Why We Question God

Doubt has always been a part of faith, as William Hamilton knew and defenders of the "war on religion" would be wise to remember

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At Easter 1966, millions of Americans picked up what would become one of the most notable magazine covers in the history of the genre: TIME’s stark question asking “Is God Dead?” In retrospect, the cover—and the much-less-remembered actual piece that ran with it—represented a mainstreaming of the spirit of dissent and debate that characterized the era. The cover was back in the news last week with word that the main theologian profiled in the piece, William Hamilton, had died. Hamilton was 87; at the time of the 1966 article, he was a professor at Colgate Rochester Divinity School.

(MORE: From the Archives: Is God Dead?)

Hamilton was no militant atheist. He was not contemptuous of faith or of the faithful—far from it; he was a longtime churchgoer—and he was therefore, I think, all the more a threat to unreflective Christianity. At heart, he was questioning whether the Christian tradition of encouraging a temporal moral life required belief in a divine order. Could someone, in other words, live by the ethical teachings of Jesus while rejecting the existence of a creator and redeemer God?

The questions with which he grappled were eternal, essential, and are with us still: how does a culture that tends to be religious continue to hold to a belief in an all-powerful, all-loving divinity beyond time and space given the evidence of science and of experience?

Here is how the 1966 article opened: “Is God dead? The three words represent a summons to reflect on the meaning of existence. No longer is the question the taunting jest of skeptics for whom unbelief is the test of wisdom and for whom Nietzsche is the prophet who gave the right answer a century ago. Even within Christianity, now confidently renewing itself in spirit as well as form, a small band of radical theologians has seriously argued that the churches must accept the fact of God’s death, and get along without him. How does the issue differ from the age-old assertion that God does not and never did exist? Nietzsche’s thesis was that striving, self-centered man had killed God, and that settled that. The current death-of-God group [which included William Hamilton] believes that God is indeed absolutely dead, but proposes to carry on and write a theology without theos, without God. Less radical Christian thinkers hold that at the very least God in the image of man, God sitting in heaven, is dead, and—in the central task of religion today—they seek to imagine and define a God who can touch men’s emotions and engage men’s minds…Part of the Christian mood today, suggests Christian Atheist William Hamilton, is that faith has become not a possession but a hope.”

Not a possession but a hope. My own view of these things is that we simply do not know enough to judge the ultimate truth of the claims of theology. (I’m with Hamlet, who remarked to Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”) Perhaps we will one day; perhaps not. Meanwhile, given that religious faith is an intrinsic element of human experience, it is best to approach and engage the subject with a sense of history and a critical sensibility.

(MORE: Meacham on The New Sermon on the Mount?)

In his view that faith was “not a possession but a hope,” Hamilton was tapping into an ancient tradition. As the author of the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews wrote, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”—in this sense, religious faith is way of interpreting experience that allows for the possibility of the redemptive.

Faith in this sense assumes that scripture and tradition are the works of human hands and hearts, efforts undertaken to explain the seemingly inexplicable. Faith in this sense is inextricably tied to doubt; it is an attempt, sometimes successful and sometimes not, to squint and struggle to “see through a glass darkly,” as Paul wrote in Corinthians. Faith without such doubt has never been part of the Christian tradition; it is telling, I think, that one of the earliest resurrection scenes in the Bible is that of Thomas demanding evidence—he wanted to see, to touch, to prove. Those who question and probe and debate are heirs of the apostles just as much as the most fervent of believers.

Hamilton’s work was nuanced, as is a good deal of theology. It is not the kind of scholarship or thinking that translates well in the public sphere. At a time when candidates speak of alleged wars on religion and discuss throwing up over discussions of the proper role between church and state, it is good to be reminded that there are those—like William Hamilton—who have long sought to think on these things. And any God or any faith that fears such inquiry—or such magazine covers—is probably not all that it claims to be.

(MORE: A Time to Compromise? Faith May Be A Virtue, But There Are Times When It Has to Bend)