With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Sunday, January 02, 2011

A Few Notes on Christian Atheism

I must admit that recently I've developed a morbid fascination with the "death of God" theology. And I have yet to determine whether this makes me decidedly unfashionable or, on the contrary, in theological vogue; because I have yet to determine whether the "death of God" movement really burned out after it's short stint in the 1960s limelight, or, in the hands of folks like Žižek (who still holds the limelight), the "death of God" theology is becoming popular again. I'm inclined toward the latter. Hegel and Nietzsche would likely take offense at the suggestion that trying to come to terms theologically with the "death of God" is just the expression of an unsustainable 60s cultural dissidence. As countless "conservative" theologians in the wake of the movement's birth quipped that reports of God's death were greatly exaggerated, I suspect that reports of the death of God's death are equally exaggerated. Many of Altizer's original claims about our epochal condition have indeed proven to be drastically overstated, and the growth of Evangelical Christianity (especially in the third world), the "theological turn" in Continental philosophy, and the rise of analytic philosophy of religion have posed serious challenges to God's supposed bankruptcy in a modern/postmodern world. But Altizer and company have continued to write (prolifically) and hone the least sophisticated aspects of The Gospel of Christian Atheism. There is also the ongoing mini-renaissance in Hegel studies, particularly regarding the religious dimensions of his thought; as well as the explicit confrontation between Milbank's "radically orthodox" approach to analogy and Žižek's own version of the "death of God" theology in Creston Davis's The Monstrosity of Christ. All in all: it seems if we are going to take Boenhoffer seriously (which we clearly do), then we ought to take seriously those who stand, however radically postured, under his banner of "religionless Christianity."

As an ecclesially-minded Catholic, and easily on the analogy side of the dichotomy, there is little on the constructive end of Radical Christianity that I could possibly recommend as substantively true. To its adherents, I will continue to be at best, an anomaly; at worst, the very enemy of the true Christian message. Despite this parting of ways, I am still tempted to give Nietzsche the road. The "death of God" puts a face on a cultural trajectory the effects of which are undeniable. God may indeed have survived the tug-of-war between liberal Protestantism and post-liberalism (especially in Catholic thought, somewhat removed from the Protestant lineage of the "death of God"); but it is clear that atheism, agnosticism, and secularism are more culturally ingrained and conceptually viable than they have ever been in history. And how full the pews are does little to affect this. As Charles Taylor notes, what's distinctive about our secular age is that God is understood to be simply one among many competitors in the marketplace of ideas. And though he has currency in some areas, overall his stock in the west is clearly down. At the intellectual level, the various "theological turns" in contemporary philosophy still frame their works of appropriation and accommodation as so many folds in the fabric of immanence (see, for instance, Derrida's 'religion without religion' or Kearney's 'anatheism'), or as revivals of post-liberal fetishes of transcendence and the retreats into ecclesially exclusive language games (Marion and arguably Barth). Surely the fact that traditional transcendence no longer has a claim to extensive intelligibility is a mark in Nietzsche's favor (as descriptively sound).

I don't of course think this to be the logic of fate- either in Hegelian fashion or in the manner of the now popular narratives of a revived scientism (Dawkins, Hitchens, et al). But one thing I find incredibly important about the "death of God" theology, and for which it ought to be commended, is it's commitment to take the theological voice seriously. D.B. Hart and others have contrasted the fathers of atheist humanism, Nietzsche especially, with the so-called New Atheists. They have bemoaned the ignorance and the dismissiveness of the latter while praising the former as a nobler generation of atheists, deeply acquainted with the theology they opposed. Nietzsche knew how serious a task it was to engage the Christian framework of his time, and despite his hatred for traditional Christianity, the "death of God" nonetheless had the character of a immense crisis for him. Such praise, minimal though it may be, ought it seems to be extended to Nietzsche's theological heirs. The "death of God" theologians believe, even more so than their forefathers, that atheism and secularism can only be understood in terms of a Christian grammar. Nathan Schneider, in an article titled "Could God die again?" (Guardian, Oct.4, 2009), notes well the difference between the "death of God" thinkers and the latest wave of popular atheists:
Unlike some of the prominent atheists of today, these thinkers knew intimately the theology they were attacking. Life after God, they believed, could not move forward without understanding the debt it owed to the religious culture that had gone before. Consequently the movement went far beyond the simplistic, scientistic concept of God common to both contemporary atheists and many of their critics: a cartoonish hypothesis, some kind of all-powerful alien. Altizer spoke of the God of direct experience; van Buren, the God conjured in language; and Cox, the God that arises in the life of societies. These are incisive approaches that, lately, have too often been forgotten in exchange for the caricature.
At the very least, it is hoped that a greater attention to the themes of the "death of God" movement might aid in creating a richer, more sophisticated, more theologically knowledgeable culture of atheism.

Pax Christi,


  • At 1/04/2011 3:49 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    And this fine post also clears up the mystery of the 'death of this blog'...thankfully, it is alive and well in your hands. And once I finish my diss (by March, is the aim) I will join you once again....

    great thinking and writing!

  • At 1/27/2011 4:25 PM, Blogger skholiast said…

    Sorry it took me so long to comment on this. Now for the Barth/analogia posts!....


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