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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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.

Death, Suffering, Identity & The Will to Power; A Philosophical, Theological look at Batman V Superman (SPOILERS)

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

-Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

In the previous post we looked at this newest version of Superman, in which he has become a product of our modern secular age. We are haunted by transcendence. Our world has been flattened, disenchanted. He is conflicted, as are we, about what the right thing to do is because we ourselves have thrown off the transcendent grounds to which “the good” is grounded. The “good” is a conversation, not transcendental truths in which we are aimed. It should come as no surprise this is how Superman would be portrayed in the modern age. No identity and conflicted about what is “good” and whether or not its worth it to do good.

Towards a New Batman

As we move to look at this newest inception of Batman, I want to say how much I enjoy this version Ben Affleck is portraying. He is as close to a comic book adaptation as we have ever seen, and he is far and away the best part of the film. I wish the studio would have opted to do a solo Batman film prior to this one. They could have explored the depth and complexity of this Batman, this would have given Batman V Superman much more grip emotionally for the critics and audiences.

What is obvious is the source material for this Dark Knight is essentially right off the pages of Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’. Even Jeremy Iron’s ‘Alfred’ had some lines that were word for word from a panel in DKR.

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The differences are the worlds in which these Batmen, so to speak, are placed and exist in. Affleck’s Batman is essentially thrown into the world started by Man of Steel, and he is blinded by his rage and is going to kill Superman because of the possible future threat he could pose to the world. Miller’s Batman is even older than Snyder’s version, and is very close with Superman since they worked together for years. Superman, in the Dark Knight Returns, is essentially a government pawn who does the bidding of politicians who have outlawed superheroes all together outside of Superman. Gotham is getting worse and worse with crime getting more violent, Batman returns to bring justice back to the city against the will of the Gotham City police and United States government. Their are significant similarities between the two versions of Batman, but also significant differences remain since they are telling different stories.

An Identity Rooted in Death & Suffering

In Batman V Superman, we meet a Bruce Wayne who is broken. He has lost nearly every one he has gotten close to and loved, and is weary from his time wearing the cowl. The introduction of Batman in this movie is a frightening one. You get the sense that people are terrified of the Dark Knight, as the women who he rescued from sex trafficking refuse to leave their cell because of how scared they are of “it”. The opening scene of the movie is the funeral of Wayne’s parents, and subsequently a scene of his parents death. We get the sense that Bruce still finds himself trapped at the scene of his parents death. He has, whether intentionally or unintentionally, rooted his identity in death. His identity as Batman is grounded in the death of his parents, every time he stops a crime or fights a criminal, he is essentially chasing an echo which emanates from the moment his identity was formed.

It is not only his parents death Bruce seems to be haunted by, but the death and corruption of the good guys around him. He remarks to Alfred “20 years in Gotham, how many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?” He is beaten down, cynical and is in constant agony over what has happened to him and those around him. All of this pushes him towards his complete lack of trust in Superman (not to mention the destruction that happened because of the events in Man of Steel), and why he feels the need to kill Superman before its too late and Superman turns on the world.  He has rooted his whole identity in suffering and death, this is what defines not only Bruce Wayne, but Batman as well.

The Will to Power

Toward the latter portion of the movie when we find our heroes duking it out, Batman remarks to Superman:

“I bet your parents taught you that you mean something, that you’re here for a reason, my parents taught me different lesson: dying in the gutter for no reason at all. They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to.”

Here we see what Bruce has come to believe about the world and existence. We find the post-modern understanding of the existence of being as “primordial and inevitable violence” (Hart, 2003, p. 5). Suffering is random, and life only makes sense if you force it to. Life for Nietzsche:

“Here we must beware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation…not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power.” (Nietzsche, 1886, p 203)

We find this narrative to be exemplified by this inception of Batman.

Moving from this view of life, we also see this Batman participating in gruesome violence. We view him actually killing criminals, how many is not certain. While this is not a big departure from the character since other inceptions of the Dark Knight have killed (yes even Bale’s Batman killed), it is startling and really sets the tone for this version. They attempted to show the change Batman incurs from (SPOILERS) the death of Superman, and he seems to be turning back towards the character we have known historically who is principled and does everything in his abilities not to kill senselessly.

Some Final Thoughts

What interests me with superhero/comic book movies is how much these heroes represent our cultural times. Whether that’s our confusion about moral truth, and if its binding on all humanity, or if life is essentially the will to power;

While Superman can be seen as the exemplar of the modern societies moral and spiritual dilemma, Batman represents the post-modern rejection of even the confusion about these things. Life is appropriation and at the bottom primordial and inevitable violence. Life only makes sense if you force it to, you are not here for a purpose. Life is summed up by dying in a gutter for no reason at all. Batman has gotten to this place from his identity being shaped and rooted in the death of his parents and those close to him; participating in liturgies of violence which only further form and shape the kind of “hero” he has become.

