As so often happens, a philosophical confluence. In the course of my more or less random reading, came across two writes, a century apart and coming at the issue from different angles, who notice the same thing. First, in Robert Hugh Benson’s wonderful and multiple-Pope-recommended 1907 novel Lord of the World, the rising English politician Oliver Brand thinks through what would nowadays be called his worldview:
As he looked from his window and saw that vast limit of London laid peaceably before him, as his imagination ran out over Europe and saw everywhere that steady triumph of common sense and fact over the wild fairy-stories of Christianity, it seemed intolerable that there should be even a possibility that all this should be swept back again into the barbarous turmoil of sects and dogmas…. Even Catholicism would revive, he told himself, that strange faith that had blazed so often as persecution had been dashed to quench it; and, of all forms of faith, to Oliver’s mind Catholicism was the most grotesque and enslaving…. There was but one hope on the religious side, as he had told Mabel a dozen times, and that was that the Quietistic Pantheism which for the last century had made such giant strides in East and West alike, among Mohammedans, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists and the rest, should avail to check the supernatural frenzy that inspired their exoteric brethren. Pantheism, he understood, was what he held himself; for him “God” was the developing sum of created life, and impersonal Unity was the essence of His being; competition then was the great heresy that set men one against another and delayed all progress; for, to his mind, progress lay in the merging of the individual in the family, of the family in the commonwealth, of the commonwealth in the continent, and of the continent in the world. Finally, the world itself at any moment was no more than the mood of impersonal life. It was, in fact, the Catholic idea with the supernatural left out, a union of earthly fortunes, an abandonment of individualism on the one side, and of supernaturalism on the other. It was treason to appeal from God Immanent to God Transcendent; there was no God transcendent; God, so far as He could be known, was man.
Later, Brand reads in the paper an account of the brave new world being ushered in by one Julian Felsenburgh, a mysterious American who is being called the Savior of the World:
“It is understood now, by fanatic barbarians as well as by civilised nations, that the reign of War is ended. ‘Not peace but a sword,’ said CHRIST; and bitterly true have those words proved to be. ‘Not a sword but peace’ is the retort, articulate at last, from those who have renounced CHRIST’S claims or have never accepted them. The principle of love and union learned however falteringly in the West during the last century, has been taken up in the East as well. There shall be no more an appeal to arms, but to justice; no longer a crying after a God Who hides Himself, but to Man who has learned his own Divinity. The Supernatural is dead; rather, we know now that it never yet has been alive. What remains is to work out this new lesson, to bring every action, word and thought to the bar of Love and Justice; and this will be, no doubt, the task of years. Every code must be reversed; every barrier thrown down; party must unite with party, country with country, and continent with continent. There is no longer the fear of fear, the dread of the hereafter, or the paralysis of strife. Man has groaned long enough in the travails of birth; his blood has been poured out like water through his own foolishness; but at length he understands himself and is at peace.
“Let it be seen at least that England is not behind the nations in this work of reformation; let no national isolation, pride of race, or drunkenness of wealth hold her hands back from this enormous work. The responsibility is incalculable, but the victory certain. Let us go softly, humbled by the knowledge of our crimes in the past, confident in the hope of our achievements in the future, towards that reward which is in sight at last—the reward hidden so long by the selfishness of men, the darkness of religion, and the strife of tongues—the reward promised by one who knew not what he said and denied what he asserted—Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, for they shall inherit the earth, be named the children of God, and find mercy.”
and Brand’s young wife Mabel, trying to convince her dying mother in law to abandon Catholicism:
“Mother,” said the girl, “let me tell you again. Do you not understand that all which Jesus Christ promised has come true, though in another way? The reign of God has really begun; but we know now who God is. You said just now you wanted the Forgiveness of Sins; well, you have that; we all have it, because there is no such thing as sin. There is only Crime. And then Communion. You used to believe that that made you a partaker of God; well, we are all partakers of God, because we are human beings. Don’t you see that Christianity is only one way of saying all that? I dare say it was the only way, for a time; but that is all over now. Oh! and how much better this is! It is true—true. You can see it to be true!”
She paused a moment, forcing herself to look at that piteous old face, the flushed wrinkled cheeks, the writhing knotted hands on the coverlet.
