God as Figment of Our Imagination

In my last post I introduced Zizek’s radical interpretation of the incarnation. This view could be summarized by saying that the the death of Jesus on the cross represented the death of God as a transcendent other and the event which allowed for the subsequent coming of the Spirit, signaling God’s move to fully empty himself into the world. This emptying of God’s self or kenosis means that now God exists only as a subjective presupposition for those who believe in him and act accordingly. In other words, God has so fully emptied himself into the world that he has no being outside the material world. In a lot of ways I find this reading pretty compelling. Perhaps it’s just the season of life I find myself in, one that’s been characterized by more than enough existential angst and a preoccupation with the fact that I’m going to die and that everything I do in my life will more than likely be forgotten in less than a few generations, but I’ve come to find that God, however we imagine him/her/it, may only exist as a figment of my imagination. However, I want to quickly qualify that statement by saying that I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Think of one of the examples that Zizek gives in the quote from my last post: Nation. The concept of Nation is one that is so deeply ingrained in our imaginations that it’s difficult to imagine what the world would be like without nations. We sing songs about our nations and learn our nation’s history. We vote and take part in other civic duties that insure the maintenance and continued existence of our nations. We enlist and fight in wars to defend our nation’s inviolable borders. Given the way we enact our allegiance to and make sacrifices for the ideological cause of Nation it’s easy to begin to think that we’re dealing withing something eternal or something God-given. But we’re not. The whole idea of the modern nation-state is a product of the Enlightenment. We made it up. Humans developed this idea, this ideological cause of Nation and it has since captured our imaginations. What’s more, what we call a nation is nothing more than an incredibly complex system of organization, a group of people who share a territory and a desire for unity under a government. In other words, “Nation” describes a certain type of behavior, a certain way of living in the world. Without this certain collective behavior, there is no Nation.

But here’s the kicker: just because the concept of Nation is a man made concept, it doesn’t make its effect on our world any less profound.

Could we not, then, imagine God in the same way? What we call “God” has no actual, ontological existence outside the minds of human beings who talk or think about God. God, as the anthropologists tell us, is a human construct, something we have made up. To use’s Zizek’s language, God has become so fully incarnate in the world that he has no substantial existence outside of it. This doesn’t negate, however, the profound ways in which God (that is, the concept of God as it exists in our imagination) affects our world. One doesn’t need to look far to see the important role that religious devotion plays for the majority of humans living in today’s world.

Just as Nation as a concept represents a certain kind of collective behavior in the world, so God is a symbol that represents our deepest desires concerning our world, desires having to do with peace and justice and companionship and love. All of these desires are summed up in the word ‘God’ and to believe in God is then to orient oneself towards the coming of a future in which these values are more imminently present among us. To believe in God is thus a certain mode of being in the world.

I follow Zizek here because it’s difficult for me to imagine what it would mean to say that God exists in some other-worldly reality. I suppose you could say that I’m a materialist who, in the words of John Caputo, believes that the only metaphysics we’re going to get is what physics itself gives us. I don’t think anything exists but material reality so if God exists then he must do so within the matrix of material reality. Zizek’s idea that God exists only as a subjective presupposition in the minds of humans gives us a way to talk about what it might mean for God to “exist” within material reality, a way that helps us avoid having to resort to metaphysical speculation about a divine realm alongside this earthly realm or any other kind of spiritual obscurantism.

The Death of God and the End of The Sacred: Caputo and Zizek on the Event

In premodern Christendom everything was sacred. There was no secular realm, which is to say there was no part of life that was considered outside of God’s ordered world. All of life was endowed with meaning. The world was teeming with divinity. The existence of God, which was taken for granted, served as one’s guarantee that life has meaning.

This changed with advent of modernism in the Enlightenment. The Age of Reason called into question the veracity of the all the religious symbols that premodern Christendom took for granted. The Enlightenment project gave rise to a division between the sacred realm and the secular realm which were now thought to exist in a sort of zero-sum relationship. That is, if one of the two realms increased then the other, by default, decreased. Another way to say this is that as science explained more and more natural phenomena (the secular realm increasing), God began to be seen as obsolete (the sacred decreasing). God, who was the Grand Sustainer of life in the premodern world was no longer needed to explain the workings of our universe. This increase of the secular and decrease of the sacred eventually culminated in the death of the sacred altogether. Nietzsche famously declared in 1882 that “God is dead.” In other words, all of life is utterly profane and there is no God to guarantee the meaningfulness of our existence.

