Is God Dead?

When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for Him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: ‘Go, and come no more. . . Come not at all, never, never! And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away. – Dostoevsky, The Grand Inquisitor

It was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (pronounced nee-che) who notoriously declared in 1882 that “God is dead.” In his fictitious novel Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883) he makes a similar declaration: “Could it then be possible! This old saint in his forest has not yet heard of it, that God is dead!” [1] However, Nietzsche’s claim is by no means a metaphysical pronouncement regarding a Supreme Being. The claim “God is dead” pertains more so to the people’s belief in the (particularly) Judeo-Christian God. As Kathleen Higgins has written: “His claim is that many people who think that they believe in God really do not believe. That is, their ‘belief’ makes no difference in their lives, a fact that they betray through their actions and feelings” [2].

Nietzsche still nonetheless speaks of the “shadows of God,” which, according to Richard Schacht [3], pertains to the ways in which the “God-idea” has influenced our daily lives with respect to our interpretations and evaluations of reality (situations or etc). As Nietzsche writes in his Gay Science (1882):

New Struggles [Kämpfe]. – After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave – a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. – And we  – we still have to vanish his shadow too! [4]

This is in section 108, where Nietzsche first discusses the death of God with respect to the shadow of Buddha. It isn’t until 125, the “Madman” section, where Nietzsche tells the haunting story of a madman running about in the morning hours looking for God. He is met in the town square by ridicule, to which the madman responds that he has “come too early,” that the news of God’s death had not yet reached humanity, even though it was them who had killed Him in the first place. This passage is truly traumatic, in the sense of the “nihilistic departure” (as it were) that comes once the declaration is understood. Nietzsche writes in a rather literary prose as to what I mean here. Carefully read his dispelling:

All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? [sec. 125 – emphasis added]

In this passage we see Nietzsche’s point “to make clear what a traumatic development the death of God could turn out to be” [5]. It isn’t until his later work, Thus Spake Zarathustra, that we see “the point of departure”; the “where-to-go-from-here” once we have realized and truly accepted the reality that God is dead.

Modern Theology and the Death of God

It has been said that we are dealing with a “post-Christian era” [6]. The early to mid-20th century average citizen had experienced a hard reality: the First and Second World Wars, nuclear bombings leading to the death of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Nazi Holocaust which led to the extermination of over 6 million Jews, bombings and unjust Warfare in Vietnam, and so on. As Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have written: “There is no Job who can sustain such suffering.” [7] Events such as these took a large toll on cultural theology that called back into question the ancient problem of God’s silence in the midst of great suffering.

Philosopher Robert Nozick has said that according to Christian theology, there are two “monstrous transformations” in the situation of humanity: first the Fall and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, “the Holocaust is a third monstrous transformation” [8]. As he so shockingly states: “There still remain the ethical teachings and example of the life of Jesus before his end, but there no longer operates the saving message of Christ. In this sense, the Christian era has ended” [9].

Time Magazine on April 8, 1966 displayed in large red letters the cover of one of its most controversial and best-selling copies of all time: “Is God Dead?” This issue dealt with a new movement in theology variously called radical theology, secular theology, death of God theology (DoG), and Christian atheism. Two of its most famous adherents are William Hamilton (1924-2012) and Thomas J. J. Altizer (b. 1927) who furthered the view that Christianity could be accommodated to the ever present secularism of the modern world. As Altizer writes in his book, The Gospel of Christian Atheism:

Is a genuine theology possible in our new world? Or a genuinely Christian theology? This. . . is an exploration of the possibility of a truly new theology for us, one only possible as the consequence of the dissolution of an old theology, a dissolution ending every theology that we have known, or, if not ending it, so profoundly transforming theology itself that only a truly new theology is no possible. [10]

What is the point of this theology? What were the “preconditions” that paved the way for this line of thinking? What one has to understand is the changes in secularism that the Enlightenment (1600-1800) brought to Christian theology. As Roger Olson and Stanley Grenz have written, “Although the Enlightenment had come to an end, theology would never be the same again. No subsequent theological trends could remain aloof to the developments of that epoch in the intellectual history of the West” [11]. As Olson in a later work otherwise states, “What the Enlightenment did, and modernity does, is not destroy religion in general or Christianity in particular but force them to reconsider themselves in several ways” [12].

