Good Friday. God Is Dead.

In my introductory theology courses I organize the syllabus around the three legged stool of Anglicanism. Good theology, I tell my students, will engage text, tradition, and reason (which seems to me to be very closely related to experience). On any given question each must be given its proper due, lest the stool wobble and ultimately fail. This Lent, however, I have been reflecting on the fact that each of the legs themselves are incredibly unstable. The stool, it turns out, does not stand up to scrutiny.

Let’s look at the text first (here I have been deeply influenced by Robin Scroggs little article, “The Bible as Foundational Document”). Despite fundamentalist cries to the contrary, the authority of the text has been thoroughly deconstructed.

1) More than 5,000 Greek witnesses and more 10,000 Latin witnesses (to say nothing of the other important early versions) do not allow for any sense of the purity of the text. At best we can reconstruct a 2d-3d century approximation of the New Testament.

2) The historical accuracy of the text presents serious issues. Leaving internal contradictions and questions about the miraculous aside, many events described in the bible simply do not line up with the archaeological and historical record. An Exodus of hundreds of thousands of slaves at the height of Egyptian power? Not likely. A sudden and total destruction of Jericho? No evidence of any such event. A mass arrival of a foreign people into Palestine? No material artifacts supporting the claim. In the New Testament, no massacre of babies by Herod and no census under Quirinius present the same challenge.

3) Some may argue that these historical problems are insignificant since the bible is primarily a theological and moral document. And yet, the theological and moral claims of the text have been found wanting as well. Again, we can point to the conflicting visions present within the text itself (Are there many gods or just one? Is divorce permissible or not?). We could also look to places where the text is relatively consistent and see that the vision of God and notions of morality are lacking as well. The prophet Samuel’s anger with Saul in 1 Samuel 15 is a good example here. God, through Samuel, commands Saul to attack and “utterly destroy” the Amalekites, not sparing man, woman, child, infant, or animal. When Saul fails to obey the command (which is abhorrent to us today and raises serious problems with respect to God’s justice), God strips the kingdom from him. Astonishingly, the author of Hebrews finds this story instructive in his argument for fidelity to God.

In short then, the purity of the text, the historical accuracy of the text, and the theological and moral claims of the text each undermine any claims to the authority of the the text.

We (or at least I) find similar problems with the tradition. Tradition can be conceived broadly as the history of the church and more narrowly as the creeds, dogma, and doctrine received. With respect to the former, the history of the church is nothing to be emulated. The great tradition is marred with petty infighting, greed, power grabs, blatant racism and sexism, and violent upheaval (both within and without). We whitewash it to to tell the great story of the triumph of the church, but really it looks a whole lot like any other empire in history.

The church today looks the same. Church folk boycott gay rights while covering up for pedophiles. They drop 50,000 eggs from a helicopter on Easter Sunday but are unresponsive to global poverty. Too often Christianity is little more than an identity marker, a club in which to claim membership. Church attendance has become little more than a weekly reminder of the impotence of the Gospel.

As to creeds, they suffer from many of the issues that plague the broader history of the movement. They are political compromises that represent who held the power at the time. The Nicene Creed, a form of which is faithfully repeated in many churches every Sunday, originally contained a series of curses for any Christians who thought differently. The insistence on papal infallibility was in response to the challenges of the Enlightenment. The perpetual virginity of Mary arose out in the midst of historical-critical challenges to the bible that were discussed above. Lutheran insistence on sola scriptura, in addition to displaying incredible naivete with regards to the role of the reader and the reader’s culture in interpretation, was little more than a convenient way to distance itself from the Roman Catholic Church.

