The Self-Saving of God

I just rediscovered this strange document [below the fold] which is an abbreviation of the most important chapter of perhaps my best book, Godhead and the Nothing. Why did I do it? I have forgotten, and even though apocalypse is absent here, this motif of the Self-Saving of God may be my most vital one. This also unveils the ultimate challenge of Gnosticism which we so commonly evade, for Jonas maintains that the Self-Saving of God was created by Gnosticism and may well be its most ultimate challenge.

Even if my original studies of Blake and Hegel mute or disguise this motif, I can now recognize their dominance for Hegel and Blake, and perhaps for all of our most radical vision.

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This paper is an all too limited inquiry into the possibility of a truly new theology for us, and one revolving about the thesis that now theology can only finally be an unveiling of the “self-saving” of God.  Let us proceed from Heidegger’s great treatise, perhaps his greatest treatise, on “Nihilism as Determined by the History of Being,” the conclusion of his primal study of Nietzsche, which was written in the time of perhaps his greatest crisis, 1944-45.  Here, Heidegger speaks with unusual force of “the default” (das Ausbleiben) of Being, a default that is the very destiny of Being, and yet Being saves itself in its default.  Now this is the very treatise in which Heidegger, in response to Nietzsche, gives us his deepest understanding of nihilism, a nihilism which he can now identify as the history of Being, and this is the very history in which Being saves itself.  For Heidegger this history is the history of metaphysics, one which determines the history of the Western era, but metaphysics thinks Being only in the sense of “the Being” as such, therefore Being itself is necessarily unthought in metaphysics, and as such metaphysics is nihilism proper.  This is the history which comes to an end in Nietzsche’s thinking, even if Nietzsche is the last metaphysical thinker, and it comes to an end in the “self-withdrawal” of Being, yet this self-withdrawal is the very advent of Being, and the abode of this advent is: “das Sein gibt.”  That giving is finally the self-saving of Being, one proceeding from the withdrawal or self-concealing of Being, and the advent of the default of Being is the advent of the unconcealment of Being, one which is an essential occurrence of Being itself.  This occurs in the final or apocalyptic age of the destitution of Being itself, wherein a closure of the holy occurs, and while Being itself now fails to appear, the disclosure of its default is an ultimate sign and seal of its own self-saving.

Let us first note that the symbol of the self-saving of God or Being is extraordinarily rare until the full advent of the modern world, perhaps it can be fully found in the ancient world only in Gnosticism, and Hans Jonas, a former student of Heidegger’s, and surely our greatest Gnostic scholar, could identify a uniquely Gnostic redemption as the “self-saving” of God.  This self-saving is necessitated by the fall of Godhead itself, wherein a “devolution” of deity occurs, and a devolution reversed by a redemption effecting the reintegration of the impaired Godhead.  Gnosticism, for Jonas, is the most radical movement in the ancient world, one that not only reversed classical culture, but shattered the pantheistic illusion of the ancient world.  The Gnostics were the first speculative theologians in the “new age” of religion superseding classical antiquity, and they created the ideas of an antidivine universe, of humanity’s alienness within it, and of the acosmic nature of the Godhead.  Thereby they also created the first mythical-speculative history of descending emanations from the primordial Godhead, revolving about an inner “divine devolution,” and one embodying an ultimate tragedy within Godhead itself, a tragedy wholly unknown in the ancient or pre-Gnostic world.

We might also note that nihilism realizes its first open theoretical and mythical expression in Gnosticism, which is yet another reason why Gnosticism has been so deeply reborn in our world, and if the Hellenistic world was an ever more fully nihilistic world, Gnostic theologians were deeply influential in that world, as witness their impact not only upon Plotinus but indirectly upon Augustine himself.  While we still lack a history of Gnosticism in the post-ancient world, it would be difficult to deny that the symbol if not the actuality of the self-saving of God is deeply present in that world, as perhaps present in the depths of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mysticism, and as surely present in the circles surrounding Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme.  This is a mysticism that is reborn in German Idealism, and the self-saving of God is at the very center of the thinking of Schelling and Hegel, just as it is in the visionary depths of Hoelderlin, Blake, and Goethe.  At no other point has such a deep modernity been a more profound threat to theology itself, and if Christian theology was born in Paul in response to a primitive Christian Gnosticism, a uniquely modern Christian theology could be understood as having been born in response to a uniquely modern self-saving of God.

