January 24th, 1927 to August 30th, 2012
"Gabriel Vahanian dies at 85; key figure in 'God Is Dead' movement"
January 24th, 1927 to August 30th, 2012
"Gabriel Vahanian dies at 85; key figure in 'God Is Dead' movement"
The French-born theologian's 1961 book 'The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era' helped define a philosophical movement.
September 16th, 2012
Los Angeles Times
Despite a provocative title, Gabriel Vahanian's book "The Death of God" caused no public stir when it was published in 1961.
By the middle of the decade, however, a massive upheaval was underway in American society and Vahanian, a little-known Syracuse University professor of religion, found himself at the center of a furious national debate.
The French-born academic entered the spotlight in 1965 when Time magazine's Easter week cover posed the question that Vahanian and other radical theologians had raised: "Is God Dead?" The arguments pro and con were still churning more than a year later, when the magazine noted that the easiest way to boost Sunday church attendance was to announce a sermon on the divine demise.
Vahanian, a key thinker in what became known as the "death of God" movement, died of natural causes Aug. 30 at his home in Strasbourg, France, said his son-in-law, Jeffrey W. Robbins. He was 85.
Time had named him one of the four best-known theologians of the movement, which, according to the magazine, argued it was "no longer possible to think about or believe in a transcendent God who acts in human history" and that Christianity "will have to survive, if at all, without him."
In Vahanian's view, America in the early '60s was a "post-Christian world," driven away from faith by the Holocaust and other World War II horrors.
"Now man has declared God not responsible and not relevant to human self-knowledge," he wrote. "The existence of God, no longer questioned, has become useless to man's predicament and its resolution."
That message found a receptive audience as the '60s unfolded in one convulsion after another — the assassination of a president and struggles over the war in Vietnam, civil rights and free speech.
"It was a period of transformation, and his book was one of the expressions of '60s radicalism," theologian Thomas J.J. Altizer, another prominent death-of-God theologian, said of Vahanian during an interview last week. "He was articulating it theologically, and he had a better understanding than any of us of the actual death of God at that point in history."
Postulating the death of God brought death threats to the group, which also included Paul van Buren and William Hamilton. Hamilton, who died in March, lost his teaching position at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in New York even though he was tenured.
Vahanian often joined his like-minded colleagues in public forums, but he was not in lock step with them theologically. A French Protestant who admired John Calvin and worshiped with a Presbyterian congregation, Vahanian approached the question of God's relevance from the vantage point of a lifelong churchgoer.
"He was an iconoclastic thinker through and through," said Robbins, who teaches religion and philosophy at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania along with his wife, Noelle Vahanian, one of Gabriel's two children.
Unlike others in the God-is-dead camp, Vahanian approached the issue as a cultural critic, looking for ways to talk about God in an increasingly secular world.
"He was doing a cultural analysis, whereas the others were doing a more traditional philosophical, theological critique," said James B. Wiggins, a longtime friend and colleague in the religion department at Syracuse. "Finding ways to give expression to the theological in terms that were intelligible to an ever more secular culture was the project in which he was engaged throughout his career."
Vahanian was born Jan. 24, 1927, in Marseille, France. His parents, Mesrop and Perouse Vahanian, were Armenian refugees who had fled to France after World War I to escape persecution in Armenian areas of Turkey.
He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Grenoble in 1945, followed by studies at the Protestant Theological Faculty of Paris.
In 1958 he earned a doctorate at Princeton Theological Seminary and joined the Syracuse faculty. He led efforts to establish its graduate program in religion, which, Wiggins noted, was unusual for a secular university with no theology school. He also became a key figure in the study of religion and literature.
Vahanian remained at Syracuse for 26 years, leaving for France in 1984 to accept an appointment at Protestant Theological Faculty in Strasbourg.
He married Barbara Swanger in 1962. Besides his wife and daughter, he is survived by a son, Paul-Michel, and two grandchildren.
Although the public spotlight on his ideas receded, Vahanian "remained a death-of-God theologian in a profound sense," Altizer said. "He understood better than any of us the way God is dead in our culture" and especially how atheism was important to faith.
"The Christian era has bequeathed us the 'death of God,' but not without teaching us a lesson," Vahanian wrote in his 1964 book "Wait Without Idols." "God is not necessary, but he is inevitable. 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 Vahanian, Professor, Dies at 85; Was Linked to ‘Death of God’ Movement"
September 8th, 2012
The New York Times
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.”
"In Memoriam Gabriel Vahanian (January 24, 1927-August 23, 2012)"
James B. Wiggins, Eliphalet Remington Professor of Religion, Emeritus
The Religion Department at Syracuse University
Professor Gabriel Vahanian, friend, colleague, creative thinker and theologian, devoted father, relatively mild curmudgeon, determined marcher to the beat of his own drummer—I offer some of my recollections of the characteristics and accomplishments of this remarkable man.
Born to Armenian parents in France, he received his primary and secondary education in schools in France and his baccalaureate from the Lycee of Valence. He received a fellowship to come to the United States in 1948. He took his Master’s Degree in Theology from the Princeton Theological Seminary in 1950 and his Ph.D. from that institution in 1958. He joined the faculty in the Department of Bible and Religion in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University in 1958, where he taught until 1984. Then he returned to France as a professor at the Universite de Strasbourg where he taught until his retirement as Professor Emeritus of cultural theology from the Protestant Theological Faculty of the Universite Marc Bloch. He continued his active scholarly life and published widely in France and the USA.
