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)

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Living As If God Did Not Exist: High Gravity pt. 3.5 (Bonhoeffer)

We ended our last discussion of Bonhoeffer by noting that the end of religion or the death of the religious god understood as the deus ex machina is a prerequisite for the emergence of the radical essence of Christianity.

Thus, I want to ask the following question in this post: What might the Church look like without religion?

I want to highlight three things about Bonhoeffer’s vision of a religionless Church: the first one has to do with our theology (how we understand God) and the second two have to do with our praxis (how this theology or understanding of God is enacted in the world).

So theology first.  According to Bonhoeffer’s cultural analysis, society lives without any need for God. Another way to say this is that our society has become thoroughly secular (this claim definitely reveals Bonhoeffer’s cultural and temporal context, although to some extent it still applies to our own). A great deal of modern people live as if there were no God. The way the Church has traditionally responded to this secularization is by attempting to carve out sacred space in a world that’s proving to be utterly profane. The Church has continued trying to find some area of life that is ‘unknowable’ or ‘mysterious’ to us and place God in this ‘gap’ of human knowledge or experience. For Bonhoeffer, this approach is doomed to failure. Instead of attempting to defend the god of the gaps, the deus ex machina, Bonhoeffer argues that the Church should, along with society, begin to live as if there were no God. In his own words:

And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [as if God did not exist]. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.

It becomes clear at this point that Bonhoeffer’s theology is thoroughly Jesus-centered. Specifically, the suffering of Jesus as described in the four canonical gospels is very important for his understanding of God. For Bonhoeffer, the cross forces us to acknowledge that the God of Christianity is a God of weakness and powerlessness. Ours is a God who suffers with humanity rather than standing far above the earth in utter transcendence, immutability and omnipotence.

So, if God has let himself be pushed out of the world and exists in the world only by means of his suffering with us then how are  we to live in the world in light of this fact?

One of the ways forward that Bonhoeffer suggests is that we must begin to talk about God without religious language. He brings up the work of New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann at this point who’s project was to “dymythologize” the New Testament. In essence, Bultmann believed that the truth of the gospel was couched in mythological language (resurrection, ascension, miracles, etc.) and so the task of the modern theologian was to get behind the culturally-bound myth in order to unveil the irreducible and universal truth behind it all. For Bonhoeffer, Bultmann’s project did not go “too far” (something that many conservatives accused Bultmann of doing) but rather, did not go far enough. Bultmann attempted to chuck language of miracles, ascension, etc. out the window but he kept language of God. Bonhoeffer suggests that God, too, must be demythologized.

[Aside: Pete mentioned something interesting at this point in the lecture. He said that people love to demythologize hell but that we hesitate to do the same with heaven. In other words, it’s in vogue to talk about hell as a “this-worldly” reality, something that should be understood, not as a place that bad people go to after death, but as a way of life in the here and now that people choose to live in; a life of selfishness, suffering and pride (think Rob Bell in Love Wins). But heaven? Are we willing to demythologize heaven? Are we willing to give up heaven as a place that we go to after we die? The same could be true about Satan who, in many liberal circles, is not understood as a metaphysical being but rather as more of a force or a set of systems and structures that work to create division, rivalry and war between various people groups. But God? “Oh yeah,” say the demythologizers, “God is still a metaphysical being.” Could there be a double standard operating here?]

To demythologize God, I think, is to speak of God in a way that has everything to do with this world. We cannot relegate God to an other-worldly or heavenly realm. Bonhoeffer connects with Heidegger here as they both call us to move away from abstraction and metaphysical speculation.

This leads to the last thing I want to highlight from Bonhoeffer: the Church after religion is utterly “this-worldly” and must exist for the world. Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the incarnation is that God has, once and for all time, taken up residence here on the Earth in all its suffering, messiness and dirtiness. Additionally, the resurrection, rather than being an escape from this world, is God’s way of sending a renewed humanity back into the world. Again, Bonhoeffer in his own words:

The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope [that saves humanity to an other-worldly paradise] is that the former sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way which is even more sharply defined than it is in the Old Testament. The Christian, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself (‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’), he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ. This world must not be prematurely written off; in this the Old and New Testaments are at one. Redemption myths arise from human boundary-experiences, but Christ takes hold of a man at the centre of his life.

Thus, to be Christian is not to rise above this world but to be fully human in the world. The Christian recognizes the divine in the here and now, in mundane, every day tasks and in encounters with our neighbor. The Christian suffers with the world to the very end rather than retreating to a paradise in an attempt to escape from  the world. The Christian lives without using religious language to describe God because God, rather than being a metaphysical capital ‘B’ Being of omnipotence up in the sky, is to be found in the depth of human experience right here, right now–in suffering and table fellowship and folding laundry.

