a death of god

The Harrowing of Hell

‘… should we not learn to see that [the descent into hell], which liturgically is associated with Holy Saturday in the Church’s year, is particularly close to our day and is to a particular degree the experience of our century? On Good Friday our gaze remains fixed on the crucified Christ, but Holy Saturday is the day of the “death of God”, the day that expresses the unparalleled experience of our age, anticipating the fact that God is simply absent, that the grave hides him, that he no longer awakes, no longer speaks, so that one no longer needs to gainsay him, but can simply overlook him. “God is dead and we have killed him.” This saying of Nietzsche’s belongs linguistically to the tradition of Christian Passiontide piety; it expresses the content of Holy Saturday, “descended into hell”1.

— Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Introduction to Christianity (1968)


Pope Benedict is my favorite living theologian (he is probably my favorite of the past century). Yet, something has always bothered me about this idea; it seems too glib to associate this ‘death of God’ with the modern ‘death of God’.

One thing that I found particularly odd about Mind & Cosmos was Nagel’s comfort in dismissing the idea of even exploring whether his teleological reasoning would, perhaps, lead to a sort of theism: He calls this an ‘ungrounded assumption’ and lets it go on his admission of ‘lack[ing] the sensus divinitatis that enables—indeed compels—so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose as naturally as they see in a smiling face the expression of human feeling.’ (pg. 12) Multiple times through the book, he claims that the theistic hypothesis is either a complication or impedes unification (a not necessarily, but justifiable, criteria for a reasonable worldview); however, I fail to see how his forms of neutral monism and pansychism (both his words) are no less so, except on the claim that they are more unifying— the idea that they are less complex is easily dismissible.

Heidegger’s famous remark, ‘Only a God can still save us.’, is intimately related to this one. It is not to be understood that Heidegger is calling for a return to theism, because if anything, his work is as sure in the death of traditional belief as Nietzsche’s. (This is why I believe he purposefully bracketed philosophy away from theology**.) So, to say that this sort of environment is the age of Holy Saturday is strange; at worst, a man who had claimed he was God was dead— it’s hard to believe that God was dead.

Yet, there’s something to it in another way. In the brief time I was in seminary, I wrote a paper about the accusations of atheism by pagan critics towards Christianity; maybe with some glibness myself, I called this intellectual battle ‘the first death of God’. Those accusations generally focused on Christian rejections of traditional forms, but they also focused on specifically theological content, such as Porphyry’s criticism of the idea of omnipotence; an omnipotent God would be an impossible God, therefore, the Christian God was not God at all, but the death of God. Maybe then there is some theological fault which has resulted in a broader, more lasting, ‘death of God’.

Nagel’s appeal to his lack of sensus divinitatis seems to be a good example of such a theological fault; while the idea has currency due to Alvin Plantinga, the sense of the idea has been affected by the intensely emotional content of sensation we have— especially in regard to religious feeling. (Plantinga himself notes that the sense may be impeded by sin, but his description of it leaves something to be desired.) I see no reason why such a ‘sense’ need be of the sort Nagel writes about; that is a sort of mystical sense which I believe is fairly rare in its strong form. (Indeed, I think that the drive to claim it in its strong form is a real problem in modern Christianity.) Is there not a specifically intellectual (in the common sense) sort of sensus divinitatis? That is, is there not a form which is expressed in the rational mind’s acceptance of a reasonable argument of one sort or another? (I think the most common form of reasoned assent is likely that of the recognition of coherence and the general sort of animating that can provide.) If what Nagel is talking about is sensus divinitatis, I have it no more than he does; the difference here is that I did not know that that should have been a compelling reason not to investigate the metaphysical claims of Christianity and their reasonableness.

Deny Turner’s fantastic new book, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, reveals Thomas as a man who believed just that— a human person can know God through the light of philosophy. This isn’t to degrade the revelation, but we can think here of Gaius Marius Victorinus, who felt that, as he was in metaphysical & ethical agreement with the Christians (or, at least, as he understood them), he had no need of joining them, religiously speaking. Yet, he must have realized that was not enough, as he converted late in life. What is it that can lead from, let’s say, a metaphysical agreement to one that takes on the ‘addition’ of submitting to revelation? It isn’t as if, for example, you can claim that Christianity is compelling because it taught correct metaphysics by revelation (rather, its metaphysics was formed in concert with it); neither can you claim that there is any necessity that leads one from the philosophy to the revelation. One legitimate move may be the inference to the best explanation, whereby the holistic nature of the Christian teaching, which integrates metaphysics, ethics, history, etc. into a compelling harmony (or nearly so) can be a reason for accepting revelation as an ‘addition’. But this is cursory.

The problem, then, is that a view of the ‘death of God’ which simply links it in a mystical fashion to the Event of Holy Saturday is that it then detaches the search from God from the search from reason. I hardly think this was Benedict’s intention, as his whole corpus can be seen as an attempt to return Christianity to the realm of reasoned discourse, rather than its remaining in the strategic position of irrationality (often, of course, following Heidegger’s ‘advice’…). As he wrote in the same work, ‘…what can go on existing only through interpretation has in reality ceased to exist.’ (Now that’s a damning remark!) It is also relevant that, in that work, he actually rejects the idea that a sort of ‘religious talent’ must necessarily exist in order to uphold the universal claims of religion.

Maybe the connection is indeed not with the ‘death of God’ to Western culture, but rather the believer’s life within such a culture; the believer is Joseph of Arimathea or the Mother of God at the tomb. To place the catastrophic atheists such as Nietzsche in that role (which seems implied in identifying our age with Holy Saturday) surrenders far too much.

More on the Turner book, later.


* Here he references Henri de Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism.

** ‘A “Christian philosophy” is a round square and a misunderstanding. To be sure, one can thoughtfully question and work through the world of Christian experience–that is, the world of faith. That is then theology. Only ages that really no longer believe in the true greatness of the task of theology arrive at the pernicious opinion that, through a supposed refurbishment with the help of philosophy, a theology can be gained or even replaced, and can be made more palatable to the need of the age. Philosophy, for the originally Christian faith, is foolishness. Philosophizing means asking: “Why are their beings at all, instead of nothing?” Actually asking this means venturing to exhaust, to question thoroughly, the inexhaustible wealth of this question, by unveiling what it demands that we question. Whenever such a venture occurs, there is philosophy.’ —Introduction to Metaphysics


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