God Is Dead

God Is Dead April 7, 2012

The T-shirt is tongue-in-cheek.  God is dead, it reads that Nietzsche says.  And as if in response to a versicle, God says: Nietzsche is dead.

Nietzsche first put those words into the mouth of the madman in The Gay Science, later to be further fleshed out in Thus Spake Zarathustra.  Pointing to the vacuous nominalism of architecturally-stunning churches and religious symbolism in Bismarck’s Germany, the madman shouts:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? (Aphorism 125)

For Nietzsche, the advent of an age where everything could be engineered through science, including the heroic history of a new German nation-state, had led to the death of God, particularly the god of European Christendom that was still preaching a glorious afterlife with no reference to life lived to the fullest in the here and now.

Nietzsche thus searched for a new ethics.  In his further work in Zarathustra and Ecce Homo, Nietzsche argued for a way of life embodied by the Ubermensch, the “overman,” operating with a “will-to-power”: you have to express yourself and live fully in the here and now without thinking about the airy-fairyness of an afterlife that might not happen. It was only idiots (like Christians) who believed in things like humility, hospitality, and sexual restraint; come on, Nietzsche was saying, wake up! your God is dead! look around! we have killed him! These ethics pointed back to his debut in The Birth of Tragedy, a neo-pagan apologetic that argued that European civilization had become overly rational, forgetting that in the Greek pantheon, there was also the orgiastic god Dionysius that drew the masses into non-rational self-expression, particularly when they watched Greek tragedy and were drawn together with the chorus into the unraveling of the masked actors’ rational worlds. Every day’s got to have a night, Nietzsche argued, so you had to have this liturgical disintegration to balance out the seeming integrity of everyday life. The problem with the modernity Nietzsche was protesting was that it was all rationally constructive–there wasn’t room for this sort of self-expression for the overman to get actualized–and in that constant constructiveness, the gods–never mind the Christian God–were written out of the picture.


Nietzsche literally became the madman in the final years of his life.  Seeing the beating of a horse outside his home, he ran out, clutched the horse, and cried out, “You are beating Dionysius! You are beating Dionysius!”  From there on out, he signed his letters “Dionysius the Crucified,” and true to his protestations about the engineered invention of “German culture” in the mid-nineteenth century, he called for the dissolution of the Bismarck regime.

It was, as if the post-mortem T-shirt were to have its way, God had gotten his sweet revenge. It does misunderstand Nietzsche’s central point, though. It wasn’t Nietzsche who killed God, Nietzsche had argued throughout his work. It was the rest of us.


Fast-forward to the 1960s and the rise and fall of “death of God” theology in America. Arguably more of a publicity stunt from a struggling 1960s editor at Time Magazine to boost subscriptions, this vein of Protestant theology made the cover of the magazine on April 8, 1966 (though an article the year prior had already addressed the issue before). Using Nietzsche’s slogan, a loose group of Protestant theologians in America like Thomas Altizer, Gabriel Vahanian, Paul van Buren, and William Hamilton (as well as a Jewish theologian, Richard Rubenstein, writing on the Holocaust) began to explore a combination of Paul Tillich’s cue to conceptualize the divine as “the ground of being” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s call for Christians in a “world come of age” to articulate a “religionless Christianity” that would express theological concepts in a world where transcendence was meaningless.

To be sure, the group was never a coherent one.  The basic idea was that it was becoming impossible in the second half of the twentieth century to speak of a transcendent God.  You had to embrace secularization, embrace the here and now, and as Harvey Cox (who was actually critical of the movement known as “death of God”) put it in The Secular City, the Christian church has to be an urban exorcist, casting out the demons of pie-in-the-sky transcendence from the city to make room for a secular theology.


But what did this actually mean for theology? The 1966 article expressed the central quandary for the group:

There is no unanimity about how to solve this problem, although theologians seem to have four main options: stop talking about God for awhile, stick to what the Bible says, formulate a new image and concept of God using contemporary thought categories, or simply point the way to areas of human experience that indicate the presence of something beyond man in life.

Just like Nietzsche’s insanity and the T-shirt’s cheeky pronouncement, the ideas quickly seemed to unravel. By 1969, Time had a new article out: “Is God Dead Dead?” On the one hand, people weren’t buying into it for fear that it would lead to a new atheism. On the other, as Catholic theologian John Dunne put it, maybe “the death of God” was just a stage where (ever so characteristic of Dunne) we’ve passed over and now are coming back. When the “death of God” died, Dunne suggested, the stage of “waiting for God” was ushered in, qualifying the secularity we once celebrated with the cautious eye toward the possibility that the world may still be more religious than we once thought.


