RIP, Gabriel Vahanian (1927-2012)

I just heard from Jeff Robbins (via Facebook) that Gabriel Vahanian has passed away.

Gabriel Vahanian is best known for being one of the radial theologians of the 1960s and for his long tenure at Syracuse University.  His work after the early 1970s is not as well known in the US as it is in France, but he continued to write and publish. It’s my position that he is largely uncredited for his work in developing the field of religion and literature.  His most recent book published in the USA is 2008’s Praise for the Secular.

I have always appreciated his serious work on Tillich, much of which was collected in the book Tillich and the New Religious Paradigm.

I had the chance to meet with him a few times, and he even gave me some criticism of my written work and wrote an interesting critique of a worship service that he attended.  He was present at my church a few times, and I will never forget the one time I caught him clapping his hands to “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

He told me not too long ago that the first public lecture that he ever gave was at Lancaster Theological Seminary.

When philosopher Charles Courtney retired, he told a bizarre story that he said was part of the “untold history” of Drew Theological School, that Vahanian came to campus and interviewed for a job, and in the middle of interviewing for the job, himself offered jobs to the faculty at Drew to leave Drew and come to Syracuse.  This initiated what was later something of a schism of the faculty, if I remember correctly, between acceptance of radical theology and the traditional Methodism that was represented by some new administrators at Drew.  Gabriel recounted the story to me a few years later, and it was fascinating to hear what the backrooms of theological schools were like in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Our best thoughts to Gabriel’s family, especially Jeff and Noelle, friends of many of us on this blog.

13 thoughts on “RIP, Gabriel Vahanian (1927-2012)

  1. Sorry to hear this. I remember reading his text The Death of God: The Culture of our Post-Christian Era (1961) in college. It was a very lucid analysis of the death of god and predated Altizer and Hamilton’s popular text. It’s well worth the read.

  2. The following is part of an email sent by the Chaplain at Lebanon Valley College:

    Dr. Vahanian died in his home in Strasbourg, France at the age of 85.

    Educated at the Lycée Français de Valence and the Princeton Theological Seminary, Vahanian had long tenures as a Professor of Religion at Syracuse University and the University of Strasbourg, and was a founding member of the American Academy of Religion. His book The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era (1961) is widely considered to be one of the most influential theological texts of the postwar era. He went on to author another eight books, both in French and English, the most recent being Praise of the Secular (University of Virginia Press, 2008). He completed his last manuscript only one month ago, tentatively entitled “Figures of Christ: From incarnation to cloning,” which is scheduled for publication with Palgrave-MacMillan press.

    Memorial services will be held at St. Paul Cathedral in Strasbourg on Friday, September 7.

  3. At the recent July 8-10 centenary conference celebrating the legacy of Jacques Ellul (1912-94) Prof. Vahanian was in good form challenging our thinking and recalling his friendship and intellectual sparring with his friend Jacque Ellul. He traveled from Strasbourg to be part of our International Jacques Ellul Society event in the Chicago area. We value his friendship and legacy. May he rest in peace.

  4. Thank you for sharing that, David.

    The University of Virginia Press’ website posted the following:

    We would like to pay tribute to Gabriel Vahanian, who passed away last week at the age of 85. Educated at the Lycée Français de Valence and the Princteon Theological Seminary, Vahanian had long tenures at Syrcause University and the University of Strasbourg and was a founding member of the American Academy of Religion. His book The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era was one of the most influential postwar theological texts. The University of Virginia Press was proud to publish his book Praise of the Secular in 2008.

  5. From the NYT article:

    “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.”

    I’d be curious to hear what Altizer thinks of this. Was the death-of-God movement really just an attempt to rescue Christianity? I don’t think they ever saw themselves as apologists for Christianity. Maybe that was Vahanian’s mission but I’m not sure that this characterization applies to all of the theologians associated with this movement.

  6. Altizer can speak for himself here, but perhaps apologist isn’t the right word in the typical use of the term, but maybe the right word if we consider the ways in which Tillich is often thought as an apologist.

    I like William Hamilton’s description of hismelf as a Christian expatriate. But as we all know all of these thinkers–Van Buren, Altizer, Vahanian, Rubenstein, Hamilton–had fairly different ideas. I’ve always sensed that there was a little bit of rivalry between some of them.

    I also find it curious the way in which Cox is sometimes associated with the “movement.”

  7. Yes, but Tillich’s work was much more apologetic in the same vein as a Schleiermacher. Tillich was still trying to redeem Christian theology by updating it with his existential ontology. Altizer seemed to be more comfortable jettisoning foundational orthodox beliefs. Sure, Altizer obviously saw something in Christianity that was worth holding onto but I think there’s a reason why Altizer came to be seen as a pariah and Tillich is viewed by as one of the most significant theologians of the past century.

    Cox’s association with the movement has always confused me. He spoke about the secular but it was never theologically heterodox if I remember correctly.

  8. I think that early on Altizer saw himself as continuing Tillich’s mission, but a clear break happened at some point. When I went through the Altizer archive at Syracuse, it was interesting to see evangelicals’ response to the Time magazine article, some of it was expressed as “we thought we were done with this Tillich nonsense, and now… *this*??”

  9. There’s probably something to that although Altizer’s generally expressed more respect for Barth than Tillich due to Barth’s christocentrism. I still think Tillich is broadly in the liberal protestant tradition (even if he tried to distance himself from it in his ST) whereas Altizer clearly inhabits a more heterodox space. Of course, from the evangelicals perspective everything that’s non-evangelical looks the same.

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