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The Deaths of God

Posted on: June 30, 2019

Category: Theology

The Deaths of God

Quest Thoughts: The Deaths of God

Last year at Brock University, my students and I hosted a bi-monthly discussion club on various topics in religion. Topics included women in religion, climate change, and immigration. I was surprised that by far the most popular and most discussed issue was the death of God. I thought God died decades ago. I was surprised the topic was such a hot-button issue.

"The death of God" is a philosophical way of thinking that reflects the shift to critical thought in the nineteenth century. The term was made especially famous in the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, but the idea is rooted in philosophers like G.W.F. Hegel and F.W.J. Schelling. It refers to a shift to the secular and a decline in supernatural beliefs. Specifically, in the beginning, the death metaphor was used for the Christian incarnation: God fell from heaven, so to speak, to dwell fully among humans. For Nietzsche, the idea was more radical. God as a credible belief had simply vanished from the horizon.

Since the nineteenth century, God has managed to return in different forms and configurations, leading most theologians to believe that God is not properly thought about as a thing or a somebody but more like a principle of life or a foundation of being. A principle or a foundation can't really "die," so in one form or another, as long as there is life, there will be something like "God" to talk about. The problem is those older ways of thinking and talking about God--pre-critical ways--are not very helpful anymore and sometimes foolish. There are certain "deaths" of an old God that need to happen if religion is to be of future value.

If we reflect on the "deaths" of God in the plural, there are probably several kinds of deaths that might help resurrect God in new ways. I can think of three in particular, but I imagine that readers could add to the list. My three are the tribal God, the interventionist God, and the apocalyptic God. I will very quickly say a few things about each one, sometimes spelling "god" with a small g when it seems appropriate.

The earliest forms of God in the Bible express tribalism. God is like a warrior, a military leader, who has a covenant with ancient Israel. So, the identity of Israel and the identity of God are tied together. As the battle goes, so goes the reputation of God. Sometimes Moses has to remind God of this close identity (Num 14:13f), so if God does something ridiculous, it affects the reputation of both parties. Such a close identity between a people and a god is theological tribalism. The god in question justifies the activities of the people, especially their military activities. We know from the consequences of colonialism and from the continued ways nations identify themselves with God that a militarily conceived tribal deity offers little positive value to our common future. Biblical writers like Isaiah knew this very well (Isa 49:6).

The complement of gods that follow from the warrior god is the God who intervenes in human affairs and the God who holds history in his or her divine hands. Since theological tribalism ties God to a nation, it is in the interests of God to act in favour of the nation. In Joshua, God throws stones at Israel's enemies and causes the sun to stop so as to assist in the slaughter (Josh 10:11f). It's a gruesome picture. The basic idea that God can intervene, though, often does more harm than good. When we face personal trials today, particularly unexpected tragedies or unwelcomed illness, the temptation is to rely on an intervening god to set things right. Anyone can understand this temptation. It requires psychological work to know that an intervening god reflects personal or national desires but is not big enough for real life. The Jesus saying appropriate here is "the sun rises on the evil and the good; the rain falls on the just and the unjust" (Matt 5:45).

Not far from the intervening God is the apocalyptic God who, when confined to a national identity, is also the God of vengeance. In the Bible, the apocalypse is the end-time event that is supposed to set the earth back to the first day after creation, back to when everything was perfect. Sometimes biblical writers see this as a highly inclusive, universal salvation, event. In Isaiah, the end-time picture is the day when nations will beat their swords into plowshares (Isa 2:4). But often and maybe even more commonly the apocalypse is about revenge on the enemy. The book of Revelation is a classic in this sense. Although the book ends with a new Jerusalem, the road to that location overflows with rivers of blood. It is easy to see how the apocalypse fuels feelings of vengeance and takes both our thinking and acting far from the future world of our dreams.

These three gods could die and the world would probably be better off: the God of tribalism, the God of intervention, and the God of the apocalypse. In place of one big "death of God," it might be wise to think of deaths of God, that is, endings to ideas of God that do us no good. What God might rise in place of them, though? It is, of course, never possible to predict. If, however, we accept that God really means life, then it can be said that learning to enhance life, to live well, and to enable a better life for the whole of our human family are divine acts made human.

©By David Galston

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