“God is dead” is a widely quoted phrase that became very popular in the mid 1960s. It was the rallying call of a movement known as Radical Theology, and although it never attracted a large following and disappeared as quickly as it had arisen, it got a lot of press coverage. It was a statement that was tailor-made for journalistic exploitation, and in the uproar it created, the actual meaning of the phrase and the movement’s goals were misunderstood.
The origins of this ‘60’s cultural phenomenon can be traced back to Friedrich Nietzsche, who originated the concept in the late 1800s. This is what he wrote:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? - Nietzsche, The Gay Science
What he was saying wasn’t that God was physically dead, but that he had stopped being a reckoning force in people’s lives, even if they didn't recognize it. Even then, the phrase was misunderstood. People thought he was exulting the concept, when in fact he was lamenting it. Nietzsche was saying that humans were drifting away from a believe in a cosmic order, and that without it universal values and moral laws would also slip away. To solve this eventual problem, a re-evaluation of the foundations of human values was needed. For Nietzsche, these foundations were deeper than the Christian values that most people refused to look beyond.
This is what the founders of Radical Theology picked up on. In the 1960’s, Nietzsche’s concept on the relationship between modern man's loss of the sacred and eroding universal values had become manifisted in society. People were no longer flocking to church, and they no longer accepted ‘divinely revealed truths’ without question. It seemed to some that the moral decay evident in society was directly traceable to this. Their response was a quest for a radical revision of Christianity in a secular age. Basically, they sought to reconstruct Christian beliefs for the modern world.
The problem with this new theology was that every spokesperson for it had a different solution. There was Jesus as the model human being who acted out of love and whose faith would be celebrated in an open church-community. In this view, God no longer stood apart from Man, challenging him to follow a divine path - he simply represented self-giving love. A ‘Sea of Faith” group attempted to work out the practice of their faith within the context of their new religious understanding while still seeking to retain the accepted 'structures' of the Christian faith (prayer, worship, God, salvation, grace, etc.). Others reflected Eastern views and saw God as something within us, but the emphasis was on this world and not anything beyond. What each group was attempting was to answer the question, 'What place does God have in my life (or in society) today?'
In retrospect, too many ideas with too little a following quickly led to the demise of this movement. The real significance was that these modern theologies, by giving up the essential elements of Christian belief in God, had logically led to what were really antitheologies. The Christian masses misunderstood and/or dismissed the concepts presented. When the death of God theologies passed off the scene, the commitment of some to secularism remained, and manifested itself in other forms of secular theology in the late 1960s and the 1970s.
Although taken out of context here, it would seem that the general public of the 20th century was more inclined to accept a different widely quoted phrase from the late 1800’s. It was Mark Twain who said “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”