The Feast of the Death of God

Christ died and then rose on “the third day” — counting the day of death itself as day 1, and the day of resurrection as day 3. Since he dies in the afternoon on Friday and rises before the women come to tend to his body very early in the morning on Sunday, Christ is only dead for maybe a day and a half, but he definitely lies dead in the tomb for one full twenty-four-hour day: Holy Saturday, today.

Liturgically speaking, God is dead today. That is not a heretical provocation, but a fully orthodox proclamation. Before Nietzsche declared that God is dead, Luther did so. According to orthodox Christology, the human and the divine are fully united in Christ, though without confusion. Christ does human things and Christ does divine things, but Christ does them all. So it is equally orthodox to say that Jesus of Nazareth created the heavens and the earth as it is to say that God had a poopy diaper. That’s the mystery of the incarnation — everything Christ does and suffers, God does and suffers. On Good Friday, God dies. On Holy Saturday, he lies dead in the tomb for a full twenty-four-hour day so that there can be no confusion about the fact that he is really dead. He didn’t survive the crucifixion and stumble out of the tomb. He died. He really died.

It’s puzzling, in a way, that Christianity does not have a carnivalesque festival on this one day when God is dead. That moment is instead displaced to Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before the Lenten period of reflection and asceticism that leads up to Easter. Of course, the Christian God is not supposed to be one you want to get away from. Unlike the mean “Old Testament God,” we continually hear, the Christian God is loving and forgiving. He’s not a stickler for rules. He just wants us to be our best selves. In fact, he loves us so much that he gave his Son for our salvation! Amazing. But who is he saving us from?

Continue reading “The Feast of the Death of God”

Are You Dead Yet? Reflections on a ‘Good Friday Faith’

I looked in the mirror and said to myself, ‘Have you had enough? Are you dead yet?’ (Alexi Laiho, lead singer of Children of Bodom)

I recently came across this Good Friday sermon by Kim Fabricius, over at Faith and Theology. I felt a shudder of recognition. For this is just the kind of thing I would once have lapped up. Hell, it is just the kind of thing I once preached. So forgive a little post-Easter catharsis.

The sermon fits into a particular genre, soaked in the pathos of The Crucified God. And it deploys a certain tactic: what Anthony Paul Smith dubs ‘weaponized apophaticism’.

I paraphrase: ‘Yes, the great critics of Christianity had a prophetic point. So much of what passes for Christian faith today is wish-fulfilment, a prosperity gospel worshipping a fantasy God. But beyond that, untouched by that complicity in capitalism, is the true God, the Good Friday God. A God who promises nothing, a God who, in the worlds of Rowan Williams “becomes recognised as God only at the place of extremity, where no answers seem to be given and God cannot be seen as the God we expect or understand”. Here, in the crucified Jesus, fantasy religion is overcome and we reach the real, beyond any concept.’

It is powerful. It has enough truth in it to be persuasive on some level.

But look at the supporting cast of characters. The Jew, chased out of Spain by the inquisition, who loses everything, then prays to God ‘You may torture me to death – and I will always believe in You, I will love You always and forever – even despite You’; the resistance fighter in the Warsaw ghetto, who in the face of defeat and the Shoah declares undying faith in God.

Judaism comes to the aid of Christianity, on the very Good Friday when the traditional liturgy basks in condemnation of the Jews. Oh, yes, Christians were complicit in that too, but look at the crucified Jesus . . .

I doubt if I am alone in seeing such rhetorical moves – however well meant – as being the worst kind of appropriation. Not least because the very purpose of them is to indemnify ‘Good Friday Faith’: or, ‘Christianity as it was meant to be, as it always secretly was, despite all appearances’. Do Christians have the right to enlist inquisition or holocaust as witnesses to Christ? To feed on Judaism to keep the Cross safe?

Perhaps less obviously, though more fatally, what shines through this whole endeavour is the image of a monstrous God, one who is recognised only at the extremity where we are abandoned and even tortured by God. Faith is proved as our flesh is stretched over this impassable gulf between us and God. No accusation will ever stick against him. If he were to appear as the worst sadist, it would show his love all the more.

So, we are told, ‘we wait’. We wait, stretched over the rack. And that is the problem. This is a theology defined by its obsession with what will come. Are you dead yet? Not yet, not yet. A theology of hope, that keeps us always in suspense, always the living dead.