If we have now entered a postmodern age of theology, this is a new theology or atheology embodying the impossibility of naming God, so that a refusal to pronounce or write the name of God is characteristic of the whole body of truly contemporary theologians, just as it dominates contemporary biblical scholarship.  We might even say that nothing is more forbidden in our world than what we once knew as theology, and most forbidden by theologians themselves, who can unveil any actual language about God not only as illusion but also as blasphemy, as an assault upon the Godhead of God.  This is an assault which the Protestant and Jewish theologian can know to be present in every philosophical theology, as most deeply unveiled by Levinas, but it likewise can now appear to be present in every full expression of our imagination, so that now all ideas and images of God are theologically condemned as they have never been so before.  Never previously has the very name of God been so deeply forbidden, or so deeply veiled, as though it is this name alone that calls forth the most ultimate and the most absolute abyss of darkness.

Yet this condemnation is fully consistent with any genuine understanding of the “self-saving” of God, for God can be saved only from God’s own darkness, and if that darkness is inseparable from every act of God, or every epiphany of God, or even every name of God, then not only is darkness itself ultimately a divine darkness, but that “light” which is the opposite of darkness is inseparable from darkness, and inseparable in this opposition itself.  We know that the Book of Job is the most heretical book in the Bible, and despite its deep transformation at the hands of priestly editors, it remains inconceivable how this book could have become canonical, but perhaps it did so precisely because it so deeply names the darkness of God, a naming which is here revelation itself.  This occurred in the first exile of Israel, but now a new exile is at hand, an exile now of all humanity, of the world itself, and if ancient Gnosticism first knew a universal exile, and one creating an absolute world-negation, this occurs only by way of an absolute redemption, a redemption which is the self-saving of God.  This and this alone makes possible what the Gnostic knows as the perfection of the elect, a perfection that is an absolute deification, one surely echoed in deeply Christian quests for deification or Godmanhood, and if these have their origin in a primitive Christian Gnosticism, as recorded in the earliest strata of Q and of the Gospel of Thomas, they are surely present in the depths of Christian mysticism throughout its history, even if they are seemingly absent today.

Yet certainly the presence of the darkness of God, and of the ultimate darkness of God, is not absent today, as witness our deep condemnation of the very pronunciation of the name of God, for even if this is a response to the emptiness of the name of God for us, that could only be an alien emptiness, an alien emptiness impelling such a condemnation, and one that can be known as the very opposite of a Buddhist emptiness.  Ancient Gnosticism could name the biblical God or the Creator as Satan or Ialdabaoth, a naming seemingly renewed by both Blake and Nietzsche, and just as Nietzsche finally unveiled God as the deification of nothingness or the will to nothingness pronounced holy (The Antichrist 18), that very unveiling is inseparable from the full and final advent of an absolute Yes-saying or an absolute redemption.  Heidegger could finally know such a redemption as the absolute event of Ereignis, and all too significantly Ereignis is the very word which Goethe employs in envisioning the final redemption of Faust in the conclusion of the second part of Faust, that very Faust who embodies a uniquely Western damnation, or a uniquely Western “soul.”

Here, salvation is impossible apart from damnation, but already this is true in Augustine’s mature theological thinking, a thinking which became the foundation of Western theology, and a thinking calling forth the first philosophical and theological understanding of “subject” or self-consciousness.  Heidegger can follow Hegel in understanding that subject as the very center of modern metaphysics, and Heidegger can even understand Nietzsche’s Will to Power as revolving about this subject, which is just why Nietzsche for Heidegger remains a metaphysical thinker.  But if metaphysics has now truly ended, and with it has ended everything which we once knew as theology, darkness has certainly not ended.  Indeed, it has become more universally abysmal than ever before, so that Heidegger himself can actually name Being only by naming an ultimate and final abyss.  Therein Heidegger remains in large measure an Augustinian and perhaps ultimately Christian thinker, and does so precisely by knowing the self-saving of Being, for even if this is not an overtly Augustinian theme or motif, it certainly is so in the deep underground of Augustinianism, as fully present in an Occam, a Luther or a Kierkegaard, and if this underground is a profound influence upon the Heidegger of Being and Time, it continues to affect the late Heidegger, who could so deeply know the “default” of Being.  Only by knowing that default can Heidegger know the “self-saving” of Being, and if he finally knows this self-saving as the event of Ereignis, this is certainly a deeply anti-Gnostic understanding, for it occurs fully and wholly in the world, and in the very worldliness or finitude of the world.

