Sunday, 17 November 1985


The Problem With God

By Terry McDermott

WILLIAM HAMILTON is a theologian, one who studies God. It is a craft he has pursued for 40 years, the past 15 of them at Portland State University in Oregon. He was at one time famous. He tried to kill God.

Twenty years ago, he led a group of theologians in an attempt to create a radical new theology, one without God, whom they all agreed was quite dead. They were, of course, quite wrong.

God has made a comeback, a big comeback, and he and his new conservative minions have trampled the likes of William Hamilton. Picking himself up and brushing off the dust, Hamilton surveys the stampede as it continues to gather speed off in the distance. Undaunted in the midst of one of the greatest religious revivals of all time, here he goes again:

“No, God didn’t die. That’s the problem. The wrong people have him and he should be killed.”

Hamilton is a kind of refugee from a time in America when there were liberals and there was religion and they came together and there were religious liberals. They were important. They talked and people listened.

Religion has since gone to the right of them and they have been reduced to sideline observers of events in which they were once key participants, but even as an observer, Hamilton is rigorous. A scrutinizer and an inveterate mental-note taker, he knows, for instance, not only the exact time at which the daily New York Times arrives at the market near his downtown Portland apartment but also when The Times shuffles new reporters onto important stories.

He looks the essence of the academically established. In his L.L. Bean khakis and knit ties, in the Giacometti posters that decorate his office, in his button-downed tidiness and in the meticulous graying at the temples, he looks respectable and safe. The danger comes not from his person, but from his ideas.

In the early 1960s, when Hamilton was in his late 30s, he was a professor of theology at the Colgate Rochester Divinity School in upstate New York, a nominal Baptist helping the seminary crank out other nominal Baptists. He was a popular teacher, even a charismatic one, but he had a problem.

The problem was God.

“I invented the death-of-God theology by taking some people against their will into a common kind of thing. We even had a Catholic and a Protestant version of it. A lot of people were moving, had the same kind of interest in pushing the edges of what it’s possible to believe and still call yourself a member of a particular religious tradition,” he says.

“I think it must have been a realization that I didn’t have to live with precisely the combination of laid-on demands other people put upon me and what I wanted to do myself. And it was really an attempt to see in part, if you want a psychological analysis, of how much I would take control of my career; to see what I meant; to explore the limits of saying what I meant more carefully than I had before. We all say less than we mean or we say what we mean in ways that are designed to keep people from understanding them. I’ve always been a kind of moralist in that I wanted to say clearly what I meant as often as possible.”

Saying clearly what he meant, meant saying some things people didn’t want to hear, that God was gone and should not be mourned.

“When my stuff started to come out on the problem of doing without God and so on, a good many of my friends, infected either by jealousy or what, decided since I was the only person teaching theology in this little seminary, I was going to blow the minds of the students. And in a way I agreed with them. I tried for a while to teach what they needed and keep my work separately, but that’s a very difficult thing to maintain. And I really was working on a vision of Christianity without God.”

“Up to this point, I was a very successful, young establishment professor, writing books when I was asked to write books by somebody and doing reviews when somebody asked me to,” Hamilton says.

“I had no decisive feeling that I changed from being impeccably safe and pious to dangerous.”

Hamilton says he was trying to “hack out a space between faith and unbelief,” emphasizing both the danger of God and “the contemporary experience of man as the true lord of things.” He said at the time that he wasn’t trying to kill God, but that he had happened upon the corpse and had done what any good citizen would _ report it to the authorities. Who could have known after the resurrection that the pallbearers would finger Hamilton as the trigger-man?

This caused a stir.

It’s one thing for an atheist to declare there is no God, or for a believer to wonder about it in the privacy of his own soul, but for a seminary teacher to do it in public out in front of, well, not God, but right in front of everybody, is another question. It was as if God said: “Turn out the lights, I’ve changed my mind.”

Those were dark days indeed for the Almighty. Godless humanists were on the rise: heathens on the left, hedonists on the right; secular celebration all the rage. The national media stoked the furor and introduced it to a mass audience. Time magazine summarized it in a 1966 cover story titled “Is God Dead?”

He might well have been. There was a lot of death going around in those days. Everywhere you looked, it seemed some institution or another was shuffling or being shoved off this mortal coil.

Hamilton did not intend to start a revolution. He saw himself more modestly as coming onto the field of battle after the war and picking up the pieces. The task he set for himself was to figure out the next step. The solution he posed was to bring Jesus down from his perch in heaven, to declare him a non-God and use him as a model for moral living.

The initial reaction was relatively mild.

“I didn’t have as much hate mail as I had long, long, touching letters from clergymen dying out there in the sticks,” he says.

It was only after the issue grew into a full-fledged media event and broke into the public consciousness that the long knives came out. Hamilton felt more than a few of them crease his back.