Political forces aside, the creeds and dogmas, with all their venerable tradition, are largely irrelevant. First they are historical documents reflecting concerns from an earlier time. We are no longer Neoplatonists concerned with how Jesus is fully God and fully human. The question is just not too pressing for us. Good Lutheran theologians recognize the impossibility of sola scriptura and have moved on to the bigger questions that confront us today. Second, creeds, dogmas, and doctrines are primarily concerned with belief, and the belief has been framed in terms of intellectual assent. We can debate how valuable we find orthodoxy (certainly some do, I’d venture to guess that many more do not) but we cannot deny that there are more compelling ways of thinking about how the world works. After the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution affirming many creeds requires suspension of judgment that many cannot bear.

The two previous legs have been undercut by reason, but reason itself is not infallible. The modern conviction (dare I say belief?) that science and reason can explain the great mysteries of life and existence is misguided. First of all, and this is because I probably read Peter Berger when I was too young and delicate, I understand any epistemology to be shaped and defined by culture. In other words, there is no absolute way to know anything, all understanding is limited by the scope of one’s worldview. Sure, science and reason make great sense to me (I’m a fan!) but I am also a post-Enlightenment product of the Global North who has spent way to much time in the academy. And there are places where a scientific ethos may be of help. I’ll take my anti-malarials before I visit a shaman in a remote African village. That said, there are limits to what science can answer. There are times when life is irrational.

Second, reason is also grounded in experience. The collective wisdom of a tribe determines the limits of what can be known and I as an individual interact with the world as constructed. I choose which parts of the ethos makes sense and which can be abandoned. These choices will be somewhat arbitrary based on my nature and my nurture (but mostly the latter :)). Here I come back to the Masters of Suspicion, who, as I understand them, invite me to apply a radical hermeneutic of suspicion to everything I think I know. The world that I construct is fraught with neurosis, self-medication, and will to power. My experience must be relentlessly tested. And whenever I honestly apply that hermeneutic, I find that I am not a very reliable interpreter of the meaning of life.

So there you have it–my argument that the stool upon which we sit when we do theology is horribly unsteady. No matter how careful we are in our deliberations, the work is little more than individual and societal projections on material that is more or less archaic and irrelevant. Theology may be helpful for critical self-reflection but I am not sure about much else. However, the big problem is not for theology as a discipline. There is still much to be examined and dissected–histories to reconstruct, ideas to be unpacked, theologies to be contextualized. What is scarier to me are the implications of this post (and they do scare me). I am not just talking about the limits of our understanding but also how we encounter and understand the divine. If text, tradition, and reason/experience are unreliable guides, where then shall we turn?

The big question for me as the sun sets on Good Friday is whether or not I should be waiting for a resurrection. God is dead. Can God rise?

I am sure that there are many points that can be refuted, corrected, or nuanced. I would love to have your feedback. Let the conversation begin!



Filed under dark side, religion

11 responses to “Good Friday. God Is Dead.

  1. Will Holt

    Yup! A bit threatening to our weltanschauung, isn’t it?

  2. Br. Mark D'Alessio, SSF

    Amen. I’m thinking our EfM group and your bold reflection could be a wonderful match… might I share it with a few folk this Tuesday?

  3. “In short then, the purity of the text, the historical accuracy of the text, and the theological and moral claims of the text each undermine any claims to the authority of the the text.” –One can take a hammer and build a house, or, one can take a hammer and destroy a house. It makes neither the house nor the hammer more important than the one who wields the hammer or lives in the house. The same is true of Scripture. Scripture can be dead, archaic text or a frightful hammer. But the variety of the textual remnants rebuilt in to a living faith is certainly a kind of hope and way forward in itself. I thank the Creator that we have (at least) four Gospel stories –the contradictions do not negate the stories or the text, but instead challenge our horizons.

    Tradition is always and only written by the victors. Feminist and Womanist and Liberation theologies are good measures of Tradition –which must only be a landmark in the rear view mirror. A necessary and important landmark, but only such.

    Reason (and experience) are children of the Enlightenment. The power of myth and mystery and mysticism must be reclaimed.

    It sounds to me as though the three-legged stool has been an idol of sorts….

    And, yes, God is dead. There is no place that God is not, so it makes perfect sense that God is there (in that place/time/warp we call death), too.

