The Death of God: A Belated Personal Postscript
by James W. Woefel
Dr. Woelfel is professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 29, 1976, pp. 1175-1178. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
All the fun and games, the agonies and ecstasies, the caricatures and sober evaluations of the death-of-God theologies of the ‘60s are excessively well known, tediously overdocumented, and to a large degree out of mind in the ‘70s. I did my share of first commending Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton for "speaking to the condition" of us skeptically inclined and despairing theologians, then scornfully dismissing their writings as theologically esoteric, puerile, reductionistic and (ironically) not really in touch with the current religious Zeitgeist. Despite my skepticism, I never ceased hankering after transcendence, and so I enthusiastically welcomed the "recovery of transcendence" in theology that "gave us back God," restored us to multidimensionality, and made us in a way comfortable once again.
An Old and Permanent Specter
But here I am, ten years later, having awakened somewhat belatedly to discover that God has indeed died for me as well. There are crucial differences between my own recent experience of the death of God and the theologies of Altizer and Hamilton, and the differences perhaps point to the varieties even of this form of "religious experience." One difference is tonal: the necrotheologians of the 1960s were exultant; for me the experience is filled only with pathos and nostalgia. The other chief difference is etiological: their problem was a relatively new phenomenon called secularization; mine is an old and permanent specter called evil. What oppresses me sufficiently that God has not been able to survive it -- and I am almost embarrassed to admit defeat by such a well-worn issue -- is that there is simply too much suffering. Dr. Bernard Rieux, the narrator of Albert Camus’s challenging statement on suffering called The Plague, sums it up with appropriate intensity and particularity. This world, he says, is "a scheme of things in which children are put to torture." It is a world in which, from many causes, children are too easily stunted, warped, denied, deprived, abused, malnourished, diseased, shot, gassed, bombed and generally robbed of their potentiality. What happens to children is a particularly graphic indicator of the depth of our human bondage to forces within ourselves and our planet.
It is not a sour Marcionitism, "down on the world," that I have come to. Quite the contrary: There are many aspects of this life and this earth that I love sensually and cling to devotedly. I know full well that earth, so heedless of our personal welfare, also nurtures us remarkably and graces our lives with myriad beauties. I recognize that the unconscious which is the abysmal source of our earthly demons is also the dynamic ground of love and creativity which, together with our cognitive capacities, produces the truths and beauties and goodnesses of human life. I acknowledge that the social environments of family, race, class, education, work, culture, cult and nation are the inescapably human contexts that shape all our possibilities and achievements as well as our blindnesses and follies.
My religious despair is not over finite existence as such, but over the crushingly heavy burden of what seems to me nonsensical bondage. It is the sheer excess -- the disproportion of our human bondages and the absurdity resulting from this excess, the grotesque pointlessness of so much of it -- that undermines my sense of ultimate meaning as transcendent willing purpose. Doctrines of a fall of humankind, original sin, and satanic power -- whether historically or symbolically understood -- fail to alleviate this brooding impression. They simply transpose the problem into another key and continue to beg the agonizing question posed to a sovereign divine purpose.
The Demise of Transcendence
It is largely these human bondages of ours that have fundamentally altered my relationship to the languages and perspectives of the Bible and Christianity. Certain aspects of that tradition remain vibrantly meaningful as psychological, ethical, social and historical insight, expressed often in irreplaceably poetic and mythical form. The biblical and classical Christian perceptions of the slavery and freedom of the self in all their ambiguous interplay and of the social implications of such selfhood continue to be the most adequate I know, as articulated masterfully in the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr. And long before reading Sam Keen’s Beginnings Without End, I was quite aware from my own experience that death and resurrection, finding oneself only through losing oneself, are built into the very structure of human life. I remain committed to a vision of the ethics of agape as the most creative and all-embracing direction the good life should take. And I persist in believing that the course of human history is truly unpredictable, full of surprises. These dimensions are the vital foci of my ongoing relationship to Christian theology, and of my continuing identification with the profound and distinctive caring for people and the world that I see in the Christian community at its best.
What is missing now from my relationship to Scripture and the Christian tradition is just that crucial foundational dimension of transcendence. Recognizing that it is precisely the believing encounter with the God of Israel and its interpretation out of which the insights I cherish come, I find nonetheless that it is this very God with whom I am no longer able to reckon. The living God has died for me partly because the bands of suffering with which the world is bound have squeezed God’s reality first into a conundrum and then into an emptiness.