One of the ways theologians responded to this phenomenon was by developing a system of thought that is traditionally called Death of God theology. These thinkers began to understand the death of God as a necessary occurrence,  something that needed to take place in order for a more mature and realistic faith to emerge. The existentialist theologian Paul Tillich, for example, understood that belief in the God of traditional theism was no longer tenable in light of modernism’s most cogent critiques of religion. As the God of supernaturalism–the God who existed as the greatest being in the universe, the first cause, the transcendent ruler of the universe–as this God disappeared in the ashes of doubt, the emergence of what Tillich called the God above God was allowed to take place. Rather than seeing God as being alongside other beings in the universe, Tillich understood the true God, the God above God, to be the Ground of All Being.

We see a similar movement in German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For Bonhoeffer the death of God signals the beginning of a season of serious maturation and development for humanity. Christianity after the death of God, Bonhoeffer thought, would be a Christianity without religion, a way of life that fully embraces the world in its brokenness without expecting the God of supernaturalism to intervene and solve all of our problems for us.

Thomas J.J. Altizer developed his own death of God theology. For Altizer, the death of Christ on the cross was the literal death of the transcendent God and the event which allowed God to become fully present in the world. In other words, the death of Christ signals the self-annihilation of the God as he existed in the realm of the sacred which then allows God to be fully present in the secular realm, that is, in the mundane world of day-to-day experience.

All of these thinkers have Hegel as their predecessor, who understood religion to be a contingent rendering of an otherwise Absolute reality. History, for Hegel, is the story of the Absolute making itself known to us by means of contingent, conditioned realities (which are all we have access to as finite creatures anyway). Thus, what is ultimate is not our conditioned rendering of the Absolute but rather the becoming of the Absolute in history which transcends any one rendering by itself.

For each of the thinkers mentioned above this Hegelian concept is visible. While on the surface the death of God seems to be the death of anything we might consider to be ultimate, it is really the latest development in the life of God, the most recent manifestation of the Absolute in history. The death of God is really a deep affirmation of the life of God. God has died, these thinkers would say, but he has died so that he might live!

The Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek understands the death of God differently. For Zizek the death of God serves as a more radical negation of religion and so does not signal the rebirth of God in the world. Quite the contrary. Not only is God actually dead but he never existed in the first place! Caputo explains:

In Hegel the Spirit is not “somebody” (it’s not a finite  being) who “does” things (it’s not a personal agent) but rather an undergirding substance (infinite Being) expressing itself in the subjectivity of human history (becoming accidental of the essential). That much is just good Hegel. But Zizek goes one step further, diving deeper still down the black hole of negation…. The next step he proposes is to realize that there never was what Hegel called the Absolute or what religion calls God. Conflict and contradiction…are not the means the Spirit employs to make its way home; they are the very stuff of the Real where there’s no home to go to. There are only human agents who, at the end of the [psychoanalytical] session, are made to realize that there is no Big Other and that they are on their own. Deal with disenchantment. Deal with the Real. Mutual antagonism is all there is and we are going to have to work through it. The unreconciled is real and the real is unreconciled. The only reconciliation is to reconcile ourselves to the irreconciliable by admitting that there is no reconciliation. (The Insistence of God pg. 137)

The death of Christ is paradigmatic for Zizek but not because it serves as a sort of watershed moment in the life of God but rather because it shows us what has been true all along, namely, that there is no God who will protect us or give our lives meaning or bail us out when life on earth becomes too hard for us to handle. In his own words:

