Are the “godless Christians” on the road to deepening darkness?
Some day, in a stronger age than this rotting and introspective present, must he in sooth come to us, even the redeemer of great love and scorn, the creative spirit, rebounding by the impetus of his own force back again from every transcendent plane and dimension, he whose solitude is misunderstanded of the people, as though it were a flight from reality;—while actually, it is only his diving, burrowing and penetrating into reality, so that when he comes again to the light he can at once bring about by these means the redemption of this reality; its redemption from the curse which the old ideal has laid upon it. This man of the future, who in this wise will redeem us from the old ideal, as he will from that ideal’s necessary corollary of great nausea, will to nothingness, and Nihilism; this tocsin of noon and of the great verdict, which renders the will free again, who gives back to the world its goal and to man his hope, this Antichrist and Antinihilist, this conqueror of God and of Nothingness—he must one day come.
These words from near the end of Nietzsche’s second essay in The Genealogy of Morals echo a mood now present again. Although the “death of God” theologians may not go the whole distance of Nietzsche, they surely share his repudiation of the supernatural, his rejection of objective truth and morality, and his plea for the free man. Whether Nietzsche’s consequent repudiation of Christ and his Church more consistently expresses the logical outcome of these assumptions than does the modern secularists’ sentimental association with Christian institutions is worthy of debate. But to all but the simplest minds it must be wholly evident that the “death of God” faddists are no more authentically Christian than was Nietzsche.
Nietzsche’s philosophy of the “death of God” implied a total rejection of both an atonement-theology and atonement-ethics. “The holy fable and travesty of the life of Jesus,” as he described the Christian view, was said to be simply the bait that makes people nibble at wrong (Judeo-Christian) values. Of the formula “God on the Cross” he had this to say: “Hitherto there had never and nowhere been such boldness in inversion, nor anything at once so dreadful, questioning, and questionable as this formula: it promised a transvaluation of all ancient values.” Nietzsche depfored the “sentiment of surrender, of sacrifice for one’s neighbour, and all self-renunciation morality.” “The Christian faith … is sacrifice: the sacrifice of all freedom …; it is at the same time … self-derision, and self-mutilation.” “It is nothing more than a moral prejudice that truth is worth more than semblance.…” “One should not go into the churches if one wishes to breathe pure air.”
The death-of-God theologians mistakenly think they can occupy some misty flatland between Nietzsche and Paul. They strain their beliefs through the sieve of empirical science, discarding the supernatural and transcendent. Then they superficially appeal to the distinctive agape-morality of Jesus, as if this could be retained by that same sieve. There is a reason why Nietzsche, and the Communists, and all hard-core naturalists, turn against the morality of Jesus, instead of appealing to it. That reason lies in the prior rejection of an objectively real supernatural world and of objective truth and goodness. Nietzsche linked the freedom of man’s will with “the emotion of supremacy” and boasted that the free spirit exudes a godlike desire to autonomy: it loves life (and hates other gods). Hence he Could rail against “the holiness of God, the judgment of God, the hangmanship of God.…”
Paul Tillich, who reduced all divine attributes to symbolic representations, likewise rejected a Deity who “deprives me of my subjectivity because he is all-powerful and all-knowing.… This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control” (The Courage to Be, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952, p. 185).
The night before his death, Tillich had engaged in a vigorous argument with Professor T. J. J. Altizer of Emory University. Altizer is spokesman for the “godless Christians” on a campus that is currently seeking $25 million as a Christian university. Tillich’s speculative-philosophy postulated the Unconditioned over against the God of the Bible but resisted godlessness. Yet because Tillich rejected the objectivity of the Unconditioned and reduced all ascriptions such as “personality” to symbolic significance, Altizer credited him with having fathered the American death-of-God trend.
There is nothing original in the assertion that God is dead. Nietzsche said it long ago. What is original is its repetition by official representatives of the Christian religion. Nietzsche placed this blasphemy in the mouth of a madman; today it is proclaimed by responsible teachers within the church.
