“God is dead … and we have killed him”

One of the principal threads running through the previous post was that over the course of centuries the concept of “God” in the western mindset became cosmologically dysfunctional. Beginning in the fourteenth century and culminating with the theory of evolution in 1859, the evidence for the action of a rational “God” in the physical occurrences in our universe evaporated.

This had a devastating effect on western religion which was founded on belief in exactly such a cosmological “God” ― a “God” who not only designed and created the universe, but providentially manages its development forever thereafter. “God” was imagined as pure spirit but his “mind” was not limited to the world of Ideas. He affected the course of events in the material universe. It bears emphasizing that long before God was imagined as a “spirit,” “Creator” was the first and more fundamental definition. A “God” who does not dominate the material universe is not God as the word has been understood since time immemorial.

Even after the traditional “God” had been defined as “spirit” by Plato and was understood to have his greatest impact on the “souls” of humankind, his power was never conceived as limited to the internal forum. “God” was an all-powerful “God” whose presence dominated the physical world because he owned it. And since there were no obstacles to his power, whatever happened in the real world had to be either directly intended by him or at least permitted to occur with his knowledge.

Nietzsche believed this cosmological “God” had disappeared so completely from the mind of western man that awareness of the magnitude of what had been lost would require a dramatic announcement ― that “God is dead” ― because people no longer even noticed his absence. The “God” who died, of course, was the cosmological “God,” the Creator of heaven and earth, for we now know that no one created or manages the universe. The death of such a force should have brought everything to a halt. Apparently no one could comprehend the immensity of what had occurred; it needed a “madman” to open their eyes:

Have you ever heard of the madman who lighted a lantern and ran to the marketplace calling out unceasingly: “I seek God! I seek God!” As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why! Is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden ? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea-voyage? Has he emigrated?-the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. “Where is God gone?” he called out. “I mean to tell you! We have killed him, — you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? — for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knives … (Nietzsche, The Gay Science) [1]

The madman’s repeated accusation, that “we have killed him” refers to the realization that the “death of God” occurred because we no longer believe in him. We are all, religious as well as non-religious, complicit in the death of “God.” For no one can believe in the cosmological “God” any longer — all the works we once thought were wrought by “God” we now realize have material causes. And by allowing ourselves to conceive God in terms other than the cosmological, our noisy insistence that “we believe in God” rings hollow.

A “spiritual” God

The problem is compounded because we are encouraged by our progressive theologians to conceive of God as “spirit,” i.e., someone whose influence is felt in the world of the human mind and heart and not in the world of matter. By avoiding the ancient connection with the material universe altogether, they avoid the embarrassment of being ridiculed for saying that “God” acts in the natural world in ways that are clearly known to be false.

I believe these theologians are contaminated with the ancient western pathology of hylophobia. They have been acculturated by two thousand years of Platonic “spiritualism” to feel comfortable with a “God” who lives in another world not made of matter and relates exclusively to human “souls” which are also believed to be immaterial. That this material world and our material bodies are left out of the equation was the price they were willing to pay for finding a niche of safety away from the undeniable “death” of the Creator God.

I don’t know if we realize how momentous that transition was. Perhaps, as Nietzsche said, we need someone sufficiently isolated from society ― a madman ― to have the audacity to bring the message home. No “God,” no matter how ideologically sophisticated and consistent with the political values of intelligent, thinking people, can be possessed of the stature and significance of the cosmological “God.” Many have settled for a spiritual “God” who is the projection of human needs, aspirations and ideals. After all, “God” has always functioned for us in those areas anyway. But I challenge it. My position is that to opt for another “God” ― a “God” who is not bound to this universe of matter as intimately as was the late, great “Creator” ― is to opt to have no “God” at all. The issue is straightforward: an image or “idea” of ours, no matter how divine, that bears no reference to the actual existence and destiny of the material universe, is not “God.”