Hamilton, now 61 and about to retire from teaching, views contemporary religious events from an odd nest. He was both painfully right and horribly wrong when he noted God’s death. He hadn’t expected controversy. He didn’t expect much blood to be spilled, certainly not so much of his own. He was, after all, only saying what he meant, stating a variation on a theme that goes back 100 years to Nietzsche: God was gone and we had better get used to the idea and get on with the 20th century.

What died, though, was not so much God as it was theology _ specifically, western academic theology. There was little doubt among these academicians that God was gone, that the essential contemporary experience was the absence of God. But these folks were not that many in number and were growing ever fewer.

“Radical theology was really more of a professor’s movement,” Hamilton says. “Well, so was the Reformation, so I’m not ashamed of that. It was really trying to ask the old question that liberal theology began with in the 1890s: Is it possible to be a Christian today, given everything we know? And we said yes, but you’ve got to make a few more excisions from the inheritance.

“We’ll get rid of God, but we won’t get rid of Jesus.”

The professors now are clearly holding a minority position. The hound of heaven is howling once again. He’s bigger than ever, alive and well and has a talk show on Channel 2. The popular proclamation of the day is not an obituary, but a prayer. Gallup reports religion is scaling new peaks. Religion classes enroll record numbers of students.

Hamilton, however, has not surrendered. “I’m interested in the side that says: `I believe in my God and if you don’t agree with me, I’ll kill you,’ ” he says.

He writes: “One of the greatest problems today . . . is that men believe in God and that when they do so, they become dangerous.

“To understand Guyana, or Teheran, or Northern Ireland, or the blue-suited shills selling Jesus on early Sunday-morning television, one needs to understand the danger of God.”

There’s more.

“Man is not to blame, nor the economy, nor conservatism. God is.

“God makes men evil more often than not; we must divest ourselves of God and be wary of those people who do not do so.”

Saying this sort of thing in the ’60s led his college to strip him of an endowed chair and generally made his life difficult enough that he and his wife, Mary Jean, packed up the books and kids and left _ done in, he says, by his friends, “northern liberals who believed in tolerance.

“The fundamentalist never laid a hand on me. I was much too dirty for them. Norman Vincent Peale wrote me a long letter in which he was distressed. These were the good guys of the American religious establishment. It wasn’t the right.

“I said I didn’t want to fight that battle and I was sick and tired of Baptists anyway, so that’s when we moved down to Florida.”

It was a move from the center to the periphery, a forsaking of celebrity. In addition to his teaching and writing, he had a weekly religious discussion program on network television for several years and had become one of those people whom reporters would call whenever something happened, when the word would go out to round up all the usual experts.

“Almost every couple of weeks, somebody would call me up and say what do you think of x, y or z. The New York Times called me up and said, `What do you think about the Mets winning the pennant?’ I thought it was great. I’d prefer to have the Cubs win the pennant, but that’s not going to happen in my lifetime, so it’s OK if the Mets win it.

“I’m sure I must have felt that nothing good is achieved by answering that type of call from a newspaper all the time.”

Florida proved to be a dose of tropical, drug-drenched reality. He was the religious department at a small school in Sarasota called New College.

“When I went to Florida, I became a conservative. Because here I was in this seminary talking about the death of God and I thought I was really this kind of far-out guy. I went from where my students were 25, 30, 35 and for the most part going into the ministry. When I went down to Florida in 1967, my students became 18 to 20; suddenly I became the age of their parents. And that was the enemy.

“They were both more pious and less pious than I was. They wanted to be everything, not nothing. They wanted to be primitive animists, grokking on nature on Mondays, when they were maybe thinking about the environmental crisis. They wanted to maybe be Jews on Tuesday when they were drinking wine and eating bread together.

“This was a little, tiny, experimental college of some distinction but unable to solve the drug problems in the last years of the ’60s. I got so good I could tell an LSD term paper from a marijuana term paper by the structure of the sentences. They thought it was kind of amusing that their professor of religion was trying to hold on to Christianity by simply getting rid of the idea of God. They couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to hold onto Christianity.”

Hamilton was and is insistent on keeping Christianity, or at least keeping the intellectual and moral traditions of it. The question arises: Why bother? Because he is entitled to it, he says. Because the Protestant tradition is as much _ more _ his as it is Jerry Falwell’s, he says. And because it might prove useful.

“You are always shaped by a religious tradition if you have one, like you’re shaped by your national tradition. If I decided to become an expatriate and go live in Ireland . . . I would still try to find some way to say the sense in which I am still an American. And I guess probably that whole Protestant tradition is part of my childhood, and it’s part of my education and so I recognized that I did not want to leave it the way you would leave a pair of dirty sneakers that you couldn’t wear anymore.”

“That’s always been not negotiable for me, not to get out of my skin.”