Works Cited:

Hart, David Bentley; 2003, The Beauty of the Infinite

Nietzsche, Fredrich; 1886, Beyond Good and Evil

‘The Revenant’, Suffering and the Ethics of Beauty

“…he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” -2 Peter 1:4

“Who and what is the God who is to be known at the point upon which Holy Scripture concentrates our attention and thoughts?” -Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline

“…the good is an eternal reality, a transcendental truth that is ultimately identical with the very essence of God. God is not some gentleman or lady out there in the great beyond who happens to have a superlatively good character, but is the very ontological substance of goodness. The good is nothing less than God himself, in his aspect as the original source and ultimate end of all desire: that transcendent reality in which all things exist and in which the will has its highest fulfillment.” -David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, p. 253-254

It’s always interesting when two separate interests collide and speak to one another. I’ve been slowly and deliberately making my way through David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Beauty of the Infinite’, and I have recently viewed the movie ‘The Revenant’ and was struck a heavy load unto my heart and mind after viewing it. Reading Hart’s work informed a lot of how I interpreted the movie, mostly from a philosophical and theological position and not so much a historical or sociological interpretation. This isn’t really going to be a review of the movie either, just a discussion on various themes that came to my mind as I watched.

The ‘Beauty of the Infinite’ is a densely breathtaking essay on “theological aesthetics.” Hart’s concern and objective for the essay (in his words) is:

“…a defense of the suasive loveliness of Christian rhetoric, as the coincidence without contradiction of beauty and peace, can be undertaken according to the opposition between two narratives of infinity: one that conceives of the infinite in terms of a primordial and inevitable violence, and one that regards the infinite as originally and everlastingly beautiful.” (p.5)

What struck me about ‘The Revenant’ was the overwhelming commitment to the idea of the infinite, or being, is to its core just inevitable violence. Along with the gratuitous beauty that surrounds the overwhelming suffering in these scenes. This is where the post-modern metaphysical critique comes into play, and most specifically the work of Frederich Nietzsche. Especially in his idea of “the will to power”, in which Nietzsche attempts to show that every absolute statement is a power grab of sorts, a type of control from one person over another. It’s more complex than how I just stated it, as Nietzsche himself proclaimed:

“Here we must be aware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest exploitation… life simply is will to power.” (Beyond Good & Evil, 203)

This is a theme throughout the entire film, the will to power. It is a brutal and grueling sight to behold as Glass (DiCaprio) seeks to have vengeance against a man in Fitzgerald (Hardy) for the wrong he has done to him. Coming back around to the problem at hand, the ethics of beauty and the will to power are pervasive themes and struck a deep nerve with me as I watched the film. Hart puts it eloquently:

“There is, moreover, an undeniable ethical offense in beauty; not only in its history as a preoccupation of privilege, the special concern of economically and socially enfranchised elite, but in the very gratuity with which it offers itself…its anodyne sweetness often seeming to make the most intolerable circumstances bearable: a village ravaged by pestilence may life in the shadow of a magnificent mountains ridge…Cambodian killing fields were often lushly flowered…” (p. 16)

This is utterly undeniable in the case of The Revenant. Not even just this film, but of life in general. If we take Nietzsche’s ontological claim seriously, it is striking and hauntingly prophetic. What leaped at me was my seeming flippant attitude towards these ideas; how much I was struck by the suffering not only historically of various groups of people, but of the suffering of creation and how much death and brokenness is to be found. This had not sat well with me, and I could do nothing but ask that inevitable question: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps 8:4) and “How long, O Lord will you hide your face?” (Ps 13:1)

This is where Hart seeks to offer an alternative ontology of being, one that is not inevitable violence but one of beauty and peace. This is the uniqueness of the Christian rhetoric, and the triune God is from which all being subsists and finds its origin. His being is eternally beauty and peace. Hart’s thought is heavily indebted to Gregory of Nyssa, and towards the end of the book gives a thought about the conclusion to be drawn from Gregory’s thought about Christian eschatology (to quote at length):

“A conclusion can be drawn from Gregory’s thought is that Christian eschatology…must inevitably subvert every kind of presumptuous discourse that would strive to put an end to the deferrals of difference. The eschatological -which remains a word of hope, a paschal evangel that denies death its tragic splendor- functions as a promise that the verdict of God is on the side of the particular, the name and face of the one lost, that his justice is not a transcendental reconciliation between chaos and order,violence and rest, but a reconciliation of the infinitely many sequences of difference. Which is to say that the promise that justice will never forget the other, that the other will always be blessed with an infinite regard and charged with infinite worth: not because the other belongs to an abyss of the ethical, but because the other belongs to the infinite beauty of the surface; because, as this eschatology insists, the entire weight of the infinite in which all things share, this infinite and infinitely various music, rests upon each instance, requires every voice.” (p. 411)

We as Christians do not own ourselves or our being but “belong from everlasting to Christ” (p. 411), and are freed from death by His work (life, death & resurrection), and are in wait until His return. Until then, we must, as Hart puts it so beautifully:

“…until that unending end that we await, though, our words may speak of him, invoke him on others, beckon others to him peacefully…” (p. 411)

As we beckon others and speak the Word, we must do it in the cadence of the infinite, as Hart puts it:

“…eternally beauty and peace…” (p. 411)