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)