Gabriel Vahanian, 1927-2012

September 27, 2012

A theologian who stirred up a storm of controversy with his theories about "the death of God" has died.

Gabriel Vahanian was born into an Armenian family in Marseilles, France, on 24 January 19. He was educated in Valence and at the Protestant Theological Faculty, Paris, before moving to the US in 1948 to gain a master's (1950) and then a PhD (1958) on "Protestantism and the arts" at Princeton Theological Seminary.

This led to a job and then a series of professorships in religion at Syracuse University, where Professor Vahanian remained for 26 years. In 1984, he decided to return to his native France to take up the prestigious theological chair at the Universite des Sciences Humaines, Strasbourg, eventually retiring as emeritus professor of cultural theology from what became the University of Strasbourg.

Although a bold and radical thinker, Professor Vahanian was a committed Presbyterian who was recently described by his son-in-law as "a lifelong, practising, disgruntled Protestant Christian".

His celebrated first book, The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era (1961), initially attracted the admiring attention of fellow theologians, yet it was brought into the limelight in 1965 when Time magazine published a major article on "the God is dead movement".

Citing the statement that "we must recognize that the death of God is a historical event: God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence", Time pointed out that it had been made not by "a moody French existentialist" but by an associate professor of religion who formed part of a movement that believed it was "no longer possible to think about or believe in a transcendent God who acts in human history".

Professor Vahanian was named as one of the four central figures in this "movement". All were soon subjected to intense attack and occasional death threats, largely by conservative critics who wrongly assumed they were opposed to religion.

In reality, however, Professor Vahanian felt that the America of the 1960s was a "post-Christian society" and sought to find new ways of thinking about religion within that context.

He went on to refine these ideas in later books such as Wait Without Idols (1964), No Other God (1966), God and Utopia: The Church in a Technological Civilization (1977) and Praise of the Secular (2008). They remain hugely influential among theologians to this day.

Professor Vahanian died on 30 August and is survived by his wife, Barbara Swanger, a son, a daughter and two grandchildren.

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