Cancelling my subscription to the Resurrection and truly living the death of God
|Time Magazine, Easter 1966|
My personal commitment to a version of Christian atheism began in the mid- to late 1970s during my early teenage years. One year, as I listened to the unfolding of the Holy Week narrative from my place in the choir, when we reached the horrific moment when Jesus, just before dying, cries out “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? — My God, my God, why did you forsake me?” (Matthew 27:46) I found myself suddenly waking up to the shocking implications of what I had just heard. To appreciate my surprise you need to remember that, like all conventional Christians, I had been taught that Jesus was God. So, that year, as Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why did you forsake me?, and then died, I found myself thinking, “Hang on, did I just hear that properly? God has abandoned God, yes? God has let God die! Is that right? My God!”
Not surprisingly, no priest or Sunday School teacher ever lingered over this extraordinary moment because they were already rushing us ahead to what they thought was the joyous good news of Easter Sunday and the Resurrection. But, from that day on, Easter Sunday itself began more and more to feel to me as merely the moment which revealed that, for Christianity, the apparently theologically profound and shocking moment of God’s death on Good Friday was no more than a fairground magic trick, something along the lines of the famous sawing a person in half illusion where, as a magician-entertainer, God (and Christianity along with him), says to us, “Ta-Da! Only kidding!”
But the shocking impact of that realisation has never faded and it has continued to haunt all my thoughts about religion since then. Indeed, over the years, it has only served to make me feel that Easter Sunday of Christianity was simply a betrayal of the message of the cross. But with whom could I talk about this? No one it seemed, certainly not the faithful, rather evangelical Christians in my own church nor my secular parents, teachers or school-friends.
Fortunately, however, in my late-teens in a second-hand bookshop in Ambleside, I stumbled across the “Letters and Papers from Prison” by the German Protestant pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), and, at last, found myself reading words by a well-known, respected Christian theologian, which said something real about the theological and ethical implications of that shocking moment on the cross. Here is what quickly became for me one of the most important passages in the book:
God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished, and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion (Feuerbach!). For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible eliminated. . . . Honesty demands that we recognise that we must live in the world as if there were no God. And this is just what we do recognise — before God! God himself drives us to this realisation. — God makes us know that we must live as men who can get along without Him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34)! We stand continually in the presence of God who makes us live in the world without the God-hypothesis (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Letters and Papers from Prison”, SCM, London 1971, p. 360).
These words became central to my own theological reflections because they helped me see that I, too, now had no choice but to “live in the world as if there were no God”. But, because Bonhoeffer insisted we needed to recognise this “before God” this drove me not to adopt a secular, nontheological form of atheism, but to seek out a theological form of atheism. I eventually found this in the work of those theologians whom I discovered had bravely followed the implications of Bonhoeffer’s highly allusive prison writings and, for me, the most important of them was Thomas J. J. Altizer (1927-2018). Altizer’s work was famously featured in the two Time Magazine articles of October 1965 and April 1966, the latter edition, published at Easter, dared to put the question “Is God Dead?” on its cover in bold red letters on a plain black background, a decision which has made it one of the most iconic, and controversial, magazine covers in the history of modern publishing. The year 1966 also saw the publication of Altizer’s book “The Gospel of Christian Atheism” and so was born what became popularly known as “Death of God theology.”
It is impossible here to unfold the rich and strange fullness of Altizer’s thinking as it unwinds and develops over the next fifty years but all of it continues to relate back to a passage found in the short Epistle to the Philippians (2:6-8):
“Christ, though in the image of God,
didn’t deem equality with God
something to be clung to—
but instead became completely empty
and took on the image of oppressed humankind:
born into the human condition,
found in the likeness of a human being.
Jesus was thus humbled—
obediently accepting death, even death on a cross!”
