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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

From the Vault: In Praise of a Mentor

Alumnus Kogan honors Emeritus Professor Vahanian with endowed support to religion department

Sept. 14, 2012, by Rob Enslin

Editor's Note: The following article originally appeared on The College of Arts and Sciences' website in 2007 and, in truncated form, in Connections magazine (Spring 2008). It is reprinted here, with updated format editions, in memory of theologian Gabriel Vahanian, who passed away on Aug. 30 at his home in Strasbourg, France. He was 85.

Vahanian's death has also inspired many remembrances, including those by Michael S. Kogan '63, G'77, professor of religious studies at Montclair State University, and James B. Wiggins, the Eliphalet Remington Professor of Religion Emeritus at SU.

Last October, following a ceremony in his honor, renowned theologian Gabriel Vahanian caught up with Dean Cathryn Newton outside the Hall of Languages and made a startling confession. “Each of us is entitled to make one big mistake in our lives,” he told her, pipe swinging from the corner of his mouth. “Mine was leaving Syracuse University.”

If Vahanian, 81, was joking, one cannot help but wonder how much. After a distinguished 26-year career at SU that included founding the graduate studies program in religion in 1967 and directing it until 1975, Vahanian opted to return to his native Strasbourg in 1984 to teach and write. His latest book, "Praise of the Secular" (University of Virginia Press), continues the work he began at SU nearly 50 years ago on the “death of God” movement. “I worry about the future of Christianity because what I see around me isn’t very encouraging,” he later confides. “What we need is an institution that witnesses to Christianity without developing into some kind of political party. How you do this, I don’t know. It hasn’t been devised yet.”

Vahanian still maintains ties with the University. Last fall’s historic ceremony—attended by four SU religion chairs, spanning three decades—was perhaps the first time that both his genius as a thinker and abilities as a teacher were formally recognized. “Professor Vahanian’s vision centered on a critical and theoretical approach, as opposed to a theological and dogmatic one, to the study of religions and their cultural symbol systems,” Tazim Kassam, associate professor and chair of religion at SU, told the overflowing crowd. “He also established a tradition of radical theology in the department that became a signature of the program.”

In a poignant student-becomes-teacher moment, Michael S. Kogan ’63, G’77, chair of philosophy and religion at Montclair State University in New Jersey, made the final payment, in public, to a graduate support fund he endowed more than a decade ago in honor of Vahanian, his mentor. “I came to Syracuse either by accident or by the hand of God,” Kogan recalls privately, in a wry turn of phrase. “Vahanian not only introduced me to epic thinkers, but also to myself. Studying with him was, without question, the greatest thing that ever happened to me.” Kogan had been considering a career in law.

Vahanian’s fame and Kogan’s philanthropy have paid handsome dividends for SU graduate students seeking help with educationally related expenses. Jill Adams, a doctoral candidate, frequently relies on the fund to travel to academic conferences. “Support for our research and for presenting our work allows us to develop as scholars, teachers, and public speakers among our peers,” she says. “It shows a profound commitment to the development of the discipline.” David L. Miller, SU’s Watson-Ledden Professor of Religion Emeritus, agrees. “If you ask our graduate students from over the years, many will tell you they were accepted to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, but chose to come to Syracuse. Michael Kogan’s generosity has not only helped our graduate program, but also helped put Syracuse University on the map.”

Kassam says that two measures of the graduate program’s success are the 80 or so applications it receives each year for a mere seven openings and the fact that more than two-thirds of recent graduates hold college or university teaching positions. “The department has gained a national and international reputation for the quality of its program and faculty. We’ve flourished in productivity and influence,” she explains. Kassam attributes much of the success to the mutual aspirations that grow from the relationships between students and teachers, á la Kogan and Vahanian. “Syracuse University is training its students to have a deeper appreciation for what it means to be human,” declares Kogan. “The humanities—religion, philosophy, languages, literature, and the arts—don’t just prepare us for making a living; they prepare us for making a life."

Kogan echoes the sentiments of Vahanian, who, for half a century, has been linked to groundbreaking research in literature and theology and in culture and religion. In his landmark book, "The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era" (Geroge Braziller, 1961), Vahanian brilliantly examines the cultural objectification of God. As it was spawning a radical intellectual movement, the book provoked two controversial Time magazine articles in 1965-66, bringing Vahanian popular notoriety. “There was an extraordinarily negative reaction to them,” remarks Thomas J.J. Altizer, a fellow “death of God” theologian. “We were often threatened with violence. The movement was a product of the ‘60s.”

Largely an American phenomenon, the “death of God” movement owed an intellectual debt to European thinkers—notably 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who coined the phrase—but, like many breakthroughs in thought, it was largely misunderstood. Broadly speaking, “death of God” theologians purported that Christianity’s traditional view of a transcendent Creator was irrelevant in contemporary society. Only by embracing the secularization of the modern world, they argued, could humanity seek the Divine and find redemption.

“It was a reinterpretation of the meaning of God—not a belief that God was once alive, suffered an accident, and then died,” explains John Caputo, SU’s Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Humanities. “The movement represented a shift in consciousness, where God was no longer viewed as a transcendent figure from another space or time, but as an immanent power within each of us. It’s pretty radical thinking.” Gabby, as Vahanian’s friends call him, believed that the older view was reducing God to an idol. “Theologically speaking, any concept of God can only be an approximation,” he told Time in 1965. “Only God can have a concept of God.”

While secularization never took root in U.S. popular culture, Caputo says it did among certain intellectuals, who became leading proponents of the “death of God” movement. “Nowadays, we don’t talk as much about the ‘death of God’ as we do about the ‘return of religion.’ Some of these theologians have had to go back and revise their theses,” he adds.

Despite—or perhaps in spite of—the notoriety brought by his ideas, Vahanian has quietly soldiered onward, teaching, publishing, and drawing praise worldwide. He is now professor emeritus at Université Marc Bloch in Strasbourg, as well as at SU, where his personal papers from 1945 to 1971 are archived. His many accomplishments include serving as a founding member on the board of directors of the prestigious American Academy of Religion and, in 1982, as a consulting member of the U.S. President’s Commission on the Study of Ethical Problems in Biomedical Medicine and Behavioral Research.

On a trip to Strasbourg, James Wiggins, SU’s Eliphalet Remington Professor of Religion Emeritus, asked for directions to Vahanian’s home. “You mean the American professor?” a postman asked. The response reminded Wiggins of another aspect of Vahanian’s persona. “In the United States, Gabby always presented himself with an affinity and fondness for France; in France, he was perceived as an American thinker and theologian,” Wiggins says. “His ability to straddle both worlds without becoming trapped in either one epitomizes my perception of him.” Altizer notes another way in which Vahanian straddled two worlds. “We were all radicals in different ways,” he says of his “death of God” colleagues. “Probably more than anyone, Gabby gave voice to a full Christian theological position in context of a world in which God is dead.”

Vahanian accepts the praise heaped upon him in stride. “Whatever I achieved since moving away, I owe to my formative years spent at Syracuse. My debt to the University soars well beyond any merit I could claim.” A legendary wit notwithstanding, there is no hint of anything but sincerity in his voice.