Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, December 4, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Thomas Altizer, theologian associated with 'God is dead' theology, dies
Tomorrow, December the 5th, 2018, the United States will observe the state funeral of the 41st president of the United States, George H. W. Bush. Tomorrow, December the 5th is also a national day of mourning. Offices of the federal government will shut down. At this point, I want to encourage listeners to The Briefing, especially parents with their families, in so far as it is possible, watch this state funeral. Watch it. Tomorrow morning, we're going to be giving analysis of what a state funeral means, how that is different than other funerals, what it means that this is a funeral service for a president of the United States, and what it means that it's going to be held in a building–it's officially an episcopal church known as the National Cathedral. What will the events mean? It's going to be one of those rare historic developments that should lead to some very important conversation.
Tomorrow morning, we'll try to get those conversations started and provide something of a framework for understanding what's going to be happening, but today I want to turn to another obituary, this time not for a president of the United States, but instead for an infamous theologian. The theologian was named Thomas J. J. Altizer, as the New York Times obituary published yesterday says, "Thomas Altizer proponent of God is Dead theology in the 1960s is dead at 91." The obituary begins by telling us that Altizer, "One of a handful of radical theologians in the 1960s who espouse that God is dead, died last Wednesday in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania again at age 91." The obituary then says, "The idea that God was dead had been around for centuries, most prominently with Nietzsche in the late 1800, but after world war two and the Holocaust, it re-emerged in the United States as Dr. Altizer who taught religion at Emory university in Atlanta, and others questioned whether a benevolent God could exist."
Now, of course, this is going to be an interesting obituary because it's hard to imagine anything that could be more interesting, you would think even to a secular audience than a prominent theologian who was known for teaching that God is dead. Most Americans, of course, knew very little about what was going on in liberal and radical theological circles after world war two, but all of this changed in the mid 1960s, mostly as a result of a cover story in Time magazine that was dated on April the 8th, 1966. The now iconic cover story in Time magazine asked the question, "Is God dead?" The background of the cover was entirely black, the words, "Is God dead?" published in red with a question mark.
Now, just imagine America in 1966, it was a very different culture than the one we know now. Even as now, we use the word secularization to describe the society around us, most Americans in the mid 1960s had neither the idea nor the vocabulary expression of secularization. If anything, the United States looked in the 1960s to be experiencing a religious revival. Churches were filling, new churches are being planned, even the mainline Protestant denominations still thought that they were gaining and growing in the 1960s. Evangelicalism, as we know it today was beginning to explode in the American suburbs as well as in more rural and urban areas, and if anything, it looked like the United States was becoming a more not less religious nation. Now, we look backwards and understand that a lot of those statistics were not telling us the truth. It's not to say those people weren't going to church, they weren't establishing these new churches, they were not identifying as Christians, it is to say that we now know in retrospect they're actual Christian content. The explicit biblical content to their faith turned out to be far less than many had believed and hoped.
We now know as we look back, that even as it looked then like America's churches were growing in influence that turned out not to be the case. There were larger movements at deeper levels in the society. The secularization that had begun far more powerfully in Europe would not stay in Europe, and it began to transfer very quickly across the Atlantic, most importantly in academic circles. Especially in universities, colleges and divinity schools, and very quickly after that in the established leadership of the liberal Protestant denominations. But when that Time magazine article broke with that question, is God dead? It alerted many Americans to the fact that not only were some theologians quite liberal moving far beyond any biblical understanding of Christianity, there were some who sought to identify as theologians to be recognized as theologians, but they had moved even far beyond liberal theology. They had moved into an embrace of some form of unbelief. They no longer believed even in theism, the belief in a personal existent God.
Ground Zero for much of this was the divinity school at the University of Chicago, a school that had been established in the 19th century based upon a model of training ministers in the very beginning, but by the end of the 19th century, had become a powerhouse of American academia modeling itself upon European universities. And, the University of Chicago Divinity School, especially with figure such as theologian Langdon Gilkey quickly established a reputation for being a place where one could even question as theologians, if God actually existed. In 1966, we are told that 97% of American adults said that they believed in God. That cover story in Time magazine became one of the most controversial events in American publishing, but again, what we now know is that America was trending secular even as this question was being asked on the cover of its most influential weekly news magazine.
