Gabriel Vahanian, Professor, Dies at 85; Was Linked to ‘Death of God’ Movement

Gabriel Vahanian, a theologian whose 1961 social critique, “The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era,” gave a name to a seemingly atheistic but widely misunderstood theological movement, died on Aug. 30 at his home in Strasbourg, France. He was 85.

His daughter, Noelle Vahanian, confirmed his death.

Mr. Vahanian, a churchgoing Presbyterian throughout his life, was a professor at Syracuse University when a small literary publisher released “The Death of God,” a scholarly work that took church leaders to task for what he considered the trivialization of Christian teaching in the secular age. It was not an endorsement of Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1880s-era announcement of God’s death. And it received little attention outside university religion departments and periodicals like The Journal of Bible and Religion. (The Journal’s review called it a dense read, but worthwhile. “Books like this must be written and read if Christian solutions are to be found,” it said.)

But in 1966, Mr. Vahanian reached a wider audience when Time magazine named his book as the forerunner of several works written around that time by scholars belonging to what the theology world called the Death of God movement. All were grappling with some of religion’s big questions in the post-World War II era, Time said: Would the center hold if people stopped believing? How might religious values survive in a postfaith world?

Mr. Vahanian knew and corresponded with some of the others in the movement, including Harvey Cox of Harvard, Thomas J.J. Altizer of Emory University and William Hamilton, who would be forced out of his faculty post at an upstate New York seminary after the furor over the Time article and later teach at Portland State University in Oregon. He died in March.

None were atheists. Some were uncomfortable with the name of their movement, since they considered themselves more like a rescue team than an attack squad. They saw their work as a continuation of inquiries begun by some of the great theologians of the early and middle 20th century, including Paul Tillich, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Mr. Vahanian, though, distanced himself from the group and its Nietzschean aura, however ill deserved.

“He had a totally different theological sensibility from most of them,” said Jeffrey Robbins, Mr. Vahanian’s son-in-law, who is chairman of the department of religion and philosophy at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. “He was an iconoclast, and a radical. But he described himself as a lifelong, practicing, disgruntled Protestant Christian.”

Mr. Cox, a professor emeritus at Harvard Divinity School and the author of the best-selling 1965 book “The Secular City” — considered one of the basic texts of the Death of God movement — described Mr. Vahanian as a “visionary” with a traditionalist streak.

“He didn’t like the idea of pronouncements about what no one could possibly know,” Mr. Cox said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “He had too much respect for religious tradition.”

In his book, Mr. Vahanian criticized efforts to modernize Christianity, implicitly rebuking the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, author of the 1950s self-help best-seller “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Mr. Vahanian condemned “positive thinking” and other doctrines that reduced Christianity to what he called “a tool for success.”

Faith had higher purposes, he said. It was for dealing with suffering; plumbing the conscience; confronting doubts about God.

“God is not necessary, but he is inevitable,” Mr. Vahanian wrote in 1964 in “Wait Without Idols,” displaying the gnomic style that sometimes tried reviewers’ patience (and eschewing capital letters when referring to the deity). “He is wholly other and wholly present. Faith in him, the conversion of our human reality, both culturally and existentially, is the demand he still makes upon us.”

Gabriel Antoine Vahanian was born on Jan. 24, 1927, in Marseille, France, one of four children of Mestrop and Perouse Vahanian. His parents settled there in the early 1920s after fleeing the ethnic cleansing campaigns that swept Armenian areas of Turkey after World War I. After completing his studies at the Protestant Theological Faculty of Paris in 1949, he received his Ph.D. at the Princeton Theological Seminary.

In 1958 he became a professor of religion at Syracuse University, where he taught for 26 years and helped to found the university’s graduate studies program in religion. He moved in 1984 to Université des Sciences Humaines de Strasbourg, for a post considered France’s most prominent theological professorship of Protestantism.

Besides his daughter, who, like her husband, Mr. Robbins, is a professor of religion and philosophy at Lebanon Valley College, Mr. Vahanian is survived by his wife, Barbara; a son, Jean-Michel; and two grandchildren.

Though he had differences with the “Death of God” theologians, Mr. Vahanian shared “the deep sensitivity and religious passion that animated the movement,” Mr. Robbins said.

In “Wait Without Idols,” Mr. Vahanian identified the origin of the problem facing “Death of God” theologians as he saw it:

“It is easier to understand oneself without God than with God. The dilemma of Christianity is that it taught man how to be responsible for his actions in this world, and for this world itself. Now man has declared God not responsible and not relevant to human self-knowledge. The existence of God, no longer questioned, has become useless to man’s predicament and its resolution.”

“This, then, is the irony of the cultural tradition of Christianity: it has bequeathed us the idea of the death of God.”