Spiritual Non-Fiction posted September 12, 2008


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A discourse

Is God dead?

by AlvinTEthington

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Many people have a rather simplistic idea of the “God is dead” concept and the movement it inspired. Professors who participated in this movement often found they could not obtain employment in religion departments, even of secular universities, due to the misunderstanding of the concept. They found employment in philosophy or English departments of the most radically secular universities.

When academics speak of the “God is dead” idea, they are referring to a particular concept of God—that of an omniscient, omnipotent, unfeeling God. In light of two world wars; the systematic extermination of a people who had given so much to culture in the fields of music, philosophy, and science by a nation who had sworn allegiance to a madman; and the discovery of both the atomic bomb and intense child and spousal abuse; it seemed hopeless to believe that God was all good and all powerful. God could be one or the other, but not both.

Surprisingly enough, this had more ramifications for the dominant Protestant culture of Western society than it did for other religions. Jews had always seen being “chosen” as a blessing and a curse; as they strove to struggle with the horror of the Sho'ah (a Hebrew word meaning “total destruction”; Holocaust is a Greek word meaning burnt offering), they were on somewhat familiar, though not as horrific, ground. They had already struggled with this two and a half millennia ago in reflection on the galut (the exile in Babylon.) The belief had been that the Temple and, by extension, Jerusalem, were inviolable, but they had been destroyed by pagans. How had the Lord, the God of the children of Israel, let this happen? The emphasis became on human responsibility for one's actions. The galut was seen as the result of the children of Israel, as the Authorized Version of the Bible puts it, “playing the harlot”, which meant going after foreign gods. The Sho'ah was horrific, no doubt, but so was Roosevelt's decision not to bomb the tracks of the trains going to Auschwitz and the turning away of a boatload of Jews off the coast of Florida by the United States. So the rally cry “Never again!” became a slogan in the non-pejorative sense of that word for all people, not just for Jews, that never again would the human race allow this to happen.

But Protestantism had a more difficult time. Catholicism taught about God by the doctrine of analogy—that is to say that one knows how God is good by observing goodness in others, but one does not fully understand how God is good because one cannot think or reflect from the divine side. Protestantism, however, in the Calvin/Barth tradition held that God was known through the Bible and that God had chosen certain people for salvation (and in the more far-reaching interpretation of that doctrine, had also chosen people for damnation.)  This was the idea of the “elect”, God's chosen people, a much different idea from Judaism. When this was combined with the Lutheran doctrines of sola scriptura and salvation by faith alone, the emphasis became on the human response of faith rather than, as in Catholicism, on God's grace, as transmitted by the sacraments. It is no accident that the first fundamental of twentieth century conservative Protestant evangelicalism is inerrancy of Scripture, not salvation by grace through faith, as the Bible clearly states (Ephesians 2:8.) So the sacred text came to be judged by the human disciplines of history, biology, and archeology, not by its ability to communicate divine power to transform lives.

A collision course was set between the Bible and secular disciplines, between the omnipotence and the goodness of God, and between faith and grace. If God had all power, why did God not stop the horrendous evils of the world, such as the sexual abuse of children? So one had either to choose the power of God over the goodness of God or the goodness of God over the power of God.

At this point, the dominant Protestant culture of the West, and particularly of the United States, chose God's power over God's goodness. Most Western Protestant Christians began to espouse a kind of practical dualism, positing two transcendent sources of power, God for good, and Satan or the Devil for evil. The world was seen as a constant source of a power struggle between good and evil, in which human beings only had to respond by faith against the temptations of Satan. The grace of God was not seen as all-encompassing, but confined to those of a particular group who held the same beliefs. Human responsibility was almost negligible, as the acts of contrition and penance were collapsed into an individual admission of guilt and regret, and divine forgiveness was seen as immediate.

Under scrutiny, these beliefs could not be sustained. St. Augustine's dictum Love God and do what you will became so misinterpreted that it almost mirrored the philosophy of St. Paul's opponents mentioned in the Epistle to the Romans who held that one should sin all the more that grace may abound all the more. People were seen as inherently sinful and the image of God in all people was viewed as shattered in the story of the Fall, not as broken, as in Catholicism. All that could change was the acceptance of Jesus Christ as a personal (note the lack of emphasis on community) Lord and Saviour. The door opened for the lack of human responsibility for one's actions, as faith was paramount. On social and political issues, many Christians made up their minds what they believed and then went to the Bible to find justification for their beliefs.

Academics rightly saw that in this progression God was indeed dead. The simple Galilean vision (to use the philosopher Whitehead's words) of loving even one's enemies became lost to the idea that God chose a special group of people to speak the truth to the world. However, there were so many competing truth claims that the situation became ludicrous.

There is an alternative. It is not necessarily in Catholicism or in Judaism but can be applied to all theism. That alternative is to choose the importance of God's goodness over God's power. It is to admit that there are other centers of power in the world, and that human responsibility for one's actions is indeed paramount. It is to place importance on what one does rather than what one believes. This idea actually has been in Christianity since its inception in the idea of the righteous pagan.

So the old idea of God as totally and completely omnipotent is dead. But a God of goodness, of love, who suffered for us (in Whitehead's words, the fellow sufferer who understands) is with us and will remain with us always. That God and that God only is worthy of worship, praise, and prayer.



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