Thomas J. J. Altizer was in the background of this. He quickly moved to the foreground. He was the author of several of the books arguing that God is dead and here is where Times obituary gets it right and wrong simultaneously. I'll go back to that paragraph early in the obituary where we read the idea that God was dead had been around for centuries, most prominently with Nietzsche in the late 1800s. Let me just pause there and say, dating something from the late 1800s, that would be the late 19th century, does not amount to anything like centuries and centuries. This is a very modern development, especially amongst those who would identify with any form of Christian theology. There were roots, there were antecedents in Jewish theology and philosophy going back further to the 17th century with figures such as Baruch Spinoza, but in the Christian world, openly questioning the existence of God was unthinkable until the late 19th century, and as Times obituary says rightly, "The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche." It was Nietzsche who declared very infamously that, "God is dead and that we have killed him."
Now, just pause for a moment again. What in the world did Nietzsche mean? Nietzsche himself was one of the most problematic and interesting philosophers of European civilization at that turn of the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, but Nietzsche had come to believe that Western civilization was based upon a lie, and that lie was the existence of the personal god of the Bible. When he declared that, "God is dead and we had killed him," he did not mean that God had once existed and no longer existed. He meant that God was merely an idea. Nietzsche had absolutely rejected the idea that God was a reality, a real being. He instead said, "The binding authority of Western civilization had been the idea of this personal god." And, Nietzsche was declaring that, "In the modern age that idea of a personal god must be eradicated if modern human beings were to be liberated and to come into our own, standing on our own two feet. Defining reality in our own terms."
Now, let's just understand that, that is exactly what so much of the modern project has become. That explains why around us, there are so many moral progressives. So many pushing for a reformulation of morality. Just think about the sexual revolution and what they see as the great enemy of that human liberation of absolute sexual freedom by their definition is, the idea of the god of the Bible. The idea that there is a god to whom we are accountable, the idea that there is a creator god who established a pattern, the idea that there's a god who will judge and thus sets down moral principles and commandments. You see, the modern secular project is devoted to eradicating the binding authority of that idea of God. That is why Nietzsche is in so many ways, the modern philosophical hero.
In that 1966 cover story in Time magazine, John T. Ellison again was the writer, he used what was for the first time perhaps for many Americans, the kind of Americans who would read Time magazine, he used the word secularization. He was trying to explain to Americans right there in the middle of the 1960s that what they were seeing in riots, and love-ins, and a sexual revolution on college campuses, what they were seeing in a fundamental shift, new movements such as feminism and of course what would later become the LGBTQ movement, calls for abortion and all the rest. What they were witnessing was a moral revolution that would require a fundamentally new theology. And, right on time, Time magazine was here with a cover story in 1966 to say, "Here's what that new theology will be. It will be a theology without Theo, a theology without God."
One of the things we need to note looking back at 1966 is the fact that so many prominent American intellectuals, so many in the intellectual elite and the creative class were already by then effectively atheists. They were almost thoroughly secular. This was not known to the millions of Americans pouring into the churches. This was not known to most of the parents sending their kids to American colleges and universities, but looking under the surface it was already becoming true. Paul Ramsey, a theologian on the faculty at Princeton University, and by the way, a theologian who definitely believed in the existence of God, Paul Ramsey looking at secularization at the time said this," Ours is the first attempt in recorded history to build a culture upon the premise that God is dead." And, then said, "Time explaining his teaching, in the traditional citadels of Christendom, gray gothic cathedral stand empty, mute witnesses to a rejected faith." That's the way it was looking to so many of the intellectuals in the mid 1960s.
Now, fast forward just a bit and understand that history didn't move exactly as they had expected. Here's what they thought would happen. They thought that the intellectuals would first declare their secularization, their liberation from belief in God and that, that would eventually get filtered through the entire society. One of the great shocks you have to understand to the profits of secularization is that Americans as a whole are not willing to play their game. So, as you look at Time magazine, this cover story in 1966, the implication is that say a decade or two decades later, nobody's going to believe in God. Nobody's going to be going to church. All this religiosity is simply going to disappear. That didn't happen, but that doesn't mean that secularization didn't happen.
