The Death of God Movement and the Holocaust: Radical Theology Encounters the Shoah, Edited by Stephen R. Haynes and John K. Roth

By Williamson, Clark | Shofar, January 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Death of God Movement and the Holocaust: Radical Theology Encounters the Shoah, Edited by Stephen R. Haynes and John K. Roth


Williamson, Clark, Shofar


The Death of God Movement and the Holocaust: Radical Theology Encounters the Shoah, edited by Stephen R. Haynes and John K. Roth

In this text on the "radical theology" movement of the 1960s, Stephen R. Haynes and John Roth bring together twelve articles to which they have added an introduction and epilogue of their own. One of the articles is the Time magazine essay of April 8, 1966, "Toward a Hidden God"; four are by the so-called "death of God" theologians Altizer, Hamilton, van Buren, and Rubenstein; and seven are from commentators on the movement. This makes for a very difficult book to review. I say "so-called" for two reasons: one is that these four were all saying markedly different things, and the other is that only Altizer seems to believe in some oddly metaphysical way in the self- emptying of God. He manages to believe far more in what God does (at least by way of getting rid of God) than some admittedly Christian theologians can manage to affirm.

The book is included in the "Christianity and the Holocaust" series because it seeks to answer the question of the effect that knowledge of the Shoah and its meaning had on the death of God movement. To those of us who are both post-Shoah theologians and who are quite old enough to remember the death of God movement, the question seems a little odd, far-fetched. Memory serves one fairly well on this point: the Holocaust was of decisive importance for Rubenstein's death-of-God theology, as his book's title, After Auschwitz, made clear. The Holocaust barely entered the thought of other death-of-God theologians at the time, as its absence from their writings testifies.

Along the way, one encounters a variety of theological views of interest to post-Shoah thinkers. Altizer, for example, thinks that the only theology possible today "that is not at bottom an erasure of the Holocaust" would be a "theology without God" (p. 22). While all post-Holocaust theologians rethink their views of God, this comment would strike Fackenheim and Jonas as odd, not to mention Berkovitz. Hamilton, another death-of-God theologian, provides an article the brunt of which is to ask this: "Just why do monotheists kill? Why have monotheists become the champion killers at the close of the century?" (p. 27). As a response to the Shoah, in all its complexity, this is a bizarre question. It does not distinguish killers from victims. It does not recognize the ways in which Nazism was not historic Christian anti-Judaism being reprised but a strange mix of anti-Christian and anti-Jewish paganism of "Blut, Boden, und Volk" and an extremely modern assumption as to the self-sufficiency of the finite unto itself. It does not throw any light on other great killers of our century, Stalin and Mao-Tse Tung, hardly noted for their commitment to monotheism.

Rubenstein does not find (nor should he) the optimism of Hamilton and Harvey Cox about secularity and technology something that he can share. Auschwitz he sees as an expression of what Cox called "technopolis" (p. 45). Nor does he find that Altizer's assertion that "Christ is now present in the concrete actuality" of our history to be a statement of which a Jew (or Muslim or Hindu) could make any sense (p. …

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