Theologian Who Heralded the Death of God Ponders His Own [Excerpts]
William Hamilton was among the theologians who, in the 1960s, proclaimed the death of God. Hamilton, now 83, considers himself a Christian, but does not go to church.
It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in 1938 when something went terribly wrong near young Bill Hamilton's house. His teenage friends had been building pipe bombs. One, an Episcopalian, was dead. Another, a Catholic, lay on the grass fatally injured. And the third, the son of an atheist, emerged without a scratch.
How, Hamilton wondered, could a just God allow this? Why do the innocent suffer? Does God intervene in human lives?
The questions haunted Hamilton at his friends' funerals, at school, in the Navy, at seminary and in his years as a theology professor in upstate New York. By 1966, he had an answer, and it landed him in Time and Playboy magazines: God was dead.
For Hamilton, 83, who lives with his wife, it's too late. God's already gone. His own health is fragile; his hands shake and he moves slowly. It's hard to imagine that this gentle man once shook the world of theology.
Hamilton grew up a "bland, very liberal" Baptist, in a middle-class Chicago suburb. "As soon as I was able," he says, "I left it." He graduated from Oberlin College and joined the Navy in World War II. "I may have been the only guy on my ship with a copy of `The Nature and Destiny of Man' in my duffel," he says. Its author, Reinhold Niebuhr, was the leading U.S. theologian of the day.
After the war, Hamilton went to Union Theological Seminary in New York City because Niebuhr invited him. It didn't matter that Hamilton wasn't sure he was a Christian. Niebuhr thought Union, a bastion of liberal Protestantism, would be a good place to figure that out. The two became lifelong friends.
Hamilton graduated in 1949, got married and earned his doctorate in theology from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The family returned to the U.S., where Hamilton taught theology at Colgate University in upstate New York.
Hamilton spent those years reflecting on his fractured faith. The image of God as an all-knowing, all-powerful solver of problems couldn't be reconciled with human suffering, especially in the wake of the Holocaust.
Hamilton didn't see an active God anymore. But the theologian was not an atheist. And he didn't want to let go of Jesus, as the example of how humans should treat one another.
[TBC: Is it not the mercy of God to preserve the life of an atheist, and therefore give opportunity to be saved? Hamilton's disappointment is predicated upon his own expectations. Having begun on the wrong foot ("bland, liberal Baptist"), his subsequent tutelage and schooling did not help. When the Lord asked, "Will ye also go away?" Peter replied, "Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life” (John:6:67-68). Hamilton has no place to go, because he has been taught that Jesus does not have ”the words of eternal life.”]