A meditation on the death of God for Ascension Day

Click on the picture to read the 1966 article
This address has come out of a number of things. The first is that my father has been seriously ill in hospital for nearly two months. On a couple of occasions during this time he appeared (both to us and the medical staff) potentially very close to death. I'm delighted to tell you that, yesterday (Saturday) afternoon, he found himself back at home with the real possibility that he'll make a full recovery.

That led me three weeks ago to tell you a story about how I had interpreted a story he told me when I was a teenager about how he and a mate briefly considered becoming lumberjacks in Canada. One important lesson we may take from this story (and others like it) is that what makes our foundational stories and texts great (whether they are personally and/or culturally foundational) is, as Iain Thomson reminds us:

". . . not that they continually offer the same "eternal truths" for each generation to discover but, rather, that they remain deep enough — meaning-full enough — to continue to generate new readings, even revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient the sense of the work that previously guided us." (Figure/Ground Communication interview).

Lastly, in the middle of all this I was asked to speak to Hills Road Sixth Form college on the subject of Religion after the death of God.

This point brings me to the immediate trigger for today's address, namely, that this week orthodox Christian churches around the world recounted and celebrated the story of the Ascension (Acts 1:1-11). How this celebration relates to my father and the death of God will become clear very soon.

But let's begin by reiterating that my father has not died - amen and alleluia to that! Having said that it is clear that I - all of us - would be kidding ourselves if we simply left it at that and just let the matter be squirrelled away unreflectively until the next time. My father, your father, you and me and mothers, brothers and sisters too, all of us are going to die one day and we have no choice but to find some way to face up to and deal with this incontrovertible fact of life.

The death of one or both parents is often the most powerful symbolic moment when feel we are finally given true independence and responsibility for our own lives and those lives who, at this moment in time, depend in some way upon us. Whilst it is true that some of us are lucky to achieve genuine psychological independence apart from the actual death (or near death) of our parents, the truth is that for most of us it is only the actual death (or near death) of a parent that begins truly to ground us in this independence. Some deal with this well, some do not. Some find ways creatively openly to acknowledge that this has happened, others find ways of denying it completely and, of course, all shades in between.

Unsurprisingly over the past few weeks I've been thinking about all this in relation to our own culture's traditional understanding of God which is intimately bound up with the idea of God as the big, really big father. This God is the "omni, omni, omni God" of monotheistic theologies:

* Omniscient - God is all-knowing
* Omnipresent - God is all-present/all-seeing
* Omnipotent - God is all-powerful

You will also be aware, and this is key to today's address, that monotheism's big father never dies - God is eternal. In this religious schema we can never, therefore, ever really be gifted true, grounded and embodied independence and responsibility as God's children. Dad is always going to be there to pick up the pieces and restore us and all things to his eternal wholeness and perfection.

Now, I do not in any way deny that this idea can be hugely comforting and it is clearly one which has helped countless people through the worst of times. But at the same time it brings a certain present comfort it inevitably also brings with it a definitive disempowerment such that no important decisions we make in our actual lives can ever be said to be real. We are fated to remain forever merely children under the ultimate, absolute control of father.

This ultimate, absolute disempowerment is very powerfully expressed in the story of the Ascension as it is told in traditional Christian circles. There Jesus is, of course, understood as God, the second person of the Trinity. God as Jesus comes down to live among us, apparently sharing our human joys and concerns and walking and suffering with and for us. This sharing of our life is displayed most poignantly and movingly on the cross where, midmost between two criminals, Jesus is finally hung for so clearly displaying a deep self-less love to our world.  But then comes the "resurrection" which, however it is interpreted, birthed a powerful, living sense of hope for the future, that somehow something creative, vital, even Pentecost-ally fiery, survives death in us. Now I find that I can still affirm these two themes. But we now come to the moment where I find myself parting company with orthodoxy. Hope may have been restored to this very earthy, present world by the "resurrection" but what then does Luke claim happened? Well, as you heard in our first reading from his book of Acts, Jesus leaves the earthy, present world and returns into the fold of the omni-omni-omni-God. Jesus the crucified human, our true bother and comrade, suddenly becomes before our very eyes something very inhuman and alien, namely the "glorified Lord", a forever perfect part of a forever perfect and deathless father in heaven.

