The Death of the Death of God OR “Gott ist tot” ist tot


I'll preface all this by noting that what follows is thoroughly not a tracing of the Death of God Theology or Philosophy; mostly it is my perspectives on the whole "God is Dead," thing as it currently stands.  As such, if you are unfamiliar with the "Death of God," thing, the names Friedrich Nietzsche, William Hamilton, or Thomas J. J. Altizer, you might want to check out the wikipedia article on it, and then poke around on the web for a bit.  There is a lot to read about it around.

Also of note: I am not in favor of jettisoning tradition because it is tradition.  I think there is a place for denominational work.  I'm not sure what that place is exactly, but that has more to do with my ignorance of ecumenical geography than it does with any theological position.




Clarification of Terms

Given the hot topic that "death of God" theology was, and is, it seems worth considering what is actually meant by the phrase.  More particularly, I want to express what I mean by the phrase, and why I think it is an idea with which it is worth grappling. After a brief consideration of what I mean by the phrase I will explore some of the related topics that provide some of the foundation upon which theological grappling may well take place. 

When I refer to the death of God I refer to my sense that (1) Our conceptualizations of God and the word God itself are in need of substantive reformulation.  People have been so swayed by unfaithfulness, judgment, and oppression that terms which resulting in one feeling a century ago sometimes drive people in the opposite direction in the present.  (2) Our traditional liturgies and theologies need to be renewed because they do not adequately speak to the experience and condition of contemporary people of faith.  This is not to be done for the sake of popularity or so as to avoid controversy, but rather because certain ways of thinking about, and naming, the Divine that may have previously "worked" to inspire, drive, and comfort people no longer provide sustenance or succor.  It is not so much that God is dead as that our naming of God no longer seems appropriate or fitting: (3) Our techniques for naming God ought to die.  And be renewed.  The classical traditions and methods still surely point to an abiding reality, but they do so in a way similar to calling a grown man named Timothy "Little Tim-Tim." There must be a better way to point to our faith and practice than what has been done.  Or, in the very least, it is worth the attempt to discover if there is a way.

The InterVarsity Dictionary of Theology entry for "Death of God" closes with  the following question.  "If we agree that God is too transcendent to be described in words, or too immanent for his acts to be distinguished from those of nature and man, then what do we have but a dead, or non-existent God?"  There is such a great wealth of ideas in this question that it seemed worth exploring it in detail for what might recovered in answering it.


Too Transcendent

That God is too transcendent to be described in words is a notion I often encounter, especially among progressive Christians, who often extend the idea by commenting that we shouldn't even be expected to be able to describe God because God is such a mysterious force/being/presence.  The results of thinking such as this is that God is left as an utterly amorphous, vague idea, an abstracted mystery that then allows for some very dubious theology to be done.

For Progressive people of faith, I feel very strongly that the desire to leave God almost entirely unarticulated comes as a response to an over-articulated demand for God to be a particular way coming from a more vocal Christian Right.  More or less, what I am suggesting is that the fuzzy theology of many liberal Christians is a sociological result of the  hardline, aggressive stance of some conservative Christians.  Because "they" are clear in their theological tenets and sometimes act in ways that we feel are judgmental and inappropriate, and "we" do not want to be like that we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, jettisoning not only judgment, but also clarity.  

One of the struggles that I believe we face is that even the language we use to talk about talking about God is marred with the marks of a Hellenization that does not well suit the numinous.  When we postulate that God may be too transcendent, we seem to be articulating a vision of God that is somehow fixed "out there," something akin a quasi-Platonic Form of Divinity.  Indeed, Plato's description of the Form of Beauty seems not too far removed from how many talk about God: "It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself" (The Symposium, 211b).  That is, the transcendent Form is so far removed from our world and our experience of the world that the best we can hope to do is experience some lesser reproduction of the thing.  The result of this thinking then, is that the best we can do when attempting to articulate something transcendent is hope to name some flawed copy of the thing we actually sought to speak.  I reject this construction.

Given that Hellenized thought is so profoundly foundational to Western education, culture, and theology, it would be naive to presume any capacity to be able to reject it wholesale and still be considered to be in conversation with the tradition, so I reject it knowing that I will hereafter always stand as a possible hypocrite to my own claims, knowing that I can easily far into the type of categorical and Wholly Other thinking that I am dismissing.  That being said, I think that what is called for is not a rejection of talk about God because God is unnameable, but a rejection of colonizing talk about God because God's name has been used to oppress and destroy.  We are called not to abandon attempts to name our experience, but to acknowledge that our attempts will be provisional and contextual, not eternal and utterly accurate.