Non-overlapping magisteria

Religion and science seem locked into a fatal struggle for the hegemony of the modern mind. Religion, based on “God” as the cosmological ground, agent and explanation of all things in our vast material universe, seems to have been demolished by the indisputable evidence of science that the source of all the forms and features in the universe, and the myriads of living species that populate the earth, is matter itself. Religion without its ground and primary actor ― “God” ― is dead. Religion depends upon belief in a cosmic “God.”

In the late twentieth century the science popularizer Stephen Jay Gould saw this situation as intolerable and unnecessary. Both science and religion have an important place in our lives, he said, and they can co-exist if they are not set in eternal opposition to one another. He suggested that science and religion should be assigned to non-overlapping magisteria, NOMA, where each is master of its own domain, and the other has no rights.

As Gould says:

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values — subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.”[2]

For Gould, it seems, the “spiritual,” specifically identified as “purposes, meanings, and values,” is said to define religion. But I claim that the more fundamental characterization of religion is relationship, not purposes or values. For it was originally the ownership rights established by the act of creation that bound the dependent creature to its real Creator. Relationship can only be had with a real “God.”

It’s no wonder, then, when it became clear that “God” was not the “Craftsman” who designed and directed the existence of all things, that religion was shaken to its core. For the objective basis of the relationship was obliterated. If “God” in this case is nothing but a human ideal no matter how beautiful, then God and I bear no independent relationship to one another. “God” becomes a projection of mine, the product of my needs; he becomes my creation. The “ideal” function can only go so far before it is forced to submit to its source for validation, which is myself.  The “God”-function effectively disappears and is assumed to be just another property of human nature.

So far we have done little more than restate and hopefully clarify the problem: There is no evidence for the existence of a cosmological Creator “God;” but clearly, a purely spiritual “God” is not “God” at all, for we are matter and it has been shown by science that no rational “God“ designed and fabricated any part of the material universe.

According to the old paradigm, “God” who was “pure spirit” was related to matter because he was its Creator and Master. The relationship was derived from the authorship of both design and construction. In the Platonic view “God” and we are made of different “stuff” but we are bound together ― morally, juridically ― by the act of creation which establishes “God’s” ownership and our human obligation to obey “him.”

In the universe revealed by modern science, however, there is no rational “Creator” who “owns” creation by designing and constructing the cosmos either directly himself or through an intermediary. Material energy itself and its need to evolve in time is now known to be the source of both what and that things are. Material energy is now “God” for us; for material energy, acting materially (i.e., evolving), is responsible for everything once attributed to a personal, intelligent, designing “Creator.”

Our understanding of what “God” is like, however, radically changes in this scenario. “God” and the material universe are now related not juridically but genetically, i.e., intrinsically: they share the energy by which both live. Material energy establishes a physical bond with its emanations that is even more intimate than that of Creator to creature, and while it preserves intact the ancient religious convictions about “God’s” immanent presence and generative role in the cosmos, it does not contradict science’s discoveries about the way the universe evolved.

Material energy is “God.”

We and “God,” in this view, are related genetically ― i.e., we share what we are: the very “stuff” of our beings. We are not primarily related to one another by what we have done for one another or what we may do in the future. Therefore the relationship transcends moral conduct, and endures even in the absence of appropriate relational response. Morality, in other words, is a derivative of the relationship; it is not a condition of its existence. Inappropriate behavior cannot demolish or structurally alter the relationship. We are and remain “God’s offspring” forever.

In this modern paradigm “God” bears the ultimate constitutive relationship to the cosmos by being “that in which all things live and move and have their being:” “God” is the source of the energy of matter itself and in sharing “his” energy, shares everything “he” is except the way the sharing takes place. What is unchanging, in other words, is the structure of the relationship. The donor never becomes recipient, and the receiver, in using the donated energy and sharing it with others never becomes its ultimate source or origin. The dependency is always maintained. No matter how brightly the sun shines in a mirrored image, the image never becomes the source and origin of light and heat.  “God” is not an idea; “God” is real and the relationship is real.  We are indeed “his” offspring.