The point [Hegel’s reading] misses is the ultimate lesson to be learned from the divine Incarnation: the finite existence of mortal humans is the only site of the Spirit, the site where Spirit achieves its actuality…. Spirit is a virtual entity in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presupposition: it exists only insofar as subjects act as if it exists. Its status is similar to that of an ideological cause like Communism or Nation: it is the substance of the individuals who recognize themselves in it, the ground of their entire existence, the point of reference which provides the ultimate horizon of meaning to their lives, something for which these individuals are ready to give their lives, yet the only thing that really exists are these individuals and their activity, so this substance is actual only insofar as individuals believe in it and act accordingly. The crucial mistake to be avoided is therefore to grasp the Hegelian Spirit as a kind of meta-Subject, a Mind, much larger than an individual human mind, aware of itself: once we do this, Hegel has to appear as a ridiculous spiritualist obscurantist, claiming that there is a king of mega-Spirit controlling our history…. This holds especially for the Holy Spirit: our awareness, the (self) consciousness of finite humans, is its only actual site…although God is the substance of our (human) entire being, he is impotent without us, he acts only in and through us, he is posited through our activity as its presupposition. (Zizek in From Job to Christ quoted from Caputo pg. 140).

Thus for Zizek all that exists are subjective individuals who draw strength from their shared presuppositions about reality. The key point is that there is nothing above, underneath or behind these shared presuppositions, no “God above God” as it’s phrased in the Tillichian framework. These presuppositions are have their origin and end in the human mind. “God” exists nowhere but in our imaginations. This is the logic of the incarnation taken to its most extreme end: “God” is so fully incarnate that he exists nowhere but in the minds of his creatures. Without us, “God” dies. In Zizek we see the culmination of history’s doing away with the sacred realm; all that’s left are human minds and illusions of meaning therein.

Caputo, however, offers a critique of Zizek worth sharing. In his own words:

Zizek’s view of “virtuality” and hence of the event is too much taken with subjective events, too much trained on subjects and their “belief systems,” and not enough turned to the event itself, what I am calling the insistence of the event that lays claim to us, that evokes a more deep-set “faith” and “responsibility” in the more spectral setting of the “perhaps.” That is, the insistence of God is a call for a response, a call for existence. The event is not the decisiveness of the decision, but the insistence of what calls for existence in a decision, which is the decision of the other in me. The event is not reducible to subjective beliefs, even auto-organizing collectives, sustained by fantasy. “Subjective beliefs” arise in response to events; they give words to events, and are translated into deeds and institutions by believing subjects. The insistence of God translates  into the depths of human responsibility, into responses to the subsistence of the events which precede and provoke them. (The Insistence of God pg. 144)

Whereas for Zizek the event occurs in the act of subjective belief, Caputo sees the event as preceding such beliefs. The event for Caputo is what draws human subjects to belief in the first place. There is something or someone, “God, perhaps,” that is experienced prior to the creation of subjective beliefs and it is this experience, this insistence of “God, perhaps” that leads us to form subjective beliefs at all.

The name (of) “God” arises as a response to events, it gives an image to powers that overtake the subject and lay claim to it. If the “Spirit” is the name of a subjective presupposition, that is only because it is first of all the name of something that substantively prepossesses the subject, something…that poses or puts itself to the subject and calls it forth or as I would say, something insistent by which the subject is solicited and hence constituted in the first place. There is no big Other, but neither are there merely human agents. (The Insistence of God pg. 144)

“God Can Handle Our Tough Questions” And Other Expressions of Certainty

The embrace of doubt and mystery in the life of faith has become somewhat of a trend recently, especially in more progressive churches. This push to include more expressions of unknowing in our worship and liturgy is indeed a much needed corrective to what can only be described as the triumphalistic and naively positive faith of many American Christians. But we have to ask ourselves: when we do talk about doubt in the Church do we let this sense of unknowing go all the way down to the core of our being or do we house our doubt within an even greater system of certainty?

A few years ago I wrote a devotional for a Bible class that I was TAing about Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross. In the devotional I pushed my listeners to consider the idea that even Jesus felt forsaken by God in his hour of need and so we too ought to expect to, at times, feel as though God is absent. This short devotional was my apology for a more honest and real faith, one that is not afraid to ask difficult questions of God or express our doubt as a part of our worship. However, throughout this devotional I ground this call for a faith that can express doubt within a deeper sense of certainty. Take the following line as an example:

The text does not actually tell us that God forsook Jesus. It simply communicates, given his cry on the cross, that Jesus perceived God to be absent.

