The Death of God & Transcendence

“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?”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

“The true God is the hidden God”

-Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1, 193

In reflecting about the death of God we want to read a certain kind of atheism back into the haunting words of Nietzsche. We want to view him the same way we view guys like Dawkins and Hitchens, but this is ultimately a mistake. If we put him in the same category we do to the New Atheists, we would miss the weight of his words. The death of God for Nietzsche is a cultural event. This poses an opportunity and a catastrophe, wherein the belief in transcendence has come to an end and when the culture wakes up to this reality, nihilism (infinite meaninglessness) will come creeping in. Nihilism, for Nietzsche, must be overcome. This is where his Übermench rises and overcomes.

Tomáš Halík, in his wonderful book ‘I Want You to Be’, argues that Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead” can be seen maybe “not as only a sentence about God and against God but also one containing something of God’s message to us.” (p. 20) In this chapter Halík is writing about God speaking to us, and how often we only stop at God’s first word to us. Halík says this is a mistake. Like Abraham, who ‘at the moment God was hidden from him in incomprehensibility’ waited to hear God speak to him for a second time. Hope, no matter how small or incomprehensible, says Halík, is the chink in the armor through which the “still small voice” of God’s message can reach us. (p. 21)

We live in the shadow of Nietzsche’s Madman’s proclamation to the death of transcendence, Halík argues that this should be viewed as only the first sentence to us, which like Good Friday (the death of Christ), must be followed by a second sentence. Good Friday is an important message to us from God, but it certainly was not the final one. Here Halík offers his most lucid analysis:

“‘God is dead!’ That sentence uttered at the end of the nineteenth century continued to fascinate for the next hundred years. Maybe it was not only a sentence about God and against God but also one containing something of God’s message to us. A God who has not endured death is not truly Living. A faith that does not undergo Good Friday cannot attain the fullness of Easter. Crises of faith –– both personal and in histories of culture –– are an important part of the history of faith, of our communication with God, who is concealed and returns again to those who do not stop waiting for the unique and eternal Word to speak to them once more.” (p. 20)

The author of the book of Hebrews tells us much the same:

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:15)

David Bentley Hart thinks the time we live in the death of God, which is the death of a god that did not exist in the first place, is an opportunity to reclaim the true transcendence of God. For Hart the death of God was the death of the God of modernity and nihilism. In his essay “Impassibility as Transcendence”, Hart takes on both Thomists and modern fundamentalists alike. For him the language within the Thomist scheme of transcendence does not actually speak to God’s utter difference and transcendence, but falls short and looks as modern as any theology does today. The statement Hart seeks to give an answer to comes from Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange:

“God determining or determined: there is no other alternative.”

God, under both the Thomist  and the modern fundamentalists scheme, cannot avoid the problem that Lagrange puts forth, because He is simply another being among beings and is thus caught in the scheme of finite existence and causes. This is a grave mistake because God properly defined within the classical theistic metaphysical tradition is that God is the ground and source of all being. Hart expounds (at length) on the definition of God’s transcendence:

“God’s being is necessary, that is, not simply because it is inextinguishable  or eternally immune to nothingness, but because it transcends the dialectic of existence and nonexistence altogether; it is simple and infinite actuality, utterly pure of ontic determination, the “is” both of “it is” and of the “it is not”. It transcends, that is to say, even the distinction between finite act and finite potency, since both exist by virtue of their participation in God’s infinite actuality, in which might be always supereminently is. God is absolute, that is to say, in the most proper sense: he is eternally “absolved” of finite causality, so much so that he need not––in any simple univocal sense––determine in order to avoid being determined. His transcendence is not something achieved by the negation of its “opposite””.

He ends his scathing essay calling for Christians to see to it that this god remains dead:

“It is principally the god of modernity––the god of pure sovereignty––who has died for modern humanity, and perhaps theology has no nobler calling for now than to see that he remains dead, and that every attempt to revive him is thwarted: in the hope that, in becoming willing accomplices in his death, Christians may help to prepare their world for the return of the true God revealed in Christ, in all the mystery of his transcendent and impassible love.”

For Halík and Hart alike, the death of God is something to be seen as a hopeful event, because the death of this particular god is not the transcendent Triune God revealed in Christ, but a god who has never existed in the first place. Let us see it as an opportunity, not a catastrophe, that the true God revealed in Christ will once again speak His eternal Word to those of us who wait patiently in the midst of His seeming hiddenness and silence.

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Reflecting & Rejoicing

“It was not worthy of the goodness of God that those created by Him should be corrupted through the deceit wrought by the devil upon human beings. And it was supremely improper that the workmanship of God in human beings should disappear either through their own negligence or through the deceit of the demons… But now He comes, condescending towards us in His love for human beings and His manifestation.”

-Athanasius, On The Incarnation, pp. 55-57

“The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the refection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory.”

-Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2, p. 94

This Advent season has been one on reflecting on my utter brokenness before God. I love and adore theological dialogue, doing theology and pressing into the ocean of mystery that is the depths of God and the Christian faith; but there are times when reading theology can itself become a distraction. Many times I’m quicker to pick up some work by Barth or Bonhoeffer than I am to dive into the Scriptures. Partly this is because I am afraid of the ways in which I am confronted with the reality of my sinfulness, and my complete unworthiness of approaching the throne of the infinite God. But then when I do engage Scripture, I am confronted with an unrelenting, loving God who is always moving towards not only Israel, but all human beings. This pure, holy love is not something I can bear at all. In being confronted by it, I am totally aware of my utter depravity and dread overwhelms the very core of my being. Like John says in his Revelation: “I fell at his feet, as though dead.” (Rev 1:17) Barth puts to words what I’m feeling better than I ever could:

“It is not the case that we ourselves can put ourselves in the position in which all that we can do is to seek what is above. We do, of course, put ourselves in many awkward positions. We can even plunge ourselves into despair. But we cannot put ourselves in the position, that saving and blessed despair, in which we can only seek refuge in God. But God plunges us into this despair when He reveals Himself to us, when His Word made flesh and the judgment of our flesh by the Holy Spirit, who opens our eyes and ears and therefore kindles our faith.” [1]

Even in this dread, God is tender and gentle in His approach. Paul in the second chapter of his letter to the Ephesians speaks about the richness of God’s grace towards us:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:1-10, ESV)

God desires to show us the richness of His mercy. God is a God who is seeking us out. Barth speaks about the love of God and the language used in Scripture to convey it:

“In Holy Scripture the love of God to us speaks the language of this fact-the fact of His election, guidance, help and salvation-and it is in this language that it has to be heard and understood. But all the expressions of this factual language meet in the name of Jesus Christ. In this name the approach of God to man consists in one fact alone. This is, of course, the even of revelation and reconciliation in the one Word, which is the Son of God. It is the fact that God intercedes for man, that He takes upon Himself the sin and guilt and death of man, that laden with it all He stands surety for him.” [2]

The language we must use when speaking of the love of God is bound up in the name of Jesus Christ. To proclaim the love of God is to proclaim Jesus Christ. In the Christmas season we must be confronted by the profound mystery of God becoming man. We must be confronted by a God who is not far off; who is not indifferent to the plight of human beings. The Incarnation is a saving act. This saving act is also not one of conditionality. God moves towards us unconditionally. He is not moved out of necessity, but out of His free love for us. We see the goodness of God fully on display in the person of Christ, from His incarnation, life, death and resurrection. In this move we catch a glimpse of the eternal choice of God, to pledge His very being for us. To quote Barth some more:

“…God has no need to love us, and we have no claim upon His love. God is love, before He loves us and apart from it. Like everything else that He is, He is love as the triune God in Himself. Even without us and without the world and without the reconciliation of the world, He would not experience and lack of love in Himself. How then can we for our part declare it to be necessary that we should be loved by Him? It is, in fact, the free mercy and kindness of God which meets us in His love.” [3]

This Advent season, it is my desire to live in light of this work that God has done and is doing. God has moved towards us, and is still ever moving towards us moment by moment.

“Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.

-1 John 4:15-19 ESV


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2, p. 372

[2] ibid, p. 378

[3] ibid, p. 379

My Reading Goals for 2016.

It was a fun, yet tedious, process of coming up with this years reading list. It isn’t a huge list since I have a full time course load, but it is fairly diverse, and hopefully I’ll find time to add more and read more!

This is my main goal for this year. Reading through the second volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Over the years I’ve read through sections that interested me, but to truly grasp what Barth was attempting to say, proof texting will not suffice. This volume covers the knowledge of God, the reality of God and Barth’s controversial doctrine of Election (II.2). I contemplated just working through the second part of the volume, but since Barth tends to write like a symphony, I want to really follow his thought from beginning to end. Needless to say, this will be some heavy lifting.

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I just recently discovered this Introduction to Barth’s Dogmatics, and Barth himself said that Weber was one of the only people to ever understand his theology. This should prove to be very helpful!

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Next we have Bruce Benson’s ‘Pious Nietzsche’. Benson contends Nietzsche was not an atheist who promoted nihilism, but rather Nietzsche was deeply religious. I’ve already started reading this, and it is wonderful so far.

51JHegt37jL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Last year I tackled Webster’s ‘Holy Scripture’, which was a very fruitful read. ‘Holiness’ has been a book I’ve been itching to read.

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I just recently finished up Channon Ross’s ‘Gifts Glittering and Poisoned‘ in which he shows how the Eucharist is vital in combating the spectacle of a modern day consumer driven Empire, much like the early Christians against the Roman Empire’s spectacle of violence in the colosseums. ‘Caesar and the Lamb’ is an unexpected companion to Ross’s book. Where Ross focuses on the Eucharist, Kalantzis focuses on the early Church’s rejection of Caesar as lord, and how this should affect our modern context today.

Happy reading to all!