Thomas J. J. Altizer, one of the most articulate death-of-God theologians, was a keynote speaker at a recent conference at Emory University on “America and the Future of Technology.” The occasion gave him a further opportunity for expounding what many radical thinkers believe to be the task of theology “within the context of the dislocation and uprootedness of American life.” “We are now living,” Altizer explained, “in a time when the whole inherited body of our theological language is disappearing into the past” and a “new history is dawning in our midst before which theology is increasingly becoming speechless.”
We may agree that we are living in a time of transition, and that theologians have the responsibility, as always, of making the faith meaningful by translation and interpretation. The faith needs to be expressed in the terms of today. But Altizer is not content to express the faith in contemporary thought-forms; he requires something far more radical: a fearless destruction of the old faith and the birth of a new. Not only the form but the substance of the faith needs to be changed. “Not until theology moves through a radical self-negation,” he says, “thereby undergoing a metamorphosis into a new form, will it be able to meet the challenge of our present.” “A Christian expression of apocalyptic faith must move into the future by negating the past, for apart from a total negation of the power of the past there can be no movement into an eschatological future.”
We may be grateful to Professor Altizer for stating clearly the implications of his philosophy. The Christian can no longer “find security in an absolutely sovereign God who exercises a beneficent and providential government over the world.” That God, he says, has disappeared from view. We can no longer truly know God in the present. The God who appears is “alien and lifeless,” “in no sense a source of redemption and life.”
What, then, is the task of theology? “Theology,” Altizer explains, “must resolutely confine the Christian name of God to the past, and wholly refrain from proclaiming his redemptive presence in our historical present.”
“Only the death of God,” the theologian continues, “can make possible the advent of a new humanity.” “Just as apocalyptic imagery centers upon the defeat of Satan or Antichrist, whose death alone ushers in the victory of the Kingdom of God, so con temporary thought and sensibility is rooted in an absolute negation of God, a negation which already promises to dissolve even the memory of God. We must take due note of the fact that [William] Blake, who dared to name God as Satan, identified the transcendent Lord as the ultimate source of alienation and repression.”
The bizarre philosophy of the new theology is only a recrudescence of the old humanism. It represents the untamed autonomous intellect asserting itself in defiance of the revealed truth of God.
The God of historical Christianity, Altizer affirms (quoting Blake), is “Satan” or “an abstract and impassive Nothing.” “The new humanity dawns only at the end of all that we have known as history, its triumph is inseparable from the disintegration of the cosmos created by historical man, and it calls for the reversal of all moral law and the collapse of all historical religion.” “All America is called to freely accept and will the death of God.” “To refuse the death of God and cling to his primordial image” is to have a bad faith; it is to negate life and history.
Only by the most remarkable legerdemain can this be described as anything but nihilism. It is emphatically not the Christian religion. “Once ecclesiastical or historical Christianity has itself been negated,” Altizer explains, “then the Incarnation will de cisively and historically become manifest as the death of God in Jesus.” The Christian religion, it need hardly be said, is not the death of God in Jesus; it is Jesus declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.
The radical proponents of the new theology have taken upon themselves an iconoclastic role. Old landmarks are being destroyed, old sanctities overthrown. What is the responsibility of those who believe in the validity of revealed religion? When Altizer invites us to reverse all moral law and to hasten the collapse of historical religion, what do we say? We reply in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them.”
Nietzsche saw the reason for the decline of Western theism. Medieval scholasticism and then modern philosophy obscured “the father” in God, and subsequently “the judge” and “rewarder.” And pantheism erased God’s “free will” (“he does not hear—and even if he did, he would not know how to help,” he taunts). But the sting of Nietzsche’s next comment should be felt by contemporary theologians whose speculative theories of revelation have concealed the Living God who speaks and acts definitively. In Beyond Good and Evil he writes: “The worst is that he [God] seems incapable of communicating himself clearly; is he uncertain?—This is what I have made out (by questioning and listening at a variety of conversations) to be the cause of the decline of European theism” (Sec. 53).
Never has the burden of presenting historic Christian theism fallen so heavily upon the shoulders of a vanguard of evangelical theologians. That the living, supernatural God has revealed himself; that he has made his ways known in objective historical acts and in objective truths about himself and his purposes; that the Bible is the authoritative norm of Christian faith and practice—these were elemental truths that the early Christians proclaimed to the pagan world. Today even some theologians, teaching in professedly Christian seminaries and universities, not only are in doubt about these truths, but even make their doubts the structure of a counterfeit confession.
