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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Beauty

“Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”

-Hans Urs von Balthasar, THE GLORY OF THE LORD: A THEOLOGICAL AESTHETICS, VOL. 1 -SEEING THE FORM

‘Theological Theology’: Reflections on the work of John Webster

News has been circling around social media that my favorite living theologian, John Webster, has passed away (1955-2016). I was deeply saddened by this news, and thought to reflect on his work that has meant so much in my life as a Christian and training to be a theologian. It will probably end up being mostly quotes from Webster.

“…dogmatics is that delightful activity in which the Church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ.” -John Webster, Holiness

Revelation and Scripture

One of the most influential books for me in my time doing theology is Webster’s ‘Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch‘. This book alone has shaped a major part of my views on the way Scripture functions in God’s economy of salvation. The first chapter and the third are by far my favorites in the book, in them you find a deeply rich Trinitarian exposition of revelation and Scripture’s place in the economy of salvation.

The problem for the Christian doctrine of revelation for Webster is that it “suffers from the distortions of its shape introduced by attempts to formulate and expound it in relation to and, in some measure, in dependence upon, dominant modern intellectual and spiritual conventions”. (p. 11) Even more troubling, the language of revelation became “a way of talking, not about the life giving presence of God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Spirit’s power among the worshipping and witnessing assembly, but instead of an arcane process of causality whereby persons acquire knowledge through opaque, non-natural operations.” (p. 12) This is an important point, theology (doctrine especially) abstracted from the context of worship and participation within the Church, it becomes something else entirely.

Revelation is an act of sovereign mercy:

“Revelation is the self-presentation of the triune God, the free work of sovereign mercy in which God wills, establishes and perfects saving fellowship with himself in which humankind comes to know, love and fear him above all things.” (p. 13)

Revelation must be seen in this light, not mere propositions, but the life giving presence of the Lord. Here Webster gives a trinitarian account:

“Revelation, therefore is identical with God’s triune being in it’s active self-presence. As Father, God is the personal will or origin of this self presence; as Son, God actualizes his self-presence, upholding it and establishing it against all opposition; as Holy Spirit, God perfects that self-presence by making it real and effective to and in the history of humankind. To speak of ‘revelation’ is to say that God is one whose being is directed towards his creatures, and the goal of whose free self-movement presence with us.” (pg. 14)

Holiness and Theology

In the first chapter of his book ‘Holiness‘, Webster offers a proposition to shape the thinking of his account of the holiness of theology:

“A Christian theology of holiness is an exercise of holy reason; it has its context and its content in the revelatory presence of the Holy Trinity which is set forth in Holy Scripture; it is a venture undertaken in prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit; it is an exercise in the fellowship of the saints; serving the confession of the holy people of God; it is a work in which holiness is perfected in the fear of God; and its end is the sanctifying of God’s holy name.” (p. 10)

From there he works out through the various points made, and shows how the gospel may (and should) order our thinking.

There is much more to be said on the work of John Webster, and those of us doing theology should take pause and reflect on not only his work but his character, and the way he pursued theological work. He really cared about doing a ‘theological’ theology; that is a theology that dares to say something about God. Let us dare to let God speak for Himself, and let us order our thinking around the Gospel.

Trinitarianism and Gospel Narrative

Today is Trinity Sunday and I decided to read some passages from David Bentley Hart’s massive ‘The Beauty of the Infinite‘ which has some wonderful reflections on the infinite beauty of God, who is in His Triune being infinitely peace and beauty. In part 2.1 of the book, Hart discusses Karl Rahner’s simple formula, which Hart claims should be regarded as “axiomatic for all meditation upon the Christian doctrine of God: The ‘economic’ trinity is the ‘immanent’ trinity and the ‘immanent’ trinity is the ‘economic’ trinity.” (p.155) He goes on to lament that liberal Protestant theology’s “dogmatic wasting disease” of abstraction, spiritualization and moralization of the doctrine of the Trinity and in turn made Christ the unique ‘bearer’ (as opposed to unique content) of the Christian kerygma (dogma). (p. 156)

I’ve began to notice this myself, especially in the more analytically driven parts of Protestant theology (even the most conservative). Doctrine has been abstracted from the historical narrative of the Gospel, and in turn becomes improperly understood. I thought some of what Hart has to say here is of extreme importance, and is fitting for the day:

“Trinitarian thought uninformed by the Gospel narratives results, inevitably, in an impoverishment of both that thought and that narrative; hence the importance of the affirmation is that the Trinity as economic or immanent is the one God as he truly is, whose every action is proper to and expressive of His divinity.” (p. 156)