“Look how Christianity has failed—how it has divided people; think of all the cruelties—the Inquisition, the Religious Wars; the separations between husband and wife and parents and children—the disobedience to the State, the treasons. Oh! you cannot believe that these were right. What kind of a God would that be! And then Hell; how could you ever have believed in that?… Oh! mother, don’t believe anything so frightful…. Don’t you understand that that God has gone—that He never existed at all—that it was all a hideous nightmare; and that now we all know at last what the truth is…. Mother! think of what happened last night—how He came—the Man of whom you were so frightened. I told you what He was like—so quiet and strong—how every one was silent—of the—the extraordinary atmosphere, and how six millions of people saw Him. And think what He has done—how He has healed all the old wounds—how the whole world is at peace at last—and of what is going to happen. Oh! mother, give up those horrible old lies; give them up; be brave.”
Written in 1907.
Next, came across the Death of God Fifty Years On by Matthew Rose at First Things, published a year ago. In 1966, Time magazine’s cover story was entitled “Is God Dead?” This article, what we would now call click bait, created a furor. For youngsters, way back then people took magazines like Time seriously as not only purveyors of “news” but as important social and cultural barometers. Weird, huh?
Rose’s essay is very hard to excerpt, as it spins together, from paragraph to paragraph, many sources and writers to paint its picture. What follows gives some of the flavor, but it’s well worth reading the entire essay:
Altizer was taken with Nietzsche’s idea that Christianity generated its own fatal undermining. But he challenged Nietzsche on a critical point: It was not Christians who murdered God, but God who abolished himself. Altizer arrived at this conclusion through a controversial reading of other theologians. Among them was Karl Barth, who according to Altizer had initiated the Death of God movement. (Alasdair MacIntyre made a similar reading of the Swiss theologian in 1967.)
A central thesis of Barth’s theology is that God’s nature is bound up with his revelation in salvation history. Since we cannot know God apart from his self-revelation, argued Barth, we have true knowledge of the divine only through Jesus Christ. Altizer translated this claim about knowledge into a metaphysical thesis. He stipulated that God has no being apart from the historical person of Jesus. This allowed Altizer to say, with quite shocking matter-of-factness, that God is dead because he died in history, on the cross. God is incarnate in Jesus—and he dies in Jesus. “The radical Christian,” Altizer wrote in his 1966 manifesto The Gospel of Christian Atheism, “proclaims that God has actually died in Christ, that this death is both a historical and cosmic event.”
From the perspective of classical Christian theology, Altizer’s views can only appear nonsensical, but his understanding of God differed in fundamental ways from that tradition. Its roots were in the nineteenth-century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who interpreted history as the progressive realization of human freedom. Hegel’s main idea was that contradiction—or more precisely, the overcoming of contradiction—is the law of life.
His Phenomenology of Spirit told the speculative story of how human beings attain free self-consciousness through conflict that always leads to a higher resolution. In this history, he claimed, we learn to see historical conceptions of God as symbolic representations of the human drama of cultural development.
Hegel was deeply entangled with Christian theology and saw himself as preserving the spirit of Christianity rather than overturning it. He maintained, with perfect sincerity and considerable ingenuity, that his philosophy advanced a rational articulation of the teachings of the Bible. There are many twists and turns to Hegel’s philosophical re-narration of the scriptural story, but its most important claim is that God entered history in order to abolish his separation from it. History’s meaning and purpose are no longer “above,” but instead operate within the ongoing flow of human affairs. God’s coming into the world in Christ represents, symbolically, man’s coming-to-himself as the rational author of his own destiny.
The essay concludes by remarking that, while the theology of the death of God has had little academic traction, as a reflection of what was going on in the culture, however inarticulately, it was dead on.
Benson might have agreed.
Finally, how does this sort of thing metastasize across a culture? Benson gives a clue earlier in his novel. Mabel and her mother in law went to hear Oliver deliver a speech. The people gathered began to sing:
There was no doubt that these Londoners could sing. It was as if a giant voice hummed the sonorous melody, rising to enthusiasm till the music of massed bands followed it as a flag follows a flag-stick. The hymn was one composed ten years before, and all England was familiar with it. Old Mrs. Bland lifted the printed paper mechanically to her eyes, and saw the words that she knew so well:
“The Lord that dwells in earth and sea.” …
She glanced down the verses, that from the Humanitarian point of view had been composed with both skill and ardour. They had a religious ring; the unintelligent Christian could sing them without a qualm; yet their sense was plain enough—the old human creed that man was all. Even Christ’s, words themselves were quoted. The kingdom of God, it was said, lay within the human heart, and the greatest of all graces was Charity.
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