The way Bonhoeffer puts it, “God would have us know that we must live as [people] who manage our lives without him.” Once we accept this, we are freed up to fully embrace life with all its imperfections and as we do so we find God in the midst of our daily living.

Religion, as it is defined by Bonhoeffer, has us looking for God in a blissful heaven that’s out of this world. The radical  Christian affirmation, however, is that God forsook this heavenly bliss to come and dwell among us. God isn’t to be found anywhere but right here in our midst. The transcendence of God is immanently present.

Religionless Christianity: High Gravity Pt. 3 (Bonhoeffer)

Before diving into week three of our exploration of Radical Theology we would do well to review what we’ve discusses thus far. Week one we looked at Paul Ricoeur’s essay on the critique of religion where he highlighted the necessity of wrestling with the critique of religion leveled by the three masters of suspicion (MoS), Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. At their core, all three MoS showed us that underneath religion, something unhealthy or oppressive is often going on whether it be a lust for power, a deep-seated and unacknowledged hatred of people who are different than us or an attempt to cover over our fear of death. In week two we looked at Heidegger who, in his examination of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, attempts to discover the primordial Christian experience. For Heidegger Christianity is, rather than mental assent to a set of doctrines,  primarily a way of being in the world. We took a look at Heidegger’s rejection of abstraction when it comes to thinking about God. Rather than speculating about the metaphysical nature of the capital ‘B’ Being of God, we ought to temporally enact God in the here and now.

This week we are discussing excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison. These were letters that Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend of his while he was detained in a prison prior to his execution by the Nazis. The fact that these are letters makes them incredibly personal and intimate; the reader really gets a glimpse into the heart of Bonhoeffer, his deepest reflections and struggles.

It is in these letters that Bonhoeffer introduces an idea that has come to be known as “Religionless Christianity.” Nine themes were highlighted by Pete in our lecture, three of which I would like to discuss here.

First, Bonhoeffer argues that the God of religion, Christian religion included, is often imagined as a deus ex machina, which is a term used in theater or film to describe a character that is lowered down onto the stage as an angel or a god in order to resolve some sort of problem or tension in the plot before being lifted back up out of the scene. In his own words:

Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail – in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries.

Thus, for Bonhoeffer, the god of religion is also the god of the gaps. In other words, God exists in the areas that we do not understand, the “gaps” of our knowledge. This is best illustrated in the religion-science dialogue. The more scientists figure out about the world, God is increasingly pushed out of the picture. As our knowledge increases, the “gaps” that we place God in become smaller and smaller. In some areas it seems that the gap has disappeared altogether. For example, when evolution became the scientific community’s primary way of understanding how life on earth came to be as it is today God or, as Bonhoeffer would put it, the deus ex machina, was rendered unnecessary.

The religion-science debate is not the only area in which the deus ex machina functions . For Bonhoeffer the deus ex machina is being worshipped where ever God is affirmed as the “answer to life’s problems, and the solution to its needs and conflicts.” The God of religion, then, is a conceived of as a cheap answer to all of life’s difficult questions, that which provides us satisfaction in a world that can often leave us feeling less than satisfied. In short, the deus ex machina is our guarantor of meaning.

It’s not difficult to identify the deus ex machina at work in the church today. The four spiritual laws are a way of trying to convince people that they have a problem so that they can then accept the god who is the answer to that very problem. Or, to use another example, our testimonies can often fit into the following template:

  • [Insert story about how awful your life was before you met Jesus]
  • [Insert story about how you met Jesus]
  • [Insert story about how awesome your life is now that you’ve met Jesus]

Bonhoeffer noticed that, and this is the second point, in his own time it seemed as if people were moving away from a need for the god of religion or the deus ex machina. As scientists continued to explain more and more of how the world worked and modern political theorists developed ways for society to order itself in an equitable manner there was no more felt tension that needed to be resolved by inserting God into the equation. Thus, Bonhoeffer argued that the religious epoch had come to an end.

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the ‘religious a priori’ of mankind. ‘Christianity’ has always been a form – perhaps the true form – of ‘religion’. But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless – and I think that that is already more or less the case – what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?

This leads to Pete’s third point (and our final one…for now):  for Bonhoeffer the end of religion does not spell the end of Christianity. In fact, Bonhoeffer saw the death of the religious god as a necessary phenomenon, something that needs to take place, in order for the true essence of Christianity to emerge.

So what might a religionless Christianity look like? How might we conceive of God without falling back on the deus ex machina?

These are, I think, incredibly important questions for the Church to consider. They will have to wait for another post.

Until then some questions for reflection:

In what way have you seen the deus ex machina functioning in the Church or, even closer to home, in your own life?

Do you agree with Bonhoeffer’s cultural analysis when he says that the religious epoch has come to an end?