Implicit in this claim is the idea that what was ultimately true in this scene was God’s enduring presence with Jesus despite Jesus’ experience of the loss of God. In other words, we can be sure that even when we feel like God is absent, he really is there holding us and ensuring that our suffering works out for some greater good. Thus, this sense of doubt that I was defending was really no doubt at all but was instead just a lack of perspective for what’s ultimately true and what we can be absolutely certain of is God’s guarantee that our suffering is meaningful.

Here’s another line from the devotional:

What Jesus’ prayer on the cross teaches us is that it’s okay to be honest and real with God when we are experiencing his absence. Jesus, when praying this prayer, is actually quoting Psalm 22 and, in doing so, participating in Israel’s long held tradition of directing their pain towards God in the form of lament. If the Psalms teach us anything it is that God can handle our tough questions. God is okay with our raw emotion.

Here again unknowing is placed within an overarching sense of certainty that “God can handle our tough questions.”

It’s been a few years since I wrote this devotional and so I’ve come to a bit of different understanding of what role doubt, mystery, lament and unknowing might play in the life of faith. I’ve begun to wonder if talking about doubt as I did in this devotional, that is, as grounded in a deeper, overriding sense of certainty, is really enough. I’ve begun to ask myself what it might look like to let doubt and uncertainty go all the way down to the core of our being, that is, to lament the sad state of our world without any sort assurance that things are all happening for the better or that God can handle such difficult questions.

What if things don’t actually work out for good?

What if life on earth is just a cosmic accident?

What if no one is listening to us when we pray?

As a final thought I want to ask what it might look like to enact this more radical sense of doubt in a liturgical setting. In what ways might our gatherings create space in which we actually experience the loss of God as Jesus did on the cross?

In the name of God I renounce God.

In his Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche asserts that “all great things bring about their own destruction through an act of self-overcoming.” In other words, all values, as they undergo the inevitable process of intensification and radicalization, eventually begin to call into question the very movement that gave birth to them. Movements often cannot survive the radicalization of their own values, as these values stand in judgment over the movement as it has come to exist in reality. The proper response to such a situation, Nietzsche says, is to transcend the movement in the name of its values.

Is this idea not demonstrated perfectly in the case of Christianity today? The Christian values of justice, love, reconciliation and peace stand in stark contrast to Christianity’s complicity in systems of domination and oppression. Indeed, in the American context Christianity, rather than embodying the values that lie at its core, serves as an ideological justification for American imperialism, the expansion of free market Capitalism and the destruction of the natural environment.

Applying Nietzsche’s idea to such a situation, are we not led to reject Christianity in the name of fidelity to it’s foundational values? Rather than an abandonment of the tradition, such a  rejection would serve as an ironic affirmation of the deep truths of Christianity. Clayton Crockett, in his book Radical Political Theology, puts it this way: “The more we pursue God, the more we are forced to recognize God’s complicity in the human projects of economic moneymaking and political domination and that these projects often produce immoral and brutal results. Another way to express this is to recognize that the death of God is the result of a genuine theological yearning for God, not simply a cynical and self-serving pronouncement” (14).

The radial values of Christianity stand in judgment against Christianity as a historical movement, especially as it exists today in the American context. Thus, in order to remain faithful to these values we are compelled to reject the movement itself. In short, we are called to renounce God in the name of God.

Was Jesus Faking It?

I think one of the mistakes of popular Christology lies in the idea that Jesus could have, if he really wanted to, displayed his divine omnipotence on the cross by defeating his executioners in a grand display of power and might. Jesus, in this framework, was holding back, as it were, masking his divine power under a shroud of human frailty and weakness in order to accomplish salvation.

