Friday, May 15, 2015

God's Funeral

It was reading part of Michael Harrington’s book “The Politics at God’s Funeral: The Crisis of Western Civilization” (1983) that got me thinking about the provocative words used as the title of this article. (I am still reading, and increasingly impressed with, Harrington’s book.)
Come to find out, “God’s funeral” has been used several times in the past 100+ years. Between 1908 and 1910 the English poet Thomas Hardy wrote a 17-stanza poem with that title.
Hardy’s poem is introduced, and printed in full, in A. N. Wilson’s 1999 book titled “God’s Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization.”
In contrast to Hardy and Wilson, who were agnostics/atheists, David Tyler, a Baptist pastor and “biblical counselor,” has more recently written “God’s Funeral” (2009), a book which deals with psychology and “trading the sacred for the secular.”
Although I don’t know that he said anything about a funeral, perhaps the best known statement about God’s demise was made by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who declared “God is dead” in his 1882 book “The Gay Science” (with “gay” being the translation of the German fröhliche=cheerful, happy).
Actually, though, according to Harrington, “God’s death has been announced in every generation for about three hundred years (p. 11).
Many of us remember that in 1966 Christian theologian Thomas Altizer penned a book titled “The Gospel of Christian Atheism.” And in April of that year Time magazine published a provocative issue with the cover having only the words “Is God Dead?” in bold red letters on a black background.
In my previous article I referred to a book by Harry Emerson Fosdick. Most of you know the story of Fosdick’s talk with a young man who came to confess that he could no longer believe in God.
The young man was a student at prestigious Columbia University, a short walk from Riverside Church, where Fosdick was the legendary pastor from 1925 to 1946.
Fosdick said, “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in.” After hearing the young man’s explanation, Fosdick remarked, “Well, son, I don’t believe in that God either!”
So perhaps God needs to be buried—at least some understandings of God, such as the God of imperial Christendom, the God of “manifest destiny,” the God of exploitative capitalism, and the God who supposedly sanctions male supremacy and who condemns all homoerotic activity (even between consenting adults).
But there are other, truer, concepts of God. And there are many who remain thoroughly convinced that there is a God who is certainly alive and well today.
For example, think about the current Pope, who reportedly has some fairly close ties to God. He seems to be in tune with a living God who is quite different from the dead God that Harrington wrote about.
Pope Francis appears to have considerable concern for God’s “preferential option for the poor,” a phrase that Harrington did not use, to my knowledge, but one he would have fully affirmed.
And now Pope Francis is also calling on the world to take action against global warming. And that pro-active position is based, of course, on his unwavering belief in the Creator God.
Even though it came out before this week’s Pew report on the serious decline of religion in America, an earlier article this week advised, “Don’t plan any funerals for religion just yet.” (The Baylor conference covered in that article referred to the worldwide situation, not just the 5% of the world’s population in the U.S.)
And it is also still far too early, and far too presumptuous, to be talking about God’s funeral.


  1. “For the old gods, after all, things came to an end long ago; and verily, they had a good gay godlike end. They did not end in a ‘twilight,’ though this lie is told. Instead: one day they laughed themselves to death. That happened when the most godless word issued from one of the gods themselves—the word: ‘There is one god. Thou shalt have no other god before me!’ An old grim-beard of a god, a jealous one, thus forgot himself. And then all the gods laughed and rocked on their chairs and cried, ‘Is not just this godlike that there are gods but no God?’” ––Friedrich Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Anton.

      My first thought was, this is what Tillich was getting at when he talked about "God beyond God." Maybe it was the "God beyond" that Nietzsche never got sight of--or maybe that is what he was referring to.

    2. I think Nietzsche saw that the anthropomorphic God of Christianity was nonsense, and I think he thought it was dawning on everyone else, too. A lot of 19th century intellectuals thought religion was in decline because its traditions and doctrines could not withstand critical analysis. But typically they were talking about the practice and use of religion. Nietzsche viewed Christianity as a manifestation of fear and resentment and as a most destructive force in human life. He viewed Western reason and Western religion as enemies of life itself. If he had been a believer, he might have worked his idea of "the will to power" into a doctrine of God. I think Tillich's "God beyond God" is too transcendental for Nietzsche. Nietzsche looked to Life itself -- which is where he saw the will in life to become ever more life, to overcome itself. In so many words, he said: Look around! Everywhere you see life, it wants to grow, to be more, to become more, to overcome. And where it gets stifled, as it does by dead reason and religious restrictions, resentment results. [At least, that's what I hear him saying.]

  2. I don't consciously remember Fosdick's comment regarding the god he could not believe in. Perhaps it was passed on to me by a prof at good old SBTS. (Nothing like that could come out of SBTS these days. If it did, it would be one of the last pronouncements of the prof who made it.) But I have adopted that saying for my own.

  3. At any rate, Leroy, thanks for posting this. Not familiar with Harrington's book.

    1. Charles, I have not been able to document the quote from Fosdick, so it was from memory. I found several websites that give a similar version. There is also a website that attributes similar words to George Buttrick.

      I first heard of Harrington in the 1960s but did not read anything by or about him (in detail) until the last few months. I suggest you see what I wrote about him in my March post at I have been very favorably impressed by Harrington and will be mentioning him again soon, probably on May 25.

