Gabriel Vahanian Jan. 24, 1927 - Aug. 30, 2012 Social Critique Gave Name to Death of God Movement

By Vitello, Paul | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), September 10, 2012 | Go to article overview

Gabriel Vahanian Jan. 24, 1927 - Aug. 30, 2012 Social Critique Gave Name to Death of God Movement


Vitello, Paul, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Gabriel Vahanian, a theologian whose 1961 social critique, "The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era," gave a name to a seemingly atheistic but widely misunderstood theological movement, died Aug. 30 at his home in Strasbourg, France. He was 85.

His daughter, Noelle Vahanian, confirmed his death.

Mr. Vahanian, a churchgoing Presbyterian throughout his life, was a professor at Syracuse University when a small literary publisher released "The Death of God," a scholarly work that took church leaders to task for what he considered the trivialization of Christian teaching in the secular age. It was not an endorsement of Friedrich Nietzsche's 1880s-era announcement of God's death. And it received little attention outside university religion departments and periodicals like The Journal of Bible and Religion. (The Journal's review called it a dense read, but worthwhile. "Books like this must be written and read if Christian solutions are to be found," it said.)

But in 1966, Mr. Vahanian reached a wider audience when Time magazine named his book the forerunner of several works written around that time by scholars belonging to what the theology world called the Death of God movement. All were grappling with some of religion's big questions in the post-World War II era, Time said: Would the center hold if people stopped believing? How might religious values survive in a postfaith world?

Mr. Vahanian knew and corresponded with some of the others in the movement, including Harvey Cox of Harvard, Thomas J.J. Altizer of Emory University and William Hamilton, who would be forced out of his faculty post at an upstate New York seminary after the furor over the Time article and later teach at Portland State University in Oregon. He died in March.

None were atheists. Some were uncomfortable with the name of their movement, since they considered themselves more like a rescue team than an attack squad. They saw their work as a continuation of inquiries begun by some of the great theologians of the early and middle 20th century, including Paul Tillich, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Mr. Vahanian, though, distanced himself from the group and its Nietzschean aura, however ill deserved.

"He had a totally different theological sensibility from most of them," said Jeffrey Robbins, Mr. …

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