2004 Religion & Philosophy Speakers

A Debate with Thomas J. J. Altizer and John D. Caputo
“The Death of God vs. The Desire for God”

Is God dead? Is secularism overtaking the Western world? Two leading theologians tackled these and other questions as they opened Lebanon Valley College's 2004–2005 colloquium on God in the 21st Century. Dr. Thomas Altizer, left, in an early photo, a radical theologian associated with the "Death of God" movement, will debate Dr. John Caputo, right, a leading postmodern theologian who subscribes to a new enlightenment driven by the "Desire for God." They defended their philosophies in a free, public debate, titled The Death of God vs. The Desire for God moderated by Dr. Jeff Robbins of the LVC Religion and Philosophy department.

In the 1960s, Altizer was a leader of the "God is Dead" movement. He and his followers were called Christian Atheists, and they stirred a worldwide theological furor. Taking cues from Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and other philosophers, Altizer and other U.S. Protestant theologians advanced the notion that God should no longer be thought of as the Supreme Being described in the Bible, but rather as a presence and energy pervading the entire universe. Altizer is professor of religious studies emeritus at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Caputo, a professor of religion and humanities at Syracuse University, is one of the country's leading postmodern theologians and philosophers of religion. He is a critic of modern religious critics, and of the notion that secularism defines the Western world

Jan Willis
“Dreaming of Me: An African-American Woman’s Spiritual Journey”

Dr. Jan Willis, whom Time magazine hails as one of the six "spiritual innovators of the new millennium," was the first African American to become an Indo-Tibetan scholar and translator. To overcome deep racial wounds, she turned to Buddhism, which she practiced for the first time while studying abroad in the Tibetan monasteries of India and Nepal. Willis’ presentation at Lebanon Valley College shared the same title as her powerful memoir, Dreaming Me: An African American Woman's Spiritual Journey. Willis, a professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, was the first speaker in LVC's 2004-2005 Colloquium on God in the 21st Century.

After being subjected to deeply painful racial incidents while growing up in the South--including a cross-burning by the Ku Klux Klan--she set out to claim her scholarship at Cornell, but during her day-and-a-half bus ride north, she wasn't allowed to eat at the lunch counters on the way. The harsh reality of life in the segregated South of the 1950s and 1960s left an indelible stain on her consciousness.As an undergraduate at Cornell in the racially-charged 1960s, Willis, an armed and embittered Black Student Alliance member, had to decide whether or not to take up the struggle for human rights as a member of the Black Panther Party in the United States, or to seek out a more humane existence abroad.

"To get beyond the pervasive sense of pain and suffering I carried, I knew I would have to find healing, to find that place of belonging that is so basic for us all: feeling at home in our own skins." — from Dreaming Me.

What she discovered, living in a narrow temple among 60 Tibetan monks, was the healing place she was seeking. Willis' journey eastward introduced her to Thubten Yeshe, the Tibetan lama who would not only become a lifelong teacher, but would also set her on the path that led her to graduate from Cornell and complete her doctoral work at Columbia University. She is now the Walter Crowell University Professor of Social Sciences at Wesleyan, where she is also a professor of religion and a professor of East Asian studies.