In so many ways, Altizer, the death of God proponent who died at age 91 last week, he was on the faculty by the way of Emory university in Atlanta during the most infamous period of his life. Altizer believed that faith, belief in God, theism had to be eradicated. You might say that the modern new atheist such as Richard Dawkins are very much following in his train. His obituary reminds us that Altizer as a young man had hoped to be an episcopal priest, but as the New York Times said, citing his own memoir, "He had failed a psychiatric evaluation, but that didn't mean he didn't become a theologian. Except for one thing, he did a master's and a PHD at the University of Chicago, but they were in the fields of the history of religion." He wasn't really a theologian, but Time magazine didn't seem to understand that.
It was also a bit embarrassing for the United Methodist Church to have a famous theologian arguing that God is dead teaching within, at least in historically Methodist institution and including the part of that institution that was supposedly training pastors. One Methodist District Superintendent that's an administrator just under the level of bishop, he was from Jackson, Tennessee, he wrote to Emory university asking, "If God is dead as Altizer states, are we to continue to ask people to join a church that requires people to support a seminary? Where one of the professors is teaching that God is dead." Now, you might think that, that would be exactly the kind of logic that would lead a mainline Protestant denomination to wonder if theological liberalism isn't a recipe for disaster, effectively a suicide pill, but even the case of Thomas J. J. Altizer didn't end up being the alarm bell that you would think it ought to have been for the liberal Protestant denominations. They basically just kept marching left.
Evangelical, that is to say Orthodox Christian theologians share one common agreement with the new atheists and with even the atheistic theologians such as the late Thomas J. J. Altizer. If God is merely an idea, then we might as well declare the idea dead and try to move on in a secular, godless age and find as much meaning as we can find, make as much meaning as we can make. But notice exactly what I said there, the agreement is simply that if God is just an idea, then we better outgrow that idea. But of course this is where Christians understand God is not merely an idea, as if He is an idea who could be either affirmed or not affirmed. He is self-existent, He created everything that is, including, we simply have to note atheist theologians.
The God of the Bible is not merely an idea, he is the self-existent deity, the sovereign God of the universe. He is the Holy One of Israel. He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He doesn't need theologians to affirm him, and he is not minimized in the least by theologians who deny him. And, as some preachers and others observed way back in that archaic era of 1966, God isn't waiting on theologians to decide whether or not he exists and determining the answer to that question is above the pay grade of Time magazine.
What Einstein’s ‘God letter’ teaches us about the source of our theological authority
But then if we're thinking about all of this in the headlines, just consider the fact that a very famous or should we say infamous letter is going to be auctioned this week. The writer of the letter, Albert Einstein. The headline, again, this one comes in the New York Times, "Einstein's God letter draws auction interest." The headline in Religion News Service, "Einstein's God letter hits the auction block."
This story is also interesting, it tells us of a 1954 letter written by the world's most famous scientists of the 20th century, Albert Einstein. He wrote it to a man, Eric Gutkind, he was a German philosopher. He had sent Einstein his book, Einstein didn't like the book. Einstein wrote him a letter in which he dismissed any understanding of a supernatural God. In the letter, Einstein said, "The word God for me is nothing but the expression of and product of human weaknesses. No interpretation, no matter how subtle can for me change anything about this." Later in the letter, Einstein wrote, "For me, the unadulterated Jewish religion is like all other religions and incarnation of primitive superstition."
The reality is that Albert Einstein had different language used at different times as he related his own religious identity. He did not want to be known as an atheist. Instead, at various times he said that he believed in Spinoza's God. Now remember I mentioned Baruch Spinoza, that 17th century philosopher before. It was Spinoza, who was also considered an apostate to Judaism who said that he had reduced the understanding of God from being a supernatural being to simply existing as an explanation for natural reality and for natural law.
In other words, Spinoza said, "Where there are laws in nature, let's just call that God." Einstein later said, "That's exactly the God I believe in." When he said, I'm not an atheist, he was saying, I do not, not believe in natural laws, and as he also insisted more repeatedly, he referred to those natural law sometimes as god. At one point, he famously said, he does not believe that God plays dice. What did he mean by that? He's not even referring to a personal god. He just means the laws of the universe are constant. They don't change. They are not contingent. In one of the interesting twists in this article, it turns out that there was something of an attempted presale of this Einstein God letter and the New York Times another major media indicate that one bidder simply didn't offer enough money to capture the item at presale.