What’s not recognized by those who hold this position is that such an articulation bears a striking resemblance to the docetic heresy. Docetism, which was ultimately condemned in 325 CE at the Council of Nicaea, asserts that Jesus merely appeared to be a human, that what was perceived to be a normal human body was in actuality a facade behind which lied Jesus’ true nature, namely, pure divinity. In other words, docetism understands Jesus’ humanity to be an illusion.

Contra docetism and its contemporary derivatives, I would argue that Jesus’ humanity goes all the way down, that there was no hidden divine power underneath the display of weakness on the cross. Jesus couldn’t have gotten himself off the cross even if he wanted to (which, given the excruciating pain and humiliation of crucifixion, he most certainly did). In short, Jesus wasn’t faking it.

Rather than seeing the pitiful display of weakness on the cross as illusory or as a veil covering Jesus’ true nature as an omnipotent super-being, I would argue that the weakness of Jesus on the cross is in actuality the true locus of divinity in this scene. The nature of God in Jesus was not suppressed on the cross but was rather fully displayed. The weakness and frailty wasn’t a show. That’s actually how God is.

Caputo puts it this way:

If we take from this that Jesus could, with the wave of his hand or a wink of his eye, demolish these Roman soldiers but freely chose not to exert his omnipotence because he was on a divine mission, then we would concede that he merely seems, docet, to be a helpless and innocent victim of this power. But that is what he was in truth. The radical uprooting of Docetism demands that we locate the divinity of this scene of misery and defeat, the sacredness of its memory, not in some hidden divine power play or long-term investment in a divine economy of salvation. The sacredness lies in the cries of protest that rise up from the scene. The event to be willed here is the depth of outrage at the injustice of imperial power, of the crushing of the Kingdom by worldly forces. The divinity lies in the identification of the name of God, for Jesus was the eikon of God, not with Roman power but with an innocent victim of that power, not with retribution but with the act of forgiveness that is attributed to Jesus by the evangelists. (After the Death of Godpg. 63).

Jesus was a heretic.

I think it’s easy to forget that Jesus was a heretic. He did theology on the margins. That is, he was someone who did not “conform to the established attitudes, doctrines or principles” of his day. He challenged the religious authorities, those who were the defenders of orthodoxy, reminding them that God is more concerned with justice than the keeping of age old traditions. Jesus protected the down-and-out from the powerful institutions and authority structures that existed in his time. It was precisely this type of provocation that got him killed by these very powers. The orthodox, that is those in positions of authority and influence, cannot stand the threat of heresy. Those who challenge their telling of the story must be done away with lest their position of privilege be undermined. And so Jesus was crucified.

It’s not without some irony, then, that the Church today sees itself as the keeper of orthodoxy. The community that began as a gathering of the meek and meager of society now finds itself in a position of great power and authority, indeed, the position of power and authority if we narrow our focus to America. In order to defend its power the Church remains vigilant against those dissenters who concern themselves with the  propagating of any sort of teaching that threatens the as-is power structure which ensures its current place of privilege. Heretics must be called out and orthodoxy must be protected.

But what we learn from the Jesus story is that sometimes underneath even the most well meaning defense of orthodoxy is a grasping for power by those who are in the driver’s seat.

Thus, to follow Jesus in our own day is to defy our inherited traditions insofar as they are serving as a means of marginalizing the least of these. To follow Jesus is to be a heretic, to do theology on the margins. In order to be faithful to the Jesus tradition we must betray that very tradition (an idea developed by Peter Rollins in his book The Fidelity of Betrayal).

The work of John Caputo is a good example of what a “theology on the margins” might look like. In describing his work, Caputo says this:

I am following the traces of a well-known rogue, a famous outlaw who was turned into the Law itself by the palace theologians, even though my guess is that he would have made them blush with shame, thrown them into a rage, had they met him in the flesh, his flesh. They say his flesh was assumed by an Uber-Being come down to earth for a bit of heavenly business on earth, but I can imagine what they would have called him had they met him in the flesh–a “homosexual,” out to destroy “family values,” a flag-burner, a libertine, a “socialist,” out to raise our taxes–in short, a “curse and an affliction upon the church.” So I gladly take my stand with the outlaw and ask what theology would look like were it written by the outlaws, the outliers, the out of power, the troublemakers, the poor, the rogues. (The Insistence of God pg. 25)

 

The Methods of Modern Textual Criticism

My last post was intended to give some context to the work that modern Biblical scholars do in order to give us the Bibles that you and I read. In short, I noted that, because writings in the ancient world had to be copied by hand, mistakes and intentional alterations were commonly made while the books that made it into our NT were copied. This leaves us with thousands of various manuscripts and fragments, many of which differ from one another in more than a few areas.

