Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Does God need to die again?

In 1957, Gabriel Vahanian's book The Death of God came out. Vahanian was one of a number of the Death of God Movement's theologians, and perhaps the most conservative among them.

The prime focus of his book was that our culture had moved beyond the discussion of the existence of God, and now had no concern to even deny His existence. In essence, God had died to our culture, and even where He existed in the belief systems of traditional churches, the image was so marred with a modern "religiosity," as he called it, that it did not look like the God of the scriptures.

Of course, Vahanian did not suggest that God had really died (and neither am I), but he did suggest that God (in an accurate image) had died to us, and that the image modern religiosity carried needed to die, in order to resurrect a correct, and living picture of the God of scriptures. His approach was far more conservative in its theology than that of his fellow death of God theologians in the 50's and 60's.

Looking back now over the course of these 60+ years since the release of Vahanian's The Death of God three things capture my attention:

1) It seems that the death was not complete enough. 

Churches, as many of us have experienced, still appear to hold views of God and the Christian faith which have harmed generations of people. Either the praxis of religion, or the combination of bad actions and sad theology have driven people away from church, and God has died in them (both in the harmed individuals and often in the theologies of the church).

False views of God, which have marred His public image still need to die more completely (of course, they never will completely until He returns.) Theologies of self-directed or self-serving power have merged the power of a transcendent God with the aggressive immanence of a God Who is out to bless you and crush what stands in the way of your blessing. In other cases our God of awesome power is presented as a self-service God Who appears ready to grant everyone who asks all their wishes. One image pits human against human in a falsely represented spiritual battle, and the other image has left the unblessed feeling left out of the circle of faith. These are just two examples - which come primarily from evangelical and pentecostal circles of theologies, which have re-crucified the Lord, and still need to die in order to allow for a resurrection of a true theology.

Apparently the death of God was not complete enough.

2) There was enough of a resurrection in evangelical circles over that time to foster the need for a recent counter movement of aggressive evangelistic atheism.

Vahanian's critiques and prophetic insights should have evidenced a continuing disinterest in God in the last half of the 20th century, but the wild growth of Pentecostalism worldwide, and the American revivals of the Charismatic Movement, The Jesus People Movement, the Religious Right and religion in American politics, the New Calvinists, Emergent Theology, and a number of other wildly growing Christian movements give evidence to the re-emergence of God in every sector of *American life, and even around the world to a great degree. 

As reactionary as the point 1 appears, I do not think that any of the above religious movements are entirely unhealthy. Each carry some sense of true revival of religion as it ought to be, and each carry elements in need of correction of the death of certain perspectives. As such, the rising and falling of religious concern in our culture over the last 50 years has been dramatic enough that it has spawned a reactionary movement - an aggressive evangelistic atheism. This may well be evidence for and against Vahanian's position: on the one hand the new atheism argues against the God Who ought to die (those theologies which are indeed false images presented by Christian leaders over the last 50 years), on the other hand the reactionary felt-need of the new atheists to battle fundamentalism, and the growth of faith movements is evidence of the power of religion in current culture and society.

3) His solutions would not be my own.

Vahanian called for the death of what he called "radical immanence" - a God so present as to be integrated with all the actions of humanity. I do not disagree with a critique of theologies which justify the sorry actions of humanity through radical immanence. Yet, his answer is the death of such theology in favor of a reformed theology.

The positive elements of revival which emphasized the growth of Pentecostalism in the third world, Charismatic movements in the US, evangelical church growth, the Religious Right, New Calvinism (yes, even new Calvinism), and Emergent theology often emphasize the immanence of God. The movements have come and gone, or continue to grow with a sense of God's activity in my own life, in miracles for the needy, in politics, or social justice.

Though I recognize the dramatic differences in many of the above movements, and I do not personally identify with them all, I still see the emphasis of a radical immanence being a driving focus of their growth and revival. Like Vahanian I believe that this immanence should be balanced with a sense of transcendence and the holiness of God, but for me it is not a de-emphasis of immanence, nor even a gentle balance. What is needed is a radical balance. God is both radically immanent and radically transcendent: holy and active in our lives.

This may call us to consider whether our views of God need to die and be replaced with a more radical Theology Proper.

* Of course, since the re-emergence of God has been most prominent in the US, and many "second and third world countries" it begs a certain consideration of the place of American influence over the folk religious thought, and vice-verse.