Hamilton got into his skin in the comfortable, if to him cloying, Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., where he was “bored into maturity” as the precocious, grade-skipping son of an electrical engineer.

“Whenever I go back to my hometown, I feel the walls are closing in on me,” he says. Although interested in theater, he planned throughout high school to teach college some day, with only the subject to be chosen. His family was not particularly religious _ lukewarm Protestants, he calls them _ and neither was he. They were not entirely thrilled when he eventually became a minister.

One of the few memorable events of his childhood had unpleasant religious implications. Three of his school friends were using the ingredients of a chemistry set to build a bomb in the basement of one of their homes. The bomb exploded prematurely, killing two, sparing one.

“The kids that were killed were a very devout Episcopalian and a very devout Catholic. The kid that was untouched was the son of one of the most flamboyant atheist professors at Northwestern. I remember being interested in that.

“Of course, that has a pious conclusion, too. You could say that God wanted those two guys, he didn’t want this other kid. And that’s what piety said at the services.”

Hamilton went off to tiny Oberlin College at 16, leaving for the Navy and World War II at 19, receiving a philosophy degree in absentia. After the war, he went to graduate school for a year at Princeton, then enrolled at Union Theological Seminary.

Theology was a hot subject in post-war America. Hamilton watched as one of his professors, Reinhold Nieburh, regularly traveled to Washington to advise Harry Truman and Dean Acheson. Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, among others, often converted theology into news.

“This was a time when people went to seminary to find out if they were interested in Christianity, not because they were,” Hamilton says.

“It was one of the genuinely exciting fields of intellectual endeavor. It was through this that I learned how to look at pictures. I learned how to read literature and poetry. So, in a sense, it was something that permitted you to go in many directions.”

Hamilton married Mary Jean Golden, a ballet dancer, while in graduate school. They spent a summer _ he preaching, she teaching _ in Vermont, then took off for Scotland’s St. Andrews University. Returning with a doctorate, he began teaching at Hamilton College in New York. On weekends he was frequently a visiting preacher and he began his television career at CBS.

“That was back when religious television was not a dirty word. My function was to give a theological interpretation to almost anything. We did a six-part series in 1962 on the death of God and didn’t get a single letter. All the producers cared about was that my tie was straight. `Say whatever you want,’ they would say. `Only about one-and-a-half-million people are watching.’ ”

Religious television belongs to someone else these days _ the ascendant fundamentalists _ and many more millions watch.

“They found a technological and institutional form for spreading the word, the skillful television evangelist show,” Hamilton says. “That’s a way of breaking the regional isolation. You don’t have to be there to get your money.

“The standard answer (for their success) is that people always look for simple answers and that the complex tolerance of ambiguity and doubt that the intellectual tradition that you and I have grown up with and can’t give up even if we wanted to, insists on, is psychologically very difficult for people to live under with their other kinds of insecurity. I suppose,” he says, and pauses. “That sounds like psycho-babble in some ways, but I suppose . . .

“We produced intellectual coherence and intellectual excitement, but we didn’t give a lot of fundamental security. We couldn’t tell people that they were saved. We couldn’t tell people that their doubt was wrong. We invited them to keep it going. And so you’ve got a technological television answer to that.”

The traditional religious institutions that will succeed in the current climate are those that know what it is they have to offer and admit that it isn’t God, Hamilton says.

“I think the mainstream kind of establishment churches that have frankly looked at the reasons why these upper-middle-class professional people like to come to church on Sunday morning _ good coffee, good friends, sanctuary for the refugees _ they frankly recognize that there’s a lot to be said for an institution like this, with a tremendous history, down on its uppers ideologically, but nonetheless able to do some things,” Hamilton says.

He mentions a Portland Presbyterian church that appears to be thriving.

“A marvelous church,” he says. “Lots of doctors and lawyers. The guy who’s the minister is very clever, attractive, does a television show. And he recognizes that semi-unbelief is the normal condition of his people. That’s the kind of guy who’s going to make it.”

He doesn’t say it, but the church Hamilton describes in some ways represents exactly what he predicted 20 years ago _ religion without God and without anguish.

Rather than the millions, only five people are watching under the fluorescent flicker in a small, bare, oblong room as the preacher-professor, William Hamilton, reads aloud from a pair of short stories that are arguably the worst of Herman Melville.

The class last summer was one of Hamilton’s last in Portland before moving into semi-retirement. He came to Oregon from Florida in 1970, one further step from the center. He came with his wife and with five children in need of escape from the Sarasota drug culture. For a short while at Portland State, he served as a dean _ a class of people composed, he says, of professors with children of college age. He quickly returned to teaching and writing and has roved across disciplines, teaching classes in literature, politics and history. He reads omnivorously and is as likely to quote Thomas Boswell on the Chicago Cubs as Friedrich Nietzsche on the antichrist.

