It was 1966 and it was the first time TIME magazine used only text on its cover. The impact of the change only added to the striking question that the cover asked.
“Is God Dead?”
Three simple words that for a brief time created quite a stir throughout the United States. Many angry sermons were delivered in rebuttal. Even Bob Dylan got in on the action in a Playboy interview saying, “If you were God, how would you like to see that written about yourself.” Not surprisingly, the National Review even asked the question if perhaps it was TIME that was dead.
The reality was that the article was much more nuanced than the magazine cover suggested, but those three words and what they might mean garnished all the attention. Americans were shocked. They were outraged. Some were dismayed and others were simply worried.
In reality, it wasn’t even a new question. In 1882, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had already famously (or infamously) put forth the statement that “God is dead.” And before that, another German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, had considered the death of God in his book, Phenomenology of Spirit/Mind.
I suppose the question of “God” is really an age old question. As Nietzsche pointed out, before the age of Enlightenment, it was perhaps a much needed concept which helped establish morals, values, the order of the Universe, and even gave legitimacy to governments. But with the rise of science and philosophy, the role of or even need for God was lessened. For Nietzsche, not only was God dead, but humanity was the murderer. Our desire and pursuit to better understand the world had killed God.
And here’s the thing, Nietzsche didn’t understand the death of God to be an entirely good thing. He realized that for many people the death of God would bring on despair and meaninglessness.
While he realized that all the practical purposes for the understanding of God that humanity once believed in were of little use in an age of Enlightenment, he also realized that humanity was not likely to let go of God all that easily. As he put it, “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.”
He couldn’t have been more correct and the modern understanding of God couldn’t be more damaged because of it.
Nietzsche, while an atheist himself, wasn’t proclaiming the ultimate death of God. He was proclaiming the death of the god that was needed pre-Enlightenment.
Not surprisingly, Christians took quite a bit of offense to the statement and resisted it. What we ended up with was a pre-Enlightenment God in the age of reason with systems designed to protect and support those beliefs. As every year passed, we moved further and further into a more scientific understanding of the world and the Church built up more and more dogma to prop up a concept of God that only had true relevance in a pre-scientific age.
For me, “God is dead,” or more precisely, “the understanding of God we once had is dead,” should have pushed believers into a deeper pursuit of the reality of God, a deeper pursuit of the truth of God. Instead, we circled the wagons with God in the middle and clung desperately to what we thought we knew in spite of evidence to the contrary. We created “essential” confessions built upon ancient understandings and demanded unfaltering adherence. At times, the perceived threat of anyone thoughtfully challenging the religious establishment and its dearly held dogma was seen as so dangerous that the “heretics” were burned alive.
Today, we simply chase such “heretics” out of the pulpit or out of the denomination – rather than taking their lives, we simply destroy their lives. We require full loyalty, full fealty, full submission to the establishment.
In doing so, the modern Church continues to perpetuate belief systems that make little to no sense when placed next to modern advances in science, history, philosophy, literary criticism, and yes, even in theology. Many insist on adherence to a belief in the virgin birth when literary criticism and science suggest otherwise. From the Trinity to the divinity of Jesus to the concept of Hell, the modern Church dogmatically holds onto beliefs that require “blind faith” rather than the engagement of what the very same people might think of as our God given intellect.
As Bishop Spong has said, “Christians must now come to understand that God does not inhabit creeds or theological doctrines shaped with human words.”
It is the height of human hubris to believe that we can fully understand God more or less contain God in creeds and doctrines. Furthermore, our anthropomorphisizing of God is a damaging attempt to package God up in something we can hold on to which further inhibits our ability to perceive the fullness of God and what God may be.
So, yes. In my eyes, God is dead… or at least should be.
That is, the God of most mainline Protestant churches, the God of the Catholic Church, the God of Evangelical churches is dead. It has been since the 1800’s, but yet we continue to insist on worshiping its shadowy vestige on the walls of our lives.
This attachment to a God of ages past also contributes to the continue decline of the Church’s relevance in the eyes of the public, particularly to younger generations. They see the dogmatic adherence to beliefs that can’t stand up to modern discoveries as hypocritical and, frankly, absurd.
The Church certainly shouldn’t ditch it’s historical beliefs simply in an effort to appease these folks in order to gain new members, but equally, it must stop ignoring these outside critiques and stop dismissing them as irrelevant or uninformed. There is a reason that the Spiritual But Not Religious are one of the fastest growing religious movements in the U.S. and, unfortunately, one of the big reasons is the Church itself.
It’s long past time for the Church to shed its futile efforts to cling to a concept of God that was established prior to the scientific age. It’s time to hear the voices outside of the establishment who would like to be part of a religious movement but refuse to check their minds at the door to do so.
Yes, it means there will be the need for quite a bit of deconstruction as we remove the dogma that carefully props up the dead God of the seventeenth century and before. It means that the religiously powerful will have to give up many of the rules and regulations that keep them in power. It means questioning the current human made construct of God which, less than surprisingly, makes God’s main interest that of meeting the needs those who constructed God. It means letting go of the need to be “correct” or to have “right beliefs” and, instead, to begin valuing more seriously the pursuit of what is true and real – a willingness to not know and, in that not knowing, to be propelled into the quest for the newly revealed realities of God that advances in science, history, philosophy, literary criticism, and theology are offering up to us every day.
The reality is, it is an exciting time to be seeking an understanding of God. It is an exciting time to be considering what your relationship to/toward/with God is. We live in a time when information is available to us in a way and with an immediacy that it never has been before. We can quickly and easily expose ourselves to a multitude of theological perspectives from religions all over the world and throughout history. Scientific discoveries are revealing realities of the Universe that we never could have previously imagined. We are learning more and more about how connected all of Creation is, how much we each impact others and our environment in every action we take, how fragile and surprisingly resilient life is. Technological advances and archeology are helping peel back the layers of many of our religious stories in ways that push us to new understandings of our religious ancestors.
The list could go on and on. The real point is that, yes, God is dead. At least, THAT God is dead. Has been for a long time. But, it turns out, that we are in a perfect day and age to begin rebuilding our understanding of what God is.
The question that remains is: will our churches be brave enough to risk this exploration with us? Will they be willing to let go of all the dogma and trust in the community as we work together to reach a more modern understand of an ageless God? Up until this point, the majority of churches haven’t been willing to do so, forcing most spiritual seekers to go at it on their own.
That may be the single most damaging thing the Church has done in this pursuit of God. I don’t claim to have much hold on the full reality of God, but one of the things I am more certain about is that God is part of what connects us all. Pursuit of spiritual knowledge on our own is certainly rewarding and revealing, but I am left to believe that there are certain realities of God that can only be revealed in the connectedness of community.
It is time – it is well beyond time for the Church to let this God of yesteryear die, lest it too dies trying to reanimate the dead.