  4. Thankfully, the East, Middle East, and Southern Hemisphere are sending missionaries to the West. The western Church desperately needs them. The arrogance and postmodern thinking of the west has made it quite sick - culture, politics, economics, theology, all the way around. Thank you, God, for those who are willing to put their possessions, livelihoods, lives (and necks) on the line for their Christian solid faith.

    One of my favorite inspirations was Kikuyu missionary Steven Wanji - an unknown who recently passed away. Another is Sona Mang, a missionary from India who has come to Kansas City. Both unknowns in the Christian celebrity world. Two others would be Hutu and Karen missionaries, whom I should not mention by name, but are here in the Midwest.

    1. While "third world" missionaries coming to the U.S. is certainly commendable, and needed, in reality I am afraid such missionaries have little influence except among those of their own ethnic groups. Cross-cultural mission work, especially in economically advanced countries, is very difficult.

  5. Is not the funeral of God written into the very DNA of Christianity? Jesus took more than the sins of the world to the grave with Him, He took the world's understanding of God with Him, too. The death of God has been going on at least since the writing of Job. Our question in response is, Atheism or Resurrection? Our understanding of God must always be ready to be born again. What once was a standard answer no longer is any answer at all.

    Modern religions, including Christianity, stand always on the precipice of change. Sometimes the change comes from society, sometimes from science, sometimes from deep within itself. Frequently the precipice is denied and ignored. Yet it is there, always demanding a response. For instance, the quest for the historical Jesus has taken dramatic turns in recent years, yet these turns have been neither accepted nor refuted, but rather powerfully repressed. Not with a repression of censorship, but rather a repression of avoidance. No one wants to know.

    1. Craig, I like your emphasis on the need for the understanding of God to be continually renewed--and for the new to be born (resurrected) the old must die.

      That is one problem with fundamentalism, as I see it. It is a desperate attempt to hold on to the old rather that to accept, or help birth, the new.

  6. May atheism increase when it comes to this god of jingoism, judgmentalism, triumphalism ("Take back America!"), and cult-like manipulation! I gladly profess to be such an atheist.

    I'm a believer who gladly joins with all those who believe in the God of those four L's you talk about: the God of Life, Love, Light, and Liberty!

  7. For those seeking an alternative concept of God I suggest the book In the Beginning, Creativity by Gordon D. Kaufman. My review of the book at THIS LINK provides a description of its contents.

    1. As some of you know, Kaufman (1925-2011) was a Mennonite and a longtime professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School.

      I enjoyed studying Kaufman's book with Clif and a small group of interested people at Rainbow Mennonite Church a couple of years ago. And while I agree that there are a lot of good and important insights in Kaufman's work, in my opinion he is an example of a theologian who in opposition to the extreme of fundamentalism went to an extreme of liberalism.

      I still want to affirm the importance of a radiant center!

  8. I am a bit late posting these thoughtful comments received on Saturday from local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard:

    "When I was in college in the late 60's, I read the book by Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton, 'Radical Theology and the Death of God.' And while Altizer and Hamilton said that the death of God culminated in the life and ministry of Jesus, I think the real death of God was about the conflict between ancient and modern concepts of God.

    "Ancient sacred texts, whether Greek, Jewish, Christian, or even Islamic, present a very anthropomorphized vision of God, but this vision does not resonate in the modern world view. God, if he or she exists, is probably outside human conceptual capabilities.

    "The real question is whether or not God is involved in human life. Because of the problem of evil, this is a very difficult question since an all-natural view of the universe, in my humble opinion, provides a simpler explanation.

    "Nonetheless, God is alive and well, at least in the minds of the majority of people. Many of these people have demonstrated humility and compassion on account of their faith in God through their acts of love, charity, and care for the poor, the weak, the ill, and the lonely. So while an all-natural view of the universe may provide the most convincing explanation of evil in the world, faith in a mysterious and elusive God may provide the best example of how to deal with it."

  9. This blog article was linked to in the Perspectives section of There was a very substantial response by Dick Wilson, whom I do not know, on that website:

    "In the 1887 edition of 'The Gay Science' Nietzsche added a Book Five. The first section of which (343) offers this explanation of 'God is dead': '. . . belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable . . .'

    "It seems to me that in a real sense 'the God of imperial Christendom, the God of "manifest destiny,:’ the God of exploitative capitalism, and the God who supposedly sanctions male supremacy and who condemns all homoerotic activity (even between consenting adults)' has become (or is becoming) unbelievable to more and more people. I suppose Nietzsche would wonder whether those of us who 'don’t believe in that God either!' and think there might be 'other, truer concepts of God' have remained 'Christian.' It seems like the challenge of the ‘nones’ to us is to make a case that our ‘truer’ characterizations of God are Christian (or perhaps post-Christian).

    "What if we learn to take leave of the god who dictates for the sake of the God who liberates? What if we worry less about being God’s beloved and risk more of ourselves by being be-loving of all? What if radical immanence means God’s promise of love and life really depends on our practice of love? What if ‘El Shaddai’ is not the almighty, power-hungry, sovereign god but the power-expending, nurturing, God-with-us? What if the Power of the universe pours her/him/itself out prodigally for the world and lives or dies with it? What if God is dying for us, because of us?

    "Will the question to us and our posterity be: 'What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?' ['The Gay Science' sec. 125] Or will churches be places 'proper to grow wise in, if only that so many dead lie round'? ['Church Going' - Philip Larkin]."