    As for me –I just trust what Jesus said, that there is a place prepared for all of us, and that in Baptism, I have already died and I live a Resurrection life –now, not as some future moment.

    Otherwise, it would seem that we are all just waiting to die, instead of live….

  4. Jonathan

    I think the answer to your final question is a fairly clear yes, because the realities you’ve outlined leave us where everyone seems to end with God, a silence grounded in the failure of human words, wisdom, and work. Someone like St. Benedict might say, “as the prophet teaches us, ‘[I]n returning and rest we shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be our strength.'” Granted the midieval (sp?) theologians are all horrible about prooftexting and quoting half verses, but we already know where a more careful examination of that passage leads us, the silence. On the other hand, sometimes a more superficial reading is more effective at building us up in charity, perfect charity being the full stature of Christ.

    On a different note, given how hard it is to know anything definitely it seems like a minor miracle that the sciences work as well as they do. For example, physicist recently found evidence for the Higgs Boson, which had been predicted years or decades earlier. Spiritual things are harder to prove, of course, but that may simply be because the only definite detector of spiritual things, humans, is so unreliable about giving good data. It’s like the era in chemistry when they had to rely on color changes to know when a titration had gone just far enough.

  5. Daniel

    Thank you for this post. It certainly outlines my own journey and doubts, but I have to say I don’t share your fears.

    I think the stool metaphor is a poor one. These three bodies of content are fields we move through in discernment of what is good and evil and every mixture of the two. To conceive of them as absolutes – guides upon whom we can render the verdict “reliable” or “unreliable” is to oversimplify the issue. Theological discernment is a necessity and we should not take too seriously the conceptual shorthand required to construct a stool metaphor.

    I like the building metaphor Margaret uses and think she is quite right about reclaiming the value of myth, mystery, and mysticism.

    I’ve learned to be comfortable with projections. They are an irremovable feature of our existence. Yes, we need to be informed and vulnerable to criticism, and our projections must remain dynamic and provisional; nevertheless, I think we must relinquish the postmodern angst created by our residual hankering for Cartesian certainty.

    I relish the constructive task we carry on with respect to these three “legs.” And while I continue that effort, I think we should also be careful not to discard those parts of our heritage (Scripture and tradition) that are less savory. Instead, they ought to serve as import reminders of our propensity toward evil and fund our commitment to resist repeating these injustices, oppression, and the like. I mean, just imagine the hubris that would result if we removed these blemishes from our history. The triumphalism is bad enough as it is.

    Lastly, our theological heritage forces us to encounter the Other – many kinds of Others. Our encounter (even our solidarity) with the marginalized *as well as with* slave owners, monarchs, warmongers and the like (must we always be absolved of guilt?) might lead us to consider the scandalous claim that God’s grace might even extend to all those who, for whatever reason, we deem unworthy. Is our heritage archaic? Yes. Irrelevant? Hardly.

  6. I agree that each of us who think seriously about our faith make up our own theology based in one degree or another on text, tradition, and reason (and experience). Is God dead? Yes. Can God rise? Yes. For me the cycle happens every day. Daily, I experience death and resurrection with God. Without the grace of God in my life, I don’t know that I would be capable of carrying on. Not that my life is extremely difficult, for it is not, especially compared to the lives of others whom I know and others whom I don’t know, but I hear their stories.

    The Scriptures contain a few verses which I call my touchstone verses, which I firmly believe point to the way I ought to live my life.

    He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
    but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

    “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

    ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22:36-40)

    Holding on to these life-giving words as my ideal as to how I live my life, I’m able to theologize away and, at the same time, keep my my view of God and my faith life simple. Even if I completely lost my faith tomorrow, I believe I’d still want to live my life according to the instructions in my touchstone verses.

