Obituaries

Thomas Altizer, proponent of ‘God is dead’ theology, dies at 91

Dr. Altizer questioned whether a benevolent God could exist.
Altizer Archive
Dr. Altizer questioned whether a benevolent God could exist.

NEW YORK — Thomas J.J. Altizer, one of a handful of radical theologians in the 1960s who espoused that “God is dead,” died Wednesday in Stroudsburg, Pa. He was 91.

His daughter, Katharine, said the cause was complications of a stroke. Dr. Altizer, who lived in Mount Pocono, Pa., was under hospice care at the time.

The idea that God was dead had been around for centuries, most prominently with Nietzsche in the late 1800s. But after World War II 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.

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The subject burst out of the ivory tower on April 8, 1966, when a stark Time magazine cover, all black with bold red letters, pointedly asked: “Is God Dead?”

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The article, highly nuanced on the theme, focused mostly on how science and secularism were supplanting religion. But in a country where 97 percent of adults said they believed in God, it touched off a ferocious backlash against the magazine and led to the vilification particularly of Dr. Altizer, who was more visible than the others, spoke to the press, and had a certain theatrical flair.

“God is dead,” he asserts with finality in a documentary produced for National Educational Television after the Time article came out. “This God is no longer present, is no longer manifest, is no longer real.”

He even went on the “Merv Griffin Show,” a popular television talk program, though the event, held before a live audience in a Broadway theater, was a debacle. He was given two minutes to speak. “The response was a violent one,” he wrote later, “forcing the director to close the curtains and order the band to play forcefully, and after this event a crowd greeted me at the stage door, demanding my death.”

His theology was esoteric and not easily understood, leaving most people, including many clergy, to react viscerally to its basic premise. Confusing matters was that the few theologians in his intellectual circle — including William Hamilton, Paul M. Van Buren, and Rabbi Richard Rubenstein — did not agree among themselves on how God had died, why he had died, or what his death meant. They were essentially writing God out of the picture, but they did not consider themselves atheists; Dr. Altizer called himself a Christian atheist, further muddying the waters.

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“He was one of the country’s most hated, misunderstood, radical, and prophetic voices of the past century,” said Jordan E. Miller, who taught religion at Stonehill College, wrote articles with Dr. Altizer, and considered him a mentor.

The “God Is Dead” cultural moment, such as it was, was short-lived. A year after the Time article, Dr. Altizer lamented that he was no longer “the bad boy of theology” but felt more “like the invisible man.”

But he had inflamed evangelicals, and his lasting effect may be that he helped give rise to the religious right.

“I suggest that both evangelical and mainline Protestantism’s development from the late 1960s were a reaction against his theology,” said Christopher D. Rodkey, pastor at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Dallastown, Pa., and who also considered Dr. Altizer a mentor.

Thomas Jonathan Jackson Altizer was born on May 28, 1927, in Cambridge, Mass., a descendant of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, the Confederate general. His parents — Jackson Duncan Altizer, a lawyer, and his mother, Frances Helen (Greetham), a prominent socialite, who later worked for the American Red Cross — were in Massachusetts for only a short period, soon returning home to Charleston, W.V, where they raised Thomas and his two younger sisters, Jane and Nell. The family, which traced its lineage to the nation’s founders, was wealthy. While much of the rest of the country had plunged into the Great Depression, the Altizers lived in a world of servants, socialites, and formal dress for dinner.

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Dr. Altizer’s daughter said in a telephone interview that her father “had a deep sense of shame of his family’s wealth.” He often ate in the kitchen with the African-American servants. Katharine Altizer, who is a family therapist, said Thomas’s father was an alcoholic, that Thomas tried to protect his mother from his father’s abuse, and that he was prone to periods of despair.

He was a natural showman, she said. He acted in an amateur theater and commanded attention when he walked into a room.

Dr. Altizer was married three times and divorced three times. His first wife, Gayle Cygne (Pye) Altizer, was the mother of his son, John. His second wife, Alma (Barker) Altizer, was the mother of his daughter. His third wife was Barbara (Walters). In addition to his daughter, Dr. Altizer leaves his son and two grandchildren.