I hasten to add that I am not so naïve as to think that the demise of the transcendent God within my own interpreted experience entails the universalized conclusion that he does not exist. I have become increasingly impressed by the inescapably contextual character of all our "ultimate concerns." I can appreciate the fact that all sorts of people deal with existence in terms of faith in the sovereign God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On questions of ultimate meaning, none of us knows for sure who is closer to the mark. But in my own ongoing struggle to make sense of the Christian context of life- and world-interpretation, I find basic elements of that context which I simply cannot render coherent any longer, and I earnestly wonder how other persons manage to.
I have never ceased puzzling mightily over this old, old "problem of evil" until, to adapt a line from Dr. Seuss, my puzzler is chronically sore. My incapacity to make sense of the world as the creation of a personally caring Creator because of the magnitude of sin and suffering is, to extend the metaphor a long-festering sore that simply will not heal. Theologically it is somewhat awkward to be still bleeding over the issue when everyone else has gone on to exciting things like liberation and parables. (I suppose that what I am doing in this essay could be construed as belonging to the "autobiography" genre.) Chalk it up, if you wish, to a poverty of experience and imagination.
Still, there it is, my tiresome old wound, and its pain will not go away. I spent a major portion of my book Borderland Christianity trying to salve the affliction theologically while clinging to some semblance of a Christian perspective that preserved the element of transcendence in its God-talk. But one thing I affirmed there with all the earnestness and energy I could muster: a being who creates this universe ex nihilo is inescapably responsible for its features, and to call such a being "love" is to me incomprehensible and offensive. I suggested, without choosing among, some alternative views of God that in varying ways preserved divine love at the expense of divine power. (I consider the process theologies simply another subtle variation on this theme.) I still believe that my suggestions there are among the only tolerable and viable ways forward for faith and theology faced with the magnitude of evil. But such alternatives have limitations and problems of their own which have propelled me to move hesitantly beyond them. When I came to write my recent study of Camus (Camus: A Theological Perspective), for the most part I simply shared in his heartache over human suffering and reaffirmed my rejection of a love that is omnipotent. I had very little to offer in the way of positive theological suggestions.
So the God of classical faith and theology -- the sovereign Creator, Preserver and Consummator of absolutely everything who is nevertheless said personally to love his creatures -- died for me some time ago. Such a being I can only consider grotesquely incredible in view of the excessive estrangement, conflict, destruction, pain and waste on the earth. But what are my difficulties with the finite gods I and a number of other contemporary theologians have envisioned as softened, chastened, more "dynamic" alternatives? Surely if one must choose between ultimate love and ultimate power, a certain sort of decent sensibility suggests sacrificing a bit of power. I still regard the affirmation of a God who is in some way finite to be a lively theological option. Yet what has happened is that I have reluctantly discovered that for me this attempt to preserve a transcendence conceived as personal and purposive may have been only a temporary remission, not a cure.
For a God who is less than ultimate power may be morally and spiritually admirable, but compared to the superabundant power of our earthly bondages such a God appears somewhat impotent and seems to operate very raggedly. The older picture of an inscrutable Absolute in whose hands we can nevertheless at least be sure we are held for good or ill, whether in life or in death, has given way to the modern Bild of a kind of sympathetically groping, eagerly persuasive deity who does the best he can with all sorts of obstacles beyond his control. The omnipotent God of traditional Christianity may have behaved at times like the very devil, but at least he was inescapable and held all the cards; the outcome was not in doubt. The Tao-like God of an up-for-grabs universe who rolls with the punches suffers defeat, while his many adversaries remain full of fight. I am at last impaled on the horns of the old dilemma, pithily expressed by Nickles’s repeated jingle in Archibald MacLeish’s play J. B.:
I heard upon his dry dung heap
Dying to Transcendence
As I recollect it, the myth of the death of God affirms that the meaning of the incarnation, supremely of the cross of Christ, is that the sovereign transcendent Creator empties himself wholly into his creation. He "dies" completely to his transcendent status and identifies himself entirely with humankind and our world. The only revelation of God is the faces of us unlikely human beings, his only worship our compassionate devotion to one another and to the needs of our earth. I must confess that this version of the Christian myth is the one I now find personally tolerable and meaningful. Is it biblical? Of course not -- but a great deal that passes historically and at the present time for Christian faith and theology is not biblical but an imaginative development or a logical implication out of the biblical sources. How seriously do I take this new version? As seriously as I take my continued involvement with Christian theology -- and as lightly and irreverently as a Zen master takes the myths of the Buddha relative to his pursuit of enlightenment.
