The death of “the death of God”

Tim Keller has very helpfully and pithily said:

Describe the God you don’t believe in. Maybe I don’t believe in that God either.

This is an apologetical approach that, it seems to me, is aimed at the morally- and socially-conscious postmodern skeptic. It appeals to the unbeliever who doesn’t want a God who supports patriarchal oppression, who prefers the rich to the poor, who champions the strong over the weak, or who privileges whites over people of color. Keller invites the skeptical to name the characteristics of the God they reject. Usually Keller doesn’t believe in that God either.

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But, whether Keller has this in mind or not, his quip is also useful in a Christian’s collaboration with atheists in smashing the idols of the conceptual god(s) of philosophy.

When the Western quest for reality in the mode of metaphysics reached its end in Nietzsche, Nietzsche sought to take God down with it. Nietzsche declared “the death of God.” Next came the collapse of truth in favor of values which, he said, are asserted by the will to power. God must decrease that man may increase. Etc., etc.

This story really messed with me when I first heard about it in college. I began to muster arguments for the non-death of God using traditional apologetics. Then I found out that Nietzsche went crazy, which seemed to help me discredit his philosophical atheism. A bumper sticker I saw finally sealed the deal:

Nietzsche: “God is dead.”

God: “Nietzsche is dead.”

Case closed! I could now ignore Nietzsche.

It wasn’t until seminary, when Michael Horton upheld Nietzsche as a potential ally, that the German philosopher of nihilism with the enviable mustache was raised from the dead for me. Horton explained how Nietzsche helps Christianity dismantle modernism and its human attempts to climb, with the ladder of pure reason, from the mind up to the heavens and beyond. Now Nietzsche was cool and alive while the modernism he destroyed was passé and dead.

But what to do with Nietzsche’s atheism?

Marion on “God is dead”

Jean-Luc Marion has underscored that “the death of God” says nothing about the actual status of a real God. Rather, it denotes the death of a concept of God generated and upheld by philosophy.

Marion goes on to argue that the a-theism of “the death of God” is from the outset self-annulling. Right from the get-go, “the death of God” spells also “the death of the death of God.”

How?

First, to speak of “the death of God,” one “must necessarily assume a particular concept of his essence.”

It might go something like this:

“God is dead.”

“Which God?”

“The Prime Mover.”

“Okay.”

For the Prime Mover one might instead identify “the First Cause,” “the Moral God,” “the Supreme Being,” or “Self-Caused Cause,” each in turn.

The next move Marion makes is profound:

It thus disqualifies in each case only that which corresponds to this sole concept, leaving all the others still to be reviewed and critiqued. In other words, every conceptual atheism remains regional, and thus provisional: it progresses at the slow pace of justice, which investigates, examines, and challenges the ever-repeated concepts that claim, always just as illegitimately, the mastery of the essence of “God.” … But each refutation refutes itself, since it only ever refutes one definition that is by definition inadequate of the essence of “God,” opening at the same time the path for every new possible definition.

He concludes:

Atheism refutes itself by having to repeat itself, following the rhythm of the concepts that it assumes and then challenges. … Atheism is always delayed with regard to itself, or rather it prolongs itself only by retrospectively eliminating each of its provisional assurances. … Atheism … must renounce the proud title of a definitive and universal dogma in order to accept the more modest, but coherent, name of a trial that is never ended and always limited to specific petitions. … From the “death of God” there follows immediately the “death of the death of God.”

Atheism can only eliminate one concept of “God” at a time. And each time that it does so, successfully, there remains a potentially infinite number of concepts of God that will still need to be weighed and killed off.

Christians can cheer this sort of atheism on insofar as it is a-theism; insofar as it seems that it will do a masterful job, eventually, of smashing any and every idolatrous conceptual “theism” women and men might conjure up.

But Marion seems right to suggest that atheism is jumping the gun in its comprehensive verdict. It mistakes a regional evaluation for a universal one. It can say, correctly, “this God is dead” any number of times. But one must keep repeating this slogan after carefully investigating each conceptual “God,” one at a time, as Nietzsche did with his specific philosophical concept of “God.”

Pre-empting Nietzsche

Meanwhile,—and this is especially important—Christians will need to stop waiting for neo-Nietzscheans to smash their idols, and begin to do some smashing themselves. Better yet, Christians ought to learn that their own idol-fashioning itself is pretty dumb.

Our concepts of God, built from the ground up through our pre-understandings of what God should, or could, or must be like—these will all have to go. The God who is worthy of our worship cannot be conceptualized adequately by, inscribed within the bounds of, or reached and grasped through the powers of, human reason.

This is nothing other than the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility. Any and every “God” we could conceptualize and comprehend is an idol.

By contrast, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ—even in all the revelation through which this God has been revealed to us—remains un-conceptualizable and thus un-death-of-God-able.

Every “God” atheism does not believe in, Christians also do not believe in. The true God is not available for conceptual examination by the Nietzschean court. If atheists and Christians were both honest with themselves, they would agree.

[Marion quotes are from Negative Certainties, 54-5]

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