March 19, 2012
— Martin E. Marty
"Public religion," the rubric for these e-columns and the Center which issues them, often gets reduced to "religion and politics," but "public" has a broader reach. Included are, for example, the arts, education, and—yes!—dealing with God and church (and its analogs), in "theology" and "ecclesiology." This month two sensations in these received attention. One was the death of "Death of God" theologian William Hamilton, whose passing elicited a New York Times obituary. The other was Robert Schuller, who merely and largely passed from the scene after he was broken by and then broke with the leadership of the Crystal Cathedral in California. Both men were regularly called "sensations;" but today we would call them celebrities—a rare breed in theology and church life.
Editorial comment on both evoked reflections such as "Sic transit. . ." on how everything passes, or "De mortuis. . ." the reminder not to speak ill of the dead or with Schadenfreude, joy in others' misfortunes when they fall. Let me check in with the mention that I have no personal case against either. "Bill" Hamilton, almost fifty years ago, invited me to give the Rauschenbush lectures at his then-school, Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. That seminary became uncomfortable when the "Death of God" flap, promoted on a Time magazine cover, became a sensation. We remained friends, now at a distance, but I had thought rarely about him for decades and could not find him during a research project, even with Google's help. He had faded into teaching English and then retirement, if either is truly a "fading." It took eleven days for the Times to obit him.
Robert H. Schuller was much, much more in the news in recent seasons, as the press covered him being "ousted" from leadership of the board at his invention, the pioneer, some say, of the still thriving mega-church movement and the continuing transformations of "self-esteem" theology, on which he acquired the patent (from Norman Vincent Peale). While mega-church and self-esteem are not my cups of tea, Schuller and I had some positive interactions. He cited me despite what I thought was a negative comment: that his message was not theology but a psychology of self-esteem.
What happened? His moment passed, as everyone's moment passes. Countless non-crystal mega-church buildings, though none matched his, replicated his intentions. While many of these make bankruptcy news, few of them represented a multi-million investment and debt. As for self-esteem, the "Prosperity Gospel" preachers carry things so far that in contrast he sounds like the country preacher of Good News. Some coverage picked up on the theme of the folly of family ventures, since Schuller-vs.-Schuller battles led to his demise. Malinowski: "Aggression, like charity, begins at home."
It is possible to greet these moments with sympathy and sadness—and it is then necessary to move on. While one has to gawk in awe at bold experiments and sensations, it might well be that what many will take from these passings is the opportunity to take a new look at the unsensational theologizing and ministries which more quietly guide the spiritual quests and community spirit of millions whom Time and Times seldom notice. Some of the religious leaders in seminaries, chapels and cathedrals may look up now and then, take notes, learn a bit, and then head back to the classroom or the sanctuary, where they can effect less noticed outcomes. Still, one hopes they do not lapse into timidity and passiveness, modes of being that also can limit leadership's effectiveness in religion.
Paul Vitello, "William Hamilton Dies at 87; Known for 'Death of God'," New York Times, March 10, 2012.
Jeff Barnard, "God Is Dead Theologian William Hamilton Dead at 87," Huffington Post, February 29, 2012.
The Rauschenbush lectures in 1963 were published as the book Varieties of Unbelief (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964) and Doubleday Anchor (1966) ), both of them certainly long out of print. Sic transit, and, since they are dead books, De mortuis. . .
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.