But as if the “death of God” theological movement weren’t dead enough, one could always rely on evangelicals to protest, and as they did then, they still are speaking and are not silent. Billy Graham pointed to his “personal experience” of God meeting him in prayer. Carl Henry defended the rationalism of The God Who Speaks and Shows through the infallibility of the Bible, and Francis Schaeffer articulated a Christian worldview that was able to compete with the humanistic philosophies of the world in The God Who Is There. And it hasn’t stopped since the 1960s and 1970s: as recently as 2008, William Lane Craig published in Christianity Today an article entitled “God Is Not Dead Yet,” calling for a return to forms of natural theology, readings of science and nature where you can logically reverse-engineer what God is like from the world he made, as an evangelical apologetic. God’s not dead, so the children’s song goes, he is alive; I feel him all over me–and I can prove it too.


After all, the evangelicals were saying, where do you get your hope if God is dead? Come to church, the solution goes, and we’ll offer you proof after rational proof that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter.

Or maybe you don’t want to come to church. That’s OK. We’ll meet you on your turf, on the college campuses where we hand out Josh McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter in hopes that you’ll read Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and we’ll host talks with Lee Strobel where you can learn all about why there is The Case for Christ as well as The Case for Faith and The Case for a Creator. Continuing to speak to what they suggest still remains a “death of God” generation, the idea is that you have to prove to them rationally and scientifically that God not only exists, but that God is not dead.


Of course, as many will point out, this is only part of the apologetic picture.  New questions, after all, are always being developed. Sure, we have to prove that God exists and is alive, but now we have to do a lot more than that.

A cursory look at this year’s Holy Week articles in Christianity Today can be a case in point.  Al Hsu wonders, for example, if God is good, if–taking the cue from both post-structural theologians and university students–the idea of Jesus’ death as penal substitution isn’t a case of cosmic child abuse. He contends that we’ve misheard the cry from the cross, that Jesus was actually quoting Psalm 22: he’s not saying that God has abandoned him, Hsu argues, but rather that he’s looking forward to his resurrection predicted at the end of the psalm. Mark Galli takes another approach: wondering if God is good, he argues that our speculative questions like, “What would happen if a Buddhist child dies?” are way too abstract for a theology as concrete as that articulated by the Nicene Creed: that Jesus Christ was a concrete person who lived in a concrete time, and that we must trust the historical Jesus concretely while leaving our speculations to rest. God is not only not dead, these writers argue–he is also good even when we don’t think so, and we simply have to trust him.


One of the troubles with evangelical apologetics of all of these sorts, however, is that it all ironically falls into precisely to what Karl Barth, arguably the leading theologian of the twentieth century, said a resounding NO in The Epistle to the Romans (p. 35): “Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel—that is, Christian Apologetics—is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome.” It’s us telling God that he’s irrelevant if he doesn’t meet the questions on their own terms. It’s as if without some good evangelical apologetic help, the “death of God” onslaught beginning with Nietzsche and on through radical theology has to be answered, continue our beating though the horse that Nietzsche is clutching while screaming for Dionysius is already dead. Strangely enough, all of this sounds eerily like the same impulse of the secular theology people: God–or perhaps, Protestant theology–has got to meet the world on terms relevant to it. We’ve got to make something out of this. If God is dead, we’ve got to have a new theology. If we insist that God isn’t dead, we’ve got to answer the challenge, prove that he’s alive, demonstrate that he’s good, and give people in this dying world some hope, for God’s sake.


Hans Urs von Balthasar says: EVERYBODY, STOP.  SHUT UP.  LISTEN.  WATCH.  There is a cry coming from the cross: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?  Can you hear it?  Do you really?

“It’s just Psalm 22…”

“Oh, but this has to happen because Jesus is taking God the Father’s wrath in our place…praise God!”

“There’s hope, though! There’s still the resurrection!”

No, shut up. Listen. It is a scream of despair, not a professorial footnote to Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And then: “It is finished!”  Jesus hangs his head and dies.  Silence. God is dead.

There’s a whole day for this eeriness of the death of God to set in. It’s called Holy Saturday. It’s the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  For that one day, God is dead, and you’ve got to swim in it.  That’s where you’ve got to do your theology, von Balthasar writes, because in this hiatus, the entire “logic of theology” is turned upside down (p. 79).

And yet, unlike the “death of God” theologians, von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale: the Mystery of Easter is a call to contemplate the death of God from a completely different angle. He isn’t celebrating it, telling us to come up with a Christian theology without a transcendent divinity. He’s saying that the death of God calls us to adjust our understandings of who God is to who God reveals himself to be. We assumed he was powerful and omnipotent, but he chose to reveal himself through a total kenosis, emptying himself of all sovereign power and omnipotence so that, paraphrasing von Balthasar, his sovereignty is revealed precisely in his lack of power and his vulnerability.