The death-of-God myth symbolically articulates, from within the Christian perspective which is my religious framework, my own inability any longer to affirm anything more in the way of grace and love than the human faces and voices and bodies around me, those persons with whom I enter into relationships of various kinds and intensities and patterns of communion and brokenness. They are all so fallible and fragile like me, but they are all I have for certain. Luther’s well-known words have become undialectically true for me: "One shall be Christ to another." I am becoming reluctantly content, in the words of Camus, to "live with what I know."
Nor, like Camus; can I overlook the earth itself. What graces it too bestows together with its afflictions! That young redbud tree delicately budding in my front yard in early spring, that golden haze in which the rolling hills close to my home are bathed on a summer morning, that lovely pond on my walk home from work out of whose rushes a red-winged blackbird almost invariably flies up as I pass by in early autumn, that winter belt of trees across the street transformed by an ice storm into a glittering fairyland -- all those beauties of which nature is so achingly and serendipitously full are likewise my modest sources of healing and renewal. These human and natural graces must be sufficient for me. I am slowly, painfully becoming resigned to learning from them how to live, how to love and, I hope, how to die.
Have I experienced suffering and tragedy in my own life? Hardly at all. Different persons with different life experiences are burdened by the excessive absurdities and cruelties of life in varying ways. For me it is anguished contemplation of the world around me past and present, attentive involvement with and observation of persons and situations, and repeated self-examination that create a cumulative impression of tragically disproportionate bondage. Some of the specific stimuli of my sober reflections have been the histories of the fiendishly diverse injustices, cruelties, tyrannies and butcheries human beings have inflicted on one another -- in particular the long, appalling story of Jewish suffering at the hands of Christian Europe with its insane climax under the Nazis; Camus’s searing reflections on our blood-soaked century; accounts of the horrors of plagues and epidemics at whose complete mercy human beings for so long existed; and insights of depth psychology into the character and influence of the unconscious, childhood and repression in our behavior.
My own life up to this point has been on balance remarkably pleasant and favored. However, I attribute such good fortune to a lucky combination of contingencies which many, many persons on this earth do not enjoy. To call such contingencies "blessings of God" too blatantly suggests to me a very capricious omnipotence or a finite deity who has managed to exert a bit of benevolent influence in this particular instance -- and either way I am back with my old problem.
The Possibility of a Richer Reality
Perhaps surprisingly, by no means is my recent experiencing of the death of God to be equated with an abandonment of every sort of transcendence. One of my cardinal beliefs of long standing which I see no reason to give up is a strong suspicion that the reality of both ourselves and the cosmic context in which we find ourselves is far richer than we know and doubtless contains dimensions of which we have only scratched the surface. Of course, this "more" to human and cosmic reality need not be transcendent in any sense other than "beyond": beyond our present ordinary awareness and knowledge, perhaps in principle beyond purely scientific avenues of knowledge. Even in this sense transcendence may have all the depth and richness I at least could ask: mystery, ineffability, ecstasy, reunion and reconciliation, worlds upon worlds of various sorts and stages of existence, an ideal order of which our experiences of truth, beauty and goodness are fragmentary glimpses.
My problem is that I can no longer make sense out of certain images of transcendence, supremely the Christian image of the loving, personal Creator and Redeemer. Nor can I relate in any meaningful way at all my very general beliefs about transcendence to all the absurd and tragic things that go on in this little sphere of reality called earth. I simply cannot get the transcendent and the earthly together coherently -- and so I content myself with what I know, with the earthly.
I am somewhat drawn to certain aspects of what I understand of the world orientation of Gautama the Buddha: the difficult art of learning to accept the quite specific limitations and possibilities of my life without making myself unhappy struggling to affirm beliefs I cannot honestly affirm. One of my favorite sources of consolation is the Buddha’s famous dialogue from the Pali canon on "Questions Tending Not to Edification." I am trying -- haltingly and amateurishly -- to incorporate some of his wisdom, but for the present I am still more comfortable dealing with my life-situation in the more familiar terms of the Christian tradition. And at this stage in my pilgrimage, that has come to mean the myth of the God who in Christ dies to his deity and lives only as grand and miserable human beings within this beautiful ruined Eden called earth.