NOMA no more

In this paradigm there is no advantage whatsoever to pushing the false claim that science and religion function under two distinct and unrelated magisteria. It challenges the pseudo-scientific willingness to work in a metaphysical vacuum, eternally acting as if the issue of the source of the material universe is not relevant to science’s search for the complete chain of causes. It also challenges religious authority’s claims that religious explanations that ignore or even contradict the confirmed discoveries of science are valid by reason of the independent character of the religious magisterium.

Religion can no longer disregard science. Insistence on its own independent line of thought grounded in the immateriality of “spirit” reveals that much of theological production is self-justification ― an attempt to validate religious practices, institutional structures and the careers they generate by fabricating separateness and division in the universe.

At the root of all this lies the prejudicial hylophobic assumption that matter is incapable of having evolved into humankind with its ability for rational thought and religious yearning. Until we surrender to our spontaneous sense of awe at nature ― the echo of the sacred depths of the very matter of which we are made ― we will never trust it. That would be unfortunate; because it is only trust in what Teilhard calls “the heart of matter” that will open the door to the grateful embrace of death as the reditus ― the joyous return of our organisms to their material wellspring ― that completes the cycle of our lives.

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich; Forster-Nietzsche, Elisabeth (2010-12-23). The Gay Science. From Nietzsche Complete Works Collection 20+ Books And Biography (Kindle Locations 18918-18920). Kindle Edition.
[2] Gould, Stephen Jay, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-overlapping_magisteria
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2 comments on ““God is dead … and we have killed him”

  1. saluman73 says:

    Tony, The more I read your “God is dead” article. the more I understand why no one has responded so far. Your thoughts keep evolving and multiplying for me as I study your words. First of all, the idea that God did not die, but rather that we killed ” Him”, is worthy of an entire volume, or should I say, at least a trilogy, my favorite format in honor of the Trinity. I like our quote of Nietzsche that we killed God. Also, I like your insistence that Gould is wrong on NOMA, the non-overlapping magisterium, i.e. the standoff between so-called ‘faith’ and science, as if they can continue to run on two parallel tracks, each operating in their own separate worlds.
    You say very clearly that “religion without its ground and primary actor- “God”- is dead. Religion depends upon belief in a cosmic God. You say ” There is no evidence for the existence of a cosmological Creator “God;” but clearly, a purely spiritual “God” is not “God” at all, for we are matter and it has been shown by science that no rational “God“ designed and fabricated any part of the material universe.
    Tony, I am in awe of this statement : ” Material energy itself and its need to evolve in time is now known to be the source of both what and that things are. Material energy is now “God” for us; for material energy, acting materially (i.e., evolving), is responsible for everything once attributed to a personal, intelligent, designing “Creator.”

    “Our understanding of what “God” is like, however, radically changes in this scenario. “God” and the material universe are now related not juridically but genetically, i.e., intrinsically: they share the energy by which both live. Material energy establishes a physical bond with its emanations that is even more intimate than that of Creator to creature, and while it preserves intact the ancient religious convictions about “God’s” immanent presence and generative role in the cosmos, it does not contradict science’s discoveries about the way the universe evolved.”
    Thus material energy “created” the universe. And finally, you have called human death the REDITUS, the joyous return of our organisms to their material wellspring that completes the cycle of our lives. How fitting that you mention DeChardin, who in “Christianity and Evolution” writes:
    “If, as a result of some interior revolution, I were to lose in succession my faith in Christ, my faith in a personal God, and my faith in spirit, I feel that I should continue to believe invincibly in the world. The world ( its value, its infallibility and its goodness)- that, when all is said and done, is the first, the last, and the only thing in which I believe. It is by this faith that I live. And it is to this faith, I feel, that in the moment of death, rising above all doubts, I shall surrender myself.”
    Sal Umana

    • tonyequale says:

      Sal,

      Thanks. That was a great quote from De Chardin. Do you have the page reference? I am going to copy out yours at any rate. It’s truly extraordinary. Thanks for sharing that.

      Peace,
      Tony

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