Today we can understand Gnosticism as being born in the very advent of Christianity,  and Gnosticism has ever accompanied the deeper expressions of Christianity, for even when these truly transcend Gnosticism, as occurred in both Augustine and Aquinas, it is Gnosticism which impels or makes possible such a transcendence, a Gnosticism which thereby can be understood to be essential to a uniquely Christian transcendence, and above all so if a uniquely Christian transcendence can be understood as a reflection or embodiment of the self-saving of God.  Gnosticism gives us the deepest and purest image of such self-saving in the ancient world, just as Gnosticism gives us the deepest and purest image of the darkness of God in that world, and if the darkness of God is inseparable from the self-saving of God, then the advent of the deepest darkness of God may well be the advent of a truly new self-saving of God, and one certainly known not only by Hegel and Heidegger, but by virtually all of our deepest modern visionaries.  Has the time now come for theology itself to incorporate such understanding?  Or is ours the time for a new silence of theology, one which virtually all of our contemporary theologians have seemingly chosen, and chosen perhaps because only thereby can theology now be preserved?

Both Hegel and Heidegger know metaphysics or the deepest philosophical thinking as theology, but unlike all ancient or medieval metaphysicians both Heidegger and Hegel finally know “Being” or the Spirit or the Godhead as the self-saving of God, and a self-saving occurring in the deepest darkness and abyss, a darkness only made possible by the death of God.  So it is that Heidegger can know that the realization that “God is dead” is not atheism but rather ontotheology, and an ontotheology in which both metaphysics and nihilism are fulfilled.  Just as Heidegger can know the history of metaphysics as the history of nihilism, this is the history of a theological metaphysics, a history which Nietzsche, too, knows as the history of nihilism, for it is a history of a deification of “the nothing,” a “nothing” which Western metaphysics knows as Being.  Yet only at the end of this history is Being unveiled as “nothing,” an ending already beginning with Hegel, and already called forth in a uniquely modern realization of the death of God, a realization which is at the very center of Hegel’s thinking, and of Nietzsche’s thinking as well.  And this is just the point at which the theologian turns deeply away from philosophical thinking, and from the imagination as well, as most deeply embodied in Barth’s Church Dogmatics, even if this is our only dogmatics which can know either damnation or “the nothing.”

Now, and for the first time, the deepest dogmatics can know that damnation is impossible for humanity, or “for us” (II, 2, 346), and impossible because it only fully or truly occurs in the damnation of Christ, a damnation which it is surely possible to understand as the self-saving of God, for Barth here understands the very glory of God as shining outside Himself by God’s becoming guilty in His Son.  Clearly there are very few Barthians at this crucial point, perhaps none at all, yet our deeper modern philosophy can think within the horizon of such an  orbit, and can do so by knowing and only knowing an abysmal Being or Godhead.  Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger all deeply know this abyss, and this ultimate abyss, and they know it as an ultimate event, or body, or kenosis, and a body or event or self-emptying which is finally the fullness and finality of world itself.  Thereby world or body or actuality itself is now far more profoundly theological than it ever previously has been, and precisely thereby is wholly closed to everything which we have known as theological thinking.

No theologian has been open to such a world, but no theologian has been open to the self-saving of God, for perhaps in being closed to the fullness and the finality of the death of God, theology has become closed to world itself, and to the full and final actuality or worldliness of the world.  Can this most deeply be why theology is so silent in our time, a silence which is the silence of ending or death, but a silence which may pass into speech if theology could become open to the self-saving of God?  Doubtless this is a profoundly forbidden path for theology, but it is a path already followed by our deepest philosophical and theological thinkers, and if in their wake theology has regressed to a wholly silent or sectarian form, can theology now be awakened from such a death?  For the finality of world itself may well be finally the self-saving of God, a self-saving in which alone God is finally God.  If we are now deeply closed to every other image of God, and every other idea of God, and so much so that it is now impossible either to think or to imagine God without imagining and thinking the self-saving of God, then perhaps this is the genuine destiny of theology, and one which can arise only out of the deepest ending of theology, only out of the deepest theological abyss.  Certainly such an abyss now abounds among us, and perhaps that very abyss is the self-saving of God for us, and the self-saving of that God who is only in God’s abyss or death, or only in an ultimate “default,” but the advent of that default is the fullness of advent itself.

10 thoughts on “The Self-Saving of God

  1. Shocking that a significant chunk of the Internet’s new fingers-crossed Lenten Christian Atheists, who employ God’s death to the ultimate service of Christian identity, haven’t weighed in on this. I was really hoping somebody’d prove me wrong, & that their atheism went deeper than a buzz word.