Like many of his other classes, this last one is not on the surface about religion. It is about literature. But God _ oddly, given the effort Hamilton has put forth to get rid of him _ is never far away. His latest book, “Melville and the Gods,” describes the novelist’s antagonism toward God.

“With Ahab, it wasn’t search, but search and destroy,” he writes.

“Melville tried perhaps even harder than I did and couldn’t escape,” Hamilton says. “He hated God with a tremendous passion because he thought God was responsible for the suffering and evil in the world. Hatred has never been part of my particular attitude.”

Neither has there been much other overt emotion. His has been the cool, dispassionate view, tinged perhaps by existential anguish but also with the existentialist’s emphasis on making the most of living and on living right because there is nothing beyond life.

As revival meetings go, there’s not much revivification in his classroom. There is instead a measure of the distance between the different streams of American religion. These people don’t sweat. There is no music, no singing, dancing, screaming or shouting. No heavenly choirs or sweat-soaked preachers. No one is healed.

No one wants to be.

Terry McDermott is a reporter for The Seattle Times news department.

A few comments . . .

Theologian William Hamilton once suggested, McLuhanesque tongue in cheek, that the electric guitar might be responsible for divorcing the 20th century from history. He does not shy from comment.

On Feminist Theology:

“The feminist theologians are revisionists. They want to redefine the nouns and the verbs so that they’re emasculated. We say that you can’t do that. You’ve got to respect that historical stuff. God is irredeemably male. I don’t think there is any place in Sweden to send God for an operation. You’d better do without than castrate. Kill instead of castrate.”

On religion and politics:

“The defenders of deterrence religiously all tend to be on the right while the liberals all tend to be pacifists. Let’s have unilateral disarmament or something like that. I’m sorry to see that, to put the defense of deterrence in the hands of the fundamentalists (who think) killing commies is OK . . . I agree that the nuclear arsenal is ineffective unless willingness to use is assumed, but I don’t think the Christian is committed to an absolute prohibition to killing today.”

On Catholicism:

“When you become a Catholic, you don’t have to believe everything you say in church. All you’ve got to do is say, `I stand in an historical tradition which in the first century said this and in the fifth century said this . . .’ My kind of Protestantism has to reinvent history. I’ve got to mean what I say and I’m a moralist. Consequently, Catholics don’t mind saying a creed in church three-quarters of which they find unintelligible or false because they can say, `I stand in a whole continuum.’ I’ve got to close my mouth every other clause.”

On Pope John Paul II:

“The intellectual Catholics that I know are so demoralized about the pope. They used to make jokes about the pope, but this guy is so effective that they think he’s going to bring some shadow over the American church.”

On Marx and television:

“He knew a little bit about what machines do to workers, but that’s quite different. He didn’t know how machines alter the imagination and that’s why Marxism, or at least communism, and capitalism are dying at the same rate. Unfortunately, Marx didn’t know a helluva lot about the proletariat except what Engels told him and Engels was a boss.”

On Marxism:

“Nobody can be a Marxist today. Look at the friends you have to have.”

On Martin Luther King Jr.:

“It was King’s genius, I think, not to work out a strategy of civil disobedience. That was all right, but it was his genius to take the otherworldliness of the spiritual and put it into protest. He did it by simply having both languages. He would say `Free at last, free at last, thank the Lord God Almighty, free at last,’ which is about death. He took that and stuck it into the context of starting out on a march and freedom from life became freedom from economic oppression. Black Protestantism was always pious and otherworldly. You can’t do anything here, so you think about heaven. I get to heaven, I put on my shoes because I don’t have any here.”

On Liberation Theology:

“In a way liberation theology is the only thing a Catholic with any conscience can do in Latin America, but it doesn’t import north because we don’t have any peasants. We’ve got richer and poorer bourgeoisie in this country.

On the death of Christ and the history of Christian anti-semitism:

“I have to assume the Romans did it all.”

On Islam:

One of the things as a professor I object to is the use of fundamentalism when applied to Islamic movements. Journalists have adopted it and so have scholars, but it’s really an American term and in a way the Shiites are not literalists in their reading of the Koran. What they really are are Catholics. They give far more authority to the imams, to the leaders, the mullahs, than they give to the text. So actually, they believe that the interpretation of the Koran must be centered in the contemporary interpreters and they give a good deal of freedom for interpretation. They’re not fundamentalists in the sense that the word means what it says.”

On Duke Ellington:

“In some ways the most intelligent thing that the institutional Protestants did in response to the death-of-God theology was to commission a cantata by Duke Ellington, called `God is alive and well,’ something like that. And boy, you can’t fight Ellington. I can fight the theologians. I can fight all those crummy sociologists they brought in to tell me that transcendence was really it, but you can’t fight Ellington.”


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