Who would that bidder be? Well, it turns out to be none other than the most famous of the new atheist Richard Dawkins. He wanted to buy the letter, but evidently he was not willing to pay what is expected to be perhaps a seven figure amount for the sale of this letter at auction this week. Jim Baggott writing for Aeon reminds us that Albert Einstein was born to secular Jewish parents. They're described as non observant Ashkenazi Jews. He was raised thus in a secular environment, but as a nine year old, a nine year old boy, Albert Einstein embraced Judaism, but as a 12 year old boy, he then rejected it. Something between age nine and age 12 led Einstein in this very secular environment of secular Judaism in Europe to reject the very faith that he had embraced and to oppose himself to every form of doctrinal religion. Now, of course, this raises some very important worldview issues for Christians.
For one thing, we need to be very, very careful. All of these stories remind us we need to be very, very careful of wanting to claim that people were believers in God, because somehow we think that their intellectual credibility will add respectability to the Christian faith or to theism, to belief in God. To put the matter as fundamentally as we might imagine, it is not good for Christians or anyone else to over argue the belief in God on the part of someone like Albert Einstein, that does not add credibility to the Christian faith. Instead, we should understand very clearly that we are living in an increasingly secular culture, where secular science, and secular academia, and secular philosophy has been moving directly at odds with belief in the God of the Bible, and in biblical Christianity in classical theism, now for the better part of two centuries.
This story concerning Einstein's God letter is also a warning to us that we have to be careful when we look at a quotation from any famous figure and we are told this is what that individual believes about God. You could cut and paste Einstein to the right and to the left, and come up with statements that are all over the place. Instead, it takes a careful consideration of what a figure like Albert Einstein was saying over time, a larger reading of his writings, a larger hearing of his arguments make very clear that he does not believe in any kind of a personal god. He doesn't believe in any form of theism. He believes only in natural laws, but for lack of a better way of describing them, he's willing simply to refer to those natural laws in the universe as God.
It's extremely important for Christians to understand that our theological authority is the holy scriptures, the inerrant infallible word of God. We do not look for intellectual authority to the academic elites. We don't look to the philosophers. We don't look to the physicists. We don't look to the authority of modern science. We don't want to be uninformed by those arguments, but we understand the sole authority, the sole determining authority of holy Scripture, Scripture alone, Sola Scriptura. When Christians begin to make arguments for the truthfulness of Christianity, because of what this celebrity does or does not believe, or what that scientist does or does not believe, when we especially go picking and choosing through statements and testimonies in order to make arguments that we think might give cultural traction to Christianity, we just need to know that is not at all how God reveals himself in the Scripture. These are not the arguments that we find in orthodox, healthy, faithful Christianity. They're certainly not the arguments we find in Scripture. And also, what we're thinking about how current all these issues are, let's just remind ourselves, we're talking about a Time magazine cover story from 1966 and a letter written by Albert Einstein in 1954.
‘It’s the real me’: Human cloning is in the headlines, but it’s not what you think
But finally, as we're thinking about headline news is hard to beat a headline that was published by the Guardian in London yesterday. Here it is, "It's the real me. Nigerian president denies dying and being replaced by clone." Now this looks almost like a media hoax, but it's not. The Guardian is a major newspaper, a liberal newspaper, but it's running an article in which the president of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari had to deny claims that he had died and been replaced by a Sudanese imposter. As the Guardian said, "Breaking his silence on a rumor that has circulated on social media for months." In a statement the Nigerian president said, "It's the real me. I assure you, I will assume celebrate my 76 birthday and I will go strong."
Indeed, this kind of rumor had oddly enough, amazingly enough, begun to spread on the Internet, so much so that the president of Nigeria had to insist that it really is he, who was speaking that he hasn't died and he hasn't been replaced by a clone forced upon Nigeria by a hostile power. But of course that statement in itself leads to some of the deepest theological and philosophical consideration. How exactly do you weigh a statement made by an individual when he says, "It's the real me, I assure you." Part of the problem is that president Buhari had spent five months in Britain in 2017, treated for an undisclosed illness. Whatever that was, the reality, the president of Nigeria now faces is that there are a lot of people who don't believe that he actually exists, even when he's right before them.
When the president of Nigeria has to make a public statement refuting rumors that he is a Somali clone, then we have entered into what we can only call unchartered waters. But one of the most interesting aspects of the story to me is evidently the fact that just about everyone understands the word clone, a word that no previous generation of human beings would even recognize. That might be the most interesting aspect of the story.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist theological seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.