“God does not require creation to ‘fecundate’ his being, nor does he require the pathos of creation to determine his ‘personality’ as though he were some finite subjectivity writ large, whose transcendental Ego were in need of delimitation in an empirical ego; God and creation do not belong to an interdependent history of necessity, because the Trinity is already infinitely sufficient, infinitely diverse, infinitely at peace; God is good and sovereign and wholly beautiful, and creation is gift, loveliness, pleasure, dignity, and freedom, which is to say that God is possessed by the loveliest “attribute”.” (p. 157)

“…as the infinitely perfect reflection of the divine essence that flows forth from the Father, fully enjoyed in the light of the Spirit.. Thus God indeed loved us when we were not, and that he then called us to be (Rom. 4:17) and to participate in the being he pours into us is an act of generosity wholly fitting to, but in no way determinative of, his goodness.” (p. 158)

Finally,

“The maxim stands then as a guard against any kind of nominalism on the one hand, and on the other, any tendency to forget that the dogma of the Trinity is required and defined-and permitted-by the narrative of Christ.” (p. 159)

On a previous post, I made the claim:

“Theology is done from the ground up, and is the language of the church. It is not merely some lofty, dry academic pursuit done in abstraction but is done within the context of participation in the community of believer’s where the Spirit of the Lord is.”

This goes right in line with what Hart is getting at. Theology cannot be done by abstracting and spiritualizing out of the context of Church worship and communal participation in God’s being.

Counterformational Apologetics

Last year I did a three part series for the Solid Reasons blog on working towards a new type of apologetic approach.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

I’m hoping to devote some time to this subject again, and have some posts on Reformed Epistemology soon.

The Secular Age; A Philosophical, Theological look at Batman V Superman (Part 1)

“God is not an object of desire; he is the end that makes desire.” 

-David Bentley Hart

Batman V Superman is, by my estimation, one of the most divisive films I’ve ever seen. The critics overwhelmingly hate it, a good majority of the fans love it. I am one who really enjoyed the film, albeit not without some major critiques of narrative, structure and the over all plot trajectory. This movie had so much potential, but it at once had too much going on within it, and at the same time didn’t have enough to satisfy.

My goal in here is stated within the title of the post: a philosophical and theological look into Batman V Superman; Dawn of Justice.

I want to mainly explore the two main heroes in the film: Batman and Superman.

A Secular Superman

What I find so interesting about this film is how utterly modern it is, especially when it comes to the debate of what constitutes ‘the good’. Holly Hunter’s character Senator Finch has a line that sums up the message Snyder and company are seeking to convey when they speak of the ‘good’ in our modern context: “The good is not a unilateral decision…the good is a conversation.” She makes reference to what the good is in a democratic society, but I think this applies much more broadly to our current modern, ‘secular age’. (in a Charles Taylor fashion)

Taylor in his monumental work ‘A Secular Age‘ seeks to understand how within 500 years our society has gone from atheism being somewhat of an impossible position to take, to atheism being basically the default position. Jamie Smith sums up Taylor’s take on our secular age:

“Ours is a “secular” age, according to Taylor, not because of any index of religious participation (or lack thereof), but because of these sorts of manifestations of contested meaning. It’s as if the cathedrals are still standing, but their footings have been eroded.” (Smith, p.12)

Our age is “haunted”, and we cannot escape the call and knocking of the transcendent. This is evident in the way Snyder and company has approached the Superman character, they employ the comparison of Kal El and Jesus Christ. In Man of Steel it is beyond obvious this is the case.

man-of-steel-2

Snyder has spoken at length about Superman’s mythology being linked to Christ. This incarnation, so to speak, of Superman represents the very thing Taylor is showing about our current age. We are haunted by transcendence, even though we have attempted to throw off all things pre-modern. There are problems attempting to link “God” and Superman together, since theologically speaking:

“God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being.” (Hart, p. 30)

Superman, on the other hand, is not anything like God. Maybe some demi-god fashioned in our own image, but surely not the God of the theistic traditions.This is the issue of Lex proclaiming “God vs. man”. It becomes all too illuminating. It speaks to the modernist tradition (enlightenment period) of our attempt to overthrow God and conquer the universe by objective rationality and show that we are autonomous and have no need for “fairy tales” and hokey religion (in the words of Han Solo) to fill in the gaps when we do not understand something in reality. Not to mention the remark of “If God is all loving, He cannot be all powerful, and if He is all powerful he cannot be all loving” speaks to the new atheist (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris) monumental ignorance when it comes to understanding how the metaphysical categories of God are understood in the theistic tradition. We won’t delve into that now, but one thing to be said is that to put anthropomorphic categories onto God is a failure to grasp the fundamental nature of God. His distinctness from the created order. He is not constrained to our finite capabilities, and is not bound one way or another by finite human categories.

Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman speaks to our modern secular age being haunted by transcendence. Our secular age is one of the contestability of every belief, not by the amount of religious participation (or lack thereof). What is even more striking is the conflict Superman still feels now, even though he has been doing it for about 2 years. This conflict speaks to the heart of our modern age: an attempt to deposit meaning within the thing itself, rather than the object as a pointer towards the meaning outside of itself. We desire justice and truth, but we have abandon the very thing in which these things have their ground (God). Superman wants to do what is right and good, but what is right and good is not merely ontological truth’s to which we are aimed, but as the Senator would say they are a “conversation”. They are decided by the consent of the governed. Hence Superman has no real identity outside of what others say he is. This is conflicted as well, and this is where I think Snyder has really failed to give the character of Superman justice (no pun intended). Superman does what is good not because of what others decide is good, but because good is an end in itself.

What interests me about this movie, and others in this age of comic book movies, is how much our culture is represented by these characters. In the next post we will take a philosophical look into the other main character in Dawn of Justice: Batman.

 

References:

Hart, David Bentley (2013-09-24). The Experience of God. Yale University Press.

Smith, James K. A. (2014-05-01). How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Lent and the Overwhelming Mystery of Existence and Being: The Experience of God

quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te (because thou hast made us toward thyself and our heart is restless until it rests in thee)”

-St. Augustine

For lent I decided to abandon time spending on social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & Tumblr) in hopes of directing my time and energy into far more important areas of my life. Three weeks in, I’m considering abandoning the majority of them for good. I do not mean in a legalistic/moral superiority to those who do participate in them, but I found my life becoming far to unintentionally lived and much of the joy of life being sucked into the vacuum of the abyss of needless internet arguments and click bait. I was being habituated to a life of endless consumption, without anything gained at all. Which could be a critique of American culture as a whole, but I surely do not intend to cover any of that currently.

In my time spent elsewhere, mostly reading and time spent with my wife and children, have truly been fruitful and illuminating. I’ve recently been immersing myself in the work of David Bentley Hart (theologian/philosopher) and cannot express how wonderful and truly fruitful his work has been to read. His vocabulary is beyond what I thought someone could have for a vocabulary, so in that his work can be quite challenging intellectually. Most recently I have made my way through the majority of his recent work ‘The Experience of God; Being, Consciousness and Bliss‘. Hart’s contention for this book is to show the absolute ignorance of the new atheist’s (Dawkins, Dennett etc.) when they attempt to refute God’s existence. He does this by sketching out the metaphysical understanding of God worked out by the major theistic traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam and even forms of Hinduism). In doing this historical outlining, he shows the language and understanding of the recent atheist movement to be utterly deficient and ignorant of what they even attempt to speak of. In Hart’s words: “It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God. And the same is true of all the other new atheists as far as I can tell.” (p. 36).

He gives an admission that is both at the same time humorous and illuminating:

“For the sake of harmony, I for one am more than willing to acknowledge that the God described by the new atheists definitely does not exist; but, to be perfectly honest, that is an altogether painless concession to make.” (p. 23)

For some this statement might seem quite confusing. However once we actually understand how God has been conceived in the great theistic traditions, this statement is perfectly succinct and needed. More than anything, this book has pointed me towards the absolute wonder and beauty of the mystery not only of being and existence, but of God Himself. Not to mention the sheer strangeness of existence as Hart so eloquently puts it:

“If, moreover, one takes the time to reflect upon this contingency (the contingency of everything that exists) carefully enough, one will come to realize that it is an ontological, not merely an aetiological, mystery; the question of existence is not one concerning the physical origins of things, or of how one physical state may have been produced by a prior physical state, or of physical persistence across time, or of the physical constituents of the universe, but one of simple logical or conceptual possibility: How is it that any reality so obviously fortuitous— so lacking in any mark of inherent necessity or explanatory self-sufficiency— can exist at all?” (p. 90) (italics mine)

Since culture is so engrossed in the materialist picture of the world, we have lost the sense of wonder and awe that we exist at all.

This season of lent, for me, has been one about the rediscovery of mystery. The reorientation towards how completely inconceivable it is that I, or anything, exists at all. As the Psalmist puts it:

“What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps 8:4)

We Christians view Christ as the Word of God:

“In Jesus Christ the living, free, inexhaustibly rich God has been revealed as sovereign, holy love. To know God in this revelation is to acknowledge the infinite and incomprehensible depth of the mystery called God.” (Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, p. 3)

The mystery still remains and grows ever deeper the more we pursue it. Lent is a time for reflection, putting to death the desires of the flesh through the Spirit, and a reminder of the fulfillment that is yet to come for us who are exiles in waiting. Let us reflect these words from DBH: “God is the infinite “ocean of being” while creatures are finite vessels containing existence only in limited measure.” (p. 133)  God is the ground of all being. He is not just some mechanistic demigod that the deists picture, but pure actuality and pure existence. Let us reflect of the mystery of the Gospel, and how we should praise God for His unconditional love for us in Jesus Christ.