Did Jesus Die On Calvary?
While some off-beat theologians have signed God’s death certificate, one California scientist states that Jesus may not even have died on the Cross. Michael J. Harner, assistant director of the University of California’s Lowie Museum of Anthropology, is quoted in a UPI report as saying that Jesus “may have been fed a drug that put him into a trance and fooled his Roman guards.”
A leading research anthropologist, Dr. Harner has been investigating the use of stupor-inducing drugs for eight years. Could the professor accidentally have sniffed a bit of the potent drink?
For one thing, historians base their judgments on documents from the past, but Dr. Harner substitutes a vivid imagination for supportive historical testimony. Now that many anthropologists have rewritten Genesis to their fancy, the California scientist—despite an Episcopal upbringing—has apparently taken to rewriting the Gospels on his own assumptions.
If Jesus did not die on the Cross, where and when did he die? Surely these questions were of more than incidental concern to his followers. And how could an uncrucified-unrcsurrected Christ have inspired the martyr spirit of the apostles, and shaped the birth of the Christian movement and the mighty missionary thrust that transformed the pagan West? Had the apostles and their converts also inadvertently sniffed the drug? If so, modern civilization so desperately needs a moral and spiritual awakening that Dr. Harner might well patent a drug capable of producing such consequences.
Perhaps the kindest closing reminder is that anthropological speculations do not justify historical conclusions. Dr. Harner notes that the juice of the mandrake plant can effect deathlike states “during which the individual has visions.” Could be.
A confession of faith is exactly what the term asserts: a confession of the Church’s faith. A creed constructed within these limits has every right to speak with authority and, hopefully, to speak timelessly. The injection of admonitions and urgings and of ethical rules and regulations into a confessional statement, however, is a confusion of faith with practice. Faith should indeed lead to practice. But to confuse faith with practice is—confusion.
Although the Westminster Confession based its views on divorce on biblical teaching, by including such ethical principles it nonetheless diverged from the true purpose of a creedal statement. But the proposed United Presbyterian Confession of 1967 errs even more broadly on this score. Dr. Charles C. West of Princeton Seminary, according to a Religious News Service release, said the proposed confession “urges Presbyterians to work for talks with.…” If so, the proposed confession is admonishing people to certain forms of activity; such admonitions and urgings belong in the pulpit, not in a confession of faith.
Why confess what Presbyterians are not doing? Is not such a confession a confession of sin rather than of faith? It is precisely the inclusion of strictly non-confessional elements that opens the door to Dr. West’s mistaken view that creeds have no “timeless status” but only validity at the time and place of their composition.
Giving: For The Wrong Reason
There are people who agree with Jesus that “it is better to give than to receive,” but they agree for the wrong reasons. They know what Lincoln Steffens meant when he asserted that gratitude is a damnable feeling. They find no position so uncomfortable as that which calls for gratitude. They would much rather give and let the other person be grateful.
The most affluent society in all history is in its most expensive Christmas. One of Washington’s exclusive department stores is attracting the Christmas giver with a dark mink coat for $5,000, a ring for $11,000, and a set of earrings for $1,200. Another store offers a handkerchief for $300 and a diamond necklace for $465,000.
For many people, the price they pay to buy a gift for another is of small matter. They happily bear extravagant costs. They would rather pay the price than receive the gift.
And largely lost in all this high-cost giving is the true Christmas Gift and the price that Another paid in giving it. Many would rather play God in their giving than accept that priceless Gift which God gives. Whoever accepts this Gift cannot help being eternally grateful.
Kicking Away The Ladder
A man would be foolish to let someone kick away the ladder on which he was standing. But America is being just that foolish.
Her greatness does not stem only from natural resources, geographical location, or innate inventiveness and willingness to work. It also derives from the spiritual heritage of those of our forefathers who rested on the Bible as God’s written rule of faith and practice. Woven into the fabric of our national life there has been a regard for the Holy Scriptures on the part of a great segment of our people. “In God We Trust” on our currency, “One Nation Under God” in our oath of allegiance to the flag, and the Bible in every courtroom, bear testimony to the “faith of our fathers.”