What we have in our English NT are translations of copies that were made over a century after the originals were supposedly written. The earliest copy of Galatians that we have, for example, is dated to around the year 200 CE, some 150 years after the apostle Paul wrote the original.

Thus, the problem that biblical scholars are attempting to solve with much of their work could be summarized as follows: How can we know what the originals of the NT books said considering what we have today are copies of copies of copies that were written much later than the originals and most of which differ from one another due to errors (or deviations from the originals) made by the copyists?

I want to highlight some of the tools that scholars employ in order to help them solve this problem. (The following is summarized from Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus).

There are two categories of evidence that scholars look for when attempting to determine which readings are more likely to reflect the originals: external and internal. External evidence has to do with examining everything about the manuscripts themselves rather than what they actually say. Internal evidence looks into the content of each manuscript.

External Evidence

  • Number – How many manuscripts support a given reading of a text? This criterion is rather straight forward. If more manuscripts support one reading over another then this counts as evidence for the reading that has greater representation being more original. However, in isolation this criterion offers us rather weak evidence. The fact that more manuscripts reflect a given reading over another does not ipso facto mean that that reading is more likely original. It simply means that the given reading was copied more than others.
  • Age – How old is the manuscript? Older manuscripts are generally believed to reflect the original better than later manuscripts because it’s thought that texts get changed more with the passing of time. However, this criterion, like the ‘Number’ criterion above, must not be applied uncritically. Sometimes manuscripts that are in fact from a later time better reflect the original because they were copied from manuscripts that predate our oldest surviving manuscripts as well as the copies that the earlier manuscripts used. For example, a manuscript from the 8th century may have been dependent on a non-extant manuscript from the 3rd century whereas an earlier manuscript we have from the 5th century may have been dependent on one from the 4th. In this case, the 8th century manuscript would be considered more reliable despite its later date.
  • Geography – Where was the manuscript written and how does it compare to manuscripts that originated in other areas? Readings that are attested to in multiple geographic regions are thought to be more reliable. If a number of manuscripts from Antioch, for example, support one reading whereas manuscripts from Alexandria, Rome and the region of Asia Minor support another reading then the reading from Antioch is thought to likely represent a local variation rather than the original.
  • Reliability of the manuscript – Has the manuscript proven to be reliable in the past? After rigorously applying the above criteria as well as others to the manuscripts that we have for many years, scholars have been able to show that some manuscripts are more trustworthy than others. For example, if a manuscript from Rome represents one reading and a manuscript from Palestine represents another then scholars will take into consideration how both of these manuscripts have fared in the past with other variant readings. If the manuscript from Rome contains more variants that scholars believe to be reliable then this counts as evidence in favor of the reading in the Roman manuscript. Ehrman’s illustration is helpful: “When you know that a person is prone to lying, then you can never be sure that he or she is to be trusted; but if you know that a person is completely reliable, then you can trust that person even when he or she is telling you something you can’t otherwise verify” (kindle location 2089).

Internal Evidence

  • Intrinsic Probabilities – What was the original author of this text most likely to have written based on writing style, vocabulary and theology? If a given reading contains words that can be found nowhere else in this author’s corpus or if the theology seems to contradict what’s known of this author’s theology from his other works then the reading under consideration is more than likely a later scribal addition.
  • Transcriptional Probabilities – Which reading is likely to have been the result of a scribe’s  redaction? The more problematic reading is likely to be original based on the fact that later copyists would want to harmonize or simplify any difficult passages they were copying. This criteria, which many scholars believe to be the most reliable text-critical principle, is summarized well in the following adage: The reading that best explains the existence of the others is more than likely to be original.