It’s no wonder von Balthasar and Barth were good friends. They weren’t saying simply that the silence of God means that he’s dead. They were saying that the revelation of God in the humble figure of Jesus Christ enacts a krisis in our theological understanding that is so maddening that we have to kill him, and he lets us do it.

That’s the God in the tomb on Holy Saturday.


Strangely enough, the theology that has passed through Holy Saturday is strangely this-worldly, “secular” on a whole new level. Von Balthasar knew what he was talking about. In 1950, he left the Jesuit order with his mystical spiritual directee Adrienne von Speyr to found the Community of St. John, a “secular institute” that was an experiment to see if their mystical-theological vision could be fused with everyday life where people living in the community would retain their secular jobs. He was immediately ostracized by Jesuits. Pope Pius XII condemned his work. He wasn’t invited to the Second Vatican Council. And when he was reinstated and a cardinal hat was about to be dropped off by John Paul II, he died the day before it arrived.

Von Balthasar’s dramatization of Holy Saturday in his own life was “secular” in that Holy Saturday related directly back into his life in the saeculum, his this-worldly existence.  His life was immersed in the dark night of abandonment by God and his marginality in the church.  His life was re-oriented when he interpreted the everyday through his mystical encounter with the God whose very life was marked by the hiatus of Holy Saturday. He lived the death of God.


This year’s Holy Week–and thus, Holy Saturday–comes on the heels of the resignation of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury. Incidentally, the one who wrote the chapter on Holy Saturday in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar was none other than Rowan Williams.  For Williams, von Balthasar’s reading of Jesus’ descent into hell is the ultimate revelation of the fullness of God:

God’s ‘hiding’ of God in the dereliction of the Cross and the silence of Holy Saturday is in fact the definitive revelation. ‘It is precisely the unsurpassable radicality of this concealment which turns our gaze to it and makes the eyes of faith take notice’ (MP, 52). This does not mean, as one kind of modern theology would have it, that Holy Saturday establishes that the transcendent God is dead, emptied out into the pathos of the crucified; quite the opposite. Transcendence, in the sense of radical liberty from the systems of the created world, is given definition by God’s enduring, as God, the depths of godlessness. Equally. this is not some privileging of human vulnerability over impassibility, as if, pace the German Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann, God can only become truly or fully God by incorporating human suffering into divine activity (MP, 65-6). The emptiness of Holy Saturday is precisely the fullness, the already actual fullness of God: God can only be in humanity’s hell, because of what God already and eternally is (MP, 137).

Williams has been widely criticized for his handling of the Anglican Communion.  The secular press has read him as trying to please all sides, personally favouring homosexual civil unions, ordinations, and episcopal consecrations, but blocking them to placate his conservative colleagues.  The conservatives who formed an alternative network known as the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in 2008 hold that under Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury as an “instrument of communion” has been broken because of what they see as his indecisive leadership in upholding the Windsor Report’s moratorium on homosexual consecrations in the Communion. Williams has thus worked toward forming an Anglican Covenant where a Steering Committee can be formed to deal with complaints among provinces; again, the conservatives don’t want anything short of flat-out condemnation of what they see as heresy, and the progressives don’t want a global Anglican theological police force to patrol their working for the progress of social liberation. Williams’s move back into academia as Master of Magdalen College at Cambridge has been interpreted as a retreat from public life into an irrelevant place where the conversations he wanted to have globally can now take place in the confines of a seminar room.

But what if what’s known as the Anglican Communion crisis could be read through the lens of Holy Saturday? It’s been one hell of a split, conservatives accusing progressives of forcing revisionism down their throats, progressives labeling conservatives as homophobic bigots. But for all the talk about the instruments of communion being broken, the most vitriol seems to have been directed at Rowan Williams for not saying anything worth hearing. Doesn’t this sound like the God that Williams describes? Doesn’t this sound like the “emptiness of Holy Saturday”? Can’t Williams be interpreted as suffering as the very instrument of communion, calling the rest of us into his Holy Saturday where the problem of the Anglican Communion isn’t simply right and wrong, but the agony of the violence that both sides are placing on each other? Rowan Williams has lived out the transcendence of God that he gets out of von Balthasar, enduring in the depths of godless violence among Anglicans as a witness to the re-oriented “logic of theology” through the hiatus. Like von Balthasar, Williams has been in hell, where the God who died also has been.

In the face of Holy Saturday, this whole thing about dealing with the death of God, whether by assuming that that’s the way things are or by proving it otherwise, completely misses the point because it assumes that this is all very new and we’ve got to be relevant to all the new things coming out, to be secular on secular terms.  The point of Holy Saturday is that the death of God, yes, does call us to a secular life, but secular on the terms of the God who reveals himself by descending into hell. The word that this speaks is that you’re not allowed to start thinking about hope until (as John Dunne would have it) you’ve passed over to and come back from hell with God.

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