The concerted effort—without and within the Church—to destroy faith in the integrity and authority of the Bible is an effort that, if successful, will sooner or later weaken the nation. Erosion of faith lowers spiritual values, and this in turn leads to moral disintegration.
America has many enemies, and among them are those who would blithely kick from under us the ladder of obedient faith in the Word of God.
Ferment In Protestantism
In the current issue of Fortune magazine, the well-known writer Duncan Norton-Tayfor notes that “laymen are contributing more time and money than ever, but they aren’t always sure what they are underwriting.” Mr. Norton-Tayfor, Episcopal layman, entitles his essay “What on Earth Is Happening to Protestantism?” and in it mirrors both the vitality and the confusion of the Church today. As new forces producing unrest, he notes ecumenical pressures, dilutions of historic Christian theology, and ecclesiastical concentration on political affairs. The span of divergent voices now runs from theologians who think God is dead and churchmen who regard political action as evangelism, to laymen who think the Bible remains the divine rule of life and evangelists who honor the Great Commission above all else—while a multitude of others are much less certain about the Church’s message and mission.
In this panoramic diversity God continues to do his work—bringing conviction and blessing where the Bible is proclaimed, lifting sinners to salvation where the Gospel is preached, and bestowing peace and new life upon all who trust him. The evangelical witness was never more needed than now. The revisionist messages will soon give way to other fashions, but the Word of revelation abides.
Cutting The Amish Knot
A democracy functions best when its people are well-educated. This assumption has been challenged by the Amish for years, and recently a long-smoldering brush war erupted in Hazleton, Iowa, when the law moved in on twenty-eight Amish children and their two primitive one-room schools. The Amish, for religious reasons, are old-fashioned; they wear plain clothing and oppose modern innovations like the telephone and the automobile. They think an eighth-grade education is adequate for their children.
It was ludicrous for the authorities to seize the youngsters and to cart them off to public schools like truants. The Amish do not provide the level of education required by state law; but neither the parents nor their children have become a burden to society, nor is there evidence of criminal conduct among them. Constitutionally the principle of independent school education is firmly established. What is in question is whether inferior parochial education justifies involuntary enrollment of the students in public schools.
A temporary truce has been called in the battle; this is good. But what the state did was highly unfortunate. It is patently absurd to use a cannon to kill a fly. The Amish do not come off well either. They are obviously guilty of an infraction of the law and should be aware of their civic obligations. Peter says: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Ford’s sake” (1 Pet. 2:13a). Amish conscientious objection to public schools is legitimate; the law provides for such objection, insisting only that a minimal level of parochial school education be provided. The Amish should obey this provision and do so promptly. This way they can keep God’s law and Caesar’s law, and also maintain their own way of life.
On The Frontier
If I were asked to find a seminary based upon a non-metaphysical world view and teaching the death of God, I would more than likely head into the scrub land of the old southwest. This would be an ideal spot for a sure-enough structureless seminary. There on a barren stretch of land I might happen across an old wooden pole once used for staking tomato vines, and nailed to it a sign announcing several of next semester’s courses.
Theology 101—An Introduction to Institutional Demolition and Post-Christian Ordinance.
Old Testament 103—The Puncturing Hypothesis: An Exegetical Approach to the Old Testament World View.
Old Testament 104—Ghost Writers in the Sky: A Study of the Prophets.
Church History 101—A Historical Survey of God’s Disappearance.
Theology 202—Genetic Problems of a Dead God’s Son in a Christocentric Context.
Ethics 208—The New Humanity in the Context of Grave Digging.
Practical Theology 100—Introduction to Metaphysical Flatness and Dynamics of a Non-God Forgiveness.
Theology 104—The City: A Theological Answering Service.
New Testament 128—The Trinitarian Emptiness in the Gospels.
Theology 149—Eschatological Movement and Non-Celestial Navigation.
Christian Philosophy 101—Optimism over the Non-Verification of God.
New Testament 206—Heidegger’s Influence on Jesus: A Study of Jesus’ Temple Visit.
—PAUL A. MICKEY in Viewpoint, Princeton
Theological Seminary student paper
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