  7. Scholar and minister Ted Nugent offers an account of the rich stew of beliefs and myths out of which Christianity (Churchianity) arose:
    The uniformity imposed by Constantine and successors gives a false picture of the context of Faith. Dr. Nugent concludes that values and practices are the heart of Christian faith. “By their fruits . . .”

    Re: it’s Margaret’s concern, “The power of myth and mystery and mysticism must be reclaimed.” Actually, story remains powerful, the way we order and remember experience. “Meaning” is a story humans tell — there are results of raw events but no meaning — What did the dinosaurs mean? What we’ve learned in recent centuries is to distinguish between made-up stories and those based on evidence. Practical decisions rely on evidence — and take account of any myths that confuse the issues. We don’t lose wonder and beauty by insisting that actions be based on evidence — we still express our awe at existence by story, art, and music. But remember, when you feel inspired by the beauty of a forest or mountain range — our ancestors saw in them darkness and danger. People in Asia see snakes as symbols of wisdom and renewal, not slithery, icky creatures. Language is the realm of mystery and mysticism. It certainly affects your concepts of reality, but reality remains its own separate realm.

    –Gary’s husband, Murdoch (he has the Facebook account)

  8. Pingback: I Am a Christian Terrorist. And Likely You Are Too. | dyingsparrows

  9. Susan Guldseth

    Waiting for a resurrection is our great hope and promise. God did die on Good Friday but He arose…”He arose, He arose, Hallelujah! Christ arose…” There’s a song currently being sung talking about being “caught up in the angels’ song…” And being “gathered to Your ancient throne…”, and “shouting out Your praise”… For now it seems “the upward call of God in Christ” the loudest voice worth listening to.

  10. Kimberly C.

    Thanks for sharing! I found a lot of gems in this post. Favorite points with my response follow:
    • “Too often Christianity is little more than an identity marker, a club in which to claim membership. Church attendance has become little more than a weekly reminder of the impotence of the Gospel.”

    – Absolutely agree. As a Christian, I’d rather see greater emphasis on living out beliefs than simply belong to a club.

    • “No matter how careful we are in our deliberations, the work is little more than individual and societal projections on material that is more or less archaic and irrelevant.”

    – The impact of society/culture is so important; not to go down a rabbit trail, but it speaks to my lifelong frustration over those who will never hear of Christ (the “unreached”) through no fault of their own. No way they are unable to be saved, just because they live in a remote village or foreign culture; that’s not right or just. As for the Bible being archaic and irrelevant, I just push myself to identify the truths buried in the historical context, as I do believe they’re there. The strange and random parts that seem to contradict God’s loving nature, frankly, I discard. (Btw – not sure if that’s ok! But I just assume the issues are due to the historical mindset of the author, poor translation, or contradicting accounts.)

    • “What is scarier to me are the implications of this post (and they do scare me). I am not just talking about the limits of our understanding but also how we encounter and understand the divine. If text, tradition, and reason/experience are unreliable guides, where then shall we turn?”

    – I empathize. First, not to sound hokey, but I liked the suggestion here to embrace mystery/mysticism; by that I mean, the ability to recognize basic Biblical truths as accurate through discernment; inner certainty tells me love and grace are superior to other negative drives. To agree with Grandmere’s comment for a second, I have to keep my faith simple. “Even if I completely lost my faith tomorrow, I believe I’d still want to live my life according to the instructions in my touchstone verses,” as she said, because I recognize those truths to be right just on face value.

    What that boils down to, I guess, is that I agree with you; ultimately, it’s very difficult to validate complex assertions made in the Bible! Aside from truths that ring true to me personally, I have a hard time with other claims. I suppose that means I lean most heavily upon reason, which we both agree, is influenced heavily upon personal experience (and probably makes me a terrible person, lol!).

    Still, and I guess I hold to this dearly, I believe that no matter the culture or society, tribe or nation, these very basic truths (love, mercy, kindness, protecting the defenseless, etc.) exist and can and should be acknowledged by all. The more complex details – life after death, for instance – I am far less certain of.

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