Too Immanent

The fear that God becomes undifferentiateable from the natural world seems to be a hold over from a fear of the physical.  Rather than issues of Immanence and Transcendence being opposite ends of a theological continuum, I believe they are both a response to those same Hellenization processes which thrust God out into the aether.  When God is a bounded being that can be intellectually placed somewhere  – even if that where is "beyond all experience" –  then any claim to God being present in the physical world is simultaneously a claim to placing God within reach.  The issue, it seems to me, is not about whether God is "here" or "there," but that fact that we think God is categorically place-able in anything.  

The phrase  "too immanent for his acts to be distinguished from those of nature and man," suggests that if God is seen to be immanent, then somehow we will lose the capacity to discern God at all.  But what then of the God of Scripture? Of Liturgy?  Would we not still experience a sense of communion in prayer even if we did allow ourselves to panentheistically name the Pretense as present in the world?  Where and when did God inform us that we lived in a polarized world where things are only made in two shades?

A key seems to be in remembering that in Jesus Christ we have the bridging mediator that guides us to the cross and the rebirth in which the heavens and earth converge.  The Holy Spirit which persists is our guide  in present days.  A guide into new territory which has yet to be named.


The Death

Essentially, what I would like to call for, to proclaim, is that "death of God" theology has died.  That is, it no longer captivates, inspires, accurately speaks to the condition of contemporary people of faith, etc.  Rather than a consistent fixation of the end of an era of classical God-talk, I am much more interested in its renewal.  It strikes me that the task of the theologian is always four-fold: Recover, reclaim, cast off, and create.  There is certainly a wealth of information and passion to be recovered within the traditional modes of theological discourse, and some of it ought to be reclaimed for its use in building up the true church of believers in the Body of Christ. And some of it needs to be jettisoned as a nothing more than a historical, philosophical artifact and vestige.

I am interested in that which comes after the casting off of old clothes, the encounter with the open air after centuries of enclosure.  What wondrous words might we find to articulate our sense of the Divine in this world?  What a glorious bricolage we may find.  


3 Responses

  1. Well said.  It is helpful for me to think about this in terms of Ricoeur's first and second naivete (or even a hermeneutics of suspicion and retrieval).  I think Caputo and Vattimo are on to something with their title "After the Death of God."  I take it to be a necessary passage theology must go through in our time but I want to see it through to the other side.  That's also what I understand Kearney to be doing with his idea of anatheism.  That is, what happens when we experience the death of the death of God?  And what new channels of theological discourse does that open up?  For me, that's when it gets exciting.

  2. So, I'm just trying to get some clarification. When you say we're living after the death of God or we live in a time that has experienced the death of the death of God what exactly died? It seems like you and Blake following Caputo are simply talking about the death of the God of onto-theology. Correct me if I'm wrong. I think it's important to point that death of God theology was not simply a Christian movement. There were also Jewish theologians trying to do theology after Auschwtiz. With that in mind, the death of God was not simply a linguistic or epistemological issue but also an issue of theodicy. The linguistic reading of the death of God was championed by thinkers such as Mark C Taylor, Raschke, and Winquist who believed that God's being is dissolved into language. But, theologians responding to shoah were thinking more about ontological issues and theodicy. They realized that we are going to have to radically rethink how to do theology. Here Altizer is helpful following Blake when he realizes that the cross is ultimately the self-annihilation of God which is simultaneously the death of God and Satan. At the cross we encounter a coincidence of opposites where this wholly other oppressive God becomes identical with Satan and both are negated in the death of the Son. This allows Altizer to declare that Satan is Lord of the shoah.
    I think we have to recognize that the death of God theology arose out of a specific sense of nihilism pervading the Western world and a realization that if there was a future for theology it had to be redone radically. I'd strongly recommend William Hamilton's book the New Essence of Christianity which combines insights from the later Bonhoeffer, Nietzsche, Tillich, and Camus. Perhaps, I think it's too simple to say that the death of God was simply a recognition that we no longer had the adequate tools to name God, but we also need to understand that everything is up in the air after his death. An insight I think Nietzsche understood all too well.
    Clayton Crockett completed his book Interstices of the Sublime with this insightful quote:
    “God is dead, even if belief in God is back, which means that everything is questionable. Radical theology is free to ask questions, unanchored by grounding in a substantial God. Even substance is not substantial. Questions swirl, spiral, and intertwine. Sublimation means making meaning. The sublime both gives meaning to language and resists meaning. The sublime is the source of sublimation. Dark forces are at work. Illumination is partial, at best” (187).

  3. “We are called not to abandon attempts to name our experience, but to acknowledge that our attempts will be provisional and contextual, not eternal and utterly accurate.”

    Thanks for writing Callid.

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