I’m not sure we really need this theology of the not yet, of saving death. I would rather we defied death and everything that pretends to justify it, including the hidden victim-torturer God beloved of contemporary theology

Are you dead yet? No. I have had enough.

Must radical theology be Christian?

I remember hearing a sermon once in which the preacher assured us that God has no ‘plan B’, because God’s ‘plan A’ always works out. Homely as this wisdom is, it suggests something importantly true: God is never dead as long as providence lives. That in turn leads me to offer some hesitant thoughts about debates on the definition of radical theology.

Recently on this site, Jeremy made an appeal that we should be more precise when using the term ‘radical theology’. Too often, he argued, the term is invoked when what is being advocated is really a variant of liberal theology. If radical theology is going to have any distinctive meaning, it should be reserved for those ways of thinking which explicitly position themselves in the wake of the death of God.

I agree with Jeremy, and would align myself with radical theology in his sense of the term. However, this raises another issue, also familiar to followers of this site: to what extent is radical theology intrinsically defined by Christianity (even as it negates or transforms orthodox Christian doctrines)?

If we were to trace a lineage of death of God theology, it would go, not only through Nietzsche, but also through a kind of inverted Barthian view of the otherness of God as it is paradoxically identified with the world. Hegel’s ‘speculative Good Friday’ and Luther’s ‘crucified God’ would be in there too. And the whole story could be retraced to themes of God’s self-emptying in Christ. On this reading, however heterodox it might appear, the death of God names a necessarily Christian possibility. Indeed, it could be seen as the fulfilment of Christianity’s hidden essence.

The problem here is the risk of Christian triumphalism and supercessionism reasserting itself in the form of the supremacy of the Christian West. It is as if only Christian Europe could have produced the liberating effect of the death of God, and the critical and emancipatory ideas and practices which emerge from it. Don Cupitt – whom I consider a friend and mentor – strays too close to this, in my view. In books like The Meaning of the West, God dies, but is resurrected as secular Western civilisation, always defined against the murky background of the unreformed Islamic ‘other’.

I take the point that we can’t just ignore Christianity, which via the contingent historical exigencies of Western imperialism and capitalism, continues to shape our ways of conceiving religion and politics. Better to name and reckon with this than to be its dupe. I also want to affirm the emancipatory and truly subversive reality of radical theology as a way of occupying Christian discourse precisely to proclaim the death of the transcendent God.

However, that potential needs to be decoupled from any lingering notion of providence. The death of God is not the trope to end all tropes, the inevitable end towards which the historical narrative tends. There is no plan A.

What would happen if we were to turn our attention from the death of God to the death of providence (which is not the same as the liberal capitalist providential fantasy of the ‘end of history’)? Perhaps one result would be a stronger genuine philosophical interest in polytheism, animism, syncretism and magic, not as romanticised, exotic or innocent others, but as difficult and contingent materials with which we should think and work. In any case, I don’t see a necessary contradiction here with radical theology, but a way of taking seriously the way it unlocks a thinking of divinity apart from the unity of being or narrative, a thinking in which Christianity truly becomes one among many.

“I’m not here to tell you about Jesus”: Don Draper and the Death of God

In the first-season episode “The Hobo Code,” which in many ways is the most important of the series, Don Draper is selling Peggy’s copy to a reluctant client. He goes on the offensive, asking them to leave if they aren’t serious about changing their strategy, and along the way he makes an enigmatic statement: “Listen, I’m not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus, either he lives in your heart or he doesn’t.” The pitch proves effective, and when Ken Cosgrove mentions how great “the Jesus thing” was (perhaps implicitly asking what it means), Don explains that “sometimes force is actually being requested.” I am probably not alone in finding this explanation, such as it is, less than helpful.

So what does the quote mean? Or better: What role does it play in the episode and the season? Continue reading ““I’m not here to tell you about Jesus”: Don Draper and the Death of God”

Review of Jennings’ Transforming Atonement

Jennings’ Transforming Atonement is an excellent work. Unlike other liberation theologians that generally focus on ethics or politics, Jennings’ political theology of the cross is grounded in Biblical exegesis. In Part I he focuses upon the historical context of Jesus’ ministry and death along with Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed and the sinners of society.

