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.


Bruce said...

Vahanian's approach strikes me as pretty close to Hegel's, on first glance. Been there, done that.

Yet: it's more a revisiting than a simple re-teaching of the same perspective. Hegel was truly excited that he and others were bringing about the Kingdom of God through his theology. His theology was a complicated and nuanced emphasis on God's identity with the created universe via His immanence.

I studied Hegel's work in Theology with Dr. Oliva Blanchette at Boston College. Frankly it was way over my head at the time, and I didn't have the depth of reading to grasp Hegel adequately. But Hegel's theology is tremendously influential in the extreme liberal-to-existential wing of Euro-American protestant theology.

My point of view is that one can hardly become more radical than those who are whole heartedly saints in mind and soul and body, in the center of the concrete traditions. There's an old thought that the problem with Christianity is not that it's been tried and found wanting, but that it hasn't been tried. That's where I toss my hat. Keeping my feet on the path and eyes on the Kingdom, and try not to get too distracted.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Bruce,

Thanks for the input. Vahanian actually was a conservative in a primarily liberally driven theological movement. He was rejected a radical immanence theology and was saying that had brought the death of God consciousness in Western culture. The response was then to let that theology die, and revive the transcendence of God into Christian theology. So I am not sure He was Hegelian in the sense you mean.

What do you think?

Adam Gonnerman said...

I don't want to go too deep, but this post triggered a couple of thoughts.

First, the images I see circulate the most among churches are either of a goody-two-shoes deity who couldn't harm a fly, or of a god who spends all his time getting angrier and angrier over various types of sexual sin. The God who revealed himself to Israel and through Jesus is vastly different and far less predictable than either of those images portrays.

Second, high up on my lengthy list of pet peeves is people saying some variation of "everything happens for a reason." What they do by implication is place the world's vilest evil in the lap of whatever god or guiding force they see behind the universe. Omnipotence and sovereignty do not mean God is the direct cause of every event in a world subject to futility and inhabited by fallen free agents.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Adam, I absolutely love your statement that He is "far less predictable than either of these images portrays." Nice.

And my pet peeve top rankings gets that line as as well. Thanks bro.

counselor said...

Your term “aggressive evangelical atheists” is interesting and I like it. It is, in many ways, fitting to a certain number of people. This is a topic that I have been contemplating recently. The thought process is not yet complete, but here is where I am at and what is triggered by this term.
I wonder about people who could be called aggressive evangelical atheists…I wonder if they are truly atheists, or really atheists at all. Perhaps they are really pseudo- atheists. For instance, I really do not believe there is a bigfoot running around in the southern states for the US. Therefore if I were to notice that if someone were to think that bigfoot in Alabama really existed then it would not bother me in the least. Because I genuinely 100% sure that it does not exist. Why would I become angry about something that I do not believe even exists? Perhaps it is the effect that the false belief would have on others? That sounds too much like a rationalization to me.
Recently I knew a person who would become quickly enraged if you called them “crazy”. Just joking around some people might use the term in an offhand manner. Kind of a red flag if a person reacts quickly and excessively to the offhand comment. As if they have a secret fear about something….touching a nerve.
This makes me wonder if the aggressive atheists are really not atheists deep down after all. Is there a fear or doubt that causes a reactionary set of negative behaviors? Maybe a fear that there really is some form of God. It would be a pestering thought…to one who would prefer to be atheist but could not quite get all the way off the platform.
My friends that are genuine atheists have no problem with my faith…nor I theirs for that matter. As we each genuinely have the idea that the other is completely wrong. It makes it OK for us to discuss the issue and accept one another.
But then again there is rarely one easy answer for any question in life is there? Just something to ponder. Only part way down the road.
P.S. God loves people whether they believe in Him or not.