The key theological idea at work in this passage is “self-emptying” (in Greek, “kenosis”) and Altizer took this to mean that on the cross the transcendent creator God of monotheism truly died and, wholly and irrevocably, had self-emptied into the world. Now, Altizer remains unusual in thinking that this quite literally occurred on the cross, but most people who follow his lead, including me, take that moment on the cross to be a mythopoetic expression of the basic idea that whatever the word God can mean for us today, it is a word which can only speak of God as totally present as absent; or, to put it slightly differently, that absence is the presence of God. In turn, as one of Altizer’s colleagues, Mark C. Taylor, puts the matter, this means “the disappearance of God turns out to be God’s final revelation.” (Mark C. Taylor in the introduction to “Living the Death of God” by Thomas J. J. Altizer, SUNY Press, 2006, p. xv).
Now, in the context of the Easter season and Christian thinking, the important thing to grasp is that, mythopoetically speaking, everything, but everything of theological and philosophical importance happens at the moment of Jesus’ death on Good Friday with the self-emptying death of God. This means that there was, is, and can never be a Resurrection as imagined by the later Christian tradition. Such a resurrection, as already indicated, — were it to have occurred — would reveal the events of Good Friday to have been a mere fairground illusion of death which would only serve to leave the world unchanged or, at least, leave our perception of the world unchanged. In short, the Christian Easter Sunday encourages the world to go on as if nothing of any real importance had occurred on Good Friday. But to the Christian atheist the “good” of Good Friday is truly good because it was on that otherwise dark and apocalyptic day that the divine and the sacred was no longer experienced as being “out there” in some transcendent, supernatural being and/ or realm (such as heaven) but was now fully immanent in the endless, self-emptying, natural material fluxes and flows in which all things are now understood to live, move and have their being.
Therefore, for the Christian atheist, Easter Sunday can only ever be symbolic of the “first day” upon which humanity, consciously and unreservedly, was able joyously and creatively to begin to live the death of God, to live, in other words, in a wholly naturalistic way, fully in this world. As such, I am, of course, happy to celebrate on the day — but I am most certainly not celebrating the Resurrection!
As his career developed, Altizer explored this basic idea in various ways but most fruitfully through its appearance in the writings of William Blake, Dante, Milton, Hegel and Nietzsche. But in addition to finding it in these radical Christian, or post-Christian, European writers, he also found the same idea at work within Buddhism and, in consequence, he began a long and creative dialogue with the work of the Kyoto School of philosophers, particularly Keiji Nishitani (1900–1990), and especially in connection with Buddhist ideas relating to “absolute nothingness” (zetti mu) and “emptiness” (śūnyatā). Today, thanks to the now decades-long dialogue between Altizer, Nishitani and the Kyoto School in general, there now exists a way meaningfully to be both a Christian atheist and a Buddhist.
Now, as I was finishing writing some preliminary notes for what you have just heard, I received a welcome telephone call from the British radical theologian and philosopher Don Cupitt to catch up a bit with life, the universe and everything. He asked me what I was up to and so I told him the outline of my planned address/podcast. For reasons which will become clear this led us to talk about one of the wholly naturalistic, materialist images of self-emptying that Don has been using since the mid-1990s, the sun.
It’s helpful to introduce this image at this point because in our own, increasingly secular age, the kind of traditional, mythopoetic religious language I’ve just been using, whether Christian or Buddhist, doesn’t always easily connect with people who have had no religious upbringing or education. It can on first hearing all sound like gobbledygook. It’s not gobbledygook, I hasten to add, but, like all such nuanced, technical languages, it has to be slowly learnt and imbibed before its richness can fully be appreciated.
Anyway, recognising this difficulty, in 1995, Don published a short but important book called, “Solar Ethics”, in which he suggests that one of the most apt modern, secular metaphors for how we should be living life after the self-emptying death of God is that of the sun. He gives the reason for this under six basic headings.