  2. Brad, I guess this counts me “in” this group–but could it be that these “Atheism for Lent” type groups are opening themselves up to the possibility of the death of God as ontotheology? As the ‘beginning point’ toward moving past the Cosmic Santa Claus model of the divine? Though one must wonder whether 40 days is transformative or simply a stunt, but any practice depends on the seriousness and openness of the practicioner, no?

  3. Here’s my take on it. I worry along with Brad that these sort of Christian “Atheists” (coming out of the left-wing of the Emergent Church movement) are ultimately using these sorts of programs and ideas in the service of “saving” God from the evangelicals and the mainliners (both of whom they critique). Although they are opening themselves up to the atheistic critiques of Christianity, isn’t the hope that the participant will rediscover God at the end of the journey? Ideally, this God will be stripped of its ontotheological baggage, but the very fact that these sorts of events are scheduled every year makes me think that these exercises are ultimately apologetic in purpose. It reminds me of the evangelicals who expose themselves to the worst of the secular atheist camp with the hopes of finding ways to defend Christianity from these critiques. Isn’t this attempt to purge one’s concept of God just another attempt to defend against the emptiness and nihilism of the death of God?

  4. I think that these concerns about the Atheism for Lent project are very valid. Indeed two things come to mind for me. The first is a comment I read by Badiou once where, to paraphrase, he bemoaned the iron constitution of traditional Christianity to consume and integrate any attacks on its system. I know that I have been guilty of that in the past and may well commit this sin in the present. Indeed I must confess that the idea for these AfL groups came from the book Suspicion and Faith by Merold Westphal (who is, of course, critiqued for doing this very thing).

    However, my hope is that the AfL groups will not go down that line of apologetic defense (though some will use them in that way). Domesticating the death of God tradition to such an extent that it becomes yet another pet of the evangelical tradition. My own personal experience is that taming the masters of suspicion is a little like taming the Alien in (I think) the third film (for those who haven’t seen it, it doesn’t go well).

    As I develop AfL and expand its reach (something I, along with others, are working on), we are getting people to read the sources and engage with them directly (not through a secondary medium). Perhaps I am naive in thinking that getting Nietzsche, Freud, Zizek etc. into the hands of young people in the church who are asking questions will help them break out of onto-theo-logical ways. But I feel compelled to try something (and AfL is just one of a series of Radical Contemplative Practices we have developed).

    The issue is that I am a little in the trenches here. I don’t like to reveal my hand too early, but I should say that the AfL practice could get no traction if it were unambiguous in its power. To get into certain places it will, by definition, be approached within the horizon of the group adopting it (perhaps as an ‘edgy’ apologetic tool). The question is whether it can wipe that horizon out once inside the walls. I guess the proof will be in the pudding.

    I can appreciate peoples concerns here and share them myself. I want to get the type of pushback being brought up here and hope that there might even be some direct critiques of my approach here on this site at some point. This is one of the few blogs I read. Any critique leveled against myself and my friends here will be taken very seriously.

  5. One other thought: My hope is not that people return to this practice every year. Many people see the church as something people stay in for life. The groups that I form (primarily ikon and ikonNYC) are not designed for ongoing participation (though some will). As collectives in the Radical tradition they are designed to enact the death (and decay) of god in much the same way as we see in the documentary Kumare. It is more like therapy, you go until you experience the death of the Big Other. If people did the AfL course more than a few times I would want to meet with them and discuss why.

  6. Peter, thanks for this. I’ve read a good bit of your work, actually. (If you recall, I had a post a couple of years ago as I processed one of your earliest efforts.) My recurring concern, as expressed in that post, comes back to marketing: i.e., will the ‘market’ who finds AfL most attractive be changed by it more than AfL is changed by the ‘market’. That’s a craven, capitalistic way to put it, but also vaguely Nietzschean, so I think I can be forgiven. That you here even indicate you “can’t reveal [your] hand too early” re: the power of the works you’re pushing people to read is smart, but it is also is an indication that you are aware of marketing. As I tried to express in the post linked above, I’m not poo-pooing this use of this tool as though it were a kind of ah-ha that can be deployed against you. On the contrary, I see its overarching logic as touching more than nearly any standard ontotheology can today. Importantly, though, this doesn’t exonerate us of our complicity.

