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The death of God: a retrospective

By Peter Sellick - posted Sunday, 15 September 2002


This essay was inspired by an article by Gabriel Vahanian entitled : "The Future of Christianity in a Post-Christian Era", in: Towards a New ChriStianity: Readings in the Death of God Theology. Ed JJ Altizer. 1967.

The date of publication of the above article indicates a time of much ferment in Christian theology that began when theologians of the 20C took the antitheologians of the 19C seriously. The decline of faith in God was predicted by Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly in his short piece "The Madman" which appeared in "The Gay Sciences". This piece became a kind of banner for those of us who were disillusioned with the church as we found it because it promised to break down the cultural ossification of the church and reveal a hidden iconoclastic gospel.

The God whose death we celebrated was the God of the institutional church that had sold out its heritage firstly to the body/soul dualism of neo-Platonism, then to the political structures of the Holy Roman Empire as well as to the supernaturalism that infects all religious movements. Finally, the church sold out to religiosity and in our time to the individualism of spirituality. In the process it lost the radical materialism of the traditions of Israel that told us that we were dust and to dust we must return and it lost the critique of religion that was the basis of the proclamation of the prophets and the life of Jesus. Christianity was made into a commodity dispensed by a church that was obsessed with its own survival.

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The death of God movement promised a smashing of the idols that kept congregations cosy in the promise that their belief would allow them to cheat death and insulated them from what the rest of Western society had discovered: there was no one out there who cared about us. We suffered and died and there was no one to hear our cries but those who suffered and died next to us. We proclaimed the general, supernatural, common God of our wishful thinking and projection to be dead and we celebrated the God who was revealed in the life of Christ and especially in his scandalous death. We believed in the crucified God, who was a scandal to all religious.

The old debates about whether God existed or not and that between science and religion were founded on the idea of God as supernatural agent. The reason that these debates never reached satisfactory conclusion was that the existence of such an agent and whether he could interact with the material universe could never be settled. However, when it was accepted that the God that we see in the face of Christ and in the events of his life and death had nothing to do with the supernatural, but had to do with an historical event captured in the cultural/literary, then the debates evaporated. Such a tradition in theology therefore takes no interest in, for example, God and big bang cosmology. The ontological basis of Christianity may not be found in natural science, it is properly based in an historical event, that of the history of Israel and of Jesus Christ. This was an exciting time in theology because it seemed that many of the ghosts of the church had been exorcised and many of the idols that stood as caricatures of Christian faith were broken.

Why did this new theology not kindle in the church? My experience of two major denominations and countless members of the public washed up in a large teaching hospital leads me to think that the theological revolution of the 20C never happened. The answer to why this is the case is obviously complex, it is sociological, ecclesiastical, and psychological (as my articles on evolutionary psychology seek to show).

Let us take only one tack. During the first few hundred years of the Christian tradition the non Jewish world was ready for Christianity. The theism of the Greeks and the Romans was a tottering and transparent edifice and Greek philosophy, in all its complexity and depth, was existentially obtuse. This is why Christianity swept with such rapidity into the culture of the West. Vahanian says that the movement of Christianity into the pre-Christian era was much easier than its move into the post-Christian era. A resurgence in the post-Christian era is more difficult because the culture has been inoculated against Christianity by its false representation during the past 2000 years. Add to this the immanentism of tailor-made spirituality and liberalism that brooks no argument in religious matters and we have a culture in which it is impossible to become Christian. And so the church is in retreat. The gospel of freedom is obscured by the caricatures trotted out by the unchurched who believe with their lips but not with their hearts and by institutions that are running scared that even that which they have will be taken away from them.

To be more specific. If the rapid rise of Christianity in the West was helped by a theological vacuum, what are the forces impeding and impelling a resurgence in the post Christian era? I have already indicated that one of the major obstacles is the self-invalidation of Christianity. This occurs in the ecclesiastical structures that continue to celebrate a God who is dead to us and rightly so. In other words, the church itself is subject to idolatry and this is recognised by the cultured despisers.

But there are secular idolatries that have arisen as a result of the decline of the church. At their centre lies the fear that we are not getting what we deserve. This feeling is exacerbated by the spectacle of the lives of the rich and famous that are constantly held before our eyes. These people are obviously getting what they deserve despite their history of drug taking and suicide and serial marriage. Consumerism, underpinned by technology, promises transcendence, intoxication and ecstasy, that is, all of the temptations of religion, has become seductive idolatry. We are bombarded by messages that tell us how incomplete our lives are.

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The main-line churches, particularly Liberal Protestantism, have abandoned iconoclasm for pastoral preaching, tinkering with psychology and an ungrounded reassurance of the love of God. Luther’s realisation that the things of the world are not evil in themselves but it is the heart that is the factory of idols is rarely heard from the pulpit. What preacher would dare to attack the conspicuous consumption displayed by the rich? They do not dare because they know that adherence to the church is fragile to say the least. We may say that in the pre-Christian era the world was ready for Christianity. Our present concern is to wonder when the post-Christian world will be ready and when the church will have the courage to proclaim that salvation comes only from the living God who destroys all the idols.

It is not that Christianity has not been tried. We may also say that Communism has not been tried and continue to look for the pure form. In retrospect we can now see how the latter was misfitted to the human reality and would never have raised us up. Christian faith is the faith that Christ will raise us up, not after death but in this life and world. It is faith that we will be transformed into a new creation. The judgment about whether Christianity has been tried or not does not yield to an easy yes or no.

The "no" case is supported by the present failure that has resulted from the distortion of the tradition. Scratch the surface of the majority of church goers and you will find thinly disguised (even overt) Gnosticism and the god of Unitarianism. These are hardly Christian conceptions. The reason that the churches are in decline is that these conceptions are culturally forfeit.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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