Noelle and I are deeply grateful for all of the heartfelt condolences, sympathy and support from everyone within the department and at the college over the passing of her father.
His public memory has been well noted in obituaries from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and from his many students and colleagues at http://religion.syr.edu/About/In%20memoriam%20Vahanian.html and http://gabrielvahanian.blogspot.com/. What I regret, however, is how nearly everything that has been written about him in the public media has focused almost entirely on his first book, published over fifty years ago. The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era (1961) was undoubtedly a landmark work in cultural theology. It gave the name to what would become a major theological movement, a movement that reached its cultural apogee with the Time magazine cover story “Is God Dead?” from 1966.
While this first book might have secured Gabriel Vahanian’s legacy, it should not be allowed to define a theological and academic career that spanned over half a century. Shortly after The Death of God, for instance, Vahanian published Wait Without Idols (1964), an exploratory work in literary criticism that helped to establish the subdiscipline of Religion and Literature within the academic field of Religious Studies. It was in that book where Vahanian’s lifelong preoccupation with secular culture first came to the fore. It modeled a new kind of theology cognizant of the displaced centrality of religion within contemporary culture. In it, he turned to novelists such as Melville, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky and Kafka, and poets such as Eliot, Auden, and Perse in order to mine the depths of our spiritual condition. In so doing he proved the point that for contemporary theological thinking to be relevant, it could not confine itself within the walls of the church, but must be engaged with this world, our one and only world. Now, some fifty years later, this once radical and iconoclastic claim has become commonplace. As Vahanian wrote then, “Today’s iconoclast may be tomorrow’s saint. And tomorrow’s religion may be today’s atheism.”
That lifelong preoccupation with secular culture manifested itself in several different ways. After his foray into literary criticism he turned his attention to the issue of modern technology and our religiously inspired utopic dreams for society in God and Utopia (1977). Rather than denigrating technological society as many religious and philosophical thinkers of the twentieth century have done (think Heidegger), Vahanian saw in technology a celebration of the humanness of this world, a world of our own making by which God bears his stamp, and gives God’s unqualified affirmation, on our future. Likewise in his book Tillich and the New Religious Paradigm (2005), his was not just an exposition on a theological forebear, but a grappling with how one man’s theological vision inaugurated something new and different within our religious orientations, alerting us to the felt sense of ultimacy within the everyday and the mundane.
But most of all, what I wish to be remembered—if only because I heard him say this so often about himself over the past ten years of his life—is that this man who fifty years ago provided a defining cultural commentary on the pervading sense of loss and uncertainty within contemporary culture and then went on to mine this fundamental insight by exploring a wide array of cultural forms was someone who became a cultural figure in his own right. Or perhaps better, what I mean to say is that this theologian who provided an early sociological and literary analysis of secular culture actually became a prophet and a poet of the secular. More than an academic, his writings were the expression of a lived faith, a faith in this world, and in a God for this our one and only world. If he began his career as a critic, he ended as a poet providing an integrative theo-poetic vision that testifies to a desire for God that runs even deeper than the death of God.