    I suppose what disturbs me a bit, if we are to be explicit, is who this version of he Atheistic gospel is being preached — who are those to whom you “can’t reveal [your] hand too early”? As Jeremy indicates, they seem most to be left-wing evangelicals. Again, that’s fine. I’ve no beef with the left-wing or evangelicals, and consider a good few to be fine folks. But when a gospel, including the four bound into the present Bible, are directed or received at a particular audience, it seems a good thing to consider (& perhaps you have, I don’t presume to say for sure) “Why them?” and “Why not the others?”

  7. Hey Brad

    Again, great comments and ones I’d love to hear fleshed out. I feel bad highjacking Altizer’s brilliant reflections so perhaps we can sometime take these conversations into their own blog post? I just wanted to mention one thing that you might find interesting. An interesting phenomenon that I am noticing in my work is that I am being invited to some of the most conservative universities and seminaries in the US (some publicly, some less so). Places where my friends like Jay Bakker, Tony Jones etc. would not get the same welcome. Now this could be for a host of good or bad reasons. But what I find is that because I share the conservative love of high Christology (albeit coming to a different position) they want to engage with me. At the moment, and I doubt this will last, I actually seem to be read by conservatives, liberals and progressives as well as by post-theists.

    Many of my talks are now filled with very different types of people (the traditionalists/liberals generally arrive at events 20 mins early, the evangelicals on time and the emergent/progressives 20 mins late – with the post-theists slipping in the back). This is something I am very happy about. Although again it could be because or bad reasons (lack of clarity etc.)

    Anyway I just thought you might be interested (also, please don’t hold my early work against me – my good book is yet to come -probably in the Derridian sense of the term)

  8. I’m fairly familiar with your work and am intrigued by the creativity of some of the groups you’ve helped to form. However, I really don’t understand what is animating all of your work. I would assume that you believe that beyond the ontotheological horizons lies some promise or hope for the future of Christianity. After people enact the death of the ontotheological God, what’s next?

    One thing that I’ve always found curious about your work is being unable to locate your political commitments. From the work I have read, you have barely engaged with liberation theology and it’s unclear if you believe that Christianity has a political orientation.

    What do you want from and for the people who join these groups? This is of course a Lacanian question: what is the desire of the analyst? Is there a reason these sorts of experiments need to take place in these spaces? If the goal is ultimately therapeutic (with the hope of disabusing the believer of the Big Other), why don’t you refer everyone out to their local psychoanalyst? New York has plenty in supply. As someone who’s beginning analytic training soon, we certainly are always in need of more patients. Is there some experience that this group space offers that psychoanalysis cannot provide?

  9. I will silently echo the specificity of Jeremy’s question, and continue down the more vague notions of my own. Have you, Peter, read Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father? Here, the archetypal Father / Big Other is dead, “Dead, but still with us, still with us, but dead.” In the book, Barthelme makes this somewhat literal, in that the Father is a tottering, impotent figure being dragged long to his final resting place. (A much better recitation of this than the unfortunately bad book, Towing Jehovah.) Anyway, my point: while I’m quite on board with the dead Father / Big Other / etc., I think Jeremy’s political concerns speak wonderfully to the reality that the dead Father / Big Other is “still with us, still with us, but dead.” This is where the marketability of this gospel comes into play — because no audience or niche, etc. is fundamentally changed w/out reserve; that is, w/out weighing down to some degree the gospel itself. What corpse(s) are we carrying with our atheism(s)?

  10. Correct me if I’m off the mark, but is Peter’s fundamental project not outlined brilliantly in The Puppet and the Dwarf that “to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience”? Reading Peter’s comments here and sensing that his hand will be revealed soon in his forthcoming monograph on The Divine Magician, I can’t help but refer to this review of Žižek which mirrors what I am witnessing in Pete’s work:

    “Using this Lacanian world view plus ‘Marxism,’ Žižek decides that by using a ‘perverse’ version of Christianity leftists can smuggle in, as it were, progressive ideas and put them into play in our society. Having concluded that Marxism cannot get a hearing in our culture this is really the only way that we can advance the revolutionary cause. Marxists in Christian clothing.

    No doubt that because Christianity originated among oppressed national minorities and slaves there are many features of progressive social justice that can be deduced from it. The battle against the Christian right could be more easily waged by showing that its political and social formulations are contrary to Christian teachings and the logic of Christianity.

    In this respect Žižek has a point. But it is not necessary for Marxists to go through a Christian moment themselves. By the way, the ‘puppet’ in the book’s title is Christian theology – we will use theology to forward our secular ends – the dwarf will use the puppet.”

    Is this too reductionistic/simplistic?

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