In the heart of the Bible Belt, Emory University Associate Professor Thomas Altizer became the face of the radical 1960s “God is dead” theological movement.
His words, appearing twice in Time magazine, prompted calls for his firing that went unheeded, and multiple death threats. Some even argue he helped give rise to the modern-day religious right movement.
“He received more than some death threats,” said Jordan E. Miller, who taught religion at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, wrote articles with and about Altizer and considered him a mentor. “By some accounts, he was the most-hated man in America for a year or so.”
Thomas J.J. Altizer, a descendant and namesake of Confederate Gen. Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, who was referred to in the 1960s as “the bad boy of theology,” died last week in Pennsylvania from complications from a stroke. He was 91.
Born May 28, 1927, in Cambridge, Mass., Altizer graduated from Stonewall Jackson High School in Charleston, W. Va., in 1944. He briefly attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., before enlisting in the Army.
After his military service, he graduated with honors from the University of Chicago in 1948, then received his master’s in theology and his Ph.D. in history of religions in Chicago.
Altizer had a decades-long university career teaching theology and English and was still working on books and essays as recently as early November, colleagues said.
But it was during his 12 years as an associate professor of Bible and religion at Emory that he drew national attention and, in many quarters, disdain and outrage.
Altizer’s religious views appeared in Time magazine in 1965 and 1966. One article, published just before Easter 1966, had a front-page headline in bold red letters on a black background: “Is God Dead?”
Emory was flooded with demands for Altizer’s firing. But the administration and trustees stood behind him, calling it an issue of “academic freedom,” said Gary S. Hauk, Emory’s historian.
The idea that God is dead wasn’t exactly new. Nietzsche and others had been promoting it for centuries but it re-emerged after World War II and the Holocaust and was shared by a group of theologians including Altizer.
The backlash after the Time articles targeted Altizer, who colleagues said seemed more like an evangelical preacher than a university professor.
At the height of the controversy, Altizer made a guest appearance on the “Merv Griffin Show,” a popular television talk show.
Given two minutes to speak, he repeated for the audience his assessment that God was dead. The audience outrage was so intense the show director ordered the curtain down and had the band play loud to try to drown out the chanting crowd.
“He was rushed out a back alley and into a cab out of fear for his safety,” Miller said. “He was more than controversial.”
Altizer maintained that his views were largely misunderstood and the anger at him was misplaced.
In a memoir he wrote 40 years later, in 2006, “Living the Death of God,” Altizer said that “while I offended many permanently and lost hope of a foundation grant or major academic appointment, I have never regretted the offense that I gave.”
Intellectuals and philosophers “were not scandalized” by Altizer’s declaration but surprised that he “was trying to do it within Christianity,” Miller said.
Altizer believed God became a human being and died, Miller said. “As soon as the church said, ‘We are the body of Christ’ they undid what was so important.”
Altizer trained as an Episcopal priest but was never ordained. He also preached in a south Chicago mission during his college years.
“He dressed in a very loud and kind of provocative way,” often wearing bright green or red blazers, and he spoke with the cadence of a pastor from the pulpit, Miller said.
Miller said Altizer likely helped spark the religious right movement that started as a reaction against the civil rights movement and was galvanized by the legalization of abortion. “He gave the religious right a convenient enemy,” Miller said. “It gave them an excuse to say, ‘See what all these liberals in universities are saying’.” On Emory’s 175th anniversary in 2001, Altizer was invited back as possibly “the most infamous” of “all Emory’s history figures.”
In a video made for the anniversary, Susan Henry-Crowe, dean of Emory’s chapel and religious life, recalled how the administration backed Altizer after his headline-making comments. “That kind of support and protection allowed people to think the deepest and broadest thoughts,” she said.
Hauk said Emory was about to launch its largest fundraiser, seeking $25 million in four years, when the stories hit, and the university was hit with a barrage of phone calls and emails, including some positive ones.
There were fears that the controversy could hurt that fundraising. But instead, the Ford Foundation made a sizable and first-ever grant to Emory because of its stance for academic freedom, Hauk said
He said he believes the controversy also helped Emory establish a reputation as a research institute of “scholarly integrity.”
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