God Is Dead Theologian William Hamilton Dead At 87

By Salon Staff

Published March 1, 2012 1:54AM (EST)

Theologian William Hamilton, a member of the Death of God movement of the 1960s that reached its peak with a Time Magazine cover story, has died in Portland, Ore. He was 87.

Hamilton died Tuesday from complications from congestive heart failure at the downtown apartment he shared with his wife, his family said.

Hamilton told The Oregonian newspaper in 2007 that he had questioned the existence of God since he was a teenager, when two friends — an Episcopalian and a Catholic — died from the explosion of a pipe bomb they were building, while a third — an atheist — escaped without a scratch.

It caused him to question why the innocent suffer, and whether God intervened in people's lives, he said.

"The death of God is a metaphor," Hamilton said. "We needed to redefine Christianity as a possibility without the presence of God."

The idea was not a new one, said fellow radical theologian Thomas J.J. Altizer. Poet William Blake and German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had long ago raised the question.

"We didn't just come out of nowhere," said Altizer, who was co-author with Hamilton of the 1966 book, "Radical Theology and the Death of God."

Hamilton "was what we call a radical Christian, or if you like, an atheistic Christian," Altizer said from his home in Mount Pocono, Pa. "He dedicated a good part of his life to renewing, making actual and right now, the way of Jesus."

Hamilton's talent was putting these difficult ideas in a way that could be understood by the general public, Altizer said.

Before their book, Hamilton brought his ideas to a national audience on the Sunday morning CBS television show, "Look up and Live," at one point airing excerpts from the Ingmar Bergman movie, "Winter Light," which was about a pastor who decides God has died.

The book and the ensuing 1966 Time magazine article "Is God Dead?" became part of a national questioning of establishment values that included the Civil Rights Movement and protest against the Vietnam War.

They also made Hamilton a pariah at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, a liberal Baptist theological school in Rochester, N.Y.

His son, Donald Hamilton, recalled how fellow faculty living on their leafy dead end street "hated my father."

Their family recited The Lord's Prayer before bedtime and attended a Presbyterian church until his father's notoriety made him no longer welcome at services, at which point he led his family in Bible studies at home.

Despite holding an endowed chair and full tenure, and being sent by the school to represent them at the funeral of four black girls killed in a church fire, William Hamilton was no longer allowed to teach and left for a new job at New College in Sarasota, Fla., said Ronald Carter, a student of Hamilton's at the time and now an emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Texas.

"He rose to the occasion of the notoriety and made, I think, wonderful educational use of it, trying to clarify what this means, encouraging other people to try to think it through," said Carter.

He explained the concept as "not about the beyond. It's about living a good life. Bill would say, 'Pay attention to the Christian story. Reread the Sermon on the Mount.'"

Hamilton left New College in 1974 and became dean of arts and letters at Portland State University, teaching a wide range of subjects until he retired in 1986.

He continued writing, producing books on William Shakespeare and Herman Melville. His most recent work, a collection of essays on religious themes titled "Sine Nomine" was published last fall.

Born March 9, 1924, in Evanston, Ill, Hamilton was raised a Baptist and went to Oberlin College before joining the Navy during World War II. He was commissioned an ensign trained to identify enemy aircraft for the planned invasion of Japan, his family said.

In his sea bag was a copy of a book by one of the most influential theologians of the era, Reinhold Niebuhr, who became Hamilton's friend and teacher after the war, when Hamilton enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Hamilton married ballet dancer Mary Jane Golden, and together they went to Scotland, where Hamilton earned his doctorate in theology at the University of St. Andrews.

Back in the United States, he taught at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., before going to Colgate Rochester.

Besides his wife, Hamilton is survived by five children, eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

No services were planned.

Salon Staff

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