Firstly, the sun is always already beyond the living/dying distinction. It lives by nuclear reactions and consequently lives by dying. The sun’s way of being is self-emptying which is both a creation and a destruction because life always already involves both. It is a felicitous coincidence that in the mythopoetry of the Christian atheist the death of God as Jesus, the son of God (s-o-n), is analogous to the wholly naturalistic living by dying of our local star, the sun (s-u-n).
Secondly, the sun is always already all action, it only is what it is because it does what it does, here and now. For the sun there is no distinction between noun and verb; in other words, it does not separate what it is from what it does.
Thirdly, the sun is always already everything that it can or should be. It is constantly giving everything it can, and cannot do anything more than this.
Fourthly, the sun is always already beyond distinctions between inner and outer being, it constantly shines and makes a complete exhibition of itself without feeling guilty — it turns itself, quite literally, inside-out. In other words, there is no inner-self or inner-soul to be saved, only a self or soul constantly being poured out or given away in the act of living.
Fifthly, the sun is always already indifferent to conventional religious and moral distinctions between good and bad, the saved and the lost, the respectable and the dirty. As Jesus reminded us, the sun rises on the evil and on the good (Matthew 5:45).
And, sixthly, the sun does not distinguish between the way and the end, between journey and destination, between method and purpose, because life is always already what is happening now.
Don suggests that after the self-emptying death of God we, too, should consciously live life in the same self-emptying way, fully aware that it is the only life we have and that we can properly fulfill our potential only by shining in our celebration of life as it is poured out in us. As, after the self-emptying death of God, God is only totally present as absent so, too, are we, when, sun-like we become totally present only in our own self-emptying which, inevitably will end in our own absence at our death. For Don, this means we should simply equate the ethical with life’s own spontaneous and joyful affirmations of itself – “life’s solar outpouring.”
It is vital to see, as Don notes, that such a secular, solar ethics and solar living is only something that has become possible for our culture after the end of metaphysics and after the death of God.
And, before concluding it’s worth pointing out that, along with Altizer, Don sees here a profound connection with Buddhism, in his case particularly with the principle of “anatta”, the idea that there is no permanent self. As Don notes, by embracing this notion and shining brightly like the sun in a process of constant self-emptying we find the most creative and positive way fully to accept the constant changing of life where, as Lucretius once observed, omnia migrant, everything, but everything is always already, moving, in motion.
To conclude. It seems to me that the Christian Resurrection of Easter Sunday simply blocks access to, and ultimately betrays this profound insight into the way the world is and our place in it. It doesn’t bring us more life, it diminishes life by stopping it from flowing, freely, fully, creatively and self-emptyingly into the world. The Resurrection of Jesus and his later Ascension into heaven is merely an attempt to hoard life like a miser hoards gold, locking it up in a dark, heavenly safe hidden well away from the world for some as yet to be defined later day of judgement. On the other hand, Good Friday, when understood in the fashion just explored, as the moment of the death of God, is the ecstatic, apocalyptic mythopoetic moment of divine release when the golden richness of self-emptying creative, love and light is for us fully and irrevocably allowed out into the world to shine.
I hope you can see why my subscription to the resurrection is now permanently cancelled and why, in the gentlest way possible, I’d encourage you to think about doing likewise.
As Jesus once said:
“You are the light of the world. You don’t build a city on a hill, then try to hide it, do you? You don’t light a lamp, then put it under a bushel basket, do you? No, you set it on a stand where it gives light to all in the house.” (Matthew 5:14-15).
In the mythopoetry of Christian atheism, that self-emptying light was put on a stand on Good Friday; Easter Sunday has always been the bushel basket that hides the real good news of this season.
If you would like to join a conversation about this podcast then our next Wednesday Evening Zoom meeting will take place on 7th April at 19.30 GMT. Link below.
Topic: Cambridge Unitarian Church, Evening Conversation
Time: April 7, 2021 19:00 London
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 816 0388 5416
Here’s the timetable:
19.30 - 21.00: Questions to, and conversations with, Andrew James Brown moderated by Courtney Whalen Van de Weyer
21:00: Event ends