This was in large ways due to the (1) revitalization of “God and creation” with the ever-growing mechanistic view of the universe brought about by Isaac Newton’s picture of the universe as a “great machine”; (2) moreover, the new foundations of knowledge laid out by Enlightenment philosophers. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” argues that people are entitled to a degree of personal autonomy (“free” thinking, so to speak) that brings into question prior authoritative and imposed religious/political matters. The motto of the Enlightenment (as Kant called it) runs simply: Sapere aude! – “Have courage to use your own reason!” Other factors include the emergence of a “new natural religion,” (Deists), where they would come to agree that “there is a religion of reason natural to all rational people that needs no special revelation from God or faith” [13].

Brief Criticism of DoG Theology 

Various cited theologians in this movement have different focuses with respect to the human condition and God. Paul van Buren for instance was more focused on the impossibility of God language while William Hamilton was more focused on Bonhoeffer’s notion of a “religionless Christianity,” which, according to Lissa McCullough, “focused on ethics and Jesus as the man for others, pulling the mind of the age away from the God question as moot metaphysics” [14]. Altizer on the other hand, “was intent to focus on God and nothing but God” [15].

One notable criticism of this theological movement is not only its short lived fame in the spotlight (peaked from 1965 through 1967, then subsided throughout the early seventies) but also its lack of clarity – among the lay as well as the educated. As Altizer once wrote, “My greatest failure was that I imagined I could write in such a way that it could affect the common reader. I couldn’t even make myself clear to intelligent, educated readers with a background in theology” [16]. Roger Olson and Stanley Grenz (1992) explore Alitzer’s fundamental mistake in associating the death of God as being a “truly Christian theology.”

According to Landon Gilkey from the University of Chicago (one of the movement’s most “positive” responders), Altizer and others arguing that contemporary human experience is godless is “neither a true nor a illuminating picture of our secular life as it actually is” [17].  Furthermore, according to Gilkey, “Without God-language, this theology cannot consistently hold onto the category of the Lordship of Jesus” [18]. Hence, “it relinquishes its sole touch with the Christian tradition and its claim to be a Christian theology” [19].

__________________

Notes:

  • [1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra. trans. Clancy Martin (Barnes&Nobles Classics: 2005), p. 9.
  • [2] ibid., xx.
  • [3] Richard Schacht, “Nietzsche: After the Death of God,” Cambridge Companion to Existentialism, ed. Steven Crowell (Cambridge University Press: 1997), p. 116
  • [4] Quoted from Schacht (1997), p. 116.
  • [5] Richard Schacht (1997), p. 117.
  • [6] See Gabriel Vahanian’s The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era.
  • [7] Quoted from John Caputo and Gianni Vattimo, After the Death of God (Columbia University Press: 2007), p. 2.
  • [8] Robert Nozick, The Examined Life (Simon & Schuster: 1989), p. 239.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (The Davies Group Publishers: 2002), p. 1.
  • [11] Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, 20th-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (IVP Academic: 1992), p. 24
  • [12] Roger Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (IVP Academic: 2013), p. 27.
  • [13] Ibid., p. 60.
  • [14] Lissa McCullough, “Historical Introduction,” Thinking Through the Death of God. ed. Lissa McCullough and Brian Schroeder (State University of New York Press: 2004), xv.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Quoted from Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism (Doubleday: 2004), p. 160
  • [17] Grenz and Olson (1992), p. 160.
  • [18] Ibid.
  • [19] Ibid.
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