A message from President James W. Wagner

God and the Modern University

One of the best-known covers of TIME magazine was the red-on-black stunner of April 8, 1966, which posed the question, “Is God dead?” The cover story prompted 3,430 letters to the editor—and, incidentally, not a few irate communications to the Office of the President at Emory.

For among the theologians featured in the article was Thomas J. J. Altizer, an associate professor in Emory’s Department of Religion. Altizer had also appeared in a TIME article published the previous October—just as Emory’s trustees were preparing to launch a major fund-raising campaign. Despite calls for Altizer’s dismissal and fears that reaction of the faithful would harm the campaign, President Sanford Atwood and the trustees stood by the principle of academic freedom and by Altizer.

Of course, much has changed in forty years. Although the TIME article seemed to pose a loud “no” to the question of God’s demise, it also took note of the gathering forces of secularization, science, and urbanization. These forces appeared to be eroding the Deity’s foothold in America. In 1966 they seemed likely to continue unabated, dooming traditional religion to the margins of a self-confident society headed to the moon.

Things did not quite turn out as predicted. Current debates over human origins, abortion rights, and public displays of religious symbols underscore the fact that religion in America, far from withering, has become more politically and culturally assertive.

Nothing conveys change in America since 1966 quite like the word pluralism. Were TIME to pose the same question on its cover today, a majority of the letters to the editor the following week might ask, “Whose god?” We can no longer assume that the divinity we are talking about is the God of Jewish and Christian scriptures.

When Altizer taught at Emory, the religion department faculty mainly taught the Bible and Christian theology. He would not recognize the place today. The department’s full-time faculty members include five whose scholarship is devoted to Jewish studies, four to Tibetan Buddhism, three to Hinduism, one to American religious cultures, one to Islam—and, yes, a strong cadre of scholars whose teaching of Christian thought is informed by Middle Eastern studies, literature, law, and the social and natural sciences.

This shift reflects the enormous dislocations in America in the past four decades. In addition to the tremendous growth in the number of “alternative” spiritual paths that cropped up in the 1960s—from est to TM to Hare Krishna—there has been an explosion in the numbers of American Muslims, Hindus, and Bahais. At Emory, this transformation is reflected in the vigorous life of thirty student religious organizations.

God—by whatever name we signify the transcendent source of existence—is more central to the life of any great university than one might have imagined possible forty years ago. Where better than a university to wrestle with questions of ultimate meaning and purpose? Where better than a university to engage in conversation with those who seem so other?

In the twenty-first century, religious study and practice call for a kind of active tolerance, much different from the usual pledge not to interfere with one another. They require openness to uncertainty and ambiguity, a stance not so different from that demanded of scientists testing certain theories.

Universities are full of intellectually demanding, impatient, passionate teachers and learners, pushing against the limits of knowledge and understanding in fields as various as quantum mechanics, cosmology, paleoanthropology, and genetics. Why should we not bring similar intellectual rigor to the largest questions of all—the questions of meaning we confront singly and in community as we contemplate our origins, our brief life together, and the mysterious ending we call death?

Is God dead? Not at Emory; not in any intellectually rigorous community where students congregate with their traditions and histories, their beliefs, questions, and doubts, from the farthest ends of this small earth.



 © 2006 Emory University