Formation: God is dead

Before the Enlightenment, life in the ‘West’ was predicated on certain conceptions of God, the authority of the church and scripture, and what this meant for our social structures, relationships, ethics, and so on. However, the onset of scientific method and the rise of modern rationalism cast doubt on some of the primary Christian claims and assumptions about God. It was this kind of change, and the emergence of the autonomous independent human self that helped to contribute to the famous observation of Nietzsche that “God is dead, God remains dead, and we have killed him.”

For Nietzsche, there were serious implications to this idea. The world, as it had been known in the West, had been built upon the ethics and ideals that moved outward from certain ideas about God. The death of God (in other words, the realisation that there in fact, was no God), could result in ethical and social catastrophe. Much of his writing is dealing with possible responses to the death of God. It seems that in many ways his response is that it is likely to lead to nihilism and chaos for a time, but what needs to emerge is man’s capacity to use will to shape his own future. The will to power – which can, of course, be abused, should be used to shape one’s own future in a positive sense; an act of self-overcoming.

Christian responses to Nietzsche have often been to defend our ideas about God in response. Christians want to say NO to him… God is not dead!! But there is a sense in which the Christian faith at its heart is a weird and mysterious profound embrace of this idea – even if that is not all that we might want to say about it.

Certainly we can agree with Nietzsche, Marx, and others, that belief in the Christian God (along with other gods) – especially as a powerful old man “up there” somewhere - has been used as a means to manipulate and control people. Marx saw religion as the opiate of the masses – powerful people using religious ideas to manipulate the poor and the weak. 

And there’s been plenty of truth to that at times.

But the Christian response is not necessarily to throw our hands up and walk away.  Instead, it might be to bend into the idea even further.

For Jürgen Moltmann, it is the cross which must stand at the centre of all Christianity. In many ways, he agrees with the critique of Christian religion by Marx and Nietzsche, but his response is not a complete denial of God. Instead it is an entire re-evaluation of what Christianity is about, and what Christianity is supposed to be saying about God. For Moltmann, at least in some sense, God does die – on the cross with Christ. The cross invites us to reflect on the idea that Christianity is not supposed to be just another religious system, offering us solutions and rewards for right belief and right behaviour. Instead we are confronted with the words of Jesus that sit at the heart of Christian faith “my God my God why have you forsaken me?”

When we read these words of Christ on the cross we can interpret this event in different ways. The understanding that has often prevailed in the Christian tradition is that God turns his back on Christ in his moment of human suffering and death because of his unwillingness to look upon sin. And yet there is a profound cognitive dissonance in this idea. Is this really the character of God that we see revealed in Jesus? A God of "love", who then turns his back on Christ in the moment of his greatest need? 

Instead, it may be much closer to the truth to see that God is present in Christ and in his experience of human suffering and death. In these words we find that Jesus is our companion in suffering. We might say that if God is in Christ, then God knows the experience of what it feels like to feel abandoned by God. That is the centre of the Christian story. God is in the place of abandonment – even supposed abandonment by God. Christianity is a protest against the vision of God as a being out there somewhere turning his face away from our pain. God cries out in Christ against that kind of God.

We, too, are asked whether we will join in with this cry. To protest against visions of God which are used to control and manipulate others. In fact, to protest against all things that do this. To protest against visions of God which make God a powerful deity who agrees to, or refuses to, pull the puppet strings in our favour. 

These ideas have profound implications for the way we perceive God to be present or absent in our own experiences of pain and suffering. Jesus invites us to consider how God might not be the kind of God who turns away from us in our moments of suffering, but instead is able to say that he is our companion, the one who knows what it is feels like, and is present with us.

The New Testament writers even push this idea further, to suggest that God is present to us, not just in some mystical sense, but God’s ‘presence’ to us, is in the presence of the ‘other’. We become God’s presence, the presence of love, to one another. This is where the mystery of God is to be found.

Jürgen Moltmann:

“The cross in the church symbolizes the contradiction which comes into the church from the God who was crucified ‘outside’. Every symbol points beyond itself to something else. Every symbol invites thought. The symbol of the cross in the church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It does not invite thought but a change of mind.

It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing into the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God. Where this contradiction in the cross, and its revolution in religious values, is forgotten, the cross ceases to be a symbol and becomes an idol, and no longer invites a revolution in thought, but the end of thought in self-affirmation.”