I want to focus this review on the last chapter of Part 1 and last chapters of Part 2. Many Christians view Jesus’ death as a peace offering to appease a wrathful God that hates us. Jennings argues quite persuasively that it is humanity that needs to be reconciled to God, according to Paul. Humanity is angry and “we are the ones who have a “beef” with God” (128). However, God takes the initiative to reconcile us. God has come in Christ to remove our alienation from God.

In chapter nine, Jennings asks “[w]hat are the implications of the theology of the cross for our understanding of God?” (199). Jennings worries that older formulations tried to protect the Godhead from the death suffered by the Son by insisting that only Jesus’ human nature was impacted by crucifixion. However, this splitting apart of Jesus’ two natures potentially threatens the unity of the Godhead. [That’s why it’s always been no surprise to me that Lutheran theologians have been able to proclaim that God is dead since they tend to err in the other direction away from these Nestorian Christological formulations]. This would contradict the Biblical witness that God was “present in the fate of the crucified Messiah” (203). This splitting apart of the Godhead ultimately encouraged the idea that the Father was “an agent rather than as sufferer” (203) in the death of the Messiah. Jennings then briefly reviews other theologians who have likewise critiqued the idea of an impassible God such as: Whitehead, Bonhoeffer, Kitamori, Moltmann, and Altizer.

Jennings then turns to discuss Heidegger’s famous remark that “only a God can save us” and Derrida’s critique of the sovereign God of onto-theology. Jennings writes, “only with the idea of a nonsovereign God, a vulnerable God, indeed a God who can die, can humanity be rid of the dreams of invincible power that has consigned our history to violence and suffering” (213). Jennings recognizes that his position is very close to Altizer’s gospel of Christian atheism, which is the idea “that God is emptied into history as the coming sociality of mutual care, of justice, generosity, and joy” (214). This coming community is the only thing that can save us.

In the closing chapter Jennings discusses different atonement theories. He argues that there is no orthodox reading of the tradition. He rejects satisfaction metaphors because satisfaction can function as a substitute for justice, not to mention the whole notion is unjust even if Christ’s death was voluntary. Next, he takes aim at forensic metaphors which he believes betray the Pauline distinction between law and justice. Substitution will not do because it underemphasizes the important ethical implications of the cross. Instead Jennings favors Soelle’s idea that Christ represents us temporarily but is not a substitute for humanity. Although he appreciates liberation theologians’ re-interpretation of the patristic tradition, Jennings is doubtful that these new readings share much in common with older ransom models. Finally, the Abelardian theory is inappropriately individualistic and might encourage abuse since God wills Jesus’ death to demonstrate God’s love.

Jennings believes that all three theories have holes and that any sort of attempted synthesis is doomed to fail. What is ultimately sacrificed is “the divine claim and call for justice” (223). Moreover, what mattes is not a theory but “a confrontation with all systems of arrogance and violence, of domination, and death, of privilege and prestige, that holds humanity hostage” (229).

This work is a bold attempt to argue for an updated political theology of the cross. Although I did not focus on the more exegetical chapters, his mastery of Pauline literature is simple amazing. He is able to navigate deftly through the epistles and to demystify so much of the jargon to explain the heart of the Pauline message. Theologically I am drawn to this work as it weaves together quite convincingly two of my favorite theological traditions: radical death of God theology and liberation theology.

Ted Jennings’ Statement for the AAR “Death of God” Panel

[Since time ran out before Ted Jennings’ statement could be presented at the AAR panel “Whither the Death of God,” I am posting it here.]

Every year my friend Kunitoshi Sakai and I attend Good Friday services. Those who know us and that we almost never attend church ask about this odd custom. To which Kunitoshi always replies with a mischievous gleam in his eye: we go to make sure that God is still dead.

Continue reading “Ted Jennings’ Statement for the AAR “Death of God” Panel”

Is God also dead in America?

In the comments to Anthony’s recent post on theology and philosophy, we began discussing “the death of God” toward the end of the thread and I mentioned that I thought the death of God was operative in America as well, albeit in a different way than in the European context in terms of which what one might call the “classical” concept of the death of God took form. What follows is not the full-blown argument I had imagined I would be able to make, but rather a handful of fragmentary remarks that point toward what I think an answer to my title question might look like.

First: for the purposes of this discussion, let us postulate that we are only talking about something like “modernity.” Continue reading “Is God also dead in America?”