Is God still dead? by Lloyd Steffen for Christian Century
The legacy of 1960s radical theology
Students at Lehigh University recently dedicated one of their campus-wide debates to the question, “Is God dead?” I was curious why this question was being raised by Generation Z college students. Any controversy the question could generate seemed dated, like a revival from the 1960s.
When I was invited to address the issue, I wondered if the students were expecting me—I’m the university chaplain at Lehigh—to discount the question and offer a stout defense of God, the Christian church, and all manner of religious and theological matters. But my own history had taught me that the question they were raising is a very serious one.
Add to that the many challenges to faith young people face today—from doubts about their own futures to larger worries about the pandemic and the undermining of democratic institutions—I felt they were right to ask. God’s death could be taken as a metaphor for all the problems that seem beyond our ability to solve. So it felt like a good moment to revisit the controversy that inflamed American culture more than half a century ago.
The death of God, as we mean it today, received its most enduring and influential exposition in Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (1882). God, Nietzsche said via the character of a God-seeking madman, had been murdered by humanity. Now the fixed order of value was loosed from its metaphysical moorings. God—as the guarantor of truth and goodness, rationalism, the ideals of progress and basic morality—was no more. God was dead.
Nietzsche’s philosophical affirmation persisted and gained vital expression in the postmodernism of the late 20th century, which decentered Enlightenment values by subverting faith in reason. The movement toward a transcendence-free secular world that could evolve beyond any need for God—this is one way to describe Nietzsche’s vision—persisted historically, and it found fertile ground in mid-20th-century theology.