few others) in formulating “death of God theology”. The cover story reads rather well after nearly 50 years. This is personal for me, because I graduated college in ‘66. I was engaged to be married. My brother-in-law to be and friend died in a car accident in May. This contributed to my becoming a Christian over the next two years. The theology story receded in my life, but I continued to be attracted to the concept of “Christian Atheism.” Today I think that it best describes my beliefs.
Hamilton and Altizer wrote Radical Theology and the Death of God that year. (This book is available on line.) Reaction to the Time cover (remember, most everyone read it then) was swift and negative. “Your God may be dead, but ours is alive!” and similar sentiments appeared on church signboards everywhere. Few read the book. (I bought it but didn’t read it at the time.) Hamilton lost his job at Colgate-Rochester Seminary in Rochester, NY. I read that members of Third Presbyterian (now fairly progressive) shunned him and his family.
Hamilton died at 87. “The ‘death of God’ enabled me to understand the world,” he said. He became well known as an interpreter of Melville and Moby Dick. Ironically, he explored the death of God and America’s struggle with that emerging but hidden reality through this iconic novel.
We wouldn’t know enough about William Hamilton if Lloyd Steffan hadn’t written a helpful article in the Christian Century in 1989. What follows are Steffan’s words and quotes from Hamilton:
“For Hamilton, the nature of Jesus’ self-understanding remains beyond our historical reach. It is not the historical Jesus but the Christ of the kerygma whom Hamilton affirms, the Jesus ‘bringing the Kingdom, the new age, here and now into the midst of ordinary lives’ who shows us a ‘way to be human,’ who establishes a bond of comradeship, who draws us out of our private lives into the world, who provides us with a place to stand. ‘What he was is hidden; what he proclaimed, offered, defined, is not.’ Hamilton has repudiated God, not Jesus -- not the Christ of the kerygma.
“‘Perhaps we should say that God became man so that man now no longer needs to become God or even to believe in him. Man may now cease striving for what he is not, making a monster of himself, so he can attend to becoming what he is.’ Hamilton’s Melville leaves behind the Christian God, for, as Ahab demonstrates in Moby Dick, that God is evil, perhaps mad, and a death-dealer that ought not to be worshiped.
“Hamilton continually challenges other Christians to come to grips with their experience of a godless world, world in which God is either absent altogether or present ii the worst way: in the selfish impulses and evil acts of small minds, so that God comes to represent in fanaticism and hatred death itself. Doing away with God may, Hamilton says, make us more bereft, but it may also make us ‘more human, more tentative, more able to live easily with both adversaries and friends.’”