With sincere apologies to those who do not think likewise I find myself utterly incapable of not rebelling against this reading of the story because it seems to cut definitively against the real independence, freedom, responsibility and hope promised to us by Jesus. It seems to me that one can only be said to have become genuine sons and daughters of God, real flesh and blood human sons and daughters with true freedom and independence when the reality is that our father in heaven has died.

Fortunately, as I hope the story about my father and Iain Thomson's words revealed, our foundational stories are always-already open to variant readings and are always-already capable of propelling people on quite different life trajectories - as different from each other as is the insurance broker and the jazz musician.

In orthodox Christian readings of the story the trajectory of life we are encouraged to follow must be circular - God, to Jesus and the world (us) and then back to God. God is eternally Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, perfect in beginning and perfect in end. All of life, all our human, joys, concerns and experience can, in the end, contribute nothing to the always-already perfect Godhead of monotheism.

But St Paul, so often the most radical of the early Christian thinkers, from the start intuited in the story of Jesus the possibility of following a radically different trajectory (although he does not ever fully follow through his intuition) In one of his most striking statements, found in Philippians 2:5-8, he says that God emptied himself (kenosis) out into the world in the form of Jesus and actually died on the cross:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

These words reveal why there is  good reason to see St Paul as being an important precursor to "death of God" theology.

Not only this but, as Paul suggests elsewhere, the resurrection of Christ is not that of Jesus as a soon to be glorified aspect of an omni-omni-omni-God but, instead, a corporate completely earthly human community - the community of those who continue to meet in the spirit of Jesus now called "the body of Christ" (see Romans 12:4-5 and 1 Corinthians 12:12).

The trajectory Paul begins to reveal to us through this reading of the story of Jesus is most certainly not circular - as it wholly enters ever more deeply into the world we see it is radically linear and open-ended. This interpretation of the story says that God, in the form of Jesus, really has died on the cross; he has wholly emptied himself out into the world and into the new radical and definitively human community now called Christ. This new community's father, indeed Our Father, the big other, the omni-omni-omni-God, has died and that real dying is precisely what gifts us our new life as genuinely free and independent sons and daughters of God. It should be added that the full implications of this reading of the Christian story are today being played out not, for the most part, in the Christian churches, but in many secular communities.

At this point one might be tempted to say that the death of God means we can now just forget about him and get on living without the concept. But, in my opinion (and those of some thinkers connected with Thomas J. J. Altizer) our job as an extant liberal Christian community is to keep the story alive in our culture to stand as a powerful theological reminder not to betray this gift of genuine freedom and independence.

(At the end of this post I've added two Youtube links to a two part 1966 documentary about Altizer and here is a link to a newly published summary of his Radical Theology)

Whenever this life- and freedom-affirming story of the death of God is forgotten there is for humanity a powerful temptation either, on the one hand, to slip ever deeper into leading a life with no narrative meaning or, on the other hand, to try to sneak back into play other versions of the big father. The former gives us only a terrible kind of empty, nihilistic consumerism, the latter seeks to bring meaning back in by bringing back various versions (liberal and conservative) of old monotheistic religion. Both of these attempts in their own distinctive ways deny us the genuine life of freedom, independence and responsibility promised to us by Jesus.

It seems, again to me, that only by consistently and patiently working through the death of God can we truly secure true freedom and human meaning at this time in our culture's history. As to what a future secular religion will look like, well, only time will tell.

But, to conclude for today, I will miss and grieve deeply my father when he dies. But he will at that moment gift me with a new independence and freedom - an independence and freedom that he embodied beautifully in his own life. I would be a poor son of his if I were ever to forget the lessons and gifts of his living and dying.

We, too, should miss and continue appropriately to remember (and at times still grieve) the death of God. But his dying gifted us with a new independence and freedom - an independence and freedom that he embodied beautifully in his life in Jesus. We would be poor sons and daughters of God if we were ever to forget the lessons and gifts of his living and dying.

God's divine work is now here in the world and the only true ascension is a descent, a down-going into the open-ended world of history as servants of a continually, selfless, self-giving love. God's hands, Jesus Christ's hands are now humanity's hands, our hands. May we learn to use them well as befits true children of God.