John T. Elson, Editor Who Asked ‘Is God Dead?’ at Time, Dies at 78

Elson died last week and this is a good vantage point to look at the changes of religion in the last half century.  Even though many proclaimed the end of God in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, God returned with a vengeance to show his public face in the public sphere in the 1980’s and 1990’s. But the story is not so simple:

The New York Times Obit notes that the cover of Time magazine posed a question: “Is God dead?” But “the article’s actual headline was ‘Toward a Hidden God,’ and it was a scholarly, careful look at how secularism, urbanism, and all the other ‘isms were changing people’s ideas about God.” “Secularization, science, urbanization — all have made it comparatively easy for the modern man to ask where God is and hard for the man of faith to give a convincing answer, even to himself,” Mr. Elson wrote.

Quotes from the original Tine magazine article: Friday, Oct. 22, 1965 Theology: The God Is Dead Movement

They say that it is no longer possible to think about or believe in a transcendent God who acts in human history,

Buddhism & Blake. There is a strong streak of mysticism… whose eclectic theology borrows from such diverse sources as Buddhism and William Blake

Paul van Buren is an advocate of linguistic analysis, which attempts to clarify language by examining the way words are used and denies the objective truth of statements that cannot be verified empirically.


Harvard’s Harvey Cox… whose book The Secular City concludes with the idea that Christianity may have to stop talking about God for a while, complains about the writers’ imprecise language. “Is it the loss of the experience of God, the loss of the existence of God in Christianity, or the lack of adequate language to express God today?” he asks.

Yet we indeed do have a more hidden limited deity.  Eliezer Berkovits is the author to be credited for the idea that we no longer have direct contact with a theistic God and now we follow halakhah without a direct presence. His lines about halakhah as substituting for a living presence are now associated with almost any modern pan-halachic approach.  But Berkovits was the one to respond to the hidden God by saying we now have halakhah.

Mysticism and Kabblah which were not in vouge in the first half of the twentieth century are useful in diverse ways. We have the symbolic realm of the Kabbalah to deflect from a personal deity onto more benign, God is sefirot. Even those who read Ramhal to be Haredi have deflected their God away from a person to a closed mechanism of sefirot and inner divine drive. We also have the spirituality version of Kabbalah and Neo-hasidism where God is functional to provide human happiness and religious experience. We also now have the Elie Wiesel Hasidic deity whom humans argue with. We have the tzimzum deity whom we can no longer know through doctrine.

And finally we have a variety of Jewish based kitchen deities, where one prays for everyday miracles, prosperity, and that the kugel comes out OK There is one recent semi-yeshivish popular book on Jewish prayer that encourages one to pray for one’s daily concerns. Even as God has come back in the public sphere, the deity is more therapeutic than theistic.

2 responses to “John T. Elson, Editor Who Asked ‘Is God Dead?’ at Time, Dies at 78

  1. I read the situation in a somewhat different way. There is a huge number of non-Orthodox Jews who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious(SBNR). I would say there are way more SBNR women today than active Conservative, Reform or agnostic secular Jewish women . Somewhat less so with men.

    These SBNR types are not all fools taken in by TV preachers and the easy mysticism of Eckhart Tolle and The Secret. The piece Jewish denominations are missing is the role the body plays in this new spirituality. Beginning with healthy eating, avoiding of toxins and pollutants and onto exercise and yoga, meditation, breathing and Qigong, there is a counterculture in play that offers a substantive alternative to talk, whether chasidic or stamm rabbinic drashas.

    Jews no less than others find aging terrifying, as they should. And in the spirit of American pragmatism they attempt to find out what actually works in their lives. When the rabbis and scholars will become role models for long and active sexual lives, flexible and strong bodies and good all around health they will be able to talk convincingly of theism and its relation to ruchniyus. Until then it’s mostly book talk.

    • I am not sure all the SBNR are looking for a body centered religion. I have met many of them and many want SBNR for inner piece. I am also not sure that the body is tied into the John Elson trajectory. Elson and eclipse of God theologians seem to be independent, even if not disconnected, from the health food and body religion of people like
      Dr. John Harvey Kellogg
      or Moshe Feldenkrais. Paul van Buren was not into connected his theology to a healthy body.

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