It was my great privilege to meet “Gaby” as he was widely and affectionately known to friends and family in May 1963 when I was interviewed for a position in the Department of Religion. In preparation for that trip to Syracuse, I read his book The Death of God: The Culture of our Post-Christian Era. With its publication in 1961, his work burst into local and national notoriety.
It was widely publicized in the context of a theological movement that became know as “The Death of God” and connected him loosely and not very appropriately to three other American Protestant theologians. The attention given to the group and each of the thinkers associated with it caused a cultural furor in 1962. So it was with great interest and some trepidation that I anticipated meeting him.
During his first years at SU, he had already established himself as a leader in the Department who effectively agitated to have its name changed from the Department of Bible and Religion to the Department of Religion, which it has remained ever since. Gaby and I became friends and colleagues during the next twenty-one years as he played a major role in the department and in the emergence of the field of the academic study of religion through a number of associations. When the American Academy of Religion adopted that name in 1964in place of the National Association of Biblical Instructors, he was elected as a member of the original Board of Directors. He remained an active, contributing member and participant as the AAR became the major scholarly and professional organization for the study of religion in the United States.
That involvement stimulated him to creatively imagine what the study of religion at the graduate level should and could be. He was recruited to join the faculty of the Theology School a Drew University in 1966. In a great example of his skill and imagination, he instead turned the tables and persuaded the Dean of the Graduate School at Drew, Stanley Hopper, and an assistant professor in the college at Drew, David Miller, to join the faculty at Syracuse. After that coup, Vahanian enlisted those two important contributors and the rest of the faculty in establishing a brand new Ph.D. program in Religion—one of a very few at that time in a secular university with no school of theology. In an unprecedented short time, he shepparded the outline and proposal for the new program through the department faculty and then through the vetting process in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Curriculum Committee of the University Senate. In the fall of 1968 the first students matriculated in the new program and four years later, the first two Ph.D.’s in religion were conferred by Syracuse University. None of that would have happened without Gabriel Vahanian.
The distinctiveness of this new program drew widespread attention from other professionals in the field and students from all across the USA and abroad. Notable new faculty members were also recruited in the decade of the 1970’s as the college recognized the growing accomplishments of the department. Among them, for example, Huston Smith and Michael Novak were noteworthy additions. During the decade of the 1970’s there were also numerous distinguished visiting professors in the department, a practice that had begun early on with the visit of the noted theologian Rudolf Bultmann. The presence of Gabriel Vahanian was a significant factor in attracting such colleagues.
Professor Vahanian was also a very popular undergraduate teacher. His courses were always over-subscribed, and although students often commented how difficult those courses were, they were intellectually challenging and stimulating. So, popular but never easy, his courses were a mainstay of the curriculum of the Department of Religion.
In recognition of his many accomplishments both within the university and nationally and internationally, Gabriel Vahanian was named by Syracuse University to the Eliphalet Remington Professor Chair and subsequently to the Jeanette Kittredge Watson professorship. In 2000, the Gabriel Vahanian Endowed Graduate Support Fund was established in the Department of Religion and continues to accept donations in his memory to support the educational and research expenses of current graduate students in this program in which Gaby invested so much of his life.
Even while on the faculty at Syracuse University, Professor Vahanian maintained ties with his native France. He spent summers at a home near Marseilles. When he was on leaves from SU, he usually resided in France and maintained his connections with colleagues there, especially at the Universite de Strasbourg. Thus, it was not entirely surprising, though very disappointing to us, when he informed the Department in 1983 that he had been invited to and accepted an appointment to the Protestant Theological Faculty in Strasbourg. He taught there until he retired. During his early years there, he also remained an adjunct professor at Syracuse University.
Professor Vahanian was a prolific author. His bibliography covers a wide range of subjects, all related to his profound interest in the relationship between religion and contemporary culture. Although his book, The Death of God (1961), is the one that many will be most familiar with, he was a major figure in developing the subfield of religion and literature in his early book Wait Without Idols (1964). That interest in the relation between religion and culture continued throughout his career to In Praise of the Secular (2008.) He was deeply influenced in a formative way by the theological tradition of the Reformed church from John Calvin through Karl Barth. The theology of Paul Tillich, interpreted in his distinctive way, was also a lifelong interest and influence on Vahanian as shown in his book, Tillich and the New Religious Paradigm (2004).
Bridging traditions between Europe and the United States as a distinguished faculty member and thinker in a secular department of religion at Syracuse University from 1958 until 1983 and then as a theologian in the Theological Faculty of a major university in France for more than a decade, few figures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries exerted so wide an influence on the study of religion and showed the importance and relevance of theology to the larger secular culture as did Gabriel Vahanian.
He is survived by his wife and their son and daughter. His daughter, Noelle, and her husband, Jeffrey W. Robbins, both hold Ph.D. degrees (1999 and 2001) from Syracuse’s Department of Religion . They teach and publish in the fields of the theology, philosophy and the academic study of religion today. Together with professors across the United States and some in Europe who implicitly and often explicitly in citing the work of Professor Vahanian in their own work, they demonstrate the continuing influence of the thought of this remarkable man.
A memorial service for Professor Vahanian was held on Friday, September 7, 2012 in the Église Réformée Saint Paul in Strasbourg, France.
Gabriel Vahanian will long be remembered as a challenging, generous, thoughtful, sometimes enigmatic and always cherished friend and colleague. He will